The last few weeks have been tough ones around the coop and I’m so proud of how you’ve handled the sudden loss of our two hens, including your sweet Lily. Perhaps it’s because we’re fresh off the passing of your great-grandmother and all the conversations we’ve had about leaving the labors of life and entering the joys of rest are still at the front of your mind. Maybe it’s because you and your brothers are still prenticing the jagged and indiscriminate edges of death, not fully aware of how deep a mourning lament can lacerate the heart. In any case, you’ve dealt with the unexpected deaths of two chickens, something I’ve been trying to prepare you for since we brought home those fuzzy handfuls on your 7th birthday, far more gracefully than I expected.
I know it happens. Often. Sometimes after a period of warning and worrying and sometimes inexplicably just an hour after you last saw them scratching happily in the straw. Growing up on the farm, I don’t have any memories of chickens up-and-dying except for those “third year” cycles when the layers were winding down their production and we set about the second phase of their serviceable life. Butchering season is a part of farm life. It’s a cycle of raising to raze, always done with a quiet reverence and gratitude, as a farmer understands that someone must have the arm strength to lift the curtain and heart strength to lower it as each act draws down.
Grandpa gently scolded me when I told him that we had named our chicks. “Remember, Jen. They have scales on their legs.” It was his way of cautioning that it would add a burden to the letting go when the time came. Of course, he was right. And of course, I went ahead and named my Barred Rocks anyway. Willa and Guinivere after 2 of my literary heroes. And you named your Wyandottes Lacey and Lily because you like to call things by pretty names. And the boys picked Gloria and Rebecca and Penny and Charlotte. And we all lived happily ever after until Willa and Lacey crowed and you had your first taste of letting go.
That was hard, but there was comfort in knowing that the roos were going to good homes and we dealt with those disappointments by giving extra treats to our remaining girls. Lily quickly became the sweetheart of the coop, demuring to bully Charlotte, offering a wing of protection to Gloria when she found herself at the bottom of the pecking order. Even allowing us to strap her into a harness and walk her about the yard on a leash. She was the perfect hen for you because she was such a reflection of your spirit. Sweet and easy-going. Never pushing to the front of the line but letting others go ahead of you. A whatever makes you happy, Mom kind of attitude.
Perhaps that’s why I was so crestfallen when I went to the coop last week and found Lily dead, a mere 5 days after Penny also met a sudden and unexpected end. No signs of trauma or illness. No breaches in the fencing where a fox or raccoon might have entered the yard. Just another hen to bury and another child’s heart to bruise.
I called Grammy the night after Penny died to tell her the news and her words were reflective and sensible. She told me of the time when we had taken in two newborn calves whose mothers had abandoned them at the farm next door. Mr. Douglas was helping Grandpa load the bellowing youngsters into the farm truck for the short drive up the hill while Grammy stood with Mrs. Douglas at the barn door, bemoaning the plight of the young orphans. As she complained about the sorrow of it all, Dorothy righted her perspective. “Yes, Carol. But better a loss in the barn than a loss in the house.” I vaguely remember Mrs. Douglas with her bun of graying hair wrapped hastily at the nape of her neck and I can imagine her giving a young farmer’s wife that sage advice. Yes, better an empty nest box than an empty place at the table. Even in this world of boutique chicken husbandry, there must be a callus that keeps the heart in check.
Less than a week later, I made another call to tell Grammy that, astonishingly, a second hen had died. We’d gone 18 months without as much as a sneeze and now 2 girls were gone in the span of a hand. I choked back tears when I had to tell her that it was gentle Lily and she asked how you were taking the news.
“Good as can be expected, I suppose. I just feel so bad. First her rooster and now her only hen.” There was far more indignation crowding out my words than I had realized.
Grammy asked if she could talk with you and I called you to the room, thinking you would hear the same story about Mrs. Douglas and the calves and how we have to maintain the balance of emotions when engaging in the duties of raising farm animals.
But Grammy had another story to share, one I hadn’t heard before. And because of the wonders of FaceTime, the three of us sat together on our couches 100 miles apart and I learned why Grammy always thinks of her grandfather when she sees a patch of daffodils.
“Lauren, dear, I’m so sorry to hear that your Lily died. She really was a special hen, wasn’t she?” You nodded and I glanced over to see if the tears were returning.
“I remember seeing the video of you walking her around the yard on that leash and the funny pictures of you reading to her in the garden, too. I’m sure it’s very hard to think of her being gone now, isn’t it?”
With that question, there was no more holding back the sorrow and it slipped down your cheek before you could wipe it away.
“I remember feeling sad many times after I lost a special pet, too. When I was a little girl, my grandfather always buried our pets at one edge of the backyard. I can still remember the corn crib and then the start of the forest further back. I bet your mom knows the spot.”
You looked up at me and I nodded. (I was tempted to tell you that there was also a big cage with 2 raccoons named Pierre and Nanette right there, too, but that’s a tale for another telling.)
Grammy continued. “And do you know what my grandpa always did to mark the place where he had buried the animal?”
You shook your head but mentioned that we had placed large slices of the fallen oak tree on top of the graves that we dug behind the fence.
“Well, my grandpa would place a big rock on top to mark them, too. But before that, he would put some daffodil bulbs in the dirt and cover them up. That way, the next spring, there would be a bright spot in the yard and it helped us to remember the happy times we had with our pets instead of the sadness of their death.”
Grammy paused for a moment to let you consider the possibility that there might be a time when you could remember Lily without feeling the heaviness of loss. What a perfect story to lift your spirits! And what an important example of the tenderness that must undergird even an old farmer’s heart.
Grammy continued. “And you know, by the time I was all grown up, there was a long row of daffodils along that whole side of the yard. Every spring, it was the most beautiful place on the farm.”
Glancing over at you, I caught the slightest upward turn at the corner of your lips and I knew that we’d be looking through the bulb catalog soon. You’ve endured a little hardening and now you can hem it in with plans to color the dark.
I’m writing this story down in hopes that someday you’ll see the gift, this forwarding of our lives. In this instance, a recollection of two old farmers, long time departed, who still teach wisdom about the callus and the kindness needed for life on the land. Love you, Mom