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And A Little Kid Shall Lead Them….

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

A friend lost her father suddenly last week and she has been sharing her experience of grief with us in a way that reminds me of the profound days and weeks after my own father passed away nearly 20 years ago.

When I was 28, my father had been unwell most of my life. After suffering a near fatal heart attack at age 50, he was forced to retire from a busy job as the senior minister at a large Congregational church in New York and start over again somewhere less stressful. We moved to a farm my parents had bought a few years earlier in southern New Hampshire.

For years prior, we had traveled from NY to a summer retreat near there with a large group of families from the church, and one of our favorite destinations to visit was The Friendly Farm in Dublin. We’d all show up and spend the day feeding the vast array of farm animals with the food provided. It was an exciting experience for a bunch of kids from the suburbs.

When he heard we were moving to the farm for good, the owner of The Friendly Farm presented my dad with a beautiful Jersey calf as a gift. We loaded the week-old calf, whom we named “Irene” (eirênê) after the goddess of peace, into the backseat of our VW bug and took her home.

Over the years, Irene was mother to several calves, many of them not her own. They were Holsteins, Herefords, Ayrshires …. she had no qualms about who nursed off of her as long as her udder was empty and comfortable when they were done feeding. She lived for many years as matriarch of the farm.

So it seemed right, many years later when it was time to make a transition in my life, to spend a summer working at The Friendly Farm as a way to clear my head with some hard physical work at a place that represented good memories.

As the warm, early April sun filtered through the tall pines to melt the remaining snow, I would arrive early each day to begin the Spring chores. A batch of tiny goats had arrived for the season and my first task was to feed them — all twenty or so. In a 5-gallon bucket I would combine warm water with a powdery formula mix and fill twenty 10 oz. Coke bottles, fitting each one with a rubber nipple. In order to not lose track of who had already eaten — goats are tricksters — I would lift two at a time over a wooden gate and when they were done they’d be replaced by two more. The ritual made my spirit laugh.

But even as my own heart was expanding, my father’s was shutting down. When I told him I was working at The Friendly Farm, instead of his usual feigned disappointment that I wasn’t studying to be a brain surgeon whenever I’d tell him about my latest occupation, he just said, “That’s great, El.” His fight was gone. On April 22, 1992 — Earth Day — he finally gave up for good.

I thought about him in the weeks that followed as the farm began to come alive with new babies from the cows, sheep, chickens, and goats. I remembered all the creatures that had been born on our own farm in the early dawn before school, finding a new baby calf or foal all slippery and slimy being licked clean by its mother, and the amazement at watching that hour-old baby stand up on its shaky legs and begin nursing. All around me, new life was springing up again even as I struggled to fully understand that another had come to an end.

I worked through those days feeling some sense of comfort in the routine of the farm but still wasn’t experiencing acute grief. I wondered why I couldn’t feel anything. I decided that I had grieved him so many times over the years that what I was feeling was relief that he finally wasn’t suffering anymore.

Then one day a goat gave birth to triplets. Twins are the norm so when a third is born chances are that the little one won’t survive. It was clear when I saw this tiny kid plop out after the other two that he would not live for long. He was half their size, his breathing labored, and he couldn’t stand up to nurse. His mother refused to help. I tried to get him to drink some formula but he wouldn’t take it.

I did the only thing I could think to do and brought him to a quiet place in the bottom of the barn where I made a soft bed out of sawdust and hay. I lay down beside him and stroked his tiny frightened head and assured him that he needn’t be afraid, that it was okay to let go.

And then I remembered that those were the very thoughts I had spoken in my mind as I watched my father’s life drain away in the week before he died. I picked up the baby goat and put him in my lap, cradling him against my body as he took his last heaving breaths and when at last he became still I threw my head back and let out a guttural sob…. and then spent what seemed like hours weeping and rocking that little kid as though he were my big bear of a father who had died all alone in a hospital room.

In my heart I knew that this sweet baby goat, this little kid only hours old, had been sent to help me let my father go and I watched with my mind’s eye as the two of them, healthy and strong, walked side by side into the early Spring sunlight….

  1. TB
    September 26, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    This is another great example of seeing the beauty of helping someone or something leave this world. It’s giving every day and every hurdle an open heart to the beauty and possibilities around you and having a mind open enough to allow you to follow through. I hope your soul feels good from sharing this one…another beautiful post Ellen. Peace to you girl…TB

  2. Chris
    September 26, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Thank you for sharing that story–your beautiful writing touched me again. I continue to be amazed! My father also died of heart failure at 53–I was 26 and had a year old son. I don’t think I ever fully grieved his death at the time.

  3. September 26, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Beautiful words Ellen. You have such a wonderful gift, and I thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. Anonymous
    September 27, 2011 at 12:14 am

    WOW!! JUST WOW! Thank you!

  5. Pat G.
    September 27, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Ellen, I got teary eyed reading this. My dad lived a lot longer than yours did, he was 79 when he died 13 years ago, but I had the same reaction that you did, a lack of grief. After my dad died, there was a lot of friction between me and my stepmother (who was not wonderful like yours, and had been married to my dad the last 15 years of his life). I think that had something to do with it. Unlike you, there wasn’t anything specific that happened that helped me to grieve. Grief would just strike at inopportune times, like in the middle of my Computer Networking class. Your story is beautifully told, and a testament to the love that you and your dad shared. It reminded me that my dad and I had that too. Thanks for sharing, and for the reminder.

  6. September 27, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Dear Ellen, I’m sobbing here as I type … such grace … majestic love … all bundled up in fine, fine, writing. I like your Dad’s nickname for you – El. And though the pleasure of knowing your Dad will not be mine (at least in this timezone), I know you! And that’ll do for now. He’d be very proud of you!

  7. September 27, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Thank you for allowing yourself to share this story with us… it’s very dear in a way that I cannot put fully into words but whatever words I do have start with something like, “Thank you for…” and end with “… and being you.” Sidenote, my mom’s name is Irene and in no short way, she is getting me through yet another tough time in my life. Namaste dear friend.

  8. Mickey Grooters
    October 19, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I waited for a quiet time when I could read this – through tears. You lost your dad so young. . . 28 is really a baby. Your dad died in the hospital alone, my dad died at home alone in his bed and while we had been in there much of the time, we weren’t right then. . . and that hurt and hurts still. I like to think your dad knows how his gift for words and love – and the extending of grace to others through word and deed (as that really is the calling of a pastor)lives on through your words and the lives you touch. I also like to think that your dad and my dad – you and I – are not alone – that we don’t die alone – that there is something bigger – I call it God – others might “name” it differently – that holds us in a lap- as you did the baby goat – and says “don’t be afraid.” But whether folks share that or not – this writing, like another on your dad touches something essential in all of us. Thanks. Let me know when your book comes out!

  9. Pat G.
    October 19, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Mickey, your comment reminded me of something that a hospice worker told me when my mother-in-law passed away. She was slowly, agonizingly dying of colon cancer. We (Bill’s siblings and spouses, his dad and I) had been caring for her for weeks in her home. It reached a point where my father-in-law couldn’t take anymore, and so for the last week of the ordeal she was in a hospice wing of a nursing home on the other side of town. On the week-end, Bill and I went together to be with her. We relieved his dad and brother for about 4 hours, leaving around 8 p.m. She was very drugged and nonresponsive, but I decided to give her all my attention, talking, singing, stroking her arm, and telling her that it was OK if she had to leave us, that the family would look after her husband. Shortly after we got home, we got a call from a hospice nurse, telling us that she had passed away. We felt so bad about that!

    But here is the thing: the nurse said that many people hang on until their loved ones leave to breathe their last. They want to spare them watching them die. So I don’t believe you should feel bad when a loved one dies alone, unless you were neglectful. Forget the last moments that your loved one spent on earth and remember the times when he/she was alive and part of your life.

  10. Rosie
    April 26, 2014 at 2:50 am

    El, You are so talented! What a writer, so expressive and intimate, you carry us along as you share your experience of life. I find myself wishing Dad were here to share in the wondrous moments of spring growth. As we celebrate the miracle of new life with the birth of Susannah, Mary Grace and now Savannah, I can just feel Dad smiling with joy and pride! Imagine our joy and delight to wake on Earth Day and find a new little girl calf had been born in the wee hours of the morning, she was still wet when we found her curled up beside her Mom. She is a British White cow, pretty cute! Dick said she could be mine, and in memory of Dad, who passed on this day, I have named her Raymunda(earth day ray). Lots of love to you, keep writing! xo

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