I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven
to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things
might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.
Death of a Pig
I spent several days and nights in nearly all of October and November with an ailing hen, more particularly since this hen died at last and I lived, I am – like Elywn Brooks White was – driven to give the accounting. Is the accounting necessary? Of course not, but neither was his story of a dying pig. And now my hen and her story are left solely to me for explanation.
Two billion chickens are killed and consumed a year in the United States alone. That’s about 22 million chickens a day for all Americans and 52 a year for each of us when you don’t group us together. When it comes to poultry preparation, our tastes vary. Chickens are fried with a corn flake crust or roasted with basil and rosemary. You can poach their breasts for chicken salad, grill their legs for barbeque, or sauté them for a chicken Lo Mein. There isn’t one fast food restaurant that doesn’t sell them; some have menus built solely around them, because chickens are easy to produce and feed, easy to kill and distribute, and easy to eat. The consumed chickens are so multitudinous it’s difficult to believe that one can have merit all on its own. But that is someone else’s difficulty.
So how did this story, this month-plus-long chronicle of tending to the not-one of-two- billion, start? It began on an October Sunday morning with chicken keeping chores still ahead of me. October in Anchorage, Alaska is as unpredictable as a coin flip. We could just as easily be in the grip of an early winter’s snowstorm as we could a late summer’s swan song. On this Sunday, it seemed a mixture of the two. The ground was snow free, but the air was clear and cold. The mountains that surround our isolated, hillside property stood out on nearly every horizon. I distinctively remember catching my reflection in my daughter’s bedroom window while walking to the chicken run that morning. I was wearing Abbie’s ski hat, the purple one she wore when she was eight. The wool cap sat tight across my head and crooked over my long, straight, barely combed hair. The collar of my brown coveralls was also crooked, and the right pant leg of my Carhartt’s was tucked into my work boot while my left leg was outside of its pair. It was obvious my glamour days growing up in Chicago were long behind me, but this didn’t matter. I had a smile on my face, I saw it, because I was on my way to my escape. With a busy career lawyering and a talkative husband and child, my time with the chickens, even if filled with chores, was one of the better parts of my day.
But for the clucks, chirps, and crowing – yes, chickens crow – as my flock of twenty scattered for the scratch and alfalfa pellets I threw from my hand, these were quiet times, free of busy conversation. When had this time become my time of both joy and reflection? It happened slowly, I’m sure, over twelve years of chicken tending, so that by this October, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. After feeding and watering the chickens and mucking out the coop, I took an overturned feed bucket and sat down. It was early enough in the day that the sun was just over summit of the Chugach mountain nearest my home. Sitting, I could watch the cold air of my breath on the exhale and the peculiar, but winsome sight of my hens and roosters taking deep drinks of water and then turning their necks up to swallow. Some things were still right with the world. There had been too much this year that Covid had taught us. My flock gave me a necessary break from those lessons and from plans gone way awry.
I must’ve been lost in this thought of life on hiatus, because it took a little time before I saw a white leghorn hen sitting alone on the lower branch of a leafless sumac bush. She was one of three leghorn pullets we acquired the past June from a woman with even more chickens just down the road. Unlike her sister pair of leghorns that I could see under the coop, she hadn’t gotten up to feed or drink, but instead sat ruffling her feathers and resting her head deep into her neck. I walked toward her. She rose, somewhat dazed, and stumbled.
Backyard chicken keepers like me knew this basic rule: once you’ve seen a hen was ailing in some way, it was probably too late to save her. She would have suffered long before the first observation. It could have been anything. Her lungs could have filled with fluid. The wound beneath a mattress of matted feathers might have already festered. The dehydration, similarly, might have gone too far. You would’ve been lucky if you saved one out of every ten, and I hadn’t achieved even that in recent efforts. My husband Richard joked about the chicken I.C.U. that stood ready in the garage. There, old dog crates were converted into sick wards filled with straw, water, and feed. I already had one rooster with malformed legs who walked on his knees and one runt hen in the barracks just so the rest of the flock wouldn’t attack them. This leghorn was to be my next effort. Might I be successful in healing her? After that first day, I never gave up believing I could.
* * *
Back to my fellow writer-turned-farmer. E.B. White – Andy to his friends – wrote of the farce of trying to save a pig he bought with the intent to slaughter. As he explained it in his essay:
something slips — one of the actors goes up in his lines and the whole
performance stumbles and halts.
Well, this actress had always forgotten her lines, because there was no one I intended to slaughter. My hens gave me eggs, not freezer meat. Death also never came lightly. Not for those dearest to me; a mother recovering from a stroke, a father from pulmonary disease. Not for the smallest creatures – a fox sparrow hitting a window, a vole escaping a cat’s claws, a hen recovering from some ailment. Likely, it was my inability to save the dear that resulted in more valiant efforts to save the smallest, because if I could not save them, the people I loved, I had to try to save everything else. Try my best. If possible, I had to breathe for them.
* * *
I placed the leghorn on the concrete floor of the garage and she collapsed. Her legs could no longer hold her weight. When I picked her up, her eyes darted, but she didn’t fight me.
Another bad sign. I had seen life leave an animal before, and I thought at this moment it would come soon for her. I sat on an old kitchen stool by the nearest window so the outdoor light might calm her. Next, her breath quickened and a small triangular tongue the size of piece of confetti flipped in and out of her open beak.
The complex in the common and seemingly mundane. This is what I thought as I held her and looked at her even closer. When opened, her eyes were a tawny brown and her black pupils were deep and impenetrable. She turned her head when I dropped an old coffee cup; so her ears, pale yellow openings diagonal and up from her beak, still took in sound. She had tiny feathers that looked like whiskers and extended from the end of her beak to her eye lid. Pink skin was visible between those whisker feathers. Once she relaxed, her swanlike white neck rested listlessly around my left arm that cradled her. Her legs, though still moving, didn’t push against me with any amount of force. I thought maybe she had a half hour more; time I also had to give. So I stayed with her and waited for that end.
* * *
Did my mind turn to those other moments? The memories of my mother’s last words to me, “Don’t forget Abbie’s scooter. It’s on the porch.” I had said good-bye to her six years before on a hospital bed in the middle of my childhood home’s living room. I had a flight to catch from Chicago to Anchorage. She died six days later. Or how about my father? At least I got to say “I love you” over the phone the night before he died, four years ago. He had told me he was just tired and wanted to go to sleep. He would call me in the morning. Or did it turn to those many times in veterinarians’ offices, where I comforted old and ill dogs whose time had come only because I couldn’t watch them suffer any longer? Or were my thoughts and promises with God? Did I whisper to this leghorn? “All will be well.” Perhaps it was all of that. Perhaps it was none of it. But by the end of that half hour of lost time, the hen’s time hadn’t come. In fact, she seemed to have revived. A move from my arms and into the dog crate/chicken ward for feeding and watering proved just that. Alone with a plate of alfalfa pellets and scratch, she ate ravenously. She drank from a small bowl of water too. When finished, she looked up wanting more.
The next day, I stiffened myself before entering the garage believing, as my history with chickens had taught me, the reprieve was over, and I would find her dead. I was wrong. She was alert, hungry, and thirsty, but still lame.
“I don’t know how this story ends,” I had penned that note to myself that second day after seeing my awake and alert hen, but I did know how it continued. It continued with hope and a Google search.
“Why can’t my chicken stand?” “Help, my chicken is lame” “Leghorn’s legs still sensory but cannot hold weight.” The varying queries brought me each time to a small sector of websites largely frequented by backyard chicken keepers like me and to an even smaller sector of articles and discussion boards that identified the varying causes of sudden chicken paralysis.
The first and most likely answer was Marek’s Disease, a virus that attacked the nerves of chickens, first in the legs, causing paralysis. It’s the most likely cause of paralysis when a rooster or hen was between three and six months of age – the leghorn fit that window. Because the paralysis advances toward the lungs and neck, the likelihood of survival from Marek’s was next to nothing.
This sad truth and my inability to accept it led to my next Google query. “If it’s not Marek’s, why can’t my chicken stand?” The resulting article was just what I needed. It came from a farmer in New Zealand who suggested ruling out all other potential causes of paralysis before deciding Marek’s was the culprit. I drew that article in like a rainbow of good news.
Curable causes of lameness included vitamin deficiencies, a physical injury, like a back sprain, and egg binding. I decided to treat all three.
Perhaps this is where I need to admit the hot baths started. Yes, a daily bath for my hen with lavender scented Epsom salt, a hot towel to capture the steam, a change of water to meet the recommended twenty-minute sitting time, and, finally, a long blow dry. The combination would release any egg she could not lay, soothe aching muscles, and infuse her with needed minerals. I made a record of one of the first baths on Facebook, posting, “Bath and Blow Dry. Day 2. I know. I know.” I attached the photo Richard had taken of me that afternoon. I was sitting on the front porch wearing my puffy orange winter coat, smiling, and holding a wet, white hen wrapped in a Hawaiian-print beach towel.
Over the course of the next few weeks, regular baths, and interesting feedings of game meat and fruits and vegetables, my hen gained a name for herself and her own social media following. Richard and I had been calling the three white leghorns Charlie’s Angels since their first arrival; so I chose to name her after one of the original “police academy-trained private detectives” from the television show we watched as kids. Choices were Sabrina Duncan, Jill Munroe, and Kelly Garrett. Sabrina just didn’t fit. Farah Fawcett died young of cancer, so I couldn’t name the hen after her character, Jill. I thought of Woody from Cheers singing his famed “Kelly, Kelly, Kelly” song and stifled a laugh. So, Kelly it was. I posted photos of Kelly taking that famed bath; Kelly relaxing during a blow dry; Kelly picking olives off a slice of pizza; Kelly watching a Bears Game; Kelly being stared at lecherously by our cat; Kelly sitting on the couch peacefully next to said cat and a dog; Kelly refusing a sip of wine; Kelly cuddling up to our disabled rooster Steve, perhaps her new boyfriend; and, time and again, Kelly in my arms. Friends regularly checked in on her progress and became concerned when a few days would go by without a posting. When I did post, responses like, “So glad to hear she is okay,” “Glad she’s improving,” “I was so worried,” and a litany of kind comments followed. While the extraordinary folly of my efforts was never lost on me, one friend’s comment substantiated it. “I understand. It’s a situation where your care and action makes a difference to another being.
That’s a good feeling, especially when we feel helpless about so much going on around us.” There, I saw, was the actual rub.
* * *
My battle with death began the first time I attended a wake of a distant relative in a funeral home on Chicago’s Northwest side. I was four. My memories were dreamlike, but I saw myself standing next to the casket, nearly face level to the body within it. I don’t remember who the deceased was, but her hair was grey and curled, and her eyes were closed. Her hands were folded together in prayer. A long wooden rosary wrapped around her fingers, with the crucifix on top of her lowest knuckles. This must have been from the Irish side of my family, because the crowd was loud, and I saw drinks. I heard murmured voices and full conversation, and no one, except me, seemed to grasp that they were standing around talking with a dead body in the room.
I know I was told she was in heaven now, so I didn’t have to worry. But I did. When the deaths came closer to me, like that of my grandfather, who always kept licorice nibs in his front left pocket and wore a gentleman’s hat when stepping off the bus to greet us, my distress increased. He was gone, like so many more relatives and friends to follow, and I had no words and no ability to do a thing about it. I have lived through each loss, including the worst ones, with only the promise of heaven to offer me solace. And not one time, ever, was I able to stop or even slow death’s advance when I saw it coming.
Somewhere in the mix between glimmers of pillow filled caskets and days sitting curled on my mother’s hospital bed, holding her, I had well realized my powerlessness, but still fought to accept it. If I could not stop its advance for you – Mom, Dad, fill in a loved one’s name here – let me do it for the smallest and least acknowledged among us. Let me have that power.
* * *
E.B. White likely realized his powerlessness over death well before I had. Still, he paused long enough to try to save his pig, who had refused to eat. He and the Maine farmers he consulted decided it was an intestinal blockage likely caused by sawdust. While I offered baths and blow drys, White offered enemas. White called that his “no turning back point.” He coupled it with taking cool fresh water to his pig. White observed the pig, who was barely able to stand and who comforted himself by dipping his snout deep into the pail and swishing the water between his teeth. White said he converted his characterization of his frequent visits and his own fixation with pig survival to the “transitoriness and insecurity” of White’s own life. I had not gotten this close yet. My own mortality was still too much for me to confront.
* * *
As I wrote again, then in early November, “I don’t know how this story ends,” and continued with my description of Kelly, the computer keyboard sat on my lap just as she had as well. She drew her beak across my wrist, perhaps to scratch an itch, and then dug her head deep into the edge of my elbow. I think she had gotten used to feeling the pulse of my abdomen against her left wing. At times, she raised her head and took breaths with her beak open, her tongue flickering, but most of the time nothing was unusual about her face. She cooed softly, almost like a pigeon. Her comb was a cheery pink to me, but Richard commented around that time that it looked paler than it had before. Her comb had eight peaks. Four were fused together. The ones in the middle were separate and largest. I knew what I was doing. I was describing Kelly as best I could, because small, anxious parts of me did know how this story might end, even then. I didn’t want photos to remember her. I wanted my words. One. Two. I watched her breathe. Three. Four. A simple act; the one that separated the living from the dead.
Maybe there was a way to measure the depth of my growing affection for her. It was in the tasks. Maybe the measure was every time I gave her a steam bath or warmed caribou meat for her to eat. Maybe it was every time I positioned her in a doughnut circle of towels to keep her upright and turned her from side to side to avoid bedsores, if chickens could get them. Maybe the measure was every time I held a cup of water to her beak and watched her take deep drinks. Maybe it was keeping the olives on an unfinished slice of pizza so she could pick them off before wiping the pizza grease from her beak back onto my shirt sleeve. Maybe it was the innumerable attempts to bring strength to legs that could then press against my hands, an improvement, but still could not stand. Maybe the measure was in memorializing her in words, to see her uniqueness among the two billion.
* * *
She died when I thought she would live. I thought my mother’s stroke wouldn’t take her, but rather we would find a way to live with it. The brain was known for its plasticity. We would just rewire it. But I ignored the atrial fibrillation that caused the stroke. I ignored the weakened heart, because there was nothing weak about her.
He died when I thought he would live, especially because my father had beat it back a time or two before. He was a retired fire chief who couldn’t breathe anymore: saving scores of lives and buildings, his lungs had taken in smoke and other poison for nearly forty years on the job. “He was just done,” my sister told me, “missed Mom too much.” “Death was a blessing,” she also said.
* * *
She died when I thought she would live. It was a Sunday night in late November, just before Thanksgiving. I came home early and alone from a small dinner. My first stop was to check on Kelly. It had been such a good day I left her in the larger chicken crate I.C.U. with the rooster who couldn’t walk and the runt hen who was just starting to have trouble seeing. Kelly was alert, but slumped a bit forward, as if she had been stepped on lightly, by that blinded hen, and she lacked the ability to right herself.
Rather than simply reposition her – should I have done just that? – I picked her up and she started clucking loudly and quickly. That wasn’t entirely unusual. Often when she was startled like this, I raised her high on my shoulder as if she were on a roost so she could look down on anything disturbing her and feel out of danger. I did that, but she didn’t calm. For a reason I can’t explain, I took her outside and at least I looked up to a clear, star-filled sky. Next, her beak opened when she breathed, as if she were trying to catch her breath before it went away.
I brought her inside again, this time into the kitchen, closer to warmth, and tried to still her with the calm voice (should I admit it here?) that used to sing to her, from Dear Evan Hansen, “When you’re broke and on the ground, you will be found.”
One. Two. “Breathe, my girl.” There was still panic in her eyes. Her wings flapped; even her broken legs pushed against me Three. Four. “Shhh…I’m here.” This was a struggle for air I could not solve. This was the struggle I expected that first day I decided to sit with her, just for thirty minutes. It came that November night instead, well after the hope of her continued survival had cemented in my heart. She was leaving me. The power I briefly held to defy death was disappearing. I begged for her to stay. She couldn’t. After opening her eyes one more time and turning her beak upward, a white leghorn hen named Kelly died in my arms. With one last breath, she was gone.
* * *
What did E.B. White say about his reaction to the death of his sick pig? The one his own futile efforts didn’t heal either? It was something about “deep hemorrhagic intears.” Once Kelly was out of my arms, collected under towels, and with her body already starting to stiffen (remember how warm and soft she was even the moment after her death), it was a cry I understood that night, but I didn’t swallow my tears as White had. Mine were deep hemorrhagic outtears. They came for a farm animal as inexpensive as a box of chocolates. They carried my hope and anger, my powerlessness and despair. They also carried my love, measured and constant – One. Two. – with no place else to go.
* * *
The news of Kelly’s passing traveled far and wide that Sunday night, across continents and seas. I wrote on a Facebook post, “I know she had a lot of fans, but Kelly the Hen died tonight. She had a great last day. I was with her.” I attached a photo of her sitting in the cardboard box top I used to tote her around the house. She had a bowl of carrot cake in front of her. I had made it for my birthday and discovered she liked creamed cheese frosting too. She rested on her left side with her right wing fluffed and gorgeous, just like an angel’s wing. Her beak was part open, almost smiling, I thought. Her eyes were bright and her eight pronged comb was indeed pink and cheery, even Richard agreed. After attaching the photo, I added, “I like to think of her finally standing and walking. Despite the work, she was a joy to me.” Then I reattached that first bath photo, not because of the wet, bedraggled hen in a beach towel, but because of the smile on my face. It was one of the most contented smiles I’ve seen of myself. If she could bring that peace, the despair for her loss was wholly understandable.
Eighty-eight people who had been following Kelly’s life on Facebook expressed some form of remorse. Eighty-eight people, most of them carnivores, bemoaned the death of a hen! Their comments varied from, “I am so sorry to hear this,” to, “It brightened my day several times to see her hanging out in your house,” and most fitting to, “RIP, Kelly the Hen. She brought joy to FB Land – A kind and sweet soul.”
I decided the next morning that Kelly likely died of a heart attack. Hens were fragile creatures, but I didn’t cause it by lifting her. If it were the cause, she wouldn’t have made it through the first day. It was more likely than not that Marek’s had been making its internal march toward her heart and lungs, a march I willed myself not to see, but was there nonetheless. I could’ve confirmed that by turning her body over to the State veterinarian for analysis, especially to ensure the health of the rest of my flock. This was a contagious disease. But, here again, the actress lost her lines. I couldn’t let what was left of her go and never return, because it was the not knowing where she would be that would keep me incomplete.
* * *
Many of E.B. White’s long-time readers, including me, assumed that the pig White could not save in Death of a Pig was resurrected in the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. If he couldn’t keep the pig alive on his Allen Cove farm, perhaps he had given him an eternal life in the form of “Some-Pig” Wilbur. However, a letter from White, written shortly before his death in 1985, answered that question. It wasn’t just that sick pig that inspired White. It was every pig and, more likely, every animal he raised. He wrote:
As for Charlotte’s Web, I like animals and my barn is a very pleasant place to be, at all hours. One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, he was doomed to die. This made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig’s life. I had been watching a big grey spider at her work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving. Gradually I worked the spider into the story that you know, a story of friendship and salvation on a farm.
Friendship and salvation, with White the mere observer and not the savior. That thought shook me, because I never tried the observer role before.
* * *
I had been thinking of memory and projections of would-be memory a lot lately, including scenes of those crowded funeral homes of my childhood. They’re foggy and everyone in them was blurry. I smelled cigarette smoke. The prettiest women were dressed in black and wore their one set of pearls – When my grandfather got off the city bus to visit us at our home, he always made sure the licorice in his pocket was fresh. He smiled handing it to us. I’ve loved black licorice ever since. – My mother looked at me a few weeks before she died. I had just asked, “Can you let me stop this?” She didn’t answer, but in her eyes…was that a hope I could or a forgiveness of my hubris? – There was a crackle in my father’s voice I hadn’t given weight to that last night. The Cheyne-Stokes exhales, the uneven breathing pattern that precedes death, were not far behind.
* * *
When Kelly died in late November, the snow had fallen heavy and the ground had already frozen. Though White had given his pig a September burial, I didn’t have that option. I wrapped her in the Hawaiian-print beach towel I once used to dry her and placed her body inside an old wooden dog house that bordered my animal graveyard and overlooked Denali and Foraker. Yes, I had my own graveyard. I shared this life with too many dogs, cats, chickens, rescued voles, and fallen fox sparrows to not.
My plan wasn’t completely formulated. I would either burn the dog house down late in winter, thereby cremating her, or wait for the hints of April warmth and a ground capable of digging. In either case, for months, she’s was just where I left her. Because that dog house was in view on my daily walks to the chicken run to feed the survivors (Marek’s did not take any of them), I thought of her often. I thought of my mother too. The scooter she asked me to bring home for Abbie was still hanging from the garage beams; its airline tags were never removed. It was on that chicken-run route as well. I hadn’t been sure what to do with any of these, because I didn’t think burning the dog house to the ground, burying the body immediately, or giving that
scooter away would somehow stop my memories. Even if they were all gone, my thoughts, en route to the chickens, would just have been, “once, they were there.”
* * *
In the closing paragraph of Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White wrote:
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
Those words were about remembrance, that special place only few could hold, and a true friend. Kelly rested there for me and was mine.
So as not to repeat White’s essential ending, and to make myself the observer, not the savior, I’ve tried this on for size.
Maybe everyone was still there. On quiet nights, one backyard chicken farmer was often found sitting by herself in a fire-engine red Adirondack chair, under a birch tree, near an old dog house she either burnt or kept. She didn’t look toward that house or to the ground. Instead, she looked up into dark skies and Northern Lights. She thought of the journey this planet, her home, took through the galaxy and out into the expanding universe. From the stars’ vantage points, she understood she still traveled with those who had gone before. Her grandfather in his dashing hat. Her mother and her father. And a hen who took lavender scented, Epsom salt baths. They were voyagers together, both in earthly form and in soft memories. The only thing that separated them was breath. A single breath.
One. Two. She breathed for them.
Joan Nockels Wilson is a writer and lawyer. A native of Chicago and a forever-learner, she has studied at Northwestern University, University of California Berkeley, Lewis and Clark College, and the University of Alaska. She holds a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction, is a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist award winner, and is a member of the Bread Loaf community of writers. Her work has appeared in literary journals and audio shows, most recently Cirque and Arctic Entries. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a vizsla named Vivian in Anchorage, Alaska. Her first book, The Book of Timothy: The Devil, My Brother, and Me (Red Hen Press), a memoir, launches on November 9, 2021. It chronicles her travels to Rome and Vatican to find the priest who abused her brother to gain the long sought admission of his crimes. You can find more out about Joan and The Book of Timothy: The Devil, My Brother, and Me at www.joannockels.wilson.com
photos by Joan Nockels Wilson