Adapted from the book Penguin the Magpie, which will be published April 4, 2017, in the United States.
Waking up in a remote coastal village on our second day in Thailand, my wife, Sam, and I thought the trip with our three sons was turning out to be the dream family adventure we’d hoped it would be. At first light we found the beach empty, other than swaying coconut palms. The water was calling us so we all dived in and spent the next three hours laughing and splashing about like happy fools. Then, when we went back to the hotel for refreshments, the unthinkable happened. As we sipped fresh papaya juice on a rooftop viewing deck, the safety fence Sam was leaning against collapsed. She plunged to the tiles 20 feet below.
It was seven months before Sam was released from the spinal ward back home in Australia. She had lost her sense of taste and smell, and had no reflex response below her mid-back. She did her best to seem upbeat for our sake, but we could see her struggling. I knew she was withdrawing from this world. I sought advice and support wherever I could, but nothing seemed to help. I was slowly but surely losing the love of my life.
And then Penguin arrived.
Penguin was a small, wobbly-headed Australian Magpie chick when my son Noah found her lying in the car park next to his grandmother’s house. Gusting winds had tossed her from her nest, some 60 feet up a towering Norfolk Island pine. One wing hung limply by her side, and without immediate care, the shaky little chick would die.
Our family had witnessed enough tragedy for one lifetime. Unable to find an animal rescue shelter that would take an injured chick, Sam and I decided that we’d care for her until she was fully healed and became strong enough to fend for herself. If we failed, we would lay her to rest in the backyard. Either way, she was staying with us. The boys immediately named her Penguin, after her black-and-white plumage, and that was that. Our three sons suddenly had a baby sister: Miss Penguin Bloom.
Over time, with a great deal of patience and a whole lot of love, Penguin grew in stature and confidence. As her strength increased, so did her curiosity. She started to forage for food in the backyard to supplement her diet, and she became more and more independent, even as our bond with her deepened.
Penguin always seemed to know exactly when our boys would be walking home from school. As 3:30 p.m. drew near, she positioned herself in the orange tree at the edge of our property, waiting for them to come around the corner. As soon as she heard them approaching, she broke out in song, and the boys happily replied in their best, garbled magpie impersonation. They called out to each other over and over again, in a joyful chorus of greeting. Like so many younger sisters, she learned how to drive her big brothers crazy and somehow get away with it. But they always made up in the end.
Penguin and Sam, meanwhile, became inseparable. One was always looking after the other. When Penguin was weak and sickly, Sam would lovingly nurse her back to health. When Sam found it hard to get moving, Penguin would sing her energy levels up. After training and physical therapy were over for the day, or when the pain was too great to bear, they would lie outside beneath the sky. Sometimes Sam would speak softly to Penguin, sometimes Penguin would sing to Sam, and sometimes neither would make a sound for hours at a time. There were far fewer tears, and a lot more laughter was heard around the house. I thank God for that crazy little bird.
We knew that for Penguin’s own good, she needed to spend a lot more time outdoors; playing video games and watching movies could hardly be considered adequate preparation for surviving in her natural environment. The large frangipani tree in our yard became her new principal residence. Now she spends increasingly more time away as she makes new friends and scouts out her own territory. We love hearing her merry song whenever she drops by for a visit—bouncing into the kitchen, living room, or bedroom as if she owns the place.
The most satisfying aspect of raising Penguin has been seeing the kind of bird she turned out to be. She doesn’t sit on the edge of life, she dives right in. She is clever, strong, resilient, and bold. She is also mischievous, curious, and very funny.
In the beginning we thought we were rescuing Penguin, but now we know this remarkable little bird has made us stronger, brought us closer as a family, given us countless reasons to smile and laugh during an extremely difficult time, and, in doing so, helped us heal emotionally and physically. So, in a very real way, Penguin rescued us.
Post script: The Blooms are currently caring for two new magpies, Puffin and Panda. Follow the growing family’s adventures on Instagram.
Copyright © 2016 by The Lost Bear Company Pty Ltd and Cameron Bloom Photography Pty Ltd. Originally published in Australia in 2016 by HarperCollins Publishers Australia.