Raising a small flock of chickens for the last three years has brought with it some unexpected moments. Like hearing my father describe his regular chore of slaughtering and preparing meat birds growing up in the 1950's in Grass Valley, California. Like getting super attached to a surprise bantam bird that went off the deep end and eventually committed dog-assisted suicide. Or like how pathetic chickens look when they molt. But the biggest surprise has been the gift of a nuanced relationship with death.
Seven chickens have died on my watch. The first one I killed (with help from my experienced father) because she was gravely ill. The second and third died on their own. The fourth and fifth died during a horrific skunk attack. The sixth was critically injured by a friend's dog and finished off by my friend and I. The seventh died on her own. That's quite a lot of death in three years, but each event has come and gone in my consciousness pretty quickly. Which, I've concluded is perfectly fine and, in fact, helpful.
I treat our chickens quite differently than I treat the other animal in our lives. I am very attached to Gus the dog. I talk to him about government shut-downs and marriage equality while he lays around and watches me work. I take him on long walks in the desert and sneak him food treats when no one is looking. I have five nicknames for Gus at the moment: Gush, Goose, Gustavus, Turkey and Goofball. I will be very sad indeed when Gus dies.
We give the chickens names, but the names are descriptive and mostly for organizational purposes. For example, we might call a white chicken Whitey and occasionally ask each other, "Has anyone seen Whitey?" Or, "bad news, gang -- Red's dead."
I can't really wrap my head around the concept of my wife or son dying, but I don't have too many concerns or abstractions about my own death. I've seen dead people here and there over the years -- a few open casket funerals, a drowned BASE jumper in the Snake river, a thief who crashed an airplane on Washington's Interstate 5. Those experiences and some thinking about my finite time on the planet have made it difficult to live in denial about death. I've found that keeping the thought of death nearby helps me appreciate what I have. Each moment in life is unique and fleeting. Realizing this keeps me focused on the here and now.
But death can be tricky to explain to a four-year-old. My biggest worry is giving him too much information and freaking him out. However, as with other aspects of parenting, I usually just tell it like it is and trust that he can handle it. He knows that everyone and everything living will die, including me, his mom, and himself. His stated preference is for all of us to die when we're old.
He has had a fair bit of direct experience with death thanks to our backyard chicken flock, and I'm banking on the fact that this will help him develop a healthy relationship with it. He carried our most recently departed chicken to our burial spot and commented on how her body was stiff and cold. He helped me dig the hole. He set her down in the hole and and watched as I filled it with dirt. And now he occasionally quizzes me on her current state. He's fascinated by skeletons and really wants to know when our chicken becomes one.
A lot of us go to great lengths to avoid the subject of mortality. It's not productive to dwell on death, but it's worse to deny it occurs. Within reason, having an ongoing relationship with death prepares you a little for the really bad deaths that will come (whether you've accepted it or not): like your parents, siblings, friends. Death is the ultimate motivator to live a full life without regrets. Our chickens (bless their little souls) remind us of this lesson, and for that I am grateful.