Continued from The circle of life
The loss of Jewel was not my first experience with mortality. We’d lost a few puppies and kittens and, of course, Joan’s lambs. When I was about seven, I’d come across the body of a little still-born lamb dropped unceremoniously by its dam in the corner of one the Talbot’s corrals. Kids take their cues from the adults around them and I was surrounded by ranchers who viewed livestock as a responsibility—to be nursed, fed, and watched over until it was time to slaughter them. There was a tacit agreement that the animals would ultimately pay for their protection, food, and comfort by, in turn, feeding the provider. The circle of life was small and close to the bone.
I assimilated the fact that life and death are both connected and final. Contrary to some beliefs, I learned that you get born only once. You don’t get another chance. And you die only once. You aren’t coming back after that last puff of air leaves your lungs. Ranchers are not cruel or hard-hearted because they harvest animals for food. Ranchers are pragmatic. They live within the circle, coaxing life into the world, going so far as to stick an arm, pit-deep into the back end of a horse, or a cow, or a sow to pull forth new life that’s headed the wrong way. And, at the other end of that infinite spectrum, ranchers muster the strength and the courage to kill quickly and efficiently when it is necessary. I knew that my mother and Joan were both devoted animal lovers. And I knew that they were both correct to fold that remaining gift from Jewel into the backseat of the car and bring her home to live with us in town. We focused forward on the life that was here rather than on the life just lost.
This unblinking approach to death may not have helped on those nights when sleep dueled with the anxiety that I might never wake up—as I lay in the dark, shivers tickling my spine, and my brain fussing over what death feels like. It did nothing to allay my anxiety on those occasions when mother spouted off about riding into the mountains to shoot herself when her time came. And it didn’t prevent that knot in my throat or the ping in my chest when we looked at little Sandy and remembered the last hours of her mother’s life.
Jewel was the first horse we’d lost, but she’d left a legacy. The small sandlot-colored filly came home with us to a new bottle routine. Our experience with the lambs was but a shadow of the knowledge we would need to keep this month-old filly alive. Mare’s milk is a unique mix of fats and proteins, so mom had to figure out how to doctor up fresh cow’s milk and make it, not only palatable to the little horse, but also properly nutritious. And Sandy had to learn how to take milk from a pop bottle with a rubber nipple attached. And the neighborhood kids had something new to gawk at, more stupid-assed questions to ask, and disbelieving parents to show off to.
Sandy lived in our yard through the summer, fall, and winter. As longer days signaled the approach of a brief Wyoming summer, we took Sandy back to the ranch where she learned to hold her own with the big horses. She never grew very large. At two, she was barely taller than my pony. But she thrived and charmed people with her expressive brown eyes and quizzical gaze. She was always the first horse to approach a person with or without a bucket of grain and she followed us around like a collie. Eventually mom sold her to someone who wanted a small cart horse.