For My Big Brother David
by Laura Parker Roerden
(May 9, 2014) This morning I got a call from our most patient of neighbors. It was a familiar refrain: “Your cows are out,” she simply said. Before I could get off the phone this particular neighbor’s husband was already half way up the street to gather some grain from our milk-room to coax the animal back onto our side of the fence: the side of the fence where the grass was decidedly not greener.
Minutes later, I was on my way to Feeds and Needs to get more hay to keep the cows satiated until my nephew returned from a weekend away and could fix the breach in the fence. The only thing greener than a neighbor’s lawn, it turns out is. . .hay.
Life among big animals has its challenges. When I was a kid and the cows would get out, it would often take the entire neighborhood to get them in. Of course, we had more than a hundred head then. We’d all be out there in our pajamas with flashlights, following the trail of cow manure left on the paved road until we found them. My dad then would orchestrate us like we were trained special ops agents. One would be stationed at an opened gate to the pasture; two others at a positions both up and down the street. Others were enlisted to do a full-court press on the herd, while our very smart collie Puppy would round up any strays. If you had good survival instincts, you’d grab the biggest stick you could find. But I had to learn that on my own. We were on a need-to-know basis.
My dad once stationed me below the opened gate to the pasture. The only instructions I received were: “Hold ’em back, Laura.” I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time until I saw all seventy or so cattle running down the street toward me, while I stood there in my nightgown. “Hold ’em back!” he yelled.
“Ha! Well. Okay!” I thought, even as I planned my escape. Of course, my father knew that they would break for the pasture opening instead of for me; but no one mentioned that to me at the time.
I remember I told that story at my first interview to teach high school in a rough-around-the-edges school outside of the city—a position for which they had received over three hundred applications. The interview team laughed too hard at this story as my answer to their question about why I felt qualified to teach adolescents. I got the job. But something about the stray tear running down the face of the tired looking administrator’s face as he laughed tipped me off that I probably didn’t want the job after all. It wasn’t the last time I would back down.
Many years ago, we had just moved back to the farm from the city and my brother Dave was called to Canada to help restore electricity during terrible ice storms. He was there for weeks fighting his own battles without adequate sleep or warmth. I was here helping by feeding the cows and the chickens. I thought I had the better deal.
The first couple weeks while Dave was in Canada were uneventful. We had a massive bull then, Hal, who I always strategically fed first, then would back away from keeping my eye on him while I fed the others. But the truth was, I was afraid of him and he knew it. I was losing ground with him each and every time I entered the barn. I was like a rope bearing a heavy weight against a post beginning to fray.
The free-stall barn where I fed the cows was separated from the dairy barn by a ramp and a gate. As my fear grew, it became my new habit to leave the cows grain bins by the gate, so that I could easily slip to the other side if Hal became agitated. This turned out to be a huge mistake. What it did was invite Hal to lean into the gate to get a better vantage from which to take the other animals’ feed.
Then one morning I discovered Hal waiting for me, pressing against the gate as I came with a pail full of grain. I backed off, pouring the grain from the safe side of the gate, spilling it without much luck in reaching the bowls. Hal became furious and grunted and head butted in a way that I knew meant business. I dropped the pail and ran, closing the door behind me and trying to catch my breath.
I had no idea how I was going to ever get that pail back, but as a reflex, I called my brother’s cell phone. Dave had a previous time been away doing electrical restoration on another storm and over the phone had talked me through how to fix the electric fence while rain fell in sheets around me. Even though he was in Canada, I knew he could help me.
My brother’s phone went to voicemail. I hung up. Now he would know something was wrong, so I had to call him back–this time with the intent to leave a detailed voicemail. So I opened the barn door to peek at the situation as to describe it more accurately. Hal had broken the gate. Now only a flimsy door separated him from the source of his grain and me. I shut the door, pulled a few heavy items from the barn in front of the door like I’ve seen in countless horror flicks and bolted for the farmhouse.
Minutes later, my brother’s white truck pulled into the barnyard. He was back from over a month of being away. The timing was so uncanny, I started to cry with relief. But the full import of what had happened was beginning to sink in. I had not only not stood my ground, I had created an unsafe situation for my brother to now deal with. I was never asked again to feed the cows.
The next spring, I would learn, however, what life without Dave would mean, when he died suddenly from a heart attack at 52. His towering frame was no longer walking the farm; there would be no more riding in in his white truck to save me from an angry bull.
But loss has a way of teaching us about ourselves even as it rearranges every molecule of your heart like one of those etch-a-sketch tablets moves shards of metal around with a magnet. Those who knew Dave well often described him as a “bull” of a man, even as they also told of him tenderly carrying a bunch of balloons down their driveway on his way to a small child’s birthday. He was a warrior who could mend fences and fix broken things. And so I came to rely on my big brother as true north in my life and lived in the utter assurance that he would never abandon me.
What I hadn’t realized until he died, however, was how Dave really had been teaching us all along how not to abandon ourselves either. This past week, at farm camp, seven kids ages 7-14 and I were working in the pasture pulling weeds. We turned the corner by a fence and in the process spooked the cows. The herd bolted—legs kicking, they were running at full speed towards us. I grabbed the closest stick on the ground and told the kids to go to the trees. The herd was now running at me.
What I hadn’t realized until he died, however, was how Dave really had been teaching us all along how not to abandon ourselves either.
My brother would not have backed down, I thought. So I lifted the stick high and firmly said, “STOP.” And they did. The herd stopped their charge as if on a dime.
Today when I fed the cows, I confidently filled each bowl, being sure to not put myself between the animals and their food. And I sang to them while I dolled out the hay, one flake at a time.