Saturday, June 17, 2006

Life, Death & Ducks

We have a pet duck named Sparky who lives in our back yard. We wanted a pet but three out of the five Dunbars are allergic to anything with fur. I didn’t want to go with lizards or caged birds. We’ve had both in the past: ick and yuck, in that order. So, we went with the next obvious choice: ducks.

We started out with three ducks. We let the kids name them. I braced myself for the worst. I was sure we were going to have ducks named Spiderman, Batman and My Little Pony. We did at one point have two chicks in our possession the kids named Chocolate-Head and Milk-Head. So, there is a sketchy track record. But, Oliver chose the name Sparky (or Thparky as he stills says) and Moses picked Lenny. Then Phoebe, reliable, dependable Phoebe…sensible Phoebe…named her duck Emily. It was very sweet. Right? That’s sweet, isn’t it? To name her one and only pet after her one and only mother? Yes, it was, but I still tried to talk her out of it. If it was a dog and they named it Paul, wouldn’t he object? He said “apples & oranges.” Phoebe was determined. The duck was named Emily and I did my best to see it as the compliment and sign of affection that she intended.

As the ducks grew up it became quite apparent that Emily was a he.


We had a good couple months with the trio of ducks. They graduated from the cardboard box with the brooder lamp in the garage to free range in the backyard. We got them a kiddie pool to swim in and a dog house to sleep in at night. The kids chased them around and held them and they reluctantly obliged.

Then one night I went out to tuck them into their house. Not just one night, but the night before we left for Colorado on vacation -- the night I still had to pack for myself and three kids, plus food & whatnot for the road, plus leave instructions for the duck sitter, plus try and get the house in order so it wasn’t complete chaos upon our return -- that I night went out to tuck the ducks and there was Lenny toe-up in the pool.


We broke the news to three broken-hearted kiddos. Mo was especially crushed--he has a sweet, tender heart and Lenny was his duck. He went through the stages of grief in forty-five seconds flat. He did the following, rapid fire, with one sobbing gulp of air between each stage:

Denial: “I just can’t believe Lenny is dead!”
Anger: “No! It’s just not fair! I don’t want him to be dead!”
Blame: “I saw Derek chasing Lenny last time he came over. That’s why he’s dead!”
Depression: literally dropping to his knees and crying.
And finally, Acceptance: We spent the night painting rocks to put on Lenny’s grave in the garden. We picked flowers to do the same. At Mo’s suggestion we turned off all the lights and listened to a song about Jesus. We talked and talked over the ins and outs of death: animals and people that die stay dead; only Jesus can come back to life, nobody else; but when the time arrives and Jesus comes back, all the people who believe in Him will be alive again get new bodies in heaven…not so sure about ducks.

All was well for about six months. Then, one Sunday morning, ten minutes before church (of course), Mo went out to feed the ducks and get the egg. He ran out the back door -- silence -- and then screaming. He ran in the back door heralding the bad news: Emily was dead, her head and neck missing!

It was much less traumatic the second time around. You’d think that a “natural causes” death would be much easier to stomache than a brutal murder in your own backyard, but no. There were a few tears, but mostly just concern for the widowed Sparky. Would she be safe in the backyard? Would she be sad without her man, Emily? We discussed the same issues and did some similar things. We talked about what a good duck Emily was and how we’d miss her. They really wanted to make sure all the people they care about (and who care about them) knew what had happened.

And then we set a live trap in the yard hoping to catch the murderer, to no avail. The cat/dog/racoon/whathaveyou that decapitated Emily is still at large.

So, now Sparky remains alone. She has laid an egg every morning, without fail, since mid-December, which has brought up a whole new discussion. Ah, the ducks and the bees. The kids have learned that it takes a male and a female to put a duckling inside the egg. Sparky will just keep making eggs, but they won’t become ducks unless we get an other male duck (we won't) and she feels compelled to sit on the eggs (she never has).

Sparky is a very gentle and sweet bird. Look out in the backyard any afternoon and you’ll see Phoebe holding her in her lap, petting her, and telling her stories and secrets I can only imagine. If there’s a light rain, the boys will go out (in yellow rain boots, of course) to dig in the garden to find worms to feed Sparky--her treats. We when eat out on the patio Sparky circles the table and quacks expectantly for veggie scraps.

But more than just pets, Sparky and her dearly departed pals, have been a great teaching tool for Phoebe, Mo and Ollie. When it’s time to discuss sex in a little more detail, they’ll have a point of reference, a framework to build upon. I’m sure that day will come before I know it. Someday, somebody they love is going to die. This will of course be devastating but we will have had a chance to practice when the stakes were a little (okay, a lot) lower. They know to cry, to have some sort of ritual, to share our grief with our loved ones and to remember the resurrection to come.


Angela said...

What a great way to go about handling those tough subjects. Your kids are precious! Hope that you are doing well!

Angela said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
emdunbar said...

Thank you, Angela! Elizabeth Anne is darling as well. Our summer is off to a good start--looks like yours is too.

Dan said...

Em, you need to publish this as a short story. You're so creative and we love the wit with the message. Powerful.
Give the kiddos a hug for us! (Paul, too.)

emdunbar said...

Thanks, Dan. The children have been thoroughly hugged on your behalf. :)