Taking Life and Death Personally

Number 248 comes to me. She noses my leg.

I’m fussing with yet another ram lamb who stumbles and falls and is far too wet in her bottom fleece. I’m putting mineral in the feeders and watching if this ram lamb will partake. He does, and I’m glad for a moment.

And then 248, a bottle lamb only two years ago, comes to me, nosing about me and the bucket, and I let her nibble some mineral. And I catch glimpse of her eye. I travel into it. I peer deeply into the vast, crystal depths of it.

“It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die,” sings Tom Waits.

It is there, deep in that eye of 248–this spirit, this spark, this passion for life. And it was there in the wobbly lamb before I found its sorry remains in the pasture. Food for bugs and worms. It was there in the two ram lambs we brought into the barn and injected with the kitchen sink of guesses that the veterinarians and other sheep experts volunteered. It was there in the sweet wag of the tail in 279, our sole bottle lamb. She couldn’t help herself, but wagged joyously each time I said, “Little lamb. Oh, sweet little lamb.” It was there when we left her in the arms of a technician at the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

Nothing wants to die. We all know that spark, that heat, that passion for life, and the way it glistens in the eye of a ewe. And so we ache when that light fades.

And the ache has hollowed our whole summer as we struggled to be faithful to our flock in the face of a mysterious, slow taker of life.

We first notice wobbles in the legs. Sometimes the front legs, sometimes the back. The lambs stumble in the thick, tall grass. They stumble after their mothers, then give up and plop down. They keep up with the flock in stages that get shorter and shorter. After days of this they just give up and lie in place, nibbling at the clover and grass around them.

In this long ordeal we have consulted with three veterinarians, a University sheep specialist, other sheep keepers and countless online articles on flock health. We have tried out every suggestion, injecting the lambs with selenium and vitamin E, vitamin B complex, thiamin, vitamin D, penicillin, banamine, dexamethazone, and more selenium. We have massaged their legs, dosed them with “Power Punch” mixture of sugars, vitamins and minerals, put feed and water in front of them and fought off the rest of the flock to let them eat and drink in peace. But, in the end, we have watched the light go out in their eyes.

I held one in my lap as our faithful veterinarian injected it, not with death, she insisted, but with a merciful end to its suffering.  And it was a breath of mercy for us…for a moment. We didn’t have to watch it sit in place while it’s mother and cousins grazed in peace around it.

A merciful moment until we noticed yet another lamb stumbling.

Compassionate friends of ours have told Connie and me that they could never live with such sorrow.

Yes, it is hard. We now know, hard in our hearts, the back story of all pleasant pastoral scenes throughout time and throughout the world, and all those more contemporary screeds from vegetarian and vegan  environmental activists. They all have only a fraction of the picture. There is more to the story than wooly delight—much more than methane and carbon footprint.

A shepherd’s wife once confided in me, “Jack takes it very personally when a lamb dies.” She said too that, even in her advanced years she “could not abide” the smell of brandy, because that was one of the treatments her desperate father, also a shepherd, would use on lambs. He would bring them in the house on snowy spring days, place their limp bodies before the kitchen stove, and spoon brandy into their cold mouths. Too many of them were too far gone, and so she too takes the smell of brandy personally.

None of us can imagine what it means to tend livestock unless we can imagine the heartbreak.

This light in the eyes—the deep, crystal eyes. The bellow of a ewe as the birth water breaks and the birth blood flows, the leaping lambs on fresh spring grass, the flutter of little hearts and twitching of white ears in the sun, the wobbling and stumbling and loneliness of death. A final flutter and then stillness. There is more to it all than carbon footprint or vet bills or checks on market day or chops on a plate.

It is all something very personal.

I can’t wish such pain on anyone, yet there is comfort in the observations about the Good Shepherd. As he approached the tomb of his dead friend he was messed up inside. He was disturbed. And he wept.

I suppose he took death very personally indeed.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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