Tuesday, October 2, 2012

As She Lays Dying: A country girl's experience with death.

While I sit and write I take in my surroundings and realize that I may have mislead some of you readers when I wrote that Chris and I are now living in San Diego. You might think we are a stone's throw from the ocean and spend time outside watching people cruise up and down the boardwalk, barefoot and in shorts, carrying surfboards or riding skateboards. Although that certainly is the reality for many, we would have to get in our car and drive dozens of miles to be in that type of scene.

So, no, that's not our daily reality (but we'd like it to be); it's more like a weekend thing, especially for me since I'm unemployed and stay put most of the time in order to conserve the hard-earned money in my savings account. Theoretically we are in San Diego, literally we live in Valley Center, which is in North San Diego County, far from the sand and water and even further from the airport and downtown.

My day-to-day environment consists of acres of sprawling ranches attached to large houses with swimming pools and jacuzzis one on side and tractors and barns on the other. Our neighbors are farmers, growing everything from leafy Birds of Paradise to purple Pomegranates.  They all have dogs and one of them even has a curious Emu. Everyone here drives trucks or Cessna airplanes (which is what my father-in-law uses for his morning commute to work). Between the sounds of airplane engines, chickens clucking, dogs barking, birds constantly chirping, and coyotes howling at night, Valley Center can be a very noisy place. It gets really warm and dry here during the daytime in the Summer (and in Fall, apparently), typical of semi-arid climates even though the cool pacific ocean is close by, which is why wildfires are such a problem in California; but at night temperatures can drop up to forty degrees, which revitalizes us all for the next hot day. The rural style of our current neighborhood is not all that different from my teenage home in South Texas, which is also an agricultural community, except that here we live on top of a canyon so we are over eleven hundred feet above sea level. Living on a canyon makes for an exciting drive with sudden turns and deep twists, so if you ever visit be alert.

So far I'm enjoying my new life in "the country". I find the solitude and mostly quiet nature of our area to be very peaceful and conducive to reading and writing. This isn't where we want to live permanently, as we're both drawn to the excitements and colorful culture of urban society,

but it's been a great place to transition from the move. Being here while we were both unemployed made us feel like we were still on vacation - which can be a major detriment to finding a job -but now that Chris is employed it's just me, alone on most weekdays, finding ways to keep myself busy. We've planted several fruit trees and redone the garden;

 I go on long morning runs to train myself for the Las Vegas half-marathon in December; I keep the four dogs fed and entertained; I keep the house as tidy and neat as possible (which is slightly difficult with four big dogs, one of which is practically a puppy); and, for the first time in my life, I take care of horses. Who knew I would become a horse person?

My mother-in-law, Kristi, has horses. She's also an elementary school teacher. This means that, before I came and offerred to take on the responsibility, she used to wake up very early in the morning to feed the horses before getting ready for work. It's not a difficult process but it is time consuming, depending on how many horses one has.

She's had as many as six but now has four, having lost two of the elderly ones within the last several months. Chris and I were still in Miami when the first one, Momma, passed away but we were here when the second one, Annie, died. I'll never forget that day because it was such an emotionally charged event for me.

It was a Thursday afternoon in late August and by that point I had already been helping Kristi with the horses so I was used to checking on them a few times a day. They were already engrained in the part of my brain that is responsible for the feelings of caring and loving others - that establishes so quickly in me and makes me the ultimate empathy master - tearing me up anytime I sense an overwhelming feeling of joy or pain from another being, making it possible for me to cry when the winner of Top Chef is announced or when I learn that three hundred more people have been massacred in Syria. Thus, when an intensely emotional moment happens to me personally, I remember every detail.

I remember that it was a hot afternoon, in the upper 90s. Kristi and Dave were at work and Chris and I were about to start packing for a late flight to Boston. We had just finished lunch and I was rinsing my plate off at the sink when I looked out the window and saw Annie laying on her side, directly under the heat of the sun, between the fence and horse stalls. I was immediately alarmed because I was under the impression that horses didn't lay down very often, especially during the day in that kind of heat. Plus, she was old, about thirty-five, so I knew she would be especially sensitive to any type of fall. I remember dropping everything and hurrying outside, my heart pounding. The other four horses didn't seem too concerned and continued grazing, but that didn't lessen my worry. When I got to her side I was taken aback at seeing such a huge animal helpless on her side. I called to her to see if she would move or try to stand, but she didn't, she just looked at me with her big eyes. She was breathing heavily and looked hot and exhausted, so I grabbed a bucket of water, sat in the dirt by her head, and cradled her face in my arms. She was too weak to drink the water by herself so I dripped it into her mouth for her.

By this point Chris had contacted Kristi, Dave, and the veterinarian and had enclosed the other horses in the round pen, as instructed. It was at this moment that I noticed Annie began to try to stand. She would rear her head forward and sit up, then try to push herself upwards with her front legs, and eventually collapse back into the dirt. She repeated this process many times for over an hour, and Chris even tried to give her a boost, but she weighed too much and it was of no use. Watching her struggle to stand broke my heart and as I stroked her face to calm her down tears streamed down my cheeks and muddied the dirt.

As we sat feeling helpless and wondering when the veterinarian would arrive Annie suddenly had a surge of energy and stood up. We couldn't believe it and were elated. She stumbled around dazed for a second, and then walked towards the pen where the other horses were. I followed her and lead her towards the water trough so she could rehydrate but she wasn't interested in drinking anything. Instead, she pulled away and again walked towards the enclosed pen, walking around it until reaching the closed gate, where she collapsed again. Then the other horses all walked over to be as near her as they could and watched her quietly. By that time the veterinarian finally arrived with his assistant. They examined her quickly and said the only thing they could do was to euthanize her. They walked back to their truck and when they returned they were carrying a series of humongous needles. I gave Annie a final kiss on the nose, unable to look her in the eyes, and walked towards the house, sobbing, as the first needle entered her body, leaving her in the company of Chris, the vets, and the other horses who were all much stronger than me for being able to watch her die.

 When Kristi came home we mourned together, but her pain was far greater than mine, as is the norm when you lose a being that you raised for decades. She told me that Annie and Momma were best friends and that Annie died in the same exact place as Momma. Horses are smart and they're also pack animals. They make friendships with each other and enjoy being with other horses. That made me realize that when Annie had started struggling to stand up it was because we had moved her companions away from her and she wanted to be near them before she died. Maybe she knew she was dying, maybe she didn't, but she knew that whatever was happening to her was unbearable without the presence of her friends. Yet another example of the humanity in animals and another reason why I adore them so.

Here in the country part of Southern California I've learned many new things but the most striking has been my relationship with the horses and the impact they've made on my daily life.

And just so this post doesn't end on a sad note, here's a series of pictures (using crappy phone camera) of DZ, the big stallion, having himself a fun little roll around.

1 comment:

Ana Lucia said...

What a sad but beautiful experience. Horses are incredible animals and I'm glad you have the opportunity to be with them. Remember when you wanted to be a veterinarian? ... you can now
enjoy them and learn from them, animals can teach us so much!