The Nursing Home

Ula has needle felted a tail and a set of testicles and then attached them with velcro to a plush lamb. Saoirse and Bob are running through slides of farm photos, choosing the best and putting them in order.

It’s the first day of spring, only a few days after the shooter drove through our tiny hamlet.

But today isn’t about guns.

Today is about visiting the residents of Marchand Manor, an assisted living facility over in Sharon Springs.

We’re there at the behest of Willa. She and her husband raise grassfed beef, and her day job is to coordinate the activities there.

“We don’t get a lot of visitors,” she tells me. “We just need someone fresh and new to come and talk. Talk about anything having to do with the farm. So many of them grew up on farms.”

Ula and Saoirse cheerfully take up the challenge. Saoirse gives the slide show, talking about grazing practices and farrowing pigs and Thanksgiving turkeys. She introduces the residents to celebrity livestock we’ve particularly enjoyed over the years, a favorite sheep, a chicken named Strawberry who liked to sit on laps, a goose named Foie Gras who thought he was human. She shows photos of my brother and I growing up on the land, driving a horse-drawn sled at Christmas. She tells the story of Bob joining the family, then about her own arrival, then Ula’s, then Corey’s, then Nate and Jenn’s. When she gets to lambing season, Ula takes over.

She stands in front of the group with her lambing box and her now anatomically-correct newborn ram lamb. She reviews procedures for snipping the umbilical cord, treating it with iodine, then checking the mother’s milk, then leaving them to bond. She then talks about the importance of tail docking for herd health, and explains why we castrate lambs. She then places bands on her elastrator and demonstrates both procedures on her plush toy.

Saoirse takes over from there and walks the residents through what we do with all that we harvest, from making sausages and processing our wool fleeces into blankets, to canning summer produce and serve our own eggs and bacon at the cafe.

I am as rapt as the citizens, gazing at the photos, remembering why we do the work we do, taking flight from the darkness that haunts our life at this moment, escaping newspaper headlines ands with frightened neighbors.

Saoirse and Ula are radiant. They speak with ease. All four of us jump in to tell different stories about silly mistakes we’ve made, failed endeavors, about the things we love best: farm dogs, swimming holes, family dinners.

We finish and begin packing up to go. “If you have any time at all,” Willa says, “Our oldest resident, Elsie, was not able to come join us today. Would you mind stopping by her room?”

Bob takes the lambing kit and projector to the car, and Saoirse, Ula and I follow Willa to Elsie’s room. She sits in a big easy chair, staring straight ahead. Willa leans forward and shouts directly in her ear. “I’ve brought you some guests! Elsie, this is Saoirse, and Ula and Shannon from Sap Bush Hollow Farm.”

She reaches a hand out until I grab it, then she pulls me in close. Her face lights up with my touch. “You can call me Pat,” she says jovially. “The kids used to tease me when I was a little girl because of Elsie the Cow, so I like to go by Pat.” With me firmly by her side, she releases her grip and reaches her hands in front of her again until she finds Saoirse and Ula. She pulls them until they join me in nuzzling beside her. She touches their faces, giggles as she remembers stories from her own childhood on a farm, asks them questions about what it’s like now, and touches their hair. At first, Saoirse and Ula struggle to make themselves heard. They quickly learn to give short, loud responses, to smile broadly, and to keep in Pat’s embrace.

“She can’t really see much any longer, and her hearing has really declined,” Willa explains to me in a normal voice. “So she can’t participate in any of the activities in the same way. It’s just so sad.”

But Pat is not sad at this moment. Her eyes are alight with mischief as she remembers cow pie fights and feats of farm athleticism. What she has lost in sight and hearing she makes up for with touch, repeatedly hugging us all and squeezing our hands.

But we can’t stay all day. There are chores to do and errands to run, the current reality of our situation to face. We say our goodbyes and return to the car, where we ride without speaking.

Saoirse, my stoic kid, breaks the silence with a sniffer from the back seat.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“She has nothing left,” she tells me. “She can’t see, she can’t walk, she can hardly hear.” She is wrapping her 18-year-old mind around the ephemerality of her youth.

But how could she have nothing left when she had so much to give us? My 48-year-old soul is uplifted by Pat, by the joy she expressed at our visit, by the warmth of her touch, the strength of her serenity as life slowly reclaims from her gifts that each of us takes for granted.

I think about the weight I’ve been carrying lately, about the wound our community now faces, about my own limitations in fixing the problem and making things better.

But I today, I got to hold Pat’s hand, and in it I felt the softest of reminders…

This too shall pass. And you will have more memories, more sorrows and more joys.

But for today, no matter what trials we face right now, for those few moments at her side, we were enough.

The Hearth of Sap Bush Hollow podcast happens with the support of my patrons on Patreon. And this week I’d like to send a shout out to my patrons Tanya Dixon and Tali Richards.

Thank you, folks! I couldn’t do it without you! If you’d like to help support my work, you can do so for as little as $1/month by hopping over to Patreon and looking up Shannon Hayes.

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