Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Last Goodbye

As some of you know, I have taken a brief hiatus from writing to say goodbye to an old friend. Baker and I first met twenty-five years ago. His full name was Baker's Dozen, because he was his mother's thirteenth foal. Mom was a quarter horse. Dad was a Thoroughbred, a pretty decent racehorse. Baker was not what anybody expected. His coat was the glorious shade horse people call liver chestnut--a sort of shiny seal brown. His mane and tail were distinctly...well...orange. And some influence from his buckskin mother had given him yellow eyes. Yes, Devil-yellow. He looked like Satan. I was buying him for my husband. He was perfect...heh-heh.

I took him out for a test drive, of course, because my husband couldn't ride to save his soul and I wanted to see if this was the "kind" horse that would tolerate a rider like that. The seller assured me he was, but of course sellers always say those things. As long as we didn't put a child on him, she told me, he would be fine. He had been sold to a young girl who found him a bit much to handle, so they had tried to "school" him by letting the younger students in a riding program learn on him. Big mistake. Baker had an extremely sensitive mouth and when he discovered still-uncoordinated young riders had a tendency to jerk on his bit, the honeymoon was over. They really did think that horse was the devil, but the seller (who struck me as a very knowledgeable girl) assured me that he would cart around any adult.

The lady knew her business. As long as I sat on him like a sack of cement and had no contact with his mouth, he was a dream. A motorcycle cruised up his butt. He glanced at it dismissively and kept walking. Something that sounded like a siren announcing a nuclear power station melting down went off. His ear twitched. Finally, I put him to the acid test, urging him downhill into an almost impenetrable thicket at the bottom of a covert . He forged through it like a Sherman tank and, when I gave him no instruction whatsoever about his exit, backed out as neatly as a dancer, without any panic at all.

Our blacksmith trailered him home for me. They had a little disagreement about loading. Wayne was running late and was disgruntled and hurried. The horse fixed him with those baleful yellow eyes and said, "Don't you rush me, sucker." He refused to load until I took the lead shank and walked onto the trailer in front of him. For me, he went in on the first try and rode like a rock all the way home.

The horse loved me. He carted my husband around in good spirit, but it was me he loved. I'm sure that's why he didn't kill me the first time I risked a large child on him. Sally was obsessed with the horse and since she was a pre-teen, I thought she might pass muster. She was dying to ride him, bribing him shamelessly, currying him by the hour, slipping him every sort of treat. Finally the big day came. Baker was settled in, Sally was prepped and I was...careful. I kept hold of the girl's waistband even after she settled gingerly onto the horse. It was a good thing. I had to literally grab her by the seat of the pants and pull her off as he went up into the air in a perfect pirouette. I saw how he had been ridding himself of riding students. He was good enough not to hit me as he came back to earth, but I did see Satan looking out of those eyes, just for a minute.

I finally found the key. It was height. Anyone above four foot six could get on. Anyone under that height had better not even try. Once I knew that, the horse packed all our older kids around without complaint. The little ones had to wait their turn, measuring themselves against a pencil mark on the kitchen wall until they were tall enough to ride Baker. But he was worth the wait, taking them foxhunting, posing with one daughter through her modeling portfolio, having antlers tied to his head at Christmas and pulling the family down the road in a cart reserved for Christmas caroling. We hung paper mache spiders in his stall at Halloween and he amused the kids by the hour, bunting them with his nose. He drank Rolling Rock beer from the bottle, sharing it with my husband. He ate pears and cherries from our trees, neatly spitting out the pits. When I had major surgery but was burning to ride six weeks after being carved from stem to stern, I took Baker out because I knew I could trust him. No way would that horse throw me. The nearest he came was parting company with me one day out foxhunting when he went one way and I went the other. He slammed on the brakes so quickly that I ended up on the ground with the reins still in my hand, fifty horses galloping past and my horse standing stock-still so that I could remount. Horses just don't do that, but Baker did.

He outlived my husband by seventeen years. Who'da thunk it? They were difficult, impoverished, stress-filled years, but no way was I letting go of that horse. Inevitably, old age took its toll even on his sturdy frame. He got arthritic. He developed Cushing's Syndrome, an affliction common to old horses that causes a horribly painful condition called founder. I thought I would lose him to that, but the vet came through with a medication that cost $120 a month and special shoes that cost $70 every six weeks. Hay went to $5 a bale, grain to $20 a bag and my old friend needed all the most expensive stuff--soft, first-cut hay, special senior grain. I cut my grocery shopping back to every other week and fed the horse.

On Tuesday, for the first time ever, he refused that special grain. I felt a sensation like the distant rumble of a train coming down the tracks, still too far away to see, but making you look for the light on the front. I didn't go to work and I am somebody who NEVER skips work. I can't afford to. But I played hookey--one last time.

By 11 a.m. the horse was in trouble, throwing himself on the floor of his stall and rolling in the classic throes of colic. I put in a frantic call for the vet, who was 45 minutes away, and tried to get my horse up so he wouldn't twist his intestine. One small woman against a 1,200 pound animal out of his mind with pain? It was no contest. I couldn't get him up. He rolled away all his bedding and was thrashing on the bare stall mats, skinning all the hair off beside his eyes as he twisted in agony. His eyes swelled shut, he looked like he had been dipped in a vat of water and when Tony the vet arrived, he almost was. We had to throw water in his face and kick him unmercifully to get him up and out of the stall, but you never want a horse to die inside the barn because they're so hard to remove. And I knew he was going to die.

We tried for two hours...two long hours of heroics mercifully abetted by painkillers, but after two hours Baker peered at me out of his swollen eyes, threw himself on the ground and laid there, unmoving. It was time to go. I sat in the mud with his head in my lap as the vet gave him the fatal injection, and I sat there for a long time afterwards, too. It was a last goodbye. A goodbye to a noble friend, to memories, to the best years of my own life. When I got up, I was a lot older.

Was it worth it? Unquestionably. Horses have no agenda. They serve our will, bear our burdens and soothe our souls. I poured out my grief and pain to that horse so many times while he looked at me out of his Devil eyes with an expression that said he understood every word. And I think he did. Somewhere, even now, Baker remembers what I whispered to him as he died.

"Be free," I said.

8 comments:

  1. Oh, Miriam. I have tears in my eyes. My deepest, most heartfelt sympathies on your loss. I believe that wherever Baker is, he is indeed running free.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh Miriam, thank you for sharing your story with us. I know how much you loved that horse. The horse will always be with you just as those who love us never leave us. Big hugs!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh, Miriam, that was beautiful! I hope it was cathartic for you because it certainly was for me. I don't usually like to start the day with a good cry, but that was worth it.

    Susan

    ReplyDelete
  4. Miriam,

    I'm not a crier, but you had me sobbing this morning. What a beautiful way to honor Baker's Dozen. You painted an incredible picture with your words that conveyed the strength of love you both possessed. I thank you for sharing this deeply personal experience with us.

    Robin

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh Miriam...what a beautiful, painful, and moving story. Great piece of writing. You have shared with us a meaningful taste of what it truly means to be in relationship- It's called the between. It's what happens between two people- when my I meets your thou-when we trust enough to fully disclose to each other who we are. It doesn't happen very often- but you and Baker had that. You had that mutual trust which is what we usually call love- and is deep. It made you remember your husband, kids, good times, bad, really reliving most of your life. What a wonderful last gift Baker gave you, what an honor. Really beautiful wring, Miriam, thanks SO much for sharing it with me...Shalom: health, happiness and well being. Betsy

    ReplyDelete
  6. Miriam; what a beautiful piece of writing....and what a sad and wonderful story. I am so sorry for your loss, and scared of mine someday with Mandarin, my faithful friend. At least Bsker knew very clearly that he was not alone, and felt the love and care that he had always given you was repaid in full. Beautiful, wonderful, lovely..........Betsy B

    ReplyDelete
  7. Miriam, as always your words are written with poetic elegance. I'm so sorry for your loss.

    ReplyDelete