Death of a Lamb

Oh E.B. White. You came to mind immediately yesterday. A day so long and multi-faceted that my memory of it now breaks it into chapters.

More of E.B. White to come. Stay with me.

Chapter 1

12:15 a.m.  Lights out. We’ve just finished watching the sad and slightly disturbing movie, “Margaret.”

2:30 a.m.  R gets up, can’t sleep.

2:35 a.m.  I go ask him if he is sick, needs anything. No, just wide awake. I slowly fall back into restless sleep, interrupted by strange dreams.

Chapter 2

8:20.  Drag myself out of bed but leave R with hopes that he will get some more rest (he fell asleep after 4 a.m.) It’s a beautiful morning, with fog burning off early. Three lambs dash from the barn when L (the 10 year old) lets them out, but the fourth saunters slowly into the field. The others rip into the grass quickly and he just looks off into his own private space.

R hears us remark our worries about lamb #4 (Oscar). He can’t sleep anymore and comes down to see. We brew tea to help ourselves wake up. I am very tired, but R is crushed under the weight of his bad night.

Chapter 3

9:00.  After breakfast Oscar has moved from where he first stood to further down the meadow near the other three. He is lying down. We approach him and he doesn’t move or run. He is shaking.

Time to call the vet. She tells us we can bring him in if we can put him in the car (a 25 mile trip). Otherwise she has appointments until noon and can’t come to us until 1 or 2 p.m. We look at each other and decide we can’t risk that Oscar may die between now and then. We have to take him in.

Chapter 4

9:30.  L and R have left with Oscar in the back of the Forester on a blanket with some hay. I muck the lamb barn. Maybe Oscar is sick because the barn is in need of a cleaning. This chore was on today’s agenda anyway, and I feel the need to keep busy.

I haven’t joined them because our two dear college friends are stopping to see us for a couple of hours before getting on the road for the 16 hour return trip to Ontario. They’ve been in Vermont for a perma-culture course for two weeks and we’ve seen them twice. This is our last chance to see them until the next time. Next year? Two years?

My plan to prepare nice food this morning is turned upside down. Instead I am filling the wheelbarrow with sodden hay and making trips to the compost pile.

Chapter 5

11:00.  Our friends arrive just as R calls to say that Oscar is too far gone and will need to be put down. Either tetanus, rabies, or parasites could be the cause.

I’ve managed to make fresh mint tea. We three old friends sit outside and drink it in sweating glasses. They share pictures from the two-week course and we talk about land use, animals, the good things, and the hard things, about farm life.

They want to help dig the hole for Oscar. No way. They need to sit in a car for hours. But so nice they offered.

Chapter 6

11:50.  R and L return, with Oscar in a bag in the back of the car. They get a few minutes with our friends before we say our reluctant goodbyes.

1:00.  R digs the grave. I hose down the barn and bleach the floor. This time of year the flies are terrible. In moments the space smells of swimming pool as I use an old push broom to swish the bleach water around the floor and then push and wash it out the door. A fresh layer of sweet wood chips on top to soak up the last moisture and keep the lambs from slipping when they come in for water.

Chapter 7

2:15.  L and I start down the hill in the Forester to go to see my parents. I am emotional after our friends’ leaving, the loss of Oscar, lack of sleep and thoughts of that damn movie. Our gravel road is loose after being freshly graded. I am barreling down the hill and around the corner. At the bottom a car is pulling into my path. I lay on the horn and feel my car skidding, skidding, skidding but not stopping. The woman in the car yells from her open window, “I hear you—stop honking!!!” I come to a stop just as she backs out of my way. “I couldn’t stop and was skidding, that’s why I kept honking!” I tell her. We both laugh, relieved to avoid the collision. Relieved that we averted some sort of stupid road rage on a country road.

As I pull away I think, “Our lamb just died, lady!” And start to cry.

Chapter 8

2:45.  My dad helps L and me load a big pile of hay into his trailer. L and my nephew raked the hay up (for fun!) a few days ago when my dad cut the field. L has been excited to bring the hay home to use for the lambs.

So here we are, raking and pitchforking hay. A painting by Camille Pissarro flashes in my mind. It feels good to work.

Dad and Mom serve us homemade ice cream and big glasses of ice water. We talk about our Ontario friends, Oscar, the need for rain, Dad’s crop of sweet corn, the quilt Mom is making for a troubled 10-year-old boy who needs some comfort. We leave with ears of sweet corn from Dad’s garden and a fresh jar of his chutney on the seat beside me, the trailer bumping along behind.

Mom follows us in her car. She is coming over to get some yellow fabric she needs for the quilt. (And to watch that our hay load stays under the tarp in the trailer.)

Chapter 9

4:00.  Oscar is buried. R has mowed the field and started to set up temporary fences to keep the lambs off part of the field that needs a rest. This is a two person job. Mom is happy with the yellow fabric, and says her lamb condolences and farewells.

L takes off on her bicycle. Good girl, go blow off some energy.

R and I wrangle with the fencing, talk about Oscar, apologize for being short with each other in the morning, feel a little peace as the shadows begin to stretch long across the clipped grasses.

Chapter 10

5:30.  The barn is full of deep pillows of sweet fresh hay. We lay the remaining hay to mulch part of my perennial gardens, and then open the gate to let the chickens free range. We start the sweet corn and go to the garden to forage the rest of our dinner: young haricot vert, new potatoes, yellow carrots, tomatoes. Restoration on a plate.

Chapter 11

7:15.  At dusk R shakes the grain bucket and the three lambs come running to the barn. They are closed in and we wait while they scuffle noisily to find places at the metal trough. Clangs, jostles, munching.

When they are quiet we go in to tackle them one by one. The vet has told us to check the color of their eyelids. Oscar’s lids were nearly white, suggesting anemia, perhaps from parasite damage. Relief floods us as one by one we find pink healthy eyelids. A small bit of good news at the end of a long day.

Chapter 12

8:15.  Showered. Ahhhhhh.

We three meet on the couch to read a story aloud.

“Death of a Pig” by E.B. White, 1947. (The entire essay can be read here.)

(I told you I’d get back to E.B. White. Thanks for sticking with me.)

This is the story that comes back to me each time we face some type of hardship with our animals. White’s compassionate tale of his pig’s ailment, and his account of the three days he stays with the pig—caring for, and then burying him—illustrates all the ways we hope to show care to our own animals.

The story is wry, self-deprecating, a little funny, and masterfully told. We laugh. We explain strange words to L that she doesn’t know. Then we delve further into the book to find White’s stories about his naughty dachshund Fred (who figures prominently in the sad demise of Pig).

Chapter 13

9:15.  Lights out.

We will be happy to start a fresh chapter tomorrow.

A photo from two days before Oscar’s death. L is so excited that Pinkie
(one of the big lambs) let her pet his head.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

August 26, 2012 at 6:12 pm

That is so sad :/ I am sorry for your family’s loss. I have always wanted to own a ranch/farm after growing up on them, but it’s this component that always turns my shiny farm-fantasies into reality. There is no way to escape it sometimes, but there are so many more reasons to keep going.

August 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm
– In reply to: honeycomb

Thank you for the kind remarks. It’s not a small commitment, but there are so many rewards too. The reality can sometimes be shiny (nice word choice!) and that’s what helps on days like yesterday.

August 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm

thanks, sue. beautifully said.

August 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm
– In reply to: vtbee

Hi sweet B!!! Will call you after dinner. xox

August 26, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Beautiful strory Sue. Sad but sweet.

August 26, 2012 at 7:14 pm
– In reply to: squatorclamor

Thanks Victoire. Miss you!! xox

August 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Sue — thank you for this wonderful yet sad story. We just had the second of our three Flemish giant rabbits die (old age). She’s buried up with three dogs, her sister rabbit, and a beloved rat. Losing a young animal must be tough.

August 27, 2012 at 3:37 pm
– In reply to: daddyshomedavidpetrie

Thanks, David. Yes, our pet cemetery is getting larger, though they aren’t all in one place. Still we know where to go to pay homage to Duncan the cat, Lottie and Annabella the chickens, and now Oscar.

August 26, 2012 at 10:19 pm

So sorry to hear. Oscar had a lovely life at your home, and now he is probably scampering around happily in lamb heaven (it’s just down the road from LLama heaven where our fellow Blanco lives.)

August 27, 2012 at 12:38 am

Oh, I am so sad for your loss. All animals are precious to those who love them. Thank goodness for tomorrows to cleanse the picture and start afresh – I hope yours is much better!

August 27, 2012 at 2:07 pm

oh dear, Sue, what a sad day… We might have just been in the way, but still I’m sorry D & I weren’t there to offer some help and hugs.

August 28, 2012 at 10:19 am

What a perfect description of a very difficult day! The need to see friends, the near-collision, the lack of sleep…all while dealing with death…is absolutely heart-wrenching. “The Death of a Pig” is one of my favorite of E.B.White’s wonderful essays, and a good choice to conclude a rough day. Thanks for sharing this sad day.

August 28, 2012 at 10:22 am
– In reply to: cindyricksgers

Thank you Cindy!!! Writing certainly helped me process it all. And reading E.B. always helps during an animal crisis!

August 29, 2012 at 8:37 pm

What a lovely essay. I love the images the words create in my head. I’m sorry about Oscar. We recently lost our lab Midnight. Well, not so recently now, but it still feels fresh to me. The thing is, they’ll always be alive in our hearts. Which is lovely, but also sometimes painful. Thank you for sharing your lovely life.

September 1, 2012 at 7:37 pm
– In reply to: katemgeorge

Thank you, Sweet Kate.

August 31, 2012 at 9:08 pm

I just discovered your blog today. I’m an E.B. White fan, too! And fellow farm-and-animal lover. Sorry to hear about your lamb, Oscar. We had a calf die a few months ago – born with a birth defect – it is always these pointless and unexpected deaths that are the worst.

September 1, 2012 at 7:37 pm
– In reply to: Erica

E.B. has lots to say for us farmer/animal lovers! So glad you found me, and now I’ll go snoop around your blog. Warmly, Sue

Duality «reply
September 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm

[…] may think I spend all my time mucking barns after my lamb post last week. I probably should spend more time mucking (I thought to myself as I scooped the wheelbarrow full […]

Barbara Bamber | justasmidgenreply
September 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I haven’t read that book, Sue.. your own story was very touching today. We have an old family dog, 15 years this summer.. and every time he gets sick we worry that it may be time to say good-bye. I’ll look for this E.B. White story to see if we can find comfort there one day. xx

September 4, 2012 at 10:52 am
– In reply to: Barbara Bamber | justasmidgen

Oh it’s a great story, and it’s all online. I think I included a link. Enjoy.

Barbara Bamber | justasmidgenreply
September 4, 2012 at 1:22 pm
– In reply to: 129twigandvine

You sure did.. I read it, what an amazing writer he is!

George Bearreply
September 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm

We just read your moving account of the day your lamb died. So sorry for your loss. Just reading your blog brings back memeories of the pleasant afternoon visit we had a few years back, just sipping iced tea under the canopy behind the house. Uncle George and Aunt Mary

September 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm
– In reply to: George Bear

Thank you Uncle George and Aunt Mary. It means a lot. I have such good memories of that visit too. Much love, Sue

Irish Weather on the Wethers «reply
October 3, 2012 at 7:33 pm

[…] joined our little flock yesterday which brings us back to four sheep after the loss of Oscar in August. She is a Navajo Churro breed. Our others are Dorset […]

Life of a family, death of a lamb | The Conscientious Omnivorereply
June 5, 2013 at 7:00 am

[…] just one example, let me recommend her post, “Death of a Lamb.” Here’s how she describes the start of a day late last […]

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