I’m writing because I want to remember this day for you. This day when the ordinary trajectory of dust-bound life glanced off the fingertips of the divine. This day when we got to see the glittering bokeh of Heaven, so often relegated to our daydreams and childhood construations, fall right here in our backyard.
You talk of it now, with the fervor and delight and peacock-proud strut of your 9-year old self. How you were sure she would come around. And how those beetle grubs you went and dug up for her were the tipping point, for sure. How you never doubted and always knew that our prayers and those grubs would surely do the trick.
I’m writing, too, because I want to recall that night for you. That night you didn’t see while you were tucked in snug, high up in your bunk, with fingers woven through soft crocheted strands and a sleepy smile cambering across your lips. That night when I took the flashlight and walked with heavy steps through the back yard, fully expecting to find an even darker scene on the other side of the wooden gate.
I never told you of it. How I talked steel into my whimpering heart. How I told her it was OK to go and would she please go before I had to make the hard decisions about how to waft the dust moat of her ordinary life into the realm of ones we once knew.
I had watched her for over 2 weeks grow increasingly more still. More swollen in her belly and pained in her movements. Less eager to eat and paled by sloshing breaths that she pulled through her filling lungs like a child sucking up the last bits of a milkshake through a straw. I had spent several nights searching for online solutions and found only death warrant diagnoses for this type of thing. A “water belly” was irreversible, caused by one of three conditions: heart failure, cancer or something called internal laying where the process of egg production got reversed and the eggs were deposited inside her abdominal cavity where they eventually piled up into a mound of septic infection. It was a matter of when, not if and I began to prepare myself for the inevitable hour of decision when I would have to judge that enough suffering had been borne.
I watched her carefully, those long stretches of dying days. Going to the coop in the morning and hoping to note improvement but seeing that her bright red comb had turned a darker purplish hue and was cold to the touch. Taking the leftover apple cores and cucumber skins for an afternoon snack and hoping to see her eyes perk up but sighing at the sight of watery droppings and an empty craw. Checking on her at night and hoping to find her settled comfortably on the roost but finding her hunched over in the corner, belly too bulging to lower herself for rest.
I decided to tell you after school on a Friday that Rebecca wasn’t feeling well and she might not have much time left with us. That evening, we spent a few hours with her in the back yard. I made sure you had a picture with her and we talked about whether God takes our pets to Heaven for safe keeping and what cancer would look like if you could see it and what makes a 3-chambered heart suddenly start to stutter and fail. You came right up on the edge of death, turned it over in your mouth and examined it from all angles but never traded it for the hope-filled words of recovery to which you had decided to firmly fix yourself.
Rebecca wasn’t moving at all, despite the freedom of having the whole backyard to herself and even the bits of chickweed that you offered her were of no interest. Hunched and puffed out like a soft, black tumbleweed blown up against the fence, she spent most of the evening with her eyes closed and I knew there wasn’t much time left. Years on the farm with their countless goodbyes have engraved on my heart a sundial about such things and so I marked shadows of many shades that crept longer toward dusk.
You smoothed her feathers and spoke quietly to her and asked if we could pray over her and, of course, I said surely, yes. It was telling more than praying, really. Telling Jesus about your sick hen and how you wanted her to be well again. Telling Rebecca about Jesus and how everything His hands ever touched was made better. You never wavered, never hesitated in telling the story both ways, to the brilliance of Heaven’s throne room and then back again to the burden of earth’s dust, even though you’re well aware that avian lifespans are normally counted on one hand and Rebecca’s had already reached your index finger.
Eventually you wandered to the compost pile thinking that perhaps a worm would cheer her. You found a beetle grub instead and plopped the wriggling larvae in front of her with high hopes that it would spark a bit of instinctual fight in her body.
Remember how she devoured it with zest? I was taken aback to see her even attempt to eat one, much less gobble the next half dozen that you found for her. After all, she hadn’t eaten in days, hadn’t moved more than a shuffle the last week. But in spite of the momentary verve, her breaths were still terribly shallow and clotted with the pressing fluid. As I gently picked her up for the return to the coop, I felt through my hands the sputtering reverberations of fading life. With my own heart quavering, I accepted that we wouldn’t likely see her alive again.
That night after you had gone to bed, full of certainty and Heavenly hope, I scanned the internet once again, this time searching for the exit ramps of life that were most humane. Surprisingly, the usual path through the vet’s office really isn’t an option for birds. But there were plenty of other exits to choose from. The kinds I knew from my childhood as I watched my father and grandfather handle end-of-life duties for an ailing cow or Thanksgiving turkey. Others that seemed bizarre and unnecessary and unchoosable. All points, however, of departure when the decision had been made to steer away from needless suffering and pain.
I settled on one that I thought I could handle and then I seeped onto the couch in a puddle of tears. Daddy was comforting and compassionate, knowing how hard this final act of caretaking would be for me. Even though I’m well-aware that every new pet comes wrapped in a shrouded nod, a day when life comes to the chasm and must pass over, it’s never easy to concede that such a moment has arrived. Yes, even for chickens. After draining my eyes, I took the flashlight and made my way through the night toward the coop for a final visit though I wasn’t even sure I would find her alive.
That was the night I told her she could go, almost begged her to go before I had to decide her timing. I made her comfortable as best I could in the straw below the nest boxes and smoothed her feathers for what I surely felt would be the last time. And I reminded her, just like you did, that Jesus would make everything right and if there were chickens in Heaven, I’d find her on my farm when I got there one day.
Seems silly, right? To talk to a chicken about eternity. To dissipate so many hours lingering on the sentimental instead of marching through the practical. To maintain hope for reprieve when every single member of the jury affirms the judgement. I rolled those words around in my mouth as well. The ones that left a bitter taste in yours. Cancer. Heart failure. Disease. They were like a crushed aspirin on my tongue. Choking like a breath of chalk dust, pungent like a sip of vinegar. But somehow (I thank God it’s yet true), you knew to spit them out, to refuse them. And predictably (I pray God teaches me otherwise) I held them in under the weight of a hundred past memories, a dozen search engine results, a single expectation of sure defeat.
That’s how I left Rebecca that night. Wishfully hoping that she might pull through but conceding in my heart that the death warrant was already being signed and the following day, if she survived the night, would entail a burial after an escort over the chasm.
Because you didn’t know about that night, you’ll never fully understand my shock, my utter disbelief, when I saw Rebecca come slowly stepping down the ramp from the coop the next morning. Still swollen and somewhat hunched, but alert and curious about what the scrap bucket contained. She didn’t make an effort to push her way to the front with the others, but more importantly, she didn’t linger in the back corner as she had done the last several days. Over the next week, she continued to improve, began to scratch and peck about in the dirt and regained her slimmer profile. The water belly slowly but surely receded and her lungs cleared. After two weeks, she was back to fighting with the other hens over choice scraps and had returned to roosting with them at night. She regained her sweet clucking sounds and restored her place in the pecking order with a few swift jabs at bully Charlotte’s comb. By the end of the second week, it was as though she had never been sick and you crowed rightfully true that your grubs and prayers had done the trick. Like doubting Thomas, I know you’re right and yet a month later, I’m still in disbelief.
I want you to remember that death passed over the coop that night, Joshua. Just like in the story that you love to read from Exodus where the reaping shadows recoiled at each lintel bearing the lamb’s blood. I want you to scratch our story deep into your heart and make for it a comfortable expectation there, a wide nest of space for gathering more victories of life in the face of death, more confidence in spite of incredulity, more surely, yes in a world of just surrender. I want you to recount the story over and over to yourself and for others, too. Because all too soon, even now, the press will be upon you to abandon it all. To join the trudge toward the inevitable. To swallow the bitter pill. It happens slowly but surely and rarer than a hen’s tooth is the one who remembers how to only believe.
To just believe. Him.
Keep honing your heart, Joshua. Realigning your vision to the crosshairs. Choosing the words that sow life. Rejecting those that sponsor death.
Remain in the wisdom of a child even as you stride toward your crown. Your unreasonable, scoffable, inscrutable faith lights wide the path for those of us clamoring in the battle to believe.
The words of King Solomon, given as wisdom from God:
Death and life are in the power of the tongue
and those loving it eat its fruit.