Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fall 2005

Summer 2005 finished with getting the rest of our hay baled and hauled, and rounding up the cows off the range. Young Heather and Nick took their horses (Chance and Mr. Kay) to the 4-H horse show at the Fair, bringing home 8 trophies between them. They also did very well in the 4-H working ranch classes—ranch roping, cattle sorting and team penning.

It was a very dry year and we had more forest fires that fall, some of which were out of control for several weeks, filling our valley with smoke. It was a huge reminder of the devastating summer 5 years earlier. Then in mid-September we had a sudden change in the weather, and some long-awaited rain, with snow on the mountains.
I helped Michael and Carolyn round up cattle, bringing them down to our own mountain pasture

We spent several days finding and gathering some that had strayed to the neighbor’s range—cattle that had gone through several gates left open by hunters. On one ride we found one pair and a bull, sorted them out from the neighbor’s cattle, and brought them down to where we used to have a gate between the Forest Service and BLM allotment. But when we got there we found that the Forest Service crew who rebuilt the boundary fence earlier in the summer (after it was all burned up in the fire 2 years before) had eliminated that gate.
We started taking our little group on down the fence, but the bull charged back through our horses. Michael rode after him, and Carolyn and I took the cow and calf along the fence to another gate. Then we rode through more of the burned area trying to find the other strays.
After several long days of riding and sorting cattle, we found nearly all of them, and went out again to search for the rest. We split up to search more country. Carolyn and I found no cows on our side of the mountain and headed back to Baker Creek to pick up a few pairs we’d gathered in that area. As we started back that direction, we saw Michael in the distance, leading his horse down off a ridge. The fact he was leading the horse and not riding, we realized something was wrong. Carolyn rode back to check on him while I gathered another little group of cows we’d found in the timber.
Michael’s horse, Classy, had gotten her hind leg caught between two logs, while scrambling through some down timber on the other side of the mountain. She’d ripped her leg open, exposing the back tendon. The wound was spurting blood when Michael dismounted to examine it, and the tired mare was trembling and glassy-eyed, going into shock from the pain and sudden blood loss following the day’s exertion. Michael took off his heavy flannel shirt and ripped the back out of it, tearing that big piece into 4 strips. He wrapped the biggest strip tightly around her lower leg to cover the wound, and tied it on tightly with the other strips. This pressure, and the thickness of the layers, slowed the blood flow—which had already formed a large pool on the ground.
Classy held her leg up the whole time he was bandaging it, but she did not try to kick. After he got it wrapped, she relaxed and put her foot back down on the ground, and within a few minutes she was not so shaky. Michael was able to lead her out of the timber and over the hill to Baker Creek to join us.
After we brought the gathered cattle out of Baker Creek and around the mountain toward our upper pasture, Michael and Carolyn traded horses. Carolyn led Classy down the steep mountain, following the cows down to the gate, while Michael and I rode on around toward the rough cliffs above Withington Creek and found a few more pairs. We got all the cattle down into our upper pasture and Michael then led Classy down to the road, where he redid the makeshift bandage, which was starting to slip. We met a hunter driving down the road, and he gave Michael a ride 3 miles down to their house, so Michael could get their pickup and horse trailer--so he could haul Classy to town to the vet.
The makeshift bandage had kept the wound clean, and even though the tendon was nicked, it was not completely cut and would heal. The vet was able to staple the skin back into place over most of torn area. Michael kept the wound bandaged several weeks (changing the bandage daily) and gave Classy penicillin shots for a couple weeks, and it eventually healed very nicely.

We had good weather for a while in October, and young Emily spent several days with us that fall (on a couple weekends and school vacations), and she had several riding sessions on one of my old horses (Khamahn--nickname "Veggie"--a 19 year old grandson of old Khamette, the mare my own kids learned to ride on, 35-plus years ago). Veggie had never had a kid on him before and was a little nervous the first time, but he soon got used to Emily and they got along great. At first I led "Veggie" around while Em got used to how she should handle the reins.

Then she progressed to riding him solo around the barnyard in familiar surroundings where he felt at ease. Then I took her on longer rides, leading Veggie from my own horse, traveling several miles over our low range and back.
We have to go a little ways along the country road before we can get to the range pasture, and I didn't want to take a chance on Em not being able to get the old horse off the road in time when traffic (including logging trucks) came along; it was safer leading him from my horse. But she did very well (using the same little child's saddle my kids learned to ride on) and was soon able to ride Veggie without being led from another horse. She was a little older and stronger than my kids were when they learned to ride.

When my kids were little and just learning to ride, their legs were still too short to reach below the saddle pad, and old Khamette couldn't feel them kicking to try to make her go. I led her from another horse, and we'd ride all day checking cattle and gates, or moving cattle. In summer, Lynn was busy haying and I'd take the kids with me to ride range all day, as soon as they were big enough to sit on a horse that long. By the time Michael graduated to a horse he could ride solo, Andrea (2 years younger) was ready to start riding Khamette. I could lead her alongside me as we trotted or galloped—while chasing a cow--or let her drop behind on a narrow single-file trail through the trees. The kid gained confidence and riding ability but I had the horse in tow so the old mare couldn't just stop and eat grass. .
One afternoon while Em was at the ranch, she hiked with Lynn and me to check on the cows in the pasture above our house and was delighted that Buffalo Girl (a big yearling) remembered her. They hadn’t seen each other since Buffalo Girl was a bottle-fed orphan the year before. The heifer walked right up to Emily to be petted and tried to lick her face. On another hike she and I collected leaves for her school project, and put together her leaf collection.

We weaned our calves in October and hauled the steers to a sale. We kept the heifers, and put them in the little pasture above our house. We worried that they might get sick because the weather turned suddenly cold and wet, with several inches of new snow. But they stayed healthy, thanks to their pre-weaning vaccinations.
That fall we received a newly published book, written by one of our friends—a young woman who lost her husband in a freak accident. Lynn and I appreciated Julie’s very clear way of expressing her faith and her feelings. We got several copies of her book (You Only Think God Is Silent) to give to other people, knowing it could be an inspiration and encouragement to others going through soul-wrenching trauma and loss.
Tragedy does indeed thrust us onto a wondrous detour that opens up new territory--and places us on a pilgrimage from which there's no turning back. It can bring us grace and compassion and open us up to the love of God in a way we could never fully experience nor comprehend before. We might think we understand God's love with our minds, but until we experience and feel it in our hearts--after we've completely run out of self-sufficiency and can only depend on Him--we really don't "get it". How wondrous are the gifts He gives us.
We wanted to share Julie’s book with several friends, including some who had lost spouses to cancer. We were glad she was able to write it, and share her story. This kind of life-changing experience (coming through tragedy and having it mold and hone us) sets some of us on a mission, to spend the rest of our lives trying to help and encourage others.
Another book we often share is called The Last Dance But Not the Last Song, written by Renee Bondi, a young woman who has also created several music CDs. Her story is a fantastic, awesome example of spiritual triumph over tragedy, and her music is wonderful.
We stumbled onto her story by accident, or actually by "God incidence" as she puts it. Renee feels there are no "coincidences". The summer after Andrea was burned (2001), Lynn was on our upper place irrigating, and ran across a young man who was here working for the summer for a company doing contract work for the BLM. Mike was hiking through our range, doing "fuel mapping" for the BLM (evaluating the amount of dry grass, dead timber, etc. for future fire danger). After Lynn found out what his job was, Lynn told Mike about Andrea's burn accident in the terrible fire at 12 Mile the year before (a fire that got quickly out of control because of the horrendous amount of dry grass in that area). That side of the mountain, all along the Salmon River, had not been adequately grazed for several decades. The BLM and Forest Service had reduced or eliminated the grazing rights of those little ranches along the river.
Lynn told Mike about Andrea's burns and her progress in recovery (one year out from the accident) and mentioned that I had started writing a book about this experience. So Mike told him that his wife Linda's cousin (Renee Bondi) had just published a book about her own accident (which left her paralyzed) and her spiritual journey. The book had just come out and Renee had sent Linda a copy. We wanted to read it, so Mike called his wife, Linda, and she sent Mike the book to loan to us, before she herself had even had a chance to read it!
Thus began a wonderful friendship with Mike and Linda, and after reading Renee's book we ordered a copy for ourselves, and all of her music CDs. We found her music so inspiring (especially since she overcame great odds to eventually sing again) that we got more of her music to give to friends who might be helped and inspired by it. We also keep ordering more of her books, to give away. Her story is one of hope, courage and triumph (and surrender to God's love), and her music is filled with the joy of that God-centered life.
I still like to listen to Renee's music when I get "down" or out of focus, getting too caught up in trivial things or feeling low or sorry for myself, or small and petty or not being open to love and joy and thankfulness for my many blessings. Her music gets me back on track again. I have a special connection to it because it's all tied up together with the trauma our family went through, and the unexpected, long journey we were launched into.
Knowing how much Renee has come through, and how much we are all loved, and guided, and blessed by the One who loves us most, her music wipes away my doubts, my fears, my pettiness, and helps me reconnect with what I am supposed to be. Why walk, when you can fly! Why burrow inward when you can help someone else and try to be an instrument of God's love.
I sent Renee’s book and music to my cousin’s wife Leanne, who was diagnosed that summer with a serious form of breast cancer. She had surgery and then was on chemo for several months. She was scheduled to have more surgery the day after Christmas, and then radiation. She was feeling badly that she didn’t have the energy to do the things for Christmas she wanted to do for her kids and grandkids. But she had already given them the most special gift, of love--and I admired her calm faith and serenity in handling her fight against the cancer. She is still fighting it, 5 years later, and has dealt with it matter-of-factly, and with great trust.
Her battle has been truly a marathon (sort of like a cross country run through all kinds of terrain), with some hard climbs and slow spots. I keep praying that her body and spirit and determination carry through for the journey and that when she gets to the finish she will have "won"! A long marathon like this is taken one day at a time (sometimes one hour, one moment, one step at a time), but I am confident that her faith and trust in the One who cares most will carry her through.
The "NOW" is what's important, living in the NOW and accepting the love and strength that God gives us, moment by moment. That's the only place peace can really wrap round us. I think we all tend to live too much in the future and trying to deal with the "what ifs", and we forget to live in the NOW. But things like cancer or any serious life crisis can help us focus on the NOW and on reaching out to God (who is always reaching for us) to carry us through this moment. True peace is only achieved in the now.
Leanne was such a help to me and to little Emily (cheering us on, steadfastly) during our traumatic summer in 2000, with Andrea’s injuries. Leanne and her daughter Karen and little granddaughter Sarah wrote to me and called frequently on the phone, and sent care packages for helping entertain 2 ½ year old Emily. Sometimes Sarah would talk to Emily on the phone

These past several years, in humble gratitude for their prayers and care during my time of need, I have tried to take my turn to be supportive to Leanne. She is in my thoughts and prayers every day, as she still continues to battle her cancer. It's been my turn to be part of her "support" crew, to "be there" for her however I can. Life has an amazing way of bringing us round to the fact that we do not make this journey alone... we are meant to help one another.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Late Summer 2005

Summer on our ranch is usually a mad scramble as we try to get the irrigation and haying done and take care of the cattle. The summer of 2005 I was also working on a book manuscript. Lynn got our old swather going and put new tires on it, and cut our hay and some of Michael’s hay on his leased place. Michael had been too busy doing custom cutting to get any of his own hay cut yet.

We had a long stretch of hot weather and no rain. Some of the springs and water troughs on our range were not working very well, so Carolyn and kids rode out there several times to check the troughs and work on some of the springboxes. Michael and Carolyn’s kids were really good help with the riding, moving cattle and irrigating, but were also gone awhile to basketball camps.
Andrea was driving to town nearly every day from 12-mile, taking her young kids to swimming lessons. She rarely had time to come out to the ranch.
Our two cats were getting old (age 13 and 14) so Lynn brought home a couple of kittens a friend was giving away. They adapted quickly to their new home, but had a bad habit of climbing up under vehicles in our driveway. After Michael and Carolyn were here at our house one day, we noticed the kittens were gone. They probably crawled up onto the motor of their Ford Explorer. But they didn’t show up at Michael’s house (2 miles up the creek from our place) so we figured they jumped off or fell off somewhere along the way. We looked along the road but didn’t see them. They were gone for a week so we assumed they didn’t survive.
Then one evening when Lynn and I were hiking along the cow trail above our house for our daily walk, we heard a meow. The yellow kitten, hungry and skinny, crawled out from some big rocks along the road bank. We called and called, but the other kitten wasn’t there. We carried the yellow one home, and it ravenously gorged on milk and cat food. Three days later the little black kitten came meowing out of the field near that same place on the trail as we hiked by. We don’t know how far up the creek the kittens rode under the Explorer before jumping or falling out, but it took them a week to wander back toward home.

That summer I continued to write letters to Laurel, whose daughter perished from burn injuries the same summer that Andrea was burned. As I mentioned to Laurel in one letter, “I wish you still had Sara. I wish you had never had to endure such terrible loss and pain. I can never fully feel the depth of your pain because I haven't walked in your shoes. I still have my daughter, even though the life we knew before (her ability to help me on the ranch, to help with the cattle and horses, and ride range with me) is gone and changed forever. That's a tiny thing, compared to how your life changed.”
Andrea’s accident, however, did set my priorities straight and I realized I could endure the detour our lives had taken, I could live without the things I thought were so defining of my life; I could actually live without my cattle and horses. For so many years we all struggled so hard to survive in ranching and pay for our place and our cattle. As I mentioned to Laurel, “It's a good life, living on the land, and a wonderful place to raise children, but I realize that all too often the drive to survive here--to take perfect care of the cows and not lose any calves--came first, taking the most demands of my time, energy and passion.

Through Andrea's accident and fight for life, my focus changed. I was being reminded that my focus needed to change. I needed to focus on the love of family, the connectedness with other people, and learn to trust a bit more in the fact that God will help us survive financially, one way or another, and that I don't have to be so single-minded about thrusting so much of my energies into the ranch and cattle.”
I learned (not an easy lesson for me) to be more relaxed about a lot of things, and not be so intense or worried about the little things. I learned that I CAN live without the single-minded focus on my cattle and horses. Andrea's accident and her long, difficult road back to life led me through a new door and I found I could leave much of the old "me" behind. It is this "awakening" that I am grateful for.
I am not glad that the experiences dear to my heart that Andrea and I always shared (the wonderful companionship working daily with the cattle and horses) are no longer there, but I can accept it, and let that life go. Yes, we still have the ranch and a few cattle, but we've now sold most of the cows to our son and are letting him use most of our ranch--and I no longer ride as much--maybe a couple dozen times a summer instead of nearly every day.

I am at peace with this change, however (something I would not have been able to think possible, before the summer of 2000), because God has opened up a greater window in my life--for helping other people--and also enabling me to make up the difference in our income with my writing, relying more on it and less on the cows.
I wrote to Laurel, saying our experiences are all different. “I am not sure I could have endured the loss of my daughter; you have the greater challenge and I am in awe of your progress in your journey. But you are very right in saying that it is through the suffering and trauma (the "human condition" as some might call it...the consequences of living in the real world where accident and tragedy can happen) that we gain understanding of our connectedness and kinship that can give us strength and love and compassion. The connectedness, the empathy, can lend us strength. I know how much the caring of other people helped me (and still does!) when struggling through the dark hours.”
In late July Lynn and I received a message from a good friend in Canada, and a copy of the Eulogy he gave at his wife’s memorial service. It was a touching tribute to her life. We’d gotten acquainted with Dan and Margo (ranchers in Manitoba) about 25 years earlier. They’d been reading my monthly column in Grainews (a Canadian farm newspaper) from the time I started writing it in the early 1970’s, and Dan called me on the phone one day to ask a question about treating a sick calf. A few more phone calls over the years, then a few letters. After Andrea’s burn injury they were very supportive and became good friends. Then Margo was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was our turn to be supportive, as she bravely fought, and finally lost, her battle.
As Margo slipped into the final weeks, Dan kept us updated on all the details, including his thoughts and feelings, and his reminiscences about their life together. In spite of Margo’s pain, their last weeks together were a beautiful time of sharing. Dan’s e-mail updates to friends became the nucleus of a book he wanted to write—as an inspiration to other people who are traveling through the devastating landscape of cancer. That book, by the way, is now published (November 2010) and is called Hitchhike to Heaven.
When I wrote to Dan after he lost Margo, I thanked him for sharing their lives with us. This kind of "connectedness" makes all of us stronger, yet gentler, more appreciative of life and the gifts God has given us, and the Love he has for us. Again and again--after our own dunking into the depths of tragedy—we’ve been reminded of how much God loves us, and how much He wants us to love one another.
The repercussions of love go far, like little ripples from the pebble you throw into the water of a quiet lake--they go out and out and out and you never know how many lives they may touch. I am convinced that Good, that Love, that God's plan for all of us (to find peace, joy, comfort, our purpose in life, contentment, fulfillment by loving others...etc.) is so much stronger than all the bad things in this world. Sometimes the epiphany, the light bulb that goes on in our soul, the sudden awareness of his Love is like a lightning strike, but so often it's more like the quiet workings of sourdough, gently stirring in the depths of our soul and softly but gently changing us little by little. And all those ripples that touch us, from the pebbles cast forth by other people, these things ultimately change us and help us become more receptive to loving God (and letting Him into our lives) and loving others.
I thanked Dan for sharing his feelings about losing Margo. I told him, “We rejoice with you both--with the peace and joy she must be experiencing now, free of pain, and in the loving arms of her Creator. We share your joy and peace of mind that she is indeed, "home" at last. And I know that her love for you, her earthly lover, friend and soul-mate, transcends time and space and her spirit will still be with you until you rejoin her. It is so wonderful that we can know these things in our hearts, even though sometimes it is hard to fathom them with our minds. It's great that God made us emotional as well as calculating, made us creatures of heart and feeling as well as logic, with an instinct for worshiping that which is greater than we are. We have an inner drive to recognize that we are the creation (a child of God), as well as our instinct for self-determination and self-preservation. It all comes together in the miracle of life and the paradox of our earthly existence, as we at some point in our lives reach out (often when we are hurting, or at the end of our own rope in terms of our own abilities to cope with whatever pain, tragedy, challenges that happen to us). And then we discover that He was reaching for us, all along, and we find our "salvation" (our at-oneness, our peace and purpose) in Him.”
“Enjoy and cherish your family... the wonderful legacy that you and Margo were instrumental in creating. It never ceases to amaze me how tragedy can jerk us around to Reality, to set our priorities straight and make us realize how very, very blessed we are, and that the love of family is precious, that no little trivial things (that so often mess up families and get in the way of what's really important) should ever come between you and the ones you love. I guess that's one of the beautiful, wonderful, positive things about tragedy--it brings us together. It smoothes out the differences and puts us all on the same page, and we can appreciate and love one another, deeply and unconditionally, in spite of the little things that tend to separate and alienate us. It sounds like Margo's passing (her going ahead of all of you to the next chapter) brought you all together in love, and deepened the love you had for one another. It is so wonderful that you made her passing/celebration of life a time of joy and fun for the grandkids. They will always remember Grandma with good feelings and a special place in their young hearts rather than remembering this as a time of somberness and stoic grief of their parents. What a wonderful thing you accomplished for those grandkids!”
“We shall keep you in our thoughts and prayers as you drift back into the mundane routine of your life (though ranching is never mundane, thank God), while retaining the afterglow of all that has occurred these past few months, as you went through the marathon of human endurance (so draining, physically!) and emotional/spiritual "overdrive". We shall also be cheering you on as you work on your book... a wonderful project that will help guide you/sustain you through this transitional time without Margo as you miss and grieve for her, and a project that will bring you joy because it will be a great help to others.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Summer 2005

The summer of 2005 was hectic as usual here on the ranch. Lynn and I were pinch-hitting for Michael and Carolyn (we call ourselves the battery backup!) and helping out as much as we could—after Michael’s horse accident (with his arm in a cast) and Carolyn’s knee injury. I helped ride range and move cattle and Lynn helped irrigate. In our job (as cow caretakers) none of us can afford to be sick or laid up. We take on this job as a full time every-day-of-the year commitment. The cows own us, not the other way around! But us crazy cow people seem to thrive on this type of dedication. I think it serves us in good stead for learning the important lessons of life.
Michael got the pin and screws out of his finger in June and was trying to get some of the motion back. The broken joint healed but was very stiff. The piece of bone with the tendons attached healed back to the main bone (the pin was holding the broken joint together until it healed). He was riding his horse again, though for awhile he had to get on one-handed, which is no small feat on a young, skittish horse.
One weekend I helped him and his kids for two days, riding to move their cattle from the low range pasture to the middle range pasture. Carolyn finally got back on a horse for the first time since her knee injury, and helped move cattle the second day. Her knee was still in a brace, but getting more range of motion with physical therapy. The doctor told her that if she was careful and did physical therapy to strengthen it, it might heal without having to resort to surgery.
Andrea and kids were doing well that summer, though Emily and Charlie had their tonsils out in hopes to reduce the amount of colds and ear infections they were always getting. While Charlie was recovering from having his tonsils out he stayed overnight with us--and enjoyed helping feed the bum calves--while Andrea and Mark went to Missoula to have Emily's tonsils out and tubes put in Sammy's ears; the doctor was reluctant to take her tonsils out right then, wanting to do it when she was a little older.
Em was pretty sore after her tonsil surgery, but looked forward to staying with us for a few days when she felt better--to make cookies and do a lot of fun things, like petting the horses. She went with Lynn and me on our evening hikes, and also enjoyed working on her "book" while I worked on mine. She started making a "book" when she spent the summer with me when she was 2 ½ years old, cutting out pictures from magazines and catalogs and pasting them in a spiral notebook. She spent hours doing that. Now she still cuts out pictures but can also write captions for them.
My book projects were keeping me very busy that summer. I finally got The Horse Conformation Book finished (and the illustrator did a WONDERFUL job!) and it had just been published. My Getting Started With Cattle book was in its final stages of being published. Stable Smarts, a book of handy hints for horsemen, was going through editing and illustrating. I had also just gotten the proofs (to check) for my book on Understanding Equine Hoof Care and horseshoeing. I was also asked to do a small book on raising beef cattle, and was trying to work on it in the early mornings before chores (with a goal of doing at least 3 to 4 pages per morning, so I can meet the deadline) and then working on articles and phone interviews for articles the rest of the day, sandwiching in any cattle work that had to be done.
For instance, one morning we had to doctor a lame cow with a foot infection, trimming her foot and giving her antibiotics. At least our smaller herd needed less attention. I was no longer riding range every day in the summer (our small herd stays home on closer pastures, and I only ride to move them occasionally, or to help our kids/grandkids move their range cattle) and I can devote more of my day to writing. I miss the more active lifestyle of earlier years, but don't mind being able to make up the income difference with my writing. We still have a few cattle of our own and are able to help the kids with theirs.
That summer the parents of one of the boys who was severely burned in August 2000 in Yellowstone Park (not long after Andrea’s burn injury) planned to make a trip to Yellowstone to see where their life-changing detour began. I wrote to Liz, and said, “You shall be in my prayers and in my heart as you make that pilgrimage. Yes, it's been an epic journey thus far, and how far we have come! My heart goes out to anyone who is burned, and we instantly rally into support mode to try to help. I keep hoping my book BEYOND THE FLAMES will be of help to some who are facing these challenges.”
I thanked Liz for all her letters during the years we were both trying to cope with our children’s burn accidents, and told her she had truly blessed me with her friendship. “We share so much, having "gone through hell" with our injured children (and come through it and into the light of hope and joy and blessings). It means so much, lending one another much needed support, and because we seem to understand one another so well and have similar thoughts and feelings on so many levels. A friendship like yours fills a gap in my soul. "Meeting" you (though we have never met in person) was one of the most cherished gifts that evolved from our pilgrimage through the burn ICU with our children.”
“As we gradually get farther out from that traumatic time, I realize I am finally able to "let go" a little more and relax back into some sort of normalcy in relationship with my daughter that I nearly lost. I realized the other day that even though she has impairments and fragility from the injuries (always more susceptible to pneumonia, for instance, with her impaired immune system) she is no longer so quite so fragile and vulnerable. Or perhaps she is just a lot more determined, and also at ease with her situation, and I can be less of a worry-wart. I find myself more comfortable now with letting her live her own life. We talk often on the phone on days I don't see her, but now I find I can sometimes let a whole day go by without worrying if I haven't "checked on her to see how she's doing". Perhaps this is a more normal, healthy thing, letting go and letting her do her own thing and just being available if she wants to talk or needs something. I've finally moved out of the position of support/caregiver to just being "mom" again, and that's a good thing,” I told Liz.
The door that opened for Lynn and me (after several others slammed shut, with Andrea's injury) as we slogged through the scary detour and out into the light again has been a wondrous turning point in our lives as we channel our energies into trying to help other people. So many people we know (and so many others that cross our path now--maybe not by accident) are suffering from cancer or battling some other kind of tough challenge and we feel we’re supposed to be part of the support crew/cheering section to help in some small way to encourage/inspire/lend strength, etc. It's as though the detour we were thrust onto the night of July 5, 2000 ultimately gave us a mission. We find ourselves happiest when we can help someone else, even if it’s just in a small way, to try to brighten their day. It's part of those ongoing lessons, helping me try to focus on others instead of myself. Sometimes it's overwhelming and I feel very, very not up to the task, but I am thankful that God gives me new strength every morning.
Liz was battling breast cancer that summer, and doing better. I told her I was glad she was feeling stronger physically. It is so hard to be strong in spirit when we're weak and hurting in body! I am such a wimp, and can't function very well mentally/spiritually when I am hurting or tired. I am truly inspired by people who can keep going emotionally and are strong spiritually when they are hurting in body. I pray that as I get older, tireder and more decrepit the good Lord will grant me the grace to be gracious and not cranky!
Liz had just hosted an 80th birthday party for her dad, before his surgery, and her mom was in seriously failing health. She was hoping her mom could find a peaceful transition as she slipped from this life into the next. Watching our parents grow old and fail in mind and body is hard, but it also helps us gain more insight into the paradox of life and the bittersweet journey we make, and ultimately gives us more understanding and acceptance of the Love we are given that can carry us through.
Our empathy expands as we gain more experience with the cycles of life, with illness and pain, tragedy and death and loss. Liz and I agreed that our friend Laurel's loss (losing her daughter in the same burn accident that nearly claimed Liz’s son) is unimaginable, since we had not lost a child, but our empathy for Laurel is great--and more full than it would be if we hadn't gone through our own hard testing.
Meanwhile, we were having a good summer, here on the ranch. Our drought was over for awhile; we had some good rains and the hills were still green. We had an amazing crop of grass on the range and the cattle were doing well. We’d not had a summer this green and lush since 1976, and we were very thankful for the moisture.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Late Spring 2005

Calving for 2005 was finally finished in mid-May when Michael’s old “granny cow” calved. She had twins the year before (twin heifers, which they kept, one for each of their kids) and was a little slow to breed back. That worked out ok, however. She was perfect for gentling and training the 50 heifers they bought that winter. She and our dear old Rhiney (which we sold to Michael and Carolyn in the last batch of cows we sold them) lived with those heifers and gentled them down and led the in-labor heifers into the barn. Rhiney calved before the heifers finished calving, but old Granny cow hung in there to the end, babysitting their last heifer that calved a few days before Granny did.
The next weekend—when Michael and Carolyn’s kids were home from school to help—they brought their last group of cows, with the youngest calves, down from our upper ranch to brand and vaccinate. They did this on the weekend while their kids were home, since Michael was still unable to ride a horse, with his broken hand. After we branded their group, we branded and vaccinated our little herd, all except Peggy Sue, the calf with the broken leg. When we got done with the main group, we brought Alex and Fergie (two bottle calves) around from the barn, leading them with their bottles, and branded them also.
The next week, we took the back half of Peggy Sue’s cast off and wrapped the leg with stretchy adhesive. This half cast would support the leg awhile longer but without restricting it as it grew. A couple weeks later we took the cast off completely. The bone mended nicely but the calf was a little gimpy because the tendons had been immobilized and needed to stretch. Without the cast on, she could finally go out of the barn; she her mother were happy to have green grass.
A neighbor helped Carolyn round up their big group of cattle from our lower place and brought them up to the corrals to sort off several old cows that wouldn’t be going out to the range. One old cow had been injured and was unable to travel, so she was sorted off to be butchered, and her 2-month-old calf taken to a pen to join the other orphans being raised on bottles.
We helped Michael and Carolyn take their big herd of cattle to the range. Our small herd stayed home on pasture that year, and Lynn and I were still feeding them a little hay in late May—in the small field by our house—to give our other pastures a chance to grow. Then when the grass got a little taller we moved them to our hill pasture above our house and barnyard. Lynn and I hiked up there nearly every day for exercise, and to check on the cows and calves.
That spring Carolyn hurt her knee--a cumulative injury. She’d wrenched it badly several times when working cattle, and while feeding the big bales that Michael couldn't handle with his broken hand. The doctor here sent her to Missoula to have it checked out more fully, and for arthroscopic surgery. The doc in Missoula said only one part was torn loose and she might get by without surgery. He gave her a brace and a prescription for physical therapy.
So, we were getting by. Michael was trying to behave himself and not do too much with his right arm (so the bone/tendon in his finger could heal without being torn loose again) so he could eventually have proper use of that finger again. It's hard for a rancher to hold back and not do his work, however. He was hoping he hadn't torn it loose the first evening he got home from Missoula after his surgery, when he was still under the influence of pain medication and couldn't feel his hand. Lynn and Andrea had done the feeding that morning, but Michael and Carolyn drove up the creek to check on their little bunch of late calving cows (on our upper place), after they got home that evening. One old cow had calved and didn't mother the calf. The calf was wandering around trying to suck any cow it could latch onto, and was getting kicked. Carolyn carried the calf across the field to the gate, but Michael helped her get it into their car; they brought the calf home and put it in the basement with the little premature calf (Red Chili Pepper) they'd been bottle feeding. Michael was afraid he might have used that arm too much, and hoped he hadn't put too much pull on the tendon/bone fragment that had just been screwed back to the finger bone.
With her injured knee, Carolyn wasn't able to do her work for a while either (irrigating, riding range and moving cattle) so Lynn and I were pinch-hitting (we call ourselves the battery backup!) and helping out as much as we possible. I helped ride range and moved cattle and Lynn helped irrigate.
In our profession (as cow caretakers) we can't afford to be sick or laid up. We take it on as a full time every-day-of-the-year job. The cows own us, not the other way around! But we crazy cow people seem to thrive on this type of commitment. I think it serves us in good stead for learning the important lessons of life. We are definitely dedicated.
Andrea and her kids were doing fine that spring, though the 2 oldest ones (Emmy and Charlie) had their tonsils out in early June, in hopes to try to reduce the amount of colds and ear infections they were always getting.
On the last day of school Michael and Carolyn’s daughter Heather (in 8th grade) received several awards (student of the year, and an award for having straight A's). We did our chores early that morning, in time to go see her get those awards, and then rushed off to the elementary school to watch little Emily's school program (she was Cinderella).
Michael and Carolyn brought the two calves from their basement to live with the rest of the bottle calves here at our place. We put all 5 orphans in our back yard next to the horse pens. They were glad to have more room and enjoyed running and bucking.

Then in mid June they were joined by yet another orphan. One of Michael and Carolyn’s young cows at one of their rented pastures got on her back in a ditch and died. They decided to bring her 2-month-old calf home to raise with the other bottle babies. Carolyn’s injured knee was still in a brace and she wasn’t able to ride a horse yet, so I went with Michael to help round up the orphan calf. We brought that calf with a small group of cows to a corral where Lynn and Carolyn helped sort him off and load him into the trailer. We hauled him home to our place and put him behind a panel in a corner of the pen where the other calves were, and finally got him gentled down enough to suck a bottle. After a few days he was able to be out with the others, and we were feeding all 6 with bottles. Every time Emily came out to the ranch she enjoyed helping feed them.

This was a record year for orphans, and the grandkids had fun making pets of them, and helped carry the bottles out at feeding time for the Calf-a-teria. There were too many bottles to hold, so we used bottle holders hung on the gate.
The sassiest pet was little Red Chili Pepper, who spent the first part of his life in Michael’s basement being pampered by Heather and Nick.
Part of the joy of ranch life is watching kids and grandkids interact with the animals. For all its hardships, we are glad we’ve been ranchers, able to give our kids and grandkids a chance to experience the wide variety of “real life” adventures.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October 15, 2010 Spring 2005 – Calving Season Continued…

In March 2005 our local gift shop began selling my new book Beyond the Flames. We’ve also been giving copies to many friends, including the folks who own the local feed store. They lost a son in a car accident the year before, and were trying to comfort a young woman who had just lost a child. After reading our book, in which I told about the support group at the burn center in Salt Lake (for recovering burn survivors and their families), and how much this had helped us and many others, they were inspired to start a support group in our community for parents who have lost children. Lynn and I were very pleased to know that our story has been a help to other people.
Michael and Carolyn’s cows were nearly done calving when our little herd of cows started calving in late March. We’d brought our cows down from the big field above our house and sorted out the ones that looked like they would calve first, putting them into the big “maternity pen” near the house where we can check them easily during the night. The day we sorted them one young cow, named Freddy, was very restless, getting up and down repeatedly and wandering around. We put her into the calving pen by the house at 4:30 a.m. (Easter Sunday morning), where I could watch her out the window, using my flashlight, since it wasn't daylight yet. We were worried about her calving so early, several weeks ahead of her due date.

By 5:30 a.m. she had a bloody discharge so we put her in the headcatcher and checked her. The cervix was fully dilated, with the calf starting into the birth canal, but his head was slipping off to one side. The calf was tiny, but still having trouble coming into the birth canal, so we thought he was dead. He was very small and thin, probably needing 3 more weeks' growth in the uterus. Michael helped us pull the calf, which was still alive upon delivery, with a strong heartbeat, but we couldn’t get him breathing. His air passages were full of thick mucus and though we tried to clear them, and I blew air into one nostril (holding the other nostril and mouth shut), it didn't seem like the air was getting to the lungs--it was coming back around into the mouth. The calf never took a breath on his own and soon died. But one of the twin calves that Michael and Carolyn were raising on a bottle was in a handy pen nearby, and before we let Freddy out of the headcatcher we brought the twin (Bambi) to her and it nursed. We rubbed birth mucus from the dead calf all over the little twin and when we turned Freddy loose she thought the orphan calf was hers. They bonded nicely.

We thought that was the happy ending to the story. But Freddy was still in pain and did not pass her afterbirth, nor any bowel movements. She loved the adopted calf, but was so miserable that she spent all her time lying down; we'd periodically get her up and make her stand up long enough for the adopted calf to nurse. By evening we knew she needed medical attention, so we put her in the headcatcher again and gave her a gallon of mineral oil and 2 gallons of water (to try to get things moving again in her gut), antibiotics, and a shot of oxytocin to help her "clean". Sometime after midnight (early Monday morning) Michael and Carolyn checked on her again and she'd had another calf! Another tiny premature calf, but this one was alive and had his head up, and the cow had licked him dry (his short, velvety hair was completely dry). He was too premature and weak to stand up, so we carried him to the little trailer house to warm him and give him a bottle of colostrum. He weighed only 30 pounds and was at least 3 weeks premature.

He developed pneumonia from being chilled (and because of immature lungs), and spent several weeks in intensive care. Michael and Carolyn they took him home the second night, to make a better place for him in their basement. Their kids were out of school for a week (Easter vacation) and little Heather (age 13) spent a lot of time with the calf, rubbing and petting him, which seemed to help stimulate him to try to live. They trickled a little milk down his throat every 2 hours with a dose syringe. Young Heather worked with him a lot, trying to get him to suck her finger—and finally got him sucking a bottle again. She stayed with him the most of 2 days, reading books, listening to music, and he seemed to enjoy the attention. She named him Red Chile Pepper, and we gave the calf to her.
He soon became stronger, trying to stand up. Before long he was running and bucking around the basement and they made a barricade to keep him in his corner. Nick liked to get down on his hands and knees and play with the calf, butting heads with him. Meanwhile, Freddy was doing better, too, passing manure and eating and drinking again, and enjoying her adopted calf.

Then in early April we had a newborn calf that suffered a broken leg. The cow stepped on its hind leg soon after it was born. When the little heifer tried to get up, she couldn't put any weight on it. We had to hold the calf up while it nursed the first time. We put a splint on the leg, but our makeshift job wasn't adequate so we had our vet come out and put a cast on it. Then the little heifer was able to get up and around, and nurse on her own, and even tried to run and buck.

Our only previous experience with broken bones in a young calf was one our neighbor gave us 30 years earlier; he had a newborn calf that got stepped on, breaking off about 4 inches of its lower jaw (which was just hanging there, by the skin). He was going to shoot the calf, then thought about us. We've always tried to save every animal. So we drove to his place and brought the calf home in our old volkswagon. Our kids (who were quite small then) and I held onto the calf in the back seat. After we got the calf home, I tried to reposition the broken-off part of the jaw as best I could, fitting the bones back together, then we taped it in that position with stretchy adhesive tape. We knew we could feed the calf via stomach tube, inserted through the nostril, so it wouldn't matter that his mouth was taped shut. We'd been using a stomach tube to give fluids to calves with scours (back in the days before someone invented esophageal feeders with a probe that goes down the throat). Our patch job on that calf worked nicely and his jaw healed in less than 3 weeks--and you'd never know it had been broken. If you felt the bone carefully, you could feel a small pea-sized lump on one side of the jaw, probably where I hadn't gotten the bones back together quite perfectly.

Our calf with the broken leg had to live in the barn with her mama--she could not be allowed to get the cast wet or it would disintegrate. A few hours after our vet put the cast on, it started to rain, so we were glad we have a barn. To make sure the cast stayed dry, we watered the cow several times a day and took the tub away after she drank, since calves always like to dunk their feet in their mama's water tubs!

That was a spring for broken bones. Our son Michael damaged his ring finger on his left hand April 9 when they were rounding up their cows and calves to brand. It was a cold, windy day, and he hadn't ridden his young horse all winter (that was his first ride in the spring) and the horse started bucking. Michael was trying to hold the horse’s head up, and the pulling pressure of the reins—which also jammed his finger into the saddle--tore the tendon loose from the bone in that finger, tearing out a chunk of bone with it, retracting the bone fragment up the finger. His ring probably kept it from going clear back up into his hand, but he soon had to take the ring off, before the swelling was too great to get it off.

He didn't know whether the finger was broken or dislocated (he couldn't bend it after that, and it swelled immediately) and didn't go to the doctor because he continued on with the roundup and branding, and the next day had to help a neighbor brand. His days were so busy he didn't go to a doctor (even though the finger was huge and black and would not bend) until 9 days later, when the swelling finally went down enough that he could feel a piece of bone moving around in the upper part of his finger, and a splinter of bone at the end of his finger. So he had to go to a specialist in Missoula, Montana to have surgery on it, to pull the tendon back into place and screw that bone piece (with the tendon attached to it) back on.

He was stressed and upset because he needed to be here to feed his cows. But we assured him that Lynn and Andrea could do that while he and Carolyn were gone. Andrea came to the ranch right after she put little Emily on the school bus, and I took care of her younger kids while she drove the big truck. We managed to do their chores and look after the cows that were still left to calve.

Michael was also upset about having that arm in a cast for 6 weeks to keep the hand completely immobile as it healed. A rancher can never be sick or absent from the job. But Lynn helped Carolyn feed the cows and Michael could drive the truck. He still managed to do a lot with one hand, driving the tractor to load hay, helping with neighbors’ brandings, and was also able to do some irrigating, even though it was a challenge to wield a shovel.

That spring my dad was facing surgery, too—on his shoulder. At 86 years old he wanted to have it repaired so it wouldn’t be so painful, and so he could continue to do a few things. Life sure doesn't get easier as we get older, but maybe our spirits get stronger so we can handle it. But the challenges never end. It seems like when we get to where we can struggle over one hurdle, another one looms higher. The journey is quite amazing, and it's just a good thing we don't know (when we're younger) where it leads. We would not have the strength, courage and wisdom to handle it.

I thank God that we are given the ability to handle life as it comes along, but it's not easy, and we seem to need lesson reinforcements all along the way. I guess it's for the best that we get toughened up and softened down as we go along. If we were suddenly thrust into old age and various physical challenges, we could NOT handle it. We seem to need the wisdom, tolerance, mellowing and love that are gradually gained through the adversities we meet along the way. As our bodies weaken, our spirits can grow stronger. I sometimes wonder if a person could truly gain maturity without the challenges. We humans seem to take the easy road if we can, and maybe we need the lessons in order to truly grow.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October 1, 2010 Calving Season 2005

We had a nice Christmas, spending the afternoon and evening out at Andrea's place enjoying those grandkids, and feeling very blessed to still have our daughter, and to have those lovely children.

January 2005 started out cold. Even with our wood stoves going, it was often down to 55 degrees in my office in the early mornings when I was typing, so Lynn got me a tiny electric heater that sits by my desk. I was finishing a book on handy hints for horsemen (Stable Smarts), and working on the final stages of The Horse Conformation Handbook. My book Beyond the Flames had been published, and I was writing many letters, sending some of those books to friends who’d ordered them at Christmastime.

During January I was busy doing several writing projects--articles for horse and cattle magazines, and checking over the edited manuscript for my book on getting started with beef and dairy cattle. I hoped to get most of these projects done before we began calving. We calved in January for more than 30 years (to have the cows bred in April before they went to summer BLM range) but after we sold most of our cows to our son Michael (and he began using our range permit) our herd was small enough to stay home on our private pastures and we can calve whenever we want--so that year our cows were bred to calve in late March.

Granddaughter Emily had her 7th birthday in January and little Sammy turned 2 years old. Lynn and I planned to go out to Andrea’s place for a combined birthday party but we all had colds and decided to postpone.

In early January we helped Michael and Carolyn work their cows (giving the important vaccinations prior to calving) and they moved their cattle to our lower fields, in preparation for calving. They also brought a load of poles and several fence jacks to make portable jack fence panels. Young Heather and Nick spent a couple evenings after school helping them build the jack fence to create a wing out in the field, for getting the pregnant cows in through the corner gate whenever they needed to bring one to the calving barn. With the wing to funnel them toward the gate, they can't run off and get away so easily. The panels can later be picked up with a tractor and loader and removed from the field so they won't be in the way for haying. The kids helped hold up the long poles while Michael nailed them to the jacks.

Those kids were getting big enough to be a lot of help to their parents. They help on weekends, sorting out cows to put into the "maternity field", watering the cows and new calves in pens and barn, shuttling cows with new babies down to the lower field. I remember when our kids were that age; we made a good crew, and it looks like these guys are, too. That's the nice thing about being on a ranch--you get to do lots of things as a family. Even though it's "work", some of the projects can be pretty exciting (almost too exciting sometimes, with wild cows). That winter, they often ate dinner with us on Sunday nights after they got done with their chores. Since they were using our calving facilities and spent a lot of time here during calving, we got to interact with them quite a bit and that was fun too--sharing all our wild cow stories. And the grandkids got to hear some family history about all the crazy things their Dad and aunt Andrea did growing up.

The first new calves arrived in late January and by the first of February Michael and Carolyn had 21 new babies, including 3 born down in the lower field. Michael brought those babies up to the barn in a big plastic sled. They had several sets of twins. One pair was born down in the field and he put both calves in the sled to bring them to the barn, with mama following. Our own cows hadn’t started calving yet, so Lynn and I weren’t doing night shifts yet. On my birthday we drove out to Andrea’s place for a few hours and enjoyed seeing her kids, then that evening Michael and Carolyn and kids came for supper at our place after they finished their evening feeding.

By mid-February, 85 of their cows had calved, with about 160 more to calve. One cold night, another newborn calf had to be brought up from the field in a sled pulled behind a 4-wheeler, but that particular cow wouldn't follow her calf to the barn. Most cows are good mothers and follow along, staying right with the calf, but this cow (one they bought the year before) was wild and ran off, and they couldn't get her in from the field. She's the kind that would jump over a fence or crash over a stall partition in the barn, so they left her out in the field and brought the calf to their little trailer house to warm and dry, and fed it a bottle. When they took it back out to the cow, she didn't want it--kicking it viciously. They decided to give the calf to Swifty, a sweet little cow that lost her set of twins the night before. The wild, mean cow will become hamburger.

Swifty is much nicer and belongs to granddaughter Heather (age 13 at that time) and everyone was feeling badly that she'd lost her twins. Those calves were presented backward and all tangled together, and dead by the time Swifty’s labor was obvious and Michael brought her in from the field to put in the chute and check her and assist the birth. Swifty adopted the rejected calf; she still wanted a baby.

The 50 heifers Michael and Carolyn bought (to increase their herd numbers) were wild and flighty, so they were living in a corral near our other barn, which could provide shelter for those new babies. There's a lane between the corral and the barn, so it wasn’t too hard to get a wild heifer into the barn, especially since our dear old "Rhiney" (Rhinestone Rhonda) was living with the heifers. She was 15 years old that spring and we’d used her for many years to lead our heifers into the barn. We sold her to Michael and Carolyn in one of the batches of cows we sold to them, and they used her for the same purpose.

She would march into the barn, heifer following, then turn around and come back out, so you could slam the door on the heifer. If there were no other cows in the barn, we could leave Rhiney in there with the heifer, in an adjacent stall, to keep her company if the heifer was really wild and needed a buddy in the barn. So Rhiney was still earning her keep, and they were hoping she wouldn’t calve until late in the season, so she could continue to do her job. She worked for wages--we always had to give her a "cookie" after her job (a flake of alfalfa hay). Then she willingly marched to the barn whenever we called her name.

Andrea and kids were doing well that winter, and little Danielle was growing fast. At 3 1/2 months old she weighed more than 12 pounds--making up for being so tiny when she was born. Emily was enjoying 1st grade and learning to read. She often read her books to me over the phone and was quite proud of her accomplishments. She decided to sign up for wrestling (the grade school has a wrestling program) and she was excited about that. She was very sturdy and strong for her age, and was able to outwrestle most of the boys in first grade!

Andrea continued to recover from her burn injuries 5 summers earlier, but "recovery" is a forever thing. The doctors in Salt Lake wanted her to go back to the burn center that spring for a couple more surgeries, to correct some graft contractures (one in her armpit and upper arm, and one on the little finger of her right hand) where the contracting scar tissue was pulling on her joints. She didn't want any more surgeries, however, and kept putting it off.

Lynn and I were feeling our age that winter and started hiking every evening after chores, walk about a mile up our horse trail from the house. Some days we’d go farther, up a steep trail into a mountain pasture. With our smaller cow herd and fewer chores to take care of them, we realized we weren't getting the exercise we used to (and me not riding range every day in summer--now I just ride occasionally to help the kids move cattle). Sitting at a desk typing is not a good way to stay fit. My cholesterol levels had risen sharply after I became less active, and Lynn was overweight, so we made a commitment to hike every evening. I never thought I'd have to resort to "artificial exercise" but our lives changed drastically after the summer of 2000 when we started cutting down our cow herd (selling more to Michael and Carolyn) and doing less active things, like baby tending and helping Andrea, and typing articles full time instead of being outside working so much of each day. So... it was time to do something about it.

As we pondered the changes in our lives, we realized this journey has been amazing. These are definitely not the paths we would have chosen, but Lynn and I feel this trek has made us more "alive", more aware, and more able to love other people. We look back on that abrupt "detour" in July 2000 and now realize that it's the most wondrous (though definitely not the easiest!) route our lives could have taken--the most awesome trip. And it's on-going. Once we made that screeching turn off the main road, we entered an entirely different landscape. It took awhile to really see it and appreciate it, and the path is still opening up, but what a change it's been from that freeway we were whizzing along on so nonchalantly! So much more now, to see and feel, so much new stuff to try to soak in and assimilate, so many people crossing our path, and now we find we have the ability to see a kinship with them. We can really "see" people now, for who they really are, and know that we are kindred spirits under all the superficial layers we used to wrap ourselves in. The connectedness is awesome, and a lot of these people we meet, we end up sharing our journey with--we trudge along together and find joy and meaning in the travel, and we share a sense of wonder at the breathtaking glimpses of what life is really all about.

Yes, it's been an awesome detour and I can honestly say that now Lynn and I (and Andrea) are not sorry that it happened. We can look past the tragedy, and the changes we had to make, without bitterness or regret. The terrible pain, the uncertainty, the horrible fear and worry as we plunged into the dark unknown, have been mostly dissipated (or made endurable) and replaced by Love and peace, and a calm understanding that there is a hand that guides us. We can tackle the rest of the journey with more confidence, and even with joy, because now we know we are loved. Now we know we can trust. Before, these were intellectual concepts; though we had glimmers of "seeing", we were mostly enveloped in mundane stuff that stood in the way. Now, we know these things in our hearts and not just our minds, and the mundane stuff has been effectively ripped enough that we can step through it and beyond it, and sometimes be truly free of it--free to love, free to be, free to experience the joy of being loved for what we are, which includes a new commitment to be the best that we can be--in loving, in helping other people.

A friend that I came to know because of our mutual traumatic journeys told me she is grateful for the many gifts her accident (that left her partially paralyzed) afforded her. She feels connected now to the pain of other people, and to the possibilities of a heart change spawned by such pain. This is a metamorphosis that comes from entering into and passing through the dark unknown of a life-changing crisis. She said, "To those who walk in that darkness and all those beautiful people who have been changed because they stepped into it and through it with their faith intact, I feel connected. It's not a path I'd have chosen, had I been given a choice, but having come through it a better person, I can honestly say I COULD do it again. It's funny how people will say, 'I could never handle it like you have.' The truth is, they could."

She pointed to the story about a man who carried his cross to Jesus and said it was too heavy and he wanted another one. Jesus told him to put it in a certain room and go pick out another cross to bear. The man was overwhelmed when he saw how big the other crosses were and finally found one he thought he could handle. When he took it to Jesus and said he couldn't believe the size of those other crosses but had found one he was sure he could carry, Jesus said, "That's the one you brought in."

We think we've got it tough until we see someone struggling with a bigger cross, a harder one. Then we realize we can carry our own. It's all a matter of perspective. Each of us has a cross, but no matter what it is, our Lord helps us bear it--so our own is definitely the one we want.

So, I continue my own journey with joy, and a lot more faith. Even though worry and hurry still creep in, it doesn't take much to step out of that trap and shake it off and once again breath the clean, pure air and peace of this blessed detour. Though we shall always walk with a limp because of our encounter (a person never emerges unscathed through such a life-changing detour), we rejoice, for like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we did not let it go until it blessed us. We know we can manage now, in spite of our impairments and inadequacies, our loss, or our wound scars. We know we can manage because we have a wonderful Guide for the rest of our journey, and He will see us through the tough spots.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15, 2010 Late Fall 2004 – Another hurdle crossed, and a good Thanksgiving

Andrea was expecting her fourth child in mid November 2004, but started having labor pains more than a month early. An ultrasound check showed that the baby weighed only about 4 pounds at that point in time. Fortunately things quieted down and the pregnancy continued. In late October she had another checkup and the doctor thought the baby was more ready, and made an appointment for Andrea to go to Hamilton, Montana (100 miles away) to meet with a doctor there. Due to problems in our local hospital at that time, most obstetrical patients were being sent to other towns to have their babies. While Andrea made the trip to Hamilton for her checkup, Emily, Charlie and little Samantha stayed with us.

Andrea had labor pains again November 1 and we thought she and Mark would have to make a fast trip over the mountains to Hamilton, but again it was a false alarm. The next day we had a severe snowstorm and bad roads, so we hoped they wouldn’t have to travel that day. On November 4, Andrea was sure it was the real thing this time; she called us at 3 a.m. and Lynn drove 25 miles to her place to stay with the kids until they woke up, and then brought them home to our house. Mark and Andrea headed over the mountains and made it to Hamilton by 6:30 a.m.

She gave birth to a baby girl, Danielle, at 11 a.m. The baby weighed 6 pounds, 2 ounces and was healthy. The birth went fine, but Andrea started hemorrhaging immediately afterward; she suddenly became dizzy and nearly passed out while she was holding the newborn baby. She had to be taken into surgery to halt the bleeding and to remove a piece of placenta that was still in the uterus—that hadn’t been detected with the ultrasound. Her fleeting thought as they took her to surgery was remembering that her grandmother—Lynn’s mother—died during childbirth (and the baby died with her) when Lynn was 8 years old. She bled to death in spite of extensive blood transfusions. This was a very sobering memory for all of us.

A couple months before Andrea was due to have her baby, we had grumbled a little about the fact that politics and problems here in our local hospital made it such that she had to go out of town to have this baby, but in the end it was for the best and we were very thankful. I think the Lord watches out for us better than we can.

The doctor in Hamilton wasn't able to find the cause of bleeding, so he immediately took her into surgery and scoped the uterus—to find out whether she had a ruptured uterus or some other problem--and discovered some mushy placenta still in there. So he removed that material, which resolved the serious bleeding. We learned later that our local hospital had the equipment to do endoscopic examination of the uterus, but no one here knew how to use it or read it, so it was a good thing that Andrea had to go somewhere else to have that baby! God does work in mysterious ways, and who are we to think we know best.

She had a rough time after the surgery, but the doctor let her come home the next day. We helped her with the kids because she was in a lot of pain for about a week, partly from the incisions that were made for scoping her uterus to determine the cause of bleeding. Little Charlie (3 years old) had just started pre-school (a Head Start program) 4 days a week, and Lynn often went to town to pick him up at school, since he got out too early to ride the bus with Emily.

When Andrea, baby and Mark went back to Hamilton for her 3-week checkup, the kids stayed with us again, and Emily helped me with the evening chores. She wanted to see her pet calf, Buffalo Girl, who was now with a group of weaned heifers. It had been a couple months since Emily had seen Buffalo Girl, and I wasn’t sure the calf would be as gentle and trusting as she was earlier. She’d become more suspicious of humans after we tagged and vaccinated her with the other calves in September, and no longer let Lynn or me pet her. But when Emily and I walked out in the field and called her, Buffalo Girl came from the far end of the field and seemed glad to see Emily, letting the child feed her a mouthful of hay and pet her. The calf and kid had a special bond; she was definitely Emily’s cow!

At Thanksgiving, Andrea insisted on cooking a big dinner, in spite of the fact she wasn’t completely recuperated from having the baby. We brought part of the food, and Emily was at our house the day before, helping me make a pumpkin cake. That child loves to cook.

We had a lot to be thankful for, that Thanksgiving—our daughter still with us (after several “close calls” in her young life), and our beautiful grandchildren. We were glad to have both our children living nearby, so we can watch our grandkids grow up. We were grateful that our son and his family were utilizing part of our ranch for their cattle (along with another leased place), since Lynn and I were starting to slow down, and downsizing our own cattle operation.

Raising cattle and horses has been one of the abiding passions of my life, but these past few years had widened my focus and I was not as reluctant as I thought I’d be about giving up part of our herd. I suppose I've been guilty of being more of a hermit than most people. I was too insecure and timid as a young person to feel at ease with people--even though I desperately wanted to be. This is probably one reason why I loved animals so much and chose to spend a life working with them rather than with people... since animals were (for me) easier to deal with--always honest and open, easier for me to be in tune with. Yet now I feel those early years were partly a preparation for what I was ultimately supposed to do.
I think God was patiently waiting for me to grow up. Now I feel a compulsion to love and help people as much as I can. The sojourn that began in Salt Lake at the burn ICU was the start of a new door opening, stripping away some of my complacency and contentment (and even the fanatic passion of care I'd been giving to my animals all those years) and I realized I CAN live without my critters if I must, and that my all-consuming drive to take care of them and survive in ranching is really not my whole vocation. It is definitely a vocation and a way of life, but I've been gently pushed into moving on to broader focus.

After the abrupt jerk-around with Andrea's accident, my life took a different direction. It wasn’t very obvious at first, but gradually more and more. My focus changed and I realized I could no longer run away from what I suspect I was intended to do all along, but as a young person didn't have the courage, strength or ability to do.

Where once I gave of myself utterly for my critters (24-hour-a-day focus during calving season, for instance, or riding range daily in summer to check on the cattle and take care of any problems) I now am compelled to focus on people, and love them. I'm still inhibited and fettered by my limitations (as a shy person, I still do best staying home and writing) but I find that perhaps I can use my writing as a way to help others.
Physically and emotionally, it wears me out to go to town or be among people, but I can relate to them better now--with more focus, compassion, tolerance and love, without so much of "me" getting in the way; there's still self-consciousness, but not as much. The pilgrimage that began in Salt Lake is ongoing, gradually stripping away some of my defensiveness and the walls I'd put between myself and other people.

I am a poor tool for helping others, but I feel I’m being led by the same Love that carried Lynn and me through the darkest jungle we'd ever been lost in. I guess God can even use crude and graceless tools (like myself) for His purpose, so I'm humbly trying to find that "fit" in His hands. I know that I find my most peaceful (worry free) and happy moments now when connecting with and loving someone else, trying to encourage a friend who's gone through trauma or a friend who is fighting cancer or some other serious challenge. Somehow, in some small way, maybe we can make a difference for someone or brighten their day, as others did for us. When Lynn and I were struggling and trying to keep from sinking, there were hands that reached out to us and helped us through it.

In 2004 we scaled down our ranching (from 160 cows to 30) and even though I still had a few horses, I didn't ride as often—just using the horses to move our cattle from pasture to pasture here on the place, or to help our kids move cows on the range. They were using our range permit and we no longer put our cattle out there. I never thought I could give this up (at least not until I was physically unable to do it), but Salt Lake changed all that. The fanatic passion shifted. It's nice to still have some animals, but they are not my defining focus now. I spend most of each day writing rather than working with critters, and Lynn has more time for doing a few other things like helping Andrea with all her little kids (he often drove the 25 miles to her place to stay with the kids on days she had to go to town). When one door shuts, another opens. We've been able to survive financially without the big cow herd, due to the increase in my writing (books and articles) and are able to continue helping our kids, and hopefully helping other people, too.
I am slowly, slowly learning not to worry so much, and to just have faith that things will work out, one way or another. Sometimes the way is not clear, and we don't know how it can work out, but God seems to give us answers, or help us find ways to cope, no matter what happens. Some days are harder than others, and sometimes it's impossible to see or know how certain challenges can work out, but I'm learning to trust.

We continue praying for several friends who are fighting cancer and other serious problems, and marveling at how Love is leading them through. No matter what the outcome, some of them are celebrating whatever amount of time they have left. They have been blessed in spite of pain and setbacks, making every day count. The openness, the love, the peace they have, is inspiring. There are all kinds of miracles. A person doesn't have to be saved from death to have a miracle. Sometimes I think the greatest miracle is just the awakening of our soul to Love.

This doesn't mean we won't become "down" and fretful, or grumpy in our painful moments, or angry or petty. Most of us are still like small children in our progress and not very far along in our struggle toward awareness, and we still get crabby and cranky or selfish at times. But I am grateful for the awareness of Love that now can so easily jerk me back to a bigger Reality, once again reminding me that life is so much more than pain or hate or pettiness or judging someone else, and not bound by suffering or death. Those things are temporary. And we can get beyond them. We can celebrate the joy of our connectedness and rejoice in the wonder of such Love that can comfort and support us all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September 1, 2010 Kids and Calves, and thoughts about our journey…

The summer of 2004 brought more adventures, including 2 orphan calves. One morning that spring when I went outside to do chores I saw a cow in the field above our house lying on her back, with her feet in the air. I ran up there and discovered she was bloated and suffocating, and even though Lynn and I tried to save her, we were too late. Her month-old calf followed us in from the field as we dragged the cow’s body with the feed truck, and we put him in a little pen where we could corner him and feed him with a bottle. Andrea’s 3 kids enjoyed feeding him every time they came out to visit, and 6-year-old Emily named him Nick Nack Paddy Whack Jack.

Three weeks later we suddenly had another orphan, when Onyx died (perhaps from a heart attack—she was perfectly fine that morning and sometime mid-day she dropped in her tracks without a struggle) and left little Buffalo Girl without a mother. When we got that calf in from the field, she was too wild and scared to nurse a bottle, and we finally had to give her that first substitute meal via stomach tube.

The next time, she still refused to suck a bottle, until I trickled a little milk down her throat with a dose syringe. Her tummy was so happy for the milk that her scared brain finally got the message, and she started sucking the bottle. We put her with Paddy Whack Jack and the two of them lived together that summer, eating grass in the back yard and pens, and coming happily to anyone with a bottle.

Emily helped feed these calves whenever she came to visit, and she and Buffalo Girl developed a special bond. The little black heifer allowed Emily to pet her anytime, anywhere, and would come to Emily to eat a handful of picked grass. Paddy Whack Jack was pushy and ornery, but Buffalo Girl was always calm and gentle and trusting, entranced by this small child.

That spring Em finished kindergarten and our two older grandchildren finished 5th and 7th grade. Young Heather was student of the year for her 7th grade class. Heather and Nick helped ride range and move cattle several times that summer. They were both in 4-H and enjoyed showing their horses. Little Emily liked to ride, too, and sometimes when I’d come home from riding range I’d let her ride my horse around the barnyard.

I finally started sorting some of the piles that had been accumulating in my office, discovering things (including some pieces of unopened mail) dating back to the summer of 2000. Time passed us by for a while that year, as we struggled to just hang on and do the bare essentials. Our lives were put on hold for many months as we struggled to deal with Andrea’s injuries and everything that needed to be done for her, and it was taking a long time to catch up.

One of the highlights of our summer in 2004 was getting to finally meet some friends from Pennsylvania who came West for a vacation. They stayed here a week to go horseback riding and float the river. This was a farm family we’d corresponded with for 4 years. Dwight was one of the first of many people who wrote to us after Andrea’s burn accident, after he read about it in one of the columns I wrote for a farm magazine. He was burned as a young man, 19 years earlier, while trying to save his family’s barn after a gasoline explosion set it on fire. He’d been through all the problems Andrea was facing, and his letters of encouragement were a great help to her, and to Lynn and me, as we struggled through the first months and years of her recovery. In his letters, he encouraged Andrea, telling her that the terrible itching and discomfort of her grafts would gradually ease, and that life would become good again. He said that in some ways his burn injuries were hardest on his parents, who could not bear to see their child suffering. His letter was one of the first we received from total strangers, offering hope and encouragement.

Other friends (Beth and Mike) came to visit us later that summer, and Beth rode with me to check cattle on the range. We also rode through the burned area on our high range, to look at the aftermath of the range fire the previous year. In some places the grass was coming back nicely, but in other areas where the fire burned really hot (burning down through topsoil to the rocks) the bare areas were filling in with weeds. Much of the ground under the burned trees was still black, with nothing growing yet. The fire burned several miles of fence between our allotment and the Forest range, and some of our cattle strayed into the wrong range. It took many days of riding that fall to find them, and some went home with the neighbor’s cattle.

That fall Andrea went back to Salt Lake for her semi-annual checkup, taking her two youngest children with her, and Emily stayed with us (so she wouldn’t miss school). Em rode the school bus with Nick and young Heather, and every afternoon after school she went with Lynn out to Andrea’s place to do their chores—feed the horse, the dog and the fish. Andrea’s checkup assessing her grafts and health issues went well, and we were glad for that bit of progress.

The dark cloud looming, however, was that Andrea’s marriage was going through increasingly difficult times. We agonized for her and tried to help her and Mark as best we could, but there were limits in what we could do. The challenges that come along in life certainly remind us that we are never really in control, that unexpected winds can come along and blow us into strange lands. But I was so thankful we had some "lessons" in earlier phases of our journey, to know that no matter what happens, we are loved, and the One who loves us will always see us through the storms.

The journey continues to be an emotional roller-coaster. A letter from a dear friend, a mother of another burn survivor, mentioned how after her son’s accident she weeps so readily. In my reply I told her that Lynn and I have both been affected this way, too, ever since Andrea's accident. Our emotions are so thinly covered that they burst through. Like our children's fragile skin, our protective layers that we earlier hid beneath were burned away by the fire, and the patch-up graft we've tried to replace these with is more transparent and easily parted.

It's as though we are more touched by everything that happens; our sensitivities to what happens to other people are now more raw and exposed. We can't ignore the deepness of feelings, or keep ourselves removed from what others are feeling. We are pricked and touched, by joys as well as sorrows. We have become much more feeling creatures. It's as though we've tapped into the very lifeline nerves and arteries of humanity and are much more acutely aware of our connectedness.

Yet we also seem to be a little afraid of this vast openness and connectedness, maybe still trying to protect ourselves from such depths of feeling. I still try to resist suffering, even though I know that it's the best reminder of Love, and the only way to stretch and grow until something deep inside us breaks and enables the heart and soul to expand and hold more.

I sometimes ask myself WHY do we need such constant reminders of the truths we've learned on our precarious journey? WHY must we have to be jerked up short when life gets easy and we become complacent again? Maybe this problem (of so easily slipping into complacency and blindness) is why some seekers of Truth locked themselves away in monasteries and other places of retreat to try to focus more fully on THE WAY and not be distracted by life's trivialities, but I don't think that's the best solution. I think life itself, out in the tough real world, is the best environment for getting the maximum good from our journey, since it periodically forces us to take detours from what we thought was an easy path. It forces us to confront realities along the way, and scramble through thickets, briars and bogs--and take the hand of One who can lead us through the dangerous spots when we realize we can't make it on our own (even though we maybe thought we could).

And it is only out in the real world that we truly bump into one another and connect, and find that we are all children of God, and loved, and that we share so much (especially with our fragile layers ripped off so we can't hide behind our carefully built facades).

As I mentioned to my friend whose son was burned, all that matters is LOVE. But, oh how we try to cover up that truth in everyday life and blunder along without touching. I guess that's why I am actually grateful for the experience our burned children gave us. It opened up such a vast new understanding and caring. Indeed, I know that we are more able to rejoice, in so MANY things, because we have been privileged to know sorrow. Life is a seeming paradox. The deeper that sorrow carves into our soul, the more joy we can hold. We cannot know true joy until we have experienced sorrow.

The past few years have been a blink. It doesn't take much to plunge us back into the feelings of 2000. That experience is still vivid and raw (and each year I mentally walk through the events of that summer and am aware of the anniversaries that roll around). This is the night she got burned, this is the hour she was flying to Salt Lake on the life flight, this is the day she fell out of bed and cracked open the back of her head and the skin grafts on her elbows, this is the day she was moved from the ICU, this is the day Em and I finally got to go see her, this is the day she got to leave the hospital and become an outpatient, this is the day SHE GOT TO COME HOME, this is the day.... No, we can never forget.

Yet, time has a way of softening the edges. We can still plunge right back into that frame of the movie, but we also have the counterbalancing knowledge of how it progressed, how it didn't end right there, how we were led through successive scenes and were brought through the valley of the shadow, and learned to trust (though I still need reminders!! but the reminders do jerk me back to reality and assurance, thank God!!) That's the beauty of the journey. We have a Guide, and now we are more aware of Him, and that He does hold us in His hand, no matter what.

And I know that I can never be the same. I may at times be complacent and forgetful and caught up in the smallness of fret or worry, or dissipate my focus onto things that don't really matter, but underneath it all I realize my purpose in life has changed from what I earlier perceived it to be. Now the only important thing is love, and trying to be connected, and trying to help others who are struggling through pain and dark thickets along their own journey.

Our love for our wounded children has opened up a well of love that is greater than we ever imagined, and we want to share it with others. I feel so small and inadequate to do these things that I now feel called to do, but I also know that even the unimaginable is possible, so I struggle on, to try to make a difference where I can. I am a poor tool, but who am I to question. I think I'm just supposed to trust and follow. Maybe someday us “mothers” should compile a book about "faith by ordeal".