One might wonder what childhood experiences led to our livelong love of wild places and wild animals. After all, we grew up in suburbia outside of New York City, attended public school and never once went on a family vacation to Yellowstone. The answer is complicated, but it is mostly because of strange experiences like the one that follows.
In the middle of the night something woke me up.
“It’s happening!” my mother’s voice penetrated my groggy brain. “Wake up.”
I got out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants and a sweatshirt over my pajamas. I lumbered downstairs and out the front door into a cool June midnight. My brother Scott was already in the car, which was idling in the driveway. He looked just as bleary-eyed as I was and so I didn’t say anything to him. As groggy and confused as we both were, he probably would have just elbowed me for penetrating his stupor. Part of any loving sibling relationship is random battering.
We dozed off as mom drove through the night. The car jolted to a stop.
“Come on!” she said, getting out.
Scott and I ambled out into the lights of a cow barn. This was Farmingdale Agricultural College, where our mother was going to nursing school. We entered the huge barn and shuffled past cows in their stanchions. Most were bedded down, but a few were standing and turned to stare at us dolefully. The smell of the barn was familiar, as she had taken us here many times. That sweet mixture of cow and manure is actually comforting to me despite occasions like this.
She led us to a stall, which was empty of cows, but had a bed of sweet-smelling hay in it. We sat down on an old blanket in the hay to wait. She moved down the aisle to find the night barn supervisor and Scott and I huddled in the hay watching the cow across the aisle. Because that was why we were there. The cow across the aisle was going to deliver a calf, sometime tonight – if we were lucky.
We had made this pilgrimage many times before, trying to catch a birth. Our mother was obsessed. She wanted us to witness the amazing event ¬– the miracle of life. It would be a beautiful, breathtaking and life-altering moment. We would not rest until we witnessed this fantastic sight. We had come to the barn repeatedly over the last few months trying catch one birth, but all the births seemed to happen in the middle of the night after we had gone. I was beginning to think the cows were doing this on purpose to thwart us. I was already jaded at nine.
Finally mom decided it was time for an all night vigil. We would just stay until it happened. The barn manager agreed to keep us posted. I suspected the poor man would have done anything to get rid of us for good.
So we waited under the bright glare of a naked, fly-specked light bulb for the miraculous event to occur. At about three am things started to happen. We stood up and came to the edge of the stall and peered in expectantly. Finally we would witness the blessed event.
The cow, for her part, looked very unhappy. Her eyes were opened so wide that a rim of white showed all around the glistening brown irises. Then after moaning piteously for what seemed like hours, she pushed out a giant gush of water, followed by a blood and mucous soaked lump that plopped unceremoniously on the hay.
I was horrified beyond words. My stomach turned over and threatened to leap out of my mouth. I thrust my sweaty, little hands over my face and tried not to throw up on Scott, who was staring in wild-eyed horror at the mess.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” mom crowed.
I gaped, swallowing hard and shuddering, as the calf squirmed on the hay. Then the mother cow started to lick the bloody mess off. I ran out of the barn into to the cool morning air and pitched headlong into an adjacent cornfield. Taking big breaths I willed myself not to throw up. I am not sure what I had expected, but it certainly was not that mess.
A few minutes later, Mom came breezing out of the barn calling for me. Scott trudging behind her looking like he’d been inside the alien mother ship and there’d been torture. We both trudged to the car like little zombies.
On the way home our mother droned on about how beautiful it all was and how she wanted to be a midwife and do it every day. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried not to think about what that would mean for us. Would we have to attend births? I pictured us all suited up like miniature Dr. Kildares. I was dizzy and nauseous from lack of sleep. I just wanted to go to bed and forget the whole horrible night.
“We had a great time!” Mom announced as we entered the house. “The kids loved it,” she told our yawning father.
Dad looked at us critically. Scott and I looked at each other in confusion. Had we slept through some vital moment, like when anything good had happened? We stared at our mother in disbelief. How could she be so oblivious to our horror and embarrassment? Ah, if only we’d known then that this was what life with Mom would look like.
“They will never forget this experience,” she beamed.
Finally, reluctantly, we nodded. That much was true. We would never, ever forget what happened that night.