Letters from The West: Life and Death at Goat Farm

The monsoon thunderstorms are rolling in again as I'm writing this from our new home in the Rio Grande Valley north of Santa Fe.

The storms boil up over the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the north and east just about every afternoon this time of year before meandering our way in the valley below, the fat raindrops and pea-sized hailstones bouncing off the steel roof of our ranch house in the shade of some ancient cottonwood and olive trees.

Outside the front door, a llama and a couple of sheep are grazing on the lush greenery, while out back the goats are playing in their enclosure behind an old, twisting cottonwood and medicine wheel. Other Native American sculptures are scattered across the yard, as hummingbirds streak back and forth from one tree to another.

The chickens are clucking, the turkeys (at least the two we have left, but more on that later) are gobbling, dogs are lounging, the old hippie caretaker is sleeping in a beat-up minivan in the driveway…

There are more goats around here than anything else, so that's why—in a moment of inspiration unrivaled in the history of naming other people's shit—I've dubbed the place "Goat Farm."

It's nice. I like it here—even if it is somebody else's idea of utopia and not necessarily mine. It's also a good place to start a family, as my wife Kirbi is set to give birth to our first child (a boy) at pretty much any time.

I guess that the niceness and serenity of the place makes all the death that happened around here last week that much more…well...it's a long story.

Welcome to Goat Farm! We've Got Some Bad News…

We honestly never really knew our landlord.

Stephen seemed like a nice enough guy, perhaps a little intense, but certainly pleasant enough. We met through his Craigslist listing for the place, a two bedroom home with an office and an attached indoor greenhouse on some acreage backing up against the Santa Clara Reservation, $750 a month plus our share of the utilities.

We do know he was an cultural anthropology professor in his late 50's or early 60's, and that he owned a llama named "Excalibur." There was nothing particularly strange about that, though. God only knows how many cultural anthropology professors are here in northern New Mexico—I reckon most of them pass through Santa Fe or Taos at one point in their careers, usually with a llama or a monkey or a timber wolf or some weird or foul creature in tow. I think it might be how they qualify for tenure.

All things considered, we probably dodged a bullet in that we really only have to live with a llama and some goats.

But when we met Stephen for the first time, he appeared gaunt and thin. He said that he had just gotten back from a three month trip to Mexico, and was excited to have "new life" (as he put it) in the house with our soon-to-be-newborn son.

I sensed there was something very wrong with his health, but it didn't seem like the moment to ask.

As it turned out, it was the only real opportunity I would get to ask him anything. The meeting lasted about 20 minutes or so, and that was it. We made the decision to move in pretty quickly afterwards—mostly because it was only about a 10 minute drive from a hospital, grocery store, drug store, etc., instead of the hour-plus drive from our old place 80 miles away, but also because the house felt like a good place to bring our first child into the world.

We weren't set to officially move in for another couple weeks, but Stephen said we could start moving in our boxes and stuff whenever we wanted, which I did a few carloads at a time.

But about a week and a half after our meeting, Kirbi got an email from one of Stephen's friends explaining exactly what was going on with his health. He had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and was about to start home hospice care.

In short Stephen was dying, and the end was going to be sooner than later.

We were a bit surprised, but there was no way you could look at him in our brief meeting and not suspect that something was wrong. We thought about reconsidering the move, but it was really too late to change our minds—Kirbi was over eight months pregnant by that time, and that was the absolute last chance to move to a safer place for a baby before she would give birth.

I should add that it's not like we were living in some cave at the time—it was a funky but cozy two-room adobe casita on 75 acres along the Pecos River southeast of Santa Fe. But it might as well have been on the moon when it came to access to hospitals or grocery stores.

Hell, it was a 30 minute drive just to get to a gas station, much less a hospital.

I talked to Stephen just one more time, on the day we actually moved in to let him know we were there and to get some information about the WiFi setup. He didn't recognize me at first, but when I mentioned Kirbi his eyes lit up. He asked how the baby was coming along, and I told him that everything was going well and that my wife would be giving birth at the end of July.

He smiled and looked pleased, but it was also pretty clear from the way his eyes were swimming around his head that he was very high on painkillers and quite probably some sort of hallucinogen.

He was a cultural anthropologist, after all.

"What Can I Do For You, Brother?"

Stephen owned Goat Farm, but it's run by Michael—an amiable and perpetually shirtless old hippie with long gray hair and a long gray beard. He lives in an RV on the far edge of the property and takes care of all the assorted farm animals, works the vegetable garden, takes out the trash and serves as the general handyman around the place.

Michael spends the biggest chunk of his time out in his truck, smoking an occasional joint and taking a nap—but he also jumped right in and helped me with furniture and boxes when we were moving into the house, saving my already sketchy back from further moving-related harm.

"How can I help you, brother?" is his catchphrase, and he has been Johnny On the Spot when it comes to getting things done around here. Over the past month I've met more hippies than at any other point in my entire life (I'll get to some of the others in a bit), but Michael is the one hippie that gives them a good name—always willing to help out in any way possible, always in a good mood, takes good care of the animals, just happy to be here.

I have never had a great relationship with hippiedom. Oh, I enjoy some obvious aspects of the lifestyle, and I even enjoy some of the music—although jam bands and drum circles irritate every fiber of my being (more on that later as well).

But I'm also OCD about personal hygiene—at our old house I used to take a shower before hauling our trash to the dump, and I can get a little weird about constantly washing my hands.

I also used to play guitar in punk bands, I love country music and I hate the smell of patchouli.

All that being said, Michael's a good guy.

A Word on Pain Killers

The sprawling house is divided such that Stephen's bedroom was on the other side of a locked door down a short hallway from our bedroom, only about 15 feet or so. This means that for the next couple of weeks, while my wife was desperately trying to catch some rest and keep her blood pressure down, we heard him gradually begin to fade.

At first, we could hear him move around inside his two-room enclave. We would see him walking very gingerly around the back yard with the assistance of his ex-wife, who had moved in with him to take care of him. We could hear him talk to visitors, and listen to his music—mostly old classic rock like Big Brother and the Holding Company or The Beatles.

As the days progressed, his trips outside became fewer and fewer. Kirbi had provided hospice care to her father, so we knew that our landlord's medication was probably getting much stronger as his condition got worse.

Pain medication is a hell of a thing. If you're of a certain mindset, a Vicodin or a Percocet or even a shot of morphine sounds like a pretty damn jolly way to pass the time of day. But when you actually need them they are a horrible nightmare. They aren't even remotely strong enough to mask the pain, especially of a disease like colon cancer that makes things like eating and walking almost impossible, to say nothing of the agony of using the toilet.

Narcotic painkillers can also make you extremely irritable, so we could hear Stephen start to snap at his friends and visitors, blaming them at first for small problems with the house before eventually escalating to blaming them for not being able to cure his cancer.

Meanwhile, Kirbi and I tried to make the best of things. I wrote and moved furniture and boxes around while she unpacked and sorted our stuff. She tried to grab naps during the quiet moments on the other side of the door, but those weren't very often.

But every night, around 10 o'clock, Stephen's ritual would begin. It usually started with an argument with his eternally patient ex-wife—we tried to not pay any attention, but the house isn't so big that you can't hear it when someone starts yelling.

Then the music would begin. It would start with some of those old hippie standbys like The Beatles, Janis Joplin and maybe some Jefferson Airplane, then segue into some old soul records before heading into gospel music, which he would sing—or I suppose, more accurately, shout desperately—along to for a while.

After a while, the music would take a more anthropological turn—African drums, didgeridoo, Native American flutes and the like.

Meanwhile, we would try and fail to go to sleep. Becoming a new parent, moving into a new house and starting a new job is stressful enough without the added sounds of a dying man crying out to God (and any god would do) to save him from his pain floating down the short hallway into your bedroom at night.

Then there would be a couple of hours of silence—we knew then that he had finally fallen to sleep—followed by desperate cries for help.

"Help me! Please help me! Please!"

The first time we heard them, we were startled out of bed. It was about 2 o'clock in the morning, and his pained, almost child-like pleas for help scared us to death.

Flashlight in hand, we hurried over to wake his ex-wife from her room in another part of the house, who then rushed over to help him with whatever it was he needed. We never really did find out what the problem was, but experience told us it was probably just general confusion and fear.

Through it all, his ex-wife patiently tended to his needs. There is no way to fully understand the toll being a full-time hospice caregiver takes unless you have done it.

I was with my wife as much as work would allow when she took care of her father, spending a night or two watching him for her so she could get an hour or so of sleep—but even that experience only gave me a small glimpse of the emotional and physical damage that sort of care inflicts on a person, especially when they are caring for a loved one.

Dying usually isn't as fast or clean as it is on television. It can be a mean, messy, profoundly uncomfortable and exhausting experience. It takes a special kind of person to be there to care for someone who is tired, in terrible pain and terrified of what's happening to them.

You can empathize with a hospice caregiver, but until the responsibility has fallen squarely on your shoulders you really don't know what it's like.

That soul-draining exhaustion, among other reasons, is how we ended up in New Mexico. But that's another story entirely…

Anyway, there were also a steady stream of friends and well-wishers, each stopping by during random times of the day and night. Older hippies and college liberal types, pulling up in their Subarus and Volvos, with gray dreadlocks and leather sandals, some wearing tie-dye t-shirts with logos for the local farmer's co-op or yoga supply store across the front.

One guy had dyed his long graying beard to the colors of the Jamaican flag, another woman brought a harp to play, others brought flutes and drums.

Most seemed unaware of Stephen's condition, knowing only that he had just gotten back from Mexico, and the sort of dazed expressions on their faces as they left told us that they weren't quite prepared for what they saw—a painfully thin, gaunt man who likely didn't recognize them anymore through the fog of narcotics and pain of his failing organs.

A few got back in their cars and sat there crying for a few moments, others drove off as fast as their Prius would take them.

After a few days, the nightly cries for help gave way to the sound of vomiting. The literally gut-wrenching dry heaves of a man sounding like he's being turned inside out. Mostly just in the morning at first but later throughout the day and night.

Still, we had to at least go through the motions of trying to get some sleep.

Sleep? Great Idea! It Never Would Have Occurred to Us!

You know, there are few things as frustrating as having well-meaning friends and family tell you at every possible moment, "You better get some sleep now, because after the baby comes…" followed by a brief, self-satisfied chuckle.

First of all, I'd like to just mention that YOU'RE NOT FUCKING HELPING!

Second of all, it has occurred to us more than a few times that sleep is a wonderful and necessary thing. We would love nothing more than to have a full night's sleep just once before our son is born. But it's hard to sleep soundly when you're worried about money, housing, insurance and the 10,000 other things you have to worry about when you're an unemployed writer—a skill that, to borrow a quaint old expression, is about as useful as tits on a boar when you're living in the middle of the desert.

And that doesn't even begin to cover Kirbi's pregnancy-induced insomnia problems. You try to get some sleep when you have to get up to pee every hour like clockwork and literally every single food item in existence gives you throat-searing heartburn.

And listening to a man slowly die just a few feet away from your bedroom every night certainly doesn't help.

Last Night, the Turkeys Died a Terrible Death...

In the midst of this drama, a particularly wild thunderstorm blew across the valley last Wednesday night.

Everyplace in the United States gets some storms at some point in the year, but storms in the southwest are different. It's somehow closer and more primal, the lightning is stronger and more frightening and the rain seems heavier here than it does anywhere else.

The storm last week was particularly intense, the rain forming lakes around the house and hail pounding on the steel roof while shocks of thunder rattled everything inside, sending our cats fleeing into cupboards or under the bed for shelter.

The only light outside was from the strands of lightning across the sky, otherwise everything was pitch black.

What we didn't see in the darkness that night was the water rising in the arroyo behind the property. The turkey and chicken coops were down there, about 15 feet below the rest of the property and only about two feet above the flood plain.

Flash floods out in this part of the country are not something to fuck around with, because they form without much warning, move very fast and it doesn't take just a whole lot of rain to get one started.

Well, on Wednesday night a whole lot of rain fell in a short amount of time, and there was a very fast, very deep flash flood. It was too dark to see exactly what happened that night, but from what I could piece together a wall of water about three or four feet high rushed down the arroyo—which starts high in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos and ends about half-a-mile downstream from us in the Rio Grande—and swept through the turkey and chicken coops, drowning three turkey hens in what I can only guess was an absolutely terrifying death.

The chickens survived because they were able to claw and flutter their way up to the roof of their coop. The turkeys were buried under a couple of feet of mud and sand.

When we found out about it the next day, I have to admit we got a little choked up.

But it's not like we knew the turkeys any more than we knew our landlord. I'm still not entirely sure why Stephen had turkeys anyway—I'm pretty sure he wasn't planning on eating or selling them. I guess he just really liked the aesthetic of owning turkeys. Probably the same for the sheep, goats and chickens.

In fact, the only thing on the farm he ever seemed attached to was the llama, Excalibur, and the only thing I've ever seen Excalibur do—beside eat, crap and sleep—is periodically spit at the sheep when they wander too close.

But our landlord seemed to love her.

Letters from The West: Life and Death at Goat Farm

Anyway, we got a little choked up about the turkeys. While we didn't really hang out with the turkeys—in fact I'd only seen them once or twice during a quick tour of the property, and I'm pretty sure that Kirbi only saw them once herself—drowning in a roaring torrent of cold, wet sand during the middle of the night is a horrible way for anything to die, even if you're just a turkey and nobody is sure why you were ever there in the first place.

Stephen spent the night of the storm vomiting, moaning, and crying out to the heavens for relief in his room on the other side of the locked door, while his ex-wife did everything she could to comfort him.

There wasn't anything that we could do except lie in bed and stare up at the ceiling like we always did, still grimly waiting for a man we really didn't know to die.

It Was a Good Death

Friday was laundry day. We have a washing machine that came with the house, but I'm told that a mouse or two wandered into the dryer at some point in the past several months, and they apparently were in there when the dryer was cranked on high…

Anyway, Michael strongly advised us not to even open the machine—much less turn it on—until he could get it cleaned out and fixed. So we were outside hanging our laundry on the clothes line when we saw Stephen for the last time.

He was a stark sight, being assisted through the door and into the back yard by two friends. He was entirely naked except for a strategically-held blanket, his eyes were dark and sunken into his face and his pale, yellowish skin appeared stretched over his skeleton—except on his lower legs, which were swollen and bruised.

He moaned softly as he walked, making it about 15 feet onto a patch of weeds and dirt near the door to the greenhouse where he laid down and curled up into a fetal position. His friends asked for a blanket that was hanging on the line for him to lay on, and we obliged.

Mostly though, we tried not to stare at the strange scene unfolding in front of us. For the next few minutes, we were the most focused duo on the planet in terms of hanging laundry on the line, not saying a word as we worked.

When we finished we stopped briefly to chat quietly with his ex-wife, who said that Stephen really just wanted to come outside. Kirbi gave her a quick hug and we went inside where she broke down in tears. I could see the flood of memories from her father's death coming back in her eyes, and I held her for a few minutes.

The rest of the day was quiet. Later that evening, before sunset, I went outside to clean out our car, which had after nearly a month of moving had collected a prodigious amount of random junk and (mostly) empty McDonald's sacks.

While I was working, I saw one of Stephen's friends coming my way. She was a middle-aged woman who had previously told me that she was a yoga instructor in nearby Española. She also—in a separate conversation a few days earlier that I wasn't around for—slightly alarmed my wife by talking about her peculiar labor pains when she had her kids. Specifically something called "butt labor."

I'm still not sure what the hell "butt labor" is, but it sounds awful.

She walked towards me and began to talk about Stephen.

"They're about to start an incense ceremony over his body," she said. I guess I didn't quite comprehend what she was talking about, so just I sort of nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, we saw him earlier today. He was looking pretty gaunt," I said.

"Well, he was in the place he wanted to be—underneath the big cottonwood out back and looking up into the leaves and sky," she said.

It took a second, but it finally hit me.

"Yeah, he was by the back door ear—wait. Did he die?" I asked.

"Yes, around five o'clock this afternoon. His suffering is over, it was very peaceful, it was a good death," she said.

"I had no idea, we didn't know he had died," I said.

She seemed slightly taken aback, like how could we not know that he was dead? Our portion of the house has the big picture window looking out over the back yard, with Stephen's big cottonwood tree just 20 feet or so away and with the hills and mountains rising up beyond the arroyo.

How could we have not looked outside even once after coming back in with the laundry?

Well, actually it was easy. With the steady stream of strangers passing by our living room window on a constant basis, we had closed the blinds for some privacy. I went to work writing in the office, and my wife took a couple of long, badly-needed naps. I suppose we could have looked out back at any time, but I think that after seeing Stephen in the condition he was in, neither one of us really wanted to risk seeing him like that again.

It just seemed voyeuristic and unseemly to stand there and gawk at a naked, dying stranger and his sad, desperate care-givers from behind a big picture window.

His friend told me that there was going to be a ceremony in the back yard that evening. There would be some drums and singing while they incensed and cleaned Stephen's body, which would then be taken away to a local funeral home for cremation. We then said some awkward goodbyes before she drove off in her Prius to get some supplies for the evening's event.

I went inside to the kitchen, where Kirbi was cleaning some dishes.

"You look like you've been slightly traumatized," she said, smiling. She had seen me talking to Stephen's friend through the kitchen window, and she knows just how much I don't enjoy surprise conversations with strangers.

"Stephen is dead," I said.

My wife exhaled visibly and started to cry a little bit, and I held her in my arms.

It's a strange relief when death finally comes to someone who was clearly in agony. We were exhausted and a bit dazed by the experience. Here we are, about to welcome a new life into this world, spending the first two weeks in our new home listening to a man die.

And now he was gone, and we weren't sure exactly what to do next. I have to admit that my first thought was, "So who is supposed to be handling the rent now?"

Kirbi is the one with a heart and soul, I guess, but even she recovered her emotions pretty quickly. There's no doubt that it all certainly hit close to home, especially for her—but we also just barely knew the guy.

Hippie Farewell at Three O'Clock in the Goddamn Morning

We really didn't have to discuss it—in fact we never said a word about it—but we didn't go outside to take part in the body-cleansing ceremony with Stephen's friends. They started gathering around seven o'clock, the driveway soon filling up with Subarus and Volvos festooned with peace signs and assorted old hippie bumper stickers.

Most of them had a drum of some kind, while a few others had flutes or guitars and a few others brought casseroles.

We closed the blinds again and lit a candle in the window. Kirbi rented a movie (Bad Words—don't bother, it wasn't great) on iTunes while I popped up some popcorn. Our unborn son fidgeted visibly across Kirbi's belly for most of the movie—I guess he wasn't too terribly impressed with it either.

Outside, the singing and drums began. We didn't really check to see what was going on outside the window, we just sort of figured that they knew what they were doing. Like most things in hippie spirituality, it sounded to be a mishmash of whatever—a dash of Hindu, a bit of Buddhist, some Wicca, some Native American stuff, an old folk or gospel song now and then. Some of the singing and flutes sounded quite pretty, at least at first.

We finally went to bed shortly after midnight, but they were still going strong. We decided to just let them do their thing outside—they were saying goodbye to Stephen, who was still laid-out under the big cottonwood tree where he died earlier in the evening, waiting for the funeral home to take him away.

Surely they would call it a night soon, we thought.

But they kept on going. And going. And going. For the rest of the night, they kept on singing and banging their goddamn drums, the songs getting longer and more irritating, while we silently lay in our beds, staring up at the ceiling once again, waiting for the cacophony to stop.

"You'd better get some sleep while you can, ho ho ho…" kept rolling through my head as the singing and pounding rolled on and on.

This wasn't the sound of a party, mind you. These people were serious about their bullshit. They were singing and drumming their friend—our mysterious landlord with whom I'd only talked to twice—off to whatever afterlife their particular brand of make-it-up-as-you-go-along-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spirituality afforded the honored dead.

God, we just wanted to sleep. We were exhausted from the move, exhausted from the sleepless nights, exhausted from the uncertainty of impending parenthood, doing everything we could to keep my wife's blood pressure down to a safe level so we wouldn't have to rush her to the hospital in a preeclampsia-ed panic.

The hippies kept on going for hour after hour—banging their infernal drums and singing their stupid chants all night long. The songs and flutes and guitars and drums became less and less charming, and more and more like a drill bit swirling through our skulls and into our brains.

The drums kept pounding, over and over and over and over, minute after minute, hour after hour, never changing, just pounding and pounding while periodically one or two female voices warbled rickety songs about dying and grace, and the flutes fluttered in and out, never in tune to anything...

By three o'clock in the morning, Kirbi was nearly in tears because of exhaustion. I wanted to murder them all, just slash the mortal shit out of all of them with an axe until they were nothing more than scattered and bruised lumps of tie-dyed flesh and then toss their shattered remains into the arroyo to spend their Hindu-Buddhist-Wiccan-WhatTheFuckEver eternity with the late, lamented turkeys.

But of course I didn't. I was volcanically angry, but it seems that I may have at least some soul after all. I didn't even say a word, and neither did Kirbi.

After all, they were only trying to say goodbye to their late friend the best way they knew how.

The hippies finally wrapped up around 5:30 in the morning, packing up their Subarus and Volvos and going back to wherever it was they came. The funeral home picked up Stephen's body about that same time.

So we finally just fell to sleep—at least for about two hours when the sun blasted through the bedroom window like a sick joke. We both quietly cursed the sun, but I guess it didn't really matter because Kirbi had to get up and pee anyway.

The Landlord is Dead…Now What?

Saturday was mercifully quiet. I had to drive down to the Amtrak station in Lamy to pick up my mother, who is visiting and helping out for a few days, but Kirbi stayed home to do some cleaning and relax.

She said that the only thing she heard in the house was the sound of Stephen's ex-wife quietly playing old Bob Dylan records on the turntable in his now-empty room, which was probably the saddest and most genuinely touching moment of the entire experience.

Stephen's friends and family still stop by the place periodically, boxing up his stuff and taking pictures of the tree under which he finally died. They smile and wave to us—before he got too sick to communicate I guess Stephen had told everybody he knew that he had just rented out his house to a nice couple who were about to have a baby—and we smile and wave back.

We're not always sure who we're smiling and waving to, exactly, but it's certainly nice to feel welcome—especially after a good night's sleep.

And we still don't know what is going to happen next with the house. We absolutely can't move again right away—Kirbi could go into labor at any moment, and going through the moving process again so soon would be an exercise in cruelty for everybody—but we're also not sure what's going to happen to the property, or even who I'm supposed to be writing a rent check to each month.

Michael—who actually seems to have the firmest grip on reality of anybody involved—says that we'll be welcome here for as long as we have a mind to stay, but I guess that really depends on what Stephen's family and the bank want to do with the place.

In the meantime, here we are—two exhausted adults and one jumpy unborn child in a newly-deceased stranger's vision of a hippie paradise called Goat Farm.

We'll see what happens next.

Images by Jason M. Vaughn