The Deer who didn't see the headlights

I’ve always preferred to work “in the field”. Sitting in an office has never been for me. My best days as a hospice nurse are driving from home to home, with maybe a hospital in between. While Atlanta traffic isn’t always fun, I think the freedom and flexibility suits me and I think the balance of normal things calms me. And everyone once in awhile, I learn something in the “in between” time.

Yesterday, I left a patient’s home preparing to head to my next visit. The patient and his wife were absolutely lovely and outwardly grateful for the information shared about what hospice can provide. Unfortunately, the patient has been stricken with a dual diagnosis of cancer and a rapidly progressing ALS and things are changing quickly for him and his wife.

When I left their home, I was making mental notes of items about which they requested follow up and I was thinking about the circumstances of my next, imminently dying, patient.  Thankfully, I noticed the red light and made a full stop.

At the red light, I looked across the intersection at something unusual that caught my eye. I saw a deer, a young 2 point buck perhaps, lying on the ground. He must have just been hit by a car, though I saw no vehicle pulled to the side.

My thoughts immediately left my job and shifted to the poor animal. While I know gardeners, especially, gripe about deer, I still see them as one of God’s beautiful creatures.

What I watched really struck me, as I was sitting in my car waiting for the light to change. The deer, was battling, to raise its head, its beautiful crown of antlers, and move its legs as if it could just simply get up and continue on its original path. I watched the animal do this repeatedly, each time with greater intention and exertion, as if it couldn’t believe that just a moment ago it was running freely and now, it was totally incapacitated. I felt helpless watching him struggle to understand what had just happened and that everything was now completely and permanently different.

When the light turned green - for me- I wondered if I should turn right and continue to my next assignment. What should I do and what could I do? I was probably no match or no help to this large, wounded animal. Yet I couldn’t move. Each time it raised its head, determined to carry on with its life, I prayed for it to submit and relax. Yet, how could it possibly? Can you imagine the panic? The incredulity?

As the car behind me blared its horn in demand for me to make a decision, I saw a landscaping pick up truck pull over near the deer and put on its hazards. One of the men was on the phone and the other was approaching the animal. I have a long held belief that sometimes the most helpful thing to do is not add to the chaos, so in seeing their attention, I moved on (and flipped off the car behind me. Because. You know. RELAX!).

Several times throughout yesterday and today, I thought of what I saw. The image of the deer raising its head and willing the clock to turn back five seconds would not leave me. In Mass tonight, I began to understand why.

Mercifully, I did not see the deer get hit. I can only imagine the circumstances were that he leapt out of the surrounding woods, not aware of the danger of crossing an intersection. The driver, likely equally unaware of the possibility of a high speed obstacle landing in his or her lane, was lucky to escape injury and be able to continue driving. The end result was a broken deer, on the road, trying desperately to get up and move on, totally befuddled by what had just occurred.

The deer re-enacted what I see, we all see, every day. And it was painfully sad. The patient, from whose home I had just come, played tennis until two months ago when he couldn't stop falling. It was then he learned he was being ravaged by ALS. The meeting with him and his wife, like so many others, absolutely seemed like their legs had been cut out from under them. They were, politely and graciously, trying to make sense of what their next move would or could be since they weren’t quite able to “get up” despite the ferocity with which they were picking up their heads and kicking their feet.

The phrase “deer in the headlights” is widely used to describe the look or feeling one has when something large comes before them and they are frozen into immobility. We’ve all seen it and we’ve all been there. “Deer on the pavement” isn’t so familiar and yet, for me, after yesterday, it perfectly describes the patients and families with whom I meet. They have been dealt an instantaneous and devastating blow and they are battling to get back up, undo the diagnosis that has been given, and find their own way again.

And sadly, you as the reader really know “deer on the pavement” every bit as well as you know “deer in the headlights”.  With a chill in your spine, you can immediately recall the moment, the conversation, the phone call, that swiped your legs out from beneath you and left you battling to get back up.

“Mom has Alzheimer's.”

“He’s leaving. He was cheating and he’s leaving.”

“You have cancer.”

“I’m sorry. There’s nothing else we can do.”

Insert here your own awful moment phrase that knocked you out and unable to stand. We’ve all got them. And if you want to really see what it looks like, simply turn on the news. Any of the guests of the media who’ve lost their homes to flood or fire, fled a shooting or a disaster can perfectly demonstrate the facial expression of the deer. A very not funny, “what the… “. “How the…” “but…” kind of face.

Seeing the deer was like finding a piece of art or hearing music that perfectly depicted the hard and sad feelings in my heart. And that's why it struck me so deeply, I think.

But, gentle reader, as you may well know, here at the HOPEspot, we don’t end our stories on downers or bummers. We try hard to be honest and genuine, while still finding the best possible, daresay hopeful, message from the things we see and experience.

The deer is half of the story. Remember the men, maybe landscapers, in the pick up, that stopped to attend to the injured animal? They are the other half. The better half.

I’ve said it many times before but I still believe it bears repeating. Heroes are everywhere. The world has darkness and light and first responders (official or unofficial) are the light of the world. Our humanity is shown to be most outstanding when it responds to the creature whose legs have been cut out from beneath them and can’t yet understand why they can’t get up.

If the deer I saw yesterday, in its moment of critical need, becomes the metaphor for all of us who’ve had our legs swiped out beneath us, I want to give praise to our friends, family, and sometimes random strangers who have been a part of helping us up. Or, in the sad likely case of this deer, when getting up is no longer possible, may blessings rain down on the people who offer comfort and peace. Those actions, I believe, are the purest execution of God’s word and, for me, it is wholly humbling to see that happen with every day people in everyday life.