Creative Writing / Repeat after me: death. And other essays. / The Latest

#2 Lessons from a dying bird


We had chickens when I grew up. Lots of them, actually. We mainly kept them for eggs, but there was a time when we also went to local fairs and shows trying our luck at the title of Best Bantam Rooster In Show. We had all kinds of breeds: leghorns, silkies, Plymouth rocks, araucanas, and Rhode Island reds. I loved our chickens the only way a nine-year-old knows how, with an affection greater than the stars and the moon. My Father often reminded me that our chickens were not pets in the traditional sense. They had eggs to lay after all, and I had to be careful not to distract them from their daily task. So I decided the best thing to do was read to the chickens. Together we could share our love of literature and scrambled eggs.

I am not sure that I can say this with much certainty, but I think the chickens preferred adventure novels best. I remember reading them passages from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Jungle Book, and Charlotte’s Web. The adventure novels, I thought, helped the chickens relax. With each word I could see their feathers flatten, their walk become a little slower, and their clucks morph into a strange purr. The chickens and I were adventurers at heart. The only limitation to our adventures was our own backyard, since we were all trapped in my parent’s backyard in the suburbs. In hindsight, I think the chickens were more acutely aware of this fact than myself. Despite our limitations, we did what any band of chickens and humans could do: we lived vicariously through Mowgli and Charlotte.

Every year or so, our hens would become mothers. I had to wait around twenty days until the babies started to hatch and leading up to their birth, I checked the eggs regularly with a tormented excitement. One year the chickens hatched when I was at school and I was devastated. I wanted to be there for the little chicks, and welcome them to our little corner of the world. Ask them if they cared for literary works of Tolkien.

One year, a batch of our newborn chickens hatched on a Sunday afternoon in late spring. My Father called for me from our backyard and I ran through the house occasionally stopping to fumble with my shoelaces before making it to the chicken coop. My Father was on his haunches by the nest of eggs. He watched the eggs patiently. I crouched down next to my Father and mimicked his stoic expression with little success. The eggs had just started to move and very few of them had any cracks. From the moment a chicken decides to enter the world, it fights for its life. Akin to digging out of a grave, a baby chicken must use its tiny beak to peck through a hard shell before it is free. It must use every muscle in its body to wrestle crack and break open its prison. When a baby chicken decides to be born, it decides to fight. It’s a noble quality that I have loved and respected about chickens my entire life. They are not always the smartest, most elegant animals to walk the earth. But they are fighters.

My Father had a policy with hatching baby chickens. If the chicken cannot fight its way out, the chicken cannot be helped. This harsh rule had never been enforced in my presence because there had never been the need to. Our chickens came from tough breeds. That was until this late afternoon in spring. There were two eggs remaining. One had not cracked at all and my Father informed me that the chicken had probably not formed. The other egg had a few small cracks and I could hear faint cheeping noises coming from inside. I told my Father that we had to help the chicken. It was very Fern-saving-the-runt-of-the-litter of me to demand this of my Father, and to my happiness and surprise he replied with, “I guess this chicken has chosen you as its champion.”

I then proceeded, with the help of my Father, to carefully break away the remaining shell that surrounded the baby chicken. After many painstaking minutes the chicken was free. I held it in the palm of my hand and told it not to worry: I was its champion. I was blinded by love for the chick. Its small moist feathers slowly began to fluff. Its sweet chirping, still faint, filled me with a pride and happiness I had previously not known. This chick and I, we were going to go places. While I was cooing to the small chicken, my Father noticed something different. The bird was small. Too small. Its wings were deformed and its beak was so crooked that the top did not align with the bottom. Its feathers were sparse and it was almost featherless atop its head. One eye was half open and it seemed to be incapable of opening further. One foot was webbed and the other foot seemed to be missing a toe or two. It took shallow breaths and looked up at the sky with its half opened eye, as if to say, “I tried…”

My Father reluctantly helped me create a nest for my chicken. I used an old milk crate as the foundation. I lined it with ripped up newspaper and put in a small bowl of water, a small bowl of food, and a tiny pillow stolen from my dollhouse. The chicken, who I had named Clancy by this stage, was all set. I was convinced it would live in my room with me forever. We were going places, this chick and I. But Clancy couldn’t walk very well. Stumbling around the milk crate, Clancy could barely move a few centimetres before falling over. I picked him up and placed him near the water dish: it’s important for newborn chickens to drink. Although, he couldn’t lift his head to take a drink for himself. I put a droplet of water on my finger and held it up to his beak, but he didn’t move his beak to take a sip. Clancy looked tired, so I decided to let him rest.

When I came back, Clancy was on the ground of his milk crate, unmoving. I called to my parents and they came rushing in. My Father took one look at the chicken and proclaimed it was gone. But gone was not good enough for me. I could see the bird. It was right there before my eyes. I picked it up in my hands to show him that the bird was the opposite of gone. If I could hold it, it was still there. My parents tried to console me by elaborating: Clancy’s body was still there, but Clancy’s spirit was not. I had never dealt with the notion that one could be removed from one’s body.

“Did this happen to Nan?” I asked.

My Grandmother died when I was six years old. It’s not something I really remember. In fact, the memories I have of her funeral are rather selfish ones. I fought my Mother for hours because I did not want to wear a pink and black polka dot dress. And there was a lot of Celine Dion music. My Grandmother simply went away, and I never saw her again. I did not have to see her in corporeal form without her spirit.

I’ve never been an easy kid to explain things to. I always need full explanations, even when there weren’t full explanations to give. There was no way that some excuse like, “his spirit was gone” was going to fly with me. So my Father sat me on my bed and tried to explain. My Father did not explain to me that a Christian God was looking after the chicken. Or that the chicken would be reincarnated. Or that the chicken was simply dead. He frankly told me, he wasn’t sure what happened when a body no longer had a spirit and if we even had spirits anyway. And whilst some people might consider his rather honest, but indecisive, explanation not ideal parenting, I look back on that moment and see bravery and respect. Bravery, because my Father admitted to me that he could not tell me all the secrets of the universe, and respect, because he thought I was worthy of knowing his truth.

Clancy was the first time that I had to deal with death in a very real way. I saw a body go from being a living subject to a decomposing object. Gone is a term that is often used to describe death. It feels painless that way. As though someone is just popping out for some milk and bread. What is different about ‘gone’ in the sense of death and dying is that gone represents something different to our normal understanding of the verb. When someone is ‘gone’ their body and the things around them take on a different meaning. This meaning is a distortion, a transformation of the original one. Think of a small bunch of flowers left by a traffic light. It is still a traffic light, and yet there is something different about the space: the flowers are an indicator that someone is gone and in their place is a relic of loss.

When my Father died, he died at home. It was something that he had always asked for because he hated hospitals—they were too sterile, too clinical. He wanted to be with family and friends. He did not want to die alone. When it became too difficult for him to walk around, we had a hospital bed delivered to the house. The bed was set up in my old room, which is where he eventually died. After his death, the room was simultaneously filled with childhood memories and the loss of my Father. I could not divorce the two very different experiences of that space, my bedroom. When my Father died, I was sitting next to him. Once that final breath left his body, he took on the double meaning of Father, and corpse. And I could not help but think back to Clancy in that moment. How could my Father be gone when I could see him, when he was still in the room?

After all this time, I am still unsure of the answers to life and death. There is only one thing that I find comforting, and one thing that I feel I know for certain. When we die, we return to the earth. Our energy, our bodies are not lost. Instead, they are transformed into something new. When I return to my hometown, I cannot help but wonder if my Father is in the leaves of the trees, or in the call of magpie. My Father is not gone, but transformed.

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