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.