I was in third grade when Dad let me help him deliver lambs for the first time. I was not yet asleep that spring evening when I heard him in the hall filling up a bucket of water.

For the last year, I had been wishing to be part of this special event, and now he was saying the words I’d been waiting for: “Fill up another bucket, Nora, and make it hot. Mother, where are some soap and towels?”

That first night, the lambs came quickly. Dad was patient and alternately coaxed and pulled, talking gently to the ewe.

“You just work with the ewe; she knows you are here to help. Watch her eyes and her ears. They tell you just what’s going on,” he assured me.

Spring lambs at Ribble Valley in Lancashire, England. Photograph by Lee Parkinson. Used by permission.

Later: “Yes, of course they are in pain, but when you talk to them, they calm down and get to work. Remember this: it’s a struggle to be born, and it’s a struggle to die. We all need help at the beginning of our lives, just like we need it at the end.”

When the miracle of twins lay there in the sawdust and the ewe licked them off, urging them to stand for their first meal, I looked at Dad. His eyes shone as blue as chicory flowers and his face was wet with tears. “No human can create a beginning, Nora,” he said, “and no human can create an end. It’s all in God’s hands.”

Over the rest of my elementary school years, and all the way through high school, Dad and I delivered lambs side by side in the pen.

Toward the end of a lamb’s delivery, Dad would always assist the ewe. But in the anxious hours prior to a birth, or when a wounded animal was healing, or when we were uncertain if the mother would care for her newborn, he advised, “Let nature take its course. It’s the hardest thing for us humans to do, but it’s the best. We always want to go poking around, but then we muck everything up. Mother Nature knows how to take care of things.”

A photograph of the author’s father hangs in the barn at the Fox Hill Bruderhof. Photograph by Shana Goodwin.

I could hardly bear to let “nature take its course” the time a neighbor’s dog chased two pregnant ewes into the woods and ripped a third ewe from her ear to her shoulder. Dad was furious and calm. He headed off in pursuit of the missing ewes, while I helped our family doctor, always willing to patch up animals as well as people, tend the wounded one.

We sewed all afternoon, stitching bits of torn skin and wool back together, and trying to will the ragged edges of flesh to adhere, to heal. The doctor was confident that the ewe would recover: “With this antibiotic she’ll be fine. Now, just let nature take its course.”

But I was not confident in nature this time. The ewe lay motionless late into the evening, refusing drink or food. Meanwhile Dad returned, downcast. He had been unable to find the lost sheep.

It was Pentecost, and that evening our community sang fitting selections from Mendelssohn’s Saint Paul oratorio. Afterward, Dad and I walked to the barn for a final check on the wounded sheep. I held Dad’s hand and confessed that I’d tweaked some of the lyrics of a chorale with the line “and guide the wanderer kindly home,” because I wanted God to hear.

“He does hear about sheep, doesn’t he?”

“Of course, but what did you sing?”

“I sang, ‘And guide the lost sheep kindly home. The hearts astray that union crave, and sheep in doubt confirm and save.’ I sang it for the sheep that are out in the woods tonight.”

Dad said nothing for a while, but squeezed my hand tightly as we walked on. When we got to the barn, the wounded ewe was up and drinking.

Spring lambs at Ribble Valley in Lancashire, England. Photograph by Lee Parkinson. Used by permission.

“We are all lost sheep, Nora,” he told me on the way home, “and we are all God’s sheep, all the time. Even when we don’t think we belong to anyone, he is still our Father. There are times when we think we’d be happier out of the pasture, but he knows that we are truly happy when our boundaries are clear and we are safe. And there are other times when we think we are lost, but most especially then he is holding us all the time. All the time.”

“Does he guide sheep back?”

“That is God’s job. Guiding back is his main work. He does it all the time.”

The next morning, the two lost ewes stood bleating for food at the barn door.

In 1998, two weeks before my wedding, I delivered lambs with Dad one last time.

I knelt there in the sawdust with the feeling that this would be the last and most precious time we would welcome life into the world together. The ewe had a rough go of it. Dad suspected extra-large twins, and we worked late into the night with the exhausted ewe.

Finally, one large, perfect lamb was born.

We couldn’t help laughing. The ewe turned; it seemed as if she was smiling at the funny humans. I looked at my father and thought again how much I loved him, and how much I loved this place where he had taught me what he knew about how life works. I looked at the bleached blond and auburn lock of hair which always fell over his forehead when he worked, at his tired but satisfied eyes, sapphire blue and glowing with the joy of the new life lying at his knees.

And in the dim barn light, under the swallow’s nest, I noticed his face was wet with tears.