On a walk around the property that first Sunday in Lent, my 2 1/2 year old son and his grandpa discovered a roughed up hen near the ashy remnants of a burn pile. Evidently it had been drug from the property of our neighbors to the south by the dogs who belong to our neighbors to the north. Our property was no man’s land; the chicken was shuddering and gasping for life, if chickens can be said to gasp . My dad said his first thought was to put the chicken out of its misery, but thought better of it when Jacob showed a keen interest in the dying bird. The chicken’s hurt, he told Jacob. The chicken’s really hurt. We should let it die quietly.
When they returned from their walk around the pond, the chicken was still. “The chicken’s sleeping!” Jacob announced. No, my dad told him, no, the chicken isn’t sleeping. The chicken is dead. We should dig a hole and bury it. “Let’s get shovels!” Jacob cried. Jacob has not yet learned the more solemn occasions for digging; plunging spade to earth is always pure joy for him.
They dug the hole together, and placed the black-feathered hen in it, and replaced the soil. That’s the chicken’s new home, my dad explained. The chicken stays in the ground, Jacob. Sealing the crude grave with ashes, their work was finished. We should pray, my dad told Jacob, and they did. Thanking God for the chicken, thanking God that the chicken was in heaven, thanking God that he takes care of all of His creatures. Jacob was satisfied.
When we returned from town and heard this story, gratitude welled in me to think of my dad wisely improvising a toddler-appropriate lesson in death–and life after death (whatever you may think of animals and souls and heaven). Later that afternoon, Jacob led Joshua to the site to see what we had missed while I started making dinner. Within a few days I had nearly forgotten about the chicken, until Jacob and I walked toward the old burn pile and I realized there were an awful lot of feathers strewn about. He pointed out the grave, and we continued walking.
The following day, we received news that a woman from our church had died suddenly–but peacefully–at home. But we just saw her!, I wanted to cry. Are you sure? She’s sleeping! And of course these are not the things one says when faced with such news. On Sunday, I watched our small, elderly congregation surround Bob with compassionate hugs. “It hasn’t hit yet,” he said again and again. He took his seat in his usual spot in the second row. He and Margaret were married for sixty years.
How will we explain Margaret’s death to Jacob when he notices she is not at church? She has a new home. How will I explain Margaret’s passing to myself?
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death…
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death though shalt die.
(John Donne, Holy Sonnet #10)