Not long ago I received a sad email. “John,” one of my son’s old teachers, is in hospice. Terminal cancer. The email closed with John’s number and the suggestion to call or visit him. John is that magic mix of eccentric intelligence and funny frosted with a genuine love for what he does. I never knew the man well, but admired him from a distance. Staring at the numerals on the computer screen I thought about visiting. Then I vacillated. After all, we don’t really know him; we aren’t close; it might be awkward, etc. To infinity came the excuses. Deep down, I knew the real issue: It is uncomfortable, in a selfish sort of way, to play a role in someone’s journey of death. As I thought about this I remembered a certain pony mare that lived with us for one short year.
I knew I would tell this (unhappy) story eventually. It illustrates something true about writers, at least the writers I know: We write for ourselves. We do not write for riches or fame (though if Rich wants to pay me a visit I’ll be okay with it) or even for readership. We write as a response to an urgent and strange compulsion imbedded deeply in our DNA. We write to sort through life and all its mystery. We write, therefore we are. But back to the pony.
My daughter was eight when we bought her first horse, a snow white Welsh pony mare named, Lady. As it turned out the horse’s given name, as on file with the Welsh Pony Registry, was more appropriate: Goodbye Girl. Lady was an opinionated, sassy old fart who didn’t let the ripe age of 20 stop her from misbehaving. I found it hard to bond with the mare and let her know, frequently, that if she didn’t shape up she’d be hearin’ two words out of my mouth: “Goodbye, girl” (and good riddance).
Over time, however, I developed a sort of reluctant admiration for Lady. In human form, the mare would have been a flamboyant leader in the Red Hat Society, flaunting her gams and bewitching everyone with huge black eyes that shone luminous against a silver coat. She trotted like a carriage horse, kicked up her heels and flirted shamelessly with my (much younger) geldings. Lady seemed to know who she was and didn’t care a fig what anyone thought of her.
One day in early fall, the year after purchasing the pony, I noticed Lady was not herself. A telling look of discomfort replaced her usually sassy expression. When she started limping I called the vet. The diagnosis? Laminitis. This is a metabolic disturbance common in ponies and happens often in spring with a sudden intake of sugar-rich grasses. There was no grass in the nearly dry paddock in which she lived and the vet had no solid explanation for her condition. He left us with dietary instructions and tubes of Bute for the pain. We hoped to keep Lady comfortable and that the inflammation in her hoof walls would subside. If she didn’t pull out of the laminitic condition within the month the prognosis was more serious.
Besides dosing Lady night and day, I had my farrier fashion Styrofoam pads which we taped to her front feet to ease the pressure on her coffin bones. Weeks passed and she did not improve. One morning I entered her stall to find her “stuck” in a corner, unwilling to move her feet and shift position. “Come on Lady Jane,” I said, using my mother’s childhood nickname for me. I pushed in vain on her white rump as tears pricked at my eyes.
Lady continued to spiral downward. She seemed to disappear to someplace deep inside, barely acknowledging my presence when I gave her double doses of Bute. I knew the time had come to say farewell to the Goodbye Girl.
At first I scrambled at ways to avoid making the hardest decision. In all my years of horse ownership, I’d never had to end ones life. I thought of giving Lady away (there was an opportunity) or taking her to the auction, or calling my mother and asking her to deal with it. I lamented the fact that Lady had been born in California yet had traveled many miles, over many years, to arrive on my small farm just in time to die. It didn’t seem fair to be asked to be part of her dying process. But something deep inside kicked me in the fanny and said to buck up, take responsibility. The situation, painful as it was, did not revolve around me.
My friend, T, agreed to do the uncomfortable task of ending Lady’s suffering. Besides being a farmer and female version of Doc Holliday, T has an endlessly tender heart for all animals and once rescued a forgotten kitten from the clutches of a barn owl.
I was already crying when I lead Lady out of the barn, removed her halter, and let her sink her white nose one more time in a patch of greenery. I patted the pony and told her I was sorry—so sorry—for this unfortunate turn of events. I told her that even though she’d frustrated me at times I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I thanked her for 21 years of serving human beings. When T came inside we hugged and cried for a long time. We laughed, too, and remembered a sassy pony who once wore a Styrofoam unicorn horn in an Independence Day parade. We celebrated her life and felt thankful for the generosity of horses and the blessing they are.
I have an aunt that frequently attends to those in hospice when they are dying. She sings, prays, and hold the hands of strangers. I am sure she sometimes cries. Nobody pays her for this service; she is happy to be a companion for those taking their last earthly journey. It is a beautiful and unselfish gift. I wish I was more like her.
Death is something the living wish to avoid. But it is a part of life whether we are ready or not. We can choose to be available to others as we will want them to be available to us when the time comes. Lady taught me that.
I think its time to make a phone call...
*This posting is in honor of my friend T and my wonderful Aunt Jan.