November and December of 2005 were cold. We had several weeks of cold weather before Christmas and it got down to 20 below zero. Just before the worst of the cold weather we had a lot of snow. We started feeding hay a few weeks earlier than usual because our fall pasture was so deeply snowed under. It meant buying more hay than we'd planned, but also meant there was more snow in the mountains than we had the previous year. We wouldn’t be so short on irrigation water the next summer.
We weren’t sure what the weather would be like by the time we started calving. Our herd was small (down to 30 head) but our son Michael was calving his 285 cows here at our place. His cows started calving in mid January. Ours were bred to calve in February and March. Michael wanted to add more stalls on one of our calving sheds; we don't have enough barn space for all his cows if weather is cold or nasty.
We had enough barn space (when we were calving in January) for 20 pairs, which is about the most calves we ever had born in one day, but we only had 185 cows at the peak of our herd numbers. We'd hoped to do the barn add-on project in the fall, but Michael was too busy hauling hay. He bought hay from 3 other ranchers around the valley (more than 400 tons) and was hauling most of it himself on a flatbed trailer.
Andrea was busy with her little kids, and helping carpenters add onto her house at 12 Mile. She was up on the roof nailing shingles before Christmas. She also helped put insulation in the walls, and put up the sheetrock. But she had a bad fall one day when she was in town (missed a step on the stairs going into a store, and fell several feet onto concrete) and hurt her knee, so that slowed her down a little. Lynn was out at her place helping with the building project, most days, except when he got the "stomach bug" that was going around and was laid low with diarrhea for several days. He wasn't able to eat--just drank lots of Gatorade to keep from being dehydrated. He resorted to taking some of the calf medicine (liquid neomycin sulfate) we give our calves for diarrhea caused by intestinal infection, since the human medicine didn't seem to help much. He got over the diarrhea pretty quickly after that.
Michael and Carolyn helped me feed our cows and load our hay until Lynn got over being so weak and sick. We were glad they lived close by, to help us; usually we are the ones helping them, getting their kids to and from the bus when they're busy calving, helping them work cows etc. (we call ourselves the battery backup, since we're ready to help in any emergency) but this time it was their turn to help us until Lynn felt better.
I am glad both our kids and their families live here in the valley. Though Andrea was 25 miles away, on the other side of town at 12 mile, that's still very close, compared to some families that are scattered all over the country. We often help baby-sit her kids, and Lynn sometimes picked up little Charlie from pre-school when Andrea wasn’t able to get into town.
Andrea never ceases to amaze me. She doesn't let her pain and impairments (from the burn injury) slow her down at all. That winter she was carrying heavy bundles of shingles up the ladder to the roof even though the tendons in her ankles don't work properly. She was using gloves without fingers during the cold weather so she could handle the nails--because she doesn't have enough feeling and dexterity with the grafted skin on her fingers. But she needed to go back to Salt Lake sometime for more surgery (to release some graft contractures that were pulling one little finger out to the side, and pulling on both shoulders--which puts her spine out of line, creating back pain and headaches). She wanted to wait until spring to have it done, however, so she wouldn't be handicapped (while the surgical sites heal) while lugging little kids around on frozen, slippery ground. The doctor would probably have to do the shoulders one at a time so both arms won't be immobilized at once.
So, I looked at my daughter carrying on with her life, living it to the full. Every day I rejoice in her ability to do that, and thank God for the gift of those 3 youngest grandkids, that "would not have been" if their mommy had died in the fire or from her burn injuries. God is indeed merciful and generous in His gifts.
That winter after Christmas I was trying to catch up on a lot of letter writing. For the past 10 years I've tried to do more and more letter writing, to encourage friends and relatives who are going through tough challenges. Before Andrea’s injury, I had immersed myself in the ranch and taking care of animals. I never was very good at interacting with people—always a bit too timid (and claustrophobic in crowds). But we all have our different gifts and I know now that I can still help people, in spite of being a hermit!
During the past several years I've come to realize that perhaps the best way I can "make a difference" or brighten someone's day is to write letters to people who need emotional encouragement to face tough situations. I've also discovered that I've become braver about talking on the phone. As we get older, more of our friends are going through traumatic challenges like cancer or the loss of a spouse, and in some small way I've become part of a generic "support group", partially because it's my way of "paying forward" all the help and love that carried me and Lynn along when we were going through the ordeal of Andrea's fight for survival.
Lynn and I have "connected" with an incredible number of people since the summer of 2000, and it's amazing how we've all been able to help each other more fully because of the traumas we've gone through. It amazes me how we can be "found" by God, to accomplish His work. Trauma and tragedy are often the keys to unlock the door to the heart and soul. Due to human complacency, laziness, selfishness or whatever we want to call it, most of us don't quite see the whole picture when everything is going smoothly for us. It seems like most of the folks who are the most loving and understanding and tolerant are people who have suffered some kind of trauma in their own lives. We are slow learners, aren't we, until we bump up against some hard knocks.
But extreme adversity puts us more completely in the NOW, and opens us up to God and to other people. It helps us live each day more fully. As one of our cancer-survivor friends recently put it: "living each day as if we are dying". This gets our priorities in order (at the top of which is being open to God's Love and recognizing our connectedness with one another--which leads to love, tolerance, empathy and reaching out to help each other) and puts the trivial stuff way down in its proper place.
Also at the top of the list is family. Families add a whole new dimension to our lives. Families are special and precious and I am sad for people who never have kids. Children (and grandkids) add to the richness of our experiences and seem to be almost necessary for some of us, in helping us gain the maturity and wisdom needed on our own journey. We have very much appreciated our children and the many lessons they have taught us along the way.
The circle of life (and the balance created by the old learning from the young--as well as vice versa) is one of God's greatest blessings for us. Each child has unique potential as a special creation, and also has immeasurable possibilities for being part of our own learning process in our spiritual journey. God can use even the "impaired/challenged" or wayward children (sometimes even more than "normal" ones!) to open our hearts and teach us more about love and understanding and forgiveness and selflessness, for instance. We have several friends with handicapped children, or children with other problems, and though at first glance that would seem like a terrible burden, it has also been an awesome lesson in love, filled with unimaginable blessings. God can use ALL things for wondrous, unexpected blessings. Sometimes it's hard to see it at the time, but it comes.
That winter I wrote to my friend Liz (whose son was burned severely in August 2000), who had told me about the agony of watching a good friend die of cancer. It's so hard to watch a loved one die. You wish, wish, wish you could take away the pain, the agony, and lend strength to fight the battle.
It had been hard for Lynn and me, that summer, watching our friend Dave (who lost his fight with stomach/liver cancer--which he'd valiantly fought for 2 years) slip downhill and leave us. He was ready to go and handling it with grace, but the last week of his life was very miserable. He was at peace with it emotionally and spiritually, but the physical misery was still very difficult. It was a relief to have that over with, a blessed release from that ravaged, frail body. He was at peace with his journey, and impatient to go on to the next phase of it. Death, like birth, is not without pain and struggle, as we leave one phase of our life and enter the next.
The toughest part was for his widow, who must try to deal with the rest of her journey without him. She's the one we worried about. Dave was always trying to comfort the rest of us, up until the very end. He was doing ok (at peace with his journey), and at the end was impatient to go.
I was also commiserating with Liz’s challenge of helping take care of ailing parents—hers and her husband’s. I could only try to imagine what it's like, trying to care for both sets of parents. My own parents were becoming frail, especially Dad, who was having balance problems and an increasing number of falls, and taking too many pain pills for his shoulders and back--and befuddled in his mind much of the time. At that point Mom was able to manage him and they were still living independently but I was not sure how much longer that would last.
Indeed, the world is full of suffering. We have it so easy, in this country, in so many ways (compared to the starvation, wars, poverty and lack of medical services, etc. in so many other countries). Yet the death rate is still one apiece, and though we tend to be complacent at times, and spoiled, life has a way of thrusting us into reality.
In my view, reality means that without opening ourselves to Love, we become lost in all the suffering and misery. But Love gives us a way to face it. If in some small way we can help alleviate the suffering (physical or emotional) of someone else, we can find our own peace. The paradox of the human animal, it seems, is that we must live in the real world, of floods and earthquakes, hurricanes and war, where life is often cheap and short, but we are also blessed with this spark of something greater, that transcends the ephemeral bodies that we trundle around in for a time. The dichotomy of this existence is fraught with struggle; we are mortal yet immortal. So tied to earth and yet transcending it. Something within us yearns and strives for a higher plane. We humans are worshiping animals, and even in our most primitive existence our prehistoric ancestors reached out to something beyond ourselves.
I guess I have to be an optimist, and always have been. My twin cousin (who I am closer to than a sister--she's always been my best friend) put it so well in one of her letters to me that winter, saying that she had to be an eternal optimist, to keep her own sanity. I guess that describes me, too. I've always been an optimist, trying to look at the positive, the good in things, the good in people, the plusses rather than the minuses. I watched my father (and many of my relatives) fight depression all his life, and I know how very, very far a little of that goes. A little bit of negativism can sure ruin a whole bunch of goodness.
There is plenty of misery, grief and hardship in this world (and hatred and war). I have to be an optimist for my own mental and emotional survival. The alternative is too bleak. Love and hope are the only mitigating factors in this life, on this earth. Love is the only thing that bridges the chasms between people, and brings compassion and understanding, tolerance and peace. Love and hope are the antidotes for despair. And when human strength and courage fail, love can carry us through the minefield of life. Lynn and I found that out, during the summer of 2000, and our faith and hope have grown. What I only had an inkling of before, I know for sure now--that God does love us, and that He will carry us through whatever we face in this life.
Everyone walks a different path on this journey, and it seems that some paths are tougher than others. I am not sure I could handle the trail that some must climb. I just pray that God will give me the strength and grace I need as I face my own cliffs and boulders, swamps and jungles. I am encouraged, however, by the fact that He led us through the summer of 2000 when our own strength was woefully inadequate. Somehow I know that He will lead me through the rest of the challenges.
And I do fear them those challenges. I am not sure I can face the end of my own life with as much grace as my friend Dave did, for instance. I see my parents (especially Dad) becoming frail and tired, hurting and depressed and more negative, and I don't want to go there.
I know I am a wimp, especially when it comes to tough physical pain, and if I get to hurting that much I hope that God will allow me to bow out sooner than later. I know I will not have the courage nor the grace (at least not on my own) to handle some of the things life can pitch at us. I also know how vulnerable I am to the suffering of a loved one (it was hard for me to cope with Andrea's challenges when she was fighting for her life, and even when she was starting her very painful recovery here at home after the summer in Salt Lake). So I pray for mercy and Love that can comfort and ease life's hard/bitter moments and the knowledge that pain and devastation will pass. Eventually it will be just an eye-blink in our existence.
I have to be an optimist, and I try to see each new day as a new beginning, a chance to do something good, and maybe try to brighten someone else's day. We're all on our separate little journeys, walking our own path, but there's a connectedness we can open up to. We can sometimes help pull each other along and over the obstacles when the path gets rough.