I’m beginning to suspect that NCIS is a about to equal, or surpass, my Star Trek Dictum*:
“No matter where you are in the world, in any hemisphere, at whichever latitude or longitude, at whatever time, if you turn on the television and scroll through the channel listings, you’ll find one that’s showing an episode of Star Trek.”
It’s a revelation that struck me like a lightning bolt (as revelations do) when Mr. She and I spent a week at the foot of Mount Snowden, just outside of Beddgelert. I had my back to the tiny black-and-white television, which one of us had turned on to see what the locals had to offer, and I was cooking dinner. Unintelligible (to me) and rather gutteral sounds were emanating from the set, and I remember thinking, “Oh, how charming; they’re speaking Welsh,” only to turn around and look at the screen, and see that it was a bunch of Klingons spoiling for a fight.)
Anyway, there it was on that particular evening a day or two ago–an episode from the thirteenth or fourteenth season, I should think–with Gibbs relaying some advice to a character I never much cottoned to–MI6 Agent Clayton Reeves. His life had been hard and sad, and other than a very few nice memories of his mother–who died when he was very young–he was alone in the world.
Gibbs, in a startlingly loquacious and revealing moment, said this to him:
‘You think you’re alone in the dark. Close your eyes. Remember everything good. ‘ My mom said that to me just before she died. Smart lady.
I thought about these words last night.
Some background: It’s lambing season here at Chez She. So far, the sheep population has increased by two very lovely little guys who are doing great, and whose Moms, thank heaven, have things well under control. I’ve got a few more ready to pop any day, and had been paying particular attention to Notchou, a two-year old black ewe who’d never lambed before. (FTR, I like lambing early. Fewer infections; fewer flies. Sometimes, though, it’s very cold. Read on.)
Notchou had grown very broad in the beam over the past few weeks, and it was apparent to me that–whenever her time was to be–it was getting nigher and nigher. I was fully expecting twins, because enormous, and was keeping a vigilant eye on her. Yesterday (Saturday, February 5), she displayed all the signs of imminent labor except–well–actual labor.
So I went down to the barn and checked her. Every hour on the hour, for signs of progress. 11PM. Midnight. 1AM. 2AM.
When I went down at 2AM, I’d decided that if nothing was showing itself by then, I’d call the vet first thing Sunday morning and see if she’d make a farm visit to check things out.
But–Eureka! At 2AM, I spotted a tiny hoof and a tongue. Not the best news. (The tongue, anyway. It’s better if their mouths are closed and the tongue is inside.) Still, having seen signs of–something–I hied myself back to the house and made myself a cup of tea while I waited ten or fifteen minutes. (Experience has taught me, over the years, that interfering too soon, if nature has started to take its course, isn’t always the best approach.)
Then, warmed by my tea, I went down to the barn again.
There’d been no change.
Experience has also taught me, over the years, that waiting too long, once it becomes apparent that something’s wrong, is usually a recipe for failure as well. (Like almost everything else in life, there’s a sweet spot. You just have to find it.)
So, back to the house. Gather up a bucket of warm soapy water laced with a very little povidone iodine. Some clean rags, and a couple of “dog towels.”) The squeeze bottle which I filled with vegetable oil from the kitchen. And a number of my TSA-approved blue gloves (I buy them in boxes of 100). And down to the barn again.
She still wasn’t contracting, and didn’t seem in the least interested in any sort of process that was taking place inside her body. But it was fairly early in that process, and the lamb I’d seen was positioned correctly, with his front legs coming out first, his hooves touching, and his head facing forward between them. (It’s the classic “swan-dive water-entry” position.) Because it was fairly early in the process, things were still very fluid and slippery, and with the application of a bit of vegetable oil, out he came, confirming my worst fears that he was dead.
At that point, I was starting to get very cold and very wet (you’ll have that when you’re rolling around on a barn floor with a ewe in laborious distress, and when it’s two degrees below zero Fahrenheit.) Lots of blood and slime to go around. Fortunately, none of it apparently significant to the ewe, and–for my own contribution–not so much, yet.
I thought I’d give her a few minutes to rest, so I went up to the house and made another cup of tea. (What can I say? I’m a Brit. Right? Tea is what I do. Best tea in the world? No. 17 Siam. Other than Maudie Nichols’s “strong-enough-to-bend-the-spoon tea, that is.)
Then back to the barn. Notchou seemed to be resting comfortably, and was quite put out (just imagine!) when I put on a fresh pair of gloves on and started to have a feel around.
Unfortunately, very deep inside her birth canal, I found a second little creature. No signs of life that I could feel, and apparently no interest in being born.
This little lady was not as well set up as her brother. She’d got her feet forward (10.0 for style points!), but her neck was twisted around so her face was looking at her tail. She might have made it into the water with an unacceptable splash, but no way she was exiting her mother (alive) in that formation.
So I spent the next 90 minutes trying to turn her head. (Did I mention is was -2F? Well, it was -5F by the time I was done.) In such situations, you work like hell, trying not to damage the mother, trying not to rip the placenta away from the uterine wall (probably resulting in fatal hemorrhage of the mother), trying not to kill the baby, in case he or she actually is alive, and trying to avoid the very strong contractions of the mother–who in this case, had finally decided to do her part.
Of course, her “pushing” only made things worse and, because of the lamb’s “head backwards” position only made things more difficult.
In such cases, my job, as the obstetrician, is to push the lamb back further into the birth canal, where there’s a little more room and less jamming up, and try to get her into a state where–backwards or forwards, dead or alive–she can be born.
“Mom” does not appreciate this pushback maneuver, and does everything she can to shove against it. I have the bruises, and the blood, all the way up my left forearm and on the back of my right hand, to prove it.
At some point in this excruciating endeavor, Gibbs’s mother’s words came into my head:
Close your eyes. Remember everything good.
Certainly, keeping one’s eyes open while struggling in the mire that is a barn floor in the middle of winter with a 150lb ewe who’s desperate to have you remove your fist from her uterus, and would like you to stop pushing the lamb she’s attempting to eject back inside her while you fiddle around with it, is pointless in any case. The electric light’s facing away from you and the flashlight is prone to falling over and going out. The warm soapy water has gone cold, you’re running out of vegetable oil, and your attempts to position Mom so things are easier for you (hay bale!) are becoming less and less effective, largely because you’re getting clumsy and starting to suffer the early effects of frostbite. So, close your eyes.
And remember everything good.
This sweet lamb in the living room, born almost exactly two years ago. How lovely she was, the first of twins, born to a young mother who’d confused herself about how many babies she’d had, and only wanted to take responsibility for the second (not an uncommon occurrence in the ovine world).
And so she grew up in the house:
Born only five months before Mr. She died, she became his best friend. How she loved to sit in his chair, and, even better, on his lap, for hours at a time. And how he loved, at a time when he was becoming increasingly helpless himself, having an even more helpless little creature who depended on him for food and comfort.
When, in the fullness of time, she went outside to join her kin, she never forgot her friends inside the house.
And that’s the origin of her name: Before the final bit of fencing was finished, and while she could still get into the driveway, I’d open the door and call to the dogs, “Xena, Levi, come on in!” And they would come. Inevitably followed by an increasingly large black sheep who’d dance her way to the door, only to be told, “Notchou!” and have it closed in her face.
She’s always been smart (for a sheep). And wonderfully friendly. And quite accommodating. During the last weeks of Mr. She’s life, I’d sometimes bend the rules, open the door, and yell, “Notchou!” and she’d come running inside. Around and about! Up the stairs! (Unusual for a sheep.) Down the stairs! (Impossible for a sheep.) And into Mr. She’s bedroom, where he’d chuckle with delight and pat and stroke her.
I closed my eyes. (In any event, when you’re in a sheep’s birth canal all the way up to your elbow, having your eyes open doesn’t help. You’re guided by the feelz, and that’s it. So you might as well close them.) And I remembered everything good.
And just a few minutes later, just when I was about to call my neighbor (at almost 4AM) who–bless him–wouldn’t have minded a bit, suddenly everything came right, and, with a final heave, out flew the second lamb. Also dead.
Poor, broken little things. I had a good cry.
And then, I opened my eyes. And realized that our story must not be finished, because there my angel Notchou still was. Grumpy. Vocal. But still there.
(And so–back to the house. Concoct a 10% bleach solution to sluice her out with. Make sure she’s comfortable, has fresh hay and fresh water. And (finally) fall into bed. Wake up, not much more than an hour later, to my annoying iPhone “bedtime over!” alarm at 7AM. Check on the sheep. All seems well. Rush off to Tractor Supply for some fresh penicillin. (The bottle in my fridge is four years out of date. Momentary gratitude–“well, I must not have needed much in the intervening years, then.”)
Get home. Give her a shot. Resolve to repeat, daily, for 4-5 days, per usual protocol. Give her some hay. Make a mental note to make sure she doesn’t get any grain for a few days, as I don’t want to send her little milk factory into overdrive. On that note, check to make sure her udder is producing milk and that there are no signs of incipient mastitis. Bit of difficulty with one side, but some gentle massage solves the problem. Collect the colostrum for freezing. Remember that I don’t want to milk her too energetically, as that also might send her “produce milk” instinct into overdrive.**
Eyes, at this point, wide open.
I know it’s highly likely the day will come, as it has for so very many of my beloved friends and companions, both two and four-legged, and just as it has for so many of my dear family, that I’ll open my eyes and she’ll be gone.
But. It. Is. Not. This. Day.
And in the meantime, life, in all its mystery, beauty, strangeness, sadness, and joy, goes on.
Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strength in what remains behind.
*Gibbs can have rules. Why can’t I?
**Note to self: Do not forget to write–for the benefit of unwary guests–on that Ziploc bag containing the colostrum ice cubes that the lovely, milky-looking, contents are not some helpful adjunct to mixing the world’s best Piña Coladas. (Not the only items in my fridge which require or deserve the same sort of prominently-displayed explanatory detail.) Just sayen’.