I found our current home here in Ojai when I was staying with a friend of mine; think Ma and Pa Kettle, Green Acres and the Egg and I all rolled into one very old California Craftsman. It wasn’t only the land, trees, flowers, vegetable garden, huge porch, peace and quiet, spectacular mountain views that sold me on this 103 year old dwelling, it was the adorable menagerie of animals that came with the house: three bunnies, two guinea pigs and three hens a laying: Finally, instant fuzzy, feathery family for our empty nest.
As a child my neighbor had rabbits and I was given a guinea pig (instead of a cat in first grade) so caring for those critters was relatively easy. Chickens, however, had not been part of my early life experience, but there they were — three hens happily residing in a lovely two story, indoor/outdoor coop near the vegetable garden.
The black and white hen was called Tina Turner. Henny Penny was copper, and the Queen heir apparent was a fluffy, ample bosomed whiter than white hen named Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn definitely strutted her stuff and was very, very vociferous. She caught my attention, not just because of her incessant squawking, but also because of her story. I had been told that Ms. Monroe had been attacked by the previous owner’s chocolate lab, who must have had a primal flashback of some sort in which he realized that he was not only a “bird dog” but a “retriever” as well. With that a ha moment of what he deemed his ‘authentic self,’ he went after Marilyn with a vengeance. Horrified, the woman of the house rushed Marilyn to her vet, and waited anxiously for several hours as the doctor struggled to save a chicken’s life; and so he did even though her chance of survival was next to none. I felt a kinship to Marilyn, having had a ‘near death’ situation myself, and labeled ‘a talker’ since second grade.
Prior to all this, I knew nothing about chickens. I’m a vegetarian from way back so I don’t even eat them. The day after we moved into our home, I went to our local feed store and here’s the advice I got: You feed ‘em, give ‘em water, collect their eggs, and eat ‘em. First the eggs then the chickens, that is. Not too helpful for a vegetable loving, novice caretaker. Then I went to Google to learn specifically how to care for them, clean their coop, and feed them. Honestly, I felt a little out of my comfort zone.
But one day, I was tending my garden, and Marilyn was screaming at me. I’m not kidding. She was screeching at the top of her lungs and I think she was using profanity. Seriously. So I ambled over to her and found the watering pail completely bone dry. And one thing I know, all God’s creatures need water. It was a hot summer’s day, and she was right to get mad even though I thought that she could have asked nicely. I felt terrible as she kept cackling at me even though I had filled the watering pail and put it back in its rightful place. Once Tina and Henny quenched their thirst, she stopped yakking and drank up. I apologized saying out loud, but more to myself that I had much to learn here, and I swear she stopped guzzling, walked right up to me, cocked her beady brown eye at me as if to say, “You got that right, sister.” And that’s when our friendship began.
Marilyn was talkative, opinionated and a fighter; she was also incredibly loving. She cared for her girls, and she accepted me more easily as a caretaker, while the other two ran from me and paid me no mind. She spoke to me when I fed them, and squawked at me whenever I passed the hen house, as if to say, “Take a moment and visit with me, you’re running the world.” She was the first to take food from my hand, and although chickens are supposed to eat everything and anything, Marilyn was, well, downright picky about what she liked and she told you so. She also made very appreciative clucking sounds when you showed up with good eats. She was the first to jump out of the hen house when I swung the door wide open, and the last to go back in without a fuss, always shepherding her flock. When I cleaned out the coop, she’d come up to me, give me a critical look, and then a cluck or two of thanks.
I’m sad to say that Marilyn died last week. By the time my husband and I figured out that she just wasn’t herself, she was very, very sick. We actually brought her to a vet who gave her a shot of antibiotics and gave us a prognosis of a 50-50 chance of survival. But I knew she wasn’t going to make it. We brought her into our home, made a special coop for her and I watched her, excuse the pun, like a mother hen until my husband insisted I get some sleep. I awoke in the middle of the night and went into check on her. She sat perfectly still, her breathing labored. She looked so frail and so alone so I sat before her, opened the cage door, and gently stroked her silky, white feathers. I experienced a deep sadness about the fragility of life, the wounds inside of us that feel as if they’ll never heal, and vulnerability beyond comprehension. I told her that I loved her, that if she didn’t want to fight to live I understood, that I wanted her to live, but it was her decision, not mine. I’ve been here before mind you, but never with a chicken. I would have stayed up with her, but my dog, Eli, came in and interrupted our stillness, so Eli and I went back to bed. The next morning she was gone. And I cried. I cried because I felt responsible, I cried for the loss of her, and for the grief her hens would feel at losing her. I cried for all the times I’ve lost someone I love; a part of my life one moment, and then not.
I know what you’re thinking…she was just a chicken, after all. But here’s the thing; and I believe this with my entire being: we are all divinely connected, divinely guided, and divinely loved. Each and everyone, everything on this earth is a unique gift; a gem, a jewel, some rough cut, some polished, but all a part of God’s Glory.
We buried Marilyn in our backyard. I scattered rose petals where she was laid to rest and I was reminded of this: that even in times of profound sorrow I am blessed by having loved, and having been loved.
Thank you Marilyn for reminding me that love is not lost through loss, but found more fully.