Putting Things Back Together

Twice in ten years,  two young Haflinger geldings on our farm have suffered injuries so severe that if a skilled veterinarian had not been available, neither would have survived.  In both cases, the injury was severing of the lower lip and we really have no idea how the injury occurred.

The first time was a yearling who was out in the field with his buddies, and when we went to fetch him in that evening, half of his lower lip was dangling completely loose, full of bloody grass and dirt.   I couldn’t imagine it could be successfully repaired, and feared he was doomed.  I called our horse vet,  who came out to the farm, silently surveyed the damage, moving the loose piece this way and that to gauge how it could come together.  He looked at me then and said  “this would be something I’d ordinarily do in the operating room at the clinic”.   But given the time of night, the willingness of the patient and the owner,  we set up surgery right in the barn aisle under bright lights, with calm music playing on the radio, and that lip was pieced together again.  It took many stitches and several weeks but it healed. It always had a little droop to it but this young horse survived thanks to the skilled needle and suture of a forgiving vet willing to work in less than ideal circumstances.

Lightening is not supposed to hit the same place twice, but it did this week.  The rainy weather kept the Haflingers in their stalls.  Out of boredom our two year old gelding had killed several water buckets by twisting them off their hooks, throwing them around and then playing them like bongos with this feet.

We walked in to find his stall was a bloody mess, from the walls, to the shavings, to his legs.  His lower lip was a mangle of pieces of loose flesh on one side, extending up to the corner of his mouth.  We  searched that stall high and low for signs of anything sharp that may have caused such a horrific injury, but there was nothing.  There was only an innocent appearing water bucket, still 1/3 full, hanging as usual on a blunt metal J hook that swivels on an O ring.  And an incriminating huge swath of blood extending on the wall down from that hook.  I suspect he was twisting the full bucket on its hook, trying to dislodge it in order to play with it and caught his lip between the bucket handle and the O ring, and the tightness of the pinch caused him to panic, pull back and his lower lip shredded as he did.  The bucket had its revenge at last.

There was no other explanation to be found.  I called our vet, again at night, and on the phone reminded him of the great feat of plastic surgery he had performed years ago in our barn.  He didn’t sound really nostalgic about the memory, as he suspected what was coming next.   He arrived with a full surgical suite packed in his truck and got to work setting up the lights, equipment, sterile fields and suture.  The greatest challenge was keeping the barn cats from hopping up on the table with sterile surgical instruments.

Our Haflinger patient was very cooperative once again, hanging his head low under sedation.  The vet sat on a vitamin bucket, cleaning the wound thoroughly so all the pieces could be sorted out and put back in place like a jigsaw puzzle.  He was able to pull together the deeper tissue with dissolvable sutures, and then started approximating the external lip edges.   By the time he was done, the shreds looked very much like a mouth again.

Two days later, my gelding is eating and drinking normally, just a bit puffy and droopy on one side of this mouth, but he is just fine thanks to a superb vet willing to work in a barn late on a cold and rainy night instead of a surgical suite with assistants and a more appropriate  environment (no barn cats strolling around underfoot).

Even in less than perfectly controlled circumstances, miracles can occur.  I am filled with unbounded gratitude.

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Over the last four days, Haiti has seen many miracles take place in the rubble thanks to people who are willing to do what they can to help even in the most dire circumstances.    There are times when the only way to preserve life and put things back together is to do what we can when we can, even if it is messy and imperfect.

Bless those individuals who are making the on-site effort to help the Haitians, even if that help feels inadequate at the time, and surely insufficient.  The willingness to try to restore what once was–it is what will make all the difference in the midst of suffering and sorrow.

1982

“Thank you Jesus!”  she cried, her husband gripping her hands,
she bore down with one last great shudder,
pushing their third child in three years,
their first daughter, into my lap.

This prayer’s transcendent blessing of a routine labor,
this prayer spilling forth as blood and amnion washed my feet,
this prayer bespoke this family’s gratitude.
So at that moment, I prayed too.

Thankful for smooth delivery
of this healthy child after nine months of
vague symptoms that troubled and perplexed me,
passing it off as pregnancy fatigue and the weariness of motherhood.

The father, a hemophiliac, living with chronic pain,
painful joints swelling with blood with the slightest bump
fatigued, at times feverish, losing weight, depressed.
Their two children too often ill.

No test revealed the reason, no studied diagnosis explained their misery,
they tried elimination diets and homeopathy,
no alternative approaches yielded relief, nothing seemed to help
so much as their fervent prayer for healing.

This new baby, robust, hearty, seemed a sign
everything might be restored
yet soon she too suffered,
failing to gain weight or strength.

One day the blood bank called
to say a new test for a virus
was offered to all hemophiliacs and
this father of three children was positive.

I sat at my desk stunned, unbelieving, horrified
at what was to come.

The mother and the two younger children infected,
shared through lovemaking,
passing silently through placental circulation,
poisoning the purest of breast milk meals.

No known cure for this viral immune system slaughterer
already claiming millions of young lives and healthy bodies.
All that was left to them was prayer. Their church rallied
as they died, one by one, leaving one son, spared by inexplicable grace.

Remarkably, incredibly, his parents continued to pray
in gratitude, in submission, in sacrifice, until the very end,
“Thank you, Jesus.”

Probing for Sweet Peas

A white vase holds a kaleidoscope of wilting sweet peas
captive in the sunlight on the kitchen table while

wafting morning scent of pancakes
with sticky maple syrup swirls on the plate,

down the hall a dirty diaper left too long in the pail,
spills over tempera paint pots with brushes rinsed in jars after

stroking bright pastel butterflies fluttering on an easel
while wearing dad’s oversized shirt buttoned backwards

as he gently guides a hand beneath the downy underside
of the muttering hen reaching a warm egg hiding in the nest

broken into fragments like a heart while reading
the last stanza of Dover Beach in freshman English

Just down the hall of clanging lockers
To orchestra where strains of “Clair de Lune” accompany

the yearning midnight nipple tug of a baby’s hungry suck
hiccups gulping in rhythm to the rocking rocking

waiting for a last gasp for breath
through gaping mouth, mottled cooling skin

lies still between bleached sheets
illuminated by curtain filtered moonlight just visible

through the treetops while whoosh of owl wings
are felt not heard, sensed not seen.

Awaking to bright lights and whirring machines
the hushed voice of the surgeon asking

what do you see now, what can you hear, what odor
and flavor, what sensation on your skin

with each probe of temporal lobe, of fornix
and amygdala hidden deep in gray matter

of neurons and synaptic holding bins of chemical transmitters
storing the mixed bag of the past and present

to find the offending spot to be erased of electrical
impulses that seize up all remembrance, all awareness

and be free again to live, to love, to swoon at the perfume
of summer sweet peas climbing dew fresh at dawn,

tendril wrapping over tendril,
the peeling wall of the garden shed.

Great Aunt Marion

My great aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in the same small apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was not at all clear visitors were welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 20 years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and has become even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college and began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger (and pregnant) teenage girl in 1917 created foment within the family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She politely and coldly tolerated his existence and would never acknowledge his mother.  Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community two decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her  as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several months ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 30 years ago by a schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her stern weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see this come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Our family is better off having never inherited that money or that oil well.  It could have torn us apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives due to her own bitterness and inability to forgive,  money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at the legacy she had chosen to leave.  Of this, I can be deeply proud.

Straddling Two Rooms

In 1959, when I was five years old, our family moved from an older 3 story farm house in a rural community east of Stanwood, Washington, to a rambler style home on seven acres just outside the city limits of Olympia, Washington.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space sitting between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door which was shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accomodate the Christmas tree, so it was partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilling over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was sacrosanct.  In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company or for some very specific reason, like practicing the piano that sat in one corner.    The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side, only on the family room side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room where our family talked loudly, laughed much or roughhoused on the floor.  This was not a room for arguments or games and certainly not for toys. For most of the year, the “living” room was strictly off-limits, not lived in at all. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree itself became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where “living” was actually taking place.  It straddled more than just the two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches tried to reach out to shelter a family that was slowly, although imperceptibly,  falling apart, like fir needles dropping to the floor.

The Peaceable Kingdom

Cally, our adopted calico cat, now quite elderly, is fading fast.  Winter is always a tough time for barn cats, even with snug shelter, plentiful food and water.  We lost our 16+ year old tuxedo kitty just a couple months ago, and now Cally, not much younger,  won’t last much longer.  She still gets up to eat and potty, and still licks her front paws clean, but can’t manage much else.  Her frame is thin and frail, her coat dull and matted in places, she’s been deaf for some time and her eyes are rheumy.  She spends her days and nights in a nest of hay on the floor of our horse barn, watching the comings and goings of horse hooves and people rolling by with wheelbarrows full of manure.  Tonight she allowed me to bring her a little rug to give her a bit more cushion and protection from drafts, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find her permanently curled up there in the morning.  Her time is soon to come.

Cally was one of a litter raised in the mid-90’s by our good friends, the VanderHaaks, on their acreage a few miles from here.  When they had to make a move to a city on the east coast, their Cally and an orange colored kitty were in need of a new home.  On arrival, the orange cat immediately ran into the woods, only rarely to be spotted at a distance for a few months and then completely disappeared, possibly a victim of the local coyote pack.  Cally strolled onto our farm and decreed it satisfactory.  She moved right in, immediately at home with the cows, horses, chickens,  our aging dog Tango (who loved cats) and our other cats.   In no time, she became the undisputed leader, with great nobility and elegance.  There was no one questioning her authority.

We knew Cally was unusual from the start.  Tango initially approached her somewhat warily, given the reaction Tango elicited from our other cats (typically a hair raising hiss, scratch and spit).  Instead, Cally marched right up, rubbed noses with Tango, and they became fast friends, cuddling together on our front porch whenever it was time to take a nap.  They were best pals.  Tango surely loved anyone who would snuggle up to her belly and keep her warm and Cally was the perfect belly warmer (as Garrison Keillor says, “a heater cat”).

Now our free range Araucana rooster seriously questioned this dog/cat relationship.    He was a bit indignant about a front porch communal naptime and would strut up the sidewalk, walk up and down the porch and perch on the railing,  muttering to himself about how improper it was, and at times getting quite loud and insistent about it.  They completely ignored him, which obviously bugged him, proud and haughty bird that he was.

One fall morning, as I opened the front door to go down the driveway to get the newspaper in the pre-dawn mist, I was astonished to see not just a cat and dog snuggled together on the porch mat, but the rooster as well, tucked up next to Tango’s tail.  As usual,  Tango and Cally didn’t move a muscle when I appeared, as was their habit–I always had to step over them to get to where I needed to go.  The rooster, however, was very startled to see me,  almost embarrassed.  He stood up quickly, flapped his wings a few times, and swaggered off crowing, just to prove he hadn’t compromised his cock-sure raison d’etre.

No, I didn’t have my camera with me and I never found them all together ever again.  The reader will have to just take it on faith.

After Tango died, Cally rebounded by taking on the training of our corgi pup and making sure he understood her regal authority in all things, and demanding, in her silent way, his respect and servitude.  He would happily chase other cats, but never Cally.    They would touch noses, she would rub against his fur, and tickle his chin with her tail and all he could think to do was smile and wag at her.

So I figure a dog, a cat and a rooster sleeping together was our little farm’s version of the lion and lamb lying down together.  The peaceable kingdom was right outside our front door,  a harbinger of what is promised someday for the rest of us.  Despite claws, sharp teeth, and talons, it will be possible to snuggle together in harmony and mutual need for warmth and comfort.

Our special Cally made it happen.  I suspect she’s hoping to meet back up with Tango, and possibly one rooster with attitude, for a nice nap on the other side.

January 5, 1993

I couldn’t sleep that snowy stormy night even though I was not in earnest labor, and safely tucked into a hospital bed on the Labor and Delivery unit, my husband sleeping soundly in the other bed in the room.  It had been plenty harrowing just getting to the hospital in a northeaster, getting stuck in a snow drift, and being dug out by a bulldozer.   I knew our long-awaited third baby, over a week overdue, would be born the next day, blizzard or no blizzard, and then as soon as I could stand up and walk,  we would head right back to the farm to our sons, where our neighbors were staying with them.  At least that’s what I had planned.

It didn’t work out that way.  Not even close.

This baby wasn’t going to enter the world without a little more drama.  Instead of stoically agreeing along with me to undergo labor induction, this baby decided a more rapid exit of the womb was preferred.  No labor, no fanfare, just a heartbeat under 40 for a sustained period of time that got everyone’s attention, quickly resulting in an emergency C-Section.   It was a highly effective way to be born in a hurry. She got her way.

So Eleanor Sarah Gibson was born at 8:46 AM, looking pink and just fine.  And she’s been better than fine for seventeen years.  She’s been terrific.  Even when we remind her she was almost a snow drift baby.

Happy Birthday, Lea!  We love you!

A farmer's daughter
Just checking to see if she is real...
Best forever brothers