The Hardest Part

When I was a child, every Christmas, birthday, and Easter list included “A Pony” and “My own phone in MY room.” Neither was ever realized, but I put a decided amount of thought into where my pony would live, how my parents could very easily just put up a fence to create a corral… if they really loved me.

My dad is the animal parent. Both grew up with dogs, but my dad is very much the secretly sensitive, empathetic one who would never pass up the opportunity to scratch or coo at a fuzzy pet.

As we got a little older, my youngest brother and I talked about owning a dog rescue as adults. When our family dog, Happy, was diagnosed with brain cancer, my mom made sure we took him to a local lake for one final day of love, belly rubs, and family time. We all went in to the vet’s office with him for five minutes I will never forget.

Later, my brother was helping at the Humane Society and realized that one of the dogs he was walking was scheduled to be euthanized. Knowing my mom would not give the parental consent he needed to adopt the dog, he called me. My voice passed a perfunctory phone call from the rescue coordinator, and nearly 18 years later Anton remains a legend in our community.

Every moment of my adulthood has included at least one dog, sometimes two or three, and often a cat, a bird, or a fish. Today I own a 10-acre farm littered with two dogs, four barn cats, a goldfish, five ducks, nine chickens, a mini horse, a donkey (a DONKEY!), and four goats. It is not a functional farm. Our chickens lay eggs. The other animals are all rescues. They take time. They take energy. They take tolerance. They take patience. They do not earn their keep… but the returns in hugs, laughs, and love are so worthwhile.

But those bright moments are brighter because we also experience the dim. We carry these animals through life to death, just as my parents did with our family dog, Happy.

As a 30-ish mom to two young girls who just purchased a decaying farm, I’d forgotten what it was like to be that pony-desperate little girl. My dogs, the animals who were once the center of my home, had become another chore. On a good day they made me crazy. On a bad day they made me furious. But my daughters loved them, and I loved them in my quiet moments, and I loved the responsibility and empathy they built in my kids. And then came Gozer.

Gozer, the sweet, fat, senior boxer we found at the local Animal Rescue League. We talked about Gozer’s age, that he may not be with us too long. My daughters told me they understood, they wanted to take care of him and give him a home, that he deserved it at his age. So we brought home the dog who reminded me why I loved dogs. He followed my four-year-old everywhere, a quintessential vision of contrasts. He laid his head on our laps. He snuffled and snorted and put up with the bow ties I tied around his neck. He snoozed and snored and ate like a vacuum. He loved us. We loved him. And he began to limp.

His limp became more pronounced, and it became clearer that he was in pain. He’d twisted his ankle, we thought. We’ll take him to the vet and get some painkillers so he can recover. Instead he got an X-ray and a diagnosis of aggressive bone cancer. Within 48 hours he was growling and biting, in a pain so deep he couldn’t recognize us any longer, and we took him in the middle of the night to help him leave the fog of that pain. We said good-bye as a family, and I stayed behind, the lesson my parents taught me ringing in my head as I held his. He needed me.

We needed him.

We took on his fog after he died, spending the next day remembering, going to Chuck E. Cheese (a place this mom never goes), and designating it Gozer Day, a day we would celebrate annually. We built a Little Free Library in his honor, painted it in the colors of the peacock collar he wore, and used it as an outlet for all of the undirected love we still had.

Gozer left us early. We had so much love left to give. A few months later, we found a photo of Valentine online. This big, burly, brindle mastiff weighed only 75 pounds. He’d been starved and malnourished, and we were determined to nurse him back.  He was a part-time job unto himself. He hated being crated in any way, and our house was one big crate in his brain. He loved our family but hated our home. He loved to run and hated to be lost. He escaped routinely — including the first night he was home — and would run full-speed for miles, invariably turning up at the home of some other large breed owner before coming home to us, ready to snuggle and eat. He tested positive for latent heartworms and spent quite a bit of time and money in the vet’s office. He slobbered non-stop. He was aggressive with any unannounced guests (because mastiffs are very protective).

We needed him. He took such good care of our family. He was protective, he was loving, he was snuggly. After a surgical procedure, Valentine didn’t leave my side for days.

One night after an amazing day, Valentine and our new rescue, Aurora, were playing with a ball with our entire family sitting nearby. Valentine tipped his head backward to chew the ball. He tipped his head forward and it didn’t come out. It was stuck and he was choking. He began to run, clearly frightened, and lost control of his bladder and bowels. I tried to get the ball out using the canine Heimlich. I tried to get the ball out using my hand, not realizing until that night that Valentine was involuntarily clamping down on my wrist every time.

The ball didn’t come out. Two vets were unable to save him without anesthesia and, after the stress of the situation, his heart could not handle the anesthesia needed to save him. He died.

The tendons in my wrist were severed, I had a hematoma in my forearm, and I was given antibiotics for the puncture wounds. The heartbreak and depression stayed for weeks.

Around the same time, I was growing our farm and got a call from a woman who could not afford to keep her mini horse and two pygmy goats. We adopted them, and this older, surly mini-stallion with a history of thyroid issues worked his way into our hearts. Winston was with us for nine months. On Easter night, after a month of behaving oddly, he began an eight-hour death. I held him as snow began to fall and the vet was preparing his last injection, told him we loved him and thanked him for loving my girls, and he took his last breath and died.

Another one was lost.

This is the hardest part. We take these risks. We make ourselves vulnerable. We open our hearts and our home and our barns to give them a better life. We know it’s right, and when these sweet, crazy beasts pass away, we tell each other that we’re taking all of that love and giving it to the other animals we have.

But damn, at 3 am when the snow is falling gently, it is so hard. When you realize he needed you there to hold him, to speak with him, to pet him and let him go on his own terms, it is so hard. When you realize he was in so much pain he couldn’t see anything else, it is so hard. And when you realize yours is the other heartbeat he trusted, it is so, so hard.

When you’ve had them, one after another after another and you just love them so deeply and need them so badly, it is so hard.

And so, last summer, my friend Jack helped me. Jack is 10 years old, and Jack has asked me questions about those sweet loves I have. He listens to my stories. He doesn’t mind my tears. He touches the mold of Gozer’s paw gently. When I decided that Valentine, Gozer, Winston, and all those who came before them needed a permanent place on our farm, I knew that I needed Jack.

We chose an eight-foot cherry tree. It is domed on top, a bit taller than me but not too tall. It will flower in the spring. It will shade my daughters. Its bark has already been wetted down with some tears. Jack and I chose well. But it is still so hard.

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