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October 27, 2008 | | Comments 0

“Hank”

By Chenay Jordan-McDowell

“We kept him until he died…and sat with him during the long last minutes when a horse comes closest to seeming human.”
C.J. Mullen

“I’m leaving you with this syringe of painkillers in case you need it,” Dr. Simon told Missy and Philip Jackson after hours of trying to stop the burning, unstoppable pain coming from Hank’s insides.  They had spent months now trying to relieve the horse’s pain that came from his cancer.   But it was no use.  As soon as Missy tried to put Hank back in his stall-every time-he tried to lie down again.  It was almost one’ o’ clock in the morning and Dr. Simon had decided to call it a night; at least for now.  The questions had already been asked and the answers given: Is there anything else we can do? Injections? Supplements? Not really… but let’s see what we can do. And it had come down to this.  Missy held Hank at the head with tears in her eyes while her husband Philip tried to support the other side of his body-because the gelding was so drugged he could hardly stand up.  He was in excruciating pain.  It was a devastating situation.

“Now, if you have to use these,” Dr. Simon continued, “call me first.  Then I will come back out and that means we are going to have to make a decision.  I just want you to be prepared, you understand?”  He spoke sympathetically and softly and directly at Missy.  It was her horse; after all, she had owned Hank longer than she had been married to Philip.  She nodded silently.  Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Dr. Simon took one final look at Hank and got in his truck and left Moon River Performance Horses.  His final instructions were to turn Hank out in the arena and see what he would do in a big space.  When Missy took Hank’s halter off of him he just stood there, his lower lip drooping, his eyes glazed over and half open, and drooling.  He looked pathetic.  It was impossible to hold the tears back.  As she closed the gate to the arena she began to think about all the years… all twenty five years that Hank had been in her life.  She thought about the day he was unloaded from the trailer, the disinterest, the sudden interest, the showing, the hoof surgeries, the corrective shoeing, the colic scares… there was no doubt that the pair had gone through a great deal together.  There was no doubt that this was the hardest night of Missy’s life.

***

Missy was just ten years old when Hank first came into her life and Hank was just five months old when he came into Missy’s.  Missy’s mother had bought him from a backyard breeder in Washington and had him professionally hauled to their ranch in Arizona.  Missy was showing and riding a Paint mare named “Sweet as Pie” or “Sweetie” for short at the time.

When the hauler unloaded Hank from the trailer Missy’s eyes opened wide.  Even at the tender age of ten she looked at her mother and said, “This is what you bought?!”  Wooly and unkempt it was obvious the colt had been born and kept on pasture.  His bay color made him look like a buffalo.  Missy was shocked.  Usually her mom had good taste in horses.

But little Hank (registered as Hank Aaron for the breeder’s husband’s favorite ball player) eventually grew up and literally turned from the ugly duckling into the swan.  Missy decided she would give up Sweetie and start showing the gelding when she turned thirteen and Hank was three.

The pair literally grew up together.  From the moment Missy started riding the gelding there was an undeniable connection.  When her parents got out of the horse business and sold everything off, one thing stayed: Hank.

When Missy went to college, Hank went too, and on a night similar to this one, when Missy was a senior in college and Hank was almost lost due to a bad case of colic, Missy looked deep into the gelding eyes and vowed to keep him until the day he died.

***

Missy sat on the hard plastic chair, alone, in the darkness, except for one lone arena light, watching Hank.  He had not moved from the spot where Missy took his halter off.

“I’m really sorry about all of this, hunny,” Philip appeared from out of the darkness.  She continued to stare at her tragic gelding unable to stop the tears.

“Missy, we’ve done all we can,” Philip put an arm around his wife.  “All we can do now is hope the pain subsides.”

“I know,” Missy whispered, “I just can’t imagine the ranch without him… my life without him.”

Philip took a deep breath.

“Hunny, I know this isn’t a good time but that mare in the pasture seems to be in labor.  She was lying down earlier and her bag was real waxy this afternoon, you know.”

Missy got up from her chair and sighed.  Philip looked at the pain in his wife’s eyes.

“I’ll keep an eye on her hunny, I just wanted you to know” he looked at Missy and brushed some tears from her cheek.

“Thanks babe,” she whispered back, “I’m going to stay with Hank, if anything happens that you can’t handle, holler.”  As her husband walked away Missy continued to watch her beloved gelding.

Minutes passed that seemed like hours, but it wasn’t long before Hank was trying to lie down again and Missy had to get him up before he went all the way down and it became impossible to get him back up.

“Philip!” Missy screamed as she raced to Hank, clamoring with the halter, trying to get it on him and pull before he lay all the way down.  From out of the dark, Philip was racing to the arena, eyes wide, obviously confused.

“Call Dr. Simon,” Missy called to him from Hank’s side pushing and pulling to try and keep him standing.

Somehow, she managed.  A few moments later Philip came back with the syringe that Dr. Simon had given in case of this happening.

“Dr. Simon is on his way.” As he gave Hank the shot he could tell in the gelding’s eyes that he was giving up.  Philip was overcome with a sense of anger at the situation.  As he looked at her falling apart he couldn’t help but feel helpless that there was nothing he could do to ease her pain.

***

Philip Jackson met Melissa Robertson during their senior year of college.  She was studying Animal Behavior, he was studying Architecture and a mutual friend set them up one night.  They hit if off immediately.

Philip remembered the first night he met Missy and how even in their initial conversation she talked about Hank.  “Glory days,” she called them; speaking fondly of their national titles and how even though they were both “retired” she would never part with the horse.  The way she spoke captivated Philip, the incredible love for this animal that he had no knowledge of fascinated him and he was drawn to her loving nature.

It wasn’t long after they began dating that Missy introduced Philip to Hank and even though he considered himself a city slicker, he also fell in love with the gelding.  There was just something about him; he was like a big, giant dog.

When Philip asked Missy to marry him, he knew that wherever they went, Hank would have to be provided for, so when his career took off he didn’t hesitate to buy a good chunk of land with a ranch house so Missy could always have Hank (and of course, over the years, they added to the brood).

Over their twelve year marriage, Missy had turned Philip into quite the “cowboy” and it killed him to see his wife and her horse hurting so much.

***

Dr. Simon’s diesel truck always let his clients know when he was arriving.  He didn’t even bother to park at the barn but pulled up alongside the arena.  The three victims of a bad situation stood there looking blankly at him.  He sighed as he stepped out of his truck and walked over.

“It’s not looking good Doc,” Philip pleaded with his eyes to the vet.

“I can see that,” Dr. Simon looked at the pathetic gelding, whom, even in his darkest hour, still was beautiful.  He was, even at his age, fit from the years of exercise and showing, and it was hard to believe that this magnificent creature was deteriorating right in front of them.

“Do you mind if I talk to Missy alone,” Dr. Simon looked at Philip.  Missy stepped around from the other side of Hank’s head, her face wet with tears.  She handed her horse to her husband and walked with Dr. Simon a few yards away.

“Missy, I have been your veterinarian since you were a kid.  I know you love Hank, we all do, but he has had a good long life… I don’t see much of a choice here,” he searched her face for any sort of protest, there was none.  She simply nodded and walked back over to Hank.  Dr. Simon looked over to Philip and he too, nodded.  Time was passing incredibly slowly even though there wasn’t much time to be had.

“Okay,” Dr. Simon said a bit too loudly, “let’s try to move Hank someplace where he is not really visible until we can get a truck here to pick him up.”

This was the cruel reality of euthanizing an animal as big as a horse.  The angst in waiting for a U-Haul to come pick up the deceased animal to either be cremated or burned with dozens of others unceremoniously.  There was no question that the Jacksons’ were having Hank cremated and memorialized in a very large urn.  In fact, when they first married, they opened up a special account just for this horrible day.

“That mare in the pasture is getting ready to pop,” Philip said, almost guiltily when Missy returned with Dr. Simon.  It was nearly five in the morning and it had been a very long night.

“You have a mare foaling tonight on top of this,” Dr. Simon looked sympathetically at the couple.  They nodded.

“Hunny,” Missy said, “go ahead and deal with the mare.  I’ll be all right.”  Philip looked at his wife, searched her eyes to make sure she would be all right.  When he decided she would, he gently kissed her forehead before he disappeared to go help the mare in labor.

As the group walked to the back pasture, Missy was preparing herself to deal with the reality of death.  She would have to come to terms with it.  “Things die,” she resolved, “one day I will die.  But why do the things closest to you get taken away?”  Upon reaching the pasture, Dr. Simon told Missy what to expect when the euthanasia was distributed.  After a long goodbye, Dr. Simon told her:  “Missy, it’s time.”

Missy looked at her horse and stroked his forelock as she held his head in her hands.  She began to sob.

“I’m so sorry,” she wailed, “I will miss you so much Hank and I love you.”  She nodded at the vet who had the syringe ready.  Hank was fading fast.  After a brief exam before administering the drug, Dr. Simon noticed a considerable reduction in heart rate.  Hank was shutting down.  It was obvious there was no hope, he was just so drugged he couldn’t feel pain anymore.

Dr. Simon injected Hank Aaron, one great horse and beloved friend to one horse crazy girl, with euthanasia.  He stepped back and gently led Missy a few feet away from Hank, and a few moments later he wobbled, groaned, and fell.

In the morning twilight, his large body looked peaceful laying there even though this was the end of one great life.  Dr. Simon walked over to Hank and closed his eyes and his mouth so Missy could say goodbye without being frightened.  She collapsed on top of him in a pile of wails and cries.  To Dr. Simon, it was the saddest experience he had ever had in his eighteen years of practice, when euthanizing a horse.

A few minutes later, Philip came out of the morning shadows and sat down next to Missy who had not moved from her place on top of Hank.

“Hunny, he’s gone,” Philip gently pulled his wife away from the horse and picked her up in his arms.

“How’s the mare,” Dr. Simon inquired as Philip held Missy sobbing in his arms.

“Fine, she had a bay overo filly,” he whispered to the vet, not wanting to upset his wife.

But to his surprise, Missy stopped crying long enough to look over her husband and Dr. Simon’s shoulders, out to the pasture, as the sun was coming up.  She could see, in the distance, two horses.  They were beautiful horses.  And she knew immediately that the bay overo filly in the distance would be named… Erin.

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