“The Coldest Day of December”
The interesting thing about mute swans is that they mate for life. They reach maturity around 2 years of age and that’s when they start scouring the pond for available males and females. The pond turns into a veritable bar scene on a Friday night. Female swans swim by, preening their white feathers, coyly bowing their heads, shunning males who seem to be too interested, and wagging their enormous tails only feet away from the male swans. Male swans seem to go crazy over the females when they wag their tails and quickly swim away, returning a ‘come hither’ glance as they make their escape. The male swans are all about keeping themselves immaculate. They have very elaborate bathing rituals where they can be seen dunking their entire bodies under water, then doing flapping dances to shed the water, then dunking themselves again, and finally smoothing the feathers on their heads by rubbing them backwards against their long backs. I have to admit, the first time I saw this behavior, I thought the swan was either drowning or convulsing and I got really panicked. The male swan also has an elaborate dance he performs in front of the female, and the best male dancer wins the hearts of every female on the pond. But, in swan society, males don’t keep harems, so the best female wins, and then they pair bond for life.
Swans are excellent parents. Both the male and the female swan sit on the nest while awaiting their eggs to hatch. Once the cygnets are hatched, both parents take equal care in the feeding and raising of the children. When the cygnets are first hatched, their feathers aren’t thick enough and they tend to catch cold quite easily. But, it’s important they get into the water, even on their first day after hatching, so that they can learn how to forage pond plants, which is their natural food source. If a cygnet is too small and weak, the mother swan will place him on her back and take a swim around the lake.
Prince and Princess never had children, but they built elaborate nests and would sometimes drag small stones into the nest and take turns sitting on them. It was quite a sight to see, but I also felt sorry for them because it became apparent how hard-wired the instinct is to have a next generation of children. They did this nesting ritual for 23 years together.
The next Sunday was absolutely frigid. In addition to having a wicked wind-storm that day that blew branches on to my roof and broke a skylight, the air outside was absolutely biting. I was worried about the two swans because I hadn’t seen them out on the lake all day. I called for them at one point and no answer.
About 3pm, I decided I needed to make a Costco run with my older son. As we were backing out of my driveway, my son yelled, “Stop!! There’s Momma swan!! She’s sick!” I looked around and didn’t see anything. He pointed, and there was Princess, laying limp by the side of my house. I stopped the car, jumped out, and started yelling at the top of my lungs for my husband. Princess didn’t move.
I ran over to her, and her feathers were completely drenched in water. She looked lifeless. I started crying, and she slowly lifted her head and looked at me like the weight of the world had come down on her little head. I ran inside and got a large fleece blanket. Princess started shivering. I told her, “Please don’t be afraid. I am going to wrap you in this blanket and bring you inside the house where it’s warm”.
I picked up her body and she went limp in my arms. She didn’t protest, she didn’t show any fear, and she let me cradle her like a baby. I brought her inside a carpeted spare room in my daylight basement and set her down. She looked at me, and sighed, and laid her head on her back. I went and got bowls of food and water and placed them in front of her. She slowly lifted her head and attempted to eat. She was very, very weak. She kept shutting her eyes and drifting in and out of sleep. I laid my hands on her and started singing the hymns that I had sang at church that day. She seemed very soothed by the music and attempted to perk her head up. She just stared at me with her big, black, watery eyes as I sang to her. My heart was just melting in my chest. I had no idea what was wrong with her or how to help. I was so sad and so frustrated.
I called one of the members of our homeowner’s association and he contacted a very kind woman who runs a nearby animal rescue. This woman, Sue, had cared for Princess at her rescue when Princess was a young swan and had broken a wing. Sue and Princess had a bond and Sue asked us to bring Princess to her rescue while she readied a place for her and contacted a veterinarian.
I didn’t have a dog carrier and I had never transported a swan. I called my parents and my dad showed up in his old, blue blazer. I brought Princess, still wrapped in a blanket, and gently set her on the back seat. She didn’t protest or move. She lifted her head to look around and I intuitively knew that she understood we were going to get her help. She looked around the whole time we were driving, but she kept her body completely still and didn’t even fluff a wing or bother to reposition herself. As she sat quietly, she looked at me with such deeply trusting eyes and with gratitude. She was so beautiful, and so large. But she was also so fragile and so tired.
Sue met us at the door of her animal rescue. Bill another neighbor came to help as well. We all struggled to set up an old heat lamp because Princesses’ feathers were still soaked and she was still shivering. None of us said a word as we filled her crate with straw and more blankets, and gathered food and water. Bill carried Princess from the car and set her into her crate. A barn cat named Bob jumped right on top of her and she didn’t even flinch. As I removed the cat from her back, she just looked back at me so sadly and with great fright in her eyes, barely able to move. I knew in my heart that healthy swans are frightened of dogs and cats, and if she had strength, she would have spread her wings, hissed, and nipped. I was grief-stricken to see her so helpless. To make matters worse, the vets weren’t answering the phone since it was Sunday.
Sue weighed her and she weighed only 13 pounds. That was very bad news. A healthy adult swan weighs between 25-30 pounds. None of us could figure out what was wrong. Sue guessed that it might be worms and she gave her a de-wormer that she kept in stock at her shelter. Bill’s wife arrived with fresh butter lettuce and more blankets for Princess. Princess sat unmoving, under the heat lamp, trying to get the chill from her bones. She wasn’t interested in the lettuce, the bowls or water, or the treats we had brought her. She kept laying her head on her back and drifting off to sleep. Occasionally, she’d rouse herself, look me in the eyes as if to say, “I am so sorry you are seeing me this way. I have more dignity and fight, but I am plain worn out. My bones are old and they are weary”.
Sue patted me on the back and told us we could go home. I told Princess that I had to go home and care for my own family, but that I would be back the next afternoon. Sue assured me that she would sit up all night with Princess and care for her and that it would be alright to leave. As I walked out the door, I just kept saying to myself, “What if this is the last time I see her?” Then I though that was an irrational thought and I should go home and return the next day when I had a chance to get some sleep and calm down.
It was Monday at noon and I felt impelled to call Sue. I figured no news was good news since she hadn’t called me. Sue immediately picked up her cell phone. “Sue”, I said, “this is Sarah”. There was dead silence on the other end of the line. “Sue”, I said. I heard a deep sigh at the other end of the line. “Sue”, I said, this time more frantically, “Is my GIRL gone?” She struggled to choke back a tear and said, “Yes, she’s gone”.
I felt my own world go dark. I said, “I don’t understand, what happened?” Sue answered in a raspy voice, “About midnight last night, Princess started making crying sounds I had never heard before. I held her against my body. She was cold and obviously in a lot of pain.” Sue continued, “I sat in Princesses’ crate and cradled her for the next two hours. I talked to her and did everything to calm her and make her comfortable. At 2 a.m., she lifted her beak to my face, and gave me the most gentle nip on the cheek, and then she went limp”.
I broke out into tears. Sue continued, “Sarah, I actually felt Princess LEAVE. She was so much lighter in my arms after she went limp”.
I couldn’t even answer, I was choking on my own tears. Sue told me that she would contact Bill and have him retrieve Princess so that she could be buried in the lake’s community garden area.
Bill retrieved Princess. He told me that Sue had her wrapped in a beautiful children’s quilt and she asked for her to be buried with it. Bill knew that he would have to do something very difficult. He would have to lay Princesses’ body out on the community dock so that Prince would understand. Sue told Bill that these swans understand death, and they understand the loss of a mate. Prince would have to see Princess, otherwise he wouldn’t gain closure and it could likely torture him. He would spend his days searching the lake for her. Bill laid her body out, and Prince arrived, and he was frantic. He came close to her, and nudged her, and then he understood. Bill buried her in the blanket, in the community garden.
That day, Prince made a sound I had never heard before. It was a very high-pitched noise that sounded like a desperate cry. He swan the lake at sunset, and well into the night, making his shrieking-sobbing sound. I had never seen such deep sorrow come from an animal. And this sound was a gut-wrenching sound that originated in the depths of his heart.
I did some research on line because I didn’t know what to do. I learned that swans many times will die after they lose a mate. The grief they experience is just too intense for them to handle. And there were no other swans on the lake, so there was no possibility of Prince finding love again, once spring came.
I got up at 3 a.m. and opened the windows, and I could still hear the loud cries piercing the darkness. There are no street light where I live, so I couldn’t even see what was happening. There were just relentless cries of sorrow coming from the lake. I felt powerless. I felt frustrated because I didn’t know how to ease this animal’s suffering, who was out in the dark, all alone, without anyone to share his pain with.
(Stay tuned for part 5)
– Sarah Polyakov