It’s never easy at the end

By John Piotti | Feb 13, 2014

Rain had washed away the snow. Then bitter cold had turned the wet ground to stone. And now, under the night sky, the entire paddock resembled a monstrous slab of dark granite.

Our old draft horse, Clyde, lay flat on his side. Because of how he had fallen, his only good eye was pressed against the cold ground. He could not see Susan as she stroked his neck, tears in her eyes.

Susan had just fed Clyde half an apple, into which she had placed some horse aspirin. He had more life in him now, but still could not get on his feet. Susan and I tried to reposition his hind legs, but no matter what we did, he could not move them. He simply could not get up.

Our regular veterinarian was away, and the vet on call was two hours south. We phoned a friend who knew a lot about horses, who put his wife on the phone with Susan, as he said she was the expert. But perhaps because there was nothing that could be said, she offered no advice beyond “try another vet.”

As Susan and I struggled with what to do next, the phone rang. It was our veterinarian, who had heard about Clyde, and despite being off duty and away with her family, made the time to call us — one of many kindnesses extended to us that day and next.

Susan is a physician assistant, so she and our vet could talk over all the medical details. And our vet knows Clyde well, so her advice was trusted and grounded. Out of this call would come a plan.

Between my fits of coughing (I had a cold), I could hear Susan asking questions and repeating parts of answers. I caught that Clyde had probably had a stroke, as happens to horses his age, and I could guess what that meant. Susan and the vet spoke about next steps. Susan remained calm, drawing upon her professional training; but I felt that her heart had broken.

In a way, Susan had been preparing for this moment for years. You know it’s coming, when you own a horse of such advanced age — 37 years. But that doesn’t lessen the pain.

Clyde and Susan are pals, linked together by time and by habit. That morning, like countless other winter mornings, Susan had felt the soft comfort of that gentle, thousand-pound giant, nuzzling her and breathing warmth on her, as she did chores in the cold barn.

Now, she searched the barn for a blanket to keep him warm.

When she came back into the house, we spoke briefly about what needed to happen. Then I made another call.

I couldn’t shoot Clyde myself. I hoped to find someone who would. I called a friend who was until recently a dairy farmer — a smart, soft-spoken man who lives nearby. He didn’t want to do it, yet readily agreed, and arrived at our house within minutes. He agreed in part, I’d guess, to help us out. But I think part of it was that he could and would do what’s needed. There are some things in life you do because you can — because at that moment, you are simply the person to do it. Our friend was playing that role.

Susan said her goodbyes to Clyde and retreated inside the house.

Our friend then asked if I wanted to leave. Until that moment, I had never considered leaving, though now it didn’t sound half bad. I greatly appreciated him asking, but told him I would stay.

“It’s never easy at the end,” he said. He was clearly speaking from experience.

I focused the flashlight on Clyde’s head. A shot rang out, then another. Clyde lay still.

Back inside the house, I hugged Susan, told her it was quick and that it was the right thing to do. I told her that she had given Clyde many great years, and that, in the end, that was the best any of us can ever do or hope for. But my words felt hollow, as they can at such times.

I had one last call to make that night — to the dairy farm down the road. The next morning, soon after Susan left for work, three members of the family arrived with a front-end loader and a trailer to take the body away. How helpful they were — another display of great kindness and support.

The only glitch was that Clyde, as a great big Belgium, was larger than they expected, larger than the trailer they brought. So they transported him down the road on the front-end loader, carrying him aloft like a fallen hero.

With Clyde removed from the paddock, our other horse, Bucky, became distraught. He whinnied and whined, and ran about wildly. I was a bit worried that Bucky might break free after I left for work. But mostly, I just felt for him. I fed him the other half of the apple Susan had fed Clyde the night before.

Somewhere around this time I remembered that today was my birthday. Oh, what a world we live in!

Our horse was dead. Susan was hurting. Soon we were going to have to talk about Clyde with our daughter at college — the girl who grew up with this horse, and whose computer password is derived from Clyde’s nickname. On top of this, I had a bad cold and was late for work.

But despite it all, remembering that it was my birthday brought solace. Actually, it wasn’t so much remembering my birthday, as it was reflecting on the concept of birthdays in general, of the beginning of life.

Life is not always easy. Not at the end, not at the beginning, and often not even in the days in between. But whenever I really think about it, it’s clear that our lives are indeed wondrous.

Sometimes I’m reminded of that unexpectedly. This day, it came to me as I leaned over a split rail fence, holding out half an apple for one of our four-legged charges.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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