Six Little Ducks I (Never) Knew – A Lesson in Vulnerability

“Six Little Ducks I {Never} Knew” (A Lesson in Vulnerability)

Maggie May noticed them first.  As we left the house on our morning walk, she pulled the leash to the shrub outside our front door.  As she wriggled her nose into the hedge, out flapped a duck, squawking and honking. It took me a moment to realize what was happening. “Oh no.” I thought, “She wouldn’t. Not here.”

Working hard to separate the dense foliage, I held Maggie back and peered inside.  There they were – six pearly white eggs. How had she wedged herself in there?

For weeks I’d watched a pair of mallards, waddling about the neighborhood, Mrs. Mallard obviously heavy with eggs.  I assumed she was looking for a nesting site. It never occurred to me she would choose my yard. When we returned, I checked the shrub again.  Out she flapped.

When I texted my friends with the photo of the eggs, one replied, “She knows you love birds.  You can be a godmother.” Really?  Okay, so I like birds. I find them interesting.  I’ve written books about them; however, I know nothing about ducks.  Zilch, nil, zeeeero,  but even a birdbrain knows that laying a clutch of eggs,  by someone’s front door, is not a good choice.  In plain English, Mrs. Mallard, you are vulnerable!

In Brene’ Brown’s book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” she notes that vulnerability involves risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure and requires showing up and being seen.  Listening, Mrs. Mallard?

The idea of being a godmother was intriguing. I’m a godmother to a niece, so I know we’re chosen by parents to take an interest in their child’s upbringing and personal development; to take care of them should anything happen to the parents. Being a godmother to ducklings seemed crazy, yet, it was obvious Mrs. Mallard needed help. Even if her eggs survived the snakes, raccoons, deer, chipmunks, foxes, and bears (I’m kidding about the bears), the distance from the nest to the water, the constant activity in and out of the house, and Maggie’s wriggling nose, how would she have the uninterrupted time (a month), necessary to incubate and hatch her eggs?

I remember lyrics to a song I once sang to my children:  “Six little ducks that I once knew; fat ones, skinny ones, pretty ones too…”

My interest growing, I put McCloskey’s book, “Make Way for Ducklings,” on hold at the library, and began researching ducks.  Here’s some of what I learned:  Ducks close one eye in order to put half their brain to sleep, while keeping the other eye and half of their brain awake and alert.  Ducks have a remarkable degree of abstract intelligence.  The female sits very tightly on her nest, her brown plumage blending in perfectly with the surroundings. Amazing, but would any of this help Mrs. Mallard?

A couple days went by.  Stealthy like thieves, we came and went. Except for walks, I kept Maggie inside.

One morning we sneak out for our walk.   I glance at the shrub, envisioning Mrs. Mallard tucked tightly inside, ever the faithful mom sitting on her eggs.  But, alas! There beside the shrub, a scattering of eggshells.  Not wanting to disturb the crime scene, I carefully peer inside. Shells everywhere. Not one egg is intact.   I notice a couple of cigarette butts nearby and I know the raccoons are the villians.

Six little ducks I’ll never know.  I recalled my miscarriage and wondered if Mrs. Mallard felt the same excruciating sadness and loss.

I’d learned ducks feel loneliness, isolation and grief much like humans and since the male’s role is over once the clutch is laid (he remains sexually potent for a while in case a replacement clutch is needed, but gradually loses interest and joins other males to molt), Mrs. Mallard would bear her loss alone.

Later that week, I saw her across the driveway.  I went inside so she could inspect her nest; grieve her loss. Hours later, when I peeked inside, she flew off for the last time. She’d been sitting for hours on a pile of egg shells. It broke

my heart. .

Brown notes that one’s inability to lean in to the discomfort of vulnerability limits the fullness of important experiences, such as uncertainly, love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity – but Mrs. Mallard knows this. She’ll rise strong,* I know.

This fall a hunter will raise a rifle and take aim at a flock of ducks.  Mrs. Mallard could be among them, because she’s my hero – she shows up and is seen. She’s vulnerable. Whether she’s brought down by a bullet or lives to lay another clutch, she’ll always have a place in my heart.

*Rising Strong  by Brene’ Brown

Janet Hasselbring is a retired educator and musician.  She resides in Spring Lake, MI with her husband and Welsh terrier, Maggie May. They winter in FL, where she is inspired to write her children’s book series, Tales from Pelican Cove, featuring the wild/shorebirds of FL and beyond. She has also written a series about her family farm, Country Dairy, including a memoir of her mother, In the Garden, a testament to her mother’s life of faith on the farm, now, Country Dairy. For additional musings on faith, surrender, vulnerability and wild/shorebirds, or to schedule a presentation, visit, or



Maximus – A Good Therapy dog


Maximus – a Good Therapy Dog

maximus-and-me“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”  Martin Buber

“Good morning Lena,”   I called as Max and I entered her room at the *Fountains Assisted Living Lodge.  Max, my yellow Labrador retriever, and I were on our weekly volunteer assignment.  Max wagged his tail in greeting.  Lena’s eyes lit up when she saw him.  I didn’t mind that she greeted Max before acknowledging me.   After all, he was the therapy; I merely tagged along. He was the main act; I was the sideshow.

I opened the blinds to let in some spring sunshine; then got down to the task at hand.  Max knew the routine.  He flopped down by the side of the bed, with that look – hey, it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.  

“What’s for breakfast?” I asked.  Lena, what was left of her at 90, was sitting up in bed. Her breakfast tray, laden with dishes, hovered in front of her. Lena was essentially bedridden and needed help walking, eating, and dressing.  She opted to eat breakfast in her room and my job was to feed her and get as much nutrition into her fragile frame as possible.

While I fed Lena, Max lifted his head, his nose aquiver with the potpourri of smells wafting his way.  After a few spoons of oatmeal, Lena lost interest.  “What about this coffee cake,” I asked.  “It looks like a special treat.”  “Oh, I’ll save it for later,” she said, so I set the cake on her bedside table and removed the tray so we could talk. At the word “treat,” Max went on full alert.  I should have noticed.

I rearranged her pillows so she could sit back comfortably, then pulled up a chair. We were chatting away, when Lena, making a point, absentmindedly patted the bedcovers.  That was all the invitation Max needed.  With one leap he bounded up from the floor and landed, PLOP, on top of Lena. All 100 lbs. of him!  Thinking he’d squashed the breath out of her, I pulled him away.  Where was she?  I was about to ring for a nurse, when I heard a faint sound like wheezing, coming from her direction. Lena, under a heap of bedcovers and pillows, was barely visible, but a huge smile was plastered on her face.  The wheezing sounds were chuckles.

Relieved we hadn’t killed our patient, I straightened her out as best I could.  “Are you alright?”  I asked.

“I haven’t had a good laugh like this in a long time,” she wheezed. “Good boy,” she said, as she stroked Max’s silky, golden fur. Good dog, Really?   When it was time to go, Max jumped down and an exhausted Lena settled in for a nap. I straightened up and we left. Walking down the hall, I couldn’t help but notice a distinct cluster of crumbs on Max’s nose. That too, I wondered?

Max, majestic as ever, looked straight ahead.  “Don’t even ask…” his eyes seemed to say.maximus-the-magnificent

Another time, I came to play the piano for the residents during the lunch hour. As Max and I walked to the dining room, a fire alarm went off in the building. Max stiffened. I’ll let you in on a secret: for all his 100 lbs., grandeur, and majestic bearing, Max is a wimp.  Beeping smoke alarms, sirens, and thunder – anything with a high frequency, sends him into spasms.  At home, he heads downstairs, where he hides under a desk in my husband’s office – the farthest point from the noise.  I was about to leave, when the director came by.  “False alarm,” she explained.  When the alarm sounded a second time, I headed for the door.  “No, no,” she said. “I’ll go find out what the problem is.  There’s no fire drill scheduled for today.  Please stay.  The people love to hear you play.”

When the ringing stopped, I tethered Max to a chair and told him to lie down. He was still shaking and gave me a worried look.  An aide promised to keep an eye on him, so I proceeded to the piano at the other end of the room.  I was well into my concert of oldies, when the alarm sounded yet again.  I stopped playing and looked across the room where Max was.  He was nowhere to be seen.

“Oh no,” I thought.  Perhaps the aide had taken him outside away from the noise, which this time, didn’t stop.  Finally I spied him.  He was heading to an exit, laboriously pulling the chair along behind.  When I freed him, he looked at me, raw fear in his eyes.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting out of here.

These were just a few of the adventures I enjoyed with Max. He was still a pup when we started volunteering. One of my first assignments was answering phones at the Hospice office. Max was in training then and the staff loved him.  He was allowed free rein of the building. And, he reigned.  Once he returned to my desk with a soup can stuck on his nose.  He had a hard time explaining that one. Another time, he emptied the garbage can in the staff room and finished off a big Mac value meal. To his credit, he had enough manners to leave the condiments.  And the time we were invited to a resident’s birthday party.  She’d invited a few friends to her room for cake.  Max and I stopped by with a card and balloon.  The birthday girl, who was 90, was passing around slices of cake, when one of her friends looked at the plate she was given and said, “Ellen, where’s my cake?  You gave me an empty plate.”  I looked at Max.  Staring straight ahead.  “No matter,” cooed the hostess, unphased.  “Here’s another piece.”  Then she winked at me.  That said it all.

No wonder Max loved doing therapy work.  Laying around, just being himself.  How hard is that? The people adored him. And the payoffs were huge.

That was Max – he was a good therapy dog.    maximus-in-snow

Note:  Max was a Paws with a Cause reject, but he made a great therapy/Hospice dog.  I credit Max with helping us find Pelican Cove, our winter abode in FL. He was loved by everyone who was lucky enough to know him.

*Fountains Assisted Living Center is a fictional name as are the names of the residents in the story.

Meet Maggie May of Rod Stewart fame.  My yellow lab of 12 years, Maximus Aurileus, died last summer.  We buried him in the backyard and placed a stone over his gravesite.  The tears I shed over his loss would fill buckets.  All fall and winter,  my husband and I deliberated whether or not to get another dog.  I just knew that I had one more dog in me.  In May my husband and I brought Maggie May, a Welsh terrier pup into our lives.  She is a bundle of joy.  The first day we had her, she raced around the back yard in pure abandon, coming to rest finally atop Max’s gravesite, where she sat, out of breath and panting. It seemed she was laughing and in spite of myself, I couldn’t help but laugh along with her in the pure joy and poignancy of the moment.  It was then I knew that all would be well.  I’d been carrying around my grief over Max’s death long enough.  While I will never forget him, life is meant to be lived and enjoyed.  I knew Max would agree that it was time to move on. So, with Max’s blessing, here we go, Maggie May.  And, I know it will be a great joyous ride.