I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no “right time” to put this out there. I’ve also concluded that far worse things in life can, will, and do happen … and they keep happening, so that puts this event in perspective. But, nonetheless, for my 12-year-old son, “this” was the unexpected life lesson that ushered in the new year for him. For us.
It’s no secret that my son, Nick, loves animals more than people. And they tend to love him back. He forged a bond like handcuffs to a convict with his market hog – “BatPig” – last spring. After doing everything right, everything by the book, he took her to the county fair and together they won their class, won reserve champion of their division, and ultimately brought home the 4-H 2 Reserve Champion Gilt trophy, (or “First Place Loser” as his older brother likes to tease.)
It was a surreal moment; this doesn’t happen to the “little people” in the county where 4-H was founded. The competition is fierce. But with the proper guidance and feed recommendations, Team BatPig pulled it off. Many had complimented my son on this “pretty pig” and her potential to have “pretty babies.”
And for the first time in years of showing hogs, we brought our market hog home. She was going to be a mama! After weeks of perusing potential Daddy Pigs, we settled on a Hampshire cross boar. BatPig was aptly named for her distinctive blue mask, so we were seeking to add some color and chrome to her offspring.
Three months, three weeks, and three days – plus one – passed. The anticipation was overwhelming. Nick’s excitement was palpable. We checked BatPig late morning on January 14. She was close, but not showing any imminent signs of labor. We proceeded with our planned day which included a comedy show about 30 minutes away.
Inevitably, my cell phone buzzed with a message: “The first piglet was stillborn.” We rushed to the car. By the time we arrived home, the message was, “Things are not going well.”
I called the farm where two experienced friends were hovering over BatPig and doing everything they could as labor and delivery nurses. When I arrived at the farm – having left Nick at home with family – I walked into a scene that is forever etched in my heart. Our sweet BatPig in pain and struggling to bring her Littles into the world.
“Oh, my god…what have we done to her?” I thought.
The second piglet was also stillborn, as was the third. The growing Labor and Delivery team did everything from pray to mouth-to-snout breathing and chest compressions. To watch this team of 4-H advisors and friends do so much to try to save just one piglet for the sake of my son was so humbling.
Finally, baby number four was squeezed and pulled into the world not breathing. Just when the L&D team was about to give up their efforts, he startled, jolted and took a breath. Hallelujah!
This little boar – featuring the color and chrome we desired – was the Lone Survivor of a litter of five (possibly six, maybe more?). BatPig was unable to deliver the rest of her litter. Her little man though called to her to be fed and snuggled up to her for warmth. She welcomed him despite her pain and mothered him as long as she could. She was a good mama, she just wasn’t physically built to be one. How could we have known?
Soon though, months of hope and longing turned into one of the hardest days of my son’s life. BatPig’s health continued to digress due to her traumatic birth injuries. With confirmation from the veterinarian that there wasn’t much that could be done to save her, we made the heartbreaking decision to let her go; to let her move on to care for her babies in Heaven.
As for Nick, he said his goodbyes to BatPig with a brave face, tear stained cheeks, and a shattered heart. He asked me to be with her while she was put down and tell her how much he loved her, thank her for being “some pig” and assure her he would take care of her baby boy.
It may sound silly to some; after all, “It’s just a pig. That’s what they’re bred for.” But those few days – from the start of labor to witnessing BatPig’s demise – were some of the hardest days of mothering I’ve endured.
I watched my son’s hopes fizzle away after months of excited anticipation, but sometimes life is like that. “I feel like I’ve lost my best friend,” he said.
It’s taken a few tries to sit down and put into words what this experience has been like, just like it took a few days for my son to go back to the barn knowing BatPig wouldn’t be there. Words of encouragement just don’t console a broken heart. Explaining the process of grieving doesn’t ease any pain. He has to live it, to learn from it, like we all do. He will move forward and keep that promise to BatPig to care for her son.
As for the Lone Survivor – now known as “Apollo” – he is thriving with a foster sow; an experienced Berkshire who keeps him in line along with his now eight foster siblings. He stands out a bit in the crowd, but hasn’t slowed down a bit.
When asked if he was ready give up pig farming, Nick replied, “No, I want to see this through and make BatPig proud of him (Apollo).”
So we have at least one more season of market hogs, this time knowing the final outcome (barring any further tragedies), and still aware there will be more tears. Live and learn…live and learn…
**Shout out to Kaffenbarger’s Good Oak Farm Show Pigs, KM Farms, and Massive Swine Show Pigs for guiding us through this event.**