From Pandemic Penguins in a Plague House to a Parakeet in a Parking Lot

From Pandemic Penguins in a Plague House to a Parakeet in a Parking Lot

A long and winding story about friendship and fate, perhaps…

By Aubrey Ann Parker
Current Contributor

I grew up in and around Traverse City, where both sets of my grandparents lived—Cedar, Williamsburg/Acme, and then Lake Ann/Interlochen. My best friend from college, Quinn Davis, also grew up in Traverse City, but we didn’t become friends until we dated roommates during our sophomore year and basically became roommates ourselves, since we spent more time in the boys’ room than in each of our own that year. Our relationships with those boys only lasted four months after that, but our relationship to one another has continued almost two decades later. (Also, I feel I should mention that our mothers are now best friends, too; they’ve known each other since they, themselves, were in college, and they actually have a funny anecdote about living in the same apartment building—during a snowstorm, one had to ask the other for a roll of toilet paper, because she had completely run out.)

Fast-forward to July 2020, meeting my friend—who now lives in Chicago—for a drink, and she told me about how she and her husband, Josh Stoolman, had adopted a puppy who had been found on the streets in Arkansas, then shipped to a rescue in Tennessee, and was en route to them in Chicago. She also told me how they had been trying to get pregnant for a few months and all that entailed—it isn’t as easy as they led us to believe back in high school sex-ed.  

Just a few weeks later, though, she updated me that she was, in fact, pregnant—with twins, due in March 2021. They had just bought a new house in a different neighborhood for their expanding family, as they had been renting a duplex that would not have been cohesive with two of everything, plus the new puppy, (named Kolache, after the Czech cookies that Quinn used to make with her grandmother). She asked if I could come down in the new year to paint a mural in the nursery. But because of the continuing pandemic, which we all had hoped would have been “over” by then, I wasn’t able to visit in January/February 2022, as we had hoped. Nor in April/May after the babies were born, because our newspaper business usually ramps up right about then, and it was too stressful to coordinate a visit with my work schedule.  

So this brings us to now.  

With my work having a slight lull after the fall catch-up from the busy summer season, and just before the close of the fiscal year, I had a break right before Thanksgiving, so I scheduled a flight from Traverse City to Chicago for Tuesday, November 15, hoping to stay through Tuesday, November 22, arriving back home just in time to spend the holiday with my family.  

Only, Josh had started feeling sick right before my arrival. Quinn had warned me that he had some sort of bug, but he had taken three COVID tests and all had been negative. I thought about staying home and delaying my trip to Chicago once again, which would have meant more than a year of waiting to journey down to help out with changing diapers and lulling babies to sleep, which was now the priority over painting the nursery. But ultimately, upon discussing with another friend—who notably has four children and a fifth on the way, so I trust her judgment—she reminded me that this was probably when Quinn needed me the most, when one parent was at less-than-peak performance.

Packing a very light backpack with only a couple changes of clothing—since I knew it was very unlikely that I’d be leaving the house much—I got on a plane in Traverse City at sunset, and then took the train straight from the Chicago airport to a stop that was about a 15-minute walk from their house.

Aubrey Ann Parker Quinn Davis Josh Stoolman the betsie current newspaper pandemic penguins in a plague house parakeet in a parking lot
Packing a very light backpack with only a couple changes of clothing, the author got on a plane at sunset and arrived in Chicago around 7pm local time. Airport selfie by Aubrey Ann Parker.

“Your fairy godmother has arrived!” I said, gifting Quinn and Josh each a book that I had grabbed from the Free Little Library next to their house. (Good manners say never to show up without a hostess gift.) “Now give me a baby.”

By this point, Quinn was now feeling sick, as were both of the babies, and actually Josh was feeling somewhat better. Moreover, the babies hadn’t been sleeping well since getting sick, so Quinn wasn’t sleeping well either.  

Those first couple of days, I helped out mostly by cooking fruit-and-veggie-filled meals to boost immunity, and I took their now-one-year-old puppy on hour-long walks. I also was, obviously, holding babies and feeding babies and changing babies and helping with baby bath time.  

I never got to paint the nursery, but it wasn’t really needed; by this time, the nursery had a “penguin theme,” in part because an artist friend—wanting to make them a special piece for their wedding—once had asked Quinn, “If you and Josh were animals, what would you be?” She immediately answered “seal,” for herself, because she has been told on more than one occasion that she looks like a seal, thanks to her large brown eyes.  

“I think that Josh would say he’s a tiger,” she had responded, stopping to think for a minute. “Because that’s always been his favorite animal. But he’s a penguin.”

Now, an ink drawing of a seal kissing a penguin on the cheek hangs in their dining room, and there are penguin-shaped blankets, toys, and rugs in the nursery and scattered around the house. On the last night of my stay, I eventually did a quick watercolor painting of two baby penguins holding hands beneath the aurora australis (Southern Lights), to make up for not having been able to paint a mural in their nursery—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Aubrey Ann Parker the betsie current Quinn Davis josh stoolman pandemic penguins in a plague house Chicago
On the last night of the author’s stay in Chicago, she did a quick watercolor painting/ink drawing of two baby penguins holding hands beneath the aurora australis (Southern Lights), to make up for not having been able to paint a mural in their nursery. Image by Aubrey Ann Parker.

By Thursday morning, just 36 or so hours after having arrived in Chicago, I was starting to cough and had a runny nose, but I still felt fine, otherwise. But it hit me on Friday.

At this point, Quinn was still feeling pretty poorly, so she went to Urgent Care to rule out RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which can be particularly bad for infants. However, we all were pretty surprised when her test results came back; they had actually tested her for RSV, Influenza A, Influenza B, and—you guessed it—COVID-19. The last of which she tested positive for. Since I had begun feeling sick that day, I took a rapid COVID test at their home, and, sure enough, I was positive, too. Moreover, Josh’s childhood friend and their current nanny, Hannah Seppanen, also tested positive for COVID that day; she immediately moved into the Plague House with the rest of us, since she did not want to infect the people she was living with.

According to the CDC, a “mild” case of COVID is currently considered “over” when the patient hits six days from the onset of symptoms; we thought I probably had a “mild” case, because by Sunday, I was feeling better—still had a cough and some sniffles, but the body aches and fever had passed. (Unlike Quinn, who was not sleeping and probably already had a pretty run-down immune system compared to mine, so her symptoms were lingering; in that case, the CDC’s recommendations for a “moderate” case of COVID is 11 days of quarantine from the onset of symptoms.) So for me, that would have been Wednesday, November 23, and I was scheduled to fly out on Tuesday, November 22. So I called the airline and rescheduled my flight for just a day later. No biggie.

Only, when I tested myself again at home on Tuesday evening, I was still positive; so were Quinn and Hannah. (Josh had been testing negative this whole time, and we weren’t testing the babies.) So, I called and once again postponed my flight; this time opting for Friday, November 25, just to be on the safe side.  

This meant that we had a “Friendsgiving,” the first that I’d been to in a decade. Of note: Back when I first graduated from college, I felt bad for my friends who had moved across the country and weren’t going to be able to go home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, so my partner, Jordan, and I decided to go to them for a week surrounding Thanksgiving and get a glimpse of what their post-college lives were like. The first was in 2009, just a year after college graduation, and it was spent in New York City; the next year was in Baltimore; 2011 was spent in Syracuse, New York; 2012 was spent on the West Coast this time, in San Francisco. But when life got just a little more complicated—aging grandparents, weddings, babies—the Friendsgiving tradition, sadly, came to an abrupt end. So getting to spontaneously reintroduce this tradition 11 years later, and with friends who had never been able to attend any of the previous renditions, was fun and unexpected, even if it did mean that we were all relegated to the Plague House.

We made the best of it, though, and we each made a dish or two. In some ways, it felt good to have been able to push my return trip, but I could tell that my mother, especially, was missing me on the holiday—she was sending lots of text messages and pictures. 

When I tested later that day on Thanksgiving, I fully expected to test negative; Quinn had tested negative on Wednesday, finally, more than a week after her symptoms first began. But no such luck for me. So, I called and pushed my flight once again, this time to Monday, November 28. 

Aubrey Ann Parker COVID-19 pandemic  covid positive the betsie current newspaper pandemic penguins in a plague house parakeet in a parking lot
Though the author had a “mild” case of COVID-19, she kept testing positive well past the recommended six-day quarantine. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.

By Saturday morning, however, I was feeling kinda low, and the novelty of getting to stay an extra week and celebrate Friendsgiving was starting to wear off. 

I was missing my own puppy at home, though I’d been spending a lot of time with Lache, who was sleeping with me every night and begging for a walk every morning—remember that I had taken her on long walks on the first two days that I arrived, then went into survival mode once COVID hit me, so I didn’t take her for another walk until the day before Thanksgiving. Since then, Lache and I had been taking long 60- to 90-minute walks every day.

This meant that every day I was exploring neighborhoods in a different direction from the home base of Quinn and Josh’s house—walking about 30 minutes North, and then circling back; the next day, going 30 minutes South, then circling back, etc. 

That is how, on Saturday, I found myself, accidentally, on a dead-end road in an industrial parking lot, with very few cars, except for the few unlucky folks who were apparently working at the factories there on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. 

Telling Lache that we needed to cut through the parking lot and onto one of the main streets again, I noticed something moving in the grass between the sidewalk and the parking lot. Small and yellow, with hints of bright green. 

A parakeet. I recognized it, because my childhood friend—notably the same mother of four, soon-to-be-five, who had encouraged me to come to Chicago in the first place, despite Josh being sick—had parakeets when we were younger, and she actually adopted some about a year ago, so that her children can now go through the experience of having birds; despite her husband’s displeasure. “They are so noisy.” 

On Saturday, November 26, 2022, the author was walking in Chicago and found a parakeet in a parking lot. She was able to capture and rehome this small bird. Video by Aubrey Ann Parker.

I feel the need to mention here that I’m not much of a bird person.

Like, I’m kinda afraid of them. Chickens especially, because they are bigger birds, at least as far as domesticated birds go. And also because I once witnessed my mother-in-law attacked by a rooster who clung to her bare legs with his talons until my step-father-in-law kicked him off her. For parakeets, though they’re small, I’m a bit worried that they will bite me—even though I know it doesn’t hurt very badly, yes from experience—but also that I might be the one to hurt them, inadvertently, because they seem so delicate. Much more delicate than they actually are. As in, if I were to squeeze too hard, maybe their lungs would collapse or I would accidentally crack their tiny little spines; this becomes important in the paragraphs that follow.

So, here I was, faced with a parakeet in a parking lot who was happily grazing on whatever was in this small spit of grass, knowing full well that there wasn’t a house in sight to ask if they knew whose bird it might be. 

I pulled out my phone and took a quick video to send to my partner, Jordan, who was miles away at home in Frankfort—notably also suffering from COVID-19. (He had tested positive the same day that I had, which made me feel better about going to Chicago and getting stuck in the Plague House; basically, I feel like I would have gotten ill had I stayed at home, too. There was no escaping it this time, though I had successfully, until this point, evaded it for almost three years.) 

“Look what I found,” I wrote, thinking that would be it, and I would just continue on my way.

But then I realized that no, I couldn’t just leave, knowing that meant almost-certain death for this little guy.

I didn’t want to bring a random bird into the Plague House without a plan, so I quickly looked up whether there was a bird rescue in Chicago; no surprise, there was. Also no surprise that they were closed on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I called anyway and left a voicemail, hoping that maybe somebody would be checking it throughout the weekend and saying that I could help to let someone know which cross streets the bird was located at. 

Again, I attempted to walk away, but this still felt pretty crummy.

So I walked back, and I attempted to catch it. With my bare hands.

And Lache—Quinn and Josh’s 45-pound husky-mix—also tried to catch it. With her mouth.

This freaked me out so much that I tied her leash to a nearby dumpster while I continued about a half-dozen attempts to get this little bird into my hands. At first, I was worried that I would crush it completely, so I didn’t latch on tightly enough, and it slipped through my fingers to fly a few feet away, but never too far. At each attempt, the bird allowed me to get very close, which to me signaled that it was very tame. Which also signaled to me that it would not last long out here “in the wild,” not to mention the 40-degree temps. Once I finally stopped being a chicken-shit and grabbed the bird semi-tightly, I realized: “Now what?”

How was I going to get the bird home to Quinn and Josh’s, while also walking Lache back on her leash? I thought about calling Quinn and Josh to come pick us all up in their car, but I didn’t think that would go over very well—firstly because they had both (finally) just laid down for a nap right before I had left to walk the dog, and secondly because I wasn’t exactly sure how to tell them where I was on my long and meandering walk that had brought me to this random abandoned parking lot, and lastly because, well, I had a new domesticated animal that I was quite sure wasn’t going to be all that welcome in their house, especially under plague conditions. (I could just hear Josh, the immunologist—no, seriously, he has a PhD—“Great, now we have to worry about Bird Flu, as well; thanks, Aubrey.”)

I remembered that, when my childhood friend had parakeets, she would have to put a towel or a blanket over the cage for the birds to go to sleep. So I decided my best course of action was to shove the bird into my jacket pocket—very carefully tucking its green-tipped tail in before zipping it shut. I untied Lache from the dumpster, and I very carefully walked with my arms out from my sides for the next 45 minutes that it took to navigate back to Quinn and Josh’s house. 

At first, this little bird was moving around a bit in my pocket. But then it stopped. 

Meanwhile, I had texted Jordan an update.

“It’s now in my pocket.”

“Did you catch the bird? It’ll probably die.” 

At this point, I panicked for the next six minutes, because I interpreted what he had said to mean that it would die in my pocket. However, with a few more texts to clarify, I realized that he meant it would die on its own in the city, without my help.

“I’m gonna try to get it home in my pocket…?!”

“Should work.”

“You said it will die!?”

“It’ll die if you don’t save it.”

“I will feel awful if it dies in my pocket.”

A half-hour later, I had given up all hope. The little guy had not stirred in too long; it was a goner, for sure. But lo and behold, as I turned onto Quinn and Josh’s block—not four houses from theirs—I felt it move. Hallelujah! 

“Well, I was gone longer than I said, I know,” I said to Hannah, Josh, and the babies, along with Quinn and Josh’s cat—ironically named Minnow—who were all watching the Michigan football game on the big screen. “And I know what you’re going to say, but don’t worry, I have a plan. I already called the parrot rescue. It’s in my pocket, but I’m going to put it in a box until someone can come to get it.”

I should mention that parakeets are a type of parrot, apparently; I did not know this until I looked them up on my long walk home. And this bird rescue that I had contacted specializes in “parrots” and other “exotic birds”: why I had not just said, “the bird rescue,” is beyond me.

I grabbed an empty box—the house had many, since they had been getting almost everything delivered, even before we all tested positive for COVID, since having infant twins makes it nearly impossible to go anywhere—and took it into the vestibule entryway.

“What!? No, get it out of the house!” Josh shouted at me. 

“I am; I’m gonna put the box in the entryway,” I replied. 

I have to admit that his response was more alarmed than even I had anticipated. But after I put the little bird into the box and closed up a small container of water inside the box with it, I soon realized why—he had thought I had said “ferret.” 

Yes, he thought I had a ferret in the pocket of my jacket. And once he realized that it was just a tiny, harmless bird, he could care less; apparently this was a good strategy on my part, even if I hadn’t intended it to be—make it seem way worse than it actually was, so that then the reality wasn’t as jarring as the initial reaction. 

Now that I had the bird home, I realized that I had no idea what parakeets eat, so I called back the bird rescue and left them an update to my initial voicemail, letting them know that I had actually gone back for the bird and it was now in my possession, and could somebody please call me back ASAP, because I had no idea what I was doing. I also called my childhood friend who had parakeets, but she didn’t pick up either. So I got back onto the bird rescue’s website and I emailed them; then I sent them a Facebook message. I was getting desperate. On their Facebook page, they had links to a “Lost & Found Birds in Illinois” Facebook group, so I hopped on there and quickly made a post explaining that I had found a bird, and I had no idea what I was doing. I also looked through the photos of missing birds, hoping I might get lucky and find its owner.

Almost immediately, I had two different people reach out and offer that they would take the bird. Ultimately, I went with the woman who said:
“I have four parakeets already, and I would love yours as one of my own. It would have a family.”

So I messaged her, and she said she would drive right over. (In the meantime, I had to call the bird rescue back for a third time, letting them know that I had offloaded the bird to someone much more capable; I’m sure whoever checked the voicemails on Monday thought I was crazy. Or maybe they get this kind of thing all the time.) 

About an hour later, the woman called—she was a little lost, but I helped to get her to the right doorstep. She had her sister and her son with her. They carefully transferred the little guy from the Amazon Delivery box into an actual bird carrier, and they had some food and water with them. (See, this was already way better than my tupperware container of water and lack of a food source.)

A blur of smiling faces and feathers, and they were off, back to their home on the South Side of Chicago.

I, meanwhile, had an adrenaline high from the happenings over the past three hours, and I had completely forgotten about my doldrums just that morning, when I was feeling sad about being stuck in Chicago with COVID. I called and texted so many people, letting them know about my bird escapades and how it had all worked out swimmingly. I continued to have complete strangers sending me praise on my initial Facebook post for having saved a defenseless bird, who apparently would have not survived much longer than 24 hours in those chilly temperatures, according to these armchair experts.

Sunshine (right), looking a little disheveled, upon meeting its new family of parakeets, including a female that looked just like it—they hopped around, looking at each other as if looking in a mirror. Photo courtesy of Sunshine’s new (human) family, who will be left anonymous to protect their identities.

When the woman who had picked up the bird then returned home, she almost immediately sent me photos and videos of my parakeet meeting its new family of parakeets, including a female that looked just like it—they hopped around, looking at each other as if looking in a mirror, in a short video. I could hear the woman’s children coo and fawn in the background. Yes, this was the right home for this creature. I asked her to keep in touch and let me know how the bird was doing; she said they were somewhat worried about it, just because it was cold and not moving much, but that it was eating and drinking some, so that was a good sign.

She also told me that her kids had named it “Sunshine,” as a sort of manifestation, because they wanted it to see another sunrise. (How cute is that?!)

And it did. 

In fact, the bird is now thriving. I’ve checked in several times, and the woman is always happy to hear from me and happier still to send me updates on its progress. It now apparently sings with its family, and its leg—which had been injured, and I hope it wasn’t from me stuffing it in my pocket, but I can’t be sure—is completely healed.

So, this is a long and meandering story, and I’m sure at this point you might be thinking—sure, Aubrey, that’s nice, but what’s the point?

Well, I guess it’s that I see a lot more than a story about penguins or parakeets here. 

I see a story about fate, maybe. 

I don’t even know if I believe in fate. But I do know that there are a lot of things that had to happen in order for me to be in that parking lot on the Saturday after a Thanksgiving when I wasn’t even supposed to be in Chicago anymore in order to save that bird and get it to a new family—if I hadn’t been childhood friends with the girl who had parakeets, I wouldn’t have known what to do when I saw it; if that same friend hadn’t convinced me to go to Chicago even though Josh was sick, I wouldn’t have been there; if I hadn’t gotten sick while I was in Chicago, I would have left on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and I wouldn’t have been in that parking lot; if I hadn’t always been a wanderer who likes to walk in random directions instead of taking the same route every day, I also wouldn’t have been in that particular parking lot; if Quinn and Josh hadn’t adopted that puppy, I wouldn’t have been walking her; if Quinn and I had never dated roommates, we may never have become best friends; if, if, if. 

I guess the point is that, sometimes, life takes you in a direction and puts you in a place where you have choices to make. And sometimes the choice is as simple as walking away from what is in front of you—or grabbing it with both hands. 

I don’t always, but in this particular instance, I did. And I thought with the New Year, maybe some people needed a little Sunshine to brighten the gray of January.

Featured Photo Caption: Sunshine (right) with its new family of parakeets in a home on the South Side of Chicago. The little bird earned its name as a sort of manifestation, because the young children in the home wanted it to see another sunrise, after it was rescued by the author from the near-freezing temperatures and any number of other perils. Photo courtesy of Sunshine’s new (human) family, who will be left anonymous to protect their identities. 

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Aubrey Parker

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