I am not very consistent about giving gifts. Sometimes I give a gift for the sake of giving a gift–but I much prefer giving a gift that springs from thought and comes with meaning. The meaning in the gift can be as simple as “I read this book and I thought you would like it” to as deep as “I hand crafted this item to be a token of my love.” Whatever the meaning, the gift must be something more than the requisite tie, socks, or gift card if it is to escape being so boring to give so as to not feel worth the effort.
It is often the case that when a gift-giving occasions come around I find myself without ideas for meaningful gifts and so I just don’t give anything. I have passing dreams of being a great gift giver who finds the perfect meaningful gift for everyone each time, but the reality is that–at best–I have been very erratic in gift giving. I don’t have a strong need to receive gifts either–I appreciate a thoughtful gift but I don’t measure how much I am loved by my loot–and these tepid feelings don’t help me be more consistent in giving gifts.
My wife is quite the opposite. For Debbie, gifts are a primary way of expressing love. Being aware of this fact, I have been very careful to not succumb to my habitual laxity. I always enjoy giving her gifts, but I must be on top of my game since my preferred way of giving requires thought–sometimes daydreaming and inspiration–and often the application of time.
Because I delight in giving meaningful gifts, bouts of creativity can produce gift giving even when not expected. It is not traditional (in American culture) for a husband to give his wife gifts on their wedding, and Debbie was not expecting anything from me on this occasion. But for me the delight of giving totally unexpected gifts is second only to the delight of giving meaningful gifts, and so with great anticipation I formulated a plan to give Debbie one gift for every day of the week of our honeymoon. None of the gifts were extravagant, but I put careful thought into each of them and what the giving of them meant.
The strangest gift was the first, which I gave on our wedding day. It was a box of seven eggs.
On the superficial level the gift was an allusion to an event in the second novel I published, The Stuttering Duke of York. The hero of the story was told he had to provide a gift of infinite worth if he wanted to marry a princess–and so he provided eggs which could hatch and the chickens then lay more eggs which could hatch…and so on. Infinite worth.
On the literal level the eggs were an opportunity. I told her she could either just use them like eggs from the store and eat them, or we could borrow my sister’s incubator and hatch the eggs. She could turn the gift into a gift of chickens, if she so chose.
There was a serious side to the gift as well. Life is the greatest gift, and eggs–with life stored away inside them–are a picture of life. I gave Debbie a metaphor for the giving of life–symbolically, the greatest gift I could give on our wedding day was my life.
Finally, the gift was (to me) also a riddle. It was a picture of the riddle for what life is–the greatest and hardest and strangest gift we will all receive.
Debbie decided to hatch the eggs and we started the incubator when we returned from the honeymoon. Over the course of the incubation period it became apparent that one of the eggs was not developing so we discarded that egg, leaving six. Then, after the appointed number of days had passed, the eggs began to hatch. This was Debbie’s first experience watching eggs hatch so the process was followed with much excitement.
Five of the eggs hatched without any unusual difficulty (though you only have to watch an egg hatching in progress to realize what hard work it is for the chick). However, the last chick was unable to extract itself from the shell. Once this became apparent we undertook to extract the chick–a slow and almost surgical process. We discovered the chick was still attached to the shell via its umbilical cord which I cut and hoped for the best. The chick did survive and even flourished.
In my many years of raising chickens I have named only a few–chickens come and go and becoming too attached adds difficulty. But these chickens were Debbie’s special pets and she wanted to name them, so they became: Eldest (the first to hatch), Petunia, Gawain, Matilda, Jerusha, and Lazarus (the chick we had to save from its shell and an early death). The naming process happened before the gender of the chicks was apparent which resulted in the humorous mis-match of a rooster named Petunia. By some stroke of luck the rest managed to be gender appropriate.
Life started good. The chicks lived in a box under the unfinished cabinet space beside the refrigerator. Debbie delighted to watch as they grew and developed in their individual personalities. Then they were old enough to begin exploring outside, and soon we were taking them cricket hunting in the yard. All was well until we noticed Gawain had a problem with his beak. A genetic deformity was causing his lower beak to not develop while his upper beak was over-developing and curving sharply like a parrot beak. The problem became worse as he grew, and it became increasingly difficult for him to pick up food. As his bottom beak continued to fail in development there was no space for his tongue in the beak so it was pushed back to block his throat and making it nearly impossible for him to swallow.
We observed him for a number of days and it became apparent he was not getting enough food–and it soon became clear that without intervention he would starve. I stepped in as chicken doctor and trimmed the upper beak as best I could and tried to feed him soft foods (such as bits of bread soaked in milk) which he could more easily swallow (though this was still quite difficult and sometimes I would push the food down his throat with a Q-tip). Several times each day I would carefully feed him. We hoped that if Gawain grew big enough his beak and throat issues would improve enough that he would be able to feed himself. For a short while I thought we might be successful. But Gawain continued to fall further and further behind his hatchmates, growing ever more gaunt while the other’s flourished. Even if he did not starve to death in spite of my feeding efforts I didn’t see how he could survive the winter in his poor condition.
Gawain’s lower beak continued to fail to develop to the point that he eventually swallowed his tongue, a little pouch forming beneath his beak. I thought perhaps with the tongue not in the way as much it might help his swallowing, but this wasn’t the case. Every day I repeatedly fed Gawain, but every day he became more desperate for food. It became apparent that it was only a matter of time until he wouldn’t be able to keep going any longer. Some days it felt like feeding him was just prolonging his misery.
The first chill mornings of autumn came. By this time the chicks had graduated to the real chicken coop our in the back yard and every morning I would let them out for their daily adventures in the great outdoors. After a chill snap in late September I opened the coop door to find Gawain dead on the floor. Whether the cold did him in, or starvation, I don’t know.
Gawain was a hard loss. I have dealt with many dead chickens, and in the process of butchering for meat I have killed a lot of chickens. Dealing with death is never fun, but Gawain’s death was peculiarly difficult because I had invested so much time and effort in trying to overcome his deformity and give him a good life. His death felt like my personal failure against the ugliness of life, and the sadness felt like it stood in for much larger hard things in life.
That day got worse. A few hours later I was outside and noticed the chickens were acting strange–very watchful and alarmed. With a stomach dropping sensation I noticed one of them was missing. Where was Jerusha? Hawks had made several attempts on the young birds over the summer and I had almost perpetual anxiety that predatory success was just around the corner. Some searching–and noticing the few feathers drifting on the air–brought me to the front steps where a scattering of more feathers told the story of where the hawk hit Jerusha and carried her away.
Two chickens lost in one day (our two favorites). It was a hard blow for Debbie when she came home to the news.
Still, life went on. When Debbie’s sister Abigail lost all of her chickens except two survivors to a wild animal attack, we inherited the fortunate Agnes and Edna, two Red Star laying hens. Not too many days later Edna revealed herself as a psychotic chicken with a compulsion to wander far and wide and spend the morning tearing up the neighbor’s flower beds. So Edna was soon traded to my sister Deirdre for Beatrice–another Red Star–as a replacement. Everyone settled into the new pecking order and life was good.
Then one winter morning I found Lazarus dead in the chicken coop, his headless body dragged over into a corner–the probable work of a mink. The foolish rooster liked to sleep in nest hutches which were far less safe than the roosting poles. “Our favorite ones always die,” Debbie said bitterly. First it was Gawain and Jerusha, and now goofy brainless Lazarus who had risen to take the place of the departed. Debbie decided she didn’t want to see the ravaged remains of Lazarus, so I trudged through the snow to dispose of the body up in the woods.
The rest of the chickens continue to live out uneventful days. Matilda is the clever and thoughtful one but she is the least dominant and is picked on by the other chickens. She likes being held by the humans she trusts. Petunia is the rooster in charge, a congenial fellow who gets along with people and manages his flock with with a light rule. Eldest is skittish and resentful with bouts of hostility. Agnes and Beatrice faithfully lay an egg a day and quietly think the world revolves around them.
I was sad when sorrow hit Debbie in the first tragedy of the chicken flock, but I had known it would come eventually–not if, but when. Therein that promised sorrow was the riddle of the gift. Those eggs–bound tight up with the promise of life–were filled with both joy and grief. If she decided to hatch those eggs I knew Debbie would gain delight and suffer loss. That doesn’t feel like the way a gift should be, but life is the strangest gift.
As I watched this gift of life unfold in egg hatching and chick growing and animal dying I thought about how it all–in hurt and hope, gain and loss–was a metaphor for the lives we have, what we have been given. When God gives us life, He gives the strangest gift. Our own life given to us is unasked, unexpected, and beyond our understanding. We marvel at the joy, struggle in the loss, in all things wonder why it is so that all the goodness and meaning of living is mixed with the hurt. It is inexplicable that God would give us this strangest of all gifts–but when you find yourself giving an echo of that to someone you love then you understand something of why the strangest gifts are the best.