–Wow, Caleb, you have lots of brains.–
–No, I don’t! I only have one brain!–
–I mean, you have lots of sense.–
— I don’t have any cents, only three pennies.–
(Caleb-3 with Laura)
“I hate it when things die!” Erin (7) sobbed bitterly.
I have tried to teach the children not to hate because hating makes you feel hateful. But I understood her sentiment: her pet goat had died. She didn’t want to feel the deep grief of the loss of things loved.
“We never even gave him a name,” she lamented. “We just named him Goatie.”
Goatie was a cute kid, with white and black and brown splotches, and almost no ears: a La Mancha. The floppy-eared goats are Nubians. Goatie had seemed alright, although he coughed a lot. One Saturday Erin found him lying on the ground, too weak to get up or even move his head. She ran to me, crying that Goatie was sick and that I needed to call Harvey or the vet. I looked at Goatie helplessly; I called Harvey, but he wasn’t home. Erin got some paper towels and held the kid while I gently wiped slimy mucous from his nose. I rubbed his side hard and told Erin and Laura (4) to rub too, to help Goatie warm up. After all we could do, we laid Goatie in the warm sun and put hay and water by his head.
An hour later Goatie was dead. We watched him kick weakly into the air, in the death throws I had only heard about. Then he collapsed and lay still. Erin screamed and sobbed. I picked Goatie up and held him on my lap, rocking. The girls stood by, crying, and I put my arms around them and pulled them close to me and to Goatie.
“I’m sad, too,” I whispered sincerely. “I’m awfully sad.”
We cried and rubbed his fur and head.
“Why did Goatie have to get sick and die?” Erin asked accusingly. “Why did he have to go away?”
I didn’t try to answer her questions. I didn’t have the answers. I just held her close and said, “It’s ok to cry. Goatie was special, and now he’s gone and we miss him and are sad. So it’s ok to cry. I’m sad, too.”
After a few minutes, I ventured, “We need to take care of him. We need to bury him in the earth. That’s where his body needs to rest.”
Erin nodded her head, her face red and swollen from sobbing.
“Would you like to have a funeral?” I asked.
The children all nodded their heads.
I stood, gently lifting Goatie. Brian (10) joined the girls and followed me to the garden. Brian and I dug a deep hole while the girls watched over Goatie so no flies would land on him.
“It’s time,” I said, sadly but firmly. “Say good-bye one more time.”
The children petted him again, then I laid Goatie in the hole, on a bed of straw the children had made. Erin wouldn’t let me put dirt on Goatie. She asked Angie for an old sheet and used it to cover Goatie. She said it would keep him warm and clean. Erin and Laura placed beautiful little roses on Goatie’s blanket, roses that Angie let them pick from her new rose garden that we had planted for our wedding anniversary.
“Goatie will like to eat them, huh?” Laura asked hopefully.
I offered a simple funereal prayer. Brian took a shovel and lightly placed dirt over Goatie’s blanket until it was covered. He filled the hole, leaving a mound above the grave. Erin had saved the most beautiful rose, a crimson bud, to place on top of the grave. Somehow, the funeral had helped us all feel better. But we’ll miss Goatie. He was our friend.
Soon after, Erin found a little bird dead in the grass. She was amazed and grateful that the cats hadn’t found it and torn it to pieces, leaving its feathers scattered across the lawn. She scooped up the little bird and determined to find a peaceful resting place. Even if the cats never found it, she didn’t want it to just lay there and turn into bones with nobody caring. Erin had a feeling that the little bird was somehow still alive and still had feelings, that it would still want to be cared for. She laid the bird against the forked trunk of one of our trees, made it a blanket of fresh, cool grass, and placed a flat rock over it, leaning it against the tree. She showed me how she had taken care of the dead little bird.
“It’s resting, sort of like Jesus, under his blanket behind the stone.”
I couldn’t suppress a smile. “Thank you for taking care of the little bird, sweetie. Little birds are special creatures, to be taken care of.” I knelt down and hugged her softly, hoping she knew I loved her.
My children have seen many animals die. Some of their kittens have died, and the children have cried and buried the kittens with roses and blankets of grass. Guinea pigs and gerbils. Another goat. And Teancum killed more chickens. We always take care of them, and we always feel sad. I mentioned to the children that my grandmother Dora had died because she was very old. Laura (4) became frightened that she would die soon, too. But I reassured her that she wouldn’t die: she would live a long, happy life. Laura appeared relieved and happy.
For a short time, Brian (11) kept Firebelly Newts in a ten-gallon aquarium. Their glossy black bodies were striped with scarlet. They paddled lazily around the plants and rocks, rising when necessary to breathe. Floating plants and wooden disks allowed the newts to rest with their heads above water when it suited them. After several weeks, Brian was distressed to find that the newts were disappearing, one at a time. They must have climbed up the water circulation tube and dropped from the aquarium tank onto the floor. We found a few newts in time to save them from drying out. While cleaning his room weeks later, Brian and his mother found the missing newts shriveled up and dead in the corners of his room.
When I returned from my walk one morning, Angie told me that she had screamed with a terrible start after almost stepping on a newt slowly crawling across the dark kitchen floor, forty feet and one floor away from Brian’s room. Somehow it had made its way down the carpeted hall and stairs, then across the tiled den to the kitchen. Quivering, she had hesitantly picked up the slimy animal and dropped it back into the aquarium. She screamed again upon finding another live newt in the children’s bathroom amongst the bath toys scattered on the floor.
“Why am I the one that always finds these disgusting creatures dead and dying around the house?” she complained with a grin.
We did our best to block all the aquarium escape routes, to no avail. All the newts found their way out, to their demise.
* * *
Caleb (3) engaged me in a playful duel with his plastic cutlass after work one evening. Jabbing me with the point, he declared, “I keeled you!”
“Oh yeah?” I responded.
“Yeah,” he challenged.
“Well, take that!” I said as I thrust with my plastic coat hangar.
We hacked and wacked at each other, then Caleb declared, “I keeled you again!”
“Oh yeah, well I keeled you!” I parried.
Caleb laughed and put down his sword, suddenly aware of the irony, “We both keeled!”
Even when our game was over, Caleb kept “keeling” everybody, and everything, including chairs, walls, couches, bookshelves, and the wood stove: “I keeled you, chair!”
Working at City Hall ten or more hours a day during the week, Saturday was my day to mow and edge the lawn, weed and tend the garden, fix a broken door knob or sprinkler or chicken coop door, and perhaps make something like a birdhouse or a section of picket fence. It seemed to become a weekly occurrence for John (7), Caleb (5), and Hyrum (2) to approach me with a humble, pleading, “Daddy, can you make me a sword?” I could swear that I had just made a sword last week for one child or the other.
“Why do you need a new sword?” I would ask.
“Well,” the child would respond. “The one you made last week is broked, and the one you made before that is losted.”
I would grit my teeth and breathe deep, then, unable to resist their boyish request, finally relent: “Sure, I’ll help you make a sword.”
We would march off to the shed, cut an appropriate length of one-by-two, cut one end to a point, and nail on a hilt.
While sometimes resenting these childish intrusions on my grown-up chores, I had nonetheless kept a supply of one-by-two lumber and box nails on hand so that I could respond to their frequent requests. Each boy’s eyes and smile would widen with gratitude and admiration as I handed him the new sword. Running from the shed, he would call his brothers to see his new sword, then begin a three-way sparring match. Sometimes big brother Brian would join in. Often one of the boys would come to me in tears, explaining that his brother had hit him in the knuckles with his sword—on purpose. I would listen and sympathize, and he would run away to spar again, his knuckles still smarting but his wound healed.
We had been reading the Redwall series at the time. As the boys ran and sparred, they yelled, “Redwall!” as their charging battle cry. They added to each sword thrust and parry a vocal “ching! ching!” of steel clanking on steel. Caleb swung with a loud “ching!” John and Hyrum responded with their own swings and “ching! ching!” Caleb had taken to sleeping with his sword. At night, lying in his bed, Caleb more than once suddenly burst out with, “I am Mathias!” or “Long live the King!”
Those little boys soon grew up enough to make their own swords. They didn’t ask me to make new swords any more. They still had a frequent need for new swords, and I kept a supply of one-by-two lumber for that purpose. As I prepare to mow the lawn on a Saturday morning, I first have to clear the yard of the variety of weapons: swords, spears, axes, daggers, machine guns, pistols, and Star Wars light sabers. Picking up these weapons, I find that part of me is glad that the boys no longer bother me weekly to make their new swords, while another part of me misses helping them make the tools of their imagination and play. Perhaps my feelings will always be mixed as the passage of time relieves me of both my old burdens and my old pleasures, invariably to be replaced with new ones.
* * *
Play comes hard to me. Play is not my natural mode of operation or expression. But one day I decided to play, to take the children on a pretend journey through the forest and into the mountains, on a bear hunt. Shod in work boots and armed with knife and a staff, I became Big Chief Daddy. Caleb (3), perceiving some fanciful change in the air, became suddenly serious, and donned his wooden dagger and a rough-sewn pouch in which to collect treasures.
Caleb stated solemnly to Laura (7), “Squaws can’t hunt; only braves.”
Only mildly annoyed, Laura shot back, “I’m coming anyway.”
Of course, she was invited. All in a line and ready for adventure, we began our march through the tall grass of the Great Plains. The grass grew to over four feet tall, taller than all of the children. We chanted impromptu marching songs as we blazed our trail through the grass, stopping every so often to look for bears.
I placed John (5) in charge of finding water, vital for any expedition. He brought a water bottle. He also brought some nuts and crackers in case the hunt was unsuccessful. Caleb was to use his dagger to cut meat for roasting, when we caught it. Laura was the fire master, with tinder and flint. She would roast our meat to perfection.
Meandering through the grassy plains, we arrived at Clay Hill, and started our mountain climb, resting at the top to admire the mountain top view. The Great Salt Lake shone distantly as a glistening gray-blue ribbon on the horizon where the grass met the sky. The tall weeds on the clay mound became a pine forest. Resuming our trek, we climbed down the mountain into the tall grass again, searching for prey.
I halted suddenly and crouched, stopping our song and motioning for the children to be still and silent.
“There,” I whispered. “Can you see? It’s an enormous bear. Follow me, but be very quiet, and very careful.”
We stalked through the grass like cats after voles. Without warning I jumped up, yelled, and hurled my staff, spear-like, toward the invisible giant bear. Cheering, I directed the wide-eyed Caleb to dress the bear.
“I’m famished,” I told him.
He charged off through the grass while Laura cleared a fire ring, and we settled down to our feast.
That was our only bear hunt. Since then, we have searched instead for pretty leaves and berries, for striped Monarch caterpillars that elicit sighs of wonder, for hawk moths flying frenetically between Mimosa blossoms, for the occasional bright Western Tanager and the ubiquitous House Finch and House Sparrow, for the beautifully marked American Kestrel and the proud Red-tailed Hawk, for cattails that look like hot dogs on skewers, and for rocks with crystals or odd dimples that our fancy hoped were fossils millions of years old. Let the bears alone, magnificent creatures of the great American wild. We will be content with crackers and nuts and the view of nature around us. We will hunt only with our eyes. Our neighbor, Charley, can do the real hunting for all of us.