Lessons on love and loss

It’s been more than just a long time since I’ve blogged here and I must apologize. When I began this blog, I promised myself that I would make a go of this blog for at least a year and, wouldn’t you know it, after I few months, I dropped the ball.

The truth is, I’ve experienced two huge losses in the last several months and it’s only been in the last few days that I’ve been able to get back in the emotional swing of things.

In the span of just a month, I lost my father-in-law and my favorite llama.

Richard ‘Shorty’ Gaskill died in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 27, 2013 of kidney failure. He had been horribly sick for nearly a year and a half and my mother-in-law stayed by his side, caring for his every need.

His death was the kind that folks call “a blessing.” When I was younger, I never understood how permanently losing someone you care deeply for was something to be celebrated. Of course, as time went by and I saw how cruel disease, injury and mental illness could be, I learned how death really could be a blessing.

Shorty didn’t hurt any more. He didn’t gasp for breath, he didn’t spend hours out of every other day tethered to a dialysis machine. He was free from suffering.

So, on October 3, we gathered in a funeral home in Old Town Alexandria to say our goodbyes to Master Sgt. Gaskill. Those family members who couldn’t be there in person—family stretched from one end of the country to the other, thanks to military service—joined via Skype or listened in via open cell phone calls.

But before the service, as the family gathered in the funeral home for viewing hours, Greg’s mother Bonnie asked for a comb. Without thinking, he pulled it from his jacket and handed it to her.

As we watched, Bonnie walked up to the casket and carefully combed Shorty’s hair for once last time.

It had been an act she had done every day since his illness and one that exemplified the love she had for him. I’d been dry-eyed to that point—but after that, I wasn’t any more.

That’s the kind of love I want, I remember thinking to myself. I want somebody who is going to care for me up until the moment I die — and then beyond. And that’s what Bonnie did for Shorty.

During his illness, she received a card from someone extolling what a ‘good Christian wife’ she was being. The card truly galled me.

There was something in the tone that spoke to me of the “Look at me, I’m a Christian” that has become so clearly the reason why I don’t attend church and why I despise those who thump their chests proclaiming their love of Jesus while judging those around them, leaving families and children without food, healthcare or the chance at a decent job or education.

All I know is that Bonnie Gaskill didn’t spend the last 18 months caring for her husband, the love of her life, simply because she was a good Christian wife. She did it because she loved him and loved him beyond everything.

Who among us wouldn’t want that?

Three weeks later, on Oct. 24, we were getting back to normal.

I went up to Columbus to babysit my grandson, Louie. My darling daughter-in-law Whitney had just come home from work and we were considering going out to dinner together before I headed home.

Then my cell phone rang. It was Greg—he’d come home to find Sarah Ferguson, my big, fat, friendly, redheaded llama down behind the barn. She’d broken her left front leg and had lay in pain all day as the first snow of the year covered her.

She’d been diagnosed as severely arthritic in September, just before Shorty’s death and we were medicating her daily with Meloxicam. Arthritis had affected her front left leg, both her rear legs and her spine. We knew we wouldn’t have her for much longer, but we were going to make her as comfortable as we could for as long as we possibly could.

Fergie was my first llama, and that special all-around llama that would do anything.

Like people, every llama has a personality and every llama has things they do better than others. Some are great show animals, some a great guards and some are great performance animals.

Fergie was a rarity—she was all of those. She was affectionate, and loved to be petted, loved on or groomed. Anybody of any age could lead that animal anywhere—at 18 months, Louie did just that. My idea of pack training her was finding a used pack for sale at Lamafest and putting it on her back in the middle of the vendor aisle, crowded with people. She accepted the pack like she’d done it all her life.

Greg or I could pick up her back feet for trimming easily. We used her for performance classes, packing, PR, costume classes and showmanship. She gave me the confidence I needed to handle llamas and my alpacas. She also gave every 4H kid who ever took her to the fair that same confidence.

I don’t know how many parents asked me, when I was the leader of the llama and alpaca 4H club, “Are you sure that Fergie is going to be OK for my kid to use? She’s so big!” By the end of the fair, they were asking to take her again the next year.

And then, on Oct. 24 I went away for a day and I wasn’t there when she needed me most.

Friends came to help Greg get her into the trailer and the vet sedated her so she wouldn’t thrash around during the trip to Ohio State University’s vet school. His examination found that both leg bones had broken between her left shoulder and knee and she was hypothermic from laying in the cold. She would likely not survive the hour-long trip from our farm to Columbus.

I met him there and before he was done backing in the door of the vet hospital, jumped into the livestock trailer to see her one last time.

She lived. And when she heard my voice as I sat in the trailer, sobbing and cradling her head in my lap she wasn’t so sedated that she couldn’t turn her head, as if to say “It’s OK. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re with me now. Whatever happens, I’m going to be OK.”

In the end, we decided to euthanize her. There were two options: put a pin in the leg, which most likely become infected, or amputate the leg entirely. Either option, in the unlikely event they were successful, would place additional stress on her arthritic spine and rear legs. It was kinder to let her go.

And so, in the space of one short month, I have had two great losses and two great examples of what love is. I will carry the memory of both forever in my heart.

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