Married with Horses: Digging Deep

As a horsewoman and her husband try to cope with the passing of a beloved dog, they realize that, in their own ways, their other four-legged family members feel the loss, too.
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As a horsewoman and her husband try to cope with the passing of a beloved dog, they realize that, in their own ways, their other four-legged family members feel the loss, too.

We've been doing a lot of digging lately.

Kimberly and I made some late additions to the garden. We dug a lot of holes and dropped in new plants. Then we dug up the large weeds and simply pulled out the rest. "Organic" means more work, but we're comfortable with that.

| © Andy Myer

| © Andy Myer

Some of the digging has been for the new foaling stall. The big posts have to be set deep and concreted before the walls can go up. Mandy watches me dig from her new pasture (the grassless riding ring).

"It's not going to finish itself," she says as she lumbers past with her pendulous, foal-filled belly.

"Grab a shovel," I respond, wiping about a gallon of sweat from my forehead. Mandy pretends not to hear me.

The toughest digging, however, was for Kit's grave.

She lost her appetite a few weeks ago and we'd begun hand feeding her, though soon she was refusing that--even when we offered her bacon. Kit was severely congested and the vet wasn't sure if it was allergies or an illness, so he gave us antibiotics. She'd never had seasonal allergies before, and we figured the antibiotics might make her feel better and restore her appetite.

Because the antibiotics don't work with an empty stomach, we had to make "dog food soup" with her canned food and feed her with a syringe twice a day. The food--and the antibiotics--stayed down. After three days her congestion cleared, but her appetite only barely returned.

We'd offer Kit her "soup" in a bowl, she'd lick it once or twice and just stare at us. Kit not eating is as unusual as Vander or I not eating. If I wanted to really scare Kimberly, I wouldn't sneak up on her or put on a frightening costume, I'd just casually refuse dinner. And I could probably expect a hospital helicopter to land in our front yard a few moments later.

Because Kit was still going to the barn, climbing stairs and going to the bathroom normally, we figured she might pull through as she had all the other times her health took a turn downward. We continued feeding her and giving her the antibiotics.

On the fifth day of syringe feeding Kit, she was doing well. She took her breakfast fine and spent some time outside in the sun before heading inside for a nap.

Kimberly and were working next door in the office and I returned to the house for an extension cord. Kit had pooped on the floor (nothing too unusual) but was agitated and making strange whining-growling noises. She still stressed sometimes when she peed or pooped in the house. I petted her reassuringly, let her outside and she instantly quieted down.

She stood quietly in the sunlight in the back yard for a moment. Then Kit began wheezing and immediately seemed unable to breathe. She fell over in the grass. Kimberly wasn't answering the office phone or her cell. (I think that's what I dialed.) I yelled for her at the top of my lungs as I ran to the office. As I approached the office, I caught a glimpse of Hazel running away from our property and into the woods.

Kimberly and I sat with Kit for a few minutes that seemed more like several hours because her belabored breathing frightened us and there were no clinics close enough to help her and now we were worried that she was suffering and that we should have been less selfish and simply put her down when she stopped eating.

My hand was on Kit's chest when her heart stopped. Just like that, her 16 years had come to a close. I felt the normal thing to do was to keep petting her like nothing had happened. It made me feel a little better.

I was still stroking Kit's head when Claudia arrived. Kimberly called Claudia first thing, but Kit died before Claudia could grab her emergency supplies and drive the mile and half to our house. If Kit hadn't gone quickly, we knew Claudia would have something to make her more comfortable.

Claudia joined us in the shady spot in the grass beside Kit. We sat there for a long while, telling stories about Kit and hearing about some of the animals Claudia had lost. Hazel appeared beside the riding ring and watched us for a while. Hazel loves Claudia and loves joining us when we're in the yard, but she kept her distance. It was clear she knew what had happened.

I'd never lost a dog before this. Unfortunately, it took losing Kit for me to finally understand exactly why Claudia and Jack--or any other animal lovers--spoil their animals like they do. Their animals get guidance and discipline, but they also get a lot of very special treatment.

We decided to bury Kit in the flower bed beneath the large living room window. That way she'd be only a few feet from where she used to sleep, and she'd still be near us. Kimberly and I both dug the grave. The sandy clay was wet and heavy, but it kept the sides from caving in.

It was hot, humid and we dug quietly. When we finished, Kimberly brought out Kit's old, lavender sheet for us to wrap and lower Kit into her grave.

This was a point in the process that was almost as bad as when Kit died. This was when we had to say goodbye for good. This was the last time we would get to see her. And because it was up to us to lower her in and cover her up, our reluctance to say goodbye was tough to overcome.

We straddled the deep grave on all fours, crying and petting Kit's head until we felt like the world's biggest fools. Kimberly went inside and I covered up Kit's body with shovelful after shovelful of soil. It was absolutely miserable.

The next few days weren't much better. Kimberly and I both had trouble letting go of all the times we'd gotten mad at Kit, or all the times she begged for food and we didn't feed her or all the times we were sure we'd simply behaved like bad parents.

And for all the time that Macy, Jack (ours, not Claudia's) and Hazel spent sleeping on Kit's sheepskin, bath mat and dog bed, no one would go near them now. All three beds are still in the living room and no one is touching them. Jack sleeps upstairs now and when Macy comes inside she does, too.

Hazel spent an unusual amount of time inside in the days after Kit died. Hazel isn't big on being inside and usually comes and goes as she pleases. She enjoys walks in the sun, searching for road kill, or catching and eating large field mice. But during those days, she chose to follow us around the house like she was worried about us.

Kimberly and I have been talking about Kit and her death. Despite the sorrow, I think I may be slowly getting things in perspective.

Kit had a lot of health problems and still lived longer than most dogs her size. I will be eternally grateful for the time I had with her. She was as considerate and well behaved as a dog could be. And though I've got a lot more to learn from our animals, Kit was the one who got my education started. I hope she knows I love her for that.

I didn't have to dig too deeply inside myself to find the things Kit taught me, but it took some deeper digging to find the strength to return to a nearly normal daily routine. Fortunately, Kimberly and I have the other animals and our garden depending on us and that helped us find our way back.

Today was the first day in since Kit died that I'd done any digging. I was back at the foaling stall, digging the deep post holes and mixing concrete. Mandy watched me from her shady spot in the riding ring.

"This'll be ready before your foal is," I said to her. Mandy chewed her hay and pretended not to hear me.

Hazel walked up beside me, peered into the hole I was digging and looked up at me. "How are you doing?" she asked.

"Good," I replied, petting her head.

"Yeah?" she replied.

"Yeah."

"Good." she said as she retreated to her cool spot under the horse trailer.

When Kimberly and I stopped by Kit's grave that evening to lay some fresh flowers from our rose bush, we noticed something interesting. Someone had left a few, large "gift rodents" on the grave beside the previous day's roses.

I'll let the skeptics say what they will, but these animals never cease to amaze me.

Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina.

Read Jeremy's other columns in EquiSearch.com's Humor section.