Last Monday, late morning, I was in line at the grocery store when our neighbor Lisa texted me. She was just celebrating the beautiful sound of our new cows mooing. We chatted briefly about planning a visit for her granddaughter to meet them, I paid for my groceries, and I walked to my car. About a mile down the road, a vague anxiety bloomed all throughout my body, and it took me a moment to recognize why: Our cows were not given to much vocalizing. In the few weeks since these girls had lived at the Lazy W, Shelby mooed only a handful of times, and Frosty Rose even fewer times, and then only in squeaks. Shelby’s calf due date was that coming Saturday. I drove the remaining eight miles home well above the speed limit.
Sure enough, Shelby was tucked inside her cozy little cabin, mooing passionately and in intervals, her calf halfway out of her. A silvery membrane was still netted around his face, his pink tongue barely showing against his gums, two perfectly straight front legs raised up ahead of his entry to the world. I texted my husband first then called our neighbor Rex, who had already offered to help deliver the calf if she went into labor when he was home.
I knelt behind Shelby’s shoulders and petted her enormous head and fuzzy ears, stroked her face and belly and hips, kissed her all over between pushes. She craned backwards to accept the love, laying on my lap, and she was sweaty, just like a horse in summertime, despite the crisp temperatures outside.
With each natural urge to push, she bellowed and let her body flex and extend and follow the shape of her pain. Her baby slipped several more inches but then got hung up around his midsection. Rex arrived so quickly I thought he had teleported. He shoved his big hands into leather gloves and immediately knelt down, whispering with authority and urgency, “Marie we have got to pull this calf.” He took one skinny leg tenderly in his hands and worked to find purchase. Then he took the other. Gradually, we shared the task, pulling in unison and wiggling the baby firmly and gently, until all at once he was loose and Shelby heaved with relief. A great whoosh of pinkish clear liquid spilled onto the oak leaves and straw of her cabin floor, and Shelby was suddenly so still and quiet I checked her before I checked the baby. She was ok, just stunned and, I can only imagine, relieved. She looked directly into my eyes and just exhaled. Rex was already wiping down the calf, massaging him and checking his little body all over. He was red and white, just like his mama, with that precious angry-sweet cow face and four of the most perfect, narrow little hooves you have ever seen. Smooth edges and glowy white, like they were carved from ivory.
Our other neighbor, Jerry, walked up outside the fence just as Rex and I took the calf out to the sunshine to try and warm him up and revive him. “Jerry, we have a baby!” I still felt like it was good news.
“I know,” he said calmly, like an assurance, “Brandy called me.”
Jerry found his way through the vegetable garden and joined us. Shelby was alert but still laying down. He checked her to make sure all the placenta was vacated or removed.
This entire time, Rex laid his fatherly body across the small, cold calf, embracing him and using a towel to dry him off and try to stimulate breath and blood flow.
My husband arrived soon, as did Jerry’s girlfriend (it was a small miracle that Meh allowed her to traverse the middle field, unharmed). All of us weaved through each other in the little makeshift birthing center, hoping for signs of life with the calf and watching for signs of health for mama.
Time stood still, so I have no idea how long we were actually there, but eventually we all agreed the calf was stillborn. It was a surreal moment. For a few weeks, we had been watching for signs of labor so closely, and we had made so many changes to the paddock in anticipation of having a newborn so close to winter, just everything. All the disappointments and then all the immediate worry of, “What’s next?”
Jerry generously offered to remove the calf for Shelby’s benefit and bury him on his property. That was a hard choice but a quick one, not overthought. All of our wonderful helpers went home brokenhearted.
Shelby was up on her feet within about twenty minutes, greedily feasting on hay and fresh water. She stayed up the rest of that afternoon, and we watched to see that the bleeding did stop.
The next two days were crushing, just watching Shelby search for her baby. I had heard of this before, of mother cows in a dairy setting panicking when their babies are forcibly removed. We hadn’t done that, of course, but she had no way of understanding. At some point she caught sight of Klaus from about forty feet away and charged him with her head low and straight. He was safe on the other side of the fence, but it got his attention.
We were sad to lose the calf, but our overarching emotion that week was gratitude that Shelby was ok. So thankful that a difficult delivery didn’t appear to hurt her.
These hard days happened to run parallel to a separate heartbreaking drama on the farm. Crises so often come in threes. Meh, our nine and half year old llama, had recently tapped into an unprecedented depth of aggression towards the horses. His seasonal hormones seem to have been exacerbated by several circumstances outside of our control. He had been out of control and, honestly, scary at times. We no longer felt safe allowing dogs or visitors anywhere near him, and more and more we agreed that the horses, though they can defend themselves, should absolutely not have to.
So we were in that deep, dark belly of making the excruciating choice to rehome him before he truly hurt anyone. We found a livestock ranch in Texas where he could possibly live out his life in the midst of a full herd of llamas, male and female. We even told Jessica and Alex they might want to come say goodbye.
Then Thursday came.
Just two days before her official due date, Shelby had a perfectly normal morning. She came up for breakfast right at daybreak, accepted scruffins and cuddles, then dismissed both Klaus and Frosty Rose, as was her habit.
Around lunchtime I strolled outside to check on her and found her laying on her side, her head facing downhill. From the patio I could see her big, fuzzy red belly moving slowly with even breath, so I jumped over the red gate and ran to her. The dirt and oak leaves around her legs were all fanned out like a snow angel, signaling that she had been struggling to get up. She woke up readily, again looked me straight and deep in my eyes, and mooed in a pitch I had not heard before. It sounded like pleading.
I called my husband, skipping text, and he got home faster than I knew was possible. In the waiting minutes, Shelby accepted my hands and arms and love. I prayed hard and felt a sharp, nasty fear rise up. She was bleeding now, more than on the day she lost the calf, and her utters were full and (in my unprofessional opinion) pretty warm. No other obvious or outward signs like bloating or injury. Her eyes looked clear, just panicked.
I am hardly a veterinarian. I was struggling to assess her situation, and really all I could do when I spoke with helpers was describe what I was seeing. But it was obvious she was in trouble.
We called country vets and animal hospitals in Choctaw, Shawnee, Harrah, Lexington, and more. No one was available to come help us, but a few doctors managed to text and talk us through the ordeal over the phone. We conferred with ranching friends and colleagues and asked all our friends to pray. Thanks to these trickling conversations, we felt less alone and slightly less powerless to help her.
My husband was incredible. He always pounces into action, but this night he was called to tasks far beyond what we expected when we brought these girls here to live out their lives. He fought to hold her up as much as possible. And friends, even “mini” cows weigh several hundred pounds. He fought to locate her appropriate veins. He fought to discern shifting medical advice. And he fought full body cramps of his own, all of his muscles seizing up throughout the ordeal of supporting her weight while trying to be gentle.
We administered an antibiotic to start, still hoping we could find a vet. Then gradually, the consensus was that she could have something commonly referred to as Milk Fever, which is in short a calcium deficiency brought on by calving. This is treatable with a certain medication. One ninety minute high speed drive later, and a huge thank you to our friends at Tractor Supply Co, we had two bottles of the needed medication plus fresh needles and syringes. I learned how to fill syringes on the fly.
Thursday night was long and cold and gut wrenching. We worked in the dark, with the sad glow of patio lights that had just recently been strung across the cow paddock to celebrate the new baby.
The wind kicked leaves in spirals and had us pulling our jackets tight. As the hours passed, when Shelby did not respond to the medicine as we were told she should if it was simply milk fever, our hope drained away. We prayed and begged God and cried, and honestly it was pretty raw and ugly. She was supposed to live here, not die here.
We had fallen in love with her, plain and simple. And she had allowed us into her lovely gaze profoundly and by choice, like a person.
I think sometimes we make the mistake of loving our animals so much we think they are human. Even worse, sometimes we make the mistake of believing they are immortal, safe from death because of their immense beauty and goodness. When they do die, because all creatures die, we are wildly unprepared.
Early Friday morning, still in the gloomy purple before daybreak, my husband walked outside alone and came back inside shaking. She did not make it through the night.
I don’t know what more to share, but this next part is important.
Shelby was too big to safely bury here, so we contacted a local service. This is the same kind woman who helped when we lost Romulus, and she remembered Meh vividly.
I foraged a huge bouquet of dried hydrangeas, pine branches, cedar, and oak leaves to be buried with her. I sat with her a long time, until the woman arrived to take her. When she began her work, Meh lost all composure. We suspect he remembers her removing Romulus.
Meh laid over Shelby’s body and protected her, pawing at her, crying hard and whipping his head around. It was a screaming, wailing, purring noise that we had only ever heard once before. We had to ease him away, which was not easy because of his strength. The woman remarked about how many people do not believe animals grieve and how they would change their minds if they witnessed this.
Once Shelby was gone, Meh ran like a freight train after the horses, who were eating hay at the far side of the middle field. He started rearing and kicking and chest slamming them wildly. But then out of the blue he quieted himself and returned to us, wrapping his long fuzzy neck around our people necks. Mewing. We had been missing this tender side of him during his raging weeks. My husband and I looked at each other through tears and just shook our heads. It is all so confusing and difficult, and every little development makes it moreso. I think we silently agreed in that moment that maybe God was showing us a way to not give up on Meh.
It took us all of Friday and most of Saturday to stop crying. Working outside helped, as did playing with Klaus and his two buddies, Max and Sadie. Some sunshine, some normalcy, and some natural joy.
By Saturday night we dusted ourselves off and gathered enough energy to attend a much anticipated and nearby “Friendsgiving” party at our friends’ David and Keri’s. We almost skipped it but love this couple very much and also really did not want to surrender to sadness. It was a couple of hours of much needed laughter and silliness, and it was really truly good to be around a handful of solid gold people. It also yielded an un expected blessing.
The group that night was small, and we already knew everyone except one couple. As our conversation with them grew, we stumbled onto the fact that they are cattle ranchers in nearby Tecumseh. And they just happen to specialize in, would you even believe it, miniature Herefords. Just like Shelby and Frosty Rose. On top of that, they are in real life best friends with the couple who brought us these beautiful girls. We shared the basics of our harrowing week, being careful to not talk about it so much we stated crying again. It was helpful, at least, to talk to people who understood how things like that can happen so quickly, and how devastating it is.
The Universe has a way of leading us where we need to be. Hopefully we listen for whispers and watch for signs. Sometimes like a mother giving birth, allowing her body to follow the curving shape of pain, and sometimes like seasons and cycles of life and death and grief and joy which somehow manage to coexist beautifully. Often, we can’t perfectly explain our reasons, but we can sense that familiar pull or instinct.
I am glad we chose not to shrink away from that gathering with friends, no matter how fresh our grief was. I am glad we are listening now to God’s leading about Meh. I am grateful for all the other animals here, who continue to live their lives, needing us and loving us, allowing us to love them. I am also deeply thankful for our remaining cow’s health and personality. She runs and chases and jumps, just like Scarlett did before her frostbitten legs failed her. But that is a story for another day. The point is, there are other days coming and they can be filled with glittering, pulsing joy, if we keep going.
I really do not know what else to say. There are several big questions that still need answers. But I trust that we will find them together.