Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#11 Christmas Part A

The irritating buzz of the alarm clock woke me from a sound, peaceful sleep. I hurriedly slapped the off button in hopes that Mike wouldn’t awaken, but his eyes were already fluttering. “Merry Christmas”, I whispered. “Go back to sleep!” He nodded his approval, and his head sunk back down into the pillow. He was already unaware that I was crawling out from beneath the warm blankets.

The cold air made me wish I was back in bed. Noting the frost on the inside of the window, I wondered when we’d ever find time to install heat here in the upstairs. I walked quietly past the younger children’s room, almost afraid to breathe, for it takes so little to awaken a five and a six year old on Christmas morning, and I certainly didn’t want them up yet. I passed Kris’ door, and went on into Chuck’s room, where I gently woke him. At the ripe old age of 14, he held an important position in the family as his dad’s right arm. He popped right out of bed with an air of excitement about him. (Funny how kids never seem to feel the cold!) “Merry Christmas,” we whispered to each other. “Hurry and get dressed,” I said, and then zipped downstairs to the warm bathroom to do the same.

We were starting the day off with a “Love gift” for Mike - his first morning off since the hogs had arrived over a year ago. With chattering teeth, we climbed in the pick-up, and I backed down the first short section of our driveway. It had snowed again during the night . It looked to be about another 6”. I shifted into 4-wheel drive and drove down our steep hill, turning left at the bottom, taking us to the hog barns, about 3/8 mile from the house.

“This would be a lot easier if the sun was up,” I shouted to my son, trying to be heard above the hollering and screaming of the hungry gestating sows. “Put 6 lbs. of pellets in each feed crate,” the voice of experience yelled back at me. Minutes later, he opened each gate on the 40 individual feed crates, and I opened gates on two pens to let half of the sows out. They fought and pushed and screamed and squeezed and somehow managed to all get through the small gate. All except one sow, who needed encouragement to leave the pen.

While they ate, we went into the other side of the building, the makeshift farrowing house, where the sows with litters were in farrowing crates. Those babies represented our only income. We fed the mothers, and then, using a squeegee, we cleaned under the crates.

Returning to the original 40 sows, who had by now eaten everything in their feed boxes, plus licked the floor clean, we put them back in their pens, filled the feed boxes again, and let out the other 40 sows for their breakfast. We wished they would eat faster, for by now our boots and gloves and parkas were not keeping out the cold.

“Come on, Mom,” Chuck chattered. “They’re finished, and so am I!” We put them back in their pens, and then I let Chuck drive up to the house. “Be sure and get a running start on that hill or we’ll never make it,” I cautioned, remembering only too well the events of a week ago. I had tried the icy hill at a slow pace, and couldn’t quite make it to the top. When I had tried to back down, the steering wheel was useless, and Mike had to pull me out of the muddy field with the tractor.

I glanced at my watch which read 8 am, noting with pleasure that it had taken us just two hours. “Not bad“, I bragged, ”for a semi-skilled worker and a beginner.” Chuck giggled and zipped up the hill like a pro. We ran into the house, shouting “Merry Christmas”. Andy and Lani bolted out of bed and flew down the stairs, closely followed by Kris and Daddy.

Santa Claus had indeed been here, and left Andy a very large puppet house, made from a refrigerator carton, complete with red checked curtains and red, white, and blue graffiti. Chuck and Kris beamed with pleasure, aware that their many hours of secret work produced a real treasure. Inside, just barely peeking under the curtain, were two delightful puppets.

Then Lani let out a squeal as she discovered the Sunshine Family dolls, complete with a four-room doll house. This, too, had been made after the little ones had gone to bed each night. The rugs were crocheted, walls painted and furniture fashioned from any workable trash.

“Let’s open our gifts”, chimed one child, and the other three took up the cry. There were ever so many gifts underneath the bushy tree we had cut down in the woods. Even knowing that we couldn’t reciprocate, our relatives had mailed us mounds of beautiful packages. The traditional electric train from Mike’s childhood wound in and out through the maze of gifts.

The sound of the phone caused Kris to jump up and make a mad dash in order to get there before her brother. “That was a weird call”, she announced. “A female voice said “Santa Claus is on his way”, and then hung up.”

“Who in the world would drive 19 miles from town on Christmas morning just to play Santa?” I mused. So while we waited, we made short work of opening our gifts.

Our barking dogs heralded a vehicle coming up the driveway. We all ran to the window to see who our guest was. Hanging from the running board, dressed like Santa, sporting a long beard, and wearing a parka, was Pastor Stephens. His son was unsuccessfully trying to drive smoothly up our slick chuck-holed, rutted driveway. They were both anxious to come in and warm themselves in front of our blazing wood stove, but not before numerous “Ho, ho, ho’s” had been uttered. Then, opening his pack, he distributed gifts to our four children, bowed his head asking for God’s blessing on us, and then left to finish his rounds.

#11  Christmas  Part B

“How was everything down at the barns?” Mike queried.” “One sow wasn’t feeling too good so I had to chase her out to the feed crate,” I answered. “I’d best go check on her, then,” he responded, changing into his grubby clothes. I soon heard his voice on the phone line from the barns. “Everyone get down here fast. She’s farrowed in the pen.”

Quickly we all bundled up and took off walking to the barns. The other sows had already laid on six of the babies, but we gathered up the four living ones. We then moved the mother to the other side of the building to a farrowing crate where the babies would be relatively safe. Periodic checks on her throughout the morning saw two more babies born.

By now, it was 1 o’clock and we had a dinner invite in town. Kris was ready first, so she was elected to drive to the back pasture to throw the horses some hay. For a 13 year-old it was fun to drive so she was more than willing to go. The temperature had been slowly rising, causing the top layer of snow to turn to ice. Backing down the first section of driveway, the truck slid, the rear wheel leaving the driveway and sinking hub-deep in the barley field. There was no time to pull it out since we were already late. Gingerly Mike backed the car past the truck, narrowly missing it, and we were on our way.

The meal was delicious, and the friends delightful, and by 7 pm we headed back home. “Guess we better check on the sows before we go to the house,” Mike said. The look on his face when he emerged from the farrowing house said it all. Another sow had farrowed, this time in the crate, but the newborns had fallen to the cold floor. Two of them were already dead, and one more died soon after. The other two responded once we got them rubbed dry and put under the heat lamp. Mike was beside himself, and there just weren’t any words of comfort.

By now the driveway was a sled run, but Mike managed to get up enough speed to make it to the top. We were out of clean rags to rub down baby pigs, so I immediately put a load in the washer. But it refused to fill. Not a drop. I went out to tell Mike who was sitting on the tractor, cranking it over and over and getting no spark. “I’ve got to go check on that sow,” he muttered softly and climbed in the car. By now it was so slick he was unable to steer the car, and I heard a dull “thud” as the car’s front fender hit the stuck truck’s front fender, and an instant replay as the car’s rear fender met the truck’s front fender. He didn’t even stop to inspect the damage but just drove on. It would still be there later.

I tried not to watch for his returning headlights, but I found myself drawn to the window time after time. Finally the lights came slowly into view. Panic hit me as I realized he was coming much too slowly to make it up the hill. I couldn’t stand to look, but I couldn’t bear not to. I saw the lights bouncing up the hill slowly, slower, and then, no movement at all. Then the lights receded, faster and faster down the hill, until they spun around at a 90 degree angle, the back of the car plowing through a barbed wire fence, coming to rest in the neighbor’s wheat field which sits about 12“ lower than our driveway.

There was defeat in every step as he plodded back to the house. He had dealt with this kind of trouble day after day, and now this was the proverbial camel with a broken back. I went out to him, but I could not be any comfort. This had to be worked out between him and God.

I observed him climb back onto his useless, battery-dead tractor as I went back in the house, and I could hear his audible prayers for God’s mercy and help. I, too, prayed, more softly, but equally as earnestly, for my feelings of helplessness were as fearful to me as his frustrations were to him.

“How can I help, God?”  The jangling phone was right by my hand.    “Is everything all right?” It was the voice of John, our church choir director. “I haven’t been able to get you guys off my mind all day, so I thought I’d better call and see how things are.”

Relief flooded over me as I spilled out the major disasters of the day: the dead pigs, a washing machine that wouldn’t work, pick-up stuck in the mud, car in the neighbor’s wheat field, and a tractor with a dead battery, leaving us with no vehicle to solve this mess. I knew that God had sent this man to help us. His response, however, stunned me. “Well, if there’s anything I can do, have Mike call me when he comes in.”

There’s everything you can do,” my thoughts screamed within me. “Don’t hang up. Don’t leave me to make decisions myself.” But then I heard myself say out loud, “O.K. We’ll call if we need you. Thanks for calling.”

I felt confused as I hung up the phone. “God, that was unfair to send help and then take it away. Now what do I do?” George’s name popped into my mind. Not only was he a trusted Christian friend, but he owned a gas station in town and a jeep with a winch. Oh how I hated to call him on Christmas Day night, but there was no alternative.

“Do you have a house full of company?’ my faltering voice spoke into the phone.

“They are just walking out the door. What can I do for you?” Once again I poured out our sad tale of woe.

“Be there just as quick as I can. Hang tight.” he said enthusiastically. I hung up the phone, but before I could let go of it, it rang again.

I guess I knew before I even answered it that it was going to be John. “I’ve got three men and myself coming out with ropes and pick up trucks. It may take awhile to get us all together, but we’ll be there just as soon as possible.” When I told him that George was on the way, it made no difference. “We want to come. Anyway it sounds like you need a lot of help.”

(Oh God, forgive my lack of faith in you. How disappointed you must be in me.)

Mike was embarrassed when I told him help was on the way, but he was also relieved. I walked down to the barns where I found one clean towel, and I worked with the newborn pigs, drying and rubbing them until they warmed up.

Soon our help arrived. The rescue work began. They yuked out the car, then the truck, and started the tractor with jumper cables. They determined that the washing machine was frozen, so one of them took the dirty towels home to launder. It was all over in about 15 minutes and it seemed like it was no big deal. It was almost an embarassment to have bothered these good Samaritans, but the memories of the men‘s gifts of encouragement will stay with us for the rest of our lives.