Frida is settling in nicely. The cats are not afraid of her. Everyone but Oliver slept in their usual spots last night. We were told Frida is prone to wolf her food down, but we haven't encountered any of that. Both dogs amble to the kitchen for a drink and a quick bite, then back to playing, grazing throughout the day. Frida is intimidated by the sheep, who are curious about her. She comes and goes freely from her kennel when Zeke wears her out, she asks to go outside, she wants to be loved and to please us. All the signs are that Frida belongs here. Zeke thinks it's Christmas, he couldn't be happier. This morning we took the dogs out and they played in the yard, Frida wriggling in the grass and Zeke wagging happily beside her. Frida does not keep him from his work, he still checked on the sheep this morning, but it's easier to get him out of the pasture now. He's been an only dog too long.
Frida is visiting; if she likes us she will stay. Zeke was enamored from the moment he laid eyes on her. She is a shameless coquette, she eggs him on only to bark in his face and prance away. Zeke takes this in stride, he has never had a friend his own age and wants so badly to be liked. He has even brought her his favorite toys and shared his food. I'm happy he's happy, glad he's excited to include another dog in his flock. Frida and Nick must become partners if she is to stay. For the first time I will limit my involvement with an animal who lives here. It's hard, she's a delight, but this bond belongs to Nick. And Zeke.
It was inevitable that, as soon as I committed to posting once a week, the website went down. I'm here now, in the midst of a busy and exciting fiber season. There are many things on the farm to look forward to: lambs any day that will be offered for adoption, more festivals, our first demonstrations and workshops, and beginning a podcast.
This morning I walked a mile in two feet of snow, uphill both ways, to dig my car out of my neighbor's driveway so I could fulfill my obligations at school and in rehearsals. I won't speak about the challenges that 20 inches of snow (atop 1/2" of solid ice and snice beneath) overnight pose to man and beast. Suffice it to say, we've all overcome. Before the ice fell I noticed buds bursting through the branches of the maple trees. From afar the pastures appeared greener than they were a week ago. The snow is going to melt this week, leaving us to wallow in an equal amount of mud. If I have any lambs on the ground, they're underneath the snow. Two farmers down the road have had calves and kids respectively in the past week; all are doing well. The cows' bellies are dragging in the snow. Tom remembers a storm like this fifteen years ago, when the assaulting snow froze so hard that 1500 lb. cows could walk on it without breaking through. This storm has been kinder. The pond isn't frozen, the ducks are swimming, and it's harder for coyotes and foxes to cross and pace around the chicken coop. Spring belongs to the lambs and ducks, the songbirds, the animals who cannot plow their highway through the snow. Winter belongs to creatures who hibernate and spin yarn, neighbors who take care of one another, and primitive sheep-beasts whose windward faces take on champrons of snowflakes as individual as they are. Here, in the lion of March, all these collide. Like the sheep, I'm looking forward, prepared to heed the words of Kentucky author Wendell Barry:
"Near winter's end, your flock
Will bear their lambs, and you
Must be alert, out late
And early at the barn,
To guard against the grief
You cannot help but feel
When any young thing made
For life falters at birth
And dies. Save the best hay
To feed the suckling ewes,
Shelter them in the barn
Until the grass is strong,
Then turn them out to graze
The green hillsides, good pasture
With shade and water close.
Then watch for dogs, whose sport
Will be to kill your sheep
And ruin all your work.
Or old Coyote may
Become your supper guest,
Unasked and without thanks;
He'll just excerpt a lamb
And dine before you know it.
But don't, because of that,
Make war against the world
And its wild appetites.
A guard dog or a jenny
Would be the proper answer;
Or use electric fence.
For you must learn to live
With neighbors never chosen
As with the ones you choose.
Coyote's song at midnight
Says something for the world
The world wants said. And when
You know your flock is safe
You'll like to wake and hear
That wild voice sing itself
Free in the dark, at home."
If Coyote's song says something the world wants said, this late winter storm must speak for nature. It screams that we must adapt, that we must accept our fragility and find strength in it, that we must create our own light and warmth in the world and take care of one another always. We shouldn't complain - snow now means less bugs later and no drought in the summer. Maybe a good harvest, four quality cuttings off the hay fields. In two months I'll be barefoot in shorts, cuddling lambs with tight curly coats and springs in their legs.
I think anyone who participates in care giving or healing aspires to be a Cheater of Death. We rescue, we treat, we nurse, we ease pain - sometimes we cause a little more in the process of curing. We seek to extend life. It's a dirty, exhausting, heart-wrenching quest, and when we fail (because no amount of love and hard work can result in immortality) we take it to heart.
Champagne is the latest in a string of loved ones I've lost to cancers. It doesn't matter what label you slap on it, they all work the same way. There's fever as the body tries to fight off the invasion. This is often coupled by some physical irregularity and a sense of unease. As the cancer usurps healthy cells and converts them to its nefarious purpose, the immune system pulls out all the stops. Metabolism increases, cell counts fluctuate - a war is waged. Yet all available resources go to the marauder, not the home team. In the end they lose their appetite and all but starve to death. I speculate that the signal to stop eating is a last ditch effort on the part of the healthy cells to maintain their integrity. It shouldn't have to come to that.
Death is a foreign land; no one who is alive truly knows its topography. Laden with knowledge of the body and its functions as well as anecdotal evidence, I struggle to come to grips with the transition that awaits us all. How do we know it doesn't hurt to die? How can I console someone I love that they're going to a better place when I haven't the faintest idea what that trip is actually like? I told Champagne she was going where we all go, and that I hoped it would be everything she needed. In 2007 I read an article in Men's Health that described a man being revived an hour and a half after flat lining. How do we know when someone is actually dead? How long does one float over one's body, hoping to be resuscitated, before finally moving on? Is that what ghosts are - people who don't want to go?
I have seen something missing after the moment of demise, witnessed the soul leaving the glove. Sunday night I wondered if Champagne had reincarnated as the insect that kept flying in my face. Who's to say she wouldn't accept a different form for another chance at life with me? That may sound arrogant; I know I would do the same for her. Our "us"-ness - that part that separates from our corporeal form when it gives up - is what makes loss so difficult. We don't love the body, it's just a representation of the form we loved somebody in.
If that makes so much sense, why does it distress me that Champagne's spotted frame has been in the hands of strangers for 77 hours? They cremated her yesterday evening. All I could think was that she didn't belong with them, she needed to come home with me. I could make everything alright. I could blow on her belly, wiggle her ears, give her a marshmallow.... Already I remember her well and happy; I had to guard myself against the temptation to see her still, skinny, ravaged body one last time. Bone, marrow, blood, lungs, lymph nodes, brain - cancer raped it all. The notion that people she would have bitten in life would reduce her to ashes, and I not there to protect her, sickened me.
I am a healer, a giver, a Cheater of Death. I grieve for Champagne for all the usual reasons, and I face the additional loss of service. Caring for her became increasingly demanding and time-consuming. I no longer have to wake up an hour early to spoon feed her, spend fifteen minutes coaxing her outside to pee, give pills, clean up, get her settled, etc. The abrupt cessation of manifest love has left me in a thick fog. I would rather feel my way forward through grief than sit with it and risk it closing over me.
So I made soup.
Soup is love; it's comfort in a cup. I brought homemade tomato and the makings of grilled cheese sandwiches to school. Many of my classmates have supported me through this and other difficulties. I am profoundly grateful for their comfort and acceptance. I thought about taking this week off, but it's too hard to be at home. What was a very selfish act - needing to help others, knowing that I'd be more likely to eat in a group - became a remarkable blessing. Students in the same department who had never met shook hands. Smiles of surprise, delight, and satisfaction lifted faces. The rules were bent about 90 degrees, and nobody seemed to mind. O59, previously a dark storage room, rang with laughter, learning, and music. Sitting on the floor surrounded by friends, I didn't hurt so deeply. I came a little closer to healing through giving. I cheated Death with soup.
Tomorrow morning strangers will place the cremains of my little girl in my hands. I will be unprepared for how light and small and unfamiliar she is. I will cry. Then I will give myself over to the embrace of the musical community of which I am part. I will be swept up in accompanying and learning and life. I will practice in a room that will smell of today's tomato basil and grilled cheese, a sensory baptism into my new life. A sober life without Champagne, but no less full of love.
Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. When Kol Nidre service started last night I was lying on my living room floor curled, as much as possible, around my dear companion, my beloved Champagne. She stopped eating yesterday; unbeknownst to me, she spat out her morning pain pill. We didn't have Champagne Friday because it was stormy outside. She lay on the road while I spread grass seed, collected eggs, and fed pumpkins to the sheep. She lay on the bedroom floor and listened to me practice. She helped me put my spinning wheel back together.
In the evening, she stood up and stared around her, eyes wide. I lay on the floor and stroked her, head to tail, trying to calm her labored breathing. She stared past me, focused on something only she could see. After a few minutes she grew unsteady and chose to lie down. I thought we might be at the end. Tearfully, I told her that I loved her and she licked me in response.
She didn't come to bed last night. This morning I waited a few extra minutes to get up. I listened for her raspy panting, prepared myself, and rose to find her breathing easily and watching me from the floor. I coaxed her outside three steps at a time - call, step, pet, repeat - and she didn't stumble, but she hurried back inside. Then I did something I never do: I made breakfast on Yom Kippur. I made turkey bacon, and biscuits, and eggs, and I sat on the floor tearing them into pieces she could swallow...but she wouldn't eat. I forced her pill down her throat and waited, hoping she'd feel better after it kicked in. Most of the morning she lay with her back to me, taking note of household activity. Even in her weakened state, Zeke considered Champagne too formidable to risk snatching bacon from between her paws. When Ila came over to visit, Champagne barked at her and got up to be petted, but soon lay back down. I sat with her and petted her while we discussed her transitional state. Her gums were pale, her ears were cold, and while she was clearly distancing herself from this plane of existence she was happy to be the center of attention.
This afternoon Nick wanted to get a haircut and invited Champagne along. I didn't think she'd be up for it, but when I put her collar on she sprang (insofar as a dying dog can spring) to her feet and headed to the car. We never got the haircut. First, Tucker wouldn't leave Champagne and go inside. Then Nick's battery was dead and wouldn't jump. Then he had to change his shirt. I was organizing things in my car when he said, "Oh crap, Maddie, hurry!" Champagne had jumped into the front seat and it appeared she'd gotten one of her feet stuck between the seat and middle console. When I opened the passenger door, she didn't raise her head.
It is a tremendous gift that I was able to recognize her moment and embrace it. I sat on the rocker panel and pulled her into my lap. I stroked her beautiful head with one hand while I felt her heart grow fainter under the other. I cried, but did not sob, did not beg her not to go, and I told her I loved her over and over. In a literal minute her intermittent breaths ceased and her heart stilled. She did not die alone. She went peacefully, in her own time, of her own accord. Would we were all so lucky.
Grief, like love, takes myriad forms. Mine affirms that Champagne is my child. In the moments of her death I found tremendous strength, a strength I would not have bet I had. When she passed, I felt the weight of being strong lifted from my shoulders. I'm glad she's gone. She needed to leave, as much as I never wanted her to. I couldn't save her or protect her from cancer and no one could offer her further help. We were both suffering. Afterward I asked for my phone with a mother's pragmatic sense of duty. Our vet was closed; we had to borrow Ila's car and take Champagne to a strange clinic. When she was carefully loaded in the back, Nick offered to hug me. I told him there would be time for that later. At the clinic I filled out paperwork while Nick and the vet tech fetched Champagne. Then, suddenly, I panicked the way I've seen animal mothers do when their babies die or are weaned. I called for Nick. I worried that they wouldn't carry her gently enough. Her collar needed to come off - would he take her collar off? I forced myself back to the paperwork. They took her into the back and I wanted to follow, I needed to be there. I called for him again but the door closed, leaving me alone in reception. On the way home I cried because we left her with strangers. It wasn't until I laid on Tucker (in the same spot that Champagne had been all morning) and fed both boys that I allowed Nick to hug me.
Just five days ago I was not ready to let go. Today I did so willingly. Though we don't usually associate death with growth, it is fertile ground for scope, catharsis, and epiphany, for the dying and the living alike. Early in the week I sang to Champagne from the shower, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You'll never know dear, how much I love you...." only I couldn't finish the song. I realized how unfair it would be to ask her to stay. Wednesday night I knelt beside my bed to have The Talk with her. Zeke bounced (this is not a strong enough word to describe the arrival of a young Border Collie) onto the bed, interrupting our private moment. Stroking her ears I said, "You can go if you want to. I'll be okay." Champagne lifted her head, rolled her eyes at Zeke, looked down her nose at me, and raised her eyebrows as if to say, "You expect me to leave you with him?" I couldn't help but laugh. "I know, he's an idiot. But so were you, and you turned out just fine." More than fine; the same night I lay with my arms wrapped around her and told Nick, "This is my Champagne. There are none like her...and this one is mine."
When the last note of the shofar sounded and the Gates of Prayer closed on this holiest of days, they shut my heart inside. We all have a spark of the divine inside - on this most belief systems agree. Champagne has returned to that infinite love. I can only hope that the thread of love between us will pull me closer to a state of wholeness.
It won't be long now. Champagne refuses everything but canned food from my palm and small pieces of cheese. Even turned down peanut butter. A few days from now will mark 5 months since she was diagnosed. It's strange to look back and see how far we've come, how easily we transitioned to every stage of care taking. Though in many ways life is radically different now, the changes feel logical and comfortable.
That's how love works.
We are living in suspension, making every minute last a full 60 seconds, hoping to make plans (her ears still perk up when I ask if she wants to go) but realizing that the present moment is all we have. She likes me to touch her while she eats. Meals take a long time. I mash her food around in bowl so that she can grab chunks off the fork. I sit on the floor, she stands, and croon to her. After a bite or two she circles me, coming to rest against my side or under my arm. More spoonfeeding, globs of canned puppy formula and doggy drool flecking my pants, hands, arms, and the floor. She never finishes anymore. I am proud to get anything inside her, happy to gaze into her eyes for 15 minutes. The sun is setting on our quality time.
Her liver, which is responsible for metabolizing her pain medication, is giving out. I took her off the medication and she was so miserable that I compromised by reintroducing half the dose. What does it matter? Her time is limited anyway. Mercy is sparing her what pain I can. Yet even in terrible pain, unable to breathe comfortably, she wags her tail and walks around the yard. Champagne doesn't know how to give up.
We had The Talk tonight. Zeke interrupted continuously. When I told her she could go and I'd be okay, she rolled her eyes at him, then looked at me. I said, "I know, he's an idiot. But so were you, and you turned out okay." She cocked one eyebrow and licked me. I told her I love her, that she is a good dog, my best girl. I told her she doesn't have to fight anymore, but that I will fight for her as long as she wants me to. I told her that wherever she finds herself, I hope it's what she needs, and that my deepest regret is that I can't join her. I held her head in my hands and recalled the puppy whose entire self filled that same space. I thanked her for being mine.
She's lying beside me on the bed; neither of us seem to want to sleep. She sleeps all day while I'm at school, dreaming of her like a kid with a new pet. Still crazy after all these years.... I hope she sheds this plane in her own time and by her choice. I don't think she's ready yet; she doesn't seem to understand what I mean. 'It's okay to leave? But why would I want to?' As long as she stays, I will stay beside her. And I'll be there at the end, if she wants me. Shakespeare wrote, "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. Oh no, it is an ever fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle's compass come. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom."
I'm not going anywhere. I will bear these brief hours and look on you, and love, sweet girl. Good night.
Madeline is a fiber artist, author, shepherd, and music student. Ballyhoo Farm is the culmination of her passion for animals, horticulture, and sustainable farming practices, a dream she's worked to build since childhood.