In the past 10 days we’ve had two pigs and two turkeys die.
I guess the honeymoon is over.
Call me naïve, call me sheltered, call me whatever you want, but that’s more death than I’ve experienced in the past 10 years.
I know – some people would say that they’re “just animals.” And not even animals that we humans often privilege with a higher perceived degree of sentience, like a dog or a cat: they were just turkeys and pigs. Just animals – that’s what they do, people say. Sometimes animals just die. That’s why you include a 10% death-loss margin in all farm calculations. That’s what animals do, that’s what happens.
It’s just that they were my animals.
One of my husband’s aunts was with me when I found the little piglet dead. He’d been in the “hospital” pen for a couple days, gradually getting weaker and weaker. Clinically, he’d have been described as FTT (failure to thrive); after three months of coaxing and helping him along, he just wasn’t going to make it. My aunt-in-law helped me take care of him, just like I was her own 8-year-old child (I guess I am in farm years), asking me if I wanted her to take him or if I could do it. “You can do it, girl,” she said. I carried him out of the shed myself, so little, so small. And to my metacognitive horror, I found myself thinking that he would actually be one of the most awesome stuffed animals ever – if he weren’t one of my piglets, one of our hopes for the fall. My aunt-in-law hugged me, let me cry on her shoulder, whispered to me “I love you;” told me about how, when she was young, she was given 8 heifers to take care of and all of them calved too early and she couldn’t save any of them, that she still remembers every single one of them. “It’s the hard part,” she said, “but we do it because we love them.”
We can only do our best and our best is all we can do.
My husband and I had a good life in Virginia – an easier life, frankly, but we chose to leave it to do something that we wanted more. And although we certainly were happy there, in Virginia we never had the chance to care about anything the way we care about our animals, to love something the way we love our animals. We were having a great time in the Tidewater, but neither of us were doing anything that allowed us to grow personally in the way the last 6 months here on the ranch have. Even if all that growing makes a person a little uncomfortable.
As I wrote last week, the perennial joke about me in my family is that Alexis thinks all change is bad. It’s really, really hard for me to be ok with different. The prospect of losing things, of letting go of things, makes me feel very much afraid. I even fear letting go of things I don’t even like – places we’ve lived with the Army, for instance – just because it’s going to mean something different. And this week, I dreaded making the rounds to check on the sick little piglet because I was afraid of what I’d find. But when I did finally find him dead, it turns out it wasn’t so scary. He was just still and peaceful and it was a relief, frankly, that he died because he’d been so bad, so weak, so not right. Seeing him struggle to go on, to watch his will fighting with his body, was much worse than finding him in peaceful stillness.
I don’t think we’re meant to be ok with loss, to be ok with death. Because it hurts – it hurts like hell. But I guess I’m becoming a little less afraid of death, of losing things, by learning that it’s part of “what happens,” yes, but also knowing that it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to grieve for them, even if they’re just “farm animals.” Because it’s real feeling, it’s real love. And that’s ok.
But as Tully says, “While there’s life, there’s hope,” and I’m happy to say that all our other animals are well and healthy. And in this week of great sadness there has also been great joy: two delightful, affectionate goats have come to live with us – one doe in milk and the other a kid just 6 weeks old. The little baby, in particular, is such a joy: her enthusiasm for life is so beautiful. The way she scampers and plays in the green grass of her new home and runs to me for affection every time she sees me, wanting to be rubbed and loved and fussed over, makes me want to cry as much as my little dead piglet does because it’s beautiful in the same way. I never truly knew before I came here to the ranch how fragile life is, how precious life is. It’s the feelings that we feel that make us feel truly alive and that means experiencing all of it – the joy and the pain. I’ m slowly learning that I don’t have to shut away the unpleasant bits of life just to make myself more “comfortable,” that knowing the darkness actually means that when the sun comes out, it shines out all the clearer. I’m not there yet (and might never get there), but I’m working on it. Because what else is there, really?