Metamorphosis of a Reluctant Caterpillar

Today is the 19th birthday of my son, Stephen Lewis Hershberger. But there will be no party, no cake, no candles, no singing. We’ve never even sang the Happy Birthday song to him. Because he was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation.

I’ll post his story separately so that anyone who’d like to read it may do so, but this post is about the journey since that day.

This morning I woke up and my first thought was “It was over by now. The metamorphosis was complete.” But then I corrected that thought. Because it wasn’t. Not quite.

That morning, nineteen years ago, was the most brutal day of my entire existence. I’d had to say goodbye to my newly born, stillborn son. And he was so beautiful. Perfect in every way. As I held him, bathed him, kissed his lovely, peaceful face, I marveled at his perfection. And I asked God why. Why would he go through all the trouble of making him so well, knitting him together in my womb so breathtakingly, and then take him away from me? It didn’t make sense. I held his hands, studied the way his fingers lay draped over mine, and pictured the way he should’ve been grasping them instead. I kissed his eyelids and wished with all my heart that I could see his eyes flutter open at the gesture. Could picture him stretching and yawning and squirming in my arms. Smacking his little lips as he anticipated his next meal. He was my third baby. I could picture it all very easily.

He was born at 1:39 a.m. on April 16, 1996. By 5:30 that morning I knew it was time to let him go. His body had grown cold, even though I held him close. So I told Jay to call the nurse to come get him, my heart ripping to shreds at the thought of the separation. And then I kissed him and handed him over. As I watched the nurse leave with him I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I didn’t know how to really let go of him. This baby who was still as much a part of me as if the umbilical cord were still attached. All I could do was ride out the waves of desperation and overwhelming grief. Let the sobs and the tears break free once more. And then the numbness took over for a bit. I calmed down. I asked Jay to read the Psalms to me again, letting the soothing words wash over me. Understanding David’s pain better than I ever had before. Eventually I fell asleep for a short time but you can never sleep for long in a hospital. It was about 7 a.m. when a nurse came in to take my blood pressure and do all those normal things that they do for new mothers.

And the very reluctant caterpillar I was, started seeing things very differently. Jay turned on the television where I listened to reporter say that a singer famous for pushing the envelopes of decency had just announced that she was four months pregnant. I was furious. She would be allowed to have a baby and I wouldn’t? Pride reared its ugly head. I was sure I would’ve raised my son much better than she could raise a child.

Stephen was born on a Tuesday morning. I was dismissed from the hospital on Wednesday. After stopping at a department store to purchase clothes, a blanket, and a stuffed lamb to bury Stephen with, we headed to the funeral home and there I was overwhelmed with decisions we had to make for the funeral service. Jay and I had talked about hymns, special music, what Scriptures we wanted read, etc, while I was in the hospital. But I wasn’t prepared to pick out the guest book, funeral bulletins, thank you notes, and worst of all, the casket to bury him in. I wasn’t numb enough to get through it without tears.

We couldn’t see Stephen until Thursday so we went home. What should’ve been a welcoming time was horribly empty. My husband, a college professor, had students with recitals coming up. He tried to spend as much time at home with me as he could, but he had to help them prepare. My daughter and son were at school. Those quiet moments I’d been looking forward to as time alone with the new baby, now scared me. Then the friends and relatives started arriving. I was rescued from the aloneness. Besides, I told myself, at least I’d weathered the worst of it, hadn’t I? It had to get better from here.

Thursday arrived and I was able to see Stephen again. He looked better than I thought he would and I was relieved. Our son and daughter got to meet him for the first time. I wanted to hold him so one of the funeral directors picked him up and placed him in my arms. It was the closest I’d felt to normal for two days. I was almost happy for a moment. I could see him again. Touch him again. But it still wasn’t right. He was still too still. I don’t know how long we stayed with him that day. It was both too long and too short. I tried to memorize every hair on his head, every crease in his fingers. More relatives were arriving. We had to go home but I only wanted to stay there with him. We left and I looked forward to seeing him again the next day.

Friday morning was very busy. The funeral was at 2. We all had to be completely ready before we left but we got there plenty early since many of the relatives hadn’t seen Stephen yet. I stood nearby, my eyes constantly returning to him lying so still in his tiny casket, and wished I could hold him again. So many flowers and plants. So many dear friends and family. So many tears. But I was holding it together, for the most part. And then people started to leave. It hit me then. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. But all of a sudden I realized that this was the last goodbye. When I walked out, I would never see him again here on earth. I panicked. My husband was beside me. Only God knows what I experienced during those final moments. And every mother who has had to bury her child. It’s indescribable. Jay had to guide me out of the door.

And that was the final moment of metamorphosis for me. I, the reluctant caterpillar, changed that day. I entered the chrysalis and would never be the same again.

I tried to explain it to one of Jay’s cousins who couldn’t come to the funeral but called to talk with me. I told her that everything had changed for me. But she disagreed with me. She told me that time would heal me and I was still the same. She was correct in saying that time would heal me, but I could never go back to being a caterpillar again.

Change was slow. Diversions were few. I couldn’t watch the news because my buffer for dealing with tragedies was gone and I couldn’t concentrate well enough to watch movies. The Weather Channel seemed like a safe bet but the Michelin commercials, with the sweet baby riding in the tires, brought back the pain. I couldn’t watch anything for months.

One day, jealous of my husband’s escapes to the office, I asked if I could go with him and surf the internet. We didn’t own a computer at that time and I needed to know I wasn’t the only person going through this constant grief. He agreed and I spent the afternoon on the SIDS Network page reading stories of other stillbirths and infant deaths. As strange as it sounds, reading other mothers’ stories helped. It was a step toward accepting the inevitable. Stephen was gone. I had to go on without him.

It took time. A lot of time. Spring had always been my favorite season of the year but it would be six years before I felt even an inkling of joy at spring’s arrival.

The new butterfly took a long time emerging.

I am a new creature now. Time has healed me, but grief trumps time over and over again. Because I will always miss Stephen. He is, and will always be, my son. How can I be whole when he is always missing?

I am like a butterfly and on my wings are the initials of my son. They are scars of a painful metamorphosis. They are also a beautiful part of me.

Fabulous Footloose Farm Flock

Our feathered friends out here on the farm (I’m loving alliteration today) are enjoying their last few days/weeks/month of free-range living. Not because we’re going to do anything drastic to them, but because most of them don’t like walking in the snow. Up here in northern Minnesota we’ll eventually get hit with several inches of snow that won’t melt until March or April and our coop door will no longer stay propped open.

Thankfully, our chicks and the duckling have grown up fast. It’s astonishing to watch how quickly the little critters mature. The day-old chicks we received on May 11th are now as big as all the other chickens. Some of the young cockerels (another word for rooster) tower over their elders. The duckling is almost as big as his (or her but I’ll use male pronouns since our daughter has named him “Huey”) parents, which is astounding since he hatched the last week of August.

Here are some pictures of the young chickens, beginning from the day they arrived.

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The hens have just started laying eggs this past few weeks. Their eggs start out small and will slowly increase in diameter until they are “jumbo-sized.”

A pullet egg beside two eggs from experienced layers.

A pullet egg beside two eggs from experienced layers.

For the first year, they’ll lay one egg about every 25 hours. In late summer after they turn one year old, they’ll molt and from then on will lay an egg about every other day. Until they get too old to do that. I read somewhere that you can figure out which hens aren’t laying anymore by measuring the distance between a hen’s pelvic bones. In a large hen, it should be possible to fit three or four fingers between the pelvic bones if she’s still laying. But I’ve never even tried to find out. I guess I figure they’ve given me hundreds of eggs in their lifetime and when they’re done, they still deserve a nice retirement. We still have a few hens from our very first clutch seven years ago.

Here is a picture of one of the old Barred Rock hens. We lost our last cock from that clutch this past spring.

Old Matriarch

Old Matriarch

I like diversity in our chickens, so I order a different breed every time. It makes for a colorful yard and it also makes it easier to identify individual birds. We have one old Buff Orpington hen, Tilly, who lost her eye as a chick. I make sure to feed her apart from the others since she’s last in the pecking order. Yes, there really is such a thing. Chicks start working through that when they’re a few weeks old. The mellower the chick, the lower in the pecking order. The aggressive ones get first dibs on everything but none of our 60+ chickens goes hungry. The hanging feeders in the coop always have layer rations in them. And thank God for heated waterers or supplying water to them throughout our winters would be tough.

Finally, I’ll end this post with some other “Footloose” pictures from laid-back moments in our farm life.

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Aging Parents – Finding Joy in the Present Realities

Last week was a tough one for my parents and me. The three of us are learning, as we explore this aging business, that it’s rarely easy. Or, as my dad likes to joke, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”

There are stages in the process. Sometimes they creep up gradually, giving both the older person and the caregiver time to adjust to the changes. But sometimes those earlier stages are preempted by illness or an accident, throwing both parties into the fray with little preparation or warning.

If you’ve read my earlier post about my parents’ health you will know that we hit it hard and fast. Dad was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer and Mom had a stroke a few months afterward. It’s pretty incredible how protective you get of your parents when they’re struggling to survive. For me, my mothering instincts kicked into overdrive.

Dad was hospitalized last December and I flew out to be with them. Mom was exhausted from staying with Dad in the hospital and the night before I arrived, she had to go home and get some sleep. She couldn’t know that Dad would stay up most of the night praying that God wouldn’t give up on him. He was that close to dying but had such a strong will to live. And he felt more alone than he ever had before. He told me all of this the next morning when I spoke to him before I left my home to go to the airport. I was so grateful that he kept talking because I was sobbing and couldn’t have responded if he’d asked me a question. I never wanted him to feel alone like that again.

Fast forward nine months and here we are. Dad and Mom now live less than fifteen minutes away from me. I see them almost every day. They are semi-independent now. They own a home in a small town and both of them are improving, health-wise, every day. Dad is 80; Mom is 73. Things are settling into a routine, but everything has changed.

Last week I spent one entire day cleaning and reorganizing their basement. There were several boxes left to unpack and everything needed to be rearranged to make the areas livable. I did almost all of it by myself. Mom and/or Dad would come down every once in a while but Mom would look around and get overwhelmed (a lingering aftereffect of her stroke) and have to leave, apologizing to me over and over about it. Dad would come down and wander around fiddling with this or that for a bit before he returned to the main floor. His obsession was finding a cord so he could set up his printer in his office. We eventually went through every cord in his impressive collection without finding what he needed. (I found it upstairs in the guest room just before I left that evening. He’d told me repeatedly that he’d just seen it earlier in the day. I don’t know why it was on the guest room bed.)

My reward was seeing the looks on their faces when they came downstairs just before ten that night. Mom was so excited and I could tell how relieved she was to have it done. The little touches, like unpacking some of their knick-knacks and hanging pictures, etc, on the walls made such a difference. They sat on the couch in one of the living areas and watched the news while I finished dusting. We talked and laughed, enjoying the moment. Finding the joy.

Also last week, Mom had two doctor’s appointments. I went with them to both. It’s an hour drive, each way, from their home to the city. Both days I drove so that Mom could study for her driver’s exam to get her new license. On Friday I brought my tablet along so that she could take practice tests. She kept taking them (there are over 500 questions and each test consists of 25 so you can take test after test and not have the same questions) until she felt like she knew it well enough to pass the exam.

Note to self: NEVER go to get your driver’s license on a Friday afternoon. Dad and I waited in the car for TWO HOURS before Mom came back out. She’d passed but the lines were so long that it took a while for her to take the test and then another while before she could get her picture taken for the license. She was frazzled and exhausted when she got in the car. The entire next day she was still wiped out.

I was pretty tired by then myself. In addition to helping out my parents, I still have to take care of my family—my husband and two younger daughters still living at home. They’ve been pretty awesome at sharing me, by the way.

On Friday, as I was driving home, I was tired from the exhausting week, but as I looked at my dear parents, I thanked God again that they were here with me. I have new responsibilities toward them now. I cook, I clean, I help with their finances, I go with them to their doctor’s appointments, and do whatever else they need me to do. The one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is how much I love them. No. That’s not true. It has changed. I love them more. Every. Single. Day.

Joy! My cup is overflowing with gratitude. I don’t know what the future holds, but right now I have my parents nearby. After 29 years of seeing each other only two weeks out of the year, these days are precious to all of us. Joy-full!



Redefining Parental Roles – the Transition from Daughter to Caregiver

We’ve all met them. People who are never happy, never content with the way things are. If there’s a silver lining, they’ll find (or create!) the tiny pulled thread in a one-of-a-kind piece of fabric and bother it until it’s a mess.

My Dad is the cure for people like this. His nickname is Eeyore, but only because he’s self-deprecating to the point of silliness at times. And yet, he is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. Even through a cancer diagnosis and the months following.

Thanksgiving 2013 was a laid-back dinner for my Mom and Dad. Mom baked a turkey breast and the fixings and Dad tried to eat it. He’d been feeling poorly all week and thought he had the flu. As the days progressed and he didn’t recover, Mom worried that it was something more.

That Friday she thought his eyes looked a little yellow, jaundiced, but Dad didn’t think so. By Sunday she was sure his skin was taking on a yellow cast. She got him in to see his doctor on Monday and within a week, following multiple scans, blood tests, specialists’ visits, etc, he was told he had pancreatic cancer. AND something else that had to be fixed immediately–his common bile duct was completely blocked.

He had a procedure to try to open up the duct but they weren’t able to do that through endoscopy. So they went in surgically and put a tube in so that the bile could drain out of his body. The next week they did it again but tucked the tube inside his body for it to drain. The week after that they went in again and put in a stint so they could remove the tube.

Each time they did one of these procedures, Dad had to stop eating for hours beforehand. He didn’t eat a lot anyway, but for these he had to fast. Every time they went in, they took biopsies.

This went on until December 22nd, the day he fell for the third time and didn’t have enough strength left to even help Mom as she tried to get him back up. My father, who in August helped me landscape around my home, who worked out three days a week at the gym, who took his puppy for 12-mile walks the week before he got sick, could barely hold his head up. He collapsed and Mom called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The doctors told them he was dehydrated. They said he needed to stay at least overnight until they could rehydrate him. They spent Christmas Eve and then Christmas in the hospital.

On December 27th I flew down. My plan was to be there when Dad was released from the hospital so that I could help out with him while he regained his strength. I was shocked at how thin and how sick Dad was when I walked in his room. He saw me and his face lit up. He said my name and smiled so widely that it relieved my fears. He was still weak, but he seemed determined to get well. His appetite slowly returned. They were pumping him full of very strong antibiotics.

The day I flew in, my dear aunt stayed at the hospital through the night with Dad. She said Mom and I needed a good night’s sleep. After that, I started staying all night with Dad in the hospital. I didn’t want him to be alone. And I wanted to question his doctor when he came in each morning because I didn’t trust him anymore. And maybe it’s my imagination, but it seemed like they started kicking it into high gear after that. They started him on physical and occupational therapy. They prescribed him meds to bring his appetite back. And finally, on January 3, 2014, they released him to a rehab center so that he could regain his strength.

And his specialist, who told us after each biopsy that they hadn’t found the cancer yet, also said that even though he couldn’t prove it, he still felt sure that Dad had pancreatic cancer. He mentioned other things that they couldn’t explain–like immature white blood cells–but didn’t give us any other scenarios for Dad’s illness.

Mom and I were fed up but Dad liked his doctor so we kept it to ourselves. Dad stayed at the rehab center for three weeks. I had to leave a week before he’d be released but by then it was apparent to all three of us that Mom couldn’t handle Dad by herself any longer. They put the house on the market and we set a date for my return–this time to help them pack up the house and move in with me.

Dad and Mom lived with my husband, two youngest daughters, and me for three months. In that time, Dad saw numerous specialists and underwent more procedures. The difference, however, was that Dad was slowly getting stronger! His lab results improved without any treatments, he gained the weight back that he’d lost, and the tumor near his pancreas shrank so much it was difficult to find on the MRI.

In the meantime, their house sold for exactly what they’d hoped to get for it, and they found the perfect house, in the perfect town, at the perfect price. Dad says he knew it was THE home for them the moment they walked in.

Let me tell you how many miracles there have been:

1. For years, my Mom, sister, and I had tried to talk Dad into moving to our state. He was never ready to seriously entertain it enough to even list the house to see if it would sell.

After Dad was released from the hospital, we found out FROM THE PHYSICAL THERAPIST READING HIS CHART, that Dad had been SEPTIC in the hospital. Mom and I were never informed. But Dad survived even though he was weaker than he’d been since he was a small child. Dad agreed, without too much encouragement, that it was time for Mom and him to move in with me.

2. Within six weeks of the move, Mom had a stroke and was hospitalized for five days. I took care of Dad and when Mom was released I took care of her too! If they had still been living alone, I don’t think Mom would still be here with us. I doubt she would have ever left Dad to go to the hospital. As it is, I couldn’t convince her to go to the ER until the symptoms returned the second day!

3. Mom and Dad got the offer on their home and we started looking for an apartment because Dad didn’t want to commit to living here long-term. But the monthly rent was much higher than they’d imagined. So one morning Dad came into the living room and said they wanted to start looking at houses. They wanted to be in the city, but as we looked up houses in their price range, it became clear pretty quickly that what they needed in a home was too expensive in the city.

4. I mentioned to a close friend that my parents were going to look at a home in their small town and she told me that a house had just gone on the market that week. We decided to take a look and put in an offer that night. After some negotiating, a price was agreed to, and Mom and Dad had a closing date!

5. Mom, Dad, and I, with help from aunts, uncles, and cousins, packed up the house, signed the final papers on the sale, and moved 600 miles north. The owners of their new house allowed us to unload the moving truck into their now-empty house and everything else fell into place. We found out later that the owners had been telling their neighbors they were going to sell it for over 20 years. It had only been on the market 7 days when Dad and Mom bought it, and the realtor’s sign had only been up for 2 days!

6. It really is a perfect town for Mom and Dad. It’s so small that they don’t have mail delivery service so everyone has to go to the post office to pick up their mail. Dad, and his Cocker Spaniel, Buddy, walk every day to get their mail. It’s about a block away. Dad ties Buddy’s lease to a pole outside and goes inside while Buddy waits. Sometimes they walk to the convenience store about a block away from the post office. Dad does the same thing with Buddy and everyone knows whose dog he is. Mom says the only thing that would make it more perfect would be a full-size grocery store. And maybe a restaurant. Haha!

7. In the meantime, every biopsy they’ve taken from Dad has come back negative for cancer. His blood work, which used to have markers which could indicate cancer, have all returned to normal. And his new gastroenterologist now believes that Dad’s a walking miracle! He thinks that what Dad has had all along is an auto-immune disorder that attacked his pancreas (and will continue to do so until the pancreas stops working entirely). The normal treatment for auto-immune disorders like Dad’s is steroids, but Dad can’t take them because of his diabetes. Fortunately, they have pills that Dad will eventually have to take to compensate.

It’s been an adjustment for all of us, this reversal of roles. For quite a while I paid all of their bills and balanced their checkbook. Mom’s hand shook so much, a side-effect of the stroke, that she couldn’t write checks. Dad doesn’t really like that I have that much knowledge about their finances, but he also asks for my opinion before they make major financial decisions. And he takes my advice. It’s a big responsibility and one that I try to fulfill to the best of my ability.

It’s also difficult to watch your parents’ health decline. They’re both rebounding from their illnesses, and Mom can handle the checkbook again, but I’m not sure if Dad will ever fully recover. Those high-powered antibiotics they gave Dad in the hospital, hurt his kidneys substantially. They’re still functioning, but at 30% less than they were a couple of weeks before he fell ill. He’s now on insulin for his diabetes and will be for the rest of his life. Mom’s on blood thinners for the rest of hers.

But they’re here, 10 minutes away from me, and I usually see them every day. When I don’t, Dad tells me how much they’ve missed me, so I know he’s gotten used to being close-by. His memory isn’t what it used to be either. And every once in a while he says something about making the most of our time because he might have to move Mom away to someplace warmer if she can’t take the winters up here in the North. Mom and I just listen because I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere. We’re doing our best to spoil them so much they won’t ever want to leave! And I don’t think they’ll ever be strong enough to live far away again.

I know the adventure’s just begun for us. I know there will be a time when I’ll have to say goodbye to these two people who’ve shaped my life with their love. Knowing this makes me treasure our time together even more. I’m thankful that I can see my parents more than twice a year now. I’m glad to go with them to their doctor appointments and help with their finances.

I thank God for the gift of time. With them. Right now.

How to Tell a Young Chicken from an Old Chicken

Why does it matter?  Well if you want to have fresh eggs, it matters.  Several things are necessary for a hen to lay.  For instance, did you know that chickens need light in order to lay their eggs?  They need at least 14 hours of daylight, and that just doesn’t happen up here in the north at this time of the year. So we provide the next best thing and hang heat lamps in the coop to give them light and . . . um . . . heat.  This keeps them warm through the cold winter months and keeps them laying.  Unless they’re molting or too old.

A few of our first flock of chickens. This picture was taken when they were in their prime–about two years old. They are now over five years old. Some of the hens are still laying!

The first year we raised chickens, I did a lot of reading about what to expect. One of the things I learned was that chickens have life-spans of 5-8 years but that by the time they become senior chickenzens they aren’t laying anymore and should probably be culled for the stock pot. In order to tell which hens weren’t working for their feed anymore there was a non-invasive way to measure their pelvic spread (I decided right then that THAT wasn’t going to happen!) over a two-week period. Besides the fact that this seems to be getting into their personal space a little too much, we have about 50 hens.  Can you imagine trying to keep track?  No, “The Ladies” (which is what I call my hens) would lay until they “retired” and then they would be allowed to live out their lives in continuing peace and freedom until they bought the farm (sorry, couldn’t resist).

So to return to my topic, how do you tell an old chicken from a young one? It’s actually pretty easy. Just go into the coop an hour or so before dusk. The old hens and roosters go to roost EARLY (several hours before dark actually) with full crops.  They choose their spots and try their hardest to stay right where they are for the rest of the night.  There are some tussles, irritable clucking, and rearrangements when a chicken who’s higher in the pecking order wants their place.  But they settle down quickly, trying to get some sleep while the middle aged chickens roam around the coop, stocking up on food and water to last them through the night.   The youngest of the flock, meanwhile, stay outside until they’re in imminent danger of missing curfew. (In chicken language, that means they wait so long that they can’t see inside the coop anymore, actually fall asleep on the coop ladder, and wait until the weird hairless chicken who feeds them everyday–but also steals their eggs–comes by and stuffs them through the coop door whether they want to go or not.)

This is a teenage chicken! She’s just a few months old, still growing, and hasn’t started laying yet.

And that’s how you tell a chicken teenager from a chicken grandma.

The Newest Members of the Coop are Now Laying!

My little ladies are all grown up!  The little balls of down that arrived at our farm in late April are now the same size as the other hens in the coop and every day I’m gathering more and more small eggs.

They look perfect, don’t they?  Visions of omelets and quiches are flashing through your minds, right?  Let’s put them in perspective now.

This is a picture of one of the little eggs with two jumbo-sized eggs.  Here’s how it works, out here on the farm.  About six months or so after the chicks hatch, they finally begin to lay.  They might start out slow, maybe an egg every few days, but it’s not long before they are laying an egg a day.  These little eggs begin to show up in the nest boxes, and I love it.  They’re small but perfect.

Now, the hens probably wish their eggs stayed this small all of their lives (okay, I know they never give it a second thought) but that’s not gonna happen.  Over the next few months, the eggs will gradually grow larger and larger until they reach the jumbo size that you see above.  For those of you who buy our farm-fresh eggs, you will notice that your deliveries now look like this:

We alternate the jumbo and small eggs so that it’s fair for everyone!  Kinda makes you appreciate my “Ladies” a little more, doesn’t it?  =)

Here are a few of my hens and their protector–the white rooster on the right.

The Deceiver: This Happened at Our Church Yesterday!

Our small mission church was scammed yesterday by the lawbreaker in this article.  He sat through our church service and communed with us in both the Lord’s Supper and in our fellowship meal afterward.  He knew exactly what to say to seem credible and I am passing on this information in the hopes that it won’t happen to any other church.  This man needs to be caught.  Our pastor is filing a police report.

It’s so sad that men like him betray our trust and make it harder for us to believe others–including those who could truly use our help.