This story was sent with just the name of the author. It's beautiful, both in the writing and the emotion. I'm hoping she writes in and tells us a little about herself. I'd love to read more of her writing.
Sunday, February 20th
Stumbling over a knee-deep snow bank, I mutter to myself in frustration as I half-open, half-crash into the doors and fall into a heap of fleece and snow on the floor of the barn. What an excellent start to the day. Dragging myself and the forty layers of clothing I’m wearing up off the concrete, I turn around and pull the peeling wooden doors shut again, heaving against the icy wind and giving a sigh of relief as the frigid gusts of wind are shut out. Surviving winter on the farm is like walking uphill both ways to wherever your grandfather had to go back when he was young. I pause for a minute and stand quietly in the aisle. Something’s different, something’s wrong. You know that panicked feeling when you realize you’ve forgotten something important but can’t place your finger on what it is? That’s what I was feeling, as though something was missing.
I shrug and turn to the feed bins. It’ll come to me eventually, things like that always do. In the meantime I have thirty hungry horses to tend to. Propping open the big yellow bins I reach in to begin prying apart frozen buckets and preparing grain. This has become so routine that I could do it in my sleep. Half the time I do: being fully awake at 6AM every day on weekends is sometimes impossible. I laugh to myself when friends complain about having to work, they don’t know how much easier it is to fill a till compared to filling a hayloft. As my thoughts wander absentmindedly I suddenly realize what’s missing -the entire barn is quiet. Normally I’m greeted by a chorus of hungry nickers and demands for breakfast. Today there’s been nothing except for the sound of a horse pawing.
Pawing. Who’s pawing?
Thirty pairs of eyes turn from me to the last stall in the barn, and then back to me. My breath catches in my throat. It’s Jojo.
I run down the aisle with my thoughts racing ahead of me. The intensity of his pawing increases and when I reach his stall I can see him slamming his hooves furiously against the ground. The shavings in his stall have been dug away and are now banked in mounds against the wooden walls, which have been deeply gouged by the corks on his shoes. The aluminum on his feet is sending sparks flying as his shoes strike the concrete. He’s chewing the air with ears pinned flat against his head. As I slide open the latch on his stall door his knees buckle and he collapses, letting out a long moan.
I yank the halter and leadrope off his door and kneel down beside him. Tearing off my gloves I check his gums for circulation, finding them to be completely white. He curls his lip up, yet another bad sign. He’s covered in sweat despite the cold weather. With shaking hands I lift his head and buckle his halter on. Jumping up, I begin heaving desperately in an effort to get him to stand. He stares up at me with a pained expression. Some people say horses don’t show emotion; that’s a complete lie.
“C’mon bud. Get up!”
I growl at him and whip his flanks with the end of the leadrope. It seems cruel but a colicking horse needs to be up and moving, not lying down as their intestines become even more twisted. He takes shallow, rapid breaths and finally manages to stand. I immediately drag him down the aisle and out the barn, grabbing my cell phone and a whip on the way out. The winter wind hits us like a solid wall as we trudge across the courtyard to the arena. I dial my boss’s number in as we walk. The phone rings for what seems like an eternity, my heart beating faster with each shrill tone.
“Hey, it’s Jojo. He’s been up and down all night. Yes, I just got him up and walking. You call the vet, I’ll call Brea. Hurry.”
I hang up and continue walking, dragging lines in the arena dirt with my heavy boots. Jojo follows behind me with short, painful steps. He shoves his head between my shoulder blades and the hair on the back of my neck raises as his shallow breaths creep down my collar. With the vet and his owner on the way all we can do is hurry up and wait. I try not to think any further than five minutes ahead.
I’m sitting in the corner of Jojo’s stall, cocooned in a spare wool cooler with my hands wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee carried down to the barn by my boss’s grandmother. I wouldn’t give up this job for anything in the world, it’s like my second family. I stare at Jojo with dull eyes. He would seem to be fine to anybody walking by, but I can tell he’s still off. The little hay we’ve given him is strewn throughout his stall, churned into the shavings. He’s standing against the far wall with his tail clamped tight to his hindquarters and his head hanging low. Any other day he’d have his nose buried in my lap, demanding attention and searching for the never ending supply of mints I keep in my pockets. Regular doses of Banamine throughout the day have kept him quiet and comfortable, but that’s just a Band-Aid fix to the problem. According to the vet he is suffering from epiploic foramen entrapment. In layman’s terms this means that a portion of his intestine has slipped through a small slit that exists in the abdominal wall, cutting off circulation to the digestive system. It would take a true miracle for the entrapment to resolve itself on its own. Emergency surgery is the only option at this point, but a second trip there this year is financially out of the question for his owner and the chances of a successful surgery are extremely low. Jojo has a history of colicking, he’s a high-stress animal, a picky eater, forgets to drink enough and is prone to getting himself cast in his stall.
It’s a wonder that these horses manage to survive in the wild, but centuries of selective breeding has turned out high-performance animals with equally high needs and this is the result. Lots of talent and athleticism seemingly paired with a deathwish. There isn’t much we could have done to prevent this particular episode of colic though, so nobody should shoulder the blame. But a decision must be made and at this point I feel as though we are just putting off the inevitable. I sigh and wriggle deeper into the blanket, breathing in the comforting scent of alfalfa, bran and horse. My thoughts slow down as I realize what has to happen. I’d do it now if I could, just to let him go before the drugs wear off and he reverts back to biting his chest and flanks and kicking his belly in an effort to relieve the pain. But it’s not my decision.
This feels cruel, miracles don’t just happen. We can’t just wait and see. Wait for what? We’re just putting off something that has to happen anyways. I stumble through evening chores, throwing hay into stalls and topping up water buckets for the night, then flick off the barn lights and sit on the bench outside. I lean my head back against the steel siding, close my eyes and stay there until my arms and legs go numb from the cold. When I finally open them I notice it’s dark and the stars have replaced the wispy clouds that dotted the sky this afternoon. I realize my boss is talking to me. I look up at her, trying not to show my feelings. We don’t let tears streak our dirt-stained faces here; it’s usually either smiles or nothing. Her words fade in and out as I stare blankly back at her, then finally tune in to what she’s saying.
“We’re just waiting on Brea at this point; I’ll let you know when she calls. We can’t do anything until she’s ready to let him go.”
I give a slow nod as the words register in my mind. Picking myself up off the bench I walk to my car, turn up the radio and pull out of the driveway. Driving home I stare at the smattering of snowflakes as they drift into the reach of my headlights and swoop up over the windshield.
Monday February 21st
I’ve been sitting awake in bed since 5AM waiting for the phone call. The silence of my house has been strangely calming and I sit quietly with one hand buried in my dog’s warm coat, using the other to trace patterns in my pilled and faded flannel sheets. My eyes dart anxiously from the clock to my phone with every second, watching each digital minute tick by. Finally I see “Incoming Call” flash across the screen and I instantly pick up the phone before it even has a chance to ring.
“She’s ready, come up. The vet will be here in an hour.”
“Okay. See you soon.”
I let out a muffled sob and hang up the phone. Getting out of bed I walk downstairs, shove my feet into the winter boots warming under the radiator and grab my keys off the kitchen counter. I pause for a minute, thinking I should eat something. I then realize that my stomach is churning and whatever I manage to eat would more than likely come right back up.
With a racing heartbeat and weak arms we go for one last walk. It feels strange, leading someone to their death. Every step is measured; each footprint will be remembered as the last. The air is sharp, cold and quiet as tears run silently down my face with each soft breath. This laneway will never be the same; neither will the wooden stall door, the smell of snow, or this particular date in February. I wonder if he knows what’s about to happen. Something tells me he does; horses are more intelligent than many people are aware of. I stop and turn to face him, wrapping my arms around his neck as he presses his forehead into my chest. I can feel him shaking as my own body shakes with each sob. He’s trembling from the pain, not the cold. I inhale shakily, grasping his leather halter with one hand to trace his name engraved on the nameplate, twisting my fingers through his mane with the other. I give a brief nod to his owner and she glances at the vet.
We both mutter as he takes his final breaths.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!”
I can’t help but let a quiet scream escape my lungs as his legs crumple and his body slams against the frozen ground with a deadening thud. It’s always terrifying to see twelve hundred pounds of strength and muscle simply crash to the ground.
It’s odd to see adults cry. I walk over to Brea and wrap my arms around her as tears stream down her face. We kneel down beside him together and I reach over and slip his eyelids shut. It looks as though he could be sleeping. Brea runs her hands down his warm neck, I place mine on his soft muzzle and we sit there in silence for a while.
I wrap one arm around her shoulder. We stay there as the snow falls gently down. We talk about Jojo, about his successes, his attitude and the one time he managed to throw me in one of his playful bucking fits. I show her pictures on my phone of him tossing his feed tub in the air, stealing her gloves and throwing pylons around the arena. We remember all his firsts. The day she bought him, his first ride since retiring from the racetrack, the first time he jumped, his first course, his first show, his first time swimming in the pond.
She lets out a pained sigh.
“I feel guilty, like we should have done more. I’m so sorry.”
I look at her and shake my head, there’s nothing to apologize for. Keeping an animal hanging on a thread, keeping them alive because we love them and can’t bear to let them go, that’s selfish. Making the decision before it has to be made for us is completely selfless, and one of the last things we can do for them after a lifetime of shared memories. My answer to her is simple.
“Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is let go.”