Friday, April 02, 2010

The Admiral Is Put Down

My aunt Lolly has been a horse vet for as long as I can remember. I had heard of her "putting down" people's horses for them, had heard of the owner's agonizing decision and even had seen some of our family cats and dogs be put down - slowly falling into the eternal sleep as we pet them, comforted them and cried together in a tight circle. Despite Lol's explanation of what was to come concerning Admiral's fate, I was in no way prepared (there was no way I could be) to see our horse named Admiral, who we think of as our brother, be put down.

Over a month has passed since the day on Cloudberry Farm and I have since been exploring the mountains of Wyoming and the canyons of Utah as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. I have had to set the memory aside from my brain, as it was too painful and distracting to me, but realizing that perhaps writing about it might help the continuing processing that is necessary when seeing a "brother" lose his life. So now as the students are enjoying a day of "solo" I sit on a rock and write in the Utah sun next to the Dirty Devil River.

He had lived with us for about 22 years of my 31. We love our animals, especially when they love us, and as such, Adi became a brother. His first decade of life, so I am told, was not a happy one. He lived in a stable, only turned out for this and that, and was an unhappy and "crazy" horse. Then somehow he ended up with us with three different fields to roam, competing in 3-day events and living next to his various horsy friends in our neighbor Deb's field.

I never took to riding nor do I know an extensive amount of information on horses. I know which side to be on before getting on a horse, I know how to talk to one, and I know how to look where I want to go and the horse will feel it. I don't know what kind of horse Adi is, though I should, or how many hands he is, I just know he is big, strong, and black with a white stripe down his nose (sorry if my terminology is off - I'm sure there is a name for "stripe down the nose" but I am in the canyons of Utah writing in my journal to be typed later.)

Adi was the Admiral, the lasting brother, older than the dogs, always there to greet us, even when the dogs were not. Though he could not wag his tail or run to the open car door upon our return, he was there with a look or a walk to the fence edge ever hoping we would walk over to say hello or goodnight. They were not usually long conversations, though sometimes he or I would linger at the fence.

And so it was that Adi was getting older. He was retired from eventing and spent a summer in Maine with other horses before returning to the farm in the fall. One of his eyes, he could not well see through and this winter, perhaps because he could not see well our of his right eye, struck his left eye with a branch of some sort. Painful and swollen the eye became and despite the unending care of my mother and her sister, the vet, it refused to get better. Adi was going blind, was in pain and Mom and Lol decided it was time for him to be put down, before he was in more pain.

Rationally, I can understand how someone can make such a decision. But when it came to the irrationality of actually ending a life, albeit peacefully and in great care and expertise, it was something that I am still trying to wrap my head around.

I believe the date was set half a week in advance. Adi's time to die was to be Monday, February 15th, 2010. The execution date was set. And herein it begins. Mom and Lol were sure of their decision. I was left to trust their wisdom in the matter and deal with it whatever way I was able. His execution date set, I wanted to visit with him frequently. He was bothered by the eye, I could tell, but I still enjoyed my visits. Questions raged inside my head, "Does he know?" and "Is it fair that he does not know, if he does not?"

Leading up to the scheduled day and time I had flashes of being about to graduate from high school. Excitedly I though, "This is the last time in English class! This is the last time in History class!" But now I was thinking, "Does he know this is the last time he will be put in for the night? Does he know this is his last night! Does he know he has less than a day alive on this planet with us?" His last days were filled with my questions. They were hard to answer and to even ponder but were nothing compared to saying goodbye to him for the last time.

At very last, the scheduled date and approximate time was upon us. Mom said she was getting to get Adi. At this point, events began to proceed faster than I could keep up with.

I walked with Mom down to the barn. This itself is a sacred task happening thousands and thousands of times over the many years, in all seasons, in all weather. But this was the last. We walked down together, burdened with the weight of the matter and task at hand. Mom went into the barn to get a bridle and rope as I opened the fence, knowing it would not need to be closed again. Adi was there. Standing in the middle of our front field - facing me as I walked out to him. Did he know his time had come? There was nothing I could do. Was this really happening? I spoke to him as Mom emerged from the barn and walked our way, savoring our last communion together. Mom arrived, speaking softly and gently to her Adi, as I pet him and Deb voiced her heartfelt condolences to us from over the fence.

And then we walked him to the barn, leaving the front field for the last time. So many times into the field and then called in before the end of the day. And now his last return...like the President being helicoptered away from the White House. Into the barn he went and into his stall.

At this point my sister, Farley, for whom Adi was bought, was there and Lol had arrived with her tools and supplies. As we stood there on the winter day in our coats Lol gratefully explained what I was to experience, having never seen a horse be put down. She said it is far more dramatic than putting down a cat or dog, that one cannot have a horse lie down before giving the injection, and that we have to remain clear of the horse because there is no telling which direction or how he will go down.

And so already with tears in my eyes I tried to prepare myself as events continued beyond my control of life understanding. A small injection was given to Adi in the neck so that a catheter could be put in his neck thus allowing the drugs to be administered to go directly into a vein. We watched as Lol skillfully put the catheter in. And then it was time for Adi to leave us. In his last fully conscious moments we said our goodbye, and gave him our pats. Lol then gave him the first of two doses of mild sedatives. This was to calm him so he wouldn't be confused or apprehensive of the coming events. It was then time to walk him out to the burial site.

All morning, Dad had nursed a burn pile on the spot where Adi was to be buried in an effort to thaw the winter ground enough so a back hoe could come in and dig a grave after Adi's life had ebbed away.

And so Mom led Adi out of the barn, for the last time. It was as though Adi knew what was coming - trusting Mom and Lol, just as I did, whether he understood them or not, he trusted them. He had for years.

He walked out, doing their will, again as he had for year, with wobbly legs and his head down, not knowing just trusting those who loved him and those he no doubt loved.

He was led to the spot next to where the fire had been by then burned down to ashes. The spot for him, the earth softened and selected to hold his bones and flesh when they were no longer living, before the day was out. Again I asked in my head, "Does he know?"

Lol gave him another dose of the sedatives, to calm him further in his last moments of life. We again circled him with pats and soft words knowing we could not hold onto the moment forever. We stepped away, my arm around my sister, Mom saying her final silent words and then she too stepped back. Lol stepped in, and though it all must have been hard for her too, she was business as she had to be. She told Mom she was ready and Mom said, "Anytime." Now with my mother under my left arm and my sister under my right, Lol gave Adi he injection of the barbiturates - an overdose that would quickly stop his heart. We watched and I wondered, the seconds last a long time. Adi put this head down, uttered a long and low sigh vibrating his lips as horses do. It was as though he was saying thank you, though he was saying goodbye, though he was releasing everything he had lived in his 30 or so years for us. As though his soul was escaping, though he didn't know what was happening, but he know to trust us and he knew it was time for his soul to move on. He was giving us everything he had for us to hold on to what we could.

And then he went down. And he was gone. The strong black body that lay before us was lifeless. The animal we had known for so long was there before us but the soul was already gone. His tongue hung out of his mouth. It was not the quite sleep from a smaller animal. It was fast, because it had to be, but I was not ready to see a brother lose the life within him, even though he trusted us so. Not ready to see the fall to the ground with death. Not ready to say goodbye to our friend and our family member.

I cried hard in my sister's embrace, not wanting to hold back the emotion I felt so raw. I was not the rider, was not his caretaker but I was a sibling and it is not easy to see one go.

I wonder what his thought were, I wonder what he would have said to us. The overriding feeling I get is trust. And somehow that makes it harder, makes me miss him more. He trusted us with his life....and his death. Yes, he is just a horse, but he was one of us for 22 years. We both lived most our lives at Cloudberry Farm, sharing the outside fields and trees and sky. Our separate lives intertwined in the casual greetings of the day or night.

Far had to leave to pick up her son at school while Mom, Lol, Uncle Tots and I, stood by our friend Adi. Lol cleaned up Adi's eye, taking out the stitches and treatment tube that was used to treat his wound and then braided a section of his tail for Far as if he was being readied for one last show. She cut the small braid off and then did one for me and my brothers, should they want one.

The backhoe came, began to dig and I said my last good bye to Adi's body, wishing I din't have to. It was time to leave as I did not want to see the horse moved into the gave by a backhoe. I walked back to the house, though Adi's fields, not knowing if they shall ever be another's. Mom and Dad plan to move soon, the fate of our home unknown. It was the end of an era.

Later that day, Lol said she placed Adi in a good position in his grave. Imagining the dirt slowly covering him up just adds to the pain of his being gone. I told Lol I was grateful for her kind explanation of what it would be like, doing everything she could to help us through the process. And in thanking her, the tears flowed freely again, as they have in writing this.

I talked about it with Mom and Dad and Far but I knew it had a way to go inside my head. It was just hard to explain all the questions I had - what it was like for Adi. I guess I am happy I felt he trusted us, I am happy Mom and Lol cared so much for him, am happy he had such a good life with us. But I am sad he is gone. And he is missed greatly. Driving in the driveway is lonely now, no matter hew many people are home as Adi was always the first to greet us. The transition from the road to know we were home.

The Admiral is gone, Lord of the Barnyard. Thank you for everything. We love you. Life is life and family is family. Live it like you mean it and don't waste the days.