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Amory Rowe Salem | Longreads | January 9, 2024 | 2,909 words (10 minutes)
Chances are Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sick long before the rest of us discovered her illness. When we did, the news hit us like a boxer’s mitt to the heart. Not just because her tiny frame seemed so completely incapable of carrying the weight of a serious diagnosis, but also because of the unfairness of it all. The injustice.
Ruth was small but feisty, often taking on adversaries of twice her heft. She was our David in an arena of Goliaths. Though she wasn’t spoiling for fights, she was skilled at ending them, rarely failing to punctuate her victories with a small show of rhetorical force. Ruth was unrelenting, vigilant, and inquisitive. We loved her for all of those traits. And because she laid blue eggs.
Only two of our chickens—Ruth and her flockmate Michelle Obama—laid blue eggs. The rest of our feathered badass lady gang—Simone Biles, Megan Rapinoe, Scarlett Johansson, Kamala Harris, and Aliphine Tuliamuk—all laid brown eggs, which were lovely and appreciated. But finding a blue egg in the nesting box surfaced memories of unearthing that rare piece of blue sea glass on the windswept winter beaches of my childhood. It felt like a treasure.
So when the tide of blue eggs ebbed, a sure sign of chicken illness, my children and I loaded Ruth and Michelle into the family van and drove them 45 minutes out of the city to the Tufts Hospital for Small Animals in Grafton, Massachusetts, the only place within 50 miles that will provide care to a chicken.
We were not veteran chicken keepers. We’d stumbled upon the delight of raising chickens entirely by accident when we traded a 50 lb. bag of flour and a jar of sourdough starter for a bucket of day-old chicks. It was the sort of barter people were making in the early days of the pandemic, when the unthinkable and the absurd upstaged the logical and the predictable.
We had no prior experience with poultry; we didn’t have a coop or a brooder lamp or the faintest idea of how to raise a palmful of down into an egg-laying hen. We needed to learn. Not just for the sake of the birds, but for our own sakes: we craved a learning curve. The world was going two-dimensional on us—all screens and games and apps—but those tiny feathered bodies, each one housing a beating heart the size of an infant’s thumbnail, demanded our attention. We became dedicated keepers of those hearts; and the flock, in turn, shocked our family’s flatlining system, giving us back the gift of emotional amplitude that had been compressed by our escalating attention to the glossy artifice of the staged and surface-level.
The coop was its own classroom. Our early chicken lessons were learned on the fly as we tried to stay a half-step ahead of our growing flock, keeping them fed, clean, warm, and safe. In that way, my children were initiated in parenting: balancing birthday parties and playdates with regular feedings and weekly “house cleanings,” summoning an uncommon vigilance over their brood.
Over time, we extracted bespoke wisdom from our gallinaceous charges. My son, whose outsized capacity for empathy was at odds with his narrow 10 years of experience, divined that a chicken was a fair barometer for human character. “If you can’t figure out how to hold a chicken right, you’re not a very kind person,” he’d concluded. He wasn’t wrong. You hold a chicken much the same way you hold an infant, with your forearm tucked under the length of its body so it feels supported. If you’re in the business of vetting people, there are worse metrics. At least one would-be boyfriend of his oldest half-sister has been summarily dismissed based on failing the chicken-cradling exam.
My daughter, an introvert with a preternatural instinct for hibernation, admired the chickens’ unerring sense of home. For weeks after we moved their coop from the muddy corner of the yard to slightly higher ground, the birds would return to the site of their original coop at sundown, standing with their prehistoric feet sunk in the muck as if their house was just about to materialize around them. What adolescent girl hasn’t stood, Dorothy-like in the Oz of the schoolyard, silently intoning: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home”?
For my part, I watched with recognition as our rasorial creatures bent their heads to the ground and brought the full force of their attention to a single square inch of grass. They were excellent excavators of the granular, masters of the microscopic, capable of quarrying the tiniest insects and grubs. But they paid a price for their ground-level monomania, sometimes missing a juicy worm just a few feet away—or a predator overhead—because they simply weren’t seeing the bigger picture. As a mother, a teacher, a citizen, I also knew the opportunity cost of becoming mired in the details. It behooves all of us, every now and then, to turn our faces to the sun lest we lose sight of the magnitude of the stage on which we are playing.
Our first year of chicken-keeping had been full of tiny wonders and short on heartache. But as we rounded the bend into year two, with a flock of a dozen, the poultry actuarial tables were turning and the parade of covetable “firsts”—first flight feathers, first dust bath, first eggs—changed tenor. We had our first sick chicken.
In Grafton, the fourth-year veterinary student gave us a diagnosis for Ruth within 15 minutes of our arrival.
“It’s the first thing we check in backyard chickens,” she told me over the phone from deep inside the hospital, while the kids and I waited in the parking lot.
Ruth was suffering from lead poisoning. Michelle, too—and likely the entire flock. But Ruth was presenting as the most ill because she was our smallest chicken and our best forager. I learned then that what is true for so many of us is also true for chickens: we are often drawn to what is not good for us. Even to what can kill us. The vet explained that lead tastes good to chickens: it tastes sweet. So if a hen finds an industrial-era cache buried just below the surface of our urban backyard, she’ll return to it again and again, sampling until the lead has permeated every muscle, organ, bone, and feather.
“Ruth’s lead levels were too high to read,” the vet explained. “She’s probably been sick for a long time. Chickens are very good at hiding their illness.”
My daughter, sitting cross-legged in the passenger seat of our idling van, cocked an ear in my direction. As a middle school-age girl she, too, knew something about hiding weaknesses for fear of having them exploited. Recently I had found her crumpled deep in the covers of her bed. Despite the fact that it was spring in New England, the sun still shockingly high in the sky for the late afternoon hour, she had burrowed into the darkest corner of her room the way a hen seeks the dim, still seclusion of the nesting box to endure her daily egg-laying effort.
Her story had come out in messy exhaled fragments hyphenated by tears. A classmate rebuked by a teacher for an outfit deemed inappropriate for school. The predictable adolescent backlash. A girl-led campaign to wear crop tops and short shorts to school in rebellion. My daughter’s discomfort and refusal. Her choice not to sign the offender’s dress code petition. A parade of protesting peers observed from a careful and conservatively clothed distance. The fallout. She had been exiled from the flock, hen-pecked in hallways and corridors of the internet—her pandemic cohort, recently reunited, now fumbling with the fizzy power of sudden togetherness.
Lead lodged deep in a body is easier to extract than loneliness. Many times over the next two weeks, as my daughter and I corralled our flock twice daily to inject each chicken with a chelating agent, I wished for as straightforward a solution as a hypodermic needle sunk into soft muscle to cure my adolescent girl’s unhappiness. A pinch of pain every 12 hours seemed a small price to pay to restore balance.
Every parent of double-digit-age children craves a return to the obvious fixes of infancy and toddlerhood when tears could be quelled with a diaper change, a snack, or a nap. But the grand bargain of parenting holds that as our children grow wondrously more complicated, so do their problems. Those simple early solutions get shelved with the board books and Duplos, as obsolete as last year’s ice skates. So I was surprised—as the late spring days lengthened and we extracted the last of the medication from its glass vials and injected it into Ruth and her flockmates—to see that both the birds and my daughter were improving.
Maybe it was just time. Maybe some other tween-age scandal moved onto the front page of her classmates’ attention. But I like to think that the caretaking of other hearts was its own slow-working salve for her adolescent injuries. My daughter needed something—affection, attention, patience—so she gave those things away. And in return, she got better.
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A month after our first visit to Tufts, we boomeranged back to Grafton to have the flock’s lead levels rechecked. Ruth’s numbers were much improved—as were the rest of the birds’—but the vet palpated a mass in Aliphine’s coelom and suggested she take a closer look. Aliphine, a tall Lavender Orpington with a gentle manner and eyes more elephantine than reptilian, was named after distance-running phenom Aliphine Tuliamuk, winner of the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials. Befitting her namesake, our Aliphine went on to endure an odyssey of diagnostics in the subsequent weeks: blood draws, X-rays, ultrasounds, and a fine-needle biopsy. The news was neither encouraging nor conclusive.
By the time the last of the tests was done, Aliphine was spending most of her days perched quietly in a corner of the run, an introvert in a flock of socialites. Unlike her fellow chickens, who were always busy scratching in the dirt, squabbling over the prime nesting box, and preening in the afternoon sun, she kept to herself. Short of invasive surgery, which the vet wasn’t sure she’d survive, our best option was to keep her comfortable and to try to catch the falling knife of divining precisely when she stopped behaving like a happy chicken and started behaving like an animal in pain.
That day came in late summer, when Aliphine failed to defend herself from a flurry of unwarranted pecks delivered by a cranky flockmate. Her will—and maybe her capacity for self-preservation—had waned. I called the vet.
It was an awful errand. Every prior trip to Grafton had been undertaken with the hope of a diagnosis or at least some new measure of understanding. But there was no avoiding the fact that this was a different journey altogether. My children, then 10 and 12, were not unaccustomed to loss. In roughly a decade they had lost two grandparents and 18 months of their childhoods, ideas made abstract by distance and time. Aliphine was theirs, though: a feathered beating heart for which they felt deeply responsible.
No parent wishes pain upon their child; but every parent wants the next generation to be able to bear up under its inevitable burden. I wanted so much for my children to avoid being among those who spent their lives carving routes around difficult emotional obstacles. While I wasn’t a trained educator capable of making cetaceans and early American history and square roots come alive for them, I was still a person equipped to teach my children about the living and, when necessary, the dying.
Before we left the house I sat the children down and laid out the path: we would take Aliphine to Grafton; the veterinary staff would bring us into a private room; we’d have a chance to say goodbye; and then the doctor would put her to sleep. There were several exits off the road ahead, I explained to the kids. They didn’t have to go to Grafton at all. Or they could keep Aliphine company on the drive to Grafton and not go into the hospital. Or they could say their goodbyes in the room itself. It was important to me that they made and owned their choices in this process, that they looked at this moment directly and felt it for what it was: a loss.
“We want to go,” my daughter said.
“But we’ll decide when we get there if we go into the hospital,” my son added.
While my daughter walked out to the coop to retrieve Aliphine, my son packed an ear of corn, a wedge of watermelon, and a fistful of blueberries—all of the chicken’s favorite foods—and carried them to the van. Aliphine sat quietly in my daughter’s lap for the drive, each one seemingly happy to feel the warmth of the other. As we made our way west, my daughter’s eyes welled with tears, emptied, filled again. Every few minutes Aliphine vocalized a chicken syllable or two, a sweet low sound that made each of us turn our gaze to her, and then to one another. It was hard not to hear those notes as questions.
When we exited the Mass Pike and began to slalom through the small town rotaries and farmland adjacent to Grafton, I felt that familiar tug, a nearly irrepressible urge to yank the wheel and change the direction of our distressed quartet. It felt so heavy, the weight of what we were carrying. The temptation to cast it off, even if only for a day or a week, to distract ourselves with the fleeting giddiness that comes from shirking responsibility, was overwhelming. But there was no outrunning this particular outcome and the inevitable impact it was going to have on each of us. We’d all done so much looking away: from grown men being choked to death on city streets, from riots and mass shootings, from atrocities at home and across oceans. The way forward had to be with open eyes and with hearts exposed to injury. We’d seen the price we paid when we failed to bear witness.
Once at the hospital, I pulled the van into a parking spot near the entrance. Aliphine perked up and preened a feather or two, seemingly animated, as infants are, by the transition from automotive movement to stillness. Without explicitly asking my children what their choice was—to enter the hospital or not—I simply opened the sliding door, an invitation. Each of my children stepped out onto the curb, my daughter still holding Aliphine and my son carrying her bag of treats.
As we began our slow procession up the walkway, my son reached for my hand. Thinking he was seeking a small physical reassurance, I turned my open palm toward him, but instead of slipping his hand into mine, he dropped into my palm a tiny ivory-colored tooth, still wet and rimmed with blood. Before I could ask the question, he bared his teeth at me: less smile, more grimace. There, in the front, on the bottom, I could see the newly vacated gap. I noted the loss, slipped the tooth into the pocket of my overalls, and walked on with my boy, my girl, and our chicken.
I said many things to my children in the low light of the room where Aliphine was euthanized. And my children said many things to her as they fed her corn and blueberries and watermelon for the last time. The vet spoke to all of us, told us we were making the right choice, that it was time. She spoke to Aliphine, too, as she pushed the Pentobarbital into the catheter she’d inserted into her leg bone. I watched closely, a hand on her feathered breast, as Aliphine’s body bucked once, twice, and then went limp. Of all of the words exhaled in that room, though, the ones that stick with me form what I think of now as our family’s most intimate catechism.
“We were lucky to love her,” I said to my children.
“And she was lucky to be loved,” my daughter replied.
“That’s not nothing,” my son added.
All true. Maybe the most important truths we can know.
The hospital was good at grief. There was no price or paperwork for the dead. Within minutes of Aliphine’s death we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road that would take us back to the city. As the emptiness of the van settled around us, the still and chirpless space yawning wide, I watched out of the corner of my eye as my son’s face twitched and then contorted. At first I thought he might be fighting back tears. But then I realized he was poking his tongue into the space where his tooth used to be, gently exploring the vacancy where something familiar had been and was no longer.
I saw him wince. I imagine it hurt. I imagine, too, that in that tiny moment he learned he could bear the pain. Then the pain ebbed. And he learned the shape of pain, its tidal behavior. And that understanding made him someone wiser and more durable. And I knew, over time, and his countless recoveries from those small waves of hurt, he would feel something new break the surface.
Amory Rowe Salem reads, writes, coaches, parents, and tends to her flock in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can read her work at amoryrowesalem.com.