The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Sad for Madeline June 11, 2014

Ok, so we’ve had probably a hundred birds by now, most of whom have had names, most of whom have daily provided us with a generous supply of fresh eggs, and most of whom have ended up on the stove in a big pot surrounded by carrots and onions. So we know what it is to experience loss. Knowing that it’s coming makes it easier, and bonding less with the gal or guy who’s destined for the freezer makes it easier still. And conversely, knowing those certain, endearing qualities peculiar to one chicken alone, and having both named and loved that particular animal perhaps just a a bit more than all the others, well, that is another story. That makes it hard to see em go. Really hard.

We both just kinda thought our eldest and most beautiful hen Madeline would live out a long and happy life here with us. We knew that one day she’d die, yes, of course we did. But we always thought it would be us to find her, years hence, one morning, lying lifeless in a corner of the coop on a bed of hay. Having evaded a good dozen or more animal attacks and weathered hundreds upon hundreds of cold, wintry nights (some five years of em), we just always thought that our dearest Madeline would be the last to leave, and the least likely to succumb to disaster.

The funny thing is, she probably met her maker just about as I was insisting to our friends last night that yes, when it got dark our chickens were honestly in great peril – and especially these days, as we’d both seen for ourselves the enormous resident raccoon trying his skill at the seal on the feed bins. We had to get home, it was dark, and it was becoming more urgent that we get going. We knew we were pushing it. But we’d pushed it before – I guess just not so recently, and certainly not since our new neighbor moved in. Elihu and I have tortured ourselves with a million ‘if onlys’ over the past twelve hours. And until a couple of hours ago, we continued to hold out hope that we’d see her once again, just coming around the corner as usual, as if nothing at all had happened.

Sometimes that does happen. And in fact, it happened this morning. Last night, when we got home, we discovered two hens missing – Madeline and Azalea. We’re not terribly attached to Azalea; she’s a rather run-of-the-mill red sex link (her coloration linked to her gender), and she isn’t from the original bloodline here. And this morning, when I went out in hopes of experiencing one of those rare moments when one girl finally returns from an overnight hiding spot, sure enough, Azalea came around from the far side of the garage, sputtering and making out of the ordinary sounds, approaching the flock with caution. Azalea came, but not Madeline. My heart sank and I felt shame for my instant disappointment. Where was my savvy survivor Madeline? Why was Azalea coming back and not our treasured Madeline?

Now our surviving  flock is rather mundane looking. Only two remain that are related to the first matriarch, Molly. All the gals we currently have are red, black or white. (We cannot forget or overlook our common-looking but delightful favorite Thumbs Up). Ah, but our Madeline – she distinguished herself from the very start as a unique bird. From the eye makeup she wore to the beautiful spangled pattern on her rust-red feathers to the tiny, compact rose comb atop her head – all that plus an aloof, queen-like quality, modest and dignified but yet practical and street-smart too. Sometimes the entire flock would be scattered far and wide in the aftermath of an attack, some bloody, some missing feathers – some just plain missing – and yet there Madeline would be, perched on the very highest rung, safe, quiet, keeping her cool in the eye of the storm. We had such faith that it would always be thus. That it no longer is – it’s simply too much for us to understand. It brings to mind all sorts of existential questions, from whether or not we should even be eating meat to how this afterlife thing might work for animals to lessons we might learn from our loss. We want to memorialize our eldest hen by learning something important from this heartbreak. But what?

Elihu doesn’t cry often, and it took him an hour or so to process what had happened. Finally, he sobs. Me too. Even our flock seems to feel the loss in some way as they all huddle as closely together as possible on the lawn chairs. We both know that the raccoon was just doing his job, that he too needs to eat. That all things happen as they should. That Madeline is at peace. Yeah, we know all this, and we go round and round trying to convince ourselves that it’s all ok. Finally Elihu pounds the bed with his fists and screams. “Damn that raccoon! I do want him dead! I do!” He tells me that he wants to eat the animal. That it’s symbolic. And important. “Look it up, please” he begs me. And I do. I find a video of a fellow cleaning and cooking – and eating – a raccoon. And why not? If it’s a healthy, wild animal, why not? Certainly I can understand Elihu’s need for vindication – and perhaps even connection with his treasured hen. After all, we’ve always believed that an animal should not die in vain. We’ve always felt that eating an animal was in some way honoring it. And since the raccoon ate the chicken, well, I guess Elihu feels he’s showing her his respect. And until this raccoon is on his plate – and in his tummy – I don’t believe my son will feel the matter closed.

“You could just cut off his tail and save that“, my mother suggests, hoping her grandson might accept the gesture instead of the culinary adventure. “Yes, ok” Elihu agrees, “…and then I’ll eat him”. This is a kid who had me fry up crickets and grasshoppers for him last summer and went on to ponder the benefits of a planet that might choose bug protein over large animals… There’s no changing his mind. Now exactly how we achieve this act of revenge I’m still not quite sure. I do begin to hatch a plan: a humane trap and a visit to the local farmer who does in his own hooved animals. This guy hunts too. He likes Elihu and might even get a kick out of helping him out with his project. I don’t know. It’s just so much, so soon. I’m up for the adventure that Madeline has set before us, but still, it doesn’t make this day any less sad. Elihu might just be searching for a way to ease the heartbreak, and for all I know he may cool to the idea in a day or two.

You know the way some things are just such a part of your everyday life that you never bother to record them? You don’t take photographs of that smiling fellow at the dry cleaners who’s been a part of your life for years now, you don’t snap pics of the same places you pass every day on your commute that help to make it the familiar part of your life that it is… There are so many things one just takes for granted. For heaven’s sake I kept dozens upon dozens of journals as a girl, and while I was studying piano with the most interesting and iconic woman for much of my youth, I didn’t so much as even mention her in passing in any one of those journals! How is that possible? All I wrote about was being young and misunderstood. Ich. And while I snap my share of pics – hundreds, in fact – I find that as I go thru my archives, I have very few of Madeline. I guess I just always thought she’d be around. Just yesterday Elihu and I admired her as she nestled down into the ground for a comfy dust bath. I’d thought briefly to get the camera, but then decided not to, as I’d have all summer to get a picture of her doing her thing…

Dear Madeline,

Thank you for being such an important part of our homestead. Beautiful, demure and smart from the start, you’ve fed us and charmed us and kept us happy for years, and for this we thank you and promise to keep you in our hearts forever. At last, no more endless, cold winters or traumatizing animal attacks for you! Hope wherever you are now, you have a flock to keep you company, delicious bugs to keep you fed and cozy dust bowls in which to relax. We love you so and miss you like crazy. The Hillhouse will never be the same as when you ruled the roost.

Love, Elizabeth & Elihu

P.S. This is a really crappy way to begin summer vacation. Sigh.

Garden August 2013 058Our Madeline.

Garden August 2013 061She may have seemed cool and indifferent at times, but she always did the right thing. Here she’s taking a turn on the coop’s clutch of eggs. You can see her pretty spangled feathers. She has a black ring around her eyes too, perhaps not easy to see here, but trust me, she was a looker.  If it can be said of a chicken, she had a great sense of self; she was a no-nonsense hen. Were she a human, she wouldn’t be getting as sentimental over all of this as we are. Oh, dearest girl, we shall miss you for a very long time.

 

Dream Tears May 10, 2013

Guess I’m still workin it out. Every now and again I’ll wake up in the night, racked with sobbing. It’s the physicality of it that wakes me, and I always stop and spend a few minutes trying to piece together the events of the dream that led up to it. In the ‘beginning’, that is to say within the first few months of my ex’s news, I’d find myself waking in tears several times a week. In the years that followed, it only happened every other month or so. This past year it’s happened only a handful of times, so even in my groggy state I was rather surprised at it. Even more surprised to remember the situation surrounding it. Last night was a brand new theme; usually it was me begging him not to go, or being surprised once again at his news, but this time it was quite the opposite; I had just told Fareed I couldn’t marry him. Everything was in place for our ‘second’ marriage; somehow he’d left the anonymous other woman he’d been with, somehow things were all set to begin again. His uncle had even come to my house to discuss some plans… But I couldn’t. I remember it being the hardest decision I had ever made. In some ways I could think of no greater relief than to be reunited with this person with whom I’d shared so many years of my life. His company was agreeable, he was an intelligent person, we shared a common knowledge of things musical; there were a lot of reasons to make him the simple, easy answer for a life partner. But something in me knew, and finally I had the balls to face it. And in the eleventh hour, I informed him, his parents (and his uncle), that I was not going forward with the plans. This dream was long and involved, and as I lay there trying to calm my breathing, reconstructing the events of the dream, I surprised myself at the number of details I was able to recall. Fascinating. I had been the one to end things this time, not him. Guess deep down I needed to reclaim the power I must have felt I lost in being the partner ‘left’. The right decision, but a tough one, and it still involved enough conflict to break my heart once again.

A friend suggested on my recent birthday that I look back over my old posts so that I might fully appreciate where I am today. Sometimes – most times, I think – distance from life events is required to formulate perspective on what’s happened. Understanding and insight cannot be rushed, they are organic and need to grow and evolve before their ultimate lesson can be recognized. My friend’s idea was a good and fitting one for such a landmark birthday, and it reminded me of an experience I had back in the beginning of this blog regarding perspective… I recall writing the very first post here, entitled “Snowflakes”, and in it saying something about knowing that things had happened as they were supposed to; that my situation had actually served me well in some ways. Immediately upon writing it, it occurred to me that although I was certain it was true, it didn’t feel true yet. I wondered if I might edit it out – because honestly, my heart hadn’t caught up to the platitude. But some two and a half years later, I finally feel it. Makes me wonder how my current experiences will resonate with the me two years down the line. Funny how some things can’t be rushed. They just need to happen on their own timeline, no matter how much you wish things would hurry up and resolve themselves.

Some five years later, it comforts me to learn that my sleeping self is still tending to its healing. Woulda thought that was all history, a done deal by now. But apparently not. Guess that’s what dreams and tears are for.

 

Heartsick November 3, 2012

The girls had hardly slowed their pace to say a final goodbye, so Elihu had run after them as they walked down the sidewalk from school. He put his arms around Cora til she finally hugged him back. Then he’d hugged Sophia before returning to me. There was nothing else to be done. This was their last day at school and now they were going home. Next week they wouldn’t be coming back to school at all because they were moving. I looked down in time to see the corners of Elihu’s mouth turn down in the most acute expression of distress… and I realized he was crying. Sobbing, in fact. An instant, electric sort of sensation shot through me at the sight of it – my son’s heart was breaking for the first time. Tears came to my eyes too; my heart was breaking to know it.

I put my arm around him as we walked. Most times he might have pulled away; he was getting to an age where he found my overt affection embarrassing. But now he leaned into me heavily, weeping quietly. How my own heart hurt at this parting; his grief was equally mine. There was nothing to say. There was simply no point in trying to console him with words, so I just held him tight. After we were in the car I drove a block farther down the street so that we might pass the twins, and he rolled down the window. Usually he’d shout out something in their own private language, but all he could say this time in between sobs was an earnest and final goodbye. Cora stopped walking for a moment and looked up; her smile fell away when she saw him. She raised an arm to wave once more, then turned to catch up with her sister. We let them cross in front of our car, and they were gone.

I didn’t say anything as we drove. Instead I waited for the moments in which I could offer him the most relief. I let him cry, watching his face in the rear view mirror (something which can feel a bit like spying when you’re with a low-vision child as they cannot see you back). This was real, and it was intense. And it wasn’t merely a case of a first heartbreak; the girls had been the first – and only – kids at the new school to get him, or to at least take a real interest in being with him. The three spent nearly all their free time together. “What will it be like without them?” he asked through more tears. “There’s nobody – nobody like them. There’s nobody to replace them”. There was a long space of quiet and sniffling before he spoke again. He was beginning to test out some survival thinking; “Who will be with me now?” he asked, “Who will I have to do things with? Will I be alone again?” As I watched him in the mirror I could see his crying lessen, and I could see him beginning to consider his new future without the twins. His mourning was by no means over, but my spirit brightened to think he might be working to put some hidden, positive spin on the situation.

I too thought about it all – I myself felt there was very little chance he’d find the same magical chemistry elsewhere as he did with the girls – and that it was probably best that we made peace with that. No use over-lamenting the obvious loss. Elihu needed to move gently forward to new relationships that were yet ahead. I was careful not to broach the territory of our family philosophy that “all things happen as they should” too soon in his grieving – because offered at the wrong time it would seem nothing but a stupid, posturing platitude. It might even make him angry. So I held off for a bit, but it wasn’t long before a window appeared where I could successfully present the idea. “And you know,” I added to the reasoning” – this might be the beginning of a whole new chapter between all of us – we might end up learning about a whole new thing through them. They’re just an hour and a half drive away, we can visit them easily! We can camp near them, go mountain climbing…” Now Elihu and I are not particularly outdoorsy types. We love being outside, and with our chickens, we also enjoy an occasional walk through the woods, but we own neither a tent nor a sleeping bag and have never found ourselves inspired to acquire either one. But this might be the universal energy pulling us toward a path we’d otherwise never have considered, right? Perhaps we’ll go up to visit the girls, and in so doing we’ll meet a whole bunch of interesting folks doing interesting things and maybe we’ll end up doing things we’ve never done before… Who knows? I go on for a bit, if not quite believing it, then wanting very much to believe it; I need to sell a happy ending to Elihu. There could be an unexpected and wonderful outcome here, there could be…Yet there is a very small voice within me (in the old days my husband and I would call it my “reality meter”) that tells me this is rubbish, and that if we ever really do go and visit the girls, we’re getting a motel room and making a weekend of it and there’s an end to it. No romance, no destiny, no universe “opening up surprising new opportunities”, certainly no ridiculous camping adventures.

We ride silent for a while. Lots to digest. Not much action to be taken for now, so all we can do is sit quietly as we drive out into the hills on our way back home. I’ve put off getting the mail for a few days (Halloween week the household chores pile up as we rally to get the costume perfect and then stop everything to go on several holiday-related outings) and so I come back from the mail box with a big load. When we pull in the long, leafy driveway we’re greeted by our honking goose Maximus, his head raised as he ascertains whether we are family or visitor. The chickens peck through the fallen leaves, enthusiastically kicking up wet debris behind them, ever searching for tasty bites beneath the litter. They have broken off into several smaller groups, and to watch them walk alongside the car gives us both a lift. There’s no way you can watch chickens doing their thing and not be cheered in some way. It’s one of the joys of having them around. And so our hearts are softened, if not simply distracted, and we hurt a little less. We haven’t arrived at any new strategy, nor fully convinced ourselves that this time there is a cosmic silver lining. But we’re home, it feels good to be here.

As I sit in the car, going through the pile of mail in my lap, I notice a shape in front of me several feet off the ground. I look closer; there is something in the apple tree. I leave the mail on my seat and go to investigate. Elihu, who had never climbed this tree in the four years he’d lived here was now halfway up it, and had ended up on a branch Sophia’d been on just last week. I smiled with pride, he laughed in joy. “So the girls taught ya some tricks after all, huh?” I asked. I could hear his confidence waning just a bit as he asked me how to get down, and I told him that Sophia had jumped from just where he was standing. “Ah – but that’s what the girls would do. Maybe you should -” but before I could suggest he take the careful route back down, he’d jumped from the branch and was standing in the wet grass laughing with satisfaction. Before he’d known the girls he’d never been on a scooter or climbed up a tree. They didn’t coddle him, but they also didn’t leave him in their dust as they easily could have done. They stayed around, just long enough for him to lose his fear. They supported him just by being there. Did they even realize this? I’m not sure they did. Secretly, my mother’s heart sends them a deep message of gratitude across the ether. Thank you so very much, Cora and Sophia, for being such good friends to my son. I will always appreciate it.

They’re off on their own new adventures, and thanks to them, I think my son may be a bit more emboldened to strike off on some new ones of his own. And that seems like a good start to help heal a sick heart.