This is the story of Ginnie, as told by her friend Susan Seawolf Hayes. Our “Opening Our Hearts” stories are based on people’s real life experiences. By sharing these experiences publicly, we hope to help our readers feel less alone in their grief and, ultimately, to aid them in their healing process. In this post, Susan tells the story of her friend Ginnie, also known as the Goat Lady, who lost her life to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I met Ginnie at a tiny Greensboro, North Carolina church. The congregation met for a Sunday evening service and then shared a simple meal. Ginnie’s contribution was always her handmade goat cheese.
Most people just called her the Goat Lady. Retired from a career in nursing, she had a hankering to live on a farm. Not just live there but foster a different sort of life than the one she had known, one that began as the sun showed its face and ended as it slipped down the hill behind the milking barn.
She wanted goats so she could milk them and make cheese.
A slower life in some ways, not in a city with its bustling timetable, but one with its own calendar dependent on natural cycles. The hens laying every day, gradually slowing their laying as winter came on. Seasons marked by different garden crops, from garlic scapes in the spring to frost-sweetened collards in the late fall. A dog or two and some kittens, but the main thing would be goats. She wanted goats so she could milk them and make cheese.
So in 1995 she did what any novice farmer might have done. She bought one little goat, made it a nest in the back seat of her car and set out through several states until she reached the back roads of central North Carolina. There she unloaded the one goat and the rest of her belongings at an abandoned tobacco farm, which Ginnie, her brother and his wife eventually imagined into reality as a goat farm.
On the Open Farm Days after Ginnie became ill, she used a golf cart to get around. She would swoop down to pick me up and carry me away in her chariot. Together we careened around the farm as fast as the cart would go. It was exhilarating not only because I thought I might fall out at any minute, but also because Ginnie took such enjoyment from being able to move at such speed.
The next Sunday at the service I noticed Ginnie shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
Then there were Easter Sundays. Ginnie would show up with a tiny baby goat cradled in her arms and would place the kid, wearing an old sweater with cut-off sleeves for warmth, in the arms of one of the dinner guests. Her last Easter she chose Jacob. Word was he was a Vietnam vet, he had PTSD and you didn’t want to mess with him. But the baby goat hadn’t gotten the message. He gave two or three low ble-e-e-ats, licked Jacob on the nose and settled softly against him. Jacob’s face slowly relaxed into a big grin, and he said, “Why . . . he done peed on me.”
He said this as if he had received an anointing straight from the Holy Ghost. Then Jacob cackled, and the whole little church dissolved in laughter.
The next Sunday at the service I noticed Ginnie shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “I seem to be having trouble with one of my legs — it just wants to lag behind the other one. And my throat doesn’t feel right when I swallow.”
Surprised that this stalwart nurse was worried about her own health, I attempted to draw her out. “Those seem to be two unrelated things — don’t you think?”
“No, I really don’t. I really think they are related…”
Then she hesitated, and we turned to other matters. The subject came up again, though, the very next time I saw her.
“Has your leg gotten any better? How about the swallowing?”
“They’re about the same, but now I’m having some trouble with muscle cramps and weakness in my hands and — yes, in both legs.”
“Could it be a lack of magnesium?”
“I don’t think so because I take a supplement. I think I might know what it is, but I’m going to wait until I check on some things before I say.”
The next time I saw Ginnie she was speaking to several church members, answering general questions about her health. Then she pulled me aside.
“I told you I thought I knew what it was. And now that I’m beginning to slur my speech, I’m sure . . .”
A feeling of cold dread settled over me. This didn’t sound good.
“What do you think it could be?”
This was too much for me to absorb, and I remember thinking, “No, this is not possible. She’s too healthy.” And also, “No, this is not fair, I haven’t known her long enough.” But truth was no respecter of my opinion, and by our next service her doctor had confirmed ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
We soon began helping her plan the things she wished to accomplish. Each time we saw her, her health had slipped a little more. She continued to be able to talk, in some fashion, for several months, but soon there came a time when she could no longer eat real food. We all silently grieved with her, imaging how it would be to give up something so enjoyable, so synonymous with living.
For in the end the joy of inhabiting our human bodies comes down to something as elemental as walking a ditch where wild blackberries grow, enduring the thorns, picking one perfect berry after another, eating each to hear, taste, feel the tiny seeds exploding in our mouths.
Robert Hass captured it in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas”: “There are . . . days that are the good flesh continuing/Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,/saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.” For in the end the joy of inhabiting our human bodies comes down to something as elemental as walking a ditch where wild blackberries grow, enduring the thorns, picking one perfect berry after another, eating each to hear, taste, feel the tiny seeds exploding in our mouths.
Pretty soon we did not see Ginnie at the services, for she had lost her ability to walk. Her family moved a hospital bed into her small neat house, positioning it at a big window where she could see the sun rise and set over the farm. Meanwhile Ginnie fulfilled another bucket list item — to be taken up into the sky at dawn by a hot-air balloon. And this is how I like to think of my dear friend Ginnie: defying death for one last moment as the sun rises over Goat Lady Dairy.