It's been a month since my last post, though it feels longer. Much longer. I've been avoiding updating for some time but have forced myself to do it. I've lived in a house of mourning.
For several days, Mickey's stall sat empty. Some of his fur that he shed was still fluttering about, getting plucked up by chickadees for their nests. His water bucket sat still and cool, as if waiting for him. The meal he never finished lined his trough. These were the hardest things to see. Remnants of daily life when he was gone.
Mickey was a true warrior. He fought to live until the very end. Over the two weeks that he had colic (which the vet thought must have set some kind of record) he had good times and he had bad times. When he was lying on the ground, twitching or trying to roll in pain despite being on Banamine (a powerful painkiller), the idea of putting him to sleep seemed reasonable. But then, an hour later, a half hour, or sometimes minutes, he'd get back up and start nosing his hay and playing the nipping game with Houdini, our other gelding. It was a decision that was nearly impossible to make.
For many days, we hydrated him through his IV, gave him painkiller, watched for and warded off Laminitis, walked him to ease his cramps, grazed him to get his guts going, brushed him until he was sleek, which was no small feat considering what a woolly mammoth he became every winter. In the midst of all this, when all I wanted was to spend time with Mickey, I had to write my MFA Exam. I did what I could with the essays and sent them in, not having the energy to give a damn. My little brother also turned 21, so we did the best we could to celebrate under the circumstances. The vet tried a belly tap and flooding his intestines with a huge dose of IV saline to test for a rotting part of his gut: nothing. She pumped him with oils to help him pass a blockage: nothing. His colic was a mystery.
Cheech watches us with Mickey. The Commie slinks by in the background. The vet kept watching him and saying "...That is a really strange cat." She agreed that he was a communist.
But when she pulled out hard stool in a rectal exam and saw how dark it was, she knew that there wasn't much more reason to have hope. The poops were literally like rocks, smelled like booze (fermenting) and the dark substance coating them was more than likely intestinal blood. We'll never know what exactly was killing him, but it was likely a lipoma: a tumor constricting his intestines, blocking the passage of poop.
There is an equine surgical center an hour or two away, but unfortunately, Mickey wasn't a surgical candidate because of his bad heart murmur. In fact, the first vet who came out to treat him heard his heart and panicked, thinking we should put him down right then and there because he was suffering from heart failure. She said it was the worst heart she'd ever heard. I'm sure she's great at what she does, but she was only a few years older than me, so I kept thinking, "okay, but how many bad hearts have you heard?" It turned out that my mistrust in her prognosis was well-placed, for when our regular vet made it out to see him, she didn't think that his heart was an issue and said it sounded the same as it always has.
After we saw the hard stool, she reminded us that we had to look at the whole picture. While there were times when he was alert, pain-free, and content, there were plenty where he was roiling in pain, and there was nothing we could do to fix him. That made the decision a little easier to make, but no easier to bear.
I am so grateful for those extra 10 days that we had with Mickey since my last post. But as my mom wisely observed, "It'll never be enough time." While he was sick, I woke up every morning, ate breakfast, and went straight to the barn to simply sit beside him. Nothing else mattered. I could hardly stand to watch TV at night, for it felt like I lived in a different world than everyone else who was not looking loss in the eye.
On that last day, he wasn't eating much aside from the fresh grass (thank goodness he got sick in the spring!) and carrots, so I spoiled him by feeding him a whole bag.
The sun was out and I like to think he had a pleasant last day. He got to graze, eat treats, be brushed, feel the sun, and play with Houdini a little. The night before, I sat with him in his stall, watching as he gazed, transfixed, at some deer grazing in the distance. The birds were singing as they sought roosts for the night, the insects were chirping, and all was peaceful. I will treasure that time with him forever.
This is very difficult for me to write, which is why I have been avoiding it for so long. My eyes are pooling with tears. I will love and miss him forever. He was my big brother. One of my earliest memories is of walking down to the barn to meet him when I was five, and being too short to see over the stall door. He has taught me so much, and we have shared so many adventures. He gave the best hugs in the world. When I wrapped my arms around him, I was filled with a deep sense of peace, as if my soul were soothed.
I don't think you ever really get over the loss of a horse. My mare Maya died when I was thirteen, and I still weep for her. The bond we share with every animal has a unique nature. That which you share with a horse is the most spiritual. It is a bond of pure trust and affection. When you ride, you trust the horse with your life, as the horse trusts you, for you are his herd leader, his Itancan and he is your imitator, your Waunca. On his back, you are literally spine to spine. You become one. Where you look, he looks. You give direction with the slightest pressure in your knee or heel or brush of the reins upon his neck. When deer and other wildlife see you, the see you as one animal and they only smell the horse. You are free to re-enter nature as an herbivore, not a predator, and observe life without the fear of man. That bond, that unity of spirit, that oneness is beautiful, emboldening, and one of the greatest pleasures and sources of pride in my life. The pain of it being ripped away is terrible.
Those who have never bonded with a horse will find it difficult to understand the pain. Losing any animal is awful, but there is a sense of a sundered spirit with the loss of a horse.
Unfortunately, Mickey wasn't our only loss. Clara, Alex's beloved guinea pig and my "little piggy sister" or "grandchild," passed away on a Wednesday night after our frantic attempts to save her amidst caring for Mickey. She was nearly seven, however, which is the full lifespan of a guinea pig. The following Wednesday, Mickey was put down. He was at least thirty, which is old age for a horse. Watching him fall after the vet injected him with poison was one of the most horrible things I've ever witnessed. The following Wednesday, the third in a row, my cat Junior, or "June June" was unable to eat and bleeding a little from her mouth. We took her to the vet and he said that she had a tumor in her throat that was so large that if they removed it, she wouldn't have enough tongue to eat. She left this world peacefully and didn't leave my arms from the vet clinic until I laid her in the ground amidst spring flowers.
Our animal cemetery is getting full.
And while I think of it, here's a tip directed at no one in particular, but based on how I have felt these past few weeks. If you are fortunate enough to have never lost a beloved animal, much less a human you were close with, don't offer the grieving advice. Don't try to give pep talks or say "I know how you feel" or "this will pass," because, frankly, one of the emotions of grief is anger, and saying things like that might make someone want to punch you in the face. Especially when they know you've never been through a death.
Losing three animal siblings has been very hard. I'm so lucky to have my family, and that we all have our health. In a way, knowing that so many of my loved ones have gone before me has made me see death with more comfort than in the past. If there's the chance that I'll see them again, then I'll be all right.
And on the subject of the Other Side... I think the dove "Jesus" was more than a dove.
We tried to find her home by putting up signs and placing an ad in the paper. At least two people offered to adopt her (we took it to a local who raises them and she said it was a female, however she pointed out how drastically different it looked compared to her birds, which was odd) but no one claimed her. When the ad in the paper was going to end, I intended to set her free and see if she would fly home.
The evening that Mickey was put to sleep, we were all gathered at the barn, weeping and hugging his body. My dad went up to the house for a minute and heard a commotion. He looked out at the rock wall where we had been placing the dove's cage so that she could watch the other birds at the bird feeder, and she wasn't there. The cage was on the ground, open, and the neighbor's puppies were up the hillside. Maybe they pushed it, but the spring latch to the door would be next to impossible for a dog to open. Thumbs do have their advantages. We've tried to get the cage to spring open on its own by dropping it to no avail.
The white dove appeared on Easter, the first day we knew Mickey was sick. She left ten days later, shortly after (or during, for all we know) his death. And she hasn't returned. Given that she'd been hanging out at the bird feeder on Easter before we found her in Mickey's stall, you'd think she'd return for a meal or two. The vet heard the story and thought it was as strange as we did.
Most cultures view birds as messengers of the gods, or embodiments of visiting spirits. We wondered if she could have been Maya or Misty (Mickey's old friend who died a few years ago) or even our grandma come to guide his spirit. When we were in the vet's office with Junior, my mom told the story to the receptionist. She said her friend, who was an Indian (I don't know what nation), had told her that in her culture, it is believed that white doves come to guide the spirits of the dying. While we were in with Junior, the receptionist called her friend to double-check, and wound up crying on the phone. She had the story right.
It could easily be explained, but it also makes you wonder. Maybe enough people have observed these things that over the centuries, and the beliefs that birds are messengers/guides has stuck for a reason. Maybe it's true.
The other part of the puzzle that made me wonder was Junior. As the runt, I used to have to pull other kittens away from teats so that she could nurse. My older brother often picked on her just because she was "my" cat. She also had an independent spirit by nature and spent most of her time hunting. Because of the time I spent with her, she always let me pet her more than other people. But recently, she would even take a swipe at me when I'd stop petting her, like she would do to everyone else. Holding her was almost always out of the question (unless you wanted to have scars).
Yet in that hospital room, she turned sweet as can be. She rubbed on everything and everyone, let me hold her, and even snuggled against me, sitting in my lap. Never in her life had she been so affectionate. Twice she looked me in the eye for an extended period of time, and Alex said she looked her in the eye, too. Junior normally would never hold still long enough to look at our faces. My grandma loved cats, and I started to wonder if she was there, calming her, looking through her eyes at her granddaughters. I hope that's true, because the idea of grandma taking care of June June feels right. They'll take care of each other.
On top of all this loss and graduation stress, I headed to Las Vegas to accept my screenwriting awards. I'll post more about that later. We left the day after Mickey died and came back three days later.
That evening, I wandered into Mickey's empty stall and headed down to the corner where he always loved to lie in the sun. He had the sweetest scent I've ever smelled on a horse, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by it. I thought there must be some of his fur on the ground, but didn't look, and took in several wonderful breaths, smelling him. Then the breeze blew and the scent was gone. When I looked, there was no fur, no hair, and I realized it had been too strong for that, anyway. It was as if my nose had been buried against his mane.
I love and miss you, too, my sweet brother.