Stay With Me

At dusk in Decem­ber, I ride Wil­son along the base of a steep moun­tain. We’ve slowed to a walk, but he’s strug­gling, his breath com­ing in short bursts, vapor jet­ting from his nostrils.

Zoey walks stiff-legged on the ground beside us. She looks up at me, her eyes watery and tired. Unable to go on, she sits down to rest. 

I rein Wil­son to a stop and dis­mount. He low­ers his head, breath­ing hard. I stroke his neck and rub the star on his fore­head with the palm of my hand. 

I call Zoey. She comes to me and stands at my knee, her legs trem­bling. I kneel, pat her head, and scratch her ears. 

A cold shad­ow falls over us as the sun goes down behind the moun­tain. I stand and lead Wil­son and Zoey through a grove of live oaks, their branch­es claw­ing at an indi­go sky, giant bony fin­gers cling­ing to the dying light. We emerge from the trees into an open field where scat­tered desert flow­ers still bloom, lit­tle islands of gold, bur­gundy, and rus­set in a sea of gray brush. 

We walk along a well-worn trail. Wil­son and Zoey fall behind. I stop and look back. The night is com­ing on. “Don’t give up. Stay with me.” They try to quick­en their pace, but they’re old and slow. A cur­tain of dark­ness slides across the val­ley toward them, and I can’t hold it back. 

I awake and sit up on the edge of the bed, still inside my dream. It takes me a while to shake it off. I wipe my eyes and stare out the win­dow. First light. Anoth­er day. “There’s still time,” I say, hop­ing it’s true. 

I bought Wil­son on the cheap five years ago. He came with no pedi­gree or papers. The sell­er said he was 12, but the vet thinks he’s well into his 20’s now.

He’s a good horse. He tries hard to do every­thing we ask of him. Last year arthri­tis ate into his spine, and we took his sad­dle off for good. See Rid­ing Wil­son for the whole story.

On a rid­er­less out­ing a few months ago, he hurt him­self try­ing to dash up a hill. After­wards, he walked with a sidewind­ing gait, his back legs unsteady. The vet pre­scribed steroid pills to reduce inflam­ma­tion. “The time will come when I can’t help him any­more,” he said. He told me to move Wil­son into the barn’s front stall so the hauler’s winch could reach him when that day arrives. 

“I’ll move him,” I said, “but I want to buy the old boy as much time as I can.”

I mixed the med­i­cine into Wilson’s feed dai­ly. The sidewind­ing walk didn’t go away, but it got bet­ter. Janet, my horse train­er and good friend, put him on Equine Senior Feed to help him hold his weight. Always a home­body, he seemed con­tent in his corral. 

Then some­thing went wrong with his front legs. He flinched in pain with every step. He stared vacant­ly into the dis­tance with rheumy eyes. He didn’t respond to my voice or touch. 

The vet thought he had lamini­tis, a dis­ease where the cof­fin bone inside the hoof pulls away from the hoof wall. It’s extreme­ly painful, and there’s no cure. He sched­uled a vis­it for the next day to x–ray Wilson’s hooves.

Visions of the hauler and his winch kept me up all night.

At dawn, I went to the barn to feed him. He stood in the cor­ral at the bot­tom of the hill. Nor­mal­ly, he would run up to the barn to be fed, but that morn­ing he stood still as a stat­ue, root­ed to the ground. I called him. He didn’t move. I hal­tered him and pulled him up the hill. Every step was tor­ture for him. Twice he almost fell. Fight­ing back tears, I tried to come to terms with the heart­break­ing deci­sion that would be best for him.

That after­noon I crouched beside the vet in front of a portable x–ray machine star­ing at images of the inside of Wilson’s front hooves. “They’re worn down,” the vet said. “Too short and too shal­low. It’s like he’s walk­ing on bro­ken glass with bare feet.” Despite that, the vet was encour­aged. “We caught this ear­ly. There’s a good chance we can treat it.” 

The vet pow­er-drilled met­al screws into Wilson’s front hooves to attach thick wood­en horse­shoe-blocks to them, then wrapped them in plas­ter-cast tape. When he was done, I led Wil­son back to his stall. Wear­ing Dutch clogs, his first steps were awk­ward, but his gait soon smoothed out. His per­son­al­i­ty came back. He nudged my shoul­der for pets and strokes, and when I came to feed him, he ran across the cor­ral, kick­ing and buck­ing like a young horse.

The vet will take off the clogs after six weeks. It’s not a sure thing his hooves will heal by then, but the ear­ly indi­ca­tions are pos­i­tive. It looks like Wil­son will out­run the dark­ness for a while longer.

Mean­while, Zoey did not fare as well. We feared she would pass away in Sep­tem­ber with a kid­ney ail­ment, but she recov­ered. See Zoey’s Song for that story.

In Novem­ber, our fears returned when she fell and couldn’t get up, but when the vet gave her shots for arthri­tis, she rebound­ed again.

Then, on New Year’s Day, she suf­fered a grand mal seizure. I can’t bear to describe it here oth­er than to say it was hor­ri­ble and heart-wrench­ing to watch. While I searched fran­ti­cal­ly for a vet who would help her on the hol­i­day, she had two more seizures, short­er and milder than the first. I final­ly found an emer­gency facil­i­ty in Cul­ver City, and my son-in-law helped me take her there. It’s an hour’s dri­ve, and I thought she might die in the car on the way, but she made it. 

The emer­gency vet sta­bi­lized her with anti-seizure med­ica­tion. An ultra­sound revealed an enlarged heart with an immi­nent risk of a fatal heart attack. The next day our reg­u­lar vet put her on heart medication.

Each morn­ing and evening I mixed eight pills into her food, and every four days I gave her the arthri­tis shots. I was wor­ried about pump­ing so much med­ica­tion into her, but it worked, and mirac­u­lous­ly she bounced back yet again. Her arthrit­ic pain eased; the seizures went away; and the heart pills seemed to make her stronger. She woke up every day wag­ging her tail. She took two long dai­ly walks morn­ing and after­noon, and she was active and alert. 

Six weeks lat­er, she had two mild, short seizures two days apart. Both times she recov­ered quick­ly and act­ed as though noth­ing had hap­pened. We increased her anti-seizure medication. 

On Fri­day, Feb­ru­ary 17, at dawn, she and I went out to get the paper. Fig­ur­ing she was too old and infirm to run off, I didn’t leash her. Mean­der­ing around the front yard, she sud­den­ly put her nose in the air, and the hair on her neck stood up. I was too far away to restrain her when I saw the coyote.

Bay­ing and sprint­ing after him like a young dog, she chased him up our neighbor’s long, steep dri­ve­way while I ran a dis­tant third behind them. When I final­ly caught up to Zoey at the top of the hill, the coy­ote had fled. Zoey turned around and trot­ted back down the hill, look­ing ener­gized and proud about pro­tect­ing her turf.

I’m glad we got to share that last big chase. She looked so brave and strong. 

That after­noon at four o’clock I found her in my home office. She’d rolled over on her side and passed away peacefully. 

If you’re blessed, once in your life you form a spe­cial bond with a dog that’s dif­fer­ent from all the oth­er dogs you loved. You know what she thinks and feels, and she has that same sense of you. It’s a mag­i­cal con­nec­tion, deep, warm, lov­ing, soulful.

I’d like to believe it can’t be bro­ken, even by death, but I don’t know if that’s true. All I know is I still feel it, and I always will.