by Erika Marksbury
I know what you’ll think: Why didn’t you sense that something was wrong? Why didn’t you look more closely before inviting your children into that scene? Didn’t you know that wasn’t normal?
Trust me, I know… I mean, now I know. But at the time, I was just so excited. And I’ve suffered too many times that pain of saying, “Hey, kids, look!” only to have them stall, and by the time they turn their heads, to have to say, “Sorry, it’s gone,” and then to endure their uncontrollable sobbing over missing whatever it was…
So when I was packing my oldest’s lunch before school, and saw, out of the corner of my eye, a giant bird swooping down just feet from the house, I called them quickly out of their breakfast seats: “Boys! Boys! A hawk! A hawk just landed on our porch!”
Weird, right? Not what I thought at the time. I thought, Exciting! Thrilling! Spectacular! I rushed with them to our big window, where the majestic bird stood right below our noses.
And then my youngest said, “Uh, mom?” and pointed. And we all registered, with horror, the tiny, light gray-feathered creature who twitched almost imperceptibly as the larger bird’s talons tightened around it.
I had invited my children to witness a killing.
And it’s nature, it’s how the world works, it’s the food chain, it’s all of those clichés, I know… But my kids are both tender-hearted vegetarians, and this was almost too much for them to bear. Don’t get me wrong, they can clobber each other with no mercy; but, like so many kids, their sensitivity to the pain of other creatures is real, and the pain they sense pains them, too.
It was a really long process. The smaller bird continued to struggle as the minutes dragged on. We were restless, but we didn’t – couldn’t? – look away.
They wanted me to intervene. “Mommy, go save that little bird!” “Open the door and scare the hawk away!” “Shoo it off the porch!” “Mommy, just tell it to let the little one go!”
They wanted me to rescue the bird because it was small; it needed special care; it was being tortured by one much bigger and stronger and more powerful than it, but that didn’t mean it didn’t matter or didn’t deserve a chance. They wanted me to intervene because they have, along the way, listened so well to all I’ve tried to teach them about justice and kindness and advocating for those in need. And I couldn’t figure out how to answer them without violating all of those principles, undoing all of that work. “Well, kids, that’s just how things are. No point in me stepping in now. I couldn’t do much even if I tried. Probably do more harm than good. That big bird’ll just find another small one to kill if we save this one…and this one’s no doubt beyond saving. Sorry, boys. Sorry, bird.”
Since I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those words without choking on them, I reluctantly offered some circle-of-life-y explanation: “See, worms eat the dirt; and this little bird eats those worms; and the hawk eats this little bird; and that’s how they all get life and take life from each other…”
But this is part of my larger struggle of how to talk to my kids about violence, about injustice, about hard truths of the world. I don’t want them to lose that compassion, that honed instinct to protect the weaker creature, that sadness at seeing its life slip away. And I want them to know that the hawk needs to eat, too. It’s a nuance that, at seven and four, they don’t yet comprehend. (My older boy kept moaning, “Why can’t everything be vegetarian?!?!?!”) But when are we old enough to distinguish necessary violences from gratuitous ones?
If I’m honest, I fear that our growing-up years do the work of transforming almost all violences into necessary, justifiable ones. There’s something admirable, if impractical, about the absolutism of children. There’s something regrettable, if ordinary, about how easily I’ll accept the tremendous costs of my own conveniences.
It could be that I don’t need to school my children in which killings are ok, but to let them remind me of how to sorrow with and for another – any other – creature. To pay attention to the answers their questions call forth from me, especially when I utter them quickly or thoughtlessly, effectively discouraging harder conversations.
For days, a blanket of the lightest of feathers coated our walkway: aftermath. Though we’ve meant to since we moved in, we still haven’t removed that tacky green turf-like carpet that covers the cement, so even though it was a windy day, the tiny down didn’t blow away. It clung, wiggling in the breeze but not escaping, for days. Until it finally dislodged, we used the side door. We looked at those feathers, and away from them, for days. We mourned.
And I said prayers of confession.
And my oldest boy began a ritual of locking the doors every night, so the hungry hawk can’t sneak in while we sleep and gobble up our cats.