I watched as the truck backed up into position, feeling more than fatigued. It had been a long and tiring two weeks. I rubbed my eyes trying to keep myself from falling asleep on my feet until I heard the sound of the door opening. I watched along with the other zookeepers as the young male polar bear timidly made his way out of the truck and into his new home. There were some cheers and claps around me, but I was too exhausted to take part in it.
Two weeks ago I had flown up to Toronto to pick up our new member of the zoo. Tuck was old enough to leave the zoo there and come into Pittsburgh’s to hopefully eventually breed with the females we currently had. We’d had to quarantine him for a while to make sure he wasn’t sick before we could introduce him to our bears. That meant two weeks of round the clock observation and care.
I hadn’t gotten much sleep, and it didn’t look like I was going to be getting much in the next couple of days either. There had to now be round the clock observation to make sure that Tuck was accepted by our females and make sure that there were no fights. As exhausted as I was, I couldn’t hold back the smile as I observed the newest member of our family. Sleep would come.
“Tanner, can you come back here a minute?” Zach called over to me. I nodded and followed him back into the offices wondering what he wanted to talk to me about. A grin grew on my face when I saw why I was being called back.
“I thought you might want some lunch,” Sidney said, holding up a bag, a smile on his face as well. I ran into his arms, causing the bag to fall to the floor in a thud.
“What are you doing here?!” I exclaimed when I finally pulled away.
“I haven’t seen you in two weeks and I know you’ll be busy the next couple of days, so I wanted to stop by now when you would actually be awake.” I planted a big kiss on his lips and picked up the bag of food.
“That’s so sweet. I’m starved,” I told him, leading him to where my desk was.
I knew I had some time. We were going to let Tuck get adjusted to his new home before introducing him to the females. Sid and I ate and caught up on the last two weeks. We’d hardly had time to talk with our busy schedules while I was away. I didn’t even know the outcome of his last three games.
Another year had gone by since the wedding, and everything had gone perfectly in that time. We no longer had any fights about busy schedules and lack of support. We each saw that the others job made them happy and therefore we were supportive of each other, even if we didn’t always get to see each other.
The next few days passed by quickly despite the exhaustion I was feeling. When I finally had time off I literally collapsed into bed and slept for an entire day. When I woke up I had a terrible headache and still felt tired. I figured that was to be expected after getting next to no sleep for almost three weeks and then sleeping close to 18 hours.
“You don’t look well,” Sidney commented when I finally made my way out of the bedroom and into the living room where he had NHL Network on.
“Gee, thanks, Babe,” I replied sarcastically. He leaned over and placed a kiss on my forehead before pulling me into him.
My headache faded as the day continued on, but the fatigue stayed. Even so, I tried to force myself to stay awake until my normal bed time to try to get myself back on track. When the alarm went off the next morning I felt like I was going to die. The headache was back and it felt like it brought some friends. I guess that’s the price you pay for doing what I do.
Sid and I ate breakfast together as I fought through the throbbing in my head. Worried about me driving after he realized he couldn’t convince me to stay home, he dropped me off at work before heading in to practice. I noticed that red balloons had been put up at the entrance to announce the arrival of our new polar bear to the public.
“What are there, 99 of them?” Sidney asked. I rolled my eyes at the fact that he was laughing at his own joke.
“Thank you, very much. Now I’m going to have that stupid song stuck in my head all day,” I shot at him. He laughed again before giving me a kiss and driving off. I walked into the zoo singing the song in my head.
I went about my typical morning, checked in on Tuck, and got some paperwork done. Soon it was feeding time and along with a couple of coworkers, I began to get the food ready. As I slapped a raw piece of meat into a bowl I suddenly felt nauseous by the sight and smell of it. I got into the bathroom just in time.
“Are you okay?” I heard one of my coworkers ask.
“Yeah, I’m alright. I’ve just had a killer migraine all morning. I think it’s making me sick,” I told her.
“Call Sid and have him pick you up when he leaves the rink. You probably should have had another day or two off. All that lack of sleep the last few weeks has definitely caught up to you.” I agreed and hid in a dark office until Sidney arrived to take me home.
I went straight to bed when I got home. I woke up after a couple of hours and found that the migraine was all but gone, and I no longer felt nauseous. I made my way downstairs and Sidney asked if I wanted dinner. I declined, not wanting to push my luck. The smell of the take-out he got started to bring the nausea back, and I retreated back into the bedroom for the night.
The next morning went exactly the same way. My head was killing me and I just was not feeling well because of it and called off of work. I had to skip Sidney’s game that night because I still wasn’t feeling up to getting out of bed despite the migraine fading again. I was just tired, and not being able to stomach anything for two days left me feeling weak.
When I felt exactly the same the following morning, I decided that I’d been sleeping far too much and just needed to get myself back into a normal routine. I lied to Sid and told him I felt a lot better before driving myself in to work. Again, just being around the raw meat that day caused me to rush off to the bathroom. Thankfully no one was around to witness it that time.
As the morning wore on, my headache began to fade and I congratulated myself on the good diagnosis I had given myself. I had been sleeping far too much after being so exhausted and getting back into the swing of things was starting to help.
I made a phone call and reached for a pencil to take down a contact number. That’s when I knocked over the entire canister of writing utensils I had on my desk. I shook my head at my clumsiness, and took the number down before cleaning up the mess. As I pushed a cart of greens for another animal a little later I began to sing that damned song I’d had stuck in my head for days since Sidney had made that comment about there being 99 red balloons.
You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we've got
Set them free at the break of dawn
'Til one by one, they were gone
Back at base, bugs in the software
Flash the message, Something's out there
Floating in the summer sky
99 red balloons go by
As I sang along, I tripped over my own feet. I threw my hands out to catch my fall and watched in horror as the entire cart I was pushing tipped over, spilling its contents all over the floor. I chastised myself for my uncharacteristic clumsiness for the second time that day as I began to clean it up.
99 red balloons
floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it's red alert
There's something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where 99 red balloons go by
I froze in place, a piece of green in my hand after singing the second verse of the song. My diagnosis had been wrong. It couldn’t have been more wrong. I vaguely heard someone ask if I was okay, but I couldn’t respond. Instead I turned and bolted out of there, to my desk to grab my car keys, and then out to my car.
99 Decision Street
99 ministers meet
To worry, worry, super-scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we've waited for
This is it boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As 99 red balloons go by
I pulled into the parking lot of the rink a little while later. I didn’t hesitate to get out of the car and walk straight to the back door. The security guard greeted me, but I blindly walked by him and into the underbelly of the rink. I checked my watch, saw that there was still quite a bit of time before Sidney would be off the ice and sat down on the cold cement floor in the hallway.
99 Knights of the air
Ride super-high-tech jet fighters
Everyone's a superhero
Everyone's a Captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
As 99 red balloons go by
I couldn’t get that damn song out of my head. Tears began to fill my eyes at the frustration of it just replaying in my mind over and over again. I didn’t want to sing it. I didn’t want those lyrics in my head. I didn’t like what they meant to me right now. I didn’t want to hear it ever again.
99 dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It's all over and I'm standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenier
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you and let it go
“Tanner, what are you doing here?” I heard someone ask. I picked my head up off of my knees where I’d been resting it to see Mario standing there.
“I came to see Sid,” I told him. He looked at me with concern in his eyes.
“Is everything okay?”
I felt the tears continue to build, and felt one slide down my cheek as I shook my head no. He opened his mouth to say something else when I threw my hand over my mouth and fought back the wave of nausea that hit me out of nowhere. Once it passed I glanced back up at Mario, who looked alarmed, and like he understood.
“I’ll get Sid off the ice right now.” With that he rushed off towards the ice and I rested my head back on my knees. A short time later I felt hands on my shoulders.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” I heard Sidney question. I looked up into his worried eyes and saw that he was out of the equipment, but unshowered and still in his underarmour.
“I don’t feel well,” I told him. I could see him struggling to figure out why I was sitting in the hallway of the rink disrupting his practice just because I didn’t feel well.
“I don’t understand,” he said, his hands moving up to my face to wipe away the tears.
“Sidney, it’s back.”