By Jennifer Welch
I awoke suddenly at 2 a.m. this morning, and spent the next hour trying to fall back to sleep. Once I remembered the coming Super Moon, I gave up my futile attempts to resume slumber. My brain was awash with thoughts and ideas about cows, horses, the farm and my family. I stayed in bed for hours, silently contemplating how to move forward from the events since the beginning of the month. It has been over a week that I said goodbye to Alex, and two weeks since he fell ill … and I still don’t feel like I fit into my own skin. I have not felt this lost in a long time. I cannot seem to find solid ground, physically or emotionally. I am a complete mess.
Alex nickered softly when they opened the door to the exam room. It was bright and sunny outside after a few weeks of heavy monsoons. The air was thick and still as we crept out into the light toward the outdoor paddock where Alex would take his last breaths.
“I have one of those,” the vet tech exclaimed, as she pointed at the leather bracelet on my wrist. It was engraved with the name of my first horse, Riley, who I had to put down only four years ago.
“Yep,” I replied, “I guess I’ll be getting another one here pretty soon.” I grabbed onto Alex’s neck, trying not to fixate on what was about to take place. As we walked down the hill toward a grassy field, Alex picked up his pace and stuck close to me like glue – enough so that I almost ran into the vet tech as we walked.
“You in a hurry to get somewhere, big guy?” I asked, trying to fight back the tears.
Everyone chuckled as he quickened his pace, not seeming to care if he left us behind in the dust. Maybe he was just on a schedule. I hear angels have schedules.
After a night of no sleep, I am usually tired and a bit cranky. Today was no exception. I have been trying to figure out where to move the sows when I wean the piglets next week, and where to put the goats before they kid late this month or early next, and how to situate the duck house so we can get the best coverage for fly and mosquito control. I have also been thinking about what to do for Yak. We will need another horse soon – but it’s hard to say if my heart is up to the task of finding that next horse. My heart is in a thousand-million tiny pieces in the pit of my stomach, in the empty stall in the barn, in the little trailer that smells like a big horse. My heart has been asking me to put off this final piece of Alex’s story, because telling it will make it real. Saying it out loud will make it final. But after I spent the afternoon saving tiny animals from a wicked hail storm, and lighting up the barn with heat lamps, I hopped into a hot shower and turned on the radio. The first song on was heartbreaking; about holding onto something you know is no good, for the sake of not having to let go. And right then, I knew I would spend the rest of my evening letting go. And here I am.
As we walked into the paddock, I felt relief that we were outside. Alex loved his stall but was happiest out in the paddock, playing in the sun, splashing in his water trough. I stood him next to a wooden wall that had pieces of mane and tail caught in the splintered pieces. I kept his eye on mine so he wouldn’t notice the death all around him. I didn’t want him to be afraid. As I was looking into his eyes, my husband put his arms around me and spoke softly into my ear. He spoke just as I would speak for one of my animals, using the “voice” I reserve for Alex:
“Thanks, Jennifer. Thanks for taking such good care of me and for making sure I was always well-fed. Thanks for always loving me. I sure will miss you.”
The vet tech turned and asked if I was ready, and I nodded my head “yes” as a stream of tears fell down my cheeks. He took his time, as is usual for Alex, to say goodbye. I stroked his cheek and waited patiently as he transitioned onto the next. Then I collected his halter and walked back to the truck and trailer. Brian held me close as we walked, and we talked about how much peace there was in knowing why we were saying goodbye. Then, I shut the empty trailer door and we headed home. If we missed the Friday rush hour, we would be home just in time for our daughter’s birthday dinner. The roads were as clear as the sky the whole way back.
I wonder if Dr. Devine has thought about Alex since his last exam. I wonder if he has stopped beating himself up for missing the signs of his illness. I wonder if he will take a little piece of Alex into the exam room with him from now on. None of this matters, except to serve as further proof that some animals are here to teach us the good, fun lessons of life – and some are here to teach us the hard, dark ones. Although I often proclaim to know what my animals are thinking when I choose to speak for them, in an attempt to annoy my husband, I still don’t know what Alex was trying to teach me. Maybe it’s that life can be hard. Maybe it’s that life can be unfair. And maybe it’s that somewhere in between that rock and that hard place, there is the possibility for beauty, for strength, and for love. And if you’re not careful, you just might blink and miss out on the whole thing – because it can be gone in one, unmistakable instant.?
Jen Welch lives and writes in the Upper Arkansas River Valley and has started anew with another young horse saved from a starvation situation.