Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Farewell to Obie

"Today's the day," my friend Lucy said as soon as I answered the phone. "If you want to come over, be here by 2:30. That's when the vet is supposed to show up."
"OK," I said. I didn't ask, "How are you doing?" The quiver in her voice was all I needed to hear. Instead, I assured her, "I'm on my way." I made a peanut butter sandwich, threw it in my lunch box, grabbed my boots and was out the door.
As I drove the twenty five miles to Ojai, I had time to think about Obie, Lucy's black Peruvian Paso. I first met Obie two years ago when I became acquainted with Lucy's horses. Obie was the senior member of the herd. At that time Lucy had the horses in separate stalls, giving Obie premium accommodations: the stall on the end and the comfort of a pile of straw to lie down on in the barn. He must have been a stunning horse in his day: a white star on his forehead extending to a stripe which ran the length of his nose, a white stocking on his left back leg, lusciously long, thick mane and tail, his long forelock hiding shiny ebony eyes. In his old age he was sway-backed, no longer with muscle mass in his back quarters. His back ergots sunk parallel with the ground because his tendons had separated. Arthritis had set in. His head hung low, his tongue a shocking pink against his dark coat when it darted out in reaction to the pain he felt every time he attempted to step up on the wooden riser to reach his feeder. Even in pain, he was a gentle gelding, ready to accept the handout of a carrot or an apple. He hadn't been ridden in years, but Lucy continued to speak of his flowing gait and tender mouth. "He's like driving a Mercedes," she bragged.
When I got to the ranch, the four geldings--Chester, Peyote, Shaw and Obie--and the mare, April, were finishing their morning hay in the arena. The caramel and white paint, Chester, came to the gate to greet me.
"Lucy's in there with Obie," Hank, Lucy's husband, said as he came down the
I pushed Chester back from the gate and entered the arena. Chester shadowed me across the ring to where the other horses were eating. Lucy was combing Obie's tail. "I'm going to cut it off when…" Her voice cracked and she couldn't finish the sentence. Her eyes filled with tears and she turned away.
There was nothing I could say. Not if… when. I knew she had been contemplating this day ever since I had become friendly with her and her horses. She had thought he wouldn't make it winter before last. Then Al, Chester's owner and horseman, suggested taking the horses out of the stalls and giving them free run in the arena, letting them be a herd without metal bars to separate them. The other horses took care of Obie and gave him the status of respected elder. When they were turned out "up top" on the hill, they hung together, taking their time going up, waiting for Obie to hobble behind them.
"Can you stay with them here in the arena with them for a while? I've got some things to do in the house, then we'll let them go up on the hill."
"Sure," I said. "I brought some apples. I'll go cut them up." I sat on a bale of hay, coring and paring the apples. When I looked up five heads poked over the fence. I admit it--I've spoiled the horses and they've grown to expect a treat when they see me. "OK, guys. Here I come."
Peyote is the only one who doesn't like apples--the rest gobble the bits from my hand. "Move Chester, you old piggy." I pushed Chester aside so that I could share the apples with Obie. April and Shaw jockeyed for their share, April tall enough to reach across Obie's back. After the bag of apples was gone, I got the brush and spent time with each horse. I was just finishing up with Shaw when Lucy came back to the arena.
"I just a call from Shane, the guy who owns the backhoe. He said he will be over around 3:00. And the vet checked in too. He won't be here until after 5:00. He's delayed in Simi Valley, so we're on hold. What time is it now?"
"1:00," I said looking at my watch.
"Come in to the studio and talk with me while I work on my glass pieces," Lucy said.
"Sure." We went to her studio and I made myself comfortable on the sofa while Lucy wrapped plastic around the bases of her glass sculptures--anything to take our minds off what was yet to come.
"Obie raised April," Lucy told me as she worked. "April came here as a three month old foal with her mother, Sunny, when we were running the horse rescue. It was the coolest thing: we let Sunny out--she was so sick she wasn't going to run away--and April trailed along behind her. Sunny went down the row of horses, starting at Obie's stall. She rubbed her nose against his, then went right down the row of horses--I had about eight then--and did the same thing to every horse. After she'd talked to every horse, she came back to Obie and they stood nose to nose for the longest time. It was like they were having their own private conversation. Then she whinnied and shook her head. He whinnied back. Then she went over by the fence and lay down. She never got up. The vet put her down right across from the barn, right across from Obie's stall. From then on, Obie raised April. That's the kind of guy Obie is."
We heard the rumble of the tractor as it came up the long driveway. Lucy put down the plastic wrapping and tape. She laid her hands on her hips and leaned back, stretching her back, then straightened up. She glanced down at me. "It's time."
"Yeah," I mumbled. I turned toward the driveway and saw a man get out of a pickup.
"Are you coming?" Lucy asked.
"I'll be along in a minute."
She nodded and then left the studio.
I heard her greet her neighbor, Shane, the owner of the backhoe, as the tractor entered the arena. I swallowed and forced the lump in my throat back down. Lucy had already told me that she didn't want any drama--"no crybabies" isn't what she said, but clearly what she meant. My job was to be a steady hand on the rudder, a witness for Lucy, to keep things on course while she processed her emotions. I didn't want to let her down--I didn't want her to see me cry--so I let the tears flow down my cheeks until they dissolved the lump in my throat. I took my time, hoping that I had let the grief out so I could be strong for my friend. I wiped my cheeks with my shirttail and blew my nose on a Kleenex I found in the pocket of the borrowed jacket.
The backhoe men were already hard at work. As I walked down the length of the arena, the backhoe driver shut the engine off.
"This is the hardest clay I've ever seen," he exclaimed to his partner on the far side of the hole. His partner pulled out the measuring tape and dangled it down in the hole. "Seven feet," he shouted over the idling motor. He rolled the tape back up and then handed one end to Hank and stepped back along the fence line to the other end of the hole. "Eleven feet. You think that's enough?" He directed his question to Al. "And rocky too--almost as bad as digging in the bottom of the creek."
I went around the far side of the fresh dirt pile and peeked in the hole.
"It looks good," Al said. "Maybe just a little more on this end. I'd hate to have the horse get hung up in there, you know."
I hoisted myself up on the top metal bar of the corral and watched the last of the dig. I kept glancing up to the top of the hill where I imagined the horses were, half expecting them to be peering down at us through the trees.
After the backhoe guys finished the hole, they introduced themselves and settled in to visit, as neighbors in the country tend to do.
"We're working for some Hollywood star," Jose said.
"Who is it?" Hank asked. He knows a lot of the Hollywood set because of his work behind the movie camera.
"L___ somebody. I don't know her last name."
"Can't be much of a star then," Al said as he hoisted his leg up on the step of the tractor. "Can't call 'em a star lessen you know their last name." He leaned his elbows on his knees and looked up. "If they're really a star, then they only got one name."
"So what's the job?" Hank asked.
"We're digging a 5,000 foot trench. Over there." He took a step toward me and looked through the steel bars on the fence. "I think you can see the place through the trees--over there on the next rise."
"5,000 feet? That's almost a mile," Al exclaimed. "That's a hell of a line to the cesspool. They're gonna have to put a pump or two on it."
"Get this," Luis said as he shook his head. "Her husband doesn't want to see the power poles when he drives down the driveway. We're digging the whole length of the driveway so that he doesn't have to know he has electricity. He can think it magically drops out of the sky or something."
"Sounds like just another person with too much money," I said.
Even Al laughed at that one.
"So, I show up to work one day," Jose said. "No one told me I couldn't go to work on Saturday. They were pushing us to get it done, so I figured I'd just get in another few hours, you know? I started up the tractor and started digging. Here comes the house mananger…"
"They all have house managers," Al said, warming up to the story.
"The guy's still in his bathrobe. He comes flapping up to the tractor and starts waving his arms at me, screaming. I think maybe there's some kind of emergency in the house or something--maybe he needs help--so I shut the engine down. He's yelling, 'Are you out of your mind? You can't work! It's Saturday. The people are here!'"
"'You don't have to yell,' I told him. 'I can hear you. Now you're making more noise than the tractor.' I swear, the poor guy looks like he's about ready to cry. I ask him what's wrong, and he said Linda the Movie Star--Whatever-her-name-is--and the husband showed up early and they are sleeping. They positively don't want anyone working when they are at home. In fact, he tells me, they never have any workmen around when they are in residence--only when they are at their other ranch."
"Other ranch? Waaaayyyyy too much money." Al shook his head in disgust.
Jose laughed as he agreed. He continued, "So the manager says, 'How did you get past the guard?" Rather than say, 'What guard?' and get them all fired, I just shrugged and pretended that I didn't speak English. I mumbled 'Lo siento.'"
Al picked up a rock and threw it over the fence, signaling that it was time to break up the gathering, send the backhoe guys on their way, and bring the horses down off the hill. Lucy climbed down off the fence and walked slowly across the arena, calling to her horses. "Let's go, Po. Let's go."
Peyote whinnied his reply from the top of the hill.
In the past, her call signals a stampede down the hill, every horse anxious to get their afternoon feed. But this time, aside from Peyote's whinny, there was no movement on the hill. The horses had been watching the invasion of the arena and were not interested in the mechanical intruder.
"Let's go, Po." Lucy opened the gate to the pasture the horses were in, then shut it behind her. "Chester, come on. Obie! April May! Shaw! Come on ponies. Let's go."
I followed her to the gate, leaned across the bars, and looked through the scrub oaks to the top of the hill.
"Get a couple of halters," Lucy said to me over her shoulder. "I'm going up top."
I grabbed a halter and came back to the gate. In the meantime Peyote had come down the hill, the scout for the herd. I handed Lucy the halter with the lead rope attached. Hank had come up behind me with another halter and lead rope. "I'll get Peyote and then you take him to the arena," she said to me. She took the halter from Hank. "I'm going up top."
Hank opened the gate for me and I led Peyote to the arena.
Lucy climbed the steep hill, calling her horses. "Let's go ponies. Let's go."
Peyote was on alert as he followed me through the gate. I let him stop and sniff the air and get a good look at the backhoe and the pile of dirt in the corner of the arena. "Come on Po. Let's go check it out," I said and patted his neck. I took a couple of steps and tugged on the rope. "It's OK, Po. It's not for your today," I reassured him. He hung his head low, ears twitching forward toward the silent machine, then sideways to Lucy on the hill. Then he lifted his head and turned toward me. "Come on Po," I said as I led him to the backhoe. I stopped and stood beside him, rubbing his neck as he sniffed the air. He looked at the machine, then glanced over at the pile of dirt. When he lost interest in the backhoe and looked up the hill for the other horses, I led him away from the corner and back toward the blue plastic feed barrels tied to the fence.
Peyote recognized the red wheelbarrow filled with hay that Al was pushing through the open gate and called to his herd.
"Come on ponies," I heard Lucy call again. I looked up the hill and saw her silhouette on the ridgeline. "Come on Chester. Let's go, Shaw."
Chester came down the hill, took one look at the backhoe and bolted back up the hill. Somehow Lucy managed to get a halter on Shaw and led him down the hill. Reluctantly Chester followed. I knew if she could get those two to come off the hill, Obie and April would follow. No horse wants to be separated from the herd.
A pickup came up the driveway and Lucy waved. "We're over here," she called to the driver.
A woman and a man got out of the pickup and came to the arena.
"I'm glad I'm not too late. I brought some carrots for Obie," the woman said.
Introductions were made as Lucy put a halter around Obie and led him to the gate. Liz made over him, and fed him three fat carrots.
"I had to have my horse put down a couple of autumns ago," Liz said as she pulled on Obie's forelock. "He fell. Nasty break. He was in a lot of pain. It was ugly." She scratched the base of Obie's ears as tears welled up in her eyes. "One of the hardest days of my life."
"Yes, and Obie got your horse's blanket. That sure helped keep his hips warm these last two winters."
Liz broke a carrot into three pieces and fed Obie the first chunk. "I haven't seen him for awhile." Liz ran her hand over his bony ribs. "He's really lost weight, hasn't he?"
"Thank you for saying that," Lucy said. "I question whether I'm doing the right thing, you know?"
Liz nodded. "I know. How old is he?"
"In his late twenties."
"I figured 31," Hank said. "He was about seventeen--maybe nineteen--when we got him--at least that is our best guess."
"He's such a good ole boy." Liz said as Obie munched the last piece of carrot. I couldn't let him go without a treat, but I can't stay to watch." She stroked his neck. "Good boy, Obie." She gave Lucy a hug, and then walked back to the truck.
The hole was dug, the horses fed their evening meal. Al, Hank. Lucy and I gathered outside the gate, each lost in our own thoughts as we waited for the vet.
"It's like waiting for the grim reaper," Hank said to break the spell.
Lucy nodded and shoveled loose dirt into a pile with her boot. Her cell phone rang and Al, seemingly the least concerned, startled like a colt. Lucy pulled the phone off her belt. "Yeah. Shane left the backhoe here. The hole is done. Whenever…" She hung up as she relayed the news. "That was the vet. He's just leaving Simi Valley. About forty five minutes."
I glanced at my watch and thought about the afternoon traffic on the 101. The vet would be lucky if he made it in forty-five minutes.
"No sense wasting the rocks the backhoe dug up. I'm going to get them for my stone wall," Hank said, grateful that he'd thought of something to do to pass the time. He opened the gate to the arena and began piling rocks to one side. Lucy disappeared into her painting studio. Al called his wife. I sat on the hay bale and pulled my journal and fountain pen out of my bag. Each of us sank into the things that gave us comfort.

I glanced at my watch when I saw Lucy come out of the studio. We all gathered as she reported, "The vet called again. He just turned on to the 33--he'll be here in about twenty minutes." Hank pulled weeds out of the flowerbed by the driveway, Al took out his handkerchief and polished the chrome on his Harley, Lucy raked hay in the shed, I petted the dog. And we waited.
Soon enough--too soon, it felt--the vet arrived. He surveyed the scene: horses feeding, hole dug in the corner of the arena, backhoe beside the hole. "This is never easy, is it?" he said as he looked into our long faces. He stepped around to the back of his truck and opened his traveling kit, filling three syringes as he spoke. "This actually goes pretty quick once I give the first shot. Here's what I'm going to do. This is a tranquilizer," he said as he laid the full syringe on the gate of his pickup. "I'll give it, then we'll have a couple minutes to lead him over to the hole." He glanced up at Lucy. "You do have a halter on him?"
She nodded, not lifting her head. She could not hold the tears back when she looked up.
"You know the drill Lucy."
She nodded. "But it's always been a rescue horse. Never one of my own."
"I know. We’ll make it easy on Obie," the vet said as he loaded the second syringe. "This is Valium. There can be a little fear right at the end before he goes down. We want to ease him down gently. Plus we went to keep everyone safe. We don't want him rearing up or jerking on the halter." He laid the second syringe beside the first, and then filled the last one. "This one is the one that will put him down. When I give this, he should drop in about thirty seconds. Then it will less than a minute before it's all over."
The vet clamped the three syringes, in order, between his teeth. We followed him into the arena. Lucy picked up Obie's lead rope and brought him to the middle of the arena. Hank stood on one side of his wife, Al on the other side. I stood back a few paces and fingered the scissors and rubber bands in my pockets.
The vet approached Obie slowly. He took the first syringe out of his mouth and poked it in Obie's neck. Obie startled and pulled back on his halter. "Whoa, big fella," Lucy said as she pulled down on the halter. Obie quieted from Lucy's reassurance, and the tranquilizer took effect. She led him away from the other horses, around the side of the backhoe and stopped at the edge of the hole.
The vet removed the syringes from his mouth and turned to us. "Now is the time to say your goodbyes. It won't be long."
I approached Obie. As I patted him I could feel the muscles relaxing. "Goodbye Obes," I said and backed away. Tears filled my eyes. I blinked them back and waited.
Al and Hank stood to either side of Lucy. She faced Obie and held his halter, whispering her goodbyes to him, telling him what a good horse he had been and thanking him for the lessons he had taught her as she pulled on his forelock. She was weeping but held back her sobs so she wouldn't frighten her old pal.
The vet's full attention was on Obie as he timed the next injection. He stepped forward. "The Valium takes away the fear," the vet assured us as he removed the next syringe from between his teeth. The vet waited a minute, and then administered the lethal injection. Ten seconds after the last shot, Obie's back legs gave out and he crumpled to the ground.
Lucy dropped down beside him and laid his head across her lap. "He's gone," she stammered. "I felt him take his last breath."
I was standing behind Obie and heard a loud fart as bowels relaxed.
"He's on his way to another pasture. He's kicking up his heels already," the vet said as he moved between the horse and his grave. He leaned over Obie's back, stethoscope in hand, to check for a heartbeat. He touched Obie's eyeball. No reaction. He waited fifteen seconds, then checked the heart and touched the eyeball again. He straightened up and confirmed, "He's gone."
For the first time, the dam of grief broke behind the tears Lucy had been holding back all day. She sobbed from deep in her gut and then threw back her head. Her howl echoed off the valley walls, as if by the force of her cry, she could clear a path to the spirit world for her horse. She held Obie's head and stoked his cheek as his bottom lip fell slack.
She glanced up at me and I knew that was the cue to step forward with the scissors I had in my jacket pocket. As she cut, I tied the rubber bands around the clump of forelock and the two clumps of tail hairs when she handed them to me. She cut one hunk of hair from Obie's long mane for Hank and one for me. Then she stood and said, "This is not my horse. My horse is gone and this is a cadaver." She walked the vet to his truck as she thanked him for Obie's painless demise.
It was hard to think that just a minute or two before the horse had been a breathing, warm animal with a personality. And now he was dead, rigor mortis rapidly setting in. There was nothing left to do but bury him.
Obie had fallen near the hole, but at a perpendicular angle to it. His legs were stretched out toward the tractor, so the job of getting his body to the hole took a little bit of figuring. Hank went to the barn and came back with some chains. Al jerry-rigged the chain around Obie's feet and attached it to the bucket of the tractor. I thought they were going to turn him over so they could pick him up with the bucket, but Al had managed to pick him up by the legs and maneuver the tractor around so that he went in the hole on his back. Hank bent way down in the hole and was able to get the chain off his front legs, but had to crawl down in the deep hole and step over a dead horse to unhook the chain from his back legs. The two men cut open three bags of lime and spread them over the horse's body. Al climbed back on the tractor for the last time and filled in the grave.
Lucy was right. Obie's soul left with the last breath. What remained was just a body. Her horse, the one she traveled with to the edge of the spirit world, was gone.

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