Our sick hen holds back from the flock and stands still in the sun to keep warm.
Our urge, as humans, is to help other living creatures survive. (For the sake of expanding on this idea, for the moment let’s forget that we humans have also created entire industries and careers out of actively killing fellow humans and creatures as well…). Although most of us will probably squash any spiders found ‘trespassing’ inside our house, there remains a part of the population that will search out a cup and piece of paper, and safely transport the innocent to the great outdoors. That is a population to which I belong. (My own fine line is drawn at mosquitoes, however I have been known to offer apologies and ask forgiveness before smacking the little devils into the next plane of existence.)
Recently, we had a chronically not-well hen take a downward turn. For months I’d seen the way she hunkered down on the floor of the coop at night instead of joining her mates up on the roosting bars. This alone told me something was amiss. But aside from keeping good coop hygiene and feeding them a robust diet, there was little else I could do without stepping into a whole circus of tests and expensive dietary supplements. I wasn’t going to give the whole flock antibiotics, as that would have rendered all the eggs unsafe for eating (and cost us our modest egg-selling business). Naw… Aside from saying a little prayer for her each night as I closed up, and telling her softly that I loved her and was on her side, there was little to do but wait and see how things would turn out.
About a month ago I’d had her in my kitchen, along with our treasured Thumbs Up and another new white hen. The young leghorn had a chronically prolapsed cloaca; the last bit of muscle of her digestive (and laying) tract kept coming out. I would oil up my hand and massage it gently back in, but within hours her body would begin to push and squeeze it out again – against her own will, poor girl – and I could see the look of distress in her eyes as a plum size piece of her insides (which was bright red and quite challenging for me to look at) would emerge, unable to retract back inside the poor hen. After two days of physically manipulating her back into shape only to find her elongated and pushing uncontrollably, we knew there would be no lasting fix for this gal. So our neighbor Zac helped us out by chopping off her head in one deft blow, ending her misery and pain. (We call this method “Zaxupuncture”. Sometimes the most humane of all.)
Thumbs Up kept the vigil with her ill flockmate for a long time. I was also amazed to see our nervous, perpetually-moving guinea fowl, Austin, walk up to the sick hen and stand there by her side, virtually motionless for a good ten minutes. Animals just seem to feel when things are changing in the creatures around them.
Recently, the chronically not-well gall, whom we call “Mother of Martha” had begun to hang around the kitchen door, almost as if suggesting she might like to come in for a respite. Thankfully, the true, biting cold of winter hasn’t arrived yet, so our flock is still in relative comfort. But this is a gesture that shouldn’t be ignored; it can be a sign that something in the bird’s constitution is amiss. And so I took her inside. But instead of perking up after a few days of r&r, she flagged even further. Home-made concoctions didn’t even do the trick this time. Believe me, I waffled inside. Was I prolonging her discomfort? Was I making her out to be more important (read: anthropomorphizing her) than she really was in the grand scheme of our small farm? Did she warrant – more to the point – did she herself even want more assistance?
Just a few days earlier she had been ticking her way across the wooden floor to observe a piano lesson one minute, head deep in the birdseed bin the next. Seemed she was doing pretty well. But the following day, she hunkered down in her corner and took on the look of an animal waiting for its time to go. And so at this time I chose not to fight it; the tiny ‘God voice’ inside me told me to just leave things be. Instead of intervening, I turned the heat up in the mudroom and made sure she was comfy with water that was very easy to get to. What else could I do now? It was really up to her. It truly felt as if she was finally at death’s door. So, having done all I could, I retired to the downstairs office to get some work done. A couple of hours later I had gone upstairs fully expecting to see her on the floor and gone from this world, but to my great surprise, instead, I found her bed empty. Keep in mind that she had been pretty well snuggled in there, and she’d been hard-pressed to move at all the last time I’d seen her; it woulda taken good bit of oomph to get up and out of her nest and onto the floor. But somehow, up and out she had gotten herself. I was so moved at seeing her silhouette in the hallway, standing there alone, waiting for someone to watch, to follow or sit beside… She was seeking some final companionship, I think. One can never know of course, but it sure felt like it.
She stayed with me in the living room as I taught a piano lesson. But before we wrapped, I looked up to see that she had left us. Later, I found her close by the heaters in the mudroom. Now I got it. Yup, now it was probably time. I made one final effort to feed her; I slid the eye dropper full of probiotics along the length of her beak, hoping she’d take it on her own. She did. She swallowed dutifully, and uncharacteristically, without protest. Her eyes remained closed the whole time. But this time, something was very different. She clamped her beak tightly shut as I attempted to feed her the remainder of the dose. I tried a bit to pry them open, and if I’d put some more muscle into it, I might have. But somehow, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. So instead I gently wiped her chin clean, hoping to restore whatever appearance might be necessary to maintain her avian dignity, and then let her be.
After a few hours she was unchanged, eyes closed, breathing in and out. I tested her strength, seeing if she could stand, but she collapsed under her weight. No point forcing things. Rather than leaving her to sit in her mess and all alone in the mudroom, I made a brand new and clean bed for her and placed it in between the two radiators by the kitchen table. There was privacy enough, yet she was still within our sight. I turned up the heat to make sure she was comfortable. And then we waited.
A friend dropped by and he joined us for supper. We were a noisy bunch; laughing, talking and continuing to live life as usual. When our guest left, quiet finally returned to the kitchen. I sat beside the hen for a while. I didn’t stroke her; that would have been more for me than for her, and by now I felt strongly that she needed to be left alone. So instead, I talked to her in a low tone, and assured her that she was loved, and that she’d been a good hen. I thanked her for all the eggs and told her what a good job she’d done, and then I turned out the light and said goodnight.
That night I’d had a feeling she’d leave us, and as I’d expected – and at this point had hoped for – I found her dead in the early morning light. I’ve come upon several dead hens in my day, and none has ever succumbed in such a graceful pose as she. I took the one breast feather that had fallen from her as a keepsake, then put her body to rest in the screen porch until I found a moment (albeit several days later) to bury her.
She now rests with the other favorites; King George, the button quail who lived with us cage-free and nightly uttered his plaintiff wail for a mate as he scurried along the baseboards of the house (imagine that at the same time we also had a cat – and the two of them were absolutely oblivious to each other), and there was Molly, our very first hen, white with a necklace of black dots, as well as a few songbirds who’d crashed into windows. Our three-legged gecko was also buried in this small plot by the flowering quince; this little girl had had a cancerous rear limb amputated shortly after we’d moved here (the vet took pity on our heavy emotional load at the time and did the surgery for free). Our little pullet Martha rested there too, and now her mother had come to join her.
I’ve been present at the end of a few friend’s lives – as well as a few pet’s – and from those experiences have come to recognize the ways in which living beings behave as they near the end. My father’s passage was my most intimate experience with the death process. I remember wanting desperately to know exactly when it would happen. What to look for, what signs might immediately precede the moment of death, so I would somehow be readier for his leaving us… I remember hounding the hospice nurses for more information as they cared for my father, and as his life’s end grew obviously closer. As Martha approached her death this past summer I felt more familiar with the process, and although hers was also a welcome end to a full life, it was nonetheless a deeply strange and sad time. But sad as it may have been, I was relieved to actually recognize some of the signs and events in her progress towards death, and it made me better able to handle it all.
But that’s clearly not how everyone feels about things; my mom just couldn’t seem to adjust to the reality that Dad was on his way, and for a long while she seemed to think that somehow, somehow, things might still turn around for him. Signs that were obvious to me were easily ignored by her. Funny what comes to mind – but I remember how Dad had come to a point where he could not drink on his own; a time when he needed a straw. I remember suggesting this to my mother, but she strongly resisted the idea. Inside I’d gotten very angry inside about this – couldn’t she see what was happening? He was dying already! He was thirsty! He needed to drink, and he needed our help! What on earth was she waiting for? “Someday when” was here; ‘when’ was now! Until the very last few days I don’t think she wanted to believe it. But even she had to acquiesce, and realize that ‘when‘ had finally arrived.
Every day I pass the spot where a nineteen year old boy was recently hit by a car, shortly after which he died. It’s very much on my mind these days, as there is no avoiding the roadside memorial. Also, the boy’s middle name was Elihu, and so the tragedy has fixed itself even more personally in my thoughts. I think of his mother every day too, and naturally think then of my own child, and how his life gives so much meaning to mine. I take not a moment with him for granted. Also, the older I get, the more deeply I understand how very important it is to live fully, courageously and compassionately in the moments still remaining. Those flowers at the side of the road will not allow me to forget this.
The other day at breakfast Elihu asked why grownups were always so worried about the past and the future. Why, he wanted to know, were we always worried about ‘when things were going to happen, or what things were like back when‘? “Forget the future!” he said, almost angrily as he swept a hand in the air. “Forget the past! Now is all there is! Now is when!” He apologized for sounding annoyed. I told him he was right, and that I heard him. I agreed with him that we can’t always make plans for ‘when’, but as humans, it was what made us feel safer in the world. Then I thanked him for expressing himself. I told him he really was right. I sat in our little kitchen and looked in wonder at this insightful, loving person whom I’d been so lucky to have beside me in my life, and I breathed in, grateful. Yes, Elihu was right. The most important when of all – was now.
Post Script: A heartfelt thanks to those who contributed towards our campaign to expand our media storage here on WordPress… We were able to purchase a package that will likely support us for another couple of years. Thanks to you we can continue to post new photographs without saying goodbye to the old ones! Yay!