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Szymanski: Fur and feathers, tongues and tails; we love them all

Pearl, Joy and Lilly.
Pearl, Joy and Lilly.

Nearly every week, my friend Joel writes online about life on the farm. I love reading his words. When he writes, it’s just like he is in your living room, personally telling you about his day. His common-sense take on life always make me pause and his stories make me grateful for everything we have in this day and age. He reveres the animals, every single one that he has on his farm and beyond. He sees what is important in life, and his faith and trust shine though in the words he writes, even when big challenges arrive.

A few weeks ago, Joel wrote about a day in June when his two cows were due to calve. Both of were heifers he’d raised from birth. One of them – Pearl - was an orphan that he and his wife Sheryl had saved and raised inside the house for some time. I met Joel and Sheryl a few years back when I wrote about Pearl.

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On this June 5 day, Joel returned home from floating teeth on horses miles away from his Pennsylvania farm. As an equine dentist, he often travels quite a distance to meet up with his four-legged clients, but this time, as he drove home, he felt particularly tired. He’d just returned from a trip to Tennessee the week before and was still trying to get into the swing of things. Finally, he pulled into the farm lane, only to realize that both his cows were laboring to deliver their calves.

“They are my babies,” he said while sharing how he sprang into action.

Lily was moaning. Her half-born calf seemed dead. Joel raced to tie rope around the calf’s feet and pull the calf from the cow. Sweating and heaving, he pulled and pulled until finally, the calf was out. It wasn’t breathing, but Joel wasn’t about to give up. He’d just lost his dad three weeks prior, and he wasn’t going to let this calf go without a fight.

“I picked it up — all 120 pounds,” he said of the huge black and white calf.

Despite his efforts, the calf could not be saved. It had already left this earth. As despair filled the big farmer, he heard Sheryl yell, “Pearl’s calf is stuck, too, but I got the afterbirth from its face and it’s alive.”

Joel ran back down the hill to finish pulling the calf from Pearl’s small body. It was a tiny calf, much smaller than the first, but it was alive, and so was Pearl. These were reasons to celebrate. Joel breathed a sigh of relief, but then, he quickly realized the battle was not over. Pearl, it appeared, wanted nothing to do with her newborn calf.

“Give her to Lily,” Sheryl suggested, her voice breaking. In the background, Lily was bawling, raw grief spilling over.

Joel picked up the calf and carried it up the hill. He took the afterbirth from Lily’s dead calf and rubbed it all over Pearl’s smaller one. Perhaps he could trick Lily into believing this calf was her own. Sheryl and Joel chased Lily into a smaller pen and set the tiny calf down. As they held their breath, they prayed. “Please God, don’t let this calf die, too.”

And just like that – like magic - Lily walked over to the calf and it began to nurse. The tail began to switch, and the calf tugged harder, drawing milk into his tiny body, a nourishing lifeline. Lily nudged the calf closer, her long, rough tongue cleaning off every speck of the newly adopted calf.

You would think that this was the end of the story, and at the time Joel shared it online, I thought it was too. It was a miracle to celebrate. But there was more that he didn’t share online.

That night, Joel said he was up - on and off all night - with cramped muscles in his legs and then, as he paced the floor, he felt sharp pain in his left arm. He broke into a cold sweat.

Joel suspected this was not good, but he powered through it all without waking Sheryl or asking for any help. Still, he knew something was not right. He suspected it was his heart.

Joel went to work the next day and the next. He is not only an equine dentist, but also a chaplain with Cowboys for Christ. That week, on top of dentistry, he also preached in two different locations. He rode horses and worked on the farm, moving cautiously, but not slowing down. Memories of that night nagged at him until finally, three weeks later, he scheduled a doctor appointment. There, an EKG showed that his heart had suffered “an event.”

It turns out the calf was not the only miracle on that June 2 day. The doctor reviewed the tests on his heart and found no scars or damage. Sometimes “the little things” are really big.

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These days, Joel is making sure his heart stays healthy, but he is still riding, still tending to horses that are miles away, still out riding the range with sweet Sheryl, still tending to his heifers and now the little miracle calf, too. He said – even after a lifetime on the farm – he never tires of the peace these animals bring to him.

When asked if he could live without animals in his life, Joel said he could not.

“Because they rely on us,” he said. “And I rely on them.”

I’m with Joel on this. I can’t help but wonder if his animals played a part in the healing of Joel’s heart. Despite the challenges they bring us, they give so much back.

Service dogs lead the blind. They alert us to threats like bombs and drugs. They track criminals and can sense a seizure coming on. They are used for therapy, calming those with anxiety disorders. Dogs and even miniature horses visit nursing homes and group homes for kids with disabilities. Scientists are constantly unlocking new ways that animals make us whole and keep us sane. Just like Joel, I think they help us see the important things in life.

Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident. Her Life & Times column, The Great Big World, appears every other Sunday. Email her at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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