Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Super Bowl Tale

My mother was in the hospital last week. Now that she is home, I feel better. Not only because she’s out of the hospital but because it occurred to me that exactly a year ago today she was in that same hospital and I didn’t want a repeat of last year.

I remember the day because it was Super Bowl Sunday when our thirty-year-old horse Mahlie escaped from my parents’ property the night before.

Mahlie was not prone to running away but I suspect she felt out of sorts by the change in her feed time or maybe it was the strange voices calling to her. In any case, that Saturday night when my father called to her, she never came. Sure enough he found a broken fence leading from the back pasture to the backyard, and hoof prints heading down the driveway.

I learned of all this when I called to check in around 11 p.m. “Molly’s gone,” is all my father said. I could hear his exhaustion from worrying about my mother. My sister, who was in town and staying there, had gone out to look for her.

Sitting in bed in my pajamas in my own house about 12 miles away, I immediately called the police thinking, naively, they’d offer to help search the area for our geriatric horse (technically half pony). I imagined them arriving with these high intensity flashlights so we could scan the wooded areas around my parents’ property together. The officer must have thought I was nuts.

“We can’t do that. But if we see her or someone calls us, we’ll let you know.”

I couldn’t believe it. No help. We were on our own. And even if someone did see her, I realized she might not come to us. When animals get out, they can get wild.

I was left with this: She was somewhere; she could be anywhere. Where? In a field behind some subdivision. Walking along a two-lane highway. In someone’s backyard. Around the corner. Miles away.

I dressed and drove up in the dark cold to help look for her. My sister thought she’d deciphered some hoof marks in the deep snow around the neighbors’ property and along the dirt road. We called to her in the vacant night. My father did get a call from the police. A neighbor wanted to know why someone was prowling around in their backyard after midnight.

We gave up around 1 a.m. and decided to look in the morning. It seemed wrong. How could I sleep? How much longer should we have looked in that thick black silent night? Maybe she was dead. But we weren’t getting anywhere. It seemed all we could do was wait for someone to see her and call the police.

My father called me in the morning.

“Gordy called,” he said. “He said: ‘Your horse is lying on the pond just south of your property.’”

I found it odd that this neighbor, who saw Mahlie on his morning walk, didn’t stop at our house to tell my dad immediately, and instead waited until he got home a tenth of a mile or two away before calling.

And then Gordy offered only this to my dad: “Good luck.”

Good luck? That’s all?

“Is she alive?” I asked my dad.

“I don’t know.”

A self-hate took over me. We’d given up our search when she was virtually visible from the driveway had we looked a little longer, a little harder. I’d assumed she was there all night.

My sister ran out to find she was indeed alive and I raced up to meet them.

As I neared the house, I saw a police car parked. Help! I thought. The cop is going to help and get his buddies to come, too!

I'm sure my face was filled with hope as I saw this cop walking toward his car while my father and sister stood near Mahlie. Then he informed me that he’d merely stopped to see what was going on. “I can’t hang around,” he said, then left. I think he said, “Good luck.”

I felt like crying looking at Mahlie, lying on her side on the shallow frozen pond, more of a swamp with lots of shoots sprouting through the snow-covered surface. The ice around her body had turned into a brownish pool from what must have been frantic attempts to stand up in the time before we found her. She wasn’t moving much now.

I’d called the vet. As we waited for his assistant, I’d asked what we could do. “Keep her warm with blankets,” he said. “But if her body temperature is too low, there’s not much you can do.”

What he meant was this: If she was hypothermic, she was going to die no matter what we did.

We had no way of checking her body temperature so I grabbed lead ropes, blankets, a tarp, anything from the garage and returned to see Mahlie, the only surviving animal in the barn yard after years of company of other horses and llamas, looking helpless. An invalid. I cradled her wet head in my lap to get it off the ice.

First we tried to pull her off the ice with lead straps wrapped around her feet with the aid of runner who offered to help. My father, watching, said under his breath that he didn’t think she’d make it. I began to believe him. But, I told myself, this can’t happen when my mother is in the hospital.

A couple of times we successfully cajoled her, shaking a can of feed and yelling “Get up!” Mahlie would raise her head, grunt and kick her legs out as she struggled to rise. Each time her legs collapsed beneath her.

I wondered how many times she did this when we were sleeping.

Then just as my husband arrived to help he saw a tow truck driver down the road. He flagged him down and asked if he could help pull Mahlie off the ice.

This big strapping man with gray hair and a mustache, who owned the towing company, had a better idea: He called his best friend, a trim athletic looking off-duty fireman, who brought another off-duty fireman.

Suddenly, these three guys, who would probably rather be watching pre-Super Bowl festivities, were now as intent as we were on getting a tarp under Mahlie to pull her off the ice onto a snowy area so she could at least have traction to stand, if she still had the strength.

We pulled her off the ice before the vet arrived. But she still couldn’t stand because her hooves were against a tree, keeping her from getting up even if she wanted to. The men wanted to flip her over from one side to the other over her back but I asked them to wait for the vet. I knew flipping over her that way could twist her gut, practically ensuring she wouldn’t survive.

I wondered if she would survive anyway and wished I could just physically pick her up. It seemed so stupid that her sheer size could be her downfall. She looked tired, exhausted. I didn’t think she had the will. And if she couldn’t stand, there wasn’t much we could do. And again, I thought: Please not while my mother is in the hospital.

The vet arrived, parking her truck on the road and rushing over with supplies. When she checked Mahlie’s vital signs, she was almost stunned to find her temperature was not far from normal. “She couldn’t have been here all night,” she said, at the same time determining that she didn’t seem to have any broken bones. “Maybe she fell this morning trying to get back home.”

I felt an enormous relief, not just that she could very well survive if she got up, but that we didn’t overlook her the night before.

We were also lucky that the weather was not too cold or too warm. If it was warmer, she and we might have broken through the ice. If it was much colder, she might be in worse shape.

The vet had us flip this half-ton horse over her belly and legs, which we’d tucked under her, putting her legs in a space where she could stand up. It worked, but we still had what seemed an endless task of clearing stubborn spouts, logs and tiny trees that were in the way. We pulled, we chopped. We tried getting her up again.

For the first time, real hope filled the snowy thicketed space we’d inhabited the past several hours, a span of time that seemed a quarter of that. And by now these men were determined. If Mahlie didn’t stand up, they talked about hauling her body onto a large truck and warming her frozen limbs in the firehouse. I couldn’t believe it.

We struggled with her to get her to stand. And watched her collapse back down. We let her catch her strength, kept covering her with dry blankets and rubbing her frozen legs to help her circulation. If anyone felt like giving up, no one said so.

We weren’t prepared when this little horse finally stood, uneasy, steam rising from her matted hair, her legs shaking, weak, ready to go back down. We all sort of stood back in awe.

Just then the vet yelled: “Support her! You have to support her!” The men scrambled beside her, two on each side, buttressing her as the vet took the lead strap and slowly walked her to the dirt road and toward the driveway.

I had taken off to the barn, my heart pounding, to make sure the way was clear and her stall was filled with fresh sawdust. Amazingly, she made it.

And you know what? That little horse, who must have been exhausted, didn’t lie down the rest of the day. Best of all, by the time my mother heard the story it had a happy ending.

And those three guys, whom I forced a hug and few choked up thank yous on before they left, I bet they had one of the best Super Bowl Sundays ever.


Anonymous said...

Ellen, I am sorry to hear your mom was in the hospital recently. Glad she is better now. As an only child who spends a fair amount of time caring for her widowed mom, I know how worrisome this can be. In 2007, my mom was at Beaumont Emergency three times between Thanksgiving and New Year's. It's hard to watch parents age, isn't it? Hope things continue to improve. Loved the horse photos!

Only the Half of It said...

Well, at least the horse did not get out this time. "-)

Sharon said...

And it's a Super Bowl Sunday you will never forget, either. Glad to hear the horse made it home safely. Hope your mother continues to feel better.