posts tagged with 'death'


Rascal died on Monday evening. He hasn't featured very much in this blog since he got upstaged by kids nine and a half years ago, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a huge part of our lives up until yesterday morning. It was really hard to say goodbye to him, and the pain keeps coming in waves. When we have someplace to go and he's not there to hear my instruction to "be good and guard the house"—something I've said at least a couple times a day, every day, for the last 12 years. When we come back and I have to catch myself before saying "where's our dog?". When I cut the crusts off of Lijah's toast and have to just put them in the compost. When I walk down the steps to the yard and see his grave.

We were lucky enough to be able to let him die at home—after a terrible experience six years ago he hasn't really done vet offices, and the last thing we wanted to do was make him spend his last moments in such a stressful environment. And we buried him in our yard right by the steps, under the rhododendron bush where he spent so many summer afternoons. The boys lit candles and Harvey offered memorials he'd written on wood.

Rascal's grave


It's strange losing him. He wasn't such an active participant in our life over the last year, especially since his first stroke—or whatever it was—affected his hips and really limited his mobility. But we counted on him to always be there, and he was: attentive and loving, or at least putting up with us asking him to move from his comfy spot on the couch. And I discover I thought about him a lot. Today I was vacuuming and thought to check where he was so I wouldn't disturb him. Then I almost cried. Our family did fun things today, and argued, and worked; we mourned all day Tuesday, from the moment it was clear that he wouldn't recover, but now life has returned pretty much to normal. Except slightly emptier. He was the best dog.

We miss you Rascal.


chicken funeral

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.

Harvey dressed for the funeral

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.

Zion's favorite part was decorating the rock

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.


a brief story about a bird followed by a dramatic account of lifesaving at Walden Pond

When I took out the trash this morning I noticed a bird sleeping on our front walk. Sleeping is not something birds typically do past 7am, there's a saying about it and all. When I stepped closer it looked like the bird was trying to nestle its head into its neck, then hop one step, then try to get comfy and nestle its head again.

"I think there's a bird dying at the bottom of our stairs," I said when I came in.

"Do you want me to do anything?" asked Dan.

"No, I just wanted to share."

The children came out on the porch to look at the bird. I told them they had to stay on the top step to give it some space, and they watched for a few minutes while the bird went through some death throughs. I said it's sometimes sad to see a bird die, but the bible says explicitly that not one bird will fall to the ground without God knowing. That means (I extrapolated for them) that God who created the bird is present with with the bird in its death. Then we prayed together asking God to take the bird to heaven.

After breakfast Harvey reflected a bit and came up with a rather mature statement:

"Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't like watching a bird die."

I'd hate to say that I try to expose my children to death; what an awful ambition. But when death presents itself naturally in the world around us, I like to engage my children truthfully. I hope to teach them that death is a part of life, that it needn't always be sad or tragic. In the case of the bird, it was sad to watch it die, but it was beautiful too and a sacred moment to witness. So when Harvey said he sometimes did and sometimes didn't like watching the bird die, I could understand where he was coming from.

My sanguine approach to death only applies to very small animals, though.

Because some shit went down at Walden pond this afternoon that was no discovery channel infotainment.

We had headed to Walden pond to cool off. We just set down our beach blanket when a near-tragic event unfolded down the beach from us. A large man came running out of the water holding a limp child over his head. "Help, Help!" he yelled in the most commanding way a 200lb man can yell for help. A lifeguard came running into the water and grabbed the child from his arms. Another met her on the beach and several more followed. We could not see the boy from where we were sitting, but we saw a male lifeguards start chest compressions. Several lifeguards shouted at the same time to call 911.

I saw them lift a little blue arm and I saw it fall back down.

At this moment death did not seem like a beautiful sacred mystery. While I rubbed sunscreen on the same place on Zion's arm over and over again, I was commanding all heaven to move in favor of this child. Breath come now in Jesus' name. Lungs work now in Jesus' name. Heart beat now in Jesus' name. On earth as it is in heaven.

What I did not see but what a friend sitting close by told me later was that the boy spit up some water and let out a cry. The news reports say that he was breathing and conscious by the time they put him in the ambulance, but when I saw a large man carry him into the truck he did not look that responsive from my angle. He looked absolutely blue and motionless, so much so that Dan and I exchanged worried looks. But then I heard a ranger say over the radio that he was breathing. The blueness could have been due to his extra-light skin color too; his hair was absolutely white.

Throughout the rescue the rest of us on the beach sat silently. We looked like seagulls in a storm, heads all pointed in the same direction. The professionals on the scene, lifeguards followed by EMTs, all performed their duties with expert speed and determination. There were no sobbing parents to heighten the drama. The boy was part of a camp group who had left for a hike around the lake, presumably without counting heads.

The good news is that the boy is okay, though it is a very bad day for some camp director. And probably for a mother who got a terrifying call at work.

I don't have anything profound to add, and it's probably insensitive of me to start my little bit of eye-witness reporting with that story of a dead bird. It's only that they happened in the same day, I feel compelled (perhaps wrongly) to draw some connection, that God can be totally present in both death and resurrection.

Though for each today I was only a lame bystander, now with less assurance of how to make it all "make sense" for my children.


Neil Chamberlain - a remembrance for 2013

I had a dream about Neil last night. (Is today the day we are supposed to remember?) I came upon him in an empty restaurant and I begged him, BEGGED him to see the last thing he had written. He nodded his head and gave me something, a manuscript or a video casette or something, but it slipped through my fingers. I wanted to see it so badly but suddenly it was gone, and I was searching through this vast abandoned Italian restaurant and he was gone too.

In my dreams he comes to me not like the neat religious fantasy I have concocted where a cartoon-faced Jesus takes the dead by the hand and leads them to a clean bright holding-pen in the sky. In my dreams Neil comes to me like the real life Jesus after his resurrection. Now appearing, now disappearing. You're always chasing him yet you see only the trace of him. Then you're talking to a stranger and as soon as you realize IT'S HIM! he is gone.

Perhaps the veil between heaven and earth is more wispy and strange than I have imagined. Likely God in his grace is more strange than I have allowed myself to believe. I would like to know the whole piece, to read the manuscript and see for sure, but it slips through my fingers.


big boys

Harvey and Zion have been packing in the milestones lately. Zion is working on walking, and he's also expanding his vocabulary: so far we have ball, duck, dog, book, bye-bye, and cracker, not to mention a variety of animal sounds and any number of things that, to us, sound like identical instances of "buh!". He's also expanding his capacity for—and displays of—frustration. So far we haven't shut him in a room by himself to work it out, but let's just say that the sooner his language develops to a point where he can express what he actually wants (assuming he can even figure that out) the better.

Harvey for his part is once again able to climb a full flight of stairs, a skill he lost way back when he started walking. It's a question not of ability but of courage, so it's exciting to see him build up a little confidence. In the same vein he's now sliding down the little slide at the playground and occasionally looking at strangers who address him in stores and whatnot (many do: his beauty is quite remarkable). He's even been a teeny bit willing to sit on the potty—without doing anything—and then pee through some underpants! That's progress, folks.

To change tacks completely, I can't write this post without thinking yet again of Lauren and her family. Elijah's death hit me pretty hard; even though I'd only been reading the blog for a couple months I was as shaken as I would have been if they were close friends. With any sudden death like that, especially of a child, you can't help thinking of other ways things could have played out: what little change two weeks or two months ago might have led to him still being alive today. Leah thinks about keeping people safe, and that was reflected in her post; me, I can't even imagine bad things happening so I'm just totally devastated when they do. But somehow life goes on regardless. I don't know.