Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Largely because of a dog named Fred, who despised hats and joggers and anything that his unknowable mind deemed suspicious, Mateusz and I rented a farmhouse north of Toronto in the summer of 2010. We were expecting a baby, and the idea of holding a newborn while being dragged by Fred through the slick streets of Toronto, in pursuit of anyone whose winter cap had offended him, was both comical and terrifying to me. My husband is a cellist, and in the winter he would be out of town for long stretches. Fred, who had Labrador energy and the stocky muscle of an indeterminate breed, was a leashed tornado that I could not always control by myself, even when I could give him my full attention. Holding a baby would make it impossible to walk the dog without my husband. But we had rescued Fred from the pound, and he had become for us a mission we could not abandon. So we decided to search for a house with a yard, which meant we would have to leave the prohibitively expensive city for one of the dismal beige suburbs, if only to have a pathetic, postage-stamp lot on which to keep the dog. Amid the disappointing advertisements for tiny houses in the outer rings of Toronto’s suburban sprawl, we found an ad for a farm.
Seemingly a hobby of its eccentric owners, the farm was disintegrating into the idyllic swells of green hills and soft forest just north of the city. We drove to look at the property out of curiosity, with no intention of actually moving there. (Us, on a farm? With oil heat? What does that even mean?) We passed perfect pastures inhabited by dignified horses, their tails floating behind them in the wind. Seussian sheep were dolloped on plump hills. It was spring, and the air was still a little too cold, and the trees chattered breathlessly when we stepped out of the car. The house was a rambling, illogical collage of rooms and creaking floors and musty odors. It tilted this way and that, smelled of vacations, and was covered in terrible and peeling wallpaper. Despite (and because of) its decayed state, the rental was an extraordinary find: in a wealthy area, yet miraculously within our price range. So we moved there.
The farm was also home to several dozen cows, two donkeys, and from two to five peacocks. (The scattered movements of the birds made it impossible to count them.) Our landlords haunted the place like ghosts, caring for the animals clandestinely and occasionally passing us in the fields with a polite wave or a few words of courteous small talk that conveyed a desire to remain friendly but distant. The cows were being raised for beef but never seemed to be sold off. The fences drooped and gates yawned dangerously and were sometimes repaired with duct tape or a foamy yellow substance our landlord called “stuff.”
After we’d crammed our possessions into the house, Mateusz and I stood awkwardly near the fence, contemplating the animals. “What are donkeys for?” we wondered aloud. Fred, confused, ran back and forth as the donkeys stared at him with clichéd stubbornness. We laughed, and the cows popped their heads up from the shiny grass. Then, for no clear reason, they lumbered away one by one.
While our landlords were on vacation, a girl came to care for the farm. “Did you see the yearlings?” she asked me.
I shrugged dumbly. I knew the word only because so many people complained about having to read the book by that title in school. She saw the ignorance on my face and swept her hand toward the fields behind her, where the year-old calves grazed. The yearlings were nearly the size of full-grown cows, but their gait was gangly and adolescent, and, unlike older cows, they sometimes ran in the fields. Fred, who missed nothing chaseworthy, had noticed them already and had scouted a hole in the fence and set to chasing them this way and that. The yearlings zigzagged away, and the larger cows swarmed around the dog. I cringed and yelled uselessly into the wind at Fred, envisioning him trampled, his legs broken.
It was summer when we moved, and the fields were dry and unkempt. We walked Fred, watching him bound, ears and tongue flopping, through the overgrown hay. We bought mud boots. The fields turned from green-brown to chalky orange-brown; we talked about the kind of parents we would be. The humidity sank away into the ground. Leaves fell. I became slower, leaden, tired walking up the hill. Apples dropped and rotted sweetly on the ground. The cattle ignored us but eyed Fred warily.
I thought of trying to make friends with the donkeys, whose goofy ears and intelligently bored expressions intrigued me, but once I got close to them, they grew real to me and not cartoonish at all. They were too large, and their stares too alien. I was afraid to reach out and touch them. They seemed puzzled and yet unperturbed. Behind them the cows plodded over until so many of them had accumulated that I feared they would collapse the fence. I backed away from their brown and vacant eyes, apologizing for having disturbed them and not turning my back.
Our son, Aleksy, was born a few minutes into the morning of November 9, 2010. After the birth Mateusz went home to bed, and he returned to the hospital later in the morning with an odd, busy energy. “I woke up to cows everywhere,” he told me.
I was hot and irritable from lack of sleep. I had spent the night struggling to find something miraculous in the experience of having had a baby, waiting in the dark for “everything to change,” as people had said it would; waiting for wonderment. I felt choked instead by the permanence of a child, by confusion, by the banality of insurance and car seats, by a sudden longing for a more reliable job, by errant anxiety about unpaid bills. I was angry that no one had told me to cut my nails before going into labor. The experience had been clammy and lukewarm, like an uncomfortable handshake with a stranger. I had spent much of the night with tears welling up, face turned to the blank ceiling, trying to overcome the desire to stand up and put on my jeans and walk away, to have everything back the way it had been.
I ignored my husband’s statement and demanded crossly to know if he had brought me any breakfast.
After I ate a ham-and-cheese breakfast sandwich (its paper-wrapped normalcy was vaguely upsetting), the memory of what Mateusz had said made its way through the bitterness and fatigue. “You woke up to cows everywhere?”
The cows, it seems, had gotten out and then, as they apparently do when their gentle march is unimpeded by fences, spread around the front yard. He found them inches away from the house, eating calmly and looking nowhere at nothing. They were just standing around in the resplendent fall morning. Looking.
Nearly every woman who has given birth will tell you that you eventually forget the pain and the blood and the lonely fluorescent lights at the threshold of parenthood: the clumsy gowns, the tears of frustration, the fear as you try to love this incomprehensible bundle of your lips and his nose, this at once familiar and strange being, so beautiful and terrifying. The curt nurses, the irritating children of the people in the next room, the cold floors, the lack of modesty — it all fades away. The memories of the hospital and those first few days at home surface in my mind now as a kind of layered image: Aleksy chews furiously on my breast with his eyes open, dark and absorbing; his hands, unable yet to clench themselves in fists, spread open and soar aimlessly like lost kites; scattered cows in the yard stare through the windows like uncomprehending spies, gazing at my changed world. A single memory, however, exists in isolated clarity: The day was bright as we left the hospital, the baby impossibly small and overbundled in his car seat. The yellowy smell of the place was sucked back in by the closing doors. I felt as though I had been left to fall.
In late November the cows were moved, to my extreme consternation, into a pen located right in front of the house, about fifty yards from the door. Fred lives an existence in which events evaporate from his memory almost as soon as they arrive. And so, each time the door opened, he would prickle from ears to tail at the discovery of cows in his front yard. Though within a week he had already hurtled many times into their pen, already chased them with reckless disregard for their size, already barked and caused trouble and become bored and left, for Fred the allure remained exasperatingly and eternally fresh.
I was convinced that he would be crushed by the cows or attacked by the donkeys, whose purpose on the farm, I had discovered on the Internet, is to guard other animals from predators. Their swift hind legs can deliver a well-targeted kick to the head, and their teeth can mash a limb. While Fred wandered outside, I fed or juggled Aleksy anxiously, imagining the dog in the jaws of the donkeys while my husband was away working and I was in charge. I had visceral, horrifying fantasies of being confused about where to set the baby so I could drag Fred’s bleeding, broken body from the pen; then being unable to find a car seat, unable to find the keys, unable to put everyone in the car and drive to a veterinarian, whom I imagined as an elderly man, like the doctors in old gangster movies, who’d give Fred whiskey as anesthesia.
Again and again Fred ran barking into the pen; again and again the cows shifted their heavy bodies; again and again the donkeys glared and brayed; again and again I shut my eyes. Knowing it was senseless but needing to do something, I screamed at the dog, who eventually padded back unscathed, tongue wagging. I was hysterical. The baby cried. The cows rocked against the sides of the pen until they were still.
When Mateusz was home, I would barrage him with elaborate plans for preventing the dog from entering the pen: Very long leash attached to the house? Shock collar and an invisible fence? In my sleep-deprived state, my plans became more and more fantastical and illogical. Maybe some sort of net.
“Sure,” Mateusz would say reassuringly to anything I proposed. But the very reason we had abandoned the city for this pastoral but remote exile, the very reason we were almost bankrupt from paying for the oil heat that we now understood all too well, was so that Fred could be let out of the house unleashed and unsupervised. “It will sort itself out,” Mateusz said.
Each day I would stand for several frozen, unbearable minutes at the doorstep and call Fred in from the cold, worried that he was dying in the barn and irritated that my feet were icing up. He would return slightly warm, slightly damp, smelling like cows, mercifully unmangled and with bits of hay stuck to his head or his tail. One evening I spied him in the barn, loping easily through the maze of cows, skipping from one pile of manure to the next. The cows did not turn or lift their heads; most of them were lying down and lazily watched Fred trot past. Another night I saw him lying in the hay next to a cow. They appeared to be watching the snow. Their torsos moved slowly up and down, content and animal, their white clouds of breath mingling in the inky air.
On my worst days — all of them dark and bluish gray, drawn in the thin lines of the Ontario winter — I sometimes left the baby with Mateusz and stomped angrily outside, wanting just to keep walking. The house was too small, too crowded with colicky screams and hand washing and arguments. I was too far away from sunny afternoons of boredom when I could just take off down the street to places where people talked and laughed carelessly and I wasn’t plagued by need and responsibility and Aleksy’s awful wailing. I often wore hastily gathered and mismatched footwear on these outings in the yard. So although I marched to the edges of blank, snowy fields with intentions of continuing on forever in a straight and angry line, my feet got too cold to go much farther, and I ended up instead walking in circles around the pen of cows and the barn, mumbling. I would stop next to the fence of the cow pen.
The cows, though wary at first, ignored me as I walked around them and then finally stood quietly with my arms over the fence, listening to their heavy breathing and the lethargic swishing of their tails. Above us the roof of corrugated metal gave a soft ping from the weight of fat, icy snowflakes. All these sounds were barely audible: Breath. Snow. Enormous, dormant animals. The cows stared at me, as though they had been expecting me.
Mateusz stayed home as much as possible for the first month after Aleksy’s birth, but eventually he had to return to long weeks away. One day he drove off in the snow, taking his calm steadiness with him. The farm seemed to spread out around me, a faintly lit and empty expanse. I felt as though I stood there on the doorstep forever, holding Aleksy and staring into the whiteness. The cows looked up. They appeared unimpressed by the immense change of my husband’s absence, by the weakness I felt, by how I knew nothing at all, and by how utterly lost in the snow we all were. Then Fred, who had been sitting on the porch with an almost contemplative gaze, suddenly charged at them. I shut the door.
Night sets in early and fiercely during an Ontario winter. Coyotes howled, close by and hungry on the icy marsh. I refused to let the dog out after dark and hoped the donkeys guarded the cows well. I started sleeping with the baby in my bed so that I could reach over and feel his tiny inhalations and delicate heat. Fred, who had moved downstairs in a huff after the first night of newborn screams, now returned to be with us, his soft growl vibrating from the floor when the coyotes became too shrill.
I spent that winter wearily moving from the couch to the changing table, waiting for Aleksy to finish nursing, and bouncing him to sleep in an elaborate dance. Left in the house with a ticking clock, I stared at the crib, pushing the hanging toys this way and that. I was absorbed into a dreary and magnificent landscape of boredom and wonderment, the thought forever nagging me: Am I doing this right? While expecting Aleksy I had envisioned motherhood as a time of monastic solitude, when wisdom and strength would blossom as I held my peacefully sleeping child. But while I stared out the window with him stuck to me like a nightmare appendage, I felt the bottled panic of an animal in a cage. Caring for a baby was not a quick snapshot of tranquillity but rather hours on end of loneliness without solitude. I recalled interviews with prisoners that I had read: the boredom, they all reported, is what eats you alive, and no one can ever describe what it feels like, hour after hour, day after day. Aleksy was a beautiful baby with enormous blue eyes and flaxen hair. My cultivated cynicism evaporated when his plump, porcelain hands accidentally patted my face. He fascinated me as he looked at the world with his unspoiled mind. But he was also a source of infinite tedium.
In the city I’d often been annoyed by the constant presence of other people. Now I invited everyone I could ever remember knowing to come to the farm. But it was winter, and they lived in the city; they rode the subway and didn’t have cars and had never been north of a hideous amusement park that for most Toronto residents marks the edge of the world. They promised, without a trace of sincerity, to come. I Skyped with everyone I knew, but no one had time for conversations whose purpose was so transparently to fill my time with human voices saying anything at all. I was afraid to drive in the drifts of snow with this fragile creature in the car, and I didn’t know what I would do once I got to one of the eerie small towns nearby. I could only stare into the night at a yellowish light, at least half a mile away, that marked the home of our nearest neighbors, whom I had never seen and knew I would never meet.
My American upbringing unexpectedly kindled a competitive and ludicrous belief that there was some way to mother perfectly and with maximum efficiency, and this, combined with all the idle time, entangled me in a sea of concerns about organic foods and detergents and diapers, about proper stimulation of Aleksy’s burgeoning mind, about nap times and physical contact and types of bath soap. Would he be lonely if I left him in his crib? Were his toys stimulating enough to prevent important synapses from being pruned away? Should I talk to him, and if so, what would I talk to him about? I tried to sing him songs, but I had forgotten the words; by the time I’d found them on the Internet, he was crying and needed to be fed. There is little to do while feeding a baby, and I could only contemplate the fallen snow and the empty fields for so long before their pacific calm became meaningless and disturbing. My back hurt. I read all the magazines. I watched all the documentaries, then the good TV shows, then the terrible and trashy ones, all with this incredible weight — half Aleksy, half worry — on my chest.
Sometimes I managed to set the baby in his bassinet and creep outside to shovel snow. I felt afraid and lost when he wasn’t next to me, as though something might swallow him up. And yet shifting within me was also a longing to be free of all the worry and doubt he had brought into my life. Then I’d feel guilty and spend several hours cooing at him and trying to elicit smiles and waiting for him to notice the world — to reach out for the rattle I waved over his head, to hold my hand — waiting to feel encompassed by something profound.
Winter in this northern climate is dogged, and at its end you mistrust the warm air, the smattering of new growth, the sounds of birds. So you ignore them until one day you realize that the wool socks you are wearing are infuriatingly hot. And, like the thawing winter, Aleksy changed imperceptibly and then drastically, slowly and then suddenly. He slept for three hours in a row. The sun rose earlier, faded away later. Recognition flickered in his face; a smile appeared. The brown ground became mottled with green. Aleksy laughed. And it was spring.
The first calf was born in April. He just appeared, large but still somehow small and vulnerable, blinking with a more frantic — and, oddly, more human — expression than the adults. Fred burst into the pen one morning to scatter the cows as usual, and, instead of tumbling away, they turned upon him as a great bovine mass, sending him scurrying back into the yard in a hunched ball. Another calf and then another appeared. There was no activity to mark their arrival, no lowing or mooing. They simply showed up and began milling about in the pen. Unless the calves were nursing, their mothers were impossible to identify.
The fourth calf was born on a sunny afternoon in May, and, like the others, its birth went unnoticed. I had friends over (the appeal of a spring day in the country had lured them), and we must have been sipping tea in the backyard when the calf plopped into the world on unsteady feet. Only later, as my guests were starting to leave, did we see it had somehow escaped the pen. Fred was barking at it, and the poor calf was nuzzling the fence as if trying to nurse. I made a frantic call to the landlord, but he wasn’t home. I actually wrung my hands. The cows paced and howled. I felt helpless.
The cows now stood dangerously close to the fence, stamping and wailing. The calf was still wet, tottering on crooked legs that struggled to hold up its new weight. Its cord lay in the hay. As it rubbed its face against the pen, looking for its mother, I was overwhelmed with mammalian pity. With an uncharacteristic decisiveness, and suddenly feeling no fear of the cows, I walked up to the gate and opened it. Then I pushed the sticky calf toward the gate, cursing its wobbly resistance and several times frightening it into a jerky run in the wrong direction. At last I corralled it into the pen. The distressed cows absorbed the baby, and it disappeared into a sea of thick brown legs. My eyes were hot and watery as I watched it go.
The landlord, for whom I’d left a panicked message, called back and told me he thought the calf might die, but he appreciated my trying to save it anyway. I lay awake in the night for as long as I could stand, waiting for Aleksy to cry for his feeding so I could pull him into bed with me. When I couldn’t wait anymore, I scooped him up from the crib and brought him to my bed, kissing his angry face and smiling as he screamed at me for waking him. I held him to my chest, and within seconds he began to shake his downy head back and forth under my chin. He sighed the tiny and contented sigh that babies reserve for their own mother alone, then fell asleep on my heart. I watched him, feeling the same anguish I had felt a few days after he was born, when the world had seemed steeped in terrible and sudden beauty and sorrow. But now it was more profound, more complicated, more real.
The calf lived, and a fifth calf was born in the same unceremonious way. After asking the landlord if the donkeys were friendly, I began to feed them carrots. They removed the vegetables from my hands with gentle, leathery lips and did not crush my fingers with their monster teeth, as the Internet had warned they could. They began to trot to the fence when they saw me, so I took carrots with me every time I went out the door. Fred, suddenly and without guidance, learned to sit patiently next to me while I fed them. The calves occasionally became restless or spooked and ran clumsily around the pen, but Fred rarely chased them anymore. (He did still pursue the elusive peacocks.) Aleksy watched all of this with a serious expression, lightly pulling at a strand of my hair and taking it all in, eyes open and alert.
At the end of May the cows were moved back into the fields. The farm was suddenly changed; it was uncomfortably empty when we would leave the house in the morning to take a walk. The pen was deserted, hay scattered. I harbored an illogical resentment toward our landlords for not giving me any warning that the animals would be moved, for simply opening the gates and letting them go without some sort of goodbye.
I suppose the cows looked content in the fields. They certainly looked handsome and healthy, their red-brown hides dotting the deep, sudden green of spring. I liked to watch them amble all day long from one hill to the next, into a valley, down to the edge of the pond. The herd by the house occasionally backed up at the gate and clamored grumpily until one of them got the idea to turn around, and after several minutes of loud complaints I would see them headed back toward the pasture, some of them looking at the house as they passed. I sometimes waved. Their ears fluttered at flies, and they blinked, then lowered their heads and chewed the grass. The calves of that year would run, little and lively and pale. So that the newer calves could nurse without competition, the older yearlings were put in a different field, separated from their mothers. They often wandered to the end of their pasture and wailed inconsolably at the herd on the other side of the fence. Their mothers echoed their distressed call.
Summer became windy and rainy, and the donkeys stood impassively, gray blots against the green trees beneath the gray sky, in a far corner of the pasture. They surveyed the cows from a hill where they stood together, looking a little like an illustration for Don Quixote: one raggedly tall and thin, the other plump and short. Contemplating them after nearly a year, I realized they managed the most impossible of expressions: they were serene without looking stupid or sullen.
When I couldn’t see the donkeys, I walked up to the fences and peered into the fields. Sometimes the cows were eating near the fence. I asked them on several occasions, playfully, where the donkeys were. If I stayed there too long, one cow would begin to stare at me, and then another. They would move toward me, and if I walked parallel to the fence, they’d follow. I remembered how this used to terrify me, these enormous animals, all weight and solidity and dumb momentum. But I knew something about them now, and that familiarity made me unafraid. I would walk along the fence while they followed me all the way back to the house. They would stand on the other side. Close. Staring. They gazed at me as if they’d posed a question and would wait forever for me to answer. We would look at each other across the fence. When I left, they began to eat again.
A few weeks after the cows returned to the fields, it became clear that Aleksy, who was waking up to kick his mattress and practice rolling and who no longer cuddled sweetly, needed to move to his own room. The times when he could sleep next to me like a velvety hot-water bottle were gone. I frowned as my husband took apart the crib and reassembled it in the adjacent bedroom. Aside from looking around excitedly at the new contours of the walls and becoming absorbed in an entirely new ceiling, Aleksy seemed utterly unaffected by the change. I reminded myself of how nice it would be not to have to sneak around my own room at night, to have at least one thing back the way it had been before.
But instead of feeling like a comforting return to normal, the room without Aleksy’s crib seemed eerie and desolate. The furniture was still displaced where the crib had been, and the drapes had been taken down to use for Aleksy’s windows, so the moon poured in, bathing the walls and the carpet in its steely glow. Fred, who had taken to sleeping in the den-like confines underneath the crib, wandered about before choosing a random patch of floor to lie down on. I felt as a child does for a balloon suddenly sucked away in the wind: a raw, sinking sadness. Aleksy would always change, would always move, would always be farther away.
At night the cows and the yearlings called to each other across the darkness, so much that one evening I went outside to make sure nothing was wrong, that no calf had escaped or fallen into the pond. I stood ridiculously in the grass within the circle of light from the barn lamp, unable to see anything in the dark beyond it. A memory surfaced in my mind of something a friend had once said: There must not be anything like being a mother. She had just hung up the phone after a call from her elderly mother in Spain — a call made at what was, across the Atlantic, the middle of the night. My friend, who is in her midthirties, had had a biopsy that day, the results of which would not be in for a week. Her mother surely knew this, surely knew there was nothing that could be done from where she was, an ocean away, for a daughter who had left home almost two decades earlier. She claimed to have been up anyway, taking some pills (though she had no illness). She’d thought she would just call. To say hello. And on the edge of the blackness I thought of her, a mother in a kitchen illuminated by a solitary pool of light, worrying in the night.
Karen Vogel’s essay “The First Year” [October 2012] just about made me cry. The scene where her friend tells her that “there must not be anything like being a mother” would have meant nothing to me seven months ago, before I became a mother myself. I live in Spain, an ocean away from my own mother, and only after becoming a parent did I even begin to understand how my mom must feel when she’s standing in her kitchen, talking on the phone with me, and how difficult it has been for her to see her daughter move so far away.