Ed McLaughlin was an old man who loved to listen to pan flutes, feel the soft spring grass with his rough hands, and smell newly turned earth in his large, Irish nose. He often called me “Lad” when offering instruction and I was always happy to receive Ed’s instruction. He was wise and I enjoyed spending time with him.
One day, Ed was reminiscing younger years. A stack of photos lay on my lap revealed woods and fields, barns and greenhouses, flowers and streams and sheep; lots of pictures of sheep.
I asked about the flock and he became solemn. He laid down the photographs in his own hand and took a deep breath. He looked up to the ceiling and said nothing for a long while. He turned his head to look out a window and began to tell me a story. As he spoke, his voice grew thick and tears formed in the corner of his eyes.
As a younger man, Ed tended the estate of a successful inventor of a well-known brand of tooth paste. Ed maintained the flower gardens, manicured the lawn, developed wooded paths, and preserved flowing streambeds. He was caretaker of the estate but also an artist.
While looking over the property, Ed determined that one quiet meadow needed some grazing sheep to make the picture complete. It started with just a few sheep but over time grew to a flock of many wooly beasts. Now Ed was caretaker, artist, and shepherd.
He took them to the barn each night and led them to the pasture each morning. He was present at each lamb’s birth and comforted every ewe when a baby would die. He nurtured the flock’s growth and ministered to their injuries. Ed was their sole caregiver and he loved them deeply. Everywhere that Ed would go, the sheep were sure to follow.
In fact, most of the pictures I held in my hand illustrated this truth. So many shots contained Ed walking down a path, up a road, through a meadow; and the sheep were directly behind, single file, following the one they loved, their shepherd.
He paused to wipe a tear from his cheek and take a drink of hot tea. After a moment, he continued his story.
There came a day when the estate changed hands and the new owner hired his nephew to manage the property. It took less than a year for the nephew to lose all patience with the flock. They became stubborn and he became furious. The sheep had lost their shepherd and instead of following this new hired hand, they would wander off on their own. Instead of leading, he would drive them with sticks and blows. Instead of speaking soft words of love, he would curse them with every breath.
By the end of the first year, the flock was scattered. Some went to area farms but most went to market and were destroyed.
Ed stopped talking. The silence in the room grew. When I looked up from the pictures, the old man was crying, brokenhearted at the thought of his beloved sheep and their tragic end. Even though his thoughts were of many years before, Ed’s heart still ached for those he loved. Even without his sheep, he was still a Shepherd at heart.