Vagneur: Death and life intertwined
How well I remember going to the calving shed with my dad on cold winter nights. What impressed me most was the reverence Dad had for the idea of emerging life as it struggled to gain its hold in the world. How often I’ve thought of those nights, with abiding reverence for my father and his deep feelings for the natural world. I don’t know if my dad remembered our forays together on those nights, but I hope he did.
The beginning of life juxtaposed next to the end of life is hard to fathom when they both are thought of in the same breath, but perhaps not. Are the deaths of our loved ones inextricably attached to the birth of new life, a common thread we cannot escape and that helps us deal, one with the other? I say this because in a rancher’s life, death and life are intertwined with a frequency that is difficult to fathom.
My friend Jody Bagley was cutting hay above his Wyoming ranch in the summer of 2007. His son, Jody Albert Bagley, 20 years old, called on his cellphone to say he’d built a large raft to float on the lake and wanted to borrow the flat bed fifth-wheel trailer to haul it there. He was pretty excited about the job he’d done and wanted his dad to stop working and come down to look at it. It was the last conversation they ever had.
June 7, 2007, was their son’s 21st birthday, and Jody and his wife, Suellen, spent the day watching divers look for the body of their son, who, celebrating his birthday with friends on the raft the night before, dived into the water and didn’t come up. A friend jumped in behind him trying to help, and others nearby pulled up to offer assistance, but to no avail. The unanswered how or why of it all has softened some during the ensuing years, for as Jody says, their son was found with a large bruise on his head, but “trying to point fingers won’t bring him back.”
The senior Bagley wrote the following account about his son, Jody Albert Bagley, a couple of years ago on the anniversary of his son’s death. Jody Albert was about 10 years old at the time this tale took place. The story shows the love a father has for his son, but also drives home the convergence of certain contradicting, powerful memories that we carry with us long after a loved one is no more:
“It was a dark March night, around 20 years ago, the nighttime stars shining bright with the temps around 10 degrees.
“Jody Albert went up with me to help check the cows. We walked through the big lot, then went over to the old barn in the corral. We quietly go in, clear to the lean-to that runs all along the back. We went to a far corner and sat in a little hay.
“At the other end was an older cow we’d run in a few hours earlier, just starting to calve. The front feet are out, the one light bulb gives us a dim show, and our breaths come out like steam. The head is out of the cow, who stands up and turns a few times, the embryonic fluid running out of the calf’s nose and mouth.
“Jody snuggles in closer to me; he says he’s still warm. The cow turns again, contracts and the calf slides out till just its hips and hind legs are still inside. She turns again and pushes; the calf falls into the loose hay on the barn floor. She starts licking. We just sit and watch. The cow backs out of the way as her calf tries to stand. She nuzzles him again and the calf falls to the floor next to where there’s a missing board in the floor.
“She moves next to her standing calf. He stumbles but stays up, his head bobbing under her. He finds the teat, butts it a few times trying to get it in his mouth, and falls down again. A flicker of white against the far wall; the old skunk is dragging the afterbirth down the hole in the floor.
“We hear suckling and watch the calf’s mouth start to foam. Soon, his belly fills out by his flanks; he’s finally full and lies down. Jody and I quietly slip out of the barn — the Milky Way is bright. We check the cows and go home and crawl into an early morning bed. Oh, I so miss that kid.”
Tony Vagneur thanks Jody Bagley for sharing this story. Tony writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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