Legend has it my daughter’s first word was shoe. Pickle is 14 years old now, a freshman in high school, and the days of first words are a bit foggy and sometimes I can’t separate fact from fiction.

But that is the story my wife Cathlin and I have always told ourselves and I can believe it looking at the vast collection of shoes arranged on our living room floor. We don’t have a mud room, so the shoes take center stage along one wall, stretching from the front door to the stereo.

In Pickle’s defense, the shoes are not all hers, but many are: sneakers, sandals, clogs, more sneakers, boots and more boots.

I’m staring at this collection while waiting for her to finish getting ready for school. The morning routine is not as hectic this year with only one child to roust from bed, check on the day’s scheduling, grab a piece of toast, and then wait at the door calling out the countdown: four minutes and we have to be on the road, two minutes or we will be late, we are now officially late.

My son Hardy is now in college, navigating his own freshman year, one that for the most part does not involve us. He answers our phone calls and texts, and occasionally initiates his own, but those are check-ins describing events that have already taken place with people I do not know. The intimate journey of his everyday life, down to what he has eaten or how he looks when he first wakes up, his hair disheveled as he reaches for his glasses to check the time, is not part of my life anymore.

When Pickle was born, Cathlin and I marveled at how the scope of our world seemed to enlarge. When it was just Hardy, our gaze, we discovered, had narrowed as we focused so intently on his every breath. But when Pickle arrived three years later, it was as if the horizon had returned as our attention shifted to two. There was less scrutiny within the chaos, which felt right.

Now the gaze has shrunk again. I notice Pickle’s collection of shoes, the way she nibbles her fingernails, how she walks to the car with her backpack slung over one shoulder, that in the passenger seat she no longer looks like a little girl who can barely see over the dashboard.

It is a 20-minute drive to the regional high school and Pickle could easily take the bus, which she has suggested while we drive to school, sometimes following the bus the entire way. But I am not ready to give up this routine, these 20 minutes of traveling side by side, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, sometimes listening to music. Without it I do not know how I would start my day. When the kids were little they had security blankets, and somewhere along the way they became my security blankets. Navigating the world with my children has anchored me in a way I never knew possible before.

Today Pickle and I talk about Maybelle, our favorite chicken, who is dying.

Photo of Maybelle, which a blue ribbon at the fair. — Pickle Eville

Maybelle became part of our lives eight years ago when Pickle and Cynthia Riggs hatched a plan to convince me that backyard chickens were essential. I had never owned chickens nor did I want to, but it is impossible to say no to the combined forces of a six year old and an octogenarian.

Pickle and Cynthia chose the chicks from a mail order catalogue and in a few weeks, we picked them up from the post office and brought them home in a small box. Cathlin created a pen for them in the kitchen until they were old enough to be moved out to the backyard coop. There were seven chickens in that initial mail order and over the years the rest of the brood died, either from hawks or disease. Only Maybelle survived, making the rounds each day in the nearby woods, sometimes finding a safe place to hide at night when I forgot to close the coop door.

Now she is surrounded by chickens we have inherited along the way, and some are not nice to her. Thankfully, Janice, a tough broad, befriended her and drives the other chickens away when they get aggressive. The twosome wanders off together each day, taking a circuitous path through the woods and roosting in the rhododendron bushes, where the thick leaves remain year-round and serve as a fortress against any possible attacks from above.

Maybelle has always been the mellow chicken, so calm Pickle could take her to the ferry to greet friends arriving. She also became the rocking chair chicken. Most days she would fly up to the seat and settle on the cushion to pass the time. Eventually, she began laying her eggs there rather than in the nesting box in the coop.

Lately, she doesn’t have the strength to fly onto the rocker and I often find her resting below it. Sometimes I pick her up and we sit together, Maybelle on my lap as we look out at the woods and think our man and chicken thoughts.


When Pickle and I arrive home that evening Maybelle looks especially tired, squatting close to the coop. We sit on the grass, feeding her bits of banana, her favorite treat. Standing watch next to her is Janice. The banana revives Maybelle and the two chickens stroll to the edge of the yard and scratch about in the leaves, looking for a final snack before bed.

Pickle and I head inside, and while she goes to her room I walk into Hardy’s room. Other dads have confided to me that when their child went off to college they often became unmoored by the empty bedroom. Some kept the door closed all the time, others found themselves wandering in to straighten the bedcovers or stare out the window for minutes at a time. I have chosen a different route, transferring several shirts of mine to Hardy’s closet, claiming I had no more room in mine. Now if Pickle or Cathlin finds me in his room and asks why I am there, I have a ready excuse: “Just getting one of my shirts, that’s all.”


Driving to school the next day, Pickle and I talk about Maybelle some more. Eight years is old for a chicken, we acknowledge, and she has lived a good life. Then we fall silent, not knowing what else to say.

That evening we find Maybelle standing beneath the trampoline, looking weaker than ever, one eye open, the other closed. Even Janice looks worried.

Later, when putting the chickens to bed, we can’t find Maybelle. We search with flashlights and eventually I hear a rustle near the porch rocker. Her small head peaks out from a pile of leaves. She is tucked in for the night, barely visible but I worry about the raccoons and carry her to the coop and place her in the nesting box. She is too weak now to hold on to her perch beside Janice.

In the morning, Maybelle lies flat among the wood shavings. Both eyes are closed and I think she is dead. But when I touch her she opens her eyes.

I get Pickle and together we move Maybelle to a spot in the yard, where she can be comfortable in her last moments and away from the other chickens who have begun to peck at her, no matter how hard Janice tries to keep them away. The two of us watch Maybelle breathe. Then my attention shifts to Pickle. I see her hand on Maybelle’s back stroking her feathers. I see how long Pickle’s fingers have grown, and how she uses them to comfort Maybelle. I see Pickle’s clogs and her white sweatpants now splattered with mud. I see her shoulders begin to shake and I hear her sobs. I see my own hand on Pickle’s back — and then I see my mind writing all this down.

I have written about my children all their lives, have watched them and have also watched myself watching them. Occasionally, I have felt guilty about this as my father-self was swallowed up by my writer-self. But so far neither Hardy or Pickle has asked me to stop sending their lives out into the public sphere. It crosses my mind, though, while watching Pickle and Maybelle, that the day may soon come.

Sure enough, that night, after we have wrapped Maybelle in a towel and placed her in a box to bury her the next day, Pickle sends me a text from her bedroom.

“Please don’t write about this,” she texts.

“Okay,” I respond.

But the next morning, long before the sun rises, I put pencil to paper and do write the story of Maybelle, even if I don’t think it will ever leave the basement where I write. I have no other choice. It is how I pay attention to my life more deeply than I could in any other way. It is also how I tell my children how much I love them, putting words to our stories. And lately it is how I tell them how much I miss them as they grow up and discover lives of their own.

Later, as Pickle and I walk out the door to drive to school, Janice bursts forth from the rhododendron bush. She is alone and the sight claws at my heart. I go back inside and gather some Honey Nut Cheerios, a favorite treat of hers and Maybelle’s, and sprinkle some on the lawn.

And as Janice settles into eating, I tell Pickle what I have written and ask her if it might be okay to share. I tell her it is about Maybelle but so much more.

She thinks for a moment.

“Okay,” she says. “But this is the last time.”

And with that she is off to the car, her backpack slung over her shoulder. She sits in the passenger seat, that middle ground between her car seat days, when I would sneak looks at her in the rear view mirror, and the near future when she will take her place in the driver’s seat.

And not long after that I will have to come up with another excuse, this time to visit her room, to straighten her pictures or look out her window and wonder how her life is unfolding.