Ginny, my black Australorp, died yesterday. She seemed fine the day before: out with the other hens, squatting for me, eating. But she did not come off the roost the next morning, and when I lifted her down and placed her on the coop floor, she did not move. It was evident she was in bad shape, and she died a short while later at the vet’s office.
Ginny was a beautiful, sweet-natured hen, the first of my little flock to lay. Just 7 months old, she was coming into the fullness of her life. My sadness at her loss is exacerbated by a profound sense of helplessness: Never have I lost a young, seemingly healthy animal so rapidly, before I had time to understand that something was wrong and mount a constructive response.
I have wondered and wondered again what I failed to see that would have prompted me to get her help earlier. Surely, I think, there was some sign I missed. And maybe I did, something subtle in her carriage or energy I should have noticed. Or maybe there was nothing distinct enough to trigger the kind of scrutiny that might — or might not — have saved her life.
We are shaken by loss, and frightened, for it reminds us that anything we love can be gone at any time. And more often than not, there is nothing we can do about it. We ask the kind of questions I have asked about Ginny — was there something I could have done to prevent this? — because the caprice of our lives is terrifying. Believing we have fallen short, that our efforts could have made a difference — and will, in the future — is preferable to abiding with the knowledge that we are ever vulnerable to the loss of what we cherish.
I was in college when I first understood this organically, and I remember the moment clearly. I was sitting in my car, and for no particular reason was visited by the thought that my best friend, a woman I loved dearly, could be dead at that very moment, taken by an accident of which I had yet to learn. I felt it clearly then: a preview of the deep well of grief and a present fear that maybe it was true, maybe it had already happened. And I understood that the only way we can go on day to day, the only way we can live sanely and peacefully, is to keep that knowledge on a far-back burner. And so we do.
Loss brings it forward, and at such moments I feel myself exposed, as I did in that car so many years ago. It’s painful, and when I know loss is imminent, I pray involuntarily to a God in whom I do not believe, the prayer of the helpless: Please. Please don’t take from me this thing I love, this thing that helps me love my own life. Please.
It’s foolish, I know. We live and we die, each at our time, hen and human. Yesterday was Ginny’s.
So we wait now, my six surviving hens and I. They seem well, but it is possible that what took Ginny was a virus that could, just as rapidly, take each of the others in turn. The necropsy report will be ready in a few days, but ultimately, only time will tell.