Your chick died today. After she was gone, you sat on the porch with her stiff body in your lap and examined her closely. It was unseasonably cool today, and you were wrapped in a thick, fluffy purple robe crowned with a unicorn horn. I couldn’t see your face, but I knew you were crying. You stroked her feathers, and I heard you whispering to her. Your dad watched from the kitchen. I asked him, “are you ok?”
His shoulders sagged. “No. No, I’m not. She’s going to think that everything she loves dies.”
“It does,” I reminded him.
When the chick hatched, she was a dowdy brown thing with bright eyes. As she grew, her adult feathers filled in. She had bright yellow feet and looked like a normal bird. Except. Except for that terribly skewed, unfixable lower beak.
When your brother was born, he was bright-eyed and tiny and looked like any other baby. Except. Except for that damned, unfixable third chromosome.
I’m not new to these sorts of awful decisions, but I didn’t want to make the call. Not about your chick. Today, I examined her closely. She was sleepy and terribly thin. Ending a life is never easy—even when it is clear that suffering is occurring and that death will be a mercy. I explained this to you, about suffering that can be eased. You said there is nothing worse than death, and I said, “Yes. There is.”
You asked me about prosthetic beaks, 3-D printers, gently massaging the jaw into a normal position all day, every day until it remained where it should be. You offered to hand feed the chick yourself every 30 minutes for the rest of her life.
All this happened while the chick perched in your lap, eyes closed, resting. Occasionally, she would shake her wings and resettle. You kept one hand protectively on her back.
Gently, I tried to explain the ways in which this wouldn’t work. And although I am an expert in such matters, you didn’t trust me. So I checked with my exotic animal veterinarian friend. She agreed. I told you that, but you were still angry.
As we drove to my office, you stared out the window, cradling the chick in your lap. Tears spilled down your face. You refused to make eye contact, even though I’ve never shamed you for crying.
“Euthanasia is just a nice word for killing. You’re killing my chick,” you spat.
I can’t argue with you, because it’s true. There’s nuance, but at eight years old, it is beyond you.
A technician met us at the car. She was gloved and masked. I slid an N-95 over my nose and mouth. She handed me a towel, and I took your chick. You were crying hard now.
“Say goodbye,” I told you.
“Goodbye,” you whispered.
I handed the chick over and instructed no cremation, save some feathers, and we will pick up the body. I told her to thank my colleague for ending the suffering of this tiny, emaciated ball of feathers so that I didn’t have to do it myself. I am not strong enough for these things anymore. I was once, but that has slipped away from me.
In the car, you cried quietly. Your six year old sister sat next to you, and I could see that she was worried for you. She herself currently looks like a new baby chick, her hair all but gone. What remains is downy fuzz. Chemo does that. Her broad, pale face was creased with concern.
“Do you want to go get a milkshake?” I asked.
You nodded but not enthusiastically.
Later, the chick’s body is returned to us, carefully taped inside a box with her name on the side. There is a Ziploc bag of feathers and a paper with her footprints in purple ink. It says “In Loving Memory.” You take these things to your room. I follow, but you won’t let me see where you’re putting them. Afterwards, you go to the porch and sit with her body.
Later that evening, you watch TV. We snuggle on the couch and giggle. I know you’re not “better.” I tell you that I’m sorry that we had to kill your chick. I tell you that you’re brave, and you’ve already withstood more than most eight year olds will in a lifetime—a sister with cancer, a brother that died. And I tell you that everything we love will die. That’s what makes it so important to love and to love fiercely—everyone. White, black, brown, gay, straight, kind or unkind, rich or poor. Just love. In the end, it’s all that matters.
Then I hug you, plant a kiss in your tangled strawberry blonde hair, and send you to bed.