Welcome back! The long winter’s rest if officially over, and I’m so happy to be back to blogging. It’s been a long and strange winter, but beautiful nonetheless….Thanks for joining the blog for another season!
According to one of my college literature professors, the song of the dangerous sirens Oddyseus so longed to hear harkened to the forbidden, sensual experiences life offers up: illicit affairs, drug-induced highs, over-indulgence. For me, the sirens were never about that. They were about the aspects of life we are not ready to face, as much as they draw us in. And strangely, when I imagine the call of the sirens, I think of spring peepers. Their chorus starts up as the indoor work of winter wraps up, making it hard to concentrate on math lessons, on French grammar. And my ears want to hear them, even while I am spooked by them.
The song, while beautiful, is disconcertingly sobering. It tugs on the morose side of my personality, pulling me from life’s distractions and wrapping me profoundly with the heavy subjects: thoughts of life and death. In spring I remember listening to the peepers while visiting my farming neighbor Sanford out on the road, shovel in hand, repairing the dirt stretch in front of his house from winter damage. In my memories, his hearing aid whistles, and he smells of turpentine, his personal remedy for arthritis. From my perspective as a child, and then a teenager, and then a young woman, this is the time of year when I would wonder how he confronts the burst of new life when faced with his own aging. Why get all wrapped up in the new, I would think, but never say to him, when it has to remind you of years faded away, of your own life fading, of the fact that you are dying? I wanted to run away from these thoughts: to bury myself in homework and tests, but for those peepers…. that incessant, rhythmic cry that I could not resist, screaming that life cycles on and on and on, with Sanford, or without him…. With me, or without me. Scary thoughts. But I could never stop listening.
The spring eventually came when Sanford wasn’t standing out on the dirt road making repairs. But I was a new mother by then, breasts swollen with milk, mind dizzied by lack of sleep, house in disarray, with a wondrous child to succor and marvel at. The peepers called, but I was often asleep before I could listen. And I found this was the best way to deal with the macabre thoughts they incited. I could work myself until I was too tired to ponder them. That is how I came to confront them in my adult years: equate them with labor, with busy-ness, with waking from a long winter with much to do.
But this past winter was exceptional. It began when the cardiologist told Mom she needed a new heart valve for Christmas. And then following the surgery, Mom and Dad temporarily moved in with Bob, me and the kids over the holidays, so we could help them out more.
And there was so much unknown. We didn’t learn about the depression, anger, anxiety, and fear that accompanies heart surgery until it was too late to turn back. We didn’t know that the anesthesia could cause so much forgetfulness, long after the surgery. Mom was a trooper in working through all of it, but we didn’t know how much of the side effects were going to be permanently with us. The day after Christmas, with my brother and sisters’ blessings, Mom and Dad asked Bob and me to take our multi-year farm transition plan and enact it in seven days. We all needed the farm to continue, but they needed to focus on getting better.
And so it was, with Christmas lights blinking in the sleet and snow outside the lawyer’s window, that Bob and I sat with Dad and the attorney and hammered out our agreements. And the holidays were spent running from lawyer, to bank, to accountant, with quiet, meaningful glances passed between Dad and me. All we wanted was to catch a smile on Mom’s face. If we caught one, it was a good day.
And then, the papers were signed. And the next thing I knew, there was a farm checkbook in my hand. Sap Bush Hollow Farm became Sap Bush Hollow Farm, LLC, an official four-way partnership, with me at the helm. I was setting up a new chart of accounts, transferring bills to my name, planning how I will keep the books balanced.
It was a relief to see the smiles come more frequently on Mom’s face. But there were times, as I faced down the enormity of first quarter farm expenses, I couldn’t help but feel the smiles were in mirth: See what I had to put up with all these years? And you think you can do better? I wanted this to go better under my leadership. I wanted to improve things. But then, I started to dread the phone ringing, I dreaded seeing Mom in the cafe, because she’d hand me another farm bill, or tell me who I needed to call, who I needed to meet with. I felt like a workhorse, here to make the money and make the ends meet for the rest of the family. A permanent knot took up residence in my stomach. At night, I’d lie in bed with a hot water bottle to soothe it.
And then in the midst of all this, comes my own visit to the doctor, where he scrutinizes once more the age-and-sun-damaged skin on the tip of my nose. “I don’t like it,” he tells me. “We’ve waited long enough. It’s time to biopsy.” He schedules me to come back the next week.
And I don’t think about it, because I have to meet with our insurance agent to change the liability coverage on the farm and the cafe. And I have to get the menu ready for the weekend. And I have to do Ula’s eye therapy, and Saoirse’s math lessons, and there is a problem with the bank and the new payroll system.
And Mom calls and says, “I can drive you to the doctor for your biopsy.”
And I say, “No, because I have a meeting right after.”
“Then let Bob take you.”
And I say, “No, because he has to do Ula’s therapy and do the lessons with the girls.”
And she says it again. “So let your father and I take you.”
And I say, “No, it’s no big deal.”
And she says, “You shouldn’t drive after.”
And I say, “It’s a little novocain in my nose, and a little incision. Easier than getting a filling.” And I rush her off the phone and go back to entering expenses and returning emails. This scenario repeats itself every day for a week.
And then, the night before my appointment, I am standing out in the woods, trekking through the snow, when something occurs to me. I have a mother who wants to take me to the doctor. And only a few months before, I didn’t even know if I would have a mother. And then only a few weeks before, I didn’t know if she would be able to move through the trauma of her own medical experience to think of anything beyond her own suffering. And here she is. Calling me every day, wanting to take me to this stupid no-big-deal biopsy. How incredible is that?
I go back inside and call her. “You can take me to the biopsy.”
Early in the morning, she and dad come to pick me up. Bob and the girls kiss my nose before I duck into the car. We arrive at the clinic. I follow the nurse, fully expecting my parents to stay in the waiting room. But Mom directs Dad to stay. She follows me in. She talks to me while we’re in there: about which customers came to the cafe, about how many piglets we are expecting in the spring, about the price of pork, about what we’ll be serving next weekend. She’s doing her best to distract me.
And then the doctor comes in, and he injects the novocain.
And for a moment, everything is fine. And then it starts to go to my head. I am on the cusp of fainting. He finishes the procedure, and Mom is at my side. She’s directing the nurse to help me. I don’t remember much, just getting tipped back. And then the shakes, all through my body. It doesn’t matter that there are doctors and nurses. Mom takes command. She ushers everyone out the door, takes my hand. “What do you want?” She’s asking me.
“I need food, and this will stop,” I assure her. “But I want them to leave me alone.” Within moments, I have water and chocolate. And the door is shut, and it is just my mom and me. And she leans over and kisses my head.
She kisses my head.
And I think that I can’t remember the last time my mother kissed me. And then I realize something. All these years, there has been a part of me that thought my job was to take care of them. Take care of the business. Grow the farm. Make it profitable so Mom and Dad can be comfortable. Stay close so they can have their grandchildren close. I did it because they love their grandchildren. And I did it because I love them.
And then, here, in this moment, I realize something huge. She loves me. It doesn’t matter if the farm is in the black or in the red. It doesn’t matter if I succeed or if I fail. She loves me, and she wants me here. With her. That’s all. That’s what this adventure is about: Our family, enjoying each other.
I walk out of that clinic with a sore nose, two stitches, and two permanent scars. But the stomach ache has gone away.
The biopsy turns out negative, and mom’s recovery has been amazing. She has color in her cheeks, she’s keeping up with the speedy pace of the cafe, and last week she went for a hike with me and the girls. And I’ve come to a conclusion about our family farm business. I want us to be more profitable, but less busy. Because this spring, I want to hear the peepers fully. I go outside in the pre-dawn hours to watch the stars and listen to their song. I take longer walks with my family at night, waiting for them to start up. I crack the window beside our bed and strain to hear them from my sleep. Like Oddyseus, I want to hear their beautiful call. But unlike him, I am losing my fear of the darker sides of life that they awaken within me. Because those are the parts of life where we grow, where grace touches us in the most unexpected places, where we find gifts of strength and love that make every spring even more glorious.