The Three Phases
It occurs to me as I sit here about to tell another sad story, that I started out sharing only happy stuff, way back in the wee early days of the farm. Back when we used to pack beer and sammiches on a Saturday morning and dangle our legs off the edge of the truck bed, holding pitchforks. Just because it was cute and we thought we were pretty cute doing it. And the whole concept of this place was still idyllic, unformed, charming. That was when we used to promise each other we’d never take for granted the sight of a full moon rising, or the way the sun blares up from the east like a silent bugle call. It’s when I still had starry eyes and shelves of books with glossy photos of clean livestock, tidy barns, green pastures. I don’t really miss those stories though. I’m glad I have them as bookmarks to return to, but I appreciate all the deeper digging that living here has forced us into. Hot and cold. Wet and dry. Dark and light. Life and death. Just like the seasons turn, good comes with bad and there’s just no stopping it.
A few weeks ago we finally brought our newest Jersey girls home; Penelope and her baby girl and Greta with her new baby boy.
Although the transition for them was not seamless (is that even possible?) they were finally settling into the herd. I was excited about their future prospects, excited to have given them all new leather collars, shiny brass name tags, worked with them daily to tame their calves and slowly acquaint them to me and their eventual job on the farm. This morning I peaked out the window when the sun rose like I always do in order to count cow heads around the hay ring. One was oddly missing so after breakfast I pulled on boots and walked across the lawn towards the pasture where the sight of Greta’s leg splayed out on the ground stopped me. Cold. Stopped me. Without seeing, I knew what I would see once I took three steps forward. I recognized the familiar cold clutch of the gut by some invisible fingers that squeeze when panic and adrenaline course through the veins. The Jenna who used to adorably take photos of herself with pitchforks did not know that feeling. But I do.
Greta ostensibly perished in the early hours from a quick onset of bloat, something I did not detect in my pre-dinner check the prior evening. I quietly inspected her body this morning for thirty minutes, piecing together the tragedy I slept through. I watched with sick sadness as her calf curled against her side, his bambi eyes blinked up at me. Here was his mama, but not his mama. It was a horrid discovery, a horrid morning. But it was not a horrid day.
I know exactly how I would have responded six years ago. If energy does, in fact, never disappear, then these acres are probably still throbbing with my screams and wails from the discovery of other deaths, on other mornings, years ago. Instead, today, I scratched the calf with one hand, dialed the vet with the other, answered his questions and felt confident in his diagnosis. I went inside for a hot (hot hot) shower, let the water fall down like a heart beat. I didn’t cry. Pulled on clean clothes, drove to town for a sandwich and 3 gallons of milk for the calf. I didn’t cry. After returning home, I checked the calf again who was eating hay, something he has been doing now for many weeks. Seeing this I went inside and fed myself first, it’s advice I’ve given before, and the kind I’ll keep on giving for anyone else who starts out with starry eyes. If you do not put yourself first, you are no good to any creature on the farm. And still, I didn’t cry.
Instead, I finished my sandwich, filled a bowl with ice cream and watched two complete episodes of Sex and the City. For 45 minutes I floated into a world filled with taxis, martinis, manicures, cheap sex, Manolo Blahniks and the Art of Being Fabulous. I watched with one ear towards the television and one ear inward, tuned to the tiniest little voice inside that still gasps for air briefly and frantically shouts “I want to go to there!” any time I let my eye wander toward these visions of gloss and glamor and tidiness. I listened to that faint voice for 5 minutes. “I hear you,” I said. Then I licked my spoon. Pulled on my boots, grabbed a bottle filled with milk, went back outside.
The thing is, I’m getting used to all the gory bits that come along with this life. I talked about this with Rachael at The Farmstead today, one of the few real people who I can keep it really real with in regards to the raw realness (too much?) of living with and caring for beasts. I told her how today I understood that I’ve finally got this process down to three phases. Phase 1) Shock once I realize the situation, Phase 2) Guilt at what happened and why I did not prevent it, and finally Phase 3) Getting on with it. The entire cycle takes approximately two days, depending on the scale of the disaster. You cannot allow yourself much more beyond that with so many other dependent lives, despite the pain you feel over the one just lost. On a farm, grief is a luxury, an expense, sometimes a liability. It must be brief.
Jer came home early to go about the process of moving the body, an event I dreaded all day but knew would help bring closure to the herd, the calf, to me. As the tractor gently lifted her body, the enormity of this loss was displayed more clearly, her lifeless body in sharp contrast against a backdrop filled with movement, bird song, wind. So then I cried. I cried. I cried. For five minutes. Wiped my tears, washed my hands, got on with it.
Three phases, three beats. I learn what I can, put another notch in the old farming belt, and loop it back through these jeans covered in muck and blood. It’s not glamorous but it is fabulous. I would not trade this life for a thousand Manhattans.