Tuesday morning, I shuffled into the den, groggy-eyed like usual. Before I sit in the cheetah chairs with my husband to enjoy a pre-dawn coffee, he fills the wood boiler and I tend to all the animals, starting with the baby chicks. When I lifted the top off the brooder to refill the waterer, I noticed little bitty Hopalong, lying still. I breathed in a sharp breath and let out a sigh, whispering, “Little Hop…..,” I reached into the shavings and lifted her tiny, fuzzy-feathered body up.
She arrived from the hatchery with a bad leg. My dad was in town that day, and he and I must have been quite a sight trying to follow internet tutorials about just how on earth you craft a leg splint for a chick with a 1″ leg out of toothpicks and bandaids and self-stick, non-adhesive sports tape. As I was fumbling around with her teeny leg, I noticed she had only 4 toes. Normal for a chicken, not normal for a Silkie chicken like Hop. She was supposed to have 5. My heart sank a bit when I saw that.
Years ago we adopted a blind Bullmastiff, and when he was only a few months old we had to put him down because he had apparently more than blindness wrong with him. Percy Jones, our sweet dog, would have his legs give out on him, and sometimes he’d drag one along until he’d worn the claw down to bleeding. And one day he couldn’t lift himself out of his blanket at all. We drove him to the vet, and they came to help us lift his heavy puppy body out of my Yukon. I sat on the floor of the vet’s office and cried into his fur while we waited for him to die.
I knew Hop wasn’t just a little chick with a bad leg. She was a little chick with some genetic problems. I called the bird sanctuary, the local extension office and even the vet. We tried to set her leg. We put her in her own little box. But that Hopalong was all chicken when it came to wanting to stay with her “peeps.” She cheeped loudly and relentlessly from her little box until she was set back with the other girls (and Sherman).
Probably I should have put her down right away. But I decided to let her have a go at this life thing. She wasn’t suffering, that I could tell, so I felt like it was only right to see how she may fare. I gave her liquid vitamins and made sure she was eating and drinking. My little Sage held her still so she could have her vitamins from the baby dropper. And Hop was a sport about it all, tossing her tiny head back and swallowing down that stinky-smelling stuff every day.
She never really grew at all. And her “baby feathers” never gave way to new “big girl feathers” like the other chickens’. I told Sage every couple of days, “I’m noticing little Hop isn’t really growing, and that probably means she is not going to have a long life. She probably won’t make it to go outside, Sage.” Death is part of life, and I think it’s really important to talk about it with my kids when it’s appropriate. Especially in a farm setting, there is going to be death as a matter of course. But even outside the white-fenced farmyard, death will come and we have to wrestle with that as humans in a broken world.
So Tuesday morning, I carried the tiny chick out to the kitchen and wrapped her little body in a paper towel. And cried. Standing there in my pink bathrobe that has hay in the pockets (because sometimes I wear it right on outside to do my morning chores – please, no cameras), I sniffled and wiped tears that fell for a 7 week old chicken. I set little Hop in a box that some k-cups came in, and Selden and I had our coffee.
When Sage came downstairs I talked with her about Hopalong and let her hold her. Sage was very curious about her little lifeless body, and she patted her beak, opened and closed her eyelids and looked her all over. And she cried. Then she set Hopalong’s box on a stepping stool next to her chair and kept her company while she ate Fruit Loops.
“What will we do, Mom? Will we bury her?” Sage asked.
“The ground is frozen now, Sagie,” I replied, “so we’ll probably have to wrap her little body up and put her in our garbage pail.” (There’s really no delicate way to deliver such news, and I don’t believe in lying to kids about death. No, “Oh, Hopalong just disappeared in the night.” or “Hopalong is sleeping.” My parents did a lot of work with death and grief through pastoring and through Hospice, and it’s just how I roll.)
Sage wanted to bury her in the snow after preschool. So I told her we could do that.
When Sage returned from school, she carried Hopalong’s box, and I had straw and a shovel.
Before we left the yard, Sage wanted to take Hopalong to the chicken run, insisting the older chickens would want to pay their respects to Hop. They did not. What they did was assume that Sage came bearing snacks, and they promptly ran and pecked at the poor little dead chicken’s toes. Certain that Hop-dismemberment would be traumatic to me and Sage both, I ushered her quickly out the doorway and into the back paddock.
Sage and I walked quietly together out through the snow, beyond the white fence, into the wooded area that borders a creek. We found the tree closest to an old stump, so we could always remember. I shoveled away some snow and set some of the straw in the hole. Sage laid Hopalong’s body in the straw and began to put handfuls of snow over her. As I was tearing-up, Sage said, “OH! I want a picture so you can share it, ok, Mom?” She picked Hop up and brushed snow off her body with her pouffy pink mittens.
(I obliged her photos, which I will share at her request. Sage seemed to not know whether to smile or be serious. These are the obvious dilemmas of portraiture of this nature, I suppose.)
After the photos, Sage returned Hopalong to the straw grave, and we both put snow over her and sniffled. “I don’t want to leave her,” Sage said. “When nobody could hear me this morning, I prayed beside Hopalong. I asked God if he would please let chickens go to heaven.”
“Sage, God loves when you talk to him,” I gave her a squeeze. “He made you and loves you and made Hopalong and loves her, too, and he cares about how you feel and when you’re sad. It is sad to lose a pet. We can always remember little Hop. You did a really good job taking care of her. I’m so proud of you.” Sage had big tears in her eyes. “Let’s mark her spot here with something pretty, ok?” I suggested.
We walked a little farther and found some red berries growing on thorny branches. I carefully pulled up a few, and we stuck them up at the head of the miniature grave sight. Sage and I walked back to the house, her with the empty box and me with the shovel.