After getting my shoes muddy in the swampland of politics, I was planning something lighter for my next post, a frothy counterpoint to all the doom 'n' gloom of the last couple of entries. Unfortunately, fate had plans of its own, and tonight I must report on the passing of a dearly loved member of the Bennion clan.
None of us know for certain how old the deceased really was, but our best guesses place him well over 100 biological years of age. Like most individuals who make it into those rarified heights, he showed his age -- his teeth were worn down to yellow nubs, his hair had gone snowy-white, and the unceasing assault of gravity had bent his spine into a fragile parabola. Nevertheless, the Old Man (as I liked to call him) had shown no signs of being ready to depart this earthly realm. He remained curious about the world around him, engaged in what was happening and always happy to receive visitors, especially those who brought him his favorite snack foods. His eyes shone with life and a splash of good humor, like he knew of a joke, the funniest joke ever told, but he'd chosen to keep it to himself. I knew the Old Man would be gone someday... I just wasn't expecting it to be this day.
Late Saturday night I came home to learn that the Old Man suddenly had taken ill. I wasn't alarmed at first. He'd done this before, and always been back to his old self by morning. But this time there was something different, and I identified it the moment I saw him. His eyes were losing their luster, and I knew it meant that all the long years had finally caught up with him. I went to bed certain that he'd be gone by morning.
Except that he wasn't. Somehow he'd made it through the night. And because he hadn't surrendered on his own, my father had to make the difficult decision to help him on his way.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm talking about an animal, not a person (although I've met many people who didn't have as much personality and heart as this particular animal). Early this morning (Sunday morning, that is), my father called the vet and asked him to come and euthanize my mother's horse Thunder. He was only two months shy of his 37th birthday, quite ancient by horse standards (horses age roughly three years for every calendar year). In the end, he just couldn't go on anymore. He laid down and refused to get back up. For an animal that evolved to be constantly on the move across grassy plains, that's an invitation for Death to come calling.
People who don't keep pets -- and even many who do, I suspect -- can't understand how difficult this day has been for my parents and me. Mom and Dad raised Thunder from a colt; I was born three years after him, and so have never known a time when he wasn't around. His death is as real and as affecting to us as if he had been a human person.
Mom used to call him "son," which is more accurate than she probably would care to admit. In many ways, Thunder was her first-born. I've seen her in washed-out 8mm films and faded polaroids prints, the way she was in the mid-1960s, slim and pretty and smiling as she walked a spindly-legged black colt around a pasture behind a home that no longer exists. Thunder was my mother's youth, and her pride.
I've never shared my mother's love of horses. They simply weren't my thing, despite her wish that I might share her hobby. I can recall riding a few times when I was young, but it was intimidating trying to control something so much larger than myself, and frankly it was too much work to prepare the horse and tack for the ride, and to clean everything up when you were finished. I much preferred my red Schwinn with the long banana seat. You didn't have to feed it, brush it, saddle it, or shovel up its shit. But I always understood that my mom loved her horses, especially Thunder, and so I tolerated them for her sake.
In recent years, I've been the caretaker for her horses during the summers when she and dad are frequently gone on the weekends. I've often worried that Thunder might die while they were away and leave me in the position of having to deal with it. I'm relieved that it didn't happen that way. But I'm also very sad to think that I won't be taking care of him anymore. Thunder was unlike most horses in that he seemed to have a genuine intellectual curiosity about what human beings were up to. It amused me to know that he watched everything I did while I was in the barn, and I liked how he would put his massive head over my shoulder after I fed him, almost like he was hugging me. My mother has two other horses that don't behave that way. Thunder was something special, even to me.
I could write much more on this subject, about the indignity of how horses die in the modern, suburban world, or about the way this has affected my dad, who always claimed to hate horses but who has had the most difficult time accepting what he did this morning. But instead, I think I'm going to just tell one more quick anecdote.
According to my Mom, before Thunder laid down for the last time yesterday, Dad walked him around the yard, bringing him up onto the back lawn in hopes that the exercise would make him feel better. She said it was like he was taking one last look around. She said he was especially interested in the wind-driven novelties she's hung in the trees around the lawn, the little plastic pinwheels and vortices. The other two horses would be scared to death of these mysterious shiny objects, but not Thunder. He walked right up to them and studied them as if determined to discover what they were. That was Thunder. That was his charm.
And now he's gone. And the barn will seem a little less friendly this summer, as if the light bulb over one of the stalls has burned out and the world has just become ever so slightly dimmer.