The object in an empty box

“Love and death are the two great gifts given to us. Mostly they are passed on unopened.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

This quote was spoken softly into my ears in the almost too-intimate way that earbuds can achieve when set at just the right volume at just the right moment. The quote was recited by the Zen Roshi Joan Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center. I had tuned in to her dharma talk titled Exploring Questions of Love & Compassion out of a kind of grasping desperation to understand the dull, aching loss in my chest.

The wise Roshi’s words played in my ears as I guided an old rusted Ford F150 out of the parking lot of a veterinarian’s office. Next to me in the passenger’s seat was a plastic tub containing the body of a dead chicken. A mere half hour earlier the chicken was very much alive, yet suffering from a wicked case of wry neck, a relatively common condition that causes the bird’s neck to involuntarily twist into a corkscrew that looks like a neurological spasm or a stroke. We noticed the symptoms on Monday, and on Thursday she was euthanized.

Wry neck doesn’t always necessarily kill the afflicted hen. Chicken enthusiasts online report a range of full or partial recoveries. Frustratingly, the condition can be caused by something as benign as dehydration or vitamin deficiency, to more serious factors like head trauma, genetics, and even brain cancer. I decided to treat the hen for the first two possibilities to no avail. The poor thing couldn’t get anything down, and she was fading fast.

This all capped a difficult year for our little skeleton flock. We started last Spring with 36 fertilized eggs and struggled to maintain the humidity levels on our new and cheaply-made incubator. Out of the 36, only 24 hatched. Not bad for a first go, but by no means considered successful. Failing to sell any of the chicks in the first few weeks of life, a dozen of the pullets (adolescent chicks) were given to a bigger farm in the country to alleviate space constraints. A few days later, those dozen met their fate when a marauding snake gobbled them up (one predator we don’t see many of in the city, thankfully). Out of our remaining 12, 6 turned out to be roosters and had to be jettisoned (due to strict city noise ordinances). One of our remaining 6 – a hen nicknamed “Hopper” by the children thanks to her odd pogo gait – pulled a David Copperfield and mysteriously disappeared. Now down to a spindly 4, a nasty cold snap took the life of our runt “Tiny”, who I wrote about previously. And then there were 3: two identical and bossy Barred Rocks and a gentle, soft as silk, white Leghorn with no name and a heart of solid gold.

Guess which one contracted wry neck? Hint: it never happens to the bossy ones.

In the vet’s office we crouched around our pathetic patient. First the doctor gave me the option of a leaving her overnight for a battery of tests and treatment, to the tune of several hundred dollars. Then she leaned closer and said, “or…our euthanasia services are twenty dollars”, and held her gaze until I said OK.

At that moment, death was the culmination of my failure to find the cause and my failure to find a cure. My failure to be a caretaker. My failure to protect. It was all about me.

Later as I drove away with a lifeless chicken and heard those words – Love and death are the two great gifts that we pass on – I was released. Released from the guilt and the shame. Released from the burden. Released from myself, actually. I had passed the gift on, just like someday the gift will be passed on to me. The lump in my chest dissolved and was lifted.

But what about the other half of the poet’s words? …and usually they are passed on unopened. Had the gift been opened? And if so, was it opened by me or the hen? I decided not to dwell on this question, and instead appreciated it as just a question, just poetry. And I was reminded of a line from one of my favorite songs by Smog:

Love is an object kept in an empty box.

Truth is not always understanding. Sometimes saying “I don’t know” is the most truthful thing we can do.

As Roshi Joan Halifax said in her talk, it’s about “having the courage to sit in the stormy seas of our world. To sit in the stormy seas of our mind, and to bear witness. And to let that storm begin to calm down. And the thing that whips that storm into being is the poison of the ego, the poison of the small self.”

Every day we are given the gift of life. Some days we are given the gift of death. On the best days, we are able to give the gift of love. On those days, open it and be grateful.


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