I was not in a good place. I was about to give up a job I loved and a promotion I wanted, move back home, and start my master’s thesis, all in the same month. My sister, with her special needs 4-year-old, was expecting twins, and all the complications and stress that would come with them. Mom’s biopsy had come back: high grade bladder cancer. It was a perfect storm and I was overwhelmed; forgetting to eat, barely sleeping, always near tears. What’s a good metaphor for the situation? Perhaps a frightened animal? Trapped? Helpless? Enter: Meep.
It was the morning after we’d received mom’s official diagnosis. I’d been up most of the night, googling cancer treatments, care packages, jobs. I was running on three hours of bad sleep. I was reactionary, unable to think a clear thought. Which is why, when I saw a duckling in the center lane of a busy city street being buffeted by the turbulence of passing cars, I didn’t think.
Pulled over. Popped trunk. Grabbed a towel. Stopped traffic. I would have expected the duckling to run, but not towards me. I knelt to grab him, and he waddled straight into my hands. I stopped traffic again, ran back in my car, slammed the door. I looked around. No mama duck in sight. No safe space to release him. No water or tall grass. No rhyme or reason to his presence. Cars whizzing by. Now I had a chirping baby duck on my hands.
I happened to have towels and a water dish handy. I nested the duckling in the passenger seat, carried him with me through my work-day, and brought him home. My boyfriend could not stop laughing.
“I can’t believe you brought home a duck.”
The duckling was yellow, covered in soft down, fit in my palm, and still had his egg tooth (the sharp tip on the beak to assist with hatching). According to the internet, he was barely a week old. Absolutely helpless. He needed us.
Now instead of googling cancer I was looking up “How to Take Care of a Duckling?” Instead of sobbing, I was laughing at his clumsy hops, his pitter-pattering feet as he waddled across the yoga mat, the way he tottered over when he tried to clean his tummy.
The nice thing about ducks is they are halfway domesticated already. Had it been any other wild animal, I would have handed it over to a Wildlife rescue. But ducks are common yard pets, yours for just $7, and there’s a lot of information readily available on raising them. Besides, the universe had handed me the world’s cutest ball of happiness right when I needed it. I wasn’t about to say, “No thanks.” The duckling imprinted right away, followed us around the house, meeped wildly when we were out of sight, and happily sat in our hands. We loved him immediately.
We gathered supplies. A storage tub, towels, shallow water dishes, just deep enough for him to clean his nostrils, not deep enough to drown or get hypothermia (baby ducklings aren’t waterproofed). I bought peas, lime beans, dried mealworms. I cut up grass and bought him a mini mop (I read mops make good imitation hen wings, and he loved to burrow in it). We set up a space heater and heat lamp. I dug out leftover hand warmers from winter to stick under his bedding. I crushed up plain Cheerios because they’re rich in Niacin, which ducklings need to develop strong beaks and legs. In short, we went over the top, head over heels for this little duckling. We called him Meep Meep.
Meep was unique, cuddly, and absurdly adorable. He followed us around the house and the yard. He liked listening to Canned Heat, especially “Going up the Country.” He pooped on my laptop. He sat in our laps to watch Netflix. He tackled moths and beetles in the grass. He played with my boyfriend’s beard. He napped in an empty teacup while I had my morning coffee.
Meep was an instant cure for the pitfalls of anxiety and depression. You can’t sleep away a morning when you have a Meep: he needs fresh water, food. You can’t spend three hours in the shower: Meep wants attention. You can’t hide indoors staring at the TV all afternoon: Meep Meep wants to go run in the grass and the sunshine. I held Meep for courage when I sent my notice to my job that I would be leaving. Meep chirped in my lap as I answered emails and applied to jobs. It was impossible to be anything but overjoyed with Meep in the room. I could hardly remember the mess I had been just days before. My Meep made me smile.
He made friends and family smile too. I sent pictures and videos to my family. My mom and sister Facetimed so they could watch him waddle and yawn and meep and be generally adorable. They couldn’t wait to meet him. I got to see my mom’s face light up. Dad and I started making plans for a chicken-wire safe house for Meep when he was old enough to live in their yard with their ponds. I talked about buying Meep a girlfriend once he was older, since Mallards mate for life and Meep sure was a catch. Friends I hadn’t talked to in months were flooding my messages responding to pictures of Meep Meep. He made everyone happy. Instead of cancer or money or health insurance, all we could talk about was little Meep. He was the perfect, fluffy, goofy, yellow distraction. He was the ball of sunshine I so desperately needed. Of course, you must know where this is going.
Meep was in our lives for three days. On the third day, my boyfriend got home before me. He called.
“How does Meep usually act when you get home? He seems a little lackluster …”
I felt the weight plummet in my chest. My mind raced through all the things I could have done wrong that morning.
“Change his water, crush up some mealworms, make sure he’s warm enough, make sure he’s dry, I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
I tore through the streets like a maniac, honking, shaking, asking please God please God please God.
Minutes before I got home Meep was gone.
That teeny, yellow, big-eyed fluff had been carrying the weight of all my fears. Moving. Leaving my life, my job. Helping my sister. Saving my mom. The buffer was gone. I thought I was right back where I’d been three days ago, but now worse. Now with the grief of a sweet little life I’d become so very invested in. It felt like a cruel joke. I’m sure they could hear my sobs in Canada.
My boyfriend gently buried Meep in the yard, in a shady spot under the trees.
We tossed his food. Emptied his tub. Dismantled the heat lamp. Put away the space heater. Threw out his snuggle mop. Deleted the pictures from Instagram. I was a blubbering wreck. We packed up the truck and drove north to Duluth. We hiked, camped, stared at the campfire, stared at waterfalls, threw rocks into the river, tried to figure out what the point had been.
Of course, my mind tried to trick me into dark places. I should listen to my darkest fears. I should rightly assume the worse. Maybe I shouldn’t even try. Maybe this is just what happens: you love things just to risk losing them. Maybe it would have hurt everyone less to leave the darn duck in the road. Tempting, to close your heart.
There’s no instant cure for grief. I can’t go find a new Meep. I can’t load up a tub with a flock of ducklings, or puppies, or ponies, or unicorns. They wouldn’t be Meep and they also wouldn’t be what I need. Meep gave me everything I needed: the truth. I’d convinced myself I couldn’t be happy right now, couldn’t enjoy my changing life, couldn’t find happiness in these hard times. Meep proved that was a lie.
The unanimous opinion from my veterinarian and friends is that Meep’s death was inevitable. It’s likely he carried a disease which is why his family left him behind. There’s probably nothing I could have done to keep Meep alive longer. He’d had two options: die terrified and alone in the street, or die 3 days later, in peace and quiet, with a belly full of mealworms and peas, wrapped in warm blankets and sunshine. I’m happy I pulled over.
I cannot express what a miracle Meep Meep was for me. Right as I was desperately begging the universe for some relief, relief waddled in. Right when I was forgetting to take care of myself, a tiny creature reminded me I still had plenty of care to give. Just as I was deciding the future was not a place I wanted to go, Meep showed me I could change course in an instant. All the care and love I had for Meep still exists, and I can use it to save myself.
Life is sudden. One minute you’re being tossed around by fear and danger. The next you’ve got a Meep in your hands. I think my point is, I was a Meep in the road. I wasn’t expecting anyone or anything to help me, but when he appeared, I let him right in. Meep ran to me for help, and I was able to catch him. Sometimes when we are most in need, we are also the most needed.
We don’t always get to decide what happens to us. Sometimes it’s too big. I just hope you know that as quickly as things can go wrong, they can also go magically. Amid your darkest times, you always have space for a little ball of sunshine. I hope when you’re on your road you keep an eye out for your Meep.
Molly Butler is a budding writer living in the Mankato area with her fiancé Noah, their puppy Jolene, and their kitten Ricky — another roadside rescue.