In the quiet before dawn, soft rain fell gently on the earth. Below the soil, seeds and roots and worms and all sorts of wonders were slowly awakening from their long winter sleep. A blackbird flew over a field, wings silently flapping as she eyed the muddy infant laying still and alone in the rain.
At first glance, the baby appeared to have been dead in the mud for quite some time, his limbs bent at unnatural angles, his head flopped over to one side. His black and white wool, soaked in cold rain, was barely visible beneath the mud. Surrounded in last year’s brown, overgrown grass, against the colourless grey skies and barren fields, what was one more dead baby in this vast and cruel world? Why did she even care? She wondered as she moved on.
But she did care. The blackbird turned around. She didn’t know why, but it mattered whether this baby was dead or alive. It mattered that the baby was alone and unmourned in the cold rain.
She landed a few yards from the body. “Baaaa,” she heard the faint cry, and saw a slight movement. The baby was trying to raise his head. He was trying to call for help.
“What now,” the blackbird wondered, half wishing she hadn’t turned around. She tried to croon some comfort, but the baby didn’t speak blackbird. He didn’t even speak lamb yet. Why was he lying so still? Where was his mother?
Abruptly, she raised her wings and flew off, one last, weak “Baaa” echoing in her heart.
She flew high and fast now, gliding through the sky, searching. She flew over all of the pastures, then dropped down low to fly through the woods, navigating effortlessly between branches. Finally, she gave up. No mother. No mother anywhere. The baby was well and truly alone.
But she couldn’t abandon him. She thought of her own nestlings from the previous spring. Thought about their helpless need that stirred in her heart a solid, strong, unshakeable love that could and would go to all lengths to protect them. There had to be someone…
There was only one thing to do. The barn doors were open, letting in the cool spring air. She waited until the humans were gone, and flew in. Finding the ram, locked as usual in his pen, she told him of her dilemma.
Together, they worked at the latch keeping him locked in until, at last, the ram was free. The blackbird flew low, the ram running behind out past the barnyard, through the near pastures, across the gurgling stream to the edge of the woods in the far pasture. When they got to the baby, they found him completely still. He didn’t raise his head. No weak “Baaa”. The blackbird landed on him and stood still for a minute. “His heart is still beating…faintly.”
The big ram got to work using his horns to push the baby upright. Finally, he got him in a standing position, but the little lamb just collapsed again. Again and again, the ram got him upright. Again and again, the baby fell back down.
A farm worker approached. The blackbird retreated to a nearby tree. The farmworker shooed the ram away from the baby and gathered him up, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Poor, poor baby. What happened to you?” She rushed away, holding the baby against her, beneath her jacket.
The blackbird and ram looked at one another with a bit more hope. “That human seemed to care. I think she is his best chance,” the blackbird said.
“As long as Farmer doesn’t stop her,” Ram offered, a bit more skeptically.
The baby was put into a warm vehicle, wrapped in a blanket. The sense of warmth and safety, along with the motion of the vehicle, rocked Baby into a deep sleep.
When he woke up, he was inside a building with bright lights, funny smells, and lots of beeping sounds. There were humans in blue with white coats on, looking down on him. He fell back asleep.
The next time he woke up, he was inside a house. One human was holding him, while another washed clumps of mud and debris off of him with a soft cloth. She wrapped him in a towel and held him on her lap by the fire, offering him a warm bottle. He drank and drank, feeling his belly fill up, enjoying being held and feeling the warmth of the fire. When he finished his bottle, he looked into the woman’s eyes and said, weekly, “Maaaaa.”
Just like that, I was in love. He looked into my eyes with such hope and trust. And calling me “Ma” in his sweet little lamb voice? He triggered something in me, something deeper than just my heart. Everything in me focused on one thing: caring for this infant and giving him a chance at life. It was the same helpless need that stirs in every mother’s heart, the same love that inspired the blackbird and the ram and the farm worker to save him. This special– even magical – mother-love (and often father-love, too) manifests as a solid, strong, unshakeable love that can and will go to all lengths to protect one’s child.
For the next few weeks, when we weren’t in hospitals and having tests done or doing physical therapy, he was snuggling in my arms. If I walked away from him for even a moment, he called out, “Maaaaa”, and I came running back.
Baby Rama loved his physical therapy. He eagerly stood, walked, and grazed with the help of a sling, sometimes even trying to leap and play as healthy lambs do. He loved his bottles and took them enthusiastically. Within weeks, he grew from 6 pounds to 18 pounds. He learned to use a wheelchair with assistance.
But, as his back legs got stronger, his front legs started locking at the knees. Even doing physical therapy at hourly intervals everyday, he was laying down too much. Sheep are built to walk around, grazing most of the time. Baby Rama was laying down with knees bent for too large a proportion of time. However, physical therapy, and even just standing upright in a sling for prolonged periods, seemed to exhaust him and cause him pain.
I started feeling pressure. If I couldn’t get his knees to unlock, I knew, his chances for survival would be minimal indeed. Still, and despite my best efforts, Rama’s tolerance for physical therapy continued to decline. He loved walking around in his sling and grazing on the sweet spring grass. However, he tired quickly, and had trouble holding himself up, even with help.
Rama had developed sweet friendships with my puppy and one of my cats. They loved to snuggle and groom one another. And whenever I sat down, Baby Rama crawled over to me, begging to be held in my lap, where he would nuzzle me and gaze at the world around him in wonder.
I will forever be grateful that I listened to the voice whispering in my soul, “Take your time. Be present with him. Soak in his love, and love him at every moment. Everything else can wait.”
His appetite was wonderful, his eyes were bright, and his body systems seemed to be functioning normally, as far as I could tell. I did notice he urinated frequently and voluminously, however, he was taking a bottle every few hours, so I thought perhaps that was normal. I’ve rescued many lambs before, but never one this helpless, so there was a lot I didn’t know.
There were a many wonders, being so close to Baby Rama in his first days and weeks of life. I watched his horns grow, something I’ve never noticed in such close detail before. As they pushed through his head, they were covered in wool at first. As days went by, the wool peeled off to reveal the beautiful, striated horns beneath.
Within a week he was showing interest in grass. By two weeks old, he was tasting it. And by three weeks, Baby Rama was grazing, although he also remained on the bottle.
It took us weeks of travelling from hospital to hospital, searching for a doctor that would care enough to help us figure out why Rama couldn’t walk. As a farmed animal that would never reach slaughter weight and would never be useful for his wool, Rama was considered not to be worth any money. Therefore, a number of veterinarians dismissed him and his suffering without trying to help. What shocked me most was the utter lack of compassion we experienced at a specific large university hospital that many sanctuaries often turn to. He was deemed worthless. His life had no value to them, and that’s how they touched him and talked about him– as a thing with no feelings and no value. Garbage.
Finally, at New Bolton Center, the University of Pennsylvania’s Large Animal Veterinary Hospital, we found the doctor we had prayed for. Dr. Fecteau– and her team of highly skilled nurses and technicians– treated Rama with love, tenderness, and compassion. At 18 pounds, though, Rama was already too large to fit into their MRI, which they normally use only for the for limbs of large animals.
Baby Rama’s doctor kindly used her connections to convince a companion animal hospital to give him an MRI. The results were devastating. Rama was missing the section of his brain that manages motor skills, and he had an ominous mass in his abdomen. I asked the doctor if there was anything she could do to keep him comfortable and enjoying his life. She was going to look into a few things and get back to me the following Monday. I decided, if he could never walk, he’d learn to use a wheelchair and live in the house with me.
Sunday morning dawned clear and sunny. It was spring,and I was excited to plant flowers between physical therapy sessions. I alternated between setting Rama in his wheelchair, or laying him in the grass near me as I worked.
His eyes never left me. I had noticed he was becoming less vocal in the last few days, and thought perhaps that meant I was better anticipating his needs, or that he was feeling more secure.
Finally, after a day of planting and porch/yard cleanup, I sat down with Rama in my lap. He snuggled in, but became uncomfortable and started squirming after a few minutes. I couldn’t seem to adjust him enough to get him comfortable, so I laid him on the dog bed beside me. For a few minutes, that seemed okay. But then Rama had the worst case of diarrhea I had ever seen. It was actually much more extreme than the word conveys. There was runny, runny excrement coming out of him at an alarming rate. And then I saw the color change to a dark, murky red-brown, and I knew this was bad.
I called someone dear to both Rama and me for help. We rushed him to the emergency hospital two hours away. He sat on my lap and looked into my eyes sweetly the entire time, while I just sobbed into his beautiful wool, whispering over and over, “I love you, baby. They are going to help you. I love you.”
When we arrived, the techs whisked him back to the ICU immediately. The doctor spoke to us briefly to say that his condition was critical. They were going to admit him overnight to run tests and would have a plan by morning. I asked to say goodbye to him, and a tech brought him out, wrapped in a blanket. “Maaa,” he said weekly when he saw me. I kissed him and told him I loved him, and we went home.
That was the last time I saw my beautiful baby boy.
At 1:00 am, the doctor called. Rama’s heart was failing. Did I want them to try CPR? I still hoped we could save him, so I said yes. They were able to resuscitate him, but his heart stopped again and again. His little body had given up.
My baby was gone.
He was only in my life for about six weeks, but two months later, I am still crying over his loss. My arms still feel empty without him in them. Every morning, when I wake up, I still glance over to where his bed used to be, next to mine.
It’s always painful to lose our beloveds. We try so hard to rescue them and nurse them back to life. And then they are our best friends and family for years. Their joy in living brings us joy, and the bond continues to strengthen throughout their lives. Losing them is always painful.
This doesn’t mean that death is something to be feared. It’s a natural part of life, and so are pain and grief. We mourn them because we miss them– because with them, we experienced the singular miracle of pure, unconditional love– even as we understand that no one lives forever, and that death comes to each of us one day. So we miss them and we grieve for them, and we give thanks for the gift of love.
That’s a bit of what is happening with me as I work through the loss of Baby Rama. But there’s something even deeper. He was more than just another rescue. I felt like he was part of me. He drew out of me a profound, powerful strength and commitment to care for and protect him– even more so than the thousands of beloveds I rescued before him. Nothing was too much. I didn’t sleep through the night once in the six weeks I had him, but I didn’t care at all. All I wanted was to give him all that he wanted and needed.
So, even as I grieve, I also give thanks. I feel such a tremendous and reverent sense of gratitude for having experienced the purity and strength that love can be. What a beautiful, miraculous gift our Baby Rama was.
And now, I suppose I still carry him everywhere. He’s just in my heart instead of my arms.