Last December my Mum had surgery, nothing too major but major enough to require an overnight in hospital (two as it turned out) and a couple months recuperation, including two and a bit weeks staying at mine. My Mum is, on the whole, very healthy but there have been a few causes for concern over the years, again nothing too major, but enough to just sit under the surface and mean I take nothing for granted. My Dad was the healthiest man I knew before he was diagnosed with cancer! Anyhow Mum was in hospital and I knew my sister was down as next of kin as I’d been travelling a lot and she lived closer to Mum and the hospital. I’d taken Mum into hospital on the day of her surgery, waited until she was called down to theatre, and headed home for a frantic couple hours of avoidance technique until we heard that she was in recovery. I visited her that evening, spent a couple hours and swung by my sister’s on the way home. All good.
The next morning I was awoken by a phone call just before 7am. I learnt over the years that Dad was sick that any phone call before about 11am is never good. Calls before about 8am tend to be bad news looming or in need of immediate intervention, calls before 7am are always bad news! My sister was hysterical, for the first few seconds I could just hear heavy breathing and these massive sobs, the sort where you can barely catch your breath because your heart is pounding so fast your rib cage feels like it will explode, those sorts of sobs. I wasn’t even sure who it was to start with but my immediate thought, as soon as my brain whirred into gear was Mum, and shit, why was Abi hysterical.
She couldn’t speak and so I checked if it was her and asked if Mum was ok, I could barely make sense of it but there was a yes through the sobs. Then what she said stopped me in my tracks again, all I could hear was ‘sob, eee-be, sob, died, sob, can you help me, sob’. My second niece, Phoebe, was less than 18 months old at the time. Again completely healthy but for a millisecond my brain kicked into, shit, Phoebe died. More sobs, tears, and me holding my breath until Abi said more. I just kept reassuring her that whatever happened it would be ok, and to take a breath and try tell me again. All of this probably took about 90secs but as I type it now I feel it in slo-mo again, I’ve replayed it in my brain a few times. It turned out that Phoebe hadn’t died, Nuby, one of their dogs (who Abi so eloquently described as her first baby, who taught her how to be a mother, gulp) had died in her sleep that morning.
Abi was calling to let me know and to ask me to take Libbie (number one niece, 3yrs old at the time) to school that morning. Fast forward half hour or so and it was with some trepidation that I walked up their drive and into the house, Abi was doing her best to be stoic and not scare the girls. I needn’t have worried, as soon as I arrived Libbie pipes up with ‘hello Auntie Georgie, come and see my Nuby doggy, she died‘. Just like that, completely matter of fact, she grabs my hand and takes me to see Nuby wrapped in a blanket in her bed. Libbie had absolutely zero qualms about what had happened ‘my Mummy is sad because she’ll miss her, but she’s gone to be a star with Grandad’.
I don’t know how you explain to a three year old that their dog has died, I don’t know how you explain to a two year old that their Grandad has died, or their great-Grandad months before that. I don’t envy my sister and brother-in-law at all but they’ve obviously got something right, because I think Libbie could teach us all a thing or two about discussing death!
Fast forward to today and a photo on instagram stopped me in my tracks.
OK I’ll be honest, I cried (although anyone whose read my posts before will know that’s not unheard of). Sticks was the most beautiful, funny, charismatic little kid, literally. A baby goat who battled to survive from the off, but who was nurtured to life by Farmer Meg and Neil. He had a short, but seemingly very content life documented on instagram and I can honestly say he made my days a little brighter, and judging by the comments left, those of many others too.
Meg and Neil are braver than most of us, choosing to run a small-holding and face the very real and authentic ups and downs, or ebbs and flows of death and life, on a daily basis. As farmers it’s their way of life, and yet seemingly we’re turning into a society where even farming and farmers, are feeling forced to suppress the reality of what that looks and feels like. Meg wrote an excellent blog post about this at the start of the year that is well worth a look (I borrowed this blog title directly from it):
The shadowy places that this voyage has taken me to are more dark than most things I’ve experienced, but the light in my life shines brighter than it ever has. The victories are certainly sweeter but the defeats feel like they will break your soul in half. The ebb and flow of death and life here is so real and extreme and I feel it truly mirrors my Gemini temperament.
She goes on to talk about the pressure to present a rosy perspective, the funny anecdotes and romantic images that the online audience crave. Oddly the reason I follow Meg, and seemingly more and more farmers on Instagram, is because they provide a pictorial map of the real ebbs and flow of life and death. I’m beginning to wonder if that is part of their appeal for me, in a society that is ever sanitised, it is unusual for this pic to be seen, but it’s very powerful juxtaposed against one of bunting, or cake, or fonts, or train stations (just my choice of people to follow). I am grateful to those smallholders who share the ups and downs on social media, whether that’s instagram, twitter, blogs or facebook.
Life is made of shadow and light, we can not appreciate one without the other. Life does go on, we don’t need to forget and whether the pain eases or we just get better at dealing with it I don’t know, but I am thankful to have known Nuby and Sticks, and I’m grateful to Abi and Steve, Megs and Neil for sharing their lives, and deaths, with me.