Our beloved chicken Maudy died on Easter Sunday. A week previously I noticed she wasn’t quite herself. The friendliest and sparkiest of our small flock of six, she had begun to isolate herself, preferring to sit alone under trees with her feathers puffed up – creating the illusion to her fellow hens and any potential prey, that she was actually perfectly well. It wasn’t until I scooped her up that I realised how thin and frail she was and how her once bright red face and comb was an ominously pale pink.
Maudy was always my five year old son Angus’s favourite chicken. He chose her from a barn full of other hens almost two years ago. He adored her. She crouched down when she saw him so he could stroke her. He would pick her up and cuddle her. He sat her on his knee while he went down the garden slide, he drove his pedal tractor up and down the drive with her sitting quite happily in the trailer behind him. He loved her. They had a special connection – boy and chicken.
We took her to the vet last week, just him and me. We got an old sheep feed tub from the farm and he carefully filled it with hay and gently lifted her in. He talked to her for most of the twenty minute journey, apologising for any bumps in the road and reassuring her she was going to be ok. Unfortunately the news from the vet wasn’t good – Maudy had egg peritonitis. Instead of being taken up by her oviduct and expelled through her vent each day, Maudy’s eggs were being deposited into her tummy creating a nasty and most likely fatal infection. She had two injections and was sent home with four days of antibiotics. The vet told us she might not get better.
Angus remained upbeat. He carefully lifted her back into her box and chatted to her all the way home, telling her how brave she was and what an amazing adventure she had just been on. But as the week went on she became weaker. One afternoon I decided to bring her into the house – much to the kids delight. I laid her in our dog’s bed while I got on with some cooking. She barely moved. When I picked her up to carry her back down to the coop for bedtime, the few drops of water she had taken on board began to pour out of her nose and beak. Her tummy was so full of slowly rotting eggs that she just couldn’t take anything else in.
On Easter Saturday evening my husband Pete and I decided that Maudy couldn’t carry on like this. It was breaking my heart to see her so depleated. Neither of us could bring ourselves to end her suffering, even though we knew it was the right thing. I knew you had to be able to fully commit to the task and I just couldn’t. We spoke to the children and I explained that Maudy was very sick and her medicine wasn’t able to make her any better. ‘Is she going to die?’ Angus asked. ‘Yes. Yes she is’. I carried her up to their bedroom inside my coat and they all said goodbye to her. I struggled to hold back my tears.
On Easter Sunday in the late afternoon Pete asked Billy, our farmer, if he would end her life. Within the blink of an eye, she was gone. Her life extinguished. I was devastated. I felt relieved. I knew it was the right thing.
We told the children while they were playing in the bath. Tilly and Rory, aged three and one, barely missed a beat and continued to splash each other and hoot with laughter but Angus was different. I saw the shock. I saw the hurt. He cast his eyes down to the water and asked to get out.
Not long after I’d turned his light out for bed he appeared downstairs to say that he couldn’t sleep, he just felt too sad. I told him that Dad was going to go outside and bury Maudy and that maybe he could help. So while Pete dug a hole in Angus’s chosen spot in the woods just outside the house, we sat and talked. ‘What will Maudy look like Mum when we put her in the hole?’, ‘Will she still have eyes? Will she still have a head? Will she still have feathers?’ I explained that everything that made Maudy who she was, such a fun and loving chicken, had gone up to be a star in the sky and that her body that was left behind was just really a shell. ‘Will she come alive again, like Baby Jesus?’ ‘No’, I said, ‘No she won’t’. I could see his brain whirring. Perhaps when explaining the significance of Easter Sunday earlier in the day I should have been a bit clearer about the coming back to life bit.
Out we trudged into the half light with Angus in his pyjamas, wellies and wooly hat. I lifted Maudy’s lifeless body out of the wheelbarrow. He looked at her, stroked her gently and told her he loved her. I put her in the hole. He dashed off to pick some daffodils and asked for a handful of bird seed, ‘The seeds will grow grass Mum and then I will always know where Maudy is and then she’ll know that I loved her’. Tears came pouring down my face. I felt so proud of my boy. Pete placed the earth back on top of our beloved Mauds and we could see her no more. The daffodils were laid one by one on top and the bird seed carefully scattered.
When I tucked him into bed he began to cry, wiping the tears quickly away with an old sock as if he was ashamed. I told him it was ok to cry, that we cry when we feel sad and that I knew he felt horribly sad. ‘Why isn’t Tilly sad’ he said, ‘If I died would Tilly not be sad?’. ‘Of course she would’, I said, ‘she loves you’. ‘Do you think Mauds will remember me?’ ‘Absolutely’, I told him.
Then we talked about his granny, who he tragically never met, and how she had been very sick and that no medicine was able to make her any better. We talked about how Daddy missed her so much but that he would always remember her and all the happy times he had with her. We talked about how we must do this with Maudy, that we should never forget her and focus on all the good times we had had with her.
I sat with him while he fell asleep. I knew this was a memory that he would most likely hold for his whole life. A seismic moment for a five year old. He was aware of death – we live on a farm and sadly dead animals are just part and parcel – but this was the first time that death had connected with emotion. The first time he’d lost something he truly loved. Whilst his little brother and sister didn’t yet have the emotional intelligence to process grief and loss, he was feeling it in every part of his little body.
The next morning he asked me what would happen to Maudy in ‘the dirt’. ‘Will she loose her feathers? Will the worms eat her?’. I told him that Maudy would turn back into earth and that the earth would help the flowers and the grass to grow. He didn’t seem scared, just accepting and pragmatic. I hope I did him justice. In trying to be as honest with him as possible I hope I gave him a true understanding of death. That sometimes people or animals don’t get better, that sometimes they die but that we will always remember them so in that sense, they are never really gone.
RIP Maudy – our beautiful girl. xxx