Arthur and Helen
By Tom Gumbrecht
Originally Published in Horse Directory, 2008
Photo: Helen Gumbrecht with Buddy
Arthur and Helen were my parents. They both died a few years ago, about six months apart. They were good parents, and loved us very much. Neither one ever displayed much affection publicly, either to us or to each other, but they showed it in other ways. In the two years before his death my father, Arthur, was very sick, bedridden for most of the time, and my mother, Helen, was his caregiver. He would lie in bed, and she would see to his every need. When he didn’t specifically request something, she would stand by the bed, rearranging the pill cups and magazines at his bedside, anxiously awaiting the next set of orders. Arthur could only take so much of this, and when he reached his limit, he would turn toward her, frown, and dismiss her with a wave of his hand. She would quickly retreat to the kitchen, and then ease back in over the next couple of minutes and return to her station at the bedside.
After my parents died, our gelding, Buddy, got very sick for two years. He had gotten Lyme disease, foundered badly, and a host of other complications ensued. It took time to diagnose and treat the problem and the subsequent complications. During this time, more often than not, he would be lying in the paddock on his side, with Magic, our mare, standing next to him. Normally only barely tolerant of the gelding, Magic stood watch over Buddy for an entire year. Now, Buddy is a friendly sort, but he can take only so much doting. Magic would lightly nuzzle his neck, and use her nose to push small bits of hay toward his mouth. When Buddy had enough of the fussing, he would turn toward her and pin his ears slightly. This would, of course, send Magic running to the other end of the paddock, where she would hang back, observe for a minute or two, and discretely make it back by his side. Over the year I sat at my window and watched in amusement, it was evident that the love they had for each other was as intense as it was obvious. Unspoken, unheralded; just reliably and dependably there. Like Arthur and Helen. But, it took watching my horses’ quiet devotion to one another outside my window to put aside my faint regret of never hearing love spoken by my parents. I am reminded that words are really not needed for communication, as our horses all know.
After about two years, Buddy slowly regained a good deal of his mobility, the spark in his eye, and his nicker. And, his supposed indifference toward Magic. One November day, Magic went uncharacteristically off her feed. At dinnertime, she went out into the paddock and lied down. This was so out of character that we immediately got her up, began walking her, and called the vet. I had never seen Magic even slightly under the weather in all the years we had her, and now she had colicked. The vet came and gave her a shot of Banamine, and we were given instructions for her care. We were concerned, but not overly so, as Magic was a trouper. But after an initial improvement, Magic was progressively getting worse. She became so dehydrated that we had to administer saline IV’s every for hours, which the vet taught us to do. Over the next four days Samantha and I were by her side constantly, taking shifts as Sam’s high school schedule allowed. I put work on hold to tend to her. It felt wrong to see her on crossties with the IV running into her neck.
Magic was Sam’s first horse, her baybysitter, her pal, her partner, her confidante. She was the mare who we let non-riders get on without worry. Sam and her friend rode her bareback, backwards, double, standing up, dressed up for Halloween, you name it. Magic took it all in stride, and with good humor. She kept us in stitches with her comical ways, unlocking a stall door in 10 seconds to let her friends out to play. She took care of us, always. To see her in this condition was something that was hard to process.
Slight improvements preceded major setbacks. By Tuesday evening, the vet looked us in the eye and took us where we had stubbornly avoided going. I didn’t want to go there. I need more time. At least until Friday. Thanksgiving is Thursday. Dr. Perry, sometimes slightly aloof, let his eyes do the talking, and they were as compassionate as any words ever spoken. We knew. It was time. I was afraid to tell Samantha. She had lost her mother two years ago, and Magic was one of the few constants in her life in the emotional turmoil that followed. We stood in the barn flanking Magic as I heard the words come out of me. We cried into Magic’s mane as the reality of the situation set in. Buddy stood quietly nearby throughout.
That night I tried to sleep, but it wouldn’t come. I moved from the bed to the floor and back, trying to find comfort somewhere, but it wouldn’t be found. Mickey, our Golden Retriever, sensing my despair, just wrapped himself around me in unspoken consolation.
Morning came and I was hoping it was a dream, but it wasn’t. This was the day I had to play God with my friend’s life. The logistics of doing what needed to be done kept me busy for hours, until one o’clock when Dr. Perry was to come. I took the horse trailer and parked it next to Buddy’s paddock. I cleaned the interior and put down fresh bedding. I had rehearsed this in my mind all last night and it seemed surreal to be actually doing it. Dr. Perry drove in the gate and I put a halter and lead on Magic, walked her around the paddock, and led her onto the trailer. I followed instructions once on the trailer.
The vet prepared the syringes that would take our mare from her pain. Magic was about twenty feet from Buddy, their eyes locked through the openings in the trailer. As first one, then the second syringe took effect, Buddy let out a loud nicker, and then I was holding Magic’s head, cradling it for what seemed like an eternity. When I got up, I went and got Buddy and walked him to the back of the trailer to see his friend. He seemed indifferent. I walked him back to the barn, and he went into Magic’s stall. Her blanket was draped over the stall chain and he buried his muzzle in it. He backed up and licked the lead ropes that hung from the ceiling where she had stood getting her IV’s. Then he walked out of the stall and didn’t go back in. I drove away with Magic’s body in the trailer to be cremated. Sam and I had agreed on that so that we could sprinkle her ashes at some of her favorite places. Buddy was always very calm, and he seemed more so than usual right now. I won’t ever forget what happened as I drove out the driveway, though. Buddy reared up, and with a snort and a cry charged around at full speed, tearing up the paddock. He spun around at the fence close to us, and kicked the top fence rail out with both hind legs, sending the rail flying in splinters. He had never acted like this before, ever. Then, he stood still, head high and still snorting, then slowly relaxed his neck and began to graze in his hay. He had grieved, and now his grieving was done.
As I brought Magic’s body on the forty minute trip to be returned to ashes, the choking tears subsided and an incredible sense of calm came over me. I was all right with it, with her, and with God.
Euthanasia, it is said, is taking the animal’s pain and making it your own. That’s a fair exchange for all she gave us.
The sting of Magic’s loss has been largely removed, replaced with the wonderful memories of a once in-a-lifetime horse.
We have a few new young horses now, and Buddy looks after them and teaches them horse etiquette and all those things we can’t teach them.
Buddy and Magic taught me to not long for what was already there. That love need not be spoken to be true. That the truest love needs no words; and that what I thought I was missing, I had all along.