A co-worker and I stood in the office kitchen this morning as she searched for a spoon. We joked about how she might eat her cereal with a fork, how it might be easier if it were cereal and yogurt. My voice was clear and my laughter sounded easy. But my heart was somewhere else.
What is the toll, I wonder, from laughing, from pretending and projecting that all is well, when the reality is something different?
My wife and kids have been away for a few days, visiting family now that the school year has ended. I stayed home, with a few meetings this week that I could not miss. Last night I returned home close to midnight after one of those meetings and went out to close up the barn. Five of our six chickens were perched up on their roosts, with the sixth lying very still and awkwardly on the floor. I propped her up on some fresh hay for the night, but this morning she was less responsive and clearly dying. By now, she’s certainly passed.
My son was devestated this past fall when we lost our cat, a dear member of the family who the kids had grown up with. I was so deeply moved by his reaction as we buried her that a story poured out of me that night; that story became the inspiration for this blog.
The chickens were a present for him for his eighth birthday in April. He said it was the best birthday present ever.
I grew up raising chickens, along with sheep and rabbits. I remember the first spring flock that I was responsible for, and my dismay when we lost most of them to an intruder in the coop, likely a fox. I like to tell people that growing up around animals was a good experience, that I learned at an early age about caring for others, about life and death. My original Tibetan Buddhist practice, too, spoke of the value of coming to understand death as a part of our lives.
I’m not so sure this morning about either of those stories.
My son will come home today and learn about this new death. I’ll want to make everything all right for him, knowing at the same time that is not possible. I could look at this experience as a gift. But it’s hard. And what will I do when the death in our lives is closer?
I can’t share any of this with the people around me. I move around the office pretending that this is just another day. I pass by co-workers and talk jovially about this and that.
A little while ago I closed the office door to call my wife and let her know about the chicken, what is awaiting her at home. In the course of that conversation, I learned that the emails I have been sending to her over the last few days, reaching out to make a connection, have gone to an account she can’t access away from home. I hung up the phone feeling more isolated, then went to sit in a meeting and discuss the ramifications of the end of the fiscal year.
I didn’t realize it when I began, but my spiritual practice has taken shape as an effort to drop pretense, to live my life as it presents itself. In some respects, I have begun to realize this through Zen. At the Temple I can sit wth the complexity of fatherhood, marriage, love, joy and sadness, or share with a friend in the sangha after the evening practice has ended. I’ve been striving to do this at home too, with my wife and children, and it has allowed me to experience both joy and sadness more fully, more intimately.
At the same time, I am more accutely aware now of the places and times that I cannot. I worry about the cost.
When I get home this afternoon, I’ll hold my son and tell him it is okay to wonder why this has happened again to an animal he loved. I will tell him it is all right to be sad, to cry, to deeply feel whatever arises. I’ll tell him there’s no need to pretend.