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Just the thought of checking the oil in the truck feels like I'm plotting the murder of a dear old friend.
And I am.
I rarely use the truck anymore, since I gave up horses. I need to make sure it's safe to start it. The truck and trailer are in the way. At least he won't have to go in the trailer. He hates trailers. I think most donkeys hate trailers.
Yesterday I called the neighbors, the ones with the grandkids and the pool, to be sure they would not be around. Bible camp this week? Convenient.
My chatty neighbor is full of kind advice. "You're doing the right thing. With our old horse… I wish we had… It's always hard. We'll pray for you at camp."
And then the vet's office. I had to schedule around other commitments. "Thursday? 9 a.m.? OK then. We'll arrange everything. We're so sorry." Simple.
I hang up and cry some more.
Convenient and simple, but terrible and hard.
For years he's had a hitch in his get-along. Arthritis. He'd stand up in the morning and cuss under his breath for minute, then shake it off and get on with his day. Just a bit of a limp in the right hind. Happy for ear rubs, excited about treats, glad for company.
We all have our aches and pains, right? I do, and I'm not ready to give up. He didn't look ready, either.
More and more often, though, he rests lying down in the shade. His favorite place recently is under a pecan tree up the hill, where he has a view of the yard and the house, and the ground is sloped, making it easier to get up from resting. His friend munches her hay nearby, not hovering over him, but never too far off. He looks like a cat, lounging with his feet tucked under one side. Sometimes he chooses an open place in the midday sun, and stretches flat out, sunbathing as donkeys do.
Is it so bad to spend one's later years relaxing in the shade and sunbathing?
But now I see the weeping sores on his legs from lying down so much. Generous layers of soft wood shavings may make him more comfortable - when he's willing to lie in them at all - but they don't help the sores.
Trusted friends give advice and sympathy. They've been here, too, and it never ends well. Ways to help, ways to let go. How to make it easier on his friend. Words of wisdom, shoulders to cry on.
Suggested sprays and ointments are rubbed off within the hour. Recommended bandages refuse to stay put. And he hates all of it. I decide he would prefer to be left alone and have sores than to be pestered with treatments that don't help anyway.
Is it better to have life, with suffering, or to not exist at all? There's a point where the scales tip. But where?
Every day I watch from the house as he buckles to his knees trying to rise from a nap in the shade, and hold my breath. He gives a mighty heave and gets to his feet, bracing wide against falling again. He makes it this time, and wanders off to nibble at his hay. But how many more times?
When will I come home and find that he's been down for hours, exhausted from struggling in the hot summer sun? I've experienced that horror before. I want to spare him from it.
I see him crash to his nose one day, front legs failing him, too. I had wondered how he'd scuffed up his nose. Now I know.
He seems to do better when he takes his time. He rushes to jump up if he sees me come out the back door, so I watch out the window, waiting for him to stand on his own before going out to feed.
He stands and cusses a bit longer nowadays, tucking his leg tight to his belly. Are the muscles cramped? Is a nerve pinched? Do the sores sting?
He rubs his graying face on my jeans as he's always done, and I've always let him. The seams and pockets are at just the right height for scratching an itchy forehead and eyes. He digs into his food with his usual combination of enthusiasm and desperation. He's a fat little donkey. I think at some point in his past he went hungry, or lost the shoving matches at the feeder. He's always afraid there won't be enough food.
I hide his medicines in a delicious mash of soaked pelleted feed. He loves the treat, as long as he has some hay to eat along with it - it's too mushy alone for his tastes - but the medicines might as well be inert dust for all the good they have done.
He has seen us through 3 horses and 16 years. We found him at the Humane Society in 1998, when we needed a companion for a herd-bound gelding. A family had lost their home and had to give him up. He was fearful and defensive. It took 3 hours and 4 people to load him my trailer. He was hard to catch, and harder to handle, but he never kicked. He wanted to be friends, and wanted to be good. With patience and kind training he learned the world could be an OK place, and that he could relax. We boarded him with friends when we took vacations, and he learned that trailers don't always take you away from home forever. He surprised us years later by running to the trailer and jumping in when we evacuated ahead of a huge wildfire, embers falling around us. He knew he could trust us, and would be safe if we stuck together. He still doesn't like trailers, though, and I won't have to ask him to get into one again.
The sores have gotten worse. Sometimes blood drips down his legs, directed by the long fur, like rainwater. I kneel to take a closer look, and he threatens to kick me. "That hurts. Leave it." I respect his request.
He walks down the hill to his water, and stands with his friend in the afternoon shade of the house, dozing. For years they've had the run of the yard, a sloping acre of fruit trees and dry weeds. No point locking them up in a barren pen. Neighbors have fed him grape leaves through the chain link, and he's watched their kids grow up. Our citrus trees are all pruned bare to eye level - the leaves being tasty, apparently - and the fallen fruit makes a juicy snack. He's had a pretty decent life. Now he wanders, picking at the short grass growing where the lawn used to be.
It's been cool and cloudy for a few days. A welcome break from usual sweltering heat. Sometimes he doesn't look so bad, walking slowly but purposefully back to his soft place under the pecan tree. But I remember the scuffed nose, the sores, the cussing, and the inevitable return of the blazing sun, and I know it's time.
Now he is nosing through a half-flake of forbidden alfalfa - a legume hay too rich for donkeys, with its dark green leaves and flat, dry purple flowers. I'll give him more this evening, too. Consequences be damned. Screw the nutrition and weight issues. The hell with long-term health risks.
Since he is up I take him a sweet slice of watermelon and some peppermints. He trumpets an increasingly rare he-he-he-haaaaawwww when he sees me coming with his blue plastic dish. Enjoy your treats, buddy, and a little shoulder-scritching, too. Enjoy everything you can - life is short.
I'll move the truck and trailer in the morning - today it feels too much like treachery.
Today is about enjoying the day.
I have a short talk with him and tell him his troubles will be over soon, that he should relax and enjoy everything he can. If there are any things he had been meaning to do, unexplored corners of the yard, he should take care of those today.
I think of all the things he's never liked, things he will never have to put up with again. He'll have no more weather in the hundreds, salty from sweating behind his ears. No more huddling on the porch of the run-in shed for days on end during storms, with no dry place to lie out under the stars. No more gnats biting the insides of his ears bloody, and no more flies irritating the fronts of his legs. And no more fly spray, which is almost as bad as flies. No more loading or riding in the trailer. No more being tied to anything. No more hoof picking. And no more arthritis. No more pain.
Next is a good brushing, warm wash cloths to clean his ears and under his itchy tale, and all the treats I can think to give him. Marshmallows, peppermints, apple wafers, a banana — a new thing, which he enjoys, and a big handful of common sow thistle from the front yard, which I had been meaning to get around to picking and giving to him. Today is not a day for waiting for the perfect time, or putting off until later. Today is for experiencing everything right now.
I double up on his medication at lunch, which isn't wise in the long run, but there is no long run, and it might make him feel better right now.
And I check the oil, which is fine, and move the truck and trailer.
Later, running errands, six huge Fuji apples, and three bags of fresh, crisp carrots from the farmers market shop. Just five dollars and ninety-one cents. Why haven't I done this more often? Oh, right… Too much sugar. Not good for donkeys. Well today that doesn't matter.
At bedtime I hand out bowl of the carrots and apples, a few pieces at a time to avoid choking. They were worth pinning ears over. I find myself wishing I'd fed him more carrots and apples.
I remember his vet's words from a couple of years ago, when I'd mentioned that maybe I should put him on a diet, get some weight off… "Just let him enjoy being a donkey." I pretty much followed that advice. He got treats, and a bit of alfalfa with his responsible grass hay. I wonder, what if I'd given him more carrots, more apples…? A happier, but shorter life? Is the trade-off worth it?
There is just one more arthritis pill left in the bottle. Good timing, I suppose, to run out exactly to the day. I didn't plan that. In any case, it isn't going to do him any good to take it tomorrow, so I give it to him now. Because why the hell not? So what if it causes kidney damage?
They get more alfalfa than usual for the night, and I head back to the house.
Before turning in I confirm my checking balance to be sure there is enough to pay the vet and hauling company, then set the alarm for daybreak and try to sleep.
The day begins like any other. Michael has already made coffee by the time I get up. I have to figure out what to wear. The cats are excited to go outside.
He is out at the barn, eating. Eeyore. Our little brown donkey. Like his namesake, he is a mopey sort of character. Capable of delight and mischief, but for the most part pretty sure the world is not quite a safe place.
I leave him be and have some coffee and a handful of Brazil nuts for breakfast.
There are so many details… I will need to have two checks ready, one for the driver, and one for the trucking company. I will probably need Kleenex, so I fold a few into my pocket. Must have a manure fork handy — I wouldn't want to have him go down in a pile of poo.
And now he's lying in the shade under his pecan tree. I let him rest.
There's 200' of water hose lying around out front, and I reel it up so it's out of the way. Check to make sure the gate key is where it belongs. If I couldn't unlock the gate… We will need both halters. I can't ask Clementine to wear Eeyore's halter when I take her out front afterward.
He's on his feet now, so I go out to say good morning.
He chomps through the first apple and handful of carrots, all diced into bite-size chunks, in no time. There are more in the fridge, and why shouldn't he have them all? For an instant I can't find the apples. The big, crunchy Fuji apples I bought at the farm store just for Eeyore. They can't be missing! Not now! There's a brief frantic search, and then there they are right in front of me.
We can lose our centers so quickly. I take a deep breath, and exhale. It's OK…
I cut up another bag of carrots and three more apples, in a bigger bowl this time, saving one apple and another bag of carrots for Clementine. She will be on her own after this morning, and will need plenty of attention and pampering.
8:01 a.m. An hour until the vet is to arrive. What might a donkey want to do with his last hour? What if I only had an hour left?
I cut a tiny bad spot out of a carrot slice, because no one should have to eat even a tiny yucky bit of carrot in their last hour.
The pragmatic voice in my head tells me to drink plenty of water so I don't pass out. "Go to the bathroom now," it says, "so you don't have to leave anymore once you go out back again." It's always there, arranging things, being logical, unaffected.
A few friends who have advised me throughout this process text me now to wish us well. I reply, and realize that in all this time I never taught my my phone how to spell Eeyore's name. I probably meant to get around to it. Someday.
With just a few minutes left I halter him, and lead him out through the front gate, and he drags me towards the nearest grass. Just then the vet's office calls. He's delayed 30 minutes. A lucky thing, too. I wonder for a moment if they don't "accidentally" delay all euthanasias by 30 minutes, knowing everyone needs a little more time.
Eeyore spends the extra time out front, grazing and eating more treats. He used to be afraid to go out there. Today he was dragging me around looking for the best grass. I finally just toss the lead rope over his back and let him enjoy his freedom. What is he going to do? Limp off down the road? He's not particularly interested in company. He's busy with his donkey business.
Actually, he's looking pretty good, walking around, grazing under the trees. But I remind myself that he's on triple the normal dose of pain meds, and that he doesn't have the strength to reliably get up from lying down. And he's been getting steadily worse. He gives a good impression at the moment, but can't go on this way.
It's a lovely way to spend his last morning, grazing freely, eating all the forbidden treats he enjoys so much. I'm glad he can go on a morning like this, not down and struggling, frightened and hurting.
Meanwhile, Clementine is furious. Locked in the back, behind the gate, while Eeyore eats all the grass and all the treats. Not fair!!! I give her a few carrot and apple pieces (still mindful of her long-term health, at least). She takes them greedily, and goes back to pawing at the ground, kicking the air behind her, and banging the gate back and forth in her teeth. Not!!! Fair!!!
The vet, Dr. Chandler from East County Large Animal Practice, who has helped us all these years, turns into the driveway. He explains everything, and gets out what he needs. Sedation first, then an overdose of anesthesia. Yes, "blue juice" really is blue. You never want to mix that up with anything else. He is kind and skillful. Eeyore goes easily - drowsy, and then no more. Less traumatic than having teeth floated. I try to get up from squatting down after it's over, and things go fuzzy. Even with all that water I drank. Back down to the ground, until after a minute I can stand.
Dr. Chandler gives me a hug. I thank him for helping Eeyore out, and he thanks me for giving Eeyore a good life. More tears. Sadness, but also relief.
I have arranged for an hour's pause in the day before the truck comes, so that Clementine can come to her donkey-mind understanding of what has just happened. She can see from her spot at the gate - he is just on the other side. I let her stand there and look. The pragmatic voice says "Take a break. Have some Gatorade. Get your checkbook and a pen." I do as instructed.
Back outside, I lead Clementine through the gate for a closer look. She looks, sniffs, and walks right past. Grass! I let her eat for a while. She shows no concern or interest. She's out front, and there's grass. That's all that matters.
It's getting near time for the truck. I ask her to come back up near the gate, but true to her donkey reputation she refuses to budge. I screw up my courage to drop her lead rope for a moment, and run back to the gate for the bowl that's still half full of carrots and apples. Finally she's willing to follow me back. I give her another chance to see her friend, and although she clearly notices him there I can't discern any reaction. She lets herself be coaxed through the gate, following the bowl. The padlock is slimy and spit-covered from her earlier escape attempts. I click it shut so she can't shove the gate open and get in the way.
The hauler arrives on time. He introduces himself - Jesus. Nice guy. Soft spoken, courteous, thoughtful. I can see at least two horses through the narrow gaps of the sides of the truck, which is tastefully enclosed to shield folks on the road from this harsh reality. I thank him for doing a tough but important job. He tells me he's been doing it for 20 years, and it's hard work, long days, but he likes it. I write out both checks and go inside, leaving him to his work.
Even as I'm hearing the truck engine and wench motor in the distance I discover an injured bird in the garage - a juvenile Phainopepla. It must have escaped from Miss Kitty after she brought it inside. Its wing is injured, but it's bright-eyed and lively.
I put it in a cat carrier for the moment, and after the truck leaves I go out to check on Clem. She has been knocking a trash can around, dumping old hay everywhere by the side of the house. She's perturbed, but it's hard to tell if it's about Eeyore, or about being kept from all that grass out front.
I put everything away, give Clementine a few more treats, and get the house closed up, grab my car keys, and take the little bird to the Project Wildlife triage center. They are hopeful about its recovery.
Later Michael jokes that we can say Jesus took Eeyore away. There is humor even in difficult times.