Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
Until then, life was pretty good. Normal. As normal as being raised by grandparents could be. It was the only normal I knew. Maybe I was just naive, ignorant. I had a small sense of my difference, the difference of my circumstances, but I cared little about it. I was happy. Content.
(Ignorance is bliss.)
But then, the phone rang, its shrill clamoring breaking the silence and disrupting the mood. That phone rang and life changed. My perception changed. My nine-year eyes sprang wide open. My ears, too. I saw and heard things I never had before. Happiness faded away. Contentment up and vanished. Childhood vanished and reality barged right in, clamoring just as sharp and shrill as that phone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It’s early spring and the ewes are bawling, restless. Anxious. Their bellies hang low and round, full of babies and birth growing, growing near. Some stand in stalls leaner now, lambs beside them wide-eyed and awakened, curious. The lambs nuzzle teats and suckle milk, their own bellies growing warm and round. Others stagger up, knock-kneed and swaying, wobbling, while others still have yet to arrive, their mothers laboring on, agitated, spent.
The shepherd watches. In between errands and chores and the work of a man, he’s back in the barn, watching. Waiting. He knows each ewe by glance. He knows the manner of their character as sure as their name. He knows the mild from the rambunctious, the playful from stern. He also knows which birth easy, and which are troublesome. He knows the new ones, too; knows the unknown of their labor, yet he’s prepared. Years and experience have schooled him in bringing life. Wisdom tells him when to come forward and when to step back. He knows when to press on, and when to let go.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
My knees made the perfect bed-sheet tent if I tucked the ends tight under my head and toes. There with a flashlight I could continue reading and no one knew so long as I kept real still. (Or, maybe grandma and grandpa knew all along, but pretended not to see.) I loved my Little House books and loved more the idea that Pa was my pa because, really, I was Laura and that was my life she was living. I was so enthralled with those books I couldn’t bear to put them down until I got to the very last page.
Brrr-ing! Brrr-ing! Brrr-ing!
The phone just on the other side of my door startled me from Walnut Grove. Hurried footsteps creaking just outside forced my book closed and the flashlight off.
It was Grandma.
I rolled over, pulled up my blanket, and closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes.
“You gave her away. You can’t have her.”
I sat up and listened. Closely.
“I’m telling you: no! You gave her away! She’s mine!”
Grandma’s voice fell under my door and filled my room like heavy, suffocating smoke. I’d never heard her in such a panic, so loud, so… venomous. My heart raced. I could hear my own pulse in my ears. I was afraid.
I’d never been afraid before.
I didn’t like it.
My door burst open and Grandma fell in, the bulk of her frame dark, outlined by living-room light behind her. Before my startled squeal was fully spent, grandma had thrown herself onto my bed, grabbed me and stuffed my head deep into her bosom, her chin resting on my scalp. Hard on my scalp. She rocked back and forth, back and forth, pushing and pulling me with her saying, “I won’t let her have you. Don’t worry. You’re not going anywhere. You’re mine.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
On this day the shepherd is particularly cautious and attentive with a young, first-time ewe. Exhaustion has her down in the stall, her breathing quick and shallow, her wide-eyes speaking her pain. The shepherd checks her carefully and determines he must help this lamb arrive, for its own sake, for its mother’s. He wraps his strong hands around two cool, slippery hoofs and pulls, tender yet firm, at just the moments the mother’s body indicate.
With his help, life eases into the world warm and sticky, heart-beating. The mother rises and nuzzles her child, licks it clean, calls it her own. The little girl rises and begins to suckle. Pleased with this, the shepherd moves on to other callings. Later her returns to find the same mother back down in the stall, wide-eyed and laboring. Twins. The shepherd steps in again and brings another life in to this day: a little boy, this time. The perfect pair.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I got really mad at Grandma after that. I’d never been mad at her before, not like this. I didn’t like it. But, I was mad just the same, contemptuous, even. She’d confessed it was my mother who’d called, but not to worry. She’d given me up and now I belonged to her. I was her Orphan Annie.
I argued with her. That was my mother. Everyone had mothers; why shouldn’t I, too? How dare she keep me away from my very own mother. How could she be so mean!
“Mean!” she exclaimed. “Mean?” she asked. “I’ll show you mean.” She stomped out of my room, rummaged around in her room, then stomped right back in to mine.
“Here. Here’s mean for you.”
She handed me a thin book, soiled, stained, musty. Gold letters on the front spelled Baby’s Book. I looked up at her and she handed me several pages, pages that had been taped together. Someone had torn them to pieces long ago. The tape was yellow and brittle, falling apart between my fingers.
“This is what your mother thought of you, Brenda. I dug these out of her garbage can. That’s why they’re so foul. She threw them away. Just like she did you.”
Her voice was cooler now, not so loud.
“If you want your mother so bad, then it’s high time you know the truth. Read those.” She turned and walked out of my room, pulling my door shut behind her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The shepherd’s flock is growing, and he is pleased. Life multiplied. As dusk draws in, he makes his way to the house, worn but content. He kicks off his boots just as a thunderous sound startles him. He pauses, listening, attune to the sounds of his domain. Bang! There it is again. He steps back into his boots, turns, and is out the door in one single, fluid move.
By instinct he races for the barn-
where bleats and cries rise-
snorts and heavy grunts-
The shepherd steps through the barn door just in time to see the final blow.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I stared at that closed door for quite some time, not sure what to do with myself, not sure where else to look. Afraid to look. But, I opened the letter, saw my mother’s name on the last page, then read the first:
“I’m leaving my husband. I have a new love now. I’m leaving my baby, too. It’s what we both want. She will only come between us.”
She left me. My mother left me.
I hated her for it.
But, I hated God more for letting her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The ewe has herself planted between boy and girl, ducks down her head and runs fiercely, angrily, right in to her first born. She rams the tiny female full-force, slamming her into the side of the stall. The shepherd watches the lamb fall, lifeless. The mother turns back to her baby boy, coddling, nursing.
The shepherd races in and scoops up the broken lamb, carries her out of the stall to safety. He inhales deep, bends down, and with lungs full of love and life, breathes in to the crumpled lamb. He rubs her hours-old fleece, massages her fragile side, inhales, then exhales into her again.
She gasps, sputters, looks up at him, then lifts and falls her lungs alone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The shepherd nursed that lamb every day since, raised it healthy, strong. Experience had shown him that sometimes he is to be the only father. Years and wisdom taught him that sometimes a child must be removed from its parents for its own safety, for its very survival. The shepherd knows when to come forward, and when to step back.
The shepherd raised that child, warmly, lovingly, calling her by name:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”