At 4:30 in the early evening Rascal started barking furiously at the back door. Dan let him out and he chased after a hawk, maybe the same hawk he already chased away a half dozen times this fall. Except today it was too late. Dan went out to the garden and came back with a grim face.
"I have bad news for you, Mama," he said.
The first thing I thought in my head was "how many?" But I didn't say this out loud for fear that it might crass in front of the children. Instead I looked at Dan with patient expectation.
"The hawk killed one of your chickens."
Sad news, but at the same time I was relieved. We only had to deal with one. I've heard stories of predators killing an entire flock of and leaving the carcasses. One chicken isn't that much in comparison.
"Is it all the way dead?"
"I think so."
Of course, I had to see.
We went outside to look, all of us. The chicken was indeed very much dead, as it looked like the hawk had grabbed it by the neck and spent considerable time gnawing at it before Rascal noticed. The boys were interested to see the spectacle, but the way the chicken was turned away from them in the raspberry bush they couldn't see the really gory bit. From their angle it mostly looked like a lying down chicken.
"Do you want to eat it?" Dan asked.
There was no part of me that wanted to eat it. I had to serve dinner and walk the dog. I had a sore throat and an earache. I didn't relish the idea of boiling two gallons of water, hanging the chicken upside down to bleed it, then plucking and gutting the thing. It's not like any of those actions come naturally to me. I'd have to spend all night in the kitchen with the laptop open next to me, flipping back and forth between tutorial photos, trying not to splash blood into my keyboard. I didn't want to do any of that. I wanted to go to bed. Plus I had just been to Whole Foods that morning and bought a whole prepared chicken for $10. The thought of what it would take to eat this chicken did not seem worth $10.
"I don't know, let's deal with this later," I said.
Dan was on his way out to the hardware store and Zion decided to go with him. Harvey played happily outside for a few minutes, but then a delayed reaction sadness came over him. First he sad down on the ground, then he didn't want to play, then he went into a full-on funk. I asked him what was wrong and he said very quietly in a baby voice, "I can't want the chicken died."
(For the record, he knows how to make a correct english sentence, he just talks in 2-year-old when things are emotionally hard for him to say.)
I told him I didn't want the chicken to die either, and it's okay to be sad. That didn't seem to help his catatonia. First he was unmovable from the patch of grass on our lawn, and I sad hugging him for a few minutes. Then I got cold I carried him inside. On the couch he broke down into full-on sobs. "I can't want the chicken died!" he repeated through tears.
I held him, I petted him, I tried to tell him many things that weren't helpful. I told him it's okay to be sad, I told him it's okay too when things die. I told him God watches over all the animals. I told him we could get more chickens in the spring.
He looked at me like I was full of crap.
Then we looked at pictures of baby chicks in the online store. That perked him up some. He said he wants more chickens exactly like the kind that died. Like the kind we have. Because that's his favorite kind.
Then he said something that reignited my belief that God is good, that He talks to kids, that He's realer to them than my bullshit explanations.
Harvey looked up at me with his eyes all watery and said, "Looking at these chicken pictures makes me think of that song on my iPad. 'Don't worry about anything, just pray about everything.' The chicken pictures remind me of 'don't worry.'"
"Do you want to pray about this now, Harvey?" I asked.
"Nooooooooo!" he sobbed.
Obviously I was paying attention to the wrong part of the lyric. I'm such a do-er.
When Dan got back from the hardware store we decided to have a funeral. We had to hurry because the window for dinner and dog walking was closing fast. Dan dug a big hole and cut a piece of burlap for a burial shroud. I cast about for a headstone, but it seems all the small stones on our property have already been stacked into walls. Zion stood on the porch yelling, "I want to draw on the stone!!!" because I stupidly offered that as an option before I went out to find one. Dan smartly offered up a large flat stone to lay on top and I said the kids could decorate it as part of the ceremony.
Harvey put on his hat and the boys headed outside with their markers.
What would be helpful ceremonially for a four-year-old who's never been to a funeral before? It would have to be solemn yet genuine and involve him in the process. It would have to encompass saying goodbye. I quickly scanned the shelf for a Book of Common Prayer but we've lent out our copy and anyway we were losing the light. As we walked to the gravesite I quickly thought about what is important to say at funerals. We say we loved the person. We say what their life was like. We say we give that person up to God.
Our funeral went something like this:
"Well everyone, we're here to morne the death of our dearly beloved chicken. She had a good life with us these two years. She was so cute when she came to us at just a day old. She grew into a good big chicken, laying lots of eggs. She had fun pecking in our yard and eating worms. She had fun being outside and pooping everywhere. She even had a fun time today up until the moment of her death. Lord God, we commend her spirit to you."
Then Dan filled in the hole and topped it with the large flat stone. We couldn't really write her name there since we've lost the ability to tell the chickens apart. Instead, the kids decorated the grave with sharpies in a rather free-form fashion.
Then we went inside for dinner. We didn't eat chicken. We had already eaten chicken for lunch.
But I think the funeral made all of us feel better.
I have a lot of feelings about this matter, though more about parenting than about livestock. I long ago came to terms with loss, at least with the inevitable loss of chickens. Commercial laying hens are culled at two years, after all, and ours had a much more comfortable life. But on how to help my kids process death I have conflicting emotions. I want them to experience as much sadness as they feel necessary, but I don't want Harvey to "perform" sadness in order to fulfill some societal demand for drama. I want to let them see life and death as awesome and powerful as they are. Yet I also know that life and death are common occurrences and I don't want to hide that from them either. I want to give them the world and not shield them from it, but I want to offer comfort as it comforts me. I want a very many things that are not completely possible from a 3-minute hen's funeral.