Here’s a flashback story about a small thing that happened—a small thing, anyway, in the larger scheme of things. It’s not about leadership, but it is about learning. I’ve thought of this story, sporadically and intermittently, in the decades since it happened, especially when the sun shines just right or the air smells that way. The story sums up all the thousands of times I learned, as a kid growing up on a farm, that we really have no control. Over anything.
It’s the story of a sweet little calf that didn’t follow the script.
I’m ten. I’m all whoop-y with excitement: My father has come home with a new calf, and this one is all mine to care for. Since I can remember, every 18 months or so, he has gone off to a local livestock auction to buy a baby Holstein. We take loose turns taking care of these calves, my siblings and I, but this one is decidedly—only— mine. It will be my job to feed her bottles of milk replacement several times a day. I will make sure her she’s warm and safe and dry. I will watch over her she’s old enough to live, independently, on grain and pasture.
Hers will be a simple and easy life. After all, the ending is already written. It’s predictable, and logical. Eighteen months from now, when she’s grown tall and fat and strong, the guys from the local Meat Processing Plant will come to take her away. A few days later, after a trip to town, our family’s chest freezer will be full. Just like that.
I’ll be a little sad, when they come to get her, but I won’t grieve. I will understand. It will all be the way it is supposed to be.
And besides, that full freezer! There will be months and months of steak, ribs, ground beef and then, shuffled to the bottom, there will be “cubed steak,” which is our least favorite but will be dressed up pretty nicely with a can of cream of mushroom soup whisked with milk. Eaten with buttery mashed potatoes, even cubed steak will feel decadent and rich. And then, just in time, the next calf will have been raised to a full-grown cow; the cycle will start all over again.
The cycle is continuing, now, with this calf—my calf. She climbs clumsily down the makeshift ramp extending from my father’s pickup. He hands me the rope that loosely holds her head. I walk her to the pasture and through the gate. I rub behind her ears and she looks in my eyes, straight and steady. There's a twinge in my chest. Love.
Within just a few days, though, I start to feel a little unsure. It’s just a feeling, somewhere in my gut. She’s—oh, I don’t know. Something is wrong, maybe. There’s nothing obvious: She looks perfect. She is long and gangly and impeccably beautiful—her coat is a thick, deep black, spotted with white-sheet white, and her eyes are as soft and deep as a doe.
She is slow. Weak, maybe. She seems lazy—but, no, that’s not right. Lethargic? Disengaged? Those dark, gentle eyes move too slowly, and they lack focus.
I try not to think about what might be wrong. I love the soft pink in her ears and the slick wet of her freckled nose. I love her smell: I stick my face in the soft white place that’s just below her mid-vertebrae and I breathe in—hints of green grass and corn and milk and sun—and I cling tightly.
My father has been helping me watch over my calf. I notice that his eyebrow crinkles sometimes when he watches her. Then, a few weeks after she arrives, he tells me he has to go to Michigan to work for a couple weeks. “I’ll call you every few nights,” he says. “You’ll tell me how she’s doing?”
I promise I will.
But soon after he is gone, the calf stops eating. She’s supposed to be drinking a couple gallons of milk a day—I have the animal-sized bottle, and I have the formula, and I mix it just right—but she just nudges at it, like she thinks it smells okay but doesn’t care to actually do something with it. She’s tired and listless. One day, she doesn’t even stand when I come to her.
On the phone that night, I tell my father, "Something's wrong."
“Call Doc,” he says.
I’m surprised. We never call our local veterinarian. We mostly follow the cycle-of-life theory: if something is dying, we let it die. We don’t intervene. And besides, veterinarian visits are expensive, and I’ve been taught that it is generally a smarter financial decision to let a sick animal die, then simply replace it with a healthy one. Paying a bunch of money to revive a sick animal is financial stupidity. This, I know.
Doc knows it, too. He generally doesn’t hear much from us. So when he answers the phone, and he hears the shaking in my voice, he comes right out. He pulls into the driveway, and looks over into the pasture to see me sitting cross-legged, holding my calf. Her head is resting on my thigh. He pokes at her head, checks her eyes, peers into her mouth and under her tail. He murmurs and re-adjusts his hat. He sighs.
Then he goes to his truck—it’s a simple, humble golden-hued pickup, except for the elaborate white plastic compartments built into the truck bed. When he opens them, I see syringes and medical-looking tools, bottles of medicine, and a box stacked with little glass vials. He putters and mixes awhile, and then suddenly he’s teaching me how to jab the calf with the needle, in her hip, push gently on the tip of a syringe—gently, gently, gently—gently, he urges, gently! —until it’s all gone. He shows me how to massage the medicine into her muscle.
“She’ll feel better in a day or two,” Doc says. He smiles at me and touches my head. “Don’t worry.” He leaves me with five days of vials. Two times a day, he tells me. Just like I showed you. By week’s end, she’ll be good as new.
I sit with her as she sleeps. I hug her head and breathe in her sweet smell. I feel good: I’m glad my father approved a visit from Doc, and I’m glad I’ve handled it on my own. I’ve fixed this problem. I’ve got medicine. I’ve got a plan. Two times a day, for five days. She’ll be good as new.
I do it. I fill, I poke, I massage, I cuddle. For four days I do it.
But it doesn’t work. Each day, my little calf grows more somber and detached. Each day, she notices me less. And on the fifth morning, when I go to her with my second-to-last syringe, she’s asleep. This time it’s for good: She’s cold, and her eyes are a lifeless gray.
I don’t waste time wondering what I could have done differently. She’s dead—that’s just it. She died.
I tell my father. Holding the phone, I try not to let my voice quiver. I’m very, very sorry.
“You did all you could,” he tells me.
I don’t know what to say.
“You’ll bury her?”
I do it right away. It’s just me, and a spade, and the dry ugly August Midwestern soil. I dig directly beside the dead calf. I dig and dig and dig. Eventually I have a hole that will work, and I roll my dead calf in. There’s a thud as she lands. She’s so… dead.
I do it all again, in reverse: I dig into the loose soil and put it back where it came from, this time on top of a dead animal. Dig, dump, dig, dump.
Hours later, the calf is buried and the earth has been re-arranged and things are all in order.
I put the spade away and go to my bedroom, where I crawl in under my sheets. I lie still for a long time. I think about how calm she was about it all, as if she knew she was born to have a short, sweet life. As if it were her whole point of being. I cry.