This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.
Emily works as a communications manager for a small consulting firm and lives just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was used to working from home, so when quarantine began, it didn’t cause a major shift for her. She had realized her marriage was over in late 2019, and 2020 had already kicked off with significant changes in her life. Quarantine wasn’t one of them.
But as the rest of the world shut down for the year, Emily found herself adopting a tiny injured pig and nursing it back to health, until it could be returned to live with the other pigs on the farm where it was born.
I don’t know what else I could say to better set up this story, except that I hope you’ll read it. The way she told it when I spoke to her blew me away.
So here’s Emily’s story, as she told it to me.
I’ve been volunteering at this small organic farm outside of Pittsburgh for about five years. I think I’m helping, but mostly it’s showing up and playing in the dirt and hoping that I don’t make their lives harder.
This past summer, I showed up to pick up some vegetables, and the couple who runs the farm, Greg and Jen, said, “We’re doing chores. You want to come with us?” They were going to cart gallons and gallons of water to a pig who had just given birth the previous week on the side of a hill and couldn’t make a wallow. It was over 90 degrees outside, and she was terribly uncomfortable.
She had crushed one of her piglets. Greg pointed to the piglet and said, “That one’s probably not going to make it.” I think my face was like, [makes sad face]. He said, “Or we could take him in a bucket up to the house, and you could bottle-feed him.” I said, “I want to do that.”
The pig was so in shock that he wouldn’t even feed. I sat there and held him in my lap while he shook. Greg and Jen came up to me and asked if I wanted to bring him home and see if I could get him through the weekend, so we could hopefully reunite him with his mom. But by the time he was well enough to try to integrate with the herd, two or three weeks had passed. He didn’t recognize his mom, and she didn’t recognize him. He kept running away from her to try to get to me. I thought I had ruined this pig.
We decided we would try to reintegrate him once he could eat solid food. In the meantime, I had him for seven weeks. I spent the first few nights in the shower stall at my parents’ house with him. (I’m separated from my husband and living with my parents.) I walked onto my parents’ porch, carrying a crate that’s making noise. And I told them, “He’ll be here for at least four days, and we’ll see if he turns around.” But this is a thing that I do. My parents were like, “What is it now? What tiny, wounded animal is it now?”
I named him Franklin. I tried on a lot of names. Jean-Paul was in the running, and so was Hamilton, both for the pun and for the cultural reference. But I yelled for him so often when he was getting into trouble. He needed a yellable name. And Franklin was very cute and also very pig-like and also very yellable.
Franklin graduated from the shower stall to a dog crate on the porch right outside the window, so he could look inside to the kitchen and see me. But if I wanted to work from home, I couldn’t let him see me, because he’d start yelling for me. I had to army-crawl from my office into the kitchen so he couldn’t see me.
When he was a little bigger, he graduated to a dog crate under the porch. So I was just working remotely on my laptop in my parents’ yard with this little pig rooting around in the grass. And every night, he would curl up in my lap before I tucked him into bed. It was really sweet. I’d sing to him. Talk to him. It was really special.
The sad part of this story is that he ended up dying of uncertain causes in November. After seven weeks with me and a few months on the farm, after he was reintegrated with the rest of the pigs, Greg found him in the pig hut, curled up with everybody else, warm and cozy but not breathing.
They had gotten seven tons of watermelon and cucumber delivered the previous day, and he was mowing into this whole watermelon by himself. The list of possible causes of death is very long, but we like to think that he ate himself to death, then died peacefully in a warm cave with his brothers and sisters. At least that’s what I’m pretending to tell myself.
I talked about Franklin in therapy a lot. This experience was definitely a rehashing of a story that has happened over and over in my life — me showing up with a box with a wounded animal in it at my parents’ house and them being like, “Here she goes again.” That was a part of myself that I have felt ashamed of and hidden from people as this dark secret. I tried to nurse animals back to health, and I inevitably ended up failing. The animal would die, and then I would fear I had only extended its suffering.
I had a teacher once tell me a story: Her first husband told her he didn’t want to be married to her. He dropped her off at her parents’ house. She spent weeks lying on her childhood bed, and her mom would come in and hold her hand, not saying anything, and lie next to her. Her mom had a cat, and the first relationship my teacher built after her husband left was with this cat. That’s how she learned to trust again.
I decided to leave my husband about a year ago. And I remember trying to imagine my life a year from then. I did not picture picking up a pig out of my parents’ shower stall and singing to him and trying to get him to latch onto a bottle and mixing up a pumpkin puree in Greek yogurt to try to get him to eat.
The night before I brought Franklin back to the farm, he was sleeping in my lap. I told him, “I don’t think I told you that I was married.” I just started to cry. There was this moment of being alone again, this problem of doing the right thing. Maybe that’s how Covid-19 feels, too. We’re isolating ourselves to do the right thing, but we’re all suffering because of it. We’re seeking companionship in these very odd ways. We’re talking over Zoom. I’m cradling a pig.
I saw one morning that I had missed Greg’s call, and I knew immediately that Franklin had died. It wasn’t a text with an update. It wasn’t a photo update. I knew he was calling me to tell me Franklin had died. When I talked to him, he said, “Our friend has gone on to the great feed trough in the sky.” And he said, “I think he ate himself to death.”
I laughed about that because that’s objectively a funny way to go. And as I was laughing, I said, “I’m very sad, and I’m going to cry about this.” And he said, “Me too. What do you want me to do with him?” Greg has only buried two other pigs on the farm before, but Franklin was buried that day. Greg asked if I wanted to join him. I said, “I can’t ask you to hang on to a pig body until I’m ready. Do the burial.” So Greg buried Franklin in the woods under a tree. And I cried in the shower about this pig.
But as I was trying to make sense of it, I thought, I’m so glad I didn’t have to make another hard decision. This whole process of taking him home, deciding to try to reintegrate him with the herd, realizing that would fail, seeing him run to me because I was his mom, thinking I had ruined this pig, finally reintegrating him, finally healing so he looked happy and healthy, then he passed away. And we didn’t have to decide whether we were prolonging his suffering.
He died the day after Community Supported Agriculture season was over. [CSA is a program where individuals subscribe to a service that offers produce from independent farms.] It’s like he knew he was alive for us. One day, all of the CSA members were coming in and interacting with him, and the next night he passed away. It was as if he was like, “Okay, you guys seem to enjoy this, so I’m gonna keep hanging on. But now I’m done. This has been a wild ride.”
One of the first things that Greg said when I decided to take Franklin home was that farming is so hard that hope is costly. And sometimes it’s nice to be reminded, when other people come in, that they can see and help out in a new way and be creative and intervene in a way that my friends don’t have space for. They’re terribly kind people, but they have to be quite a bit more practical. But he said it’s nice to be reminded to hope.
It felt like it’s possible to do the right thing and have it be the hard thing. It’s possible to do the right thing and have a thing end anyway. I told a friend, “I would do it again because I don’t learn.” But I don’t think that’s true. I think I am replaying the same lesson over and over again because I have to keep learning this lesson. That lesson is not that this is superfluous or silly or that I have these inclinations because I’m a silly girl who can’t be realistic.
Sometimes that thing still gets taken away from you. A thing disappears, or it’s time to walk away. That doesn’t mean it was wasted. It’s such a silly way of looking at things to believe that love or care can be wasted. But that’s also not an excuse to stay in a bad situation! In my past, that idea of “your love is never wasted” is an idea that I’ve played out as a way to stay in places that were harmful to me. Not accidentally, not as a way of being, but that people were taking from me in a way that hurt me, and I just kept staying because I believed it was my job to care for them.
Part of this story is that I left church at the same time I left my marriage. Because of that experience, I’ve had such a difficult time thinking in spiritual ways or in these cosmic, redemptive ways, because those things felt familiar in a way that wasn’t comforting anymore.
But there was a meteor shower in August, and it was very visible from the farm. So several of us stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning. I had the pig. He was sleeping in the crook of my arm. And the rest of us were socially distant lying in this field on this organic farm in Pittsburgh, watching the stars all over the sky and listening to classic rock on Spotify. It’s a lot easier to believe that everything is holy lying in a field under the stars with good people and a pig sleeping in the crook of your arm.
Those moments aren’t wasted. To say that something good is wasted because it didn’t last ... I don’t know. I tend to make things into lessons. I’m perpetually trying to impose meaning on everything. Also, it didn’t have to mean anything. Maybe it was just a nice thing that happened.
Or maybe, sometimes, you bottle-feed a pig for two months and he still dies. It’s out of your control. There’s a different kind of surrender that comes with it. That feels like an important lesson to me.