They say bad things happen in three's. If the saying is true, I hate to imagine what's in store for us.
Smokey died about a week ago. He was hit by a car in the night at the crossroads near our house. The morning after it happened, Mark knew something was wrong. Normally Smokey and Bandit are waiting at the door when Mark slips out in the wee morning hours to feed cattle. But that morning, they were no where to be found. When he came back inside to wash his hands on the back porch, Mark realized that Bandit had indeed slipped in. She was curled up on a chair near the door. When Mark offered her some food, she seemed disinterested. That's when he knew something must have happened.
When he walked into the kitchen holding Bandit, I knew it too. I could see it in both of their faces. Why is it when tragedy strikes, we think that we are somehow immune to it ever befalling us again? After Junior died, I briefly entertained the idea of putting the kittens up for adoption. I thought perhaps it wouldn't be too difficult to find someone who would adopt both so the siblings wouldn't be separated. But then a day went by, then a week, then a couple more. Smokey and Bandit fit so naturally into the rhythm of our farm and our family; it became increasingly more difficult to picture them anywhere else. Every time I saw Smokey jump on my brother-in-law's back, climb up to his shoulder and perch there like a parrot, every time I saw my father-in-law give the kittens little treats from his pockets, every time I saw my husband scoop them up into his arms, any idea of giving them up faded that much more. And now here we stand: only one remains.
If I thought this past summer was tough, it was no match for what autumn as bestowed upon us thus far. In retrospect, the incessant heat, the fourteen-hour days, our routines being ruled by the timing of the water wheel, all of that was peanuts compared to the sadness I have felt in the past month. In some ways this has felt like a hazing for the fraternity of farming. Losing two kittens within a month's span may seem minor, but to me it was major. I have been down for the count.
The morning after Smokey died, Mark insisted I take a drive with him. We stopped briefly for a delivery and then continued down the road. I sat silently in the passenger seat holding an old hanky soaked with tears. I felt so desperately out of control. I was angry at everyone and everything. In my mind, the farm began to loom over me like this entity, this unstoppable force that seemed determined to take everything I loved away from me. It seemed determined to kill every kitten, to keep my husband slaving away seven days a week past dinnertime every night. The farm became something I could blame. A target that I could empty all of my arrows into.
Mark pulled into a parking lot and turned to me as he turned off the car. We sat there for what seemed like hours, but was probably only a matter of minutes. In his strong, calm way he talked me down. He told me stories about animals he had grown close to over the years and lost. His dog, Spot, another dog, Smokey, particular hogs, even a few steers. He recounted having to actually take those hogs to market himself, how difficult that moment was for him. The way they grunted when he scratched their backs, the way they looked him directly in the eye. He remembered with clarity all the little details about each and every animal that remain in his heart.
"I know we've been through a lot this year," he said to me, "but I've still never been happier, because I have you now."
There is no rightful explanation for sudden misfortune. Whether you want to call it bad luck, karma, chance, circumstance or part of a divine plan, I still have yet to pick a side. All I know is that I can only hope that misfortune will shape me as beautifully as it has shaped my husband. People always talk about the positive influences in life having the greatest affect on our outcomes. But I wonder if the muck, the tragedy, the dark shadows, the hardness of life doesn't do a better job. More and more I am convinced that those who have endured the full weight of sadness and come through it with grace and dignity are the ones to be revered. Those who do not blame others and the world for the adversity they face, or at least, who do not dwell on that blame, are the people we must look to.
I immediately think of my husband and my father. I think of these two men in my life who have endured so much more suffering than I could ever imagine and probably ever survive. Yet despite the childhood pain they withstood, both men have become loving and devoted husbands, both are hard-working, truthful and humorous. Both are dedicted to their families, connected to their communities and willing to help those in need.
And then I start to think about everyone I know: my mother, my grandmother, my friends, our market customers...we have all seen disappointment, we have all experienced loss in our own personal ways. And whether we recognize it or not, we are all shaped by those losses. And it is because of the people around us, our families and communities, that we are able to find the door in the darkness. I know that when I am feeling low, my tendency is to withdraw and I am learning to resist that tendency. I too easily forget how much strength surrounds me when I'm feeling weak.
The irony of al this of course is that the farm is what brings me back to the land of the living. Yesterday we "put an amen," as my husband would say, to potato harvest. We will sow wheat and cut the remaining field corn and beans. New cattle will arrive within a few weeks, and some of our old hens will be on their way out. Two litters of kittens have replaced the two we've lost; we haven't seen a rat in months. Much of the farm equipment will soon be stored away, bedded down for winter. My beehive is so full of buckwheat honey I can barely lift the boxes. The land is beginning to nod its heavy head, eyelids fluttering, ready for sleep. Though we won't be idle in the coming months, we will certainly idle down. Then the seed catalogues will slowly begin to appear in our mailbox. Hope returns: the promise of a clean slate. Tomorrow never dies.