You’re a big horse, all eighteen hands of you. Our marshmallow pony’s back reaches only your knee, where the brown hairs turn to pitch. I toss a stack of hay over the fence. Your seized joints click as you turn, your once limber prance a tedious shuffle. I hope it’s only arthritis.
Bundled in his stroller, my newborn son Carsten shrieks, stinging my ears, rattling my brain. I can’t make it stop. There is no time to ponder the foreign look in your eye. My little Alena, two, scurries after me, hay trailing from her well-intentioned arms, near empty. “Look mama!”
I forget to smile as I turn to face her. Returning to the stroller, my steps labour like yours. When is the last time I slept more than two hours straight? You and I have slogged through our longest winter yet. The drafty windows on our rickety farmhouse are sealed with quilts in an attempt to keep in the heat. They also seal off the light. Your temporary paddock is inadequate, without windbreak. The late winter breeze wraps around your old bones. I’m so sorry. There’s been so much to do.
I pull Carsten from the stroller, cradle him, my hand mechanically patting. I have little left, dregs in a cold cup. Still, somehow I am all he needs. He nuzzles my chest, the little warmth left within me reaching for him.
You, a well-weathered version of your youth. Twelve years later, you’re still exactly what I need, too. You’ve known me and loved me, watched me grow up. Your coat has been soaked in my tears. When I ran from home, I ran to you. When my friends left, the steady beat of your heart held mine together. Still does.
Carrying Carsten, now settled, Alena tugs my coat. “I’m tired, Mama. I’m cold.”
I know the same numbness in my bones; winter lingers. I motion for her to follow. “We need to go see the ducks, just two more animals to feed.” Our new property, though dilapidated, was my life’s dream. All I see now are manure heaps, mouths to feed, endless projects that keep my husband away. More beings who need me.
Tossing grain for the ducks, my heart races faster than their paddly feet scampering toward the falling morsels.
Ping! A spray of gravel peppers an aluminum post as your hooves gouge the earth. You stagger, spin erratically, hind legs trembling, pivoting in place, front hooves toppling one over another.
Days ago, consumed by my own turbulence, I curled like a pill beetle. Unwashed hair matted at the neck of my sour-milk housecoat. Rocking, pretzeled arms pin knees to chest, eyelids squeezing. They are best off without me.
“What’s wrong, mama?”
I lift my head, dab my dripping nose,
“I’m having a hard time, Leen, just a bit sad. I’m gunna use my deep breaths, okay?” A soft hand meets mine, a rosy cheek presses against my face. Alena nestles into my lap.
“I love you even when you cry,” she whispers. She’s seen me cry every day for weeks.
“Just a bit sad” doesn’t do this. Is this depression? How pitiful am I, struggling again? I thought I’d beaten it, the haunting shadow that last threatened to swallow me years ago. Postpartum depression now? But I love my children deeply.
I can’t bear leaving Carsten for longer than the second-hand takes to complete a lap. And yet, the blankets I pull from my legs weigh me down, mind begging for the end, a black abyss. Once endearing, enticing my smile, I now dread Alena’s “Where are ya, mama?” Morning is here. Will I make it through today? Will I be here when my kids are grown? I stumble over toys strewn about, a minefield, toppling baskets of laundry, jarred pasta sauce crusted to unwashed plates. Alena already in my arms, Carsten’s first morning cry provokes tears of my own.
“Mama, what’s Tiny doing?”
Alena’s delicate voice reels me in. Your knees are buckling. I rush the kids inside, scrambling for my phone. Nineteen texts without response; voicemails at capacity. I’d stopped answering weeks ago, too many clients to decline. I’m ruining my kids, my marriage, my business. If there is a good time for you to die, my friend, this isn’t it!
Carsten is wailing again, my shoulder pinching the phone, calling our vet, my husband Jesse, calling Mom. Come on, pick up! I struggle to latch Carsten’s trembling lips on my breast. The rings echo the pitch of his cry.
Mom rings our doorbell within minutes. I pull on my boots and sweater, neglecting a waterproof layer. Bursting from the back door, rain droplets tap against my scalp, soaking my hair into wavy strands as I run toward you. The sharp air inflates my lungs with new breath, an alien sensation—the most terrifyingly alive I’ve felt in months.
I remember being this alive. I used to feel it when carried by you, on your back. Together we flew. Cantering bareback through open fields scattered with wildflowers, my legs dangling, encasing your barrel. But there was an absence of fear then. I became your surging strides, taking on your power, at a time when I had little of my own.
Somehow, as I approach, you’re still standing. Jesse abandoned his job site, tools scattered in the rain, now here corralling our pony from the paddock. The poor thing quite aware your beastly frame may turn him pancake-like in this drunken waltz.
Gravel crunches beneath the veterinarian’s boots, now ducking beneath the wire to join us. You’re still spinning as he speaks. I strain for his voice over rain drumming on your shelter’s tin roof.
“Easy boy,” I hush. You quiet a moment. The vet tugs your ash black tail, does little more than prod your sides.
“I’m afraid it looks neurological; his brain is damaged.”
No. You aren’t just some horse. You were my saviour through my teen years, my only friend. The only reason I survived.
“We can give him something, can’t we?”
“I’m afraid there aren’t many options. His condition is likely to further decline. It may be best to say goodbye.”
We bought this neglected property to retire you on. Your barn isn’t built, field unfenced. Alena will be too young to remember you. I still need you. I can’t make it through this alone. The best we can do is buy one last day with some steroids? Discuss body removal?
Your almond eyes bulge, whites flashing, begging me to make the unsteadiness stop. Quivering, I ask, “Is he in pain?” Warm tears stream down my cheeks that I don’t bother to brush away. I know that look. You’re terrified. I am too.
“No, but he’s dangerous. He could fall any moment.”
You? Impossible. The gentlest creature I’ve ever met.
I stand staring at you, staring right through you, the trembling shell, as fragile as I feel. Jesse’s steady hand caresses my back. How your auburn coat once gleamed.
I remember stroking your glossy coat for the first time. My eyes were tracking over the same line after line in science class, thoughts vibrating, unable to make sense of the swirling words. I’d lost the ability to read. Empty chairs on either side taunted. Mom pulled me from school. You were a complete surprise. Next, I was standing beneath you, your head towering above for only a minute before you lowered it, eyes meeting mine, entering my world for the first time. No longer alone in the dark. I could breathe.
“Isn’t there anything else?”
Four tubes of medication resembling toothpaste are our only hope. Three thousand dollars. The vet warns it’s purely experimental. All I need is a chance but it’s more than we can afford. My aunt offers to pay. The sun rises and sets. You’ve corkscrewed a crater into the gravel where you spin, though more slowly now. Alena and I peek through the window, fog lifting. We have made a morning routine of this.
“He looks pretty stable today mama,” she reckons. She has learned a lot about what stable means, more than any toddler should. I am trying to find my own morning routines too. The urge to slip away still taunts in waves, yet I cling to the giggles of my children, surviving for them, surviving for you. I hand my car keys to Jesse on hard evenings; he promises not to let me leave. I call my psychologist, a naturopath. I call my friends.
Early summer now, I’ve delayed ordering hay. If you survive, we’ll need six times the amount. I begin taking a hodgepodge of supplements. Swallowing my first handful, lightness embraces me. It should take weeks to feel any effect. Perhaps, then, the zest of hope is a medicine. The first moment I believe I can get better, that maybe you’ll get better, too. Still, how will I plant my garden, water seeds I desire to grow roots as your future is so uncertain? Jesse helps me stack the shed full of hay, full of hope.
It’s four and dinner is underway. Alena and I are making homemade spaghetti. “Silly mama!” she teases, removing my zucchini slice eyes, red bell pepper moustache. I’ve missed this. Alena erupts into a fit of giggles, still chopping her veggies with a plastic knife just as I have shown her how. I’m here. How much I love being here. The joy sparkling through her lake-blue eyes reaches me once more.
No spinning now, but you teeter, hind leg propped precariously outward. Barring Alena from you breaks me, her once adoring eyes now fearful. She may never stand next to you again. The vet declares further improvement unlikely. The only memory of you here, your corpse buried next to your unfinished barn? A tree planted in your name? No. I push the plunger, rub your throat until you gulp the paste. You remind me to refuse to quit. I swallow my handful of capsules, call a postpartum support line, start jogging again. Dressing, grocery shopping, answering the phone. Smiling becomes easier.
Time ignores our pleas to wait. You are growing older with every day. Jesse’s work lights burn well after dark. Your barn has a roof now. I erect a ramshackle fence around the field we’ve cleared of brambles, ready when the ground firms up. Will you last till then? Whip-like grasses begin to carpet the rolling one-acre, a vibrant green. Edged by forest, punctuated with mature cedars, I rest in their shade, watching Alena pick dandelions, water still squelching from the earth beneath her gumboots, Carsten asleep in his pack, chubby cheeks squished against my chest. I long for the day you might enjoy this field along with us. I allow my heart to hope that the day our field is ready will not be after you pass. I remember the summer days you and I spent together in the mountain fields. No ropes or fences, how you remained with me, though you were free to roam. I’d sit with my journal, trying as I might to make sense of my struggling. The lullaby of you tearing whisps of tender grass, chewing them, soothed my rattling brain.
You have survived seven months; the vet says you are a fighter. The coolness in the now late summer air threatens fall. All that’s left of our field are pale stalks, too coarse to chew, amongst matted clusters of buttercups. Soil parched, pulled apart, a shattered vase glued back together. The hoof prints now impressed in the bare soil amplify its beauty; they’re yours. You’ve lived here, chewed the grass to nubs. The giant cedars with scraggly, bowing branches your resting place, sweeping flies from your back. You’re down a couple hundred pounds, dragging one crooked leg. There’s a rumbling wheeze as you exhale. Flecks of grey around your eyes, your muzzle. Temples sunken. Still, beautiful. Still strong. I begin to remember the things I love, what it feels like to love them. Still trying. Our backyard is strewn with toys, unruly bouquets of wildflower weeds on the table, fingerprints on the windows. We have lived here, too busy making memories to fuss with the imperfection.
Jesse drives the quad, Carsten on his lap, nubby fingers clutching the gas tank, lips vibrating. “Brrrm.” Alena and I bump along the road toward our field in the suspension-less trailer. “Woooo!” Alena giggles at my antics, hanging on tight. The steel chain rattles against the gate as we enter.
Today, your eyes—glassy and listless for months—shoot open. Alive at the sounds of us, the rumbling quad, rakes bouncing. You seldom leave your tree but for the occasional sip of water or mouthful of hay, most of it still heaped. Today is a good day. We treasure these. It’s been a while since your last. Striding toward us, you pause, bumping our pockets, snuffling our faces. Alena’s nose scrunches, ducking behind me. “His whiskers are tickly like Daddy’s!” You are her big Tiny. Her palm unfurls, offering a treat you tenderly take. It’s you again, you’ve risen from dreariness alongside me. She gets to see you, be next to you: curious, goofy, never resisting a good snuggle. You.
Alena’s radiant smile warms my face, our eyes laser beams for each other. She sees me smiling back. She’s three now; she’ll remember this. She will remember us being here with you.
I lift Alena by the armpits and set her on the ground, flip-flop feet now skipping circles. Jesse bounces Carsten on his knee, his nine-month-old self, his coos and smiles my prize for making it here.
Alena hugs your leg, the only part of you she can reach. “I love my family!”
I smile, grab your lips, flapping them open and shut. “I love you, too, Alena girl,” I reply in the dopey voice I imagine is yours.
Your muzzle is now only inches from Carsten. He clucks, grasping fingers reaching your nostril, his whole fist disappearing, a scene straight from Tarzan. You snort, he cries, we laugh. I stroke the length of your nose before combing the dry ground with my steel rake. Stones rattle against it, creating small mounds. A part of me struggles against every stroke. With each repetition, I upend the pitchfork into the trailer, marbles in a bucket. Alena bends, heaving her special “dino egg” rocks into the dump trailer. Thwack, against the plastic shell.
We are preparing your field for next year. Will you live through winter? Join me in the spring where I now know I’ll show my babies how to plant seeds, nurture them?
My only wish has been to watch my kids make memories with you here, this home we’ve created. To know you as I have. Your nose is a foot from the ground, airplane ears flopping, soup bowl-sized hooves tiptoeing after Alena with her clutch of favourite stones.
“No big Tiny; it’s not food for you!”
I’ve got my wish, but I still hope you’ll stay a little longer.
Years ago, you propelled us over five-foot jumps; today, you struggle to stand. I’ve seen you grow weary, your mass waste away as I have grown stronger. So unfair. You lean against your now finished barn, some nights so weak. But I’ve watched you age, noticed every subtle change because you are here with me, you made it into your barn, your field. I’ve seen you slurp toddler-concocted molasses-oat mixtures, lick maple syrup from breakfast plates, snatch the mittens right from Alena’s hands. You have given me such a gift in all of it. As I reminisce, you stand overlooking your field, facing the morning sun, eyes drawn. Your routine. I watch you, basking in its rays from our kitchen window, only fifty feet away as I begin a new day. Jesse’s arms embrace me from behind, no longer holding me up as I once needed them to. Both kids crouch on the counter in front of me, witnessing the magic of your breath condensing in crisp air. I squeeze them a little tighter now every chance I get. I close my eyes, soaking in the warmth. I’ve fought for these moments, dreamed of them.
I’ll see you here forever, long after you’ve gone. In the joy I have, in the hope. I’ll never be ready to let you go, but I know that I am strong enough to make it. You’ve taught me so. I’ll be here for my son’s first steps, my daughter’s first day of school. I made it here with you.
Image Source: Dr. Matthias Ripp / Flickr Creative Commons