The Speed of Dark


No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it. Terry Pratchett

People keep asking me if I’m ok. On the one hand, that’s good; it means the people in my life are caring, considerate, attuned to the anguish of others. On the other, I wonder if they are questioning my need to be sad, to grieve.

Being sad and grieving over a lost pet is a valid process. I am ok. Sad, but ok. I know I made the right choice. I know, having spent twenty-one years with my horse, Saiga, that I made the right call. Last summer, he could still scale the five-foot fence. Effortlessly. At twenty-nine he was still the master of his universe, in control. He was everything one imagines a horse to be.

Something in him had already died on Sunday. Something wild. Untamable. When I first arrived home and sat with his head against my leg, he looked at me. It was a knowing look. He became very still and his eyes implored me: Make this stop! Not to fix it, but to end it. It was a pleading sort of look that broke my heart.

And then he pulled himself to his feet, and tried, again, to walk it off. Ultimately, surrendering to his pain and staggering to his knees and falling to the ground again. And that hurt me more.

He was a proud animal. Not a horse for beginners. Not a being for the feint of heart. He had opinions and preferences. And I respected them. So did anyone who spent time in his space. And it was his space. King of all the fenced land.

He was here because he chose to be here. The fences were merely a formality.  Here was the preference.  Here was home. Here was where the people who loved him wouldn’t allow him to suffer.

And yes, I’m sad. I’ll miss him. There will be moments of panic—did I forget to close the gate?—before I remember, ahh, no need. I’ll miss him galloping across the property for corn-on-the-cob, grapes, apples. I’ll miss him moving from window to window as I move through the house. His napping beneath whichever window I was sitting near in the living room. I’ll miss the sound of his nickering when I turn on the kitchen light to get morning coffee. The silence is deafening.

But there is a deep sense of satisfaction edging my sadness. An odd sort of serenity. We spent years in each others’ company. And he had a good life—after he came to live with us. A life that deserved better than what would have surely been his future if I had made any other choice… And there is a contentment in knowing he will not suffer that. He moved on without the shadow of fear of the future—will I colic again? Will it be worse next time? He knew no what-ifs. He knew I would read in his eyes what he needed—and he knew I’d do just that. His trust gave me confidence.

When I turned on my computer to “announce” that he had passed away, there was a post on Facebook by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is one of my favorite writers. I thought about him throughout the afternoon Sunday—he understands where Saiga was.  He knows what its like to be proud—not for beginners.  He’s brilliant, witty. Timely.

Terry Pratchett has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I cannot imagine the place he is in; knowing, that one day soon, he’s not going to know anything. He recently made a documentary about assisted dying. He knows his time is winding down. I can see him reflected in Saiga. I sense that look in his eye. I haven’t seen the documentary. But, I know it says exactly what Saiga said to me. My heart breaks for him, for his grieving. His knowing. For his inability to make the same choices I made for Saiga. One day, in the not to distant future, other people will be making choices for him. He will no longer be master of his own universe. And he, clearly, has an opinion.

I find myself wondering, if, as humans, we don’t struggle with our grief because of the choices society says that we should make. The choices we are forced to live with and reconcile. Death is the inevitable end—no matter how fully we live. So, why do we fight it? Refuse to accept that someone is moving on? Refuse to accept our own mortality?

I am sad that Saiga is gone, but I am also able to rejoice in the life well-lived. A life only briefly diminished by incapacity—a moment, less than a day, when light met darkness. And, as Pratchett said, darkness is always there first, waiting.

I hope that when the amazing light that is Sir Terry Pratchett draws close to the inevitable darkness someone is there to see the look in his eye and know when it’s time to say goodbye. Someone who will allow him dignity in his passing. Someone with the courage to accept his or her own mortality. Someone will acknowledge that he’s not afraid of that darkness, he’s ready for it.

Word Count: 879

Advertisements

Waiting with a Friend


My horse, Saiga, turned thirty in May. Thirty is respectably old for a horse, very respectable. Like Bilbo-old respectable. He had begun to show his age. His hearing went first. He stopped responding to the whistling we used to call him. To get his attention, I’d have to walk all the way up to him. He’d lost some weight this summer. Enough to make me worry about him and switch his grain to something better suited to older horses. He stopped wandering into a far corner of the yard to “do his business.” Like a senile old man, he started just going wherever he was. It worried me.  When animals (humans included) don’t separate their eating space from their bathroom space, it’s a bad sign.

I knew his time was winding down.

Ian and I went to town this morning. JL helped a neighbor, and then went to church. Saiga was here alone—with no humans to see he was unwell.

When JL returned from church three hours later, Saiga was covered with sweat and stumbling. He would walk a bit stumble, fall, roll, get up and do it all over again. Ian and I were already on our way home when JL called. And I knew it wasn’t good.

I pulled into the driveway, took one look at Saiga and yelled into the house, “Call the vet.”  I sat on the ground and talked to him softly, brushing the hair out of his dimming eyes, and wiping the sweat off his neck.  It was clear he was dying. “It’s ok, go on. It’s ok, don’t fight.”

But he’s cantankerous and refused. He struggled to his feet over and over; Ian, his friend C., and I watching, following, standing, cooing comfort. Saiga has lived on this land twenty-one years, three years longer than Ian has been alive. It was an anxious picture: JL calling the vet, Ian, C. and I moving from one side of the fence to the other. Saiga on the ground, rolling. Up, stumbling, struggling. I called Jamie and she called Chris. Saiga was part of the family, they’d need to say goodbye. They both dropped what they are doing and came.

We waited for the vet.

I came in, to be out of the sun for a moment, and Saiga stumbled to the property line. There’s a drop-off there. Although JL was beside me, I yelled—go, go help the boys get him away from the edge! But it was too late, he leaned into the wire fence, broke through it, and he slid into the gully. There would be no saving him now. He couldn’t move in the thick underbrush and had managed to get caught up at the foot of a tree. I was afraid that his suffering would be worse, that he would be in more pain, if we moved him. We would have to tie ropes around his chest and pull him, over the broken underbrush, through the dirt and rocks. He looked at me, listened to the sound of my voice, and remained still; staring into a space I was unable to see. He was moving beyond my reach. I didn’t want to call him back, remind him of his age, his pain.

And so we waited.

The vet suggested that we pull him from the gully. But he was so weak. I just wanted his suffering to end. We could have pulled him out, spent thousands to “fix” him. But at thirty, it wouldn’t have been for him. It would have been a selfish act. Age can’t be fixed. I knew it and so did Saiga. I could have had his days extended, but not his life. I climbed down into the gully and sat on the ground beside him.

The vet was good, taking too much time to prepare the shots, giving us the opportunity to say goodbye.

Ian, who didn’t cry at the end of Marley and Me, sobbed into C’s shoulder. Chris and Ryan paced.  JL stayed in the house. Jamie and I sat in the shallow gully with Saiga stroking him until his breathing stopped. This is the first family member Ian has lost; the first one he is old enough to remember losing. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind that Saiga wouldn’t just always be munching grass out back. But C. knew, he lost his dad to cancer three years ago. Ian was one of three of C’s friends to attend the funeral. I was glad C. was here—their bond is special. Losing a pet cannot be compared to losing a parent—but to someone who hasn’t ever lost anyone, it was good to have a friend who understood on a larger scale. A friend, who stood stoically, absorbing Ian’s tears into his shoulder. Without judgement.

***

I found Saiga in a wooded lot. He wasn’t exactly abandoned. He lived on a horse farm. He didn’t like his owner, who in turn thought he was an unmanageable, cantankerous, nag. The first time I saw him, he was standing on his back legs, with his front hooves pressed against a tree, reaching for leaves to eat. Because there was nothing else for him to eat. I parked my car beside the fence. He stepped down and cantered to the farthest part of the enclosure.

I was keeping another horse on the property and I’d come to feed her. Saiga was so skittish he caught my eye, and the next day, I brought him an apple.

He responded by running to the other side of his paddock, again. His beautiful silvery-white coat catching the sunlight, he looked like someone from a fairy tale. He nickered and neighed, throwing his head defiantly in the air. It was a beautiful, almost choreographed, fuck-you. His name, on his registration papers, was Nadeem Saiga, it means sweet thunderbolt. It was an apt name.

When I left, some hours later, the apple still lay where I set it. And he was still as far from my car, the fruit, and me as he could possibly be. I brought another the next day anyway.  For almost a month, every day, when I went to the stable I would leave him fruit or alfalfa cubes.

Everyday he ignored it until I was gone. I decided to buy him. He was full of spirit. I didn’t want to tame him, I wanted to befriend him. At first he wasn’t for sale, but I persisted. His owner had nothing but disparaging things to say about him, and then charged me too much for him. She insisted I would never make a good pet of him: he was ornery.

Finally, he began watching for me. He eagerly awaited my arrival and the fruit. Mostly, I think it was the fruit. It was longer, still, before he would eat with me there. It took me three months to get him to eat from my hand. And another month to get a saddle on him.

Eventually, we fenced the property and brought both horses here. For a long time, he’s been mostly a lawn mower, and good company. The herniated disks in my back make it impossible for me to ride, and at thirty his joints ached a bit. We’d periodically hobble around together, keeping each other company, thinking about younger days, jumping fences.  He outlived my other horse, and two goats. He was a regal old man. And we both knew his time had come.

The day was long and tear-filled. The human family that adored him – and that he adored – surrounded Saiga. As the vet injected him and the final light faded from his eyes, the last he saw and heard was me. There were no nursing homes, no maintaining life after he finished living. The tension fled his muscles and he closed his eyes and exhaled serenely, passing into a place I can’t see, probably filled with apples and alfalfa cubes.

If only we could extend that same sort of dignity to humans…

Rest in peace, Saiga. I will miss you, but you’ve earned it.