Every February, the migrating sandhill cranes have a giant party along the Platte River in Nebraska. Thousands of big noisy birds swoop in to eat, drink, and hook up. It’s sort of like the Sturgis bike rally, but without the motorcycles and leather vests.
David Vetter invited me to witness this spectacle in 2014. He’d won an afternoon in a private bird blind at a fundraising auction. He thought I’d enjoy it. We’d only just met, but he was 100% correct.
That is how I found myself in Marquette, Nebraska, two weeks later.
I’d met David through his niece—my friend Molly Vetter—while he and his wife, Rogean, aka Jeannie, were on a business trip to California. I’d heard about David and his organic farm in Nebraska from Molly. I was thinking about making a film about it, so, in addition to seeing the cranes, this impromptu trip served as a recon mission to discover whether there was any there there (to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein.)
On my second night, David took Jeannie and me for a steak dinner in Central City, the next town up and home to the closest fancy restaurant. As we barreled up Rural Route 14—David Vetter is an unrepentant lead-foot—I gazed out the window at the bleakest landscape I’d ever seen. It was the leftover dregs of winter, that soggy time between the prettiness of snow and the miracle of spring; an interval that can feel endless in the Midwest. The sky was uniformly heavy gray, no chance of a sunset; darkness would simply descend in an hour. The fields were also gray and filled with brown stubble, residue of the previous fall’s corn harvest. This debris—and spilled grain—is what compels the sandhill cranes to make their one and only stopover on their migration north: they carbo load on the waste of Nebraska’s bounty to fuel the rest of their trip.
The car radio was tuned to the local NPR station, quietly playing classical music. Jeannie was in the passenger seat, in front of me, gazing out the window as well. I was so comfortable in David’s big, heavy, American sedan that I felt like I was slowly being swallowed by the back seat. The three of us drove along in exquisite silence, broken only by Bach.
I should note that I was four months into a traumatic brain injury that would ultimately take nine months to heal, though I didn’t know it then. The doctors had hinted that the mixing up of words—”oh look at that pretty battery” (instead of “butterfly”)—the memory loss, and general fuzziness might be permanent, but they didn’t know for sure. Mysteries of the brain, and all that. So on this gray February day, my brain was pleasantly fuzzy as I bounced along in the backseat of that old Buick.
Jeannie broke the silence in a dreamy voice. “It goes on and on forever...”
“Totally,” I said. I knew exactly what she meant.
After a moment, David said, “Yes, when the corn’s down, you can see quite a distance.”
Wait... Is that what she was saying, I thought? Wasn’t it more of an existential comment? My eyes drifted from the window to David’s face in the rearview mirror. He saw my confusion.
“The row corn can be 10 feet tall. Pretty much all you can see some times of the year is corn.”
“Oh…” I said.
There were other such moments with Jeannie in the coming days; I knew what she was saying—or thought I did—but others translated a different meaning that made just as much sense. When I asked Molly about this, she allowed that Jeannie was in cognitive decline and had been for some time. It was not something that was talked about.
As my brain healed, Jeannie’s brain worsened; those moments of complete understanding between us became fewer and fewer. We had some wonderful conversations that—when later relayed to David—turned out to be mostly fiction, some of it quite imaginative. Interestingly, my friend Rob—who’s done an awful lot of drugs as well as meditation and various spiritual practices—came to visit while I was on the farm. He and Jeannie also had wonderful conversations; they understood each other perfectly. He said she was one of the most enlightened people he’d ever met.
While I am certainly not qualified to chronicle the life of Rogean Taylor, I simply wanted to mark her passing this week with a fond remembrance and to share this remarkable photo. As a filmmaker, I was given access to the Vetter’s photo archive—an honor and privilege, to be sure. In addition to being seasonally appropriate, what strikes me about this photo is it’s a glimpse of the Jeannie everyone described to me. As a medical technologist, she ran the lab at the local hospital where she worked tirelessly, according to her kids. Often, she came home, made dinner, then went back to work until late at night. Here she is Christmas Day, in her uniform, grabbing her coat and gloves to head back to work. It’s one of those “moment in time” photos that convey so much: leaving the coziness of home and holiday to go help other people—and to pay for that new TV.
Someone told me years ago they wished I’d met Jeannie when she was still Jeannie: brilliant, hilarious and sassy as all get out. I wish I had, too. But I’ve met her brilliant, hilarious, sassy kids. I know this Christmas season will be hard for them and for their father, her beloved David. But the one thing that family has in abundance is love. They also have no shortage of faith, strength, and more grit than heavy gauge sandpaper.
May their grief morph into joy and may their days be merry and bright.
That goes for you, too, Dear Reader.