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Transitions, of Land and Life

It felt like we had been cast in a movie; the scene the Intensive Care Unit, the patient a frail almost-91-year-old man, my father-in-law Leroy Hogeland. John (my husband), his two sisters, their spouses, and children stood on three sides of the bed holding his hand, stroking his arm, telling him they loved him. Leroy lay in the center, mumble-whispering words of wisdom as his kids leaned in closer to hear. This is as good as it gets, I thought to myself, the kind of death many of us wish for: to be old, surrounded by family, and not in pain.

John with his dad Leroy and the boys

I stood at the back of the small room, near the glass doors out to the nurses’ station, watching. Vital signs beeped and blinked on the screen, tubes wandering out of Leroy’s tiny body like tributaries of a river. A secret language of subtle and not-so-subtle sounds from across the ICU unit conversed with the medical staff and I watched as the nurses reacted calmly to each changing sound or new flashing light.


But my hanging back was deeper than just a fascination with the technology. I had a dang complicated relationship with Leroy. He was one tough cookie, sometimes warm, often stubborn, and oppositional. And with so little time left, I didn’t feel it was my place to chat with him directly—he wasn’t my father after all. Yet my writing Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America about his life and introducing him to so many of those outside the family had changed our relationship. In many ways he had gone from patriarch and father-in-law to subject; he the documented and I the documentarian.


He had not been happy with the book. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he had not liked the first 23 pages because that is all he’d read. He didn’t appreciate the way I portrayed him, he told John, but would not talk to me about it. “It’s not like you are going to rewrite the book,” he said when I attempted to discuss it with him. “What’s done is done,” he resolved, ending the interaction in his resolute way. He didn’t seem angry about it, just disappointed, although I did think that he looked at me differently after, with more respect, like he had to admit I that knew a few more things than he had previously thought I did.


Leroy and I cut a rug at my wedding

Yet as he lost some of his strength over the months and came to depend upon others more, he also grew more suspicious of me, questioning what I was doing when I was alone on the farm. “You need to let us know when you are here doing something out of the ordinary,” he told me in October as I put away the kayaks, a task I had done for the past three years in the fall. If this small task was not ordinary, I wondered, what else would be considered strange behavior?


But I couldn’t fault him for his interrogations. Things had changed on the farm since I arrived. A large-scale clean-up had been initiated and, along with John’s sister Andrea, we started carting off metal by the trailer load to the scrap yard; “scrap” that had some time ago been viable equipment, machinery and tools Leroy bought with his own hard-earned cash. To watch an outsider drive off with the flotsam and jetsam of your life…well, I get it. To him, the old balers and broken parts might still be worth something, someday, if and when he needed them, and although we were careful never to take anything he wanted, it was hard for him to know what was going on outside while confined to his easy chair in front of the TV.


The transition of the farm into John and my control went as smoothly as it could have. We Christened it “Whippoorwill Creek Farm” - a name we chose because of the creek of the same name on the property and because we wanted to bring back the missing Whippoorwills.

After struggling to come to an agreement, we signed a lease and were finally in charge—managing the land and cattle as we wished—but for a fee so that Leroy could still have some income to live out his life. He also micromanaged some of the minutia of the property—where the tractors were parked (outside), where trees could grow (not along the road), and of course where the metal stayed stacked. He liked to go out in his bulldozer and bulldoze too.


At the time, I didn’t think a day would come that Leroy would not shuffle out the back door to ask what we were doing, why that cow was in the lot, what we were doing with that old wagon. But that day actually came quite quickly, Leroy heading off to Florida with his wife each winter and spending days inside reading westerns. The transition of land from one generation to the next is always tricky. It turned out that Leroy and John worked together well and John’s sisters were supportive of our farming the land.


Leroy and the family Christmas time 2020

But what was to happen when Leroy died, I always wondered, anxious if the changes we were making to the land would in fact be permanent. There was a will…but I felt unsure of how our lives will play out, even if there were rumors that everything would turn out in our favor.


About a week after the scene in the ICU, John and I visited him at a hospice house in Des Moines. We had been having some trouble with a bull—I found him sitting alone in a field (a very bad sign) and had a hard time getting up and walking. We were concerned, a fact that John shared with the unconscious Leroy a few days earlier. But John had cleaned out the bull’s foot and gave him some antibiotics for the infection, and he was improving steadily.


“Dad, the bull is ok,” John reported on January 7th to Leroy as soon as we arrived. “It was just a foot infection.” Leroy seemed to smile even though he had not been responsive in days, then his breathing changed. He breathed slower and slower until finally, about ten minutes later, he stopped breathing altogether, just shy of his 91st birthday.

 

Wondering about buying beef, goat or veggies from Whippoorwill Creek Farm? Get in touch with us! Contact John or Beth at bethaudio@gmail.com







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2 Comments


dstrosf
dstrosf
Jan 27, 2023

What a well told and touching story. I know there's a lot more there there, but you condensed it perfectly. We miss you guys!

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j2rodgers
j2rodgers
Jan 26, 2023

What a beautifully written, kind, delicate portrait of the patriarch and his passing. The photo at your wedding is marvelous and perfect counterpoint to the story. Thank you. Janet

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