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.”