Helping a Horse to Die Well
Sometimes, the best you can do is enough. Being strong for someone can be the hardest thing a soul can endure. But, you do your best – for love, for duty, to be of help. You stumble. You make mistakes. Your fear makes little unexpected appearances, cameos, and you pray that you’ll hold fast long enough to see this thing through. You fail in a hundred tiny ways. And yet, in the end, it’s good enough. It makes you honest, though.
Friday, July 6th 2012 was dead in the middle of the most horrific heat wave ever. The whole country had suffered triple digit temperatures for over a week. People were dying. The fists of a sudden cataclysmic storm had pounded out power lines from Ohio to New Jersey to North Carolina. In its wake, the staggering heat, with no power for air conditioning, was too much for some to live through.
It broke my heart that Jess would know this as her last day.
It was over one hundred degrees by nine o’clock this morning when I shuffled the familiar path from the back door to the barn. Crunchy brown wisps of grass clung to the concrete-hard clay beneath my work boots as they found their way through the paddock.
In the shade and relative cool of the barn stood Jess, Kit, and Little Horse, as placid and calm as the heat was heavy. Like ten thousand times before, I stepped into the sweet, hay-smelling aisle, and greeted Jess first. She’s the alpha here, and her presence radiates both authority and a tender gentleness that can be heartbreaking.
Summoning strength, and fighting an instinct to utterly dissociate, I drew a strong image in the mind between us of cool, dew-laden green fields with dancing clouds in a clean blue sky. I said to her, “Today, my love. Today. You’re going home.” I sent her the image, then had to turn away. Had I stayed longer, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the other images from arising. I wanted to touch her, to wrap my arms one more time around her massive neck. I wanted to sob into her mane, my face plastered into the copper strands. I wanted to smell her one more time. Instead, I manufactured a brilliant ball of radiant confidence and joy to uplift her as I walked past her to the tack room door.
Whack-thunk. Squeak of the bolt, and the rattle and jingle of her blue halter, hanging from a nail on the back of the door. Then, the familiar ritual of putting the halter over her nose, buckling the brass fastener under her ear. She lowered her head gracefully, willingly, and I thought, “you… know…”
“Look! Aren’t you beautiful in blue.” I smile, and let her feel my joy. I almost feel it too. Now, she’s ready. I don’t stay. I can’t. I reach out a shaking hand and gently brush a fly from her eye. I turn and leave the barn.
Under the oak in the small pasture just behind the house, Steve is clearing the low branches. The back hoe has to be able to do its work unimpeded. I stop to help. The heat surrounds us and sucks us down like an undertow. But, that’s what we have, and we’ll work with it. There’s something about work that lends a much-needed order and purpose to the hour, as you wait for the vet to arrive.
He’s late. We’ve paced every inch of the driveway. We’ve talked about the tractor. We’ve picked gravel out of the treads of our boots. Finally, the white Ford truck eases up the long drive and crunches to a stop. Dr. Ferguson is a slight man with a kind smile. I don’t remember the names of the interns as we shake hands. A flurry of preparations, medical supplies, a laptop.
I think I’m telling him where to meet us under the tree. He is blessedly quiet and understanding. This can’t be easy for him.
I hear my boots walking to the barn again. The heat leans against me; it’s like slogging through water. Steve has followed me, but doesn’t intrude. I make a mental note to give him credit for that.
I’ve left the blue cotton lead rope near the door, draped over the ladder to the hayloft, knowing that my hands might not be able to find it otherwise. It’s soft and frayed, and so very blue. I walk to Jess and say, “Let’s go for a walk, Sweetheart. Let’s go for a short walk into the shade of your tree.” Click. The blue lead rope, now fastened to her halter, rests like liquid in my hand. She’s so calm. She trusts me. Her breathing is peaceful. She moves forward, her mangled knee taking proud horse steps into the sunlight.
I lead her out of the barn and across the scorched ground to the oak tree where we’ve spent so many hours. Dr. Ferguson is there. Kit and Little Horse have come along on invisible threads. Someone says, “We have a parade.” They stand like sentinels with Jess, close, not wanting to leave. But, the vet says they have to go. Suddenly, and without so much as a look from anyone, they run thundering back to the barn.
I asked for her to be sedated first. The vet says it might be a longer, harder passing, but I am, for what may be the first time in my life, adamant. He softly and kindly explains what will happen, what might be disturbing, and how it will be. I hear only the horsefly tormenting her. I protectively brush it away. “Yes,” I say. “Go ahead”.
I am afraid. I’m horrified that I am betraying her – that she will know, in this last instant what I have done, even as she trusted me with her life. But, I rally for that final moment and slow my breathing, sending her waves of peace and joy.
I cup my hand behind her eye, so that she won’t see the vial of iridescent fluid, so that she won’t see the size of the needle, or the vet approaching her exquisite neck. She flinches, and I tell her it’s just a shot, like all the others she’s had. She believes me.
The sedative slowly lowers her head and slows her breathing. I have her face in my hands and I pour every loving thought that my heart can manage into the air between us. I’m dimly horrified by the color of the fluid in the gigantic syringe that the vet is emptying into her. Empty, he throws it aside and replaces it with another. I can hear the flow of the substance through the needle. An intern makes the discarded one disappear.
“I’m here, baby. I’m here. I’m right here.” The ancient chorus that has been sung by the soul of everyone who has held a beloved one in this final moment.
And then, she simply and gracefully… crumples, and is gone. I kneel beside her, and through the fog of raw presence, recognize that there are five of us, with our hands on her. A benediction.
The other horses never come to stand by her. Unusual. In my heart, I know that she had spoken with them the night before. Her last act of grace as the leader of her tiny herd.
A red clay mound of hot earth, under the oak tree. A blue halter and lead rope, draped over the fence. Her shimmering copper tail, still smelling like summer, bound with a red ribbon, lies in my lap, as I lean against the base of the tree, its reassuringly timeless bark cutting into the sweat on my back. I put my palm to the ground, eyes closed, and whisper, “I love you, Jess.”
She had known. She was sublimely at ease, knowing that she was going home. She had asked me to do this. And, as they say, “It was time”. Small comfort. The words angel of death conjure fearsome images. I’ll see them differently now. Once again, she’s teaching me.