By: Stephen Jackson, MD
Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven. My wife is the actual farmer. This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned. Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.
I ran back to the pond about a quarter mile from Mamaw and Papaw’s house (grandparents to non-southerners). I was focused on the excitement and fear of running with a loaded shotgun and on not falling over the uneven ground and branches littering my path. Papaw barely acknowledged me, his eight-year-old grandson, grabbing the weapon from his un-encased gun rack and loading it before barreling through the screen door at the front of the house. My uncle and cousins calmly waited for me on the far bank of the pond, a respectful distance away from where a snake they called a cottonmouth coiled in anticipation of a confrontation. I only remember being afraid of snakes at that age, ingrained in me by my mom and, clearly, by my uncle and cousins. Shortly after my arrival, my uncle dispatched of the snake and the morning’s excitement came to a quick and booming end. I remember being a little sad for the snake and I remember cradling the shotgun under my arm, barrel down, as we meandered back to the house for lunch. Papaw taught all his grandkids early on how to safely handle and fire rifles and shotguns. I had more fear of his reprisal at not maintaining the rigorous standards of gun safety he ingrained than any concern about the potential danger of a loaded weapon, though I’d had a very recent demonstration.
Oddly, this memory is a warm blanket around my tired mind while I stare out the third-floor window of the hospital. My vantage is southeast, and I can see the effects of the rising sun, gently adding color to the night-gray clouds along the horizon. I’m thinking of home, which is almost directly south of the hospital. My 48-hour call shift ends in a few hours. I’ve just finished an emergency c-section of a fifth-time mom whose cocaine habit caused her placenta to separate from her uterus, nearly costing the baby, and the mom, their lives. I’m relieved she got to the hospital when she did. I’m thankful for the speed and skill of the nursing and OR teams. I’m glad I was able to get that baby out in time. The baby came out kicking and screaming and the mom didn’t have any of the potentially catastrophic effects her situation could’ve caused her.
After events like this I often wonder why I went into medicine. I remember that my first motivation was to be a part of my community in a meaningful way, which is still true. I’ve come to realize that while some preventative medicine is possible and always the goal, at the hospital level people often come in at the end of a string of bad circumstances. In many cases the circumstances couldn’t have been prevented. Still, much of what causes illness can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle and diet. This idea, in large part, led my wife and me into farming. Food is the starting point for good health. Even better, the hard work required to get that food to the table is a big chunk of the lifestyle part.
I always enjoyed my childhood trips out of the city to my grandparents’ farm, where my mom would drop us kids off for a week or two. I can remember, so vividly, their farm. I remember going to sleep early, near nightfall, in my sleeping bag on the floor of the living room in their tiny farmhouse. I woke every morning to my papaw dumping me on the floor; pulling my sleeping bag away, toes first. The cold air of 5 am hitting my skin was my second wake-up call. Mamaw would already be up and starting breakfast. Papaw, my brothers, and I would all get dressed and head out to do the first bit of morning work, returning a couple hours later for a hardy, homemade breakfast. We’d head back out again until lunch time to finish the day’s work. After lunch, we’d have the day to play as kids can do only on a farm. On special occasions instead of farm work we’d go fishing, getting out on the lake around dawn.
One of my early fishing memories takes me to High Rock Lake in North Carolina. I might’ve been 10 years-old; that would’ve made my younger brother nine, my older brother fourteen. My two brothers and I, along with Papaw were fishing for flathead catfish, the latest fishing fad for my mom’s side of the family. We started by getting the boat on the water and then netting a bunch of bait fish. We then traveled out to a deeper spot on the lake, attached our bait fish to our hooks, and dropped our lines near the bottom. The day was beautiful and I sat there watching the large bobber gently ride the soft wake and wind-blown waves while listening to Papaw tell long stories about his childhood. More than the stories themselves, his special way of telling them and his booming, deep belly laugh at his own not-so-funny jokes is what I remember being so special about time spent with him.
At one point we were pulling in our lines to head to another spot on the lake. My younger brother was having trouble getting his line in. The reel seemed to catch. Papaw confidently walked across the rocking fishing boat and started helping my brother untangle his line. I was staring off toward my bobber while reeling it in when I noticed my brother’s bobber shoot under the water in a hurry. The sudden pull on the line caught Papaw off guard and, luckily, he’d untangled the line enough so that it wouldn’t snap under the fierce pull of whatever was on the other end. My younger brother took the first shift, alternately reeling in, then letting the line out slowly, tiring out his quarry. After about 15 minutes, it was my turn. I reeled, as coached by Papaw, for another fifteen minutes until my arms and back burned from the effort. We seemed to be making some headway in getting the fish closer to the boat. After my older brother’s turn, it was my younger brother who finished the task. I was not prepared for the monster that surfaced. The boat was anchored at only the bow to the floor of the lake and the monstrous flathead was pulling us in a slow circle around the anchor. The fish next to the side of the boat finally, Papaw used what looked like a meat hook to catch the inside part of the gaping maw of our prey, and ultimately to get her into a large net and onto the floor of the boat. I remember the catfish weighed 38.5 pounds. It was the largest fish I’d ever been a part of catching and well worth the effort of the long day.
Staring out the hospital window now, I feel unmoored by the morning’s events. I’m not sure why these two memories had emerged. They are buried deep and surface, like the flathead catfish, in big and unexpected ways. Maybe my mind is looking for a safe harbor, away from the stormy waters of powerful circumstance that make me afraid for my patient and her newborn child. Maybe I find comfort and safety in memories that have shaped me in important ways – memories that are somehow tied to survival. Many of the more visceral childhood lessons of survival surround time I spent with Papaw.
My drive home today is automatic and I barely remember the trip until the driveway starts jostling the Tahoe. I’m shaken from my own thinking and start focusing on the land, the sounds, the smells, the beauty of the trees and undergrowth. I’m invigorated to try and be the kind of dad that’s as memorable as Papaw. The girls occasionally roll their eyes when I tell stories of my time spent on a farm as a child. Still, I know they’ll remember the stories and the things we do together on and off our farm. My hope is that the memories will be warm and comforting to them when life gets tough. Memories, good and bad, shape the way we handle adversity and prosperity. They also shape the way we navigate the mundane, which is most of the time. I know Papaw, now long passed, can see me. I sometimes hear his booming laugh when I get something wrong, good-naturedly ribbing me. I see his relaxed, arms-crossed posture sitting in his usual attire, overalls and a white t-shirt, on his front porch. He nods approvingly when I get something right. There’s no doubt he is proud of me, what we’re doing here on our farm, the way we’re raising our girls, and our stewardship of the land.