Darkness and Light

My mom sent a photo. It’s hard even to think of my parents as senior citizens, though I am nearly one myself. The image shows participants in a charity race on a bright day, and front and center are my dad and my mom, both reflecting the sun, smiling and looking well…astoundingly so. They are eighty.

I do worry about my aging parents, far away from me. For them, I hold the thought that theirs will be a long, fulfilling sunset to their lives, already well-lived. Their richest blessings are one another, and of that they are keenly aware.

My older children are forging paths into their own trees, mountains, and skies. Their fleeting journeys here with me have evolved to include other pursuits, and I am here, hoping that they know what they stand for, and how deeply they are loved.

Those still at home are my reasons to be here, too, right now, when the days, arduous as often they are, turn quickly to years.

Aaron is sick. From his earliest days, he was the one to get pneumonia when the others had a sniffle. Still, at nearly ten, he seems to be hit hardest by these seasonal bugs. A sore throat, fever, and chills (“shimmers”, as he calls them) kept him (and me) from the last game of his fall baseball season, where his team played for the championship. I can hear him now, breathing erratically and talking about dragons, as he has fallen into a restless sleep.

I worry that I will not be enough for all of these people to whom I have been entrusted as messenger. On the days where I fall short of keeping up, where even the thought of tearing down the mountain of legos or moving the discarded socks and sweatshirts to the laundry basket overwhelms me, it is then that I try to remind myself that it’s just a day, one day, and that I will have a chance again tomorrow.

I worry that we will die before we are done living, but I suppose that most people do.

It seemed a grand idea, to offer newborn chicks to my broody hen, in order to satisfy her mothering instincts and free her from months of occupying an empty nest. It shouldn’t matter that the nighttime temperatures were near freezing. Chicken Bernadette would keep her new babies safe and warm. We wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with the risk of having more roosters. These were rare breed female chicks, shipped to the local post office directly from my favorite hatchery.

Aaron had a break in his fever when the call came; within half an hour, we were in the coop, opening the box and introducing the babies to their new family. Maybe it was just a little reminiscent of the days when I would hurry to the DCFS office to be entrusted with a tiny someone, for whatever reason, for however long.

One of the babies did not look well. She was cold and barely responsive. We put her in the nest along with the other babies, and we hoped for the best through the darkness.

It was a wakeful night. When I opened the coop at sunrise, Bernadette was still perched proudly on the nest. Two hours later, three of the babies were dead.

Aaron’s fever would break and rise, more rhythmic than his breathing. Every chance I had, I checked the coop. The last little chick’s peep sounds reassured me that all was not lost; mother hen Bernadette was tending to her baby.

At dusk, when I went to close the doors and to see that all of the chickens were tucked in for the night, I came upon the baby chick, who lay motionless outside the coop entrance. Bernadette was roosting with some of the other birds. Did she leave her baby out in the cold to die? Did I?

There’s heartbreak in chicken keeping.

There’s heartbreak in parenting.

There’s heartbreak in living.

It’s okay. It’s okay, even when it’s not, because when it’s not, we are probably not thinking of it.

As parents, we try. Sometimes we aren’t enough. Sometimes we can’t be.

I don’t know if I will sleep any better tonight. Aaron is restless, and his fever seems relentless. He is so hot and so cold at the same time. Soon, though, it will be spring again, and he will lace his cleats before heading to the field. There will be new baby chicks at the farm: rare breeds, from the hatchery, but also, perhaps, a feisty young rooster that hatched from a broody hen, if that’s what was meant to be.

My big kids will have new plans.

My parents will see more sunrises and sunsets, together.

I will know that the day holds, maybe not the best or easiest lesson, but the right lesson, for me, for this day.

True Story: A Crack in the Egg

The sun was just beginning to set as I finally made my way out into the evening, leaving the confining walls of the hospital, alone, as I had done more times than I might like to recall. Hoping, beckoning, begging, crying out that this will be the end, the catharsis, the transcendence, the awakening…the time where the past is swallowed into the promise of the future. Nothing about this sunset was remarkable or beautiful; maybe they are never much to behold from this part of the city. I, though, have seen the other side. I know the glistening orange and candy pink, the fairy tale mystique that shows itself when I need it most and that assures me there is something beyond.

Fried Chicken had been sitting on her eggs for 21 days. I know I annoy her when I lift her wing several times each day to check the eggs in her nest, but this day was different. She pecked my hand hard in a protective gesture for the tiny blackish brown downy chick that she kept warm beneath her. There was new life, and Fried is a good mama.

Chicken keeping presents a good bit of anxiety; there is much to learn. If I can step back, though, and watch nature’s mysteries without trying to carry them, the chickens…and the children…will teach me what I need to know.

Another chick, this one black with a splash of yellow atop its head, emerged from a sandy brown egg at some point in the wee hours of day 22. Later that day, both baby chicks had made their way out of the coop and were learning, under Fried’s constant surveillance, to drink from the waterer and to forage for food.

If something is not fully mine, only entrusted to me for a tiny space of time, is it up to me to intervene, to try to make it whole, or is it best to carry the hope, knowing that there is a much bigger breath behind this, a breath stronger even than the fiercest wind?

The sun was warm; it seemed the arduous hold of winter’s aftermath had finally given in to the renewal of spring. This, I thought, would be a good day to prune my elderberry bushes.

I didn’t think Fried Chicken would go back to her nest, as she was busy keeping track of two lively, miniature chicks. If she were to leave the babies alone, they would be easy prey for barn cats or turkey vultures. I wondered about the five eggs that had been left behind. When I checked the box, I noticed a crack in one of the green eggs. This was at once fantastically magical and utterly terrifying. I could not just leave the egg to perish.

I took the advice of my chicken keeping friend, and I put the egg in my shirt.

The bushes were not nearly finished when I heard the peeping. My first thought was that one of the babies had somehow gotten separated from Fried. Then, I remembered the egg. It had opened further, and there was blood. The peeping had stopped, and my heart sunk.

What would I do with this egg, which surely had been alive, working it’s way to this world, just a short time ago.

The tears were for what I had done, for what I couldn’t fix, for loving so hard to be distracted from what is before me, and for the lost souls, chickens and children, for which the world seems to hold no mercy.

I didn’t know what to do, so I set the cracked egg in a nest of pine shavings under a heat table that is used to keep baby chicks warm in the brooder. I knew it couldn’t survive. I decided to wait until morning, though, just in case…of something.

Before my little son, my best chicken helper, left for school the next morning, he visited our baby chicks. He also checked on “the egg.” I never know if he is telling a straight story when he gets the sideways sparkle in his eye.

“It’s bigger. The crack is bigger. And it’s moving.”

And it was. All night long, that little chicken had struggled, working its way out of the compromised egg.

I met my friend at the park. I told her about the chicken, and we traded difficult stories about our children. I felt better having been with her, and I returned home to find a grayish black bundle staggering on the pine shavings.

I had been close to giving up, to burying her. Then, Hope was born.

I don’t know how long this is going to take. I am not going to be the one to say it’s over, to say it’s good enough.

I put the four remaining nest eggs in the makeshift brooder along with our Hope, because truly, this is not up to us.

My children struggle, but my chickens show me the way. They stop along the way to peck at some grass or to chase after a worm, so the path is anything but predictable.

At the end of the day, I took Hope to the outside coop, “returning her home”, as so often happens in our world of fostering. I did my part, and now I hope, for Hope, and for all the others, with feathered wings or angel wings.

The next morning, my chicken helper again came to announce that a new chicken was laying in the nest, out of his egg. This time, I believed him right away.

The sun warmed my soul early this afternoon as I cut away overgrown lavender wood. The mint was just beginning to green up, and its aroma was stirring. I heard a chorus of tiny peeps and looked up to see Fried with her original babies along with Hope, who she had taken under wing without a second thought.

I hoped I had done my part, but I know it was just another step along the way.