Little Garth, the 10-day old piglets some milk. Photo credit-Vancouver Sun/Lora Grindlay
I can hear the unsettled whimpering sounds coming from the box at the end of my bed. I’m sleeping on the edge of worry anyways so it doesn’t take much to alert me. I kick off the covers and scurry down to check on the piglet. He feels cool despite the fact he’s covered with my little sisters flannel doll sheet. He seems uncomfortable. I’m not sure what to do. Mom and dad are asleep, but it doesn’t matter anyways because the piglet is my responsibility.
Earlier in the day, my older sister Cheryl, and younger sister Shannon, and I, had gone down to the barn after school to meet the newborn piglets.
Dad meets us outside the barn. I wonder if it’s going to be like a birthday party with balloons and cake. We never had piglets before
Before he opens the door he gives us a stern look, “Keep the noise level down inside. This is a new mama pig and we don’t want to upset her.”
I guess there won’t be any dancing then. I feel disappointed. I like to celebrate special events with dancing. Way to dampen my creative spirit pops.
We follow dad inside. There is no balloons or cake. We bounce silently on our toes and lean in on the fence to get a better view of the new arrivals.
I crowd Shannon out of the way so I can see better.
“Stop pushing Debby,” Shannon complains.
“Oh sorry,” I say, not the least bit sorry, and squeeze next to the wall so she can see too.
Cheryl is tall, and she can look over the top of our heads. She wrinkles up her nose, “It’s pretty smelly in here.”
Dad chuckles, “Yeah, pigs don’t have the best smell when they are penned up.”
We never had pigs on the farm until a few months ago and baby pigs are all new to us. Their tiny pink snouts are flawlessly formed, sparkling clean, and unblemished from life. They snuggle up in a long line sucking milk from mama pigs multiple teats. One extraordinarily small piglet keeps trying to find a way into the line up to suck. It is continually pushed out. He is getting nothing to eat.
Dad leans over the fence beside me casting a long shadow across the floor. I poke him in the thigh with my finger, “What’s going on dad? Why won’t the big piglets let the little piglet have any milk?” I ask.
Dad straightens up and places his hands on his hips shaking his head. “That’s the runt of the litter. It means he’s the smallest and weakest. They don’t usually survive. It looks like he’s having trouble fighting his way into the food line up.” Dad’s face is hard but his eyes look soft.
Those big piglets are assholes. I think to myself. I knit my brows together and shake my head wildly, “But that’s not fair!” I argue.
Dad sighs, “I know, but it’s natures way of weaning out the weak ones.”
I watch the tiny piglet try to feed again only to be cast aside by the strong. The little creature lies quietly and closes his eyes. It looks to me like he’s giving up.
I feel a dull ache creep into my heart. “Can I look after him?” I suddenly ask feeling hope rise up.
Dad purses his lips and stares into the pen.
I glare at dad with pleading eyes.
He scratches his head underneath his cap, and then meets my gaze with reluctance. “Alright. You can try,” he relents, and then cautions, “but don’t expect too much. He probably won’t make it. Don’t get too attached.”
I bob my head with enthusiasm like I’m agreeing. But I’m not. I can save this little pig. I just know it.
Dad retrieves the piglet and places the puny being in my arms. I look at his teeny ears and perfectly round nose. He’s wiggling. There’s nothing wrong with him. Of course he’s going to live. I tuck his warm little body inside my coat.
Dad watches me with doubtful eyes.
My sisters and I take turns carrying him to the house. When we arrive we put him in a box lined with a thick old towel. Mom rounds up a tiny bottle filled with milk. He drinks a little bit but lots leaks out of his mouth.
My younger sister Shannon puts her dolls flannel blanket over him.
At nine years old, I still quietly believed in the magic of life. I’m certain if I try hard enough I can save the little guy.
It’s the middle of the night and the piglet is whimpering. I read somewhere that babies like to eat in the middle of the night. Maybe he’s hungry. I scoop up the precious little package and bring him out to the kitchen to offer him milk.
I flick on the bathroom light and the brightness floods the kitchen floor.
The piglet’s breath is harsh and laboured.
I warm the tiny bottle of milk in a pot of water on the stove and cradle the pig in my arm. I check the temperature of the milk on my wrist the way mom showed me.
I sit down on the cold floor in the middle of the kitchen and admire our newest addition. I marvel at every inch of him, from the little downy hairs that covered his pink head right down to his delicate little tail. I can feel the adoration in my heart grow. How could he die? He is flawless. I watch his chest rise and fall with rough breaths.
I sit with my blue flowered nightie pulled over my crossed legs. I stroke his head with my finger. I didn’t know much about God but I had heard he helped some people. “Please God,” I pray. “Please help me save this little pig.” The tears well up in my eyes as I realize that he really might die.
I hear footsteps coming towards me from mom and dads room. I wipe my eyes with my nightie sleeve.
My mom peers around the corner, “Debby?” she says with a frown. “What are you doing up?”
I look at her, and then look down to the small bundle on my lap. “The runt was making noises so I brought him out to see if he was hungry.” I answer in a wobbly voice.
She moves toward me with her housecoat pulled tight. “You know he’s very sick, don’t you?”
I steel my voice, “Yeah.”
She purses her lips and lines furrow her brow. “You should put him back in his box and go to sleep,” she suggests.
I look up into her eyes and hold her serious gaze with my own, “I will mom. I promise. I just want to see if he’ll eat.”
Mom presses her lips together and then sighs. “Alright, “she says relenting, “but get to bed soon. You need your sleep too.”
Alone again with the runt I offer him some milk, his mouth doesn’t move but his chest still rises. I force the nipple of the milk bottle in and milk dribbles out the side. I put the bottle down and hold him close. My eyes liquefy and tears spill over. My bottom lip trembles. He needs all the help he can get. “Please, please God,” I beg, “if you save him I’ll put my allowances on the collection plate at church.”
The piglet’s breath is raspy.
I sob. “All of them,” I said, “I’ll give you all of my allowances.”
I set the little creature on my lap. His struggle for breath becomes quieter. I wonder if my prayers are being answered.
The piglet’s body convulses. I realize God has not agreed to my bargaining.
The tears come faster. I am helpless to save this most perfect little being. “I promise I whisper with passion. “I’ll give you everything! My Barbie’s, everything. Please save him.”
The runts shuddering stops and the tiny pig relaxes into death.
I cry a lot. I cry so much I run out of snot.
It was my first experience with death. I remember the bargaining with clarity, the hope that some being would shine some kind of special light down on me, on him, and give the runt a second chance. I never blamed God for rejecting my offer. As a matter of fact, for a long time I thought it was that I was unworthy of having my prayers answered. But as I aged and lost many more beloved people and pets I’ve come to believe in the ridiculously overused saying everything happens for a reason. I believe that the randomness in life is not simply a scattered mess of happenings, but an intricate weaving of lives that are brought together and apart to create specific opportunities to fine tune our life. Even the worst in life offers us hope. We see it often as we watch times of the greatest troubles be soothed by acts of great love and compassion. I think we are given situations to prepare us, or clarify us, for the following days of our lives.
I’m not one hundred percent sure why that little piglet died in my arms when I was young; maybe it was the first stepping-stone of strength I needed for all the future dying in my life.
But I bet for others— sometimes the piglet lives.