The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

When Is When December 16, 2015

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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.)

vigilThumbs 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?

Hen in A BucketThis appeared to be a sign of vitality, but ultimately it was just a last blip of activity.

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.

IMG_2883Mother of Martha came out into the house for one last visit with me. This was quite a surprise, as she’d been too weak to move only hours earlier.

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.

IMG_2962At last she’s resting comfortably in the kitchen. We’re just waiting now.

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.

Soaring HenShe left us like an angel in flight.

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!

 

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.

 

Goose Gone February 3, 2014

This morning will be our first day in half of our time here at the Hillhouse without a resident goose. It’s already been a sad enough time for us, and this is adding to the emotional toll. But in spite of the tears I watched my son cry in the rear view mirror as we left Maximus at his new, beautiful home, I know that things will be ok. Maybe even better. At least that’s what we hope.

Because lately, things had gotten worse. Perhaps because of plain old cabin fever, or perhaps driven by an ancient imprint on his being that made him vent his unexpressed urge to procreate in other, more violent ways, or some other unknown issue, whatever reason was to blame, Max had killed four hens over the past week and had very nearly killed our one resident rooster. That last one was a bizarre and bloody incident, and I knew at that point we’d turned a corner. I did have the means to separate them – either keep the recuperating rooster on his own in the small brooding pen, or confine Maximus to the same small space, but neither was appealing, as it represented another chore to do each and every morning, each and every night. I need all my birds in one place, and I need ease of maintenance. And I will not tolerate violent behavior. If I were retired and had no job but to tend to my flock and home, it might be acceptable. But at this time in our lives, I can’t stop to settle disputes like this. Change was imperative.

Both Elihu and I forgive our beloved goose for his actions, because we know that he was simply acting as he was programmed to. He’s a goose, yes, and he has diligently guarded our property against strangers and unknown vehicles as well as an assortment of predators, but he’s had a softer side too. And since Elihu and I personally knew him in this quiet, tender way, it’s been a bit harder on us. Most folks have little sympathy for Max anymore. My mother especially, who for the past few months has used the most venomous tone when suggesting we get rid of him (or a bit more light-heartedly implied he might end up on a platter). Piano students must pull in close to the house, brooms are left leaning against trees to be picked up as tools of defense, people call ahead when they visit, and the UPS guy just drops the box by the garage and splits. Yeah, it had become a drag to have a guard goose. It wasn’t always thus; my theory is that when he was biologically speaking still a gosling, he was rather charming. He was never threatening, in fact he lived up to his breed’s reputation of being good with kids and people in general. But I believe things turned a corner last year when a certain spark lit within him and he became a young gander.

It first started one day as I was squatting down at the hose to fill a five gallon bucket. The container was white, about Max’s size, and I too, appeared close to the ground. Something in him clicked, and he began honking as he beat his great, six foot wings and ran down the hill from the coop to join me. But rather than stop short to watch as he had so many times before, this time he made a clumsy attempt to mount me, scooting me encouragingly beneath him with his long neck, clearly hoping I’d acquiesse in some cooperative sort of posture. In the moment I didn’t get it, and actually thought he might be attacking me, but he did not hurt me. He nibbled at me gently, but didn’t bite. He cupped his wings around me, but didn’t hit me with them. I was a bit flustered, so I stood up, and instantly he came to, as is he’d been overtaken by some strange force and was now embarrassed and self-conscious of himself. I stood back and watched as the mysterious behavior came over him once more, and he began a second, unsuccessful attempt to get busy with the bucket. First he tried to get on top of it. The bucket fell over and he seemed encouraged. He tried again, but was flustered at the way it rolled out from underneath him. Then he took another tack, and tried to enter the bucket, head first, but found there was no room, and clearly no satisfying end to this choice either. Poor Max. Poor, dear, sexually mature Maximus. He was being just as he was born to be, and there was no natural outlet to his deep, innate desires. Oh dear. I even wondered if I might surrender myself to him just once; crouch down again and give him some feeling of success as he did his best… Flashes of Swan Lake came to me – the strange morphing of a lover into a swan, the strange netherworld of a horrible manbeast – and I quickly dismissed the idea. No, this poor guy was on his own. And we knew if we’d gotten him a mate that it would likely throw off the relationship we two had with him. It’d be him and his gal against us. He’d defend her, and we’d be on the same end as the UPS guy.

After keeping the convalescing rooster in our kitchen for a week – and then our adjacent mudroom as the sour stink of chicken grew – I found I’d reached the end. The nightmare of the Studio’s new situation had just been discovered, and I suppose it was that which tipped the scales. I had too much to do, and if I might have justified a more labor-intensive solution to the bird problem before, I sure wasn’t about to now. I made up my mind that we had to find a new – and good – home for Max. I was resolute, and it was fixed in my heart. On Saturday a tiny voice told me that we should drop in on our neighbors (the ones with the old model T) and pay a visit. I had nothing in my mind about Max specifically, but of course he came up in conversation. They suggested a family in the hills that might very likely take him. I held no high hopes, but imagine my surprise when I dialed the number upon returning home that day, and before I could even offer my backstory, the gal on the other end simply said “I’ll take him”. I’d heard they were not only softies for animals, but that they were good to their animals. The two don’t always go together. I was beside myself with joy, and shared the earpiece of the phone with Elihu as she began to tell me about her pond, the fields, the way she had things set up…. Elihu covered his mouth to stop from squealing with joy. We made arrangements to come by with Maximus the following day. Wow. Ask and ye shall receive.

It’s one thing that we found Max a new home, it’s another that we have visiting rights, it’s still another that they’ll likely continue to call him by his name, but for me the crowning discovery in all of this is that Maximus now lives on a farm that I’ve admired since I was little. When I first got my driver’s license and was free to re-discover all those hidden-away places that my parents were always whizzing past, this was one of the places I came to. Many a time have I put on my flashers and pulled to the side of the road just to stop and gaze at this lovely farmstead. Nestled in the shelter of wooded hills, its open fields undulate up gently to meet the forest, there’s even a two acre pond behind the large farmhouse…. I cannot possibly imagine a more perfect home for our beloved fellow. He’s the only breed of his kind, he’s white and stands taller than them all, so we will easily be able to pick him out when we spot the flock dabbling in the low, swampy patches of the field.

When we dropped him off, the husband and wife owners took us on a short, circular walk around their outbuildings to see the other critters; pygmy goats, a strange, miniature donkey (named Brea – and man, what a sound she makes. Yeeks.) a sheep and some fine looking chickens. In the pasture across the way were a shaggy bull and cow, each with longhorns the likes of which I’d never seen but in images of far-off places. They too were miniature. Was there a horse? I seem to think there was… it was really a lot to take in for a first-time visitor. Above our heads a flock of some twenty or so pigeons wheeled in the sky… this place was heaven. As we walked, Max walked with us, tipping his head every so often to take in a new sight, stopping to listen to the whereabouts of the resident flock of geese. They were loud and rather raspy-sounding, and every now and then Maximus would himself honk, and we both noticed that his tone sounded so much richer and deeper. He was more beautiful than the others, we thought, and now we could hear that he was much more sonorous a goose, too. We were proud, and perhaps just a bit sadder still at having now compared our baby to these strangers. Eventually our visit came to a close, we got into the car and left Max, a bit confused, behind. He talked to us as we drove away, running beside the car as he’d done so very many times before, walking us to the gate where his new mama was waiting to let us out. That’s when Elihu started to cry. In this moment, this bird was still our Maxie, he was still engaging with us as he always had, he still knew us. We both knew in our hearts that the next time we came to see him, he very likely would not.

After Elihu’s tears finally stopped and he’d had a moment to just sit in silence and thought, he told me from the back seat on the drive home “Mommy, that’s the kind of farm I want when I grow up. That kind of farm.” I agreed with him quietly. There was nothing to say now. We knew we’d done the right thing. In fact, we knew we’d given Maximus a far better life in this new place than we were ever able to give him. We knew all of this. But still, the sadness in the car was heavy. Coming home was strange. For years we’d been greeted by that familiar head atop that long, graceful neck, the curious tilt of his head, the peering of that eye, the initial assessment; stranger or family? Family. Max would walk alongside the car, then meander off to do his thing. Shortly after we’d go inside, he might follow us up the back steps and just sit down outside the door, as if wanting simply to be near us. In warmer months, an open kitchen door almost always meant a goose in the kitchen before too long. But a house is no place for a goose. And we’re no substitute for a family of his own kind.

Last night, as we lay down to bed, we looked up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of Elihu’s bedroom and wondered how our beloved Max was, right now. We had learned that the geese there slept outside – rain, snow or shine, no matter. A far cry from the treatment he got here – heat lamp on cold nights, the kitchen on really cold ones. Would he be ok? Would there be a lot of fighting as he sorted it all out with the other ganders? We realized that Max had never even seen another goose until that day. He’d only ever lived with chickens or people. We guessed by now he knew he was a goose. We prayed that he was able to nestle in with the flock to share in the warmth. We prayed that he’d get enough sleep on this first night. It took Elihu himself over an hour to finally drop off. I too had some trouble sleeping, and somehow felt our homestead to be missing something on this first night. I took a last look at our coop, now goose-less, and sighed. Our lives were changing in so many ways, and I had to go with it. I reminded myself once again that while change is sad, there are new, joyful things yet to come into our lives. Change makes way for the new.

And we here at the Hillhouse are getting ourselves ready for a whole lot of new things to come…

January late 2014 020Our beloved ‘snow goose’, Maximus. He finds the sweet spots where he can graze, mid-winter.

(He is in actuality a “Lavender Ice” which is, as we understand, the newest registered breed in North America. The breed is supposed to be friendlier than other domestic geese, and good with kids and pets. Our experience tells us this is partly so, but in the end, he is still a goose. And geese are tough birds.)

January late 2014 050On his way back up the hill to the coop.

January late 2014 070In the coop with his very best bird-friend, male Guinea fowl, Austin (lowest rung to the right)

January late 2014 080Mama enjoys a final moment with Max.

January late 2014 082That lovely face.

January late 2014 120Elihu feeds Maximus his second favorite treat – he loves frozen peas best.

January late 2014 115Maximus waits around for more, even when Elihu’s gone back inside.

January late 2014 139

The kiss goodbye.

A very sad time for Elihu and me both. We hope Maximus goes on to enjoy the best life a goose could ever know.  That’ll make it a little easier to adjust to a goose-free life here at the Hillhouse.

 

One More Goodbye August 30, 2012

Filed under: An Ongoing Journal... — wingmother @ 12:57 am
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The husband of an old friend died last night. It had been years maybe since we’d talked in person, but she’d showed her love and support often on Facebook in response to my blog posts. I didn’t usually respond with much more than a thumbs up – a virtual nod of the head, an invisible wink of recognition across the vast space in between us. I knew she was going through a truly difficult time, and because of it I often felt guilty when I’d complain about my own situation in my posts. My life these days was so much easier than hers. She had a deep and frightening heartbreak looming on her horizon; her husband had been battling cancer for the past year. He was now in hospice. In spite of her upbeat demeanor, she knew what was coming next. I don’t know how they dealt with it – head on or voices hushed – but she was being stronger and more publicly stoic than I myself could have been. And in spite of all this, she was still witnessing the joy in the little things around her; only days ago she paid tribute to a spider web made in her bicycle wheel! Every time I’d see her name I’d say a small prayer for the family. I watched from afar. Nothing I could do. I couldn’t read what was going on inside; her mood seemed much the same as it had been the past year – hopeful, grateful, cautious. She’d done so much to cheer me through this nightmarish tour of divorce, I really felt I wanted to offer my friendship now. I didn’t want to email – I wanted to call. The old fashioned way. Her number was unlisted, so as I made my way through old boxes of date books and ancient to-do lists in my office, I was on the lookout for her number. I knew it was there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.

Until tonight. Better late than never. The number looked familiar, and I dailed it. I got a recording. It told me the number no longer existed. Damn it. That was it. Nothing more to do. I just can’t email her right now, that just seems lame. And anyway, I really have no idea what kind of a place she’s in. Does she want to talk? Or just stay with family? Or take a pill and sleep a deep, forgetting slumber? God, I don’t know. I’m going to let it be. And just send her and the girls my love. Her husband? I myself believe he’s just fine. In fact, I’m relieved for him. It’s just the ones left behind I hurt for. What a heartbreaking planet this is.

It doesn’t matter how damned prepared you are – how well you know it intellectually that your dear one is dying – when that moment actually comes, it has got to turn your world upside down. I once experienced the death of a good friend, and it was like the breath had been sucked out of me. I walked around like a zombie for months. And he was a friend – he was not a partner, a spouse. I don’t know how that feels. I can’t imagine.

I pray that the girls can all find sleep tonight. I pray that the love they shared as a family helps sustain them during the difficult months to come. And dear Dennis, I’m so glad you don’t hurt anymore. Wish I’d known you better, but what I did know of you was kind and loving. You’ve been loved by friends and family – and that includes, of course, all of your beloved animals. I’ll bet that right now there are a whole bunch of furry creatures who are really happy to see you again!

Enjoy your peace. Goodbye for now…

 

Joy, Loss and Choices April 23, 2012

Last night we visited Martha to report on Elihu’s first week of Waldorf. She herself was a supporter of his going there, and he was excited to sing “Simple Gifts” to her, as he’d learned it in his class and knew it to be her favorite song. I could now better explain why Martha’s farm had been named “A Place Just Right” from the lyrics of that song. As we turned into her driveway I slowed and pointed out the sign in front of the large farmhouse. He was pleased to now know from where it came. “What are those two clumps underneath the letters?” he asked. I told them they were clusters of grapes, they represented the vines that our friend Mike and Uncle Andrew had been planting in the fields there over the past few years (in anticipation of selling them to New York state winemakers.) We had a sweet visit, which ended with Elihu pooping out and laying on the floor, using hound dog Maisie’s tummy as a pillow. Uncle Andrew showed up to help Martha with her evening routine and after Elihu showed off his rubber band powered helicopter to my brother, we hugged Martha goodbye and set off for home.

It was a later night than we would have liked, as we tacked on a quick visit to my folks before going home and having a late supper. That’s the danger of a leisurely rising on the weekend; it’s a bit harder to get to back to a school night schedule. We were both glad that I’d cooked earlier, because dinner was quick and easy. Then it was off to bed, where we finished our book and then turned out the light.

This morning I awoke earlier than Elihu, and sleepily rose to attend to my chores. I thought since it had been a late night, I’d let him sleep a bit while I went to the cellar to feed and water the chicks. I guess I was too groggy to notice the absence of the now familiar and constant cheeping of the tiny guys, because the first thing I noticed that seemed different from usual was a glob of some unidentifiable substance on the concrete floor. Water? No. Pinkish, but gel-like. What was it? Then my heart stopped. No noise. Nothing. I knew before I even saw the three tiny mangled chicks on the floor what had happened. I’d opened the cellar door the afternoon before to let in some fresh air, but in our late night had forgotten to close it again. I’d remembered to close it every goddam day but yesterday. My heart sank to my toes. No matter how many times this happens, it’s always just heartbreaking.

I kept it to myself and tried to steer the morning away from chores. Usually Elihu would have run downstairs first thing to see his beloved chicks, but even he was moving a little slow this morning, so we had a mellow breakfast in the kitchen with the electric heater purring alongside us. I drove him to school where he ended up needing a quick session with the nebulizer in the school office (something his old school would never have allowed) before he went up to join his class. I returned home to clean up.

We’d had six baby chicks, but I could find only three. After I began to pay closer attention to the mess, I detected two other blood-stained sites where another pair had met their demise. At least that what it looked like – it was hard to tell for sure. I found three distinct pairs of feet, so I’m just guessing about the rest. One must have been carried off, for there was no evidence at all of the last chick. I tossed what was left of their bodies (the heads are almost always ripped off when they’re killed by wild animals) far into the woods to prevent my grown hens from snacking on the bodies. Why did this matter to me? I wondered to myself. Protein is protein. I was returning them to the woods for some other critter to eat anyway. Silly the rules we make for ourselves, crazy the ways we assign meanings to things.

Last few days Elihu has been watching some pretty horrible and graphic films on Youtube about factory chicken farming. Originally I’d wanted to discourage him – I myself certainly couldn’t watch along side him – but in the end he’d said to me quite seriously that he had to know about this. He wanted to know the truth. I’ve been bringing up the conversation about us making a solid effort to be vegetarians for a long time now – in fact I myself hardly eat meat anymore. I love it, but I make it for Elihu alone. He knows this, and lately he’s been wrestling with it. Facebook is full of ‘shares’ showing graphic images of the factory farming industry. It’s a discussion that is unavoidable in my immediate world. And my son is just beginning to think more deeply about this himself, and I’m glad to know it. We’ve also discussed the possibility of eating only the chickens that we ourselves raise. I point out to him that in most parts of the world, meat is not consumed as it is here; people eat far less of it as it’s not so cheap and abundant in other places as it is here. I tell him that part of the reason we’re used to eating so much meat here in America is because it’s affordable for us. Why? Precisely because of the brutal factory-raising of these creatures. It’s possible for us westerners to eat meat in large quantities specifically because of the inhumanity with which we raise these animals. Elihu is deeply conflicted. He loves meat. He really does. Must be something to the blood-type thing, I don’t know. But he seems to crave it. I love meat too, but can go weeks without it. Not Elihu. And so he is beginning to grapple with this. His thinking has essentially come to this: if we do not eat meat in a respectful and grateful way (offering prayers of thanks to the animal for her life before we eat) then we are simply letting the animal be consumed by less thoughtful, less thankful people. Essentially, she will have lived and died this horrible life in vain because there was no one to appreciate her life, no one to redeem this horrible event. I get it. And he means it. He’s not trying to create a weak justification for eating meat. I know what he means. But still.

Just now my work was interrupted by a sound I know well. I can often hear the chirping of my hens just outside the basement windows, but they’re never this loud. Besides, it’s raining out today, and even if they were just outside I wouldn’t hear them like this. I stop and listen. That’s a chirping sound – I know that sound! That’s not a grown chicken, that’s the sound of a chick! But now? After hours of silence? I’ve been in my office over an hour and have heard nothing. Could it possibly be?

In a word, yes. Somehow this little creature managed to escape the attack. It had had the sense to hide, to quiet itself, to wait until the danger had passed. And upon seeing me, it came directly towards me, peeping its hunger, its fear, its relief. How lucky this tiny bird was – is – for it is perched upon my shoulder, quiet now after some food and drink. I marvel at how this creature seems to understand that I will give it safety, that it needn’t fear me. Amazing. I don’t want to anthropomorphize this little chick – it’s obviously nothing personal that it has found comfort with me – but nonetheless there is something very touching, very moving about its show of trust. I feel a sense of connection with this creature.

Wouldn’t you know – I began to hear another cheeping sound. I searched in vain for a good half hour as I simply could not pinpoint the location of the second lost bird. Finally I asked a friend to come over and help me look. After more searching, and even giving consideration to making a hole in a wall to see if it hadn’t somehow become trapped inside, another chick suddenly emerged from behind the shelf on which my LPs were stored. Wow. Once the two chicks were reunited, all peeping ceased. So that’s some relief. Two little ones remain. Although Elihu has weathered this kind of loss before without even shedding a tear, I’d feared today’s loss might hit him harder. Something just told me there’d be tears of heartbreak today. There may yet be, but having these two survivors somehow softens the loss. And it has me even more conflicted about continuing to turn a blind eye to the horrors of treating animals as if they had no feelings. Chickens experience pain and fear. They also experience peace and comfort. This I know.

the first survivor emerges

The first survivor emerges…

The chick takes a rest…

and peeps to its lost sibling…

Finally, the two survivors are reunited.