February 12, 2013

On Death and Farm Life

Last week, I spent a morning lumbering over a 6-months-along-but-looks-more-like-8-months pregnant belly, collecting tools from the shed to pick away at a small shallow grave in still frozen ground near the back of our shelterbelt.

I'd found my favorite cat dead in the barn that morning. 

When she got sick, I'd wrapped her in her blanket, the one she used to curl up with on our bed, and less than a day later, when I found her dead, I kept her in that blanket as I placed her in the grave – the biggest one I could muster in mid-winter, mid-pregnancy.

I vacillated from “it's just a cat” to wailing uncontrollably at the foot of the grave, from grunting with the pick axe and just getting it done to shrieking like a scared child at the stiffness of my sweet cat's limbs, claws out, still clinging to the blanket.

As I buried the little black and white cat, I was struck at how equally I felt guilt for feeling too little and weakness for feeling too much.

I'm no stranger to dead animals. I've mourned my share, especially as farm kid. But, it was different then. I had someone to take care of the aftermath for me, leaving me with just the emotion, the heady wrangling that comes when you're faced with death, and none of the actual logistical chores that come with it. Whether it was the day the “custom slaughtering” vehicle pulled up to the house or the day I watched my cocker spaniel get hit on the highway, my reaction was allowed to be emotional only.

But now, as an adult, I have to deal with it all – the emotion and the cold, hard logistics. I have to cram the already rigid beloved cat in a too-small grave. And, I have to slit the throat of the Thanksgiving turkey, carry the blood bucket, pluck the feathers, cut the meat, throw away the dead baby turkeys or dispose of the body of a goose who strangled itself in the fence.

Death is part of any life, but on the farm, it's part of everyday life.

That has meant a bit of hardening in my heart. I actually cringe a little at admitting that, but it's true.

I used to be the one who brought home stray cats to the farm to “save” them. I insisted as a 10-year-old that Peter, the cat I'd saved from the tree in town, get extensive surgery to reset his leg and stitch his ear back on. Just a few short years ago, Jacob and I spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on the very cat I buried last week when she came down with some weird auto-immune thing. Back then, I wrapped bandages and applied ointment several times a day. This time around, I just wrapped her in her favorite blanket, made her comfortable and let her die. (In my defense, she was an older cat and had something obviously serious going on that I was pretty sure a vet couldn't fix. And, she'd become a barn cat – no less valuable than the house cat she was before, but just in a more natural habitat. I like to think she was happier there – in life and in death. But, also, she was just a cat.)

See? The equal parts guilt and weakness.

But what was worse within all of that was the strange, terrible feeling that somewhere along the line, life took away a little smidge of my sensitivity.

I'm still wrestling with that – whether it's a good or a bad thing. There's a fine line between becoming strong and becoming heartless. And, I'm trying to remind myself that the juxtaposition of practicality and sadness I felt burying that little cat is a good thing – it means I haven't crossed that line.

I never want to stop feeling the emotion about the loss of any life, whether that be a cat or turkey or a pig. But I also don't want to go back to that naive place I was as a child in which nothing should die, ever. And if it does, I don't have to see what that really means. Too often, I think we shelter kids (and ourselves really), girls in particular, from the full picture of life, showing only the pretty stuff and letting them, and ourselves blissfully ignore the hard, yucky stuff.

My first instinct was to wait for Jacob to get home and have him deal with the cat. My friend Renee suggested I call my Dad. My friend Brooke offered to come over and do the deed. But, for some reason, I felt like I had to do it. For one, I don't want Willa growing up thinking that only Papa deals with the hard stuff. And secondly, I just felt like I need to continue to prove to myself that I can be soft and sad and hard and practical all at the same time -- that I have the capacity and strength to deal with both the emotion and the realities.

Still, I took Willa to a friend's as I did the burying, not wanting to expose her to that just yet. It was the same instinct I had this fall when, just before the first turkey was killed on slaughter day I brought her back to the house and spared her the blood.

But both times, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Maybe it would be easier on her to know, early on, the dichotomy I'm just now coming to grips with. Maybe it will be smoother for her to just know from the beginning that death is hard and sad but also necessary and inevitable.

Then again, she's two. We still have lots of time to talk about it and many, many opportunities. And maybe by the time we get there, I'll finally have figured it out for myself.

7 comments:

  1. I love Ada. So sorry, friend.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Vanner. She was a tremendously great cat.

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  2. Courtney,

    Lovely reflection on the grimness of death, while highlighting, I think, one of the beauties of living on a farm. One is invited, and sometimes forced, to see the entire spectrum of life, and to appreciate being a part of all of it.

    Look forward to reading more!

    Tiffanie

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