Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Death in the Family



I was on my way to other plans when my mother called me that last Wednesday in April.

“Can you come up here? Mahie’s sick,” she said a little before 2 p.m. I was standing in a store looking at candles.

My mother sounded tired. She was. She’d called the vet, Dr. M, after finding Mahlie that morning thrashing around in her stall. Colic, it seemed. I wasn’t panicked, as we’d been through this before. But I dropped what I was doing to get there as soon as I could.

Mahie, our beautiful black half-Arab half-Welsh pony who was born our property, was standing beside my mother behind the barn. Her reddish-tinged hair was damp and matted while her thick black mane hung in wet clumpy strands. For years too fat, Mahlie has recently been looking trim and healthy. Today she looked thin.

She had blood dripping from her nose. I was alarmed until I realized it was the result of a tube Dr. M inserted there to get warm water and mineral oil into her stomach to encourage some movement through her system. Then he smeared a steroid ointment in her open eyes, which were rimmed with blood from her bashing her head in her stall.

I was also alarmed at how dull she appeared until the vet explained that he’d tranquilized her to do his examination. He filled me in on what he’d told my mother. That her chances of “making it” were about “15 percent.”

He wasn’t sure if it was colic, basically a stomachache, which can be lethal if they roll on the ground to alleviate their pain — which she was certainly doing. That thrashing can cause the stomach to twist, which chokes off the digestive system and requires emergency surgery if they don’t die first. He thought it could be that kind of obstruction or even possibly an obstruction caused by a tumor.

Her heart rate and respirations were double what they should have been, obvious signs of distress. She showed no interest in the fresh green grass or spring hay. She had no gut sounds and was not making any manure. That’s death to a horse.

Her right front leg shook with fatigue and her head hung down almost to the ground. I wanted to hold her up but the vet said to leave her be.

“It’s the tranquilizer,” he reminded. “She has a strong urge to balance herself.”

She looked like she was dying.

As he left my exhausted mother and me alone with her, he gave us instructions for the next “few days” — a sign of hope, I thought — quickly explaining how to administer several doses of an anti-inflammatory medicine, more ointment for her eyes and an electrolyte mix to shoot into her mouth with a large syringe.

“Worst case scenario is she goes back down in the next couple of hours and you call Dr. C,” he said, referring to the vet on call.

* * * *

Mahlie would have been 33 this month.

My mother cared for her every morning and every night for all those years. Few parents care for a child that long.

Times such as these, coping with a suddenly sick animal, disrupt. They grab hold of your carefully laid plans and rip them to pieces. They tear at your heart. They exhaust and confuse.

We’ve lost pets before, so many. But this was different. Mahie the last in a long line of horses in our family. It was the end of an era.

When our last horse, Tess, had to be put down a few years ago, I watched as Mahlie, clearly agitated, trotted around her body, by then covered by a green plastic tarp. She pawed at the lifeless mound with her hoof and tugged on the tarp with her teeth as if trying to wake her friend.

I wished I could have soothed her. Picked her up and cradled her and said, “It will be okay.”

We worried for Mahlie then. She’d been used to being in the company of horses. As many as eight at one time. And five llamas, too.

But she adapted. And for us, she kept the barnyard alive. And my mother was able to maintain the routine she’s had for so many years. Grain in the morning, with fresh hay and water then turning her out to the pasture. At night, always around dusk or bit after, she’d call Mahlie into a clean stall to enjoy grain with chunks of freshly chopped apples and carrots.

* * * *

By the time Dr. M left, I was still hopeful, thinking I might even keep some of my plans that day. As my mother rested on a camping stood in the middle of the barnyard, I brushed Mahlie’s coat and combed her mane, which seemed to relax her. I cut off any stubborn matted pieces of hair. Her eyes and nose were no longer bloody. She looked good, too, which, I imagined, also helped her feel good. Maybe that's an illusion we need to give ourselves.

As the drug wore off, she perked up and I began to walk her. She even seemed to want to walk me as I pulled back to slow her down. It was going to be a long day, I thought. I didn’t want to tire her. She even bowed her head, we thought to sniff the grass. Maybe it was. Maybe it’s just in her nature. But she would not take a bite. Later we brought her grain and hay. Still no interest.

Still, we were encouraged enough that after a couple of hours I let her off the lead rope to walk on her own. “Let’s see what she does,” my mother said. I went to clean her stall, just out of sight, then heard my mother calling to her. I saw as she got up to follow Mahlie around the back barn. And then I watched Mahlie go down.

I cursed myself for letting her go. Once she was down it was not in our control to make her get up. But even then we told ourselves she might just be tired, maybe she needed to rest, she’d been up all night and walking for hours and not feeling well. She looked exhausted, like she just wanted to sleep, laying her head down on the ground, her eyes looking sleepy.

But then she groaned and began to roll.

We paged Dr. C.

* * * *

Dr. C was the vet who helped rescue Mahlie a little over a year ago when she escaped my parents’ property one night. Mahlie had slipped on a shallow icy pond and couldn’t get up. I thought she wouldn’t make it then. But we pulled her through. (A Super BowlTale)

This was also the vet who was there with Dr. M some six or seven years ago when Mahlie had colic for the first time I can ever recall. She was always so hearty.

I was there that time, too, walking her repeatedly and watching her through the night, checking her heart rate and respirations, seeing if she was making any manure or showing any interest in eating and making sure she did not lie down and roll. I even hand-pressed a large bag of fluids into her through an IV line to keep her hydrated.

At that time, I remember deciding in my mind sometime in the wee hours — after hearing no gut sounds with my father’s stethoscope, seeing no interest in food and seeing no manure — that she was not going to make it.

I was sleeping on a sofa downstairs at my parents’ house, mourning her imminent death, when my father came in from outside early the next morning and said she’d passed some manure, proof that she was not obstructed.

You’d have thought it was Christmas. I couldn’t believe it. I felt guilty for giving up on her if only in my mind. Even the vets were surprised and heartened.

* * * *

Shortly after we’d paged Dr. C, for whatever reason, Mahlie surprised us by getting up on her own. Was she feeling better?

We walked again, the same restless kind of walk. Urgent, yet disorganized. I’d stand still and she’d make a tight circle around me, reminding me of the way a dog goes in a circle before lying down. I didn’t want to think that’s all she wanted. If we could just keep her moving…

I compulsively listened to her gut. I know I heard a few gut sounds, a gurgle, a pop. No she was not eating and her heart rate and respiration were still high but it was a hopeful sign.

I began to wish we had not called the vet. Just then, before the vet arrived, Mahlie went down again, rolling on the soft grass before sitting up with her head lifted and legs tucked near her. She almost looked comfortable.

Dr. C told us she could not examine her conclusively if she was not standing so we desperately tried again to get her to stand, calling her name, tugging at her lead rope. Nothing.

Then, like the last time, Mahlie decided on her own to stand. We were relieved because now Dr. C could tell us more. We knew there was a decision to be made. God, please tell us something conclusive so we’ll know what to do.

Like Dr. M, Dr. C was not 100 percent sure of anything except the “15 percent chance.”

She said Mahlie’s heart rate was even higher than before, which I attributed to her rolling and getting up. She listened to her gut. “I hear nothing,” she said.

I told her I know I heard some sounds. “You probably heard her breathing,” she said. I didn’t think so.

Dr. C talked and talked, offering reasons to put her down but also reasons to wait, maybe buying us time as we decided what to do. She said things like how she knew we liked to try everything in our power before letting go and that this was our last horse so she was willing to give us the night if we wanted, leaving us with pain killers to inject every two hours, but also that this could be a painful experience for Mahlie and she didn’t deserve that after all these years, that older horses were more stoic than the young ones and internalize the pain, maybe one reason she seemed somewhat mellow, and that if we did wait it out Mahlie would have to be much, much improved my morning to have hope, but that it was up to us.

I did ask if it was her horse what she would do. I was surprised when she said she would probably put her down.

* * * *

I don’t think my mother was thinking completely straight. She was exhausted both physically and emotionally. I was confused, too, and didn’t want to make the call. I told my mother I’d do whatever she wanted. I later felt bad putting that on her.

We brought Mahlie into her stall to see what she’d do. At least she relieved her bladder, as she always liked to do inside a perfectly clean stall. She didn’t lie down but for some reason my mother wanted to let her do what she wanted, free from a lead rope, and said if she went down again, we would put her down.

The vet looked at me. I think she knew Mahlie would go down, that this was how my mother needed to rationalize it. I was pretty sure Mahlie would go down and wanted to tell my mother not to make that bet. But in the end, no decision felt right, though I think the vet felt it was right.

We watched as Mahlie walked outside again and then, ever so gently, lowered her body to the ground. The decision was made.

But even then, we were nagged with doubt despite a self-imposed pressure to go on with it as the sky grew dark and the vet got the injection ready. As we went back and forth, our bodies hovering close to Mahlie, I thought my mother might change her mind. I thought I might say something to stop it. Somehow we just proceeded.

I’ll tell you now, I wish I had stopped it, had taken Mahlie through the night, taken all the pain meds the vet could offer us to keep her comfortable until morning, and if she wasn’t better by then, put her down. I think that is the worst part. Not knowing if we did the right thing.

I was crouched down in front of Mahie and I said to my mother to come say goodbye. I held Mahlie’s head and kissed her on the nose. My mother did the same. We stroked and soothed her as the vet injected an overdose of anesthesia into the left side of her neck from behind. Mahlie started for a moment but very gently eased back and went to sleep.

It was over. No more pain. It was now dark, nearly 9 p.m.

* * * *

I could end this here, but there is more.

The guilt always creeps into your psyche. Did you do it too soon? Did you do it too late? Did you need to do it at all?

This time it was worse. I agonized for days afterward over putting her down that night, not seeing it through beyond any doubt. It’s all the more painful because she is the last. We should have held on just a little longer, I tell myself, not fully sure that would be the right thing to do but maye it was.

Regardless of our feelings, we had things to attend to. We covered Mahlie’s body with a couple of tarps, weighing them down with rocks.

I tell people how civilized it is by comparison to bury or cremate a dog or a cat. You can wrap them in a blanket, carry them like a baby. Even a large dog is easy for two people to handle.

A horse is different. You have to call someone with a truck with chains or a tractor strong enough to move her.

My mother decided to have her cremated. She called the same man she’s called many times before. He arrived Friday morning — it rained all day on Thursday — with his large yellow machinery.

I don’t recall what I said to this man as I uncovered her body and got choked up, but he said, as if to comfort me, “She’s not there. Her soul is gone. That’s just a body.” I knew he was right.

He scooped her up with the curved front shovel, being careful to go deep into the dirt and grass beneath her so as not to harm her body. He slowly lifted her high and took her to my parents’ pick up truck, now in the pasture, gently depositing her on the bed.

As I secured the tarp over her body, I kept thinking how I didn’t want anything blowing off and exposing her during the long journey through dirty, busy towns surrounded by traffic as we made our way to the facility where they cremate large animals.

* * * *

As we neared the cremation facility almost an hour later, we called ahead to confirm the directions. We were told just then that the person who does the cremations was out of town until Monday and that Mahlie would be placed on a tarp in a barn and covered with ice if necessary. My mother panicked. Normally they are put in for cremation the day you arrive. We hated thinking of her lying somewhere strange, alone, for days.

I know. She’s dead. Just a body, not a soul.

We pulled into a parking lot and sat for nearly an hour making frantic phone calls to find a place that could take her now. Or sooner than Monday. The most logical — and really the only other — place was two hours away. They would wait for us, they had a cooler, and would do the cremation in the morning.

We decided to stop at the first place to see how we felt, not looking forward to a long drive so far away. They understood our concern. If only we’d known the man was not available until Monday, we’d have made another plan.

Part of us wanted to leave Mahlie there, where we took Tess and other animals. At least it felt familiar. But then we left for the other place. That was better, we told ourselves as we drove away. We second-guessed ourselves within a few miles and nearly turned back. We just wanted it to be over. We just wanted someone to tell us what to do and that it would be okay. We continued on.

* * * *

By the time we got to this strange place so far from home, we were too tired to beat ourselves up, once again, over whether we’d made the right decision.

Two nice young men were waiting for us in a pleasant office where urns and plaques were on display, mostly for dogs and cats. They had close cropped hair and were neatly dressed in uniforms of navy polo shirts and khaki pants. It was somehow reassuring, that they were professional, that they would take care of her.

You have such fear that they will not do what they say. Will she really be in a cooler? Will she really be cremated in the morning? Will we really have Mahlie’s actual ashes?

One guy asked for the truck keys as my mother wrote the check for a private cremation. I didn't want him to leave us here while he drove off with her. "We're okay, we'll drive her," I said.

We parked outside a metal building just across the road. I don’t know that we enjoy watching this process of loading and unloading, but it is part of the process. And maybe in that way we need to see it. See it through.

It’s hard to say goodbye. To know this is the last “look” you’ll have.

We watched as one of the guys maneuvered a hi-low vehicle after they secured chains to her legs above her hooves. They hoisted her up by a long bar that ran between each of the front and each of the rear hooves. I hated seeing her like this, upside down, head hanging.

We saw enough. We said goodbye. I kept looking from the truck to catch the last possible glimpse of her.

At first you cannot get that last image out of our mind. You fear this is how your will see her in your mind every time you think of her. But those last images do fade and give way to better ones.

* * * *

It’s been two weeks since that day we put her down.

Her ashes now sit in an urn at my mother’s house. Three braids we made out of locks from her mane are in a plastic bag. The vet said many people make jewelry from them.

We still grieve and feel guilt and remorse that we didn’t do more. We don’t know if it would have made a difference. But it might have. We know we can’t do anything about that now.

I also grieve for my mother, for whom I know it’s a harder struggle. After nearly 33 years of tending to Mahlie, and others before that, she tells me she keeps catching herself looking for Mahlie in the pasture out of habit. Or she thinks, “I have to go out to feed now.”

Then she remembers.

The barnyard and pastures, once flush with activity, have grown steadily quieter over the years.

Now they are still.

“I thought she’d go on forever,” my mother said the other day.

I did too.