Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Love and loss

Late yesterday afternoon, I asked husband Jim to put down my old ewe Friendly, the leader of my herd of sheep. She’s been trailing behind the herd the last few weeks, tired with old age, and yesterday she failed to rise from her afternoon bed. The guard dogs had stayed with her, keeping her company while they waited for me to find them. I petted Friendly’s nose, and propped her into a comfortable position before seeking Jim’s help.

Jim and I both shed tears as we reflected on Friendly’s life with us – at 14 and a-half-years old, she’d shared over half of our 25 years of married life. She was one of my original sheep, and looking into those beautiful dark ewes as I fed the tiny orphan lamb from a bottle is what got me hooked on raising sheep. Friendly was the smallest of the orphan lambs I purchased that year, and she quickly figured out that I kept the milk bottles in the fridge just inside the back door. When she would get hungry, she’d strike the door with her tiny front hooves, and if the door opened just a crack, she’d stick her nose in and race up the back steps to demand her milk. She had a startlingly deep voice, a hallmark sound that we’ve heard every day throughout the life we shared together.

We raised 15 orphan lambs that first year. Six months in, one snowy January day, the Great Pyrenees guardian dog they lived with took them under our back fence and into an adventure. They escaped onto the Pinedale Mesa, a big game winter range adjacent to our ranch; an area closed to human presence in winter and that also serves as a coyote refuge. Desperate to find them before the youngsters were all eaten by coyotes, Jim chartered an airplane to fly the Mesa, but failed to find them in the many folds and canyons of that rough sagebrush landscape. Finally, a week after their adventure began, they arrived at a cattle ranch seven miles away on the far side of the Mesa, happily munching hay in the ranch yard. Not one had been killed or wounded, and the guardian dog was still watching over them. Friendly happily jumped into the stock trailer when Jim arrived to retrieve them.

Friendly became the leader of my herd, leading the way out to new grazing every day, and leading the herd to that night’s bedding ground. When we moved the sheep, she was always first. Getting the herd to move through dangerous places, such as across a wooden stock bridge over the New Fork River, was only possible if the lead sheep was willing to go. As long as I had ginger snaps, crackers or granola bars in my jacket pockets, Friendly would lead that herd anywhere. She constantly rummaged around in my pockets for treats, and was rarely disappointed.

Friendly produced lambs every year throughout her adult life – two years ago she had triplets, and this year only a single.

Every day for more than a decade when I checked the sheep, I would call them and Friendly always answered in that distinct voice of hers. She would run to me, looking for treats and a pet, sniffing my mouth to learn if I’d been snacking on something interesting. I’d sniff her nose, and was often rewarded with the sweet smell of something delicious she’d been eating – sometimes it was rosehips, or wildflower petals, or sagebrush buds.

Friendly was remarkable, and our family’s life was blessed by our time with her gentle animal soul.

The loss of our sheep friend saddens me, but I’m melancholy and prone to tears this week. My best girlfriend, my crazy Indian compadre and former business partner Sheri, has waged a battle with Stage 4 breast cancer for more than two years. Her body is weary and her fragile life is now bearable only through her constant companion, the morphine pump. She’s spending this holiday week in a hospital 100 miles from home.

Two other friends are being released from their hospital stays to go home for the holiday. My sister-in-law Cindy, a beautiful and vibrant woman with advanced melanoma, will spend this week surrounded by family. Our friend Jody, a woman who defines a kind nature and gracious manner, will enjoy time in her own home surrounded by loved ones as her body wages war with brain cancer.

I weep this day for love and loss. I have been blessed to have crossed paths with such lovely people, and I am thankful.


Mark Coleman said...

So sorry for your loss, Cat. I went through the same thing in '09 with my dog, also 14 1/2 years in my life. It's odd in a way that the depth of the grief tells you so much about what's truly important to you. It certainly re-focused some of my priorities. Love 'em as hard as you can while you have them, and do it without shame.

Mary Ann said...

Cat, I am so sorry for the loss and impending loss of your friends, both animal and human. The holidays are a difficult time for those with cancer, as I know professionally. Many will hang on for those last precious moments with friends and family. I do hope that you find some joy and beauty in the season.

Anonymous said...

SO soory to hear of your loss. Too many friends and family fall weary to this horrible disease in so many different ways. My heart goes out to you and all our friends and family who have to watch and feel to pain along with them. Be glad your friends are so couragous, I only hope if I ever find myself in that situation, I can be so strong. Happy Thanks giving, Steve's sister, Karen.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Thank you all for your lovely thoughts. We wouldn't grieve so much without having the pleasure of such love beforehand, would we?

Hope all have a joyful holiday season,