Lions and Lambs

Darkness had already fallen when I finally made my way out to close the chicken door on this cold March night.  I was almost startled by the nondescript, shadowy figure that mimicked my gait against the grain bin, until the motion sensitive light snapped on, taking me with it,  back to the reality that it was just my own image.  It could have been anyone, though, in the dark.  I could have been anyone.  

My first semester of college was going just fine.  I had a fabulous roommate who quickly figured out how to make me laugh until my stomach hurt, at things that noone else might even find funny.  I fell head over heels for the university city, which held such treasures as Cracker Jax, a vintage haven beyond worthy description; Record Revolution, where I found rare music and, later, my best job; the balcony in the old public library where I could spend hours buried in the musty air among the stacks of books; and the nondescript square stone wall, which, to me, held promise and mystery at the same time, and which was just the right place for people-watching, in a clandestine downtown alley.  

I went home for Thanksgiving break, which began abruptly after I sheepishly turned in my exam to my PolySci 100H teaching assistant named Tom, who, as the story goes, once had a Cheerio stuck to the inside of his glasses for an entire day.  

When the turkey, cranberry sauce, and all of the leftovers were gone, when my friends were on their own journeys back to their college towns, when darkness had fallen, I said my words of farewell to my family and began the short drive back to DeKalb.  Though I loved the freedom of living on my own, there was part of me, that day, that just wanted to go home. I wanted to turn around and run straight back into the arms of those who raised me.  I didn’t really want it to be over. Not yet.

Wish us back to the day when we wanted to be where we are now.  What, really, was behind our hurry?

I’m not sure where it came from.  It fell from somewhere as I was moving the March china girl and some other little things on the top of my dresser.  I had given it to a young teenager on the day of her baby brother’s memorial service. A simple silver chain bearing a tiny fairy who held a sprig of lavender: this was my attempt to bridge meaning to what had happened, and to show this young girl that as I had loved her baby brother, who had come unto this earth without a fighting chance, I, too, had loved her. When you spend hours of days that stretch into years as a helper to a family, if it ends, a part of you is still there. Years passed, though, and chance encounters told me that our time together was done. Meeting the eyes might be too painful.  Maybe they didn’t remember, or maybe they needed to forget.  And then there was the fairy; how did she get back to me?  Perhaps this was not the same charm?  Perhaps it was a message from the little boy that I had so loved so many years before?

I have never taken my children to the mountains, where they could shout from their souls and breathe freedom.  I want to take them to the seashore, where they can abandon their burdens along with their shoes, taste the salty waves, and let the sun turn their hearts warm.

Just when I have heard so much of the endless string of words, random facts woven through stream-of-consciousness chatter and reiterated movie scripts, there is silence. I look back at him, and his eyes are glassy. His pink lips are slightly open, as if the words had somehow been halted by an outside force.  He is turned to the window, but he seems to be somewhere else.  

“I want to go home.”

Sometimes, the thought of my own shadow is something to fear.  I long for one more story through the silence.
When it was over, when this moment’s tirade of impossible anger had passed, he lay over me in a puddle of grief.  For the first time, his fear for his own future was palatable.  He cried out for things that a nine-year-old should not have to hold.

My boy, if you have nothing, if you have nowhere to go, I will come for you.  I will find you, and I will bring you home.  I will take care of you.  You will never be alone.

After a while, we can’t really go home anymore.  We can’t go back to where we long to be, because it isn’t there anymore.  The scenes change: the street signs read differently, and the chairs around the table hold different memories.  Home is no longer a physical space, but something more.   I could have gone anywhere, and I could have been anyone. Still, I am going home.

The brightness of pink that lit the otherwise black grayness of the night sky was a beacon: the connection, the recognition, the fairy that materializes to remind me of a past encounter, the way I feel after a spirit-cleansing cry. We are not in this space forever.

Home is where we are on the inside, and, someday, when I take you there, we will find the air more crisp than that at the top of any mountain, and the sand will be as white as the heavens.

Happy:  Chickens as Teachers

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.