The Gate

ray oliver, my turnOld No. 2 died last night. I found her this morning in the “boot” pasture way over by the tree line. I knew it was coming for some time now, but somehow that didn’t lessen the disappointment. She had been having trouble getting to her feet and for a cow, not being able to do that is a death sentence. That’s what happens when you get old, and old No. 2 was old.

She was the second cow I bought when I started my own herd 20 something years ago, thus the No. 2 ear tag. She had already calved at least three times when I got her, making her at least 5 years old then. In human years, that puts her at death, in her 80s.

She was the last remaining member of that group of 10 mamas that started my herd. The other nine succumbed to a menagerie of fates: a couple died calving, a couple I sold out of meanness — theirs, not mine. At least one stepped in an armadillo hole breaking a leg — another bovine death sentence — and the rest I just don’t remember.

Old No. 2, however, was a favorite of mine from the start. What a gentle old soul she was. She was what we call an easy keeper. She never jumped a fence, never kicked at me, and even in death, she made it easy on me. She went over by the compost pile, way down out of the way, to take her last breath.

How could she have known that’s where I’d bury her to complete nature’s biological circle? One day, a few years from now, I’d spread her across those pastures of green she loved, her atoms of nitrogen and carbon becoming part of future generations.

She gave me a healthy calf every year up ’til four years ago. The last two years, she didn’t calve. The two years before that she calved but had no milk and didn’t raise them. A good cattleman would have sold her six to eight years ago. A fair cattleman would have sold her that first year she didn’t raise a calf. That leaves an old sentimental fool like me who just didn’t have the heart to send her off to become someone’s junior double cheeseburger off the dollar menu.

Shouldn’t there at least be an “attaboy” for those souls who just do the job for which they were intended, day after day, year after year? Shouldn’t that kind of service garner you a pass for those last few senior years, just to do what you feel you can?

When I’d move the herd to new pasture, she’d always be the last to go through the gate, usually a full 10 minutes behind. I’d patiently stand holding the gate, and as she passed, I’d always speak to her: “How’s it going, old girl? You look a little stove up today. You hang in there now.”

She’d always look over at me. Cows have no facial expressions whatsoever, so there’s no hint of her thoughts. But I like to think the acknowledgement was her thank you.

Senescence is a malevolent master able to make a life’s achievement irrelevant in an instant, leaving only the perception of incompetence. The worst is when you overhear them discussing what’s “in your best interest.”

“I’ve contracted to paint the house. Your daddy is gonna pitch a fit, but he’s got no business on a ladder.” When you hear that for the first time, consider yourself officially on the clock. It counts down at a different pace for each, but be assured the destination is the same. “Daddy’s gonna pitch a fit, but he’s got no business driving,” and finally “Daddy’s got no business living by himself anymore.”

Maybe I’m sad or depressed. Maybe I just miss my old friend. Maybe the best you can hope for is that someone will wait by the gate for you and say something pleasant as you pass. “How’s it going, old boy? You look a little stove up today. You hang in there. God’s got a plan for you.”

Maybe sometimes you just need to hear how your sad sounds.

— Ray Oliver
Elloree, South Carolina

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