The day after Christmas we buried our beloved red hen, Thumbs Up. Elihu wasn’t here, but he was on the phone with me as I placed her in the ground. I put the phone on speaker and set it down as I shoveled the dirt upon her, my son sobbing along with me the whole time. Chickens may live well over a decade, yet this gal hadn’t quite made five years. Somehow we’d always thought she’d be here as Elihu grew up. With a personality more like a golden retriever than simple red hen, she animated our household in the most delightful way, and it’s hard to imagine how different the energy will be around here now that she’s gone. I’m almost surprised at how deep my grief is over this loss. My father died two years ago tonight, and while it should go without saying that I dearly miss him, this recent loss is just so fresh and acute that I cannot shake it. And with my son so very far away, my heart is breaking all the more.
These days I’m larger than I’ve been in years, and that too is nagging at my heart. Being unable to fit in my beautiful clothes, and becoming out of breath just going up a flight of stairs, all of this has me grieving for a time when I felt and looked my best. In the past I’ve managed to pull myself up and out of my funks, and I’ve shed as much as fifty-five pounds in one year, but I don’t know where the resolve will come from now, and I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever turn things around. My fingers are getting knobbier and ache with arthritis each day; this alone is a hard reality to accept. Every evening I take my relief in glasses of wine, the worrisome double-edged sword; it’s the much longed-for and soothing end to my day, yet it’s a source of countless useless calories that only add to my problem. I manage to pull myself through the days until that blessed evening hour when a sleeping pill will take me away from this waking world. And when the next morning arrives, I am once again overwhelmed and under-confident that I can do anything about it all.
When I hear about successful people who have jobs, money, families and such, becoming overwhelmed with depression, it’s hard to understand. Me, it seems that if you can pay your bills, then things couldn’t be all that bad. Right? But then I look objectively at myself; I have a lot going for me, so this current state of my spirit can’t really be justified. But still, I can’t help but wonder how differently I’d feel about life if only I had a little bit more money. If I had a job – and a paycheck. I know how glorious I feel each year when I get my tax return – the whole world opens up. Fuel oil, a haircut and color, new shoes for the kid, a barrel full of scratch grains for the flock, dinner in a restaurant – all sorts of things become possible, and with that possibility I feel a certain spiritual uplifting. It’s crazy, honestly, because none of this shit really changes my day-to-day reality, but somehow, having just a tad more than enough can feel so very, very good.
Recently I learned that Facebook had been charging me methodically over the past few months for many small commercial posts. Somehow (and I am not alone judging by the hundreds of comments just like mine, oh how I pray it comes to a class action suit one day!) I misunderstood a one-time ‘boost’ for a contracted series of boosts, thereby creating a slow but devastating hit to my PayPal account. Now this is the ‘slush’ fund I count on for Christmas and other treats. Imagine my surprise when I went to buy a couple of gifts for my son to find under the tree on his return, and there was nothing left. What the hell? Following the charges, I found the source of the problem. And I realized it was a case of ‘me versus the machine’. I would not win this fight, nor would I ever see that $300 again. Holy fuck. I was feeling shitty enough right now. Now this. Mom had made it plain that she was unable to help at this time – property taxes were approaching – so I knew I couldn’t go to her. I asked an old friend if he could loan me the sum – just til early January, as that’s when my students were returning – but after a few days there was no response. Feeling ill about having appealed to him for help, I’d been wishing I could take it back. But that wasn’t possible. What was posted was posted. Ugh.
Phooey. Thumbs Up is dead, I’m broke and fat, and my kid is a thousand miles away.
The up side is that my mother is still here, my neighbors are all wonderful and supportive, and I have friends who help buoy my spirits through the lifeline of the internet. My house is warm (bless this mild winter!!) and my son is has two goddam tubas and a myriad of instruments to keep him happy. We have six happy fish, three happy frogs and fifteen remaining fowl. I have a view of Vermont and a fucking grand piano. Ok, so my Wurlitzer needs a bunch of work, but hey. I have one.
Looking back over the years I see this same sort of lament over and over here on the blog. And it gets a little tiresome, I know. Sometimes it kinda feels like reading the journal of a middle school girl: ‘poor fat me, no one has it as bad as I do, no one understands me’ again and again. Things aren’t really so bad, I know it, but still… I haven’t figured out how to pilot this Studio thing, I haven’t approached anyone to join the board yet, and my office is a fucking nightmare of unfiled paper and undone to-do lists. Yes, the refrigerator is organized, the pantry tidy, and the floors are as clean as they’re going to get for now. My house is in order now, but my life is not. It’s up to me, I know it. Holding out hope that I’ll find the oomph inside me to get the Studio going, to lose twenty-five pounds, to get my teaching materials filed and organized. But from where I sit today, I can’t imagine how I’ll get any of this shit done.
Yesterday I was rocking my sweet Thumbs Up after she had died. I was holding her against my breast, her neck against mine… I looked out past the Christmas tree to the hills beyond and remembered the year before last; I had been rocking in that same chair, looking out over that same view, tears streaming down my cheeks as I anticipated the imminent death of my father. Here I was again, so sad, so sad. Still, this was part of life. Nothing so wrong with being sad, I thought to myself. Maybe the best thing one can do is just invite the sorrow in and push through it hard. Sad doesn’t last forever, after all. Nothing does. Which ultimately, I suppose, is a great gift.
On Christmas morning I rose in an uncharacteristic panic; in my gut I had felt something to be very wrong. I sat up in bed and felt fear wash through my body. Without second-guessing myself I ran to the coop. The backyard was eerily quiet… where was Bald Mountain? I opened the door – the coop was nearly empty. Had there been an attack? Had the automatic chicken door opened too early and allowed a predator to enter? Adrenaline flushed through me. There, on the top roosting bar, were two old gals. Usually there were three. Shit. Thumbs Up…. where was she? I panicked, opened the other door and searched the run. There, in the far corner, was my girl. Hunkered down, seeking solitude, I knew in an instant this was a bad sign. She’d been in and out of the kitchen clinic several times over the past month, and I knew things weren’t good with her. But I didn’t know they were this bad.
I rushed her inside and this time decided to demystify her ailment. I knew it was an impacted cloaca of sorts; she couldn’t pass normally, and this was dangerous. I risked cutting into her flesh and creating a possibility for infection, this I knew, but I had to do something. So I did. I removed strange-looking tissue and tried to relieve her as much as possible. I bathed her and dried her and returned her to a bed in the mud room. We’d lost a hen here just a few weeks ago – this was ominously familiar. I stayed with her for a while, talking to her and taking photos that I knew in my heart would be the very last ones…
I called mom, the one person on the planet besides my son who ultimately has my back at the end of it all – and told her what was going on. God bless my mom. Offering me guidance and advice – here she was at nearly 81, and here I was at the age of 52 – and my mom was still my mom. It almost felt physical, the relief upon hearing her consolation. I was touched by her care and concern for me. She was saying things that made me feel better… Even if I might have said those same things to myself, hearing it from my mother was different. Yes, we agreed, there was nothing left to do for Thumbs Up. I might as well go on with my day as planned. I would go to the nursing homes and visit those who had no visitors.
With a book of carols and a harness of old-fashioned jingle bells in my bag, I headed out. First I visited my old next door neighbor who was happy at my unexpected visit. Her daughter and son-in-law soon arrived, and it was nice to see her tiny apartment full of people and holiday spirit. Satisfied to know she would have company for the day, I took my leave and went to another retirement home nearby.
The second nursing home was empty save for one woman who sat alone in the lobby while Christmas music played quietly, almost as if mocking the cheerless atmosphere. A large tree and a multitude of poinsettias beside a gas fireplace tried to give the place a cozy, home-like feel, but they were too contrived to do the trick. There was no one at the reception desk, in fact the office and dining room were dark when I arrived. I walked up to the woman, sat on the couch beside her and began talking. We passed a half hour before we saw another resident walking past. The woman I’d been speaking with said her son was coming to get her, but she didn’t know when. I’d begun to wonder if these plans were real or imagined.
The woman who next joined us was tall and lean, with her shoulder-length silver hair in a striking blunt cut. She, it turned out, was from Holland. She recounted a long life; how she’d come here at the age of 23 knowing no one, how she ended up going back to school for chemistry, how she married and had children, settling in a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. She wondered at her old home, the one in which she and her husband had shared over fifty Christmases. “Ach” she said, waving a hand in the air, “It was sold years ago. Who knows where all my things have gone. All my chairs, the curtains, the paintings….” She seemed disgusted, heartbroken and resolved all at the same time. My heart ached again, but I didn’t let on. Here it was my job to be the giver-of-cheer and hope. I asked if I might see her room here, how she had decorated it, where was it that she now lived. Both she and the first woman enthusiastically offered to take me on a tour.
We passed the rec room, which I knew to have a piano, as I’d played it years ago for a program my friend had organized. I sat down and opened the book of carols. The room was half-darkened, and the carpet sucked up every sound. In the quiet I began to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to which the ladies began to sing. I moved gently into several more slow and beautiful melodies, after which I felt it best to conclude. Then we three moved down the long corridor to the first apartment. It belonged to the tall Dutch woman who had introduced herself as Nellie; I learned from the plaque on her door that her full name was Pietrenelle. Adorned with white ceramic windmills and wooden shoes, her room was much as I would have expected. We moved on to visit Phyllis’ room, after which we headed back to the lobby. Two more folks had arrived in anticipation of dinner, and soon the smells of food began to waft into the air. I was surprised to see a middle aged man accompanied by a bulldog come through the front doors. “Dan!” Phyllis said, her countenance lifting as she saw the two. “Are you Dan?” I said, looking at the man and then gesturing to the dog. “He should be Dan!” I laughed. “He is actually a she...” he responded. Dan had not a clue as to the reference I was making (Yale’s school mascot is a bulldog named Dan. My dad was a Yaley, and of course, my son shares a name with the school’s philanthropic benefactor, Elihu Yale.) “…and her name is Lucy”.
I assured the women that I would be back to visit again, and I could see happiness and relief on their faces. This, if only a small bit of hope in the world, was better than none. I had done something. Not much, but the last two hours had been very pleasant, and I hoped the effect would last a little while.
When I arrived home I saw a horrible sight: Thumbs Up had fallen from the bench and was now propped up, wings spread, on the laundry detergent bottle. She was breathing in and out very, very fast. I tried to move her, and her head wobbled. Then she erupted in a spasm of movement, writhing her way across the floor, faltering on wobbly legs. This reminded me of a nervous disorder, but until now it had only seemed a gastric affliction. None of this mattered now. I gathered her up and put her in a nest on the floor. I tried to share her experience, breathing in and out breath for breath. Shit. This was horrible to watch. I couldn’t touch her, it would have caused her more pain. Her eyes were half opened; she was trying to maintain. Mom was waiting for me; she’d gone all out and made a thirteen pound turkey and all the works of a Christmas dinner. I really did not want to leave my precious girl. My heart yearned to hold her as she died – but I knew it could be an hour yet. Showing my mother love by being with her for supper was ultimately more important. I left reluctantly, and before I closed the door I told my beautiful red hen goodbye and that I loved her.
When I returned two hours later Thumbs Up was dead, as I’d expected. But her death had been violent; she had gotten up and out of her bed and died a few paces away, her bowels evacuated on the floor. I imagined her last minutes, I knew they were painful. The only consolation now was that she was gone. I was surprised by my immense and immediate grief; I ran to her, held her close to my heart and wept as I hadn’t – in two years.
She died on Christmas, and I placed her underneath the tree that night. The next morning I held her for a long time before I dug the hole, called Elihu, and finished saying goodbye. Yesterday I made my errands, and today, while I’d planned to finally assess my overflowing office, I’ve done nothing but choose photos and write. As casual as this blog may appear, it takes hours to create a post – even longer when dealing with pictures. Uploading is tedious and time-consuming. In between I take little breaks to look at the tree, or out the window at my flock. Like prodding a fresh wound to see if it still hurts – I’ll rest my eyes on the little white marker under the flowering quince bush.
Everything has its time, everything has its season. We get fat, we get thin. We get sick, we get better. We lose our way, and then we find it. We all flourish, we all fade. And whatever goes up, no matter how we might wish it otherwise, will eventually come back down. What a path is this life! Bless us all as we make our way through this great, mysterious journey. A hearty thumbs up to us all, and also to that little red hen who gave us such delight along the way.
I opened the door, and as she has so many times before, she hopped up and walked inside. I know no one else would have been able to tell, but she had an unsettled look about her. She made strange sounds and stood a little too erect, plus her eyes had a distracted appearance. Call me crazy, but hey, she died only hours later. I try to honor the ‘God voice’ when it tells me something. It’s a mistake to ignore it.Specks, the only hen who we’ve had longer then Thumbs Up, watches as her sister comes inside.
I expected to see Thumbs Up gone when I got home, but it was shocking nonetheless. My heart positively broke. Strange that we’ve butchered and eaten so many of our own birds, but this, somehow, was entirely different.
Thank you, little red hen. Don’t tell the rest of the flock – but you were always our favorite.