Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sliding down the curve

There have been many significant 'turning points' in my life. Some are of the common variety; getting married, getting divorced, getting fired (that one really hurt). Some are not so common; suffering from anorexia in high school, losing my dad in an automobile accident 7 months ago, having 3 miscarriages and 2 tubal pregnancies (yes, I am childless)...but two events really stand out as life altering. I didn't pick them, they picked I can't feel guilty or bad if they don't seem like they should be all that significant to anyone else. Or that the death of my father isn't one of them...I don't think that has really sunk in yet, although it certainly has impacted my life greatly. One involves the death of my horse, Maxx, in 1998. The other was a trip to Death Valley in October 2008.

Maxx was one of the biggest pain-in-the-asses I had ever met. Oh, don't get me wrong, I thought he was cute, in a pathetic sort of way, the day I drove to Temecula to see him. I had wanted a horse for several years after having to sell my previous horse when my father (and therefore the rest of the family) got orders to Alaska when I was 16. Now, at 21, I was ready. My then husband was stationed at Edwards AFB in California and they had a stables there that we could afford. I found Maxx in the Horse Trader. He was a rescue from the Charo Rodeo and had been used for tripping...a cruel "sport" where horses are chased and then roped by their rear legs and thrown to the ground. Sounds like a blast. But he was only $500 and even though I didn't HAVE $500, I could figure out how to get it if I liked what I saw.

And I did like him. He was so damaged that I sensed that he needed me, and that I needed him too. Thirty days later he was delivered to the stables and I was a proud horse woman again. Maxx had to be gelded right away. He was 2 years old and abused...the last thing he needed was that stud mentality! But it didn't seem to help much. He was stubborn, acted like a stud, and was terrified of everything. It took about 4 months to be able to pick his feet up for cleaning. And over the course of the next 2 years we fought like brother and sister over EVERYTHING! I put up ads to try to sell him and even offered him to a local trainer...for free!

We got stationed a little further north to Travis AFB near Napa. They have a beautiful stable with a covered arena and real stalls. There are several really high caliber dressage and eventing trainers in the area and I decided to try to make a go of it with Maxx. After all, no one else wanted him so I was stuck. We spent a lot of time together. He was the first (and only) horse I ever 'broke'. We learned everything from the ground up...together. He started trusting me so much that I could now crawl under his belly, right between his legs, scarred from the rope burns from his days in the rodeo. We would go on trail rides, just the two of us, and I would play Beethoven on my walkman. I had bought speakers that I carried in a fanny pack so he could enjoy the music too. We even went to a few shows and did quite well!

Maxx was the first to know that I was pregnant (this would end up being my first miscarriage). I was riding him in the dressage arena when I noticed how tender my breasts were. I just knew I was pregnant and I told him as we walked around...afraid to tell anyone else because I had recently found out that I COULDN'T get pregnant. A few weeks later I lost the baby and my bond with Maxx grew stronger. I focused my energy on him so that I didn't have to deal with the pain of losing a baby. If I couldn't be a 'real' woman, I could at least be a great rider/trainer.

It was a gorgeous spring morning and Maxx had been cooped up for days due to rain. The turnouts had just a little new grass coming in. I remember insisting that he needed to be turned out. I told my then husband that I would let Maxx out on my way to work but he had to promise to bring him in at lunch. I didn't want him eating too much grass. The morning went by like any other day. By late morning I got a phone was from someone at the stables, I can't recall who, but they asked if Maxx was turned out and wanted to know which one he was in. I told them, a bit of panic in my voice. They told me I needed to get down there right away. Something had gone wrong.

I told my boss I had to go and took off for the stables. I could see Maxx standing in the turn out...looking towards me. I went as fast as my legs could take me. The man holding onto Maxx's lead rope told me that he had been running, having a good time, when all of a sudden he heard a loud pop...almost like a gun went off. Then Maxx was running on 3 legs...his left hind leg tucked up. I could see it was swollen. I ran my hands down his side...feeling as best I could. He put his toe down and his 'ankle' twisted in a grotesque manner. I knew it was broken. The vet was on the way.

I stood looking at him. He was so perfect. He had grown into a beautiful horse, nicely muscled, his coat shining. So different from when I first got him and through his awkward years. The vet came and we slowly limped Maxx back to the stable to take xrays. I put him in his stall and we went to David Grant Medical Center and begged the hospital staff to develop the images. His fetlock was definitely broken. I insisted on taking the xrays to UC Davis for a second opinion and to discuss if there were any.

The vet at Davis confirmed the diagnosis saying that Maxx's ankle was shattered. "Imagine a bag of ice", is what she said. "There's a 75% chance that if we attempt surgery I will put him down as soon as I open him up and see the damage. It's always worse then what the image shows." She then informed me that the real risk come AFTER surgery, if he survived. It would be a horrible attempt at recovery and he would never be the same. He would never be able to leave his stall. She practically begged me to put him down.

I wanted someone else to decide. I couldn't utter the words "put him down"...I didn't want to play God, who I had just decided I hated. But no one else would do it...they couldn't. We drove back to the stables and I saw Maxx in his stall. He was happy to see me but looked confused because I'm sure he was in pain and didn't understand why his leg didn't work anymore. I was an emotional wreck. How could he look so perfect and feel so warm. He nuzzled me and ate a carrot out of my hand. That one little bone was going to cost him his life. No, my insistence that he be turned out that day was costing him his life. I was to blame. Not only couldn't my body make and keep a baby but I couldn't even keep my horse alive. Babies are fragile but Maxx was about 950 pounds. I had failed yet again.

The vet handed me some scissors so I could cut a lock of hair from Maxx's forelock. She asked if I wanted to stay and be there for him. I couldn't, not with this kind of guilt. My friend stayed with him. They took him to the back, behind the tack rooms and let him eat some grass. The vet administered the leathal dose and he fell to the ground...the new spring grass still in his mouth, he was 6 years old. Later, I was given his front shoes...someone had pulled them off for me to have. His stall was decorated with flowers...a beautiful woven tapestry.

Something changed inside of me...maybe something died besides Maxx. I used to have horrible dreams of forgetting I had a horse for weeks or months or years and then running to the stables to find him emaciated, standing knee deep in feces and mud. These dreams lasted for years. I was a shell of a person. I tried to talk to the pastor from my church. He looked at me as if I were crazy. "Horses and pets are not like people, I don't even know if they have souls or go to heaven. You just have to get over it." I never went back to that church, or any church for that matter. If there aren't horses and dogs and cats in heaven then I don't want to go...that would NOT be heaven to me.

This was one of the most significant times in my life. This marked the start of my confusion...who was I without Maxx. Who was I without children? What do I do now? I am a damaged person...babies die inside of me and horses die due to my actions. I entered a very dark time filled with paralyzing depression. I suffered another miscarriage about a year later. I felt I had wished it upon myself because my husband was leaving for Greece and would be gone a year. How could I have a baby alone?? When I lost this baby I knew it was my fault for not wanting it. How could I have become such a horrible person?? More husband went to Greece, I slept as much as I could and never left the house. My marriage was falling apart and I finally got on anti-depressants. It was too late though. I didn't recognize myself anymore...I was a stranger in my own body. I went from a somewhat confident woman to a weak girl...easily taken advantage of..and boy did some people exploit that...but that story is for later.

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