Mary Christmas, part 1
By Bill Stork, DVM
She thumped her tail twice, in response to the click of the catch as the storm door settled shut behind us. Through the screen a hundred-year-old maple filtered the late morning sun. I knelt and stroked her head, searching for what was left of muscle, and words that might comfort. Maybe to make it easier on Dave and me, she did not so much as flinch when I injected the sedative.
In minutes her eyes drifted shut. His left hand cradled her head while his right stroked her muzzle, as he lay nose to nose on the sweaty concrete. I slipped the 20-gauge needle into her vein and pushed. As I watched her chest over the top of my glasses, she took one last breath and relaxed.
For 14 years she made sure the cattle were on the right side of the fences and strangers never got out of their cars. Today, she retired.
As we stood, I opened my eyes wide, and exhaled, shook his callused hand and clasped the shoulder of the third generation dairy farmer. We rounded the garage together and I started for my truck. As I stowed my gear, Dave crossed the drive, collapsed on the porch and dropped his head to his upturned palms. I grabbed the steering wheel and had one foot in the truck, but the empty space next to him on the wooden step felt like a friend in need. I walked back, sat and stared at the alfalfa until his chest stopped heaving, and he came up for air.
There are herd dogs, hunting dogs, lap dogs and pets. For many, they are truly man’s best friend. For a few, they are God-sent saviors.
It was early winter 1988. The barn radio sat between the rafters, frozen on “Janesville and Southern Wisconsin’s home for country music, 99.9.” by a quarter inch of feed dust and manure. Static blurred Christmas carols in rhythm with the pulsators. Milking units hung on two Holsteins and a Jersey, each side of the walkway. "Forty percent off the toys your kids really want, at Blain’s Farm and Fleet,” the commercial interrupted. “Every kiss begins with Kay; it’s not too late to give her something that will shine as brightly as her eyes."
Dave had not spoken a word in two turns of the three units. He turned to his fourteen year old son Tommy. With surgical precision, Tommy handed Dave a fresh white dairy towel, in perfect position to wipe the front two teats, and another for the rear. His milking cart aligned squarely on each successive stall divider.
Mental health professionals had designated Tommy so deeply autistic that Dave and Joan should surrender him to an institution, and visit on Sundays. Ten years later, he had yet to miss a milking. Dave never took a towel from the rack not handed by Tommy; and milk testers, truck drivers, neighbors and veterinarians would conjure a feeble excuse to pull on to say “hi”, and collect one of Tommy’s thunderous hellos and hugs.
The ghost of Hank Williams could have strolled down the barn aisle strumming and moaning “I’m so lonesome I could cry.” All Dave could hear was the whistling wind through the barn boards. Drifted snow and chaff were all that covered the floor of the hay mow. Wood stanchions strained as cows stretched for a scrap of silage, their 40-grit tongues licking bare concrete.
Crops that couldn’t grow through cracked earth of the dust bowl drought of ’88 were stranded by fall rains. If winter snow fell and spring rains came, it would be 6 months before the first mouthful of new green feed.
Christmas is a time for family. To a man of faith, it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. To a farmer it is the time when he validates the scar on his brow, the hitch in his gait, and the empty seat at the dinner table during silo-filling or calving. Christmas is when he thanks his family for the weddings left early and parties missed. Any man worth his Red Wings and Carhartts wants more than anything to see his children do a jiggy dance in their footie pajamas in front of the Christmas tree, and to be proud to compare gifts with their friends from town; for his son to have the rechargeable Air Soft rifle, his daughter the Barbie Jeep and his wife something to adorn her neck or finger and stop the banter cold at volleyball night.
At 45 years old and Norway strong, Dave could cut, split and stack 4 cords of oak before breakfast and mow a thousand bales of hay after lunch. Tonight, forty paces from the barn to the house took all he had. The thought that he would have to stand again was the only thing that kept him from dropping to the packed snow and gravel and curling up like a fetus.
The light of the house poured onto the corner of the porch. Around the tree and hanging from stockings were pairs of socks, gloves and a wooden toy for each boy, wrapped in Sunday’s comics. Two three-month-old lab mutts from the neighbor's litter would be Christmas this year. He stood silently and watched Mary and Joe pummel his kindergartener, licking his face and stealing stocking caps.
To a man at rock bottom, all he saw was failure and despair. He looked to the milk house where the “Third Generation Century Farm” plaque hung in the sodium glow of the yard light. He had never imagined it could be the last. Nausea struck with the all-consuming thought of the half-empty bulk tank.
He pried the heel of the rubbers off his work boots and crept into the mud room to hang his coat. There on the shelf was the .357 that sat high out of reach but loaded, for security and varmints. In the space of what could have been minutes or hours he picked it up and put it down a dozen times.
He tried to walk into the light of the kitchen by the family to whom he was the rock. Each time, he wept and gagged. Without a word, he took down the pistol, latched the doors and returned to the cold and dark.
He sat on the porch, forearms across his knees, clutching the cold blue steel. Enveloped in steam as the barn sweat off his waffle weave cotton evaporated into the night, he began to convulse. In one motion he sat bolt upright and pulled the hammer, raised his elbow high and pressed the barrel tight to his temple. In a silent primal scream he mashed the trigger, the hammer dropped and the pin fired. The explosion of the hand-held cannon echoed across snow drifts and frozen streams, over Grant County hills and through the valleys; fading to silent over the coal-black waters of the Mississippi.
To be continued…