I live on a farm that resembles something close to a mix between Old McDonald’s farm, a zoo, and pure chaos with all its cows, dogs, goats, sheep, and a million chickens, each more friendly than need be and all wanting more pets and food than one person can give.
With so many animals comes a silent reminder of what lurks behind so much life—death.
I’m no stranger to death. I’ve held chickens as they’ve thrashed in the last throws of life. I’ve walked up on chickens that met their untimely death with a hawk or owl. I’ve held a sick and dying goat, waiting, hoping, praying it would die before we were forced to put it out of its misery, and I’ve done the same with sheep. Once I even had to pull a stillborn calf from its mother after 12 long hours of fruitless labor.
After years of loving things and watching them die, you grow accustomed to it. Where once you cried over the death of even one little chick, you later just pass it on, your heart having grown cold against death’s painful chill. On a farm, death is always lurking, reminding you of how fleeting everything you love is, that with one storm, or one predator, or an unknown disease, life could be snuffed out in a second. It reminds us just how finite we really are along with all the things around us.
I know I will most likely outlive every animal on my farm. Does it terrify me? Yes. It does. When I look at all these animals, animals I spend hours each morning and night painstakingly caring for and loving, and knowing that I will be here to watch every single one of them fade away, a dark cloud settles over me, as if I’m being chased by something.
If it’s one thing I’ve learned after stitching gaping wounds back up, or nursing a creature back from the edge of death, it’s that nothing hurts so worse as a death you can’t stop.
Sometimes when animals die, it’s your fault. There are a million ways to forget something, and a million more ways to screw something up. But I’ve learned that those deaths, the ones we cause ourselves, are the deaths that are easiest to come to terms with. You can be angry at something. You can blame someone. And most of all, you can try better to prevent it in the future.
But sometimes, you can’t stop death. Sometimes it creeps up on you, leaving you unaware of its presence until it fills its blood lust on the life of a creature. Sometimes you battle it—for days, weeks, months, and sometimes you loose. You did everything you could, but it wasn’t enough. There is no one to blame, no one to yell out, curse, be angry with. There is only a feeling of horror that you could do nothing to stop death—that you are powerless. And that is the single worst kind of feeling of all.
Living on a farm has taught me that you can outrun death, just not forever. As they say, you can run, but you can’t hide.
And as much as I knew that, sometimes illusions are built and we tend to forget the things we should never forget.
Whether I had a million small illusions deceiving me, or just one significant one, I was blinded and I believed that, somehow, Tron and I had a right to life. That, somehow as long as we were together, we were invincible.
At least, that’s what I thought as I stroked his fur as all 110 pounds of him smothered me on the couch about a week after the diagnosis. It was just a waiting game, waiting for the cancer to take him from me, and I could do nothing but think of what I would lose, wonder why, and cry.
Years earlier, when we arrived at another Arkansas farm to pick out our new farm puppies, I was instantly drawn to one little pup in particular. He was a little white male, smaller than the rest, and a little hellion. He was skittish, not wanting to be picked up, and despite his fluffy, rolly-polliness which all puppies are blessed with, he was frighteningly fast. When he wasn’t chewing on your shoe laces, he was leading you on a chase all around the muddy yard and through goat legs. When I finally caught him and stared into his dark mischievous eyes, I knew I would never let him go. Of course my brother had found himself a sweet little pup who loved being held and had fallen asleep the moment my brother cuddled him in his arms. It was no shock the personalities of the animals which we had picked out. Even the pet rabbits we had loved earlier were of similar temperaments. My brother’s—sweet and calm. Mine—a spit fire of hell. But rabbits and dogs were much different. Very different, I was to learn.
I was years younger then, not just physically but in every sense of the word.
I loved playing outside, getting muddy, throwing knives, shooting bows and arrows, making forts out of wood and branches and getting stuck high up in trees, but I had yet to be trained by the wilderness. I thought I was an outdoors girl, but that was only cause I didn’t know what the outdoors was. After all, we had only just moved to our new country home.
My brother and I were supposed to be in charge of training our pups. It was harder said than done. My pup, who my mother had helped me name Tron, quickly grew to be the alpha and despite my brother’s dog, Ronik’s, well-mannered disposition, he followed Tron’s lead and so became an accomplice for all the worst of dog crimes.
As a 80 pound weakling of a twelve year old girl softened by life in the city, I turned out to be no match for my powerful, commanding, disobedient 110 pound dog. Me and my family spent more hours than I care to remember chasing them all around the neighborhood, across acres of our neighbor’s land, trying to teach them not to jump the fence. When it came to giving Tron the discipline he needed, I was lacking in more ways than one. Not only did I not have the heart to spank him, I didn’t even have the strength or willpower to raise my voice. My weakness was not only my downfall, but Tron's, my brother, and Ronik’s as well.
We couldn’t contain the massive dogs. They jumped the fences, dug under them, crawled through them, and disobeyed every command we gave them. And despite knowing that if our dogs hurt someone else’s dog or animal that it would be our fault, I couldn’t grow past my own weakness and give them the discipline they so desperately needed.
Despite the heart ache it caused us for our dogs to be escaping our property all the time, I couldn’t help but be amazed. Tron was viciously intelligent. He learned every trick I taught him (although why I was only able and willing to teach him lame parlor tricks is beyond me), and even figured out how door nobs work (thankfully he was never able to open them). But he was also surprisingly agile. That dog could sail over, not climb or jump with a struggle, but sail over a 5 foot fence as if he were an equestrian jumping champion. And if he couldn’t jump the fence, he would stick his paws in it and climb it like a ladder. When we put him into a pen as we tried to fortify our perimeter fence, he would jump the gate. Eventually, we had to put up plywood nearly 8 feet tall on that gate. But by all things evil, that dog would take a running leap, scramble up the wood as far as he could, press himself up against the wall next to the gate, and shimmy his way up and over the barrier. He could’ve made millions in a circus.
However, one rule of living in the country is “if you can’t contain your animals, you can’t protect them.”
Eight months of dog hell passed until one day the dogs ran off and didn’t come back. We couldn’t go looking for them, and so came back to the house. We knew they’d show up, since they would need to eat later. They did, but not in the way we could have wanted.
Tron showed up at our back windows around noon … soaked in blood.
We rushed around the neighborhood, calling and searching for Ronik, but couldn’t find him.
After the worst day of my life (up to that point) flashed by, we learned that Ronik was dead—dead from a single gunshot wound. We were devastated.
Somehow, Tron had sustained nearly five gun shot wounds including two through his ear, one through his ribcage, and one that dug a trench through his back hip.
The months following the horrible incident were long, and weary. I had to wash and clean Tron’s wounds, make sure he didn’t knock the Elizabethan collar off his head, and that he was comfortable on the mattress we dragged out into the living room for him. I had to listen to him whimper and cry in pain every time he moved and watch him limp around outside, staring wistfully at the trucks go by which he had once chased.
Tron and I had been broken.
A part of his spirit had been shattered along with a part of my naivety. After the accident we spent all our time together, and we grew, and we learned. He learned to trust and obey, and I learned that I needed to put aside my childish weakness and be the alpha he needed me to be. Through our trials, we learned to be a team. And after we battled death, and walked through hell together, we came out different. We were partners, we were friends, we were siblings. We became inseparable. And, somehow, I think we believed we became invisible.
Nothing quite makes you feel more powerful than staring death in the face and walking away.
I never could believe that this time, death would get what it came for. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Tron and I had been through so much together. Surely, this wasn’t the end for us.
But as I watched him, I knew it was. I knew we didn’t have two or three months. Somehow, I knew it was less.
He spent most all of his time inside with us, sleeping on the couch, wanting a belly rub, or just trying to find a comfortable place to sleep so his hip wouldn’t hurt him.
Everything began changing. It was little things at first, but they grew until we couldn’t ignore them anymore.
When he would go outside to guard or make his rounds around the parameter fence (we had eventually put up an Alcatraz style electric fence which none our animals can get out of) he didn’t chase the cars like he used to, instead just watching them go by. Instead of barking at the other dogs (once we were able to put up a good fence, we got two new dogs of the same breed to guard our animals) and trying to put them in their place in the line of guarding, he let them come up to the perimeter. We learned after watching his movements that he was training the other dogs—training them to take his place.
I had a million and one other things to think about during that horrible December month. My cousin was having severe depression and suicidal tendencies, I felt like I was losing my best human friend, and my oldest brother had just moved back out of the house. My whole world was crashing down on me. It was like everything I wanted and loved was burning a ring around me, trapping me, with no escape, nowhere to run, nowhere to turn to. I had nothing except the flames as they burned into me. I was tired; exhausted actually. I wanted to curl up and sleep forever, but the sun kept rising and setting and I had to continue on. Guilt took over horror at my new reality.
Guilt because I couldn’t save Tron. Guilt because I was powerless to ease his pain. Guilt because no one was at fault, but I felt like I had failed him. Guilt because what if I wasn’t spending enough time with him? Guilt because I didn’t want to spend time with him, because that would only mean his death was truly inevitable and that we truly weren’t invincible.
I took videos and pictures of him, how he would bound from one couch to another, how he would snap playfully at your face if you blew on his. How he would paw his snout to beg for more belly pats. How he would curl into an unbelievably small ball for his size and plant himself right in the middle of the smallest dog bed he could find. How he would jump on top of me when I was laying on the couch and smoother me. I knew I would want the pictures and videos after he died, but I hated every second of taking them. Behind every video and picture, tears streamed down my face but I forced myself to sound alright. I wanted to remember Tron exactly as he and I had been—happy.
Through the day, I smiled. Smiled for the sake of my friends who I felt could never truly understand what I was going through. Smiled for my cousin who had enough of her own problems. Smiled for my mom because she was burdened with the task of running a household that felt like it was crumbling. Smiled for myself, because I was stronger than this. I was more mature than this. I needed to be strong and make the hard decisions. Smiled because I didn’t know how to do anything else.
The days dragged into weeks. Christmas drew near. Numbness took over the guilt.
Enough time had gone by that it was as if it had all been a bad dream. I could almost forget that my best friend was dying. I could almost forget that in only a few weeks he would be gone. Gone forever. Almost.
Christmas came with brief relief. I tried to forget everything that was happening. I enjoyed my gifts, ate a nice meal, and had fun with my family, but I couldn’t rid myself of the dread. It felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff and only a breath of wind could send me over the edge.
The festivities faded as soon as we began to settle down for the night.
The edge of the cliff gapped open before me and that wind started blowing.
My brother was playing Horizon Zero Dawn on his PS 4. I will always remember that game with a certain sweet bitterness for it was many nights during that month that I watched him play as I cried to myself or to my parents. Our Christmas lights sparkled obliviously on our front porch. I had just sat down on the couch to watch my brother play, and that’s when I smelled the sickness.
I’ve sat with many sick and dying animals on my farm. There is a certain smell that comes with illness, and that comes with death. It isn’t stinky, like rot or trash. It’s different, and it’s worse. It fills you with a horror, a revulsion, a dread.
Something had changed in my dog. Outwardly, he looked the same as he slept peacefully, but I felt the difference. I even smelled it.
I called for my mother. She could smell it too. My brother and father couldn’t, but then again, they hadn’t been able to in the past either.
I started crying. My parents held me on the couch as I sobbed. I told them how angry I was how. How unfair it all was. I told them how it had taken Tron and I so long to bond, but now that we were, he was being taken away. Only four years. We'd only had four years.
That smell of death drove me insane and I cried all the more. And then, I asked a question I had wanted to never ask, that I had wanted to put off for as long as I possibly could.
“Will we have to put him down tomorrow?”
My mother’s eyes sparkled with tears and she stroked my head which laid across her chest, my arms around her, holding my father’s hand.
“I don’t know. That is a choice you have to make. Only you can make that choice," was all she said.
I wanted to scream, to tear something apart. I didn’t want to make that choice. I wanted someone else to. But I knew my mother was right. It was my choice. It was up to me. If I didn’t do it, I would be failing Tron. And I had to be strong for him. There was no way out, no exit, no place to run. Time had run out, had slipped through my fingers like sand, down the cliff’s edge in front of me and into the wind. I wanted nothing more to go back, back before any of this had happened and never leave that time. I felt as if I were on a train, going 100 miles an hour, hurdling towards a broken bridge and despite everything I did to stop it I was powerless. My screams for help to end this nightmare fell on deaf ears. I was strapped in with no way out.
“Tomorrow.” I sobbed quietly and I felt my mother nod. “It has to be tomorrow.” And I cried myself late into the night until my parents forced me to go to bed.
But I was scared to sleep. Scared because sleep brings tomorrow, and tomorrow was hell.
Our invincibility had broken and we were left standing at the edge of death—mortal.
These are some of the photos I took during that month.
Thank you so much for reading the third installment of my writing advice series "On Writing Grief!" I hope it helps you, whether its for research purposes or for healing in your own life.
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May the suns smile upon your presence.
Two videos I took.