My middle son, age six, stood in the middle of a muddy farm pen, and despite the mask, I could sense eagerness radiating off his face.
“Dad,” he said, staring at me with ignited attention. “Do you know the difference between a bald eagle and a vulture?”
I did, or thought I did. Honestly, I never felt compelled to ask that question because I thought the differences between a majestic bald eagle and an ugly-but-ecologically-necessary turkey vulture were so apparent that a human being, even a six year old, need not ponder.
And so, I did what any caring, loving, nurturing parent does in such a situation. I lied.
“No, buddy, I don’t.”
My son held his arms out to his sides to form a perfect T. “Eagles fly with their wings straight out like this. Vultures are like this.” He then curbed his elbows to form an awkward M shape.
And you know what? I didn’t know THAT.
At that moment, two things happened simultaneously. As if on cue, above a neighboring farm field, stripped of any crop as it was still early April and not yet growing season, there flew straight-winged a bald eagle. And next to the pen, a door to a small shed opened, and out poured a black-as-licorice mother goat and her two kids, romping around my shins and excited to be out in the cold but bright sunshine.
My oldest son, age nine, approached, knelt down, and scratched the ear of a gray-furred adolescent goat. “We have to be in here,” he said to me, “to keep them safe from that.” He pointed to the bald eagle hunting above us.
I quickly moved to a corner of the small pen, squatted down to my children’s eye level (and that of the goats), swung my camera around and started shooting. I also felt a number of different pains, in my knees, yes, but also in my back and chest. My anxiety spiked. I breathed slowly. I checked my Apple Watch. Heart rate just above 80 bpm.
I’m gonna be okay. I kept snapping images, wondering who would watch me, protect me, as an imaginary vulture stalked me, one I only learned about the day before.
Go live your life … or something
It felt like a battery being hooked up to jumper cables. A physician’s assistant attached to the bare skin of my chest and ankles tiny pads with adhesive connected to thin wires running to a machine out of my periphery. I tried to breathe slowly. This was just to be sure, I was told.
I’m 42 years old. Have a history of high cholesterol. I also have a decade-old neck injury that typically sends numbness down my right arm to the hand. But for days, I started to notice the same numbness and mild discomfort in my left arm, particularly in my shoulder, elbow, and hand.
My doctor told me to come on in. Probably another neck problem, but let’s do an EKG, a precaution, just to be sure.
As I lay there and the unseen machine began to buzz, I began to think about what I was sure of. Numbers:
The scale in the hallway said I’d gained weight. Not a shocking amount, but enough.
It’d been about one year since the start of the pandemic.
I’d been stressed the **** out. The job, work from home, worried about infection, kids learning virtually.
The assistant who took my blood pressure said I was 180 over 110. She decided to try another sphygmomanometer. Wrapped it around my left bicep. Pumped the gauge. Phhht. Phhht. Phhht. Cuff tightens. Then releases. “One fifty nine over ninety eight.”
My God. What have I done to myself.
The machine stopped humming and the assistant told me to stay put. She wanted to run the results of the EKG by the doctor. It’s gotta be clear. This is just be sure.
It wasn’t. When our family doctor came into the room, he told me that the EKG showed an anomaly on one of the meters, a wave, indicating a possible problem in one my veins. It was possible the machine read it wrong, he said. It could be a lot of things. And to just be sure he was going to have me schedule an echocardiogram.
“I would agree, it’s probably your back,” he said. “For an otherwise healthy 42 year old, it’s highly likely to be your back. But we better be sure. I can’t rule out that during the last week, you had a silent heart attack. I’d say it was a 1 in 20 chance. So we better be sure and go from there.”
He ordered me to stop working out before the echocardiogram, to change my diet, to basically get my you-know-what together.
“We’re going down the Eastern Shore tomorrow,” I said. “Very rural. An Airbnb at a farm. Should I not go? Stay close?”
He must’ve detected the panic attack that was rising inside of me. If I had a cardiovascular problem — not a problem, a serious holy **** of a flashing red warning sign — shouldn’t I stay close to, say, a hospital, an ER?
He seemed to relax a little bit, kindness flooding into his eyes, perhaps realizing I was focused on the scary thing that was a 1-in-20 chance instead of the more likely thing that was a 19-in-20 chance.
“No, you should definitely go,” he said. “Go have fun. Live your life.”
Of ducks and chickens and goats and children
Our destination was Sugar Water Manor, a 70-acre property on the peaceful southern lip of Maryland’s Manokin River.
We booked three nights over Easter weekend, staying in one of two farmhouses. There’s also a loft, and tucked among trees is a specular, Revolution-era red brick manor, so immaculate and stunning that you’re sure there’s a brass sign that says Patrick Henry slept there once, and if you didn’t know it was 2021, you might think he still did.
While the property spreads out under serene blue skies and begs you to paddle out onto the river, the center of life at Sugar Water is its white-painted barn and pens, teeming with chickens, roosters, goats, guinea fowl and the owner’s dogs.
My three children, it’s safe to say, became enchanted and enraptured.
The owners, Dana (infectiously sociable, a writer and modern-day digital story teller with a background in food, travel, and marine animal rescue) and Dave (a corporate officer with Perdue who you’d love to join on a fly fishing adventure) invited my boys to partake in farm chores. They jumped in with an enthusiasm I wish they had for cleaning dishes and their bedrooms.
They cared for baby ducks. They cleaned out the chicken coop. They spread hay over the garlic garden. They babysat the youthful goats. They harvested fresh chicken eggs and brought them to us so we could enjoy scrambled eggs for breakfast.
I can’t truly remember the last time they took to an experience like this, not certainly since the start of the pandemic.
And the food, my God, does Dana know how to delight the taste buds. Whether pancakes or stuffed French toast, the goat cheese or berry jam, it seemed a little unfair to have to enjoy the culinary gratification only once during our stay. We’ll be back for the stuffed French toast alone.
It was a gift
As for me, I arrived tied as tight as a human being can get. I couldn’t extract the words “silent heart attack” from the echo chamber of my anxious mind.
I practiced my breathing just to be sure I could take a deep breath, there next to the salty water of the Manokin, baby blue in a peaceful evening next to a campfire, and the whispers of wind from the red pines.
Stay calm. Don’t even think about looking at work emails. Be present. The camera, your family, they can be the last turn before going in the wrong direction.
Hour by hour, and then day by day, I could feel a sense of purpose, of mission, sprouting from within. No matter what, that doctor’s visit, it was a gift. A year after the start of the pandemic, because I reached out about mild discomfort in my shoulder, I’ve learned that I was driving my health toward a guaranteed ditch.
I’m not sure what the echocardiogram will show. What I know is that I’ve started food journaling, started standing more, started losing weight, started letting go of what agitated my stress, started thinking about readers and the books I want to write and this blog, started thinking about my children.
Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer who realized he was eating so much sodium every day even ocean water was jealous. He lives with his wife and their three sons in Lancaster, Pa. You can contact him at email@example.com.