The Great Cheese Plea

This may be the first post I’ve made from an airport. I’m sitting at the gate at DTW, waiting to board a much-anticipated flight to Seattle. After a four-year layoff, I’m at last able to make it out for the big Seattle-to-Portland bicycle ride. (This is of course the event at the center of my novel, Full Cycle; this Saturday will be the first time I’ve been able to participate in STP since the novel’s publication.)

As much as I’m looking forward to the big ride, I’m especially happy to be able to see friends and family while I’m out there; it’s been way too long. Tonight, I’m having dinner at a cousin’s house. My contribution to the evening: a nice container of goat cheese from our farm.

Or at least that was the plan, until TSA intervened. At the checkpoint, my backpack sailed right through the security screening — but my bag of food was yanked for further inspection. The agent took a look at the cheese, in its plastic container, and said it wasn’t allowed. It’s too soft, he explained. Can’t have anything spreadable.

I replied that I had no idea I couldn’t bring it; I thought all food items were acceptable. I would’ve put it in my luggage if I’d known.

And then I rolled the dice and played the Farmer card. “It’s homemade goat cheese, from our own goats. My daughter made this. I’m supposed to be taking it to dinner tonight at my cousin’s house.”

He looked at the container more closely. “Your own goats?” he asked. It wasn’t so much incredulity; it was more a tone of “Yeah, nobody could be making up a story like this.”

I could sense him hesitating. He stepped away for a moment, and conferred with another agent. The only words I picked up were “homemade cheese” and “own goats”.

He returned with the cheese after that brief conversation. “Okay, we’ll allow it this one time, if it passes the surface test,” he told me. “Next time, check it in your luggage.” He swabbed the surface of the cheese container, inserted the swab into some sort of machine, and got the test results.

Satisfied, he returned the cheese to me. I smiled and gave him a heartfelt thank-you, and then packed everything up and cleared the security checkpoint.

I’m not sure what it was about my Great Cheese Plea that changed his mind, but my sense is that most people have a special appreciation for food that’s crafted at home on a farm. Who could bring himself to toss in the trash something that’d been put together with so much care and attention? Perhaps he sensed that saving my cheese was some small way he could participate vicariously in the life of a farm. I don’t know. I’m just really thankful that someone appreciated our farm produce enough to give that extra consideration. We will certainly remember his kindness tonight at dinner!

Never Gets Old

If you were to ask which one thing about living on a small farm never gets old, I would answer immediately: watching mother hens hatch and raise their own chicks.

The overwhelming majority of our birds come from a hatchery; trying to breed and hatch your own on a large scale is an enormous headache (and crap shoot). That said, we enjoy raising egg-laying breeds that haven’t had all their mothering instincts bred out of them. Every once in a while, one of them will surprise us by sneaking off to a dark corner of the property, making a nest, and hatching out a brood.

I recently noticed that our egg production was dropping somewhat. The nine-year-old had been put in charge of gathering eggs this spring, and I suspected that he wasn’t looking hard enough. A couple of weeks ago, I made a thorough search of the barn, to see if he might be missing something.

Of course, it didn’t take long to find the huge cache of eggs which had gone ungathered. An old box had been overturned, with the open side facing a wall. By all appearances, it looked like just an old box that someone had forgotten to take to the burn pile. Upon closer inspection, however, I found a very broody Buff Orpington hen inside — and, under her, about a dozen and a half eggs. She’d removed most of her breast feathers, so as to bring her warm skin into better direct contact with the eggs. When I tried to pick her up, she moved very little (unlike a non-broody hen, which would’ve run off squawking at first touch), and simply let out some deeply disapproving clucks as she tried to peck me.

I hoped that I’d caught her in time, and that these eggs were still good, so I took all of them into the house. As much fun as it is when mother hens hatch their own chicks, the process is too unpredictable to waste a lot of eggs on — especially because this hen was in a place where other hens could be adding fresh eggs to the ones she’d been incubating. I cracked a couple of the eggs, and they were seriously bloody – like they’d been incubating for a long time.

Not wanting to kill any additional developing chicks, I tested the rest of them (one at a time) to see if they would float in water. A handful of them sank right to the bottom and went on their side. That’s usually an indication of a fresh egg; some other hen(s) had likely climbed in and added these to the nest recently. I put them aside for our potential use.

The rest of the eggs either floated, or stood up on end. I took these to the barn, returned them to the box, and placed the hen (who hadn’t gone far) back on the eggs.

Then we left her alone, and waited.

This past Sunday morning, when I went out to the barn to do chores, she was off the nest and lying in the middle of a walkway. Her feathers were puffed up, and she was spread out like she was trying to cover something. A little yellow-and-black chick sat in front of her, seemingly oblivious to the low “come hither” clucking noises she was making. I nudged the chick toward her, and it quickly vanished into the puffy feathers. As she welcomed it under her wings, I could see a couple of other little ones shifting around. Much as I wanted to see how many she had altogether, I thought better of disturbing her.

That evening, she was leading three little chicks all around the barn. Monday morning, I had trouble locating her at first. As I continued looking, I grew concerned that the barn cats had swiped her chicks. To my relief, I found she’d made a temporary nest in the goat separating area. She was again puffed up, giving reassuring clucks. I knew, without looking, that all was well.

Every day since then, she’s led the chicks to a different part of the barnyard. Tuesday morning, they were out very early in the goat area. It looked like she was teaching them how to forage.

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Last night, she had them on the lawn behind the house. They were still browsing the lawn when I came out this morning, but eventually moved back to the barn.

No matter where she decides to take them tonight, I do know one thing: this entertainment never, ever gets old.

Anyone Have a Break for Sale? (UPDATED)

We’re wondering if anyone out there has a break for sale. Because, when it comes to bringing in this year’s first cutting of hay, we haven’t even been able to buy a break.

You’ve no doubt read or heard stories about the sopping wet weather that has inundated much of the country’s grain belt this year. Many of the commercial corn-and-soybean farmers were very late getting into their fields to plant, if they managed to plant at all, because the ground had been so wet.

We’ve had many of the same problems here in Michigan, with an unusually wet Spring, but not with the same degree of impact as on the prairie; I think that’s in part due to the smaller amount of row crop farming that is done here. Some people here do grow corn and soybeans commercially, but it’s not the kind of wall-to-wall immersion that we saw in Illinois.

The much bigger problem for us, and for others nearby, has been harvesting hay. We’ve lived here since late 2007, so our first hay harvest was in the spring of 2008. This makes the 12th year we’ve been bringing in hay from our five-acre field, all assisted by the same local farmer who has the necessary specialized equipment. Most years, the first cutting is getting ready to harvest by the end of May, and we’ve managed to bring it in by mid-to-late June (depending on our farmer friend’s availability). This has set us up well for a second or third cutting most years.

Not this year. Bringing in hay requires a certain window of dry weather. You have to cut it, allow it to dry in the field, and then rake / flip it until it dries completely. If you’re lucky enough to get dry, hot weather (especially with a stiff wind), it can be ready to bale after as little as a couple of days. But we haven’t had anything like that this spring. There was one brief window in mid June, with perfect haying weather, but we only saw a handful of farmers actually take advantage of it. Why? The forecast hadn’t initially showed the weather would be so good, and few wanted to chance getting the hay rained on.

Rain is indeed the big worry. If the hay gets soaked while it’s lying on the ground, all the previous drying is of course lost. You can hope for another string of warm weather, but there’s a limit to the number of times you can flip the hay. Eventually, the structure of the grass becomes unstable and it crumbles into an unbaleable mess. And if it keeps raining, so it stays wet long enough? It’ll start to rot, or mold.

After putting it off and putting it off, and not being sure which weather forecasts we could trust, and whether any of the forecast “scattered thundershowers” would actually hit us, we and our farmer friend decided to roll the dice and cut hay on Tuesday of this past week (July 2nd). That very evening, after a beautiful sunny day, one of those thunderstorms scattered its way straight into our hay field.

Our farmer friend has been doing his best to get back over here and flip / rake the hay, but the rain has just kept coming. Thursday morning the weather was really nice, and gave all indications of being a perfect day; we hung two loads of laundry out to dry, and the nine-year-old and I enjoyed cruising to a car show in my classic Fiat with the top down. Then, Thursday afternoon, while we were visiting family a half-hour away, a thunderstorm dumped two and a half inches on our property. There’d been no rain at all where we’d been, so coming home and finding everything absolutely soaked was a very nasty surprise.

We’d initially hoped to bale on Friday, but that was now of course impossible. Our farmer friend came over to rake / flip the hay, to start drying after its Fourth of July soaking. Then, not thirty minutes later, this was the scene:

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You can see the hay field in the background, on the other side of the animal enclosure near the barn. Looks like a partly-cloudy day, right? It was indeed, when he began running his tractor. Actually pretty sunny. But look closer. See the stream of water gushing from the barn’s downspout? That’s how hard it had begun raining right over our property. A concentrated rain cloud had come out of nowhere, and had begun dumping on us. As I snapped this picture, our farmer friend was hightailing it out of the field. Adding insult to injury, he later discovered that one of the wheels on his rake was busted.

The weather on Saturday was largely cloudy and humid (not great conditions for getting hay to dry), but at least it didn’t rain. Same on Sunday. When we got back from visiting family on Sunday, our friend’s rake was parked in our front yard, looking repaired and ready to hit the field again.

But, at this point, who knows how good that hay is going to be. It’s been sitting in the field for nearly a week. It’s been rained on (and soaked) multiple times. I suppose we’ll know more later today, when he gets out there and works with it. My big concern is that it sat wet for too long, and is getting rotten or molding.

At least from here on out, the weather is supposed to be pretty good. Here’s hoping that the harvest can still be salvaged!

*****UPDATE (8:10 PM)

It wasn’t the best-quality hay we’ve ever had, and quite a few more bales than usual were so wet that they needed to be put aside for additional drying, but we did manage to get everything into the barn this afternoon. Soon after I put up the original post, our farmer friend stopped by with his equipment. He raked the hay into final windrows, and then around 1:30 or so began baling. One of the Yeoman Farm Children rode on the hay wagon and stacked bales, and another YFC helped me unload each wagon in the barn. I’m a bit fuzzy on the exact number of bales we got, but it’s solidly north of 400.

Given that hay is currently fetching $10 per bale at the local auction, I feel a lot better about how sore and exhausted I feel right now. No, we’re not going to sell any of our harvest (even at $10 per bale), tempting though it may be at that price. What I’m feeling good about is NOT HAVING TO SPEND $10 per bale to feed our sheep and goats this coming winter. Yes, that price will probably decline in coming weeks, as more farmers manage to bring in their hay. But, still … given how screwy the weather has been, I bet the price remains significantly higher than in past years.

Over and out for tonight. Time to join the rest of the family for our evening rosary. We’ll be offering it up in thanksgiving for this wonderful harvest.

Moving Up and Out

Near the top of my list for things that can’t be beat about country life: fresh eggs, and home-grown meat. Today, our new batch of little birds took a step forward in providing the new year’s supply of both.

We got our baby birds pretty late this year. Our local grain elevator organized a series of group purchases from a Michigan hatchery over the course of the spring; we waited for the very last of these. One big advantage of the group buy is that we all get a low per-bird rate — and no charges for shipping. So, we almost always go that route now.

Why did we wait so late? Like much of the country, the weather has been awful here in Michigan this spring. I simply didn’t want to put the birds out too soon, and have them suffer chills. When we first started farming, we were usually in a rush to get birds started … and we typically lost a number of them to cold or wet. With experience, we’ve come to appreciate the value of warmer spring temperatures for getting birds off to a solid start.

The downside to starting late is, of course, the final product isn’t ready until later. And that’s fine with me, actually. Our new pullets won’t start laying until November, but it’s not like we’re relying on them for our only eggs; these will be simply taking the place of some older hens that we’ll be retiring to the soup pot. We have some yearlings that will continue supplying eggs in the meantime. (Hens lay productively for about two years; we like to replace the oldest half of the flock each year. And we raise a different color of chicken each year, so we can tell which ones are oldest and which still have another year of productive laying.)

The Cornish Cross meat chickens will be ready to start butchering in late July, which I suppose is a bit later than I’d prefer, but we still have several in the freezer from last year that we need to eat. The new ones will give us a nice supply of fresh chicken for the grill in August.

That leaves the turkeys. I want to be able to butcher turkeys shortly before Thanksgiving, and a June start translates into a bird that’s big but not too big at that time.  If we start the turkeys early in the year, we have to butcher them early and freeze them — or let them grow to a monster size in November.

You’ll notice I mentioned three different types of birds: pullets, Cornish Cross meat chickens, and turkeys. Conventional wisdom says to brood separate types of birds separately, and there are good reasons for this. And we used to do it that way, when we were raising larger numbers of each type. This year, we’re only doing 25 meat birds, 10 pullets, and 5 turkeys; we’re not selling to the public, and that’s plenty for our family. However, there’s no point running brooder heat lamps for 10 birds or 5 birds. And we only have one brooder, anyway, so doing separate brooding would require three separate orders (or building separate brooders, which I’m not really in the mood for). I prefer to take my chances on the little pullets getting trampled by the larger birds, or the turkeys catching a disease that the chickens carry (but are immune to). And you know what? It’s worked out perfectly fine so far.

The birds arrived about a week and a half ago. For the nine year old, this is one of his favorite days of the year; he thinks it’s a blast to drive with me to the grain elevator, hold the box of cheeping birds on his lap as we drive home, and them help put them into the brooder one at a time (dunking each one’s beak into the water for a drink before releasing). We ran a 250 watt red heat bulb to start, in part because the weather was still surprisingly chilly for June. Once things warmed up, and the birds were well established, I swapped the big bulb out for a 100 watt incandescent. (We laid in a good supply of these before the government banned their sale. It’s nice having a bulb that can produce some heat, but not too much.)

Today, graced with fantastically sunny weather, the birds took their next step: the outdoor pasture pen. Last year, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer planted roughly half of the space available in the garden; I ran chickens in a pasture pen in the other half. This year, we traded. MYF worked up and planted the wonderfully-fertilized portion of the garden that I used last year, and I have moved my pen to the portion she used last year.

Here are this year’s birds, all set to go to work (you can see part of this year’s garden off to the right):

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Because the weather is so nice today, and because pullets are too little to fly out of the pen, I’m leaving half the lid open this afternoon (note there are two pieces of plywood stacked on the right side). This evening, I’ll move one of those pieces over, to close the pen up.

For now, the birds are a bit disoriented — but are beginning to explore their new surroundings. In addition to their high-protein feed, they’ll have lots of weeds to supplement their diet. They’re already starting to peck at these. We’ll give them a few days to clear those weeds out, and then we’ll move the pen to a fresh patch.

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I can hardly wait for fresh chicken on the grill!

Pachelbelle’s Cannon

In The Hunger Games, a tribute’s demise is announced to viewers (and other participants) by the firing of a cannon shot. I like to think of it as a final salute to the participant, for all of his or her efforts. Today, with a heavy heart and mixed emotions, we “readied the cannon” for our oldest sheep, Pachelbelle. It was one of the more difficult decisions I’ve had to make regarding our livestock.

Pachelbelle had the distinction of being our last surviving animal to have made the move from Illinois to Michigan in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” at the end of 2007. She was just a lamb at the time, having been in March of that year — to a dam that’d been one of the original four sheep in our flock. She had a beautiful gray fleece, a gentle temperament, and delivered many nice lambs for us over the years.

However, in the last year or so, she began clearly showing her age. Climbing to her feet was taking obvious effort, and she was consistently the last of the flock to go out or come back in. As the months went by, her movements slowed and became more labored. At shearing time last October, she spent the entire day laying down and simply observing as the rest of flock had their fleeces removed one by one. As nice as Pachelbelle’s fleece was, I asked our shearer to leave that one in place. I hadn’t entirely made up my mind yet about butchering Pachelbelle, but regardless … I didn’t want her to spend any extra energy trying to stay warm.

By the time I called to arrange butchering for our lambs, the shop was booked until January 14th. I told them to pencil in one really old sheep, in addition to the lambs. I didn’t say it, but I wasn’t certain Pachelbelle would make it that long. I also wasn’t sure I would have the heart to actually take her in.

What made the decision harder is that, even today, she was managing to get around. Yes, slowly. But still getting around. Shouldn’t I let her continue?

Here’s the thing that I kept going back to: we have had really, really bad luck with sheep in their thirteenth year of life. Several have made it to their twelfth birthday, in a similar condition to Pachelbelle’s, and it never ended well after that. Assuming they survived the spring lambing, they would go downhill fast in the heat of summer. Eventually, they would stop eating. Then they would stop getting to their feet. And then, in the heat of summer, we would need to dispose of a large carcass. It really wasn’t fair to the ewe. The last time we experienced this, I resolved to impose a “mandatory retirement age” of eleven years.

So, as much as I wanted to let Pachelbelle keep going for as long as she could go … I couldn’t make her go through the prolonged agony that was inevitably coming this summer. Furthermore, by bringing her life to a close now, I could let her provide our family with many pounds of ground mutton.

When I fed the animals last night, I pulled Pachelbelle aside and sat with her for a few minutes. I told her what a wonderful sheep she’d been, how much we’d enjoyed having her on our farm, and that I hoped we’d provided her with a great life. Then I hugged her neck, and let her hobble over to enjoy some hay with the rest of the flock.

As heavy as my heart was this morning, and much as it pained me to load her in the van, I know this was the right thing to do. I’d give her a twenty-one gun salute if I could.

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Who Says You Can’t Go Home … To the House at Pooh Corner?

A fantastic new movie opened this past weekend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough: Disney’s Christopher Robin. Take a look at the trailer:

The film is essentially a spin-off from the classic stories by A.A. Milne. As you probably know, these stories were inspired by the imaginative games that his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, played with his stuffed animals. These stories were among my favorites as a kid, and I always sensed a special bond with the main character because we shared the same first name. It was lots of fun to read all twenty of the stories again about a year and a half ago, with my own son (then aged seven), and watch him enjoy them as thoroughly as I had. I’d add that the more recently you’ve read the classic stories, the more you’ll appreciate some of the references in the movie.

The “Christopher Robin” in the stories was of course a fictionalized version of the real-life boy. The film takes the fictional Christoper Robin (note that “Robin” is his surname, not a middle name) and shows what happened to him after the conclusion of the final classic story, when Christopher Robin must leave his animal friends behind in the Hundred Acre Wood.

[Warning: minor set-up plot spoilers, mostly fleshing out the trailer, ahead.]

Twenty years or so pass fairly quickly; we see him attend boarding school, fall in love, start a family, serve in World War II, and come home safely from that war to his wife and young daughter.

The heart of the story takes place in the late 1940s, with the daughter not much older than Christopher himself was when he left for boarding school. He’s now a workaholic who’s managed to claw his way up to middle management at a luggage company in London. He rarely makes it home for dinner with his family. The Hundred Acre Wood is long forgotten.

The key conflict arises when Christopher’s upper class twit of a boss informs him, on a Friday afternoon, that he must come in to work all weekend. The problem is, Christopher and his wife had longstanding plans to take their daughter on holiday in the country that weekend. He must choose … and he senses he doesn’t have any real option other than to stay.

Christopher’s wife seems unsurprised by his decision. She and the daughter (who had been very much looking forward to spending the weekend with her father, and is of course devastated by this turn of events) go to the cabin in the countryside by themselves.

As we watch Christopher trudge through a Saturday full of paperwork, we want to reach through the screen, shake him by the shoulders, and shout: “Look at yourself! What’s happened to you?”

We, of course, can’t physically reach Christopher. But a Bear of Very Little Brain might just be able to do it. Back in the Hundred Acre Wood, a crisis has arisen — and Winnie the Pooh (fantastically animated and voiced, by the way) thinks Christopher Robin is the only one who can solve it. He goes looking for his long lost friend, and through a miracle of fantasy stumbles upon a one-way portal to London.

The movie trailer implies that at this point, Christopher sort of drops everything and runs off to the Hundred Acre Wood to save the day. Without giving any spoilers … his transformation is more gradual. I thought the pacing of his change was realistic – and perfect. Along the way, we realize that the Silly Old Bear’s real mission isn’t to save his friends back in the Wood. It’s to save Christopher Robin – in more ways than one.

Kids will enjoy this movie a lot. My eight-and-a-half-year-old son certainly did, and so did the other kids at the theater. The CGI animals are a delight (I particularly enjoyed Eeyore).  It’s a fun story, and the collision of the animals with the outside world is especially so. Don’t be concerned by the PG rating; apart from the brief wartime scenes and explosions, which might frighten the youngest kids, there really isn’t anything inappropriate for older children. The rating seems due more to the nature of the story; some kids may need some “guidance” in understanding why Christopher Robin spends so much time at work and so little time with his family, or what the conflicts between his boss and the employees are all about.

And that gets us to something larger: as much as kids will enjoy this movie, it really isn’t a “kid movie.” The true target audience is middle-aged folks. Especially parents, and especially men. The struggle to balance professional responsibilities with family responsibilities is a tough one, especially for those of us who are self-employed and find it nearly impossible to completely disconnect.

And, yes, sometimes work does have to “win,” particularly if we have a known busy season. Hay really does have to be made while the sun shines. The harvest does have to be brought in when it can be brought in. And it’s not just farming. My father ran a retail clothing store when I was a kid; between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, we rarely saw him. That was tough on all of us, but we always knew things would slow down and we’d get Dad back. My own family has come to understand the same thing about public opinion research consulting; September and October can be a blur, but things quiet down after the first-Tuesday-after-the-first-Monday in November.

The problem is when work becomes something we habitually choose to immerse ourselves in, to the detriment of family, and to the point where we can’t say “no.” Work often provides tangible rewards and (especially) recognition more immediately than spending time with family does. That can become alluring. It can also ruin what’s most truly rewarding about life. Sometimes, what we really need is some time away in the Hundred Acre Wood.

I was surprised at the depth of emotions this movie stirred in me, and how thoroughly it stirred them. From conversations I’ve had with others, I know I’m far from alone. Don’t be afraid to take a handkerchief, and don’t be afraid to use it. I walked out of the theater feeling emotionally spent — but in a deeply satisfying way.  The story had taken me to a place which, like Christopher Robin, I had forgotten even existed: that enchanted place on the top of the Forest (and in my heart) where a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

I hope the story takes you there as well.

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In A Flash

How quickly, and how completely, can life change? I got a reminder this morning, when Facebook suggested a “memory” of a post I put up five years ago today, celebrating a new personal record time (12 hours, 15 minutes) for the 200+ mile one-day Seattle to Portland bicycle ride:

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I’m not sure WordPress is going to preserve the Facebook formatting, so here’s a fresh copy of the photo:

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I uploaded that photo at 5:30pm Pacific time, on a Saturday. I then enjoyed a nice dinner in Portland with a colleague, caught a bus back to Seattle, and got a good night’s sleep. I met an old friend for breakfast the next morning after Mass, then enjoyed the rest of the day in Seattle before hopping an overnight flight to Michigan.

Less than 36 hours after the photo was taken, I was driving home from the airport and making what I thought was a routine “Hey, I landed safely and am in the car” call. Instead, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer surprised me with news: the baby girl in utero, not due for more than five more weeks? Yeah, well, baby girl wants out. The water just broke. Come straight home and pack a bag, because we’re going to the hospital.

The rest of the morning was a frenzy of activity, followed by a long drive to U of M hospital, followed by … lots of tests and lots of waiting, but not a lot of uterine contractions. Eventually, they decided to admit MYF to the hospital for additional observation. I went home to the other four kids, all the while on edge and waiting for an update.

A phone call jolted me awake at something like 2am. MYF explained that she was now in active labor, but the baby’s transverse position required a C-section delivery. If I wanted to be there for my daughter’s arrival, I needed to get on the road. Now.

I drove straight back to the hospital, checked in, and donned the sterile garb required to take my place in the operating room. Things seemed to be proceeding normally – but then MYF’s throat began swelling shut (due to an allergic reaction to the anesthetic being used). I sensed the entire demeanor of the delivery team change, instantaneously. Everyone buzzed with an urgency and focus that’d been absent during the deliveries of our other kids who’d arrived via surgery.

A nurse put her hand on my shoulder, and physically directed me to the door. “Dad, you need to get out of here,” she said, firmly. Bewildered, I wanted to insist I was fine and that my presence would’t be a problem – but I was already out the door before I could open my mouth.

Back in the empty prep room, I waited for what seemed an eternity before the nurse (now all smiles) returned and asked if I’d like to see my new daughter. As we walked, she assured me that the baby was safe, and that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer had come through the surgery fine as well.

A couple of gowned doctors were finishing getting the baby cleaned up and measured when we arrived. The first thing I noticed about Little Miss Sweetness was how pink she was. The second thing I noticed was how large she seemed, for having arrived so early. I also noted that her ears seemed a little small, but to my untrained eye nothing else seemed unusual.

After chatting with the medical staff for a few minutes, I asked, casually, almost as an afterthought: “Do you see any abnormalities?”

The two of them looked at each other for a moment in silence, and then the woman who seemed a bit older took charge. “So,” she explained, “We have been making all of our initial observations and evaluations. We will pass those along to the team that is coming in, and then they’ll put everything together with their own observations.”

Or something like that. Five years later, the exact words are a bit hazy. I do remember thinking that I’d been around politics to know a “dodge” when I heard one. I also remember the doctor’s smile being so confident, I quickly assured myself everything would be alright. After all, Baby Girl sure didn’t look to me like she had any problems.

Is this a textbook example of normalcy bias? Maybe. But maybe I needed a few more hours of blessed normalcy.

Everything, of course, was not alright. That afternoon, we got the twin bombshells that Little Miss Sweetness was showing several markers for Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), later confirmed by additional tests, and that she had multiple holes in her heart that would require major surgery to repair. By the next afternoon, we learned that she also had duodenal atresia (a blockage between her stomach and intestines), which would require surgery the next morning to correct.

Longtime readers will remember an article I published when Little Miss Sweetness was eight months old, detailing the crazy events which followed. What I’ve been thinking about today, however, is being in the NICU on the Saturday after the birth. As I watched LMS sleeping, with all the tubes and monitors hooked up to her little body, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by how much our lives had been turned upside down in just one week.

Exactly one week earlier, I’d been celebrating the ride of my life. Everything had been perfect. And moreover, I’d been in complete control. Now, in what seemed the blink of an eye, it’d all been flipped over – and I was in control of none of it. The guy standing triumphantly at the finish line in Portland? That seemed like it’d happened decades earlier, and to a different person.

Does that Facebook memory really say “Five Years Ago”? It feels like it’s gone by in a instant. Today, Little Miss Sweetness is a happy and healthy young lady – and none of us can imagine life without her. Are there still challenges? Absolutely. But also tremendous joys, which are inseparable from those challenges.

Little Miss Sweetness has taken us to a world we never saw coming. And sometimes, those turn out to be the very best kind.