Though I much prefer a simple afternoon in the garden to one spent at the Magic Kingdom, I still believe that a trip to Disney World is a sort of childhood rite of passage. Having frequented the park with my family as a young vacationer, I have fond memories of drinking Orange Bird slushies and chasing down characters with an autograph book alongside (and in the safety of) my sister and my girl cousins; all of us were wearing pigtails and were dressed in matching striped polyester short suits.
Two days wasn’t long enough. I had read and prepared all these months; I even had my homemade isolation brooder ready to meet the needs of sick chickens. When it happened, though, no number of books or trips to Farm and Fleet could have been enough to teach me about the sadness in that moment of time. Of course it could…it would happen. All the sources warned us: death is just part of the nature of chicken keeping.
We must have been in our early teen years. I’m not sure my sister Karen, two years older than me, was excited about family vacations anymore. Karen was instinctively masterful at everything she did. She was fearless, admirable, and a true path-blazer. There we were in Fantasy Land with the rest of humanity in a confetti-like swirl of mouse ears, ice cream, and caramel corn, with the tinny sound of “It’s a Small World” rising above the crowd.
It could have been anyone, and it wasn’t her fault. On the crowded plaza, Karen somehow collided with a knee-high toddler, accidentally knocking the child to the ground. I still remember the glares…the gasps…the scorn of onlooking adults who viewed my sister, in that moment, as someone devoid of compassion. I saw a vulnerable side of Karen, my hero, as her fairy green eyes widened and brimmed with tears. I wanted to help her, to absorb some of the pain that she certainly must have been feeling. I didn’t know how.
On the second day, Happy died. She was the baby’s chick, and he wouldn’t understand anyway. Maybe that would make it easier on everyone. I thought it would be a good idea to burn her remains in the barrel outside. I was hoping to avoid stirring up further trauma in case a wild something would dig up Happy’s remains. If we burned her, I reasoned, her ashes could be part of the soil of the farm.
“I want to hold her. Please,” insisted Aaron who, at six, looked barely bigger than the small chick that was wrapped in a soft cloth diaper, a gentle reminder of the sweetness of very early childhood at our home. His tears streamed without barriers, from a place of grief that I had mistakenly thought might not matter as much because it was his baby brother’s chicken, not his, that had died.
“Can we bury her in the ground?” Somehow, children know what they need. We wrote a little note for Happy and tucked it, along with her swaddled little body, in an empty granola bar box. Dan dug a hole deep in the ground between two evergreens, and we marked her grave with a wooden block.
I took Aaron with me to the grocery store that evening. He seemed uncharacteristically pensive, and then he announced that he missed his other mom. Aaron, my Safe Haven baby who had been called only “Boy” when he arrived at my door, was missing his birth mom. Though he had never visited or even seen her, the longing was real. The loss of a tiny pet chicken had stirred this primal wound. I could acknowledge this, and I could tell him what I knew, but there is much left unsaid and unanswered, for all of us.
The day the chickens came, I had a visit from Bernadette, my high school friend whom I have known for 35 years. The brightness of her soul and the gift of her friendship even through the distance in physical presence has been a source of comfort for me across college years, early motherhood, and the trials of our mutual transitions from our nests. We had spoken of our losses and lessons as we shared bagels and cookies and introduced each two-day-old chicken to the brooder. In your shared experiences, you become part of that person, and they become part of you.
I received a message from my daughter’s birth mother today. She thanked me for being a good mother to her daughter. This is a gift that I never expected to receive. This love, these burdens, these unexpected life lessons are powerful, more so than I could have imagined. Holding the grief, the hurt, and the confusion of another, acknowledging it just so they know you are there, must be enough when it’s all we have: the connection, the common ground, the acknowledgement, can make softer what we don’t really understand. When I don’t know why, surely it is helpful to have someone to sit by my side. That must be much bigger than any words.
When I returned to the Magic Kingdom with my own family, the Orange Bird was gone. Strappingly romantic heroes courting sparkly, flowy-haired princesses with waists the size of pennies had all but replaced Daisy Duck and Thumper. The magic wasn’t the same as when I was a little girl, when I rode Space Mountain for the first time with my brave sister. It was still magic, though, for my little ones, because this is all they knew. I miss that Orange Bird.
And though we miss Happy, we are grateful for the powerful gifts she gave and the lessons she taught during her brief time with us. We are learning that we can’t always be with those that we love, but that we can feel more deeply through our experiences. Maybe we truly don’t know what we miss until the realization comes in the form of our emotions, seeping through the tears of vulnerability to a greater understanding of ourselves.
Our chicken keeping adventures are already much more than pictures in a book. The reflections into ourselves offered by another, the power of true companionship, and the acceptance of the things about which we have no control will be lessons as valuable, and even more, than the experience of gathering that highly anticipated first fresh egg. And that’s magic.