By Mary Kettl
When it became apparent that my Uncle Art was not going to live much longer—a routine case of flu had turned suddenly into irreparable pneumonia—I asked if I could call him. I dialed the phone in Minnesota, and, in Colorado, my cousin Elizabeth turned on the speaker and held it up next to Art’s head.
Naturally, as an English teacher, I had composed a thoughtful and heart-felt send-off speech for my good uncle, and—that’s not what happened. What happened was that I began to yammer, thanking Art on behalf of my family, his family, my grandparents, his students, and several civic organizations.
Five paragraphs in, I was starting to list every dog Art had ever known when Elizabeth, conscious of the time, interrupted me, perhaps hoping I would hang up and call somebody else’s uncle for a while.
In a rush, I spewed out some last theology: “It’s OK to go, Uncle Art—when you get there, they’re going to have beer!” It was a dumb thing to say, but within the hour, Art had gone.
And that was the closest I had ever been to death, until last summer, when one of our camp horses was killed by lightning right in front of us.
We had finished the last ride ahead of a storm, pulled saddles, and waited out the rain and hail while standing under the tin roof of the stable. It had been an unhurried, companionable time, one of many that we had spent standing with horses, waiting for weather to pass.
As the sky cleared, we finished putting away our gear and then we turned out 17 horses, who crowded down into the creek for a drink before streaming out into the pasture.
I was walking across the corral, intending to give some licorice to Jessie, my co-wrangler, when there was a sudden sizzling sound, followed by a thunderclap that dropped us to our knees in the gravel.
“Whoa,” we said, popping up. There was an electrical smell in the air, and we turned to stare at a pole where an internet router had exploded into a fray of broken plastic and hanging wires.
“You’ve got a horse down,” someone said, and Jessie and I took off running the 50 yards or so to where Hank, a big orange Paint, lay in the grass.
“No!” we bellowed. “No, Hank, no!”
Sobbing, yelling, praying, we crawled all over this big horse, trying to revive him with an awkward, fumbling CPR, pressing our ears against his chest and shouting, “I hear something!” only to realize that it was our own pounding hearts.
Hank lay still, unmarked, perfect, a mouthful of grass still in his teeth, gone.
By now you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this,
since there isn’t anything funny about this story at all. Except that I want to tell you what happened afterward.
Hank’s Receiving Line
Before we could even get our phones out of our pockets, help arrived in the form of camp directors and a truck to slide Hank up the valley out of sight until a backhoe would come to bury him. Jessie’s mom came from her home in town to gather up Jessie; a friend who was visiting came to supervise me.
Cold and wet and almost doubled over, we were herded back to the corral, where we stood in a funny sort of receiving line as 30 or 40 Lutheran family campers and staff came in small groups to offer their condolences.
Kids came and stood with us, solemn, and parents said they would be praying for us. How lovely, I thought, that all these people would care so much about Hank who, after all, was just a horse. When, after some time, I realized that they were coming to support us, I started to cry again.
Enduring the Unexpected
It’s been a year of unexpected deaths—my Uncle Art, my sister-in-law, Laurie, my dear friend, Bill, and, now, Hank, an agreeable old horse whose philosophy in life was “Whatever you want to do is fine by me.”
Hank’s is the only death I witnessed—the others were well-supervised by their families and friends—and, despite our brokenness, I was glad to be there.
Kneeling in the wet grass, we petted him and thanked him and told him how beautiful he was and what a treasure he had been in our lives. I may have yammered on a bit with Hank, but I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone, that we were right there. I suspect Art and Laurie and Bill heard similar things as they passed through that thin space between this world and whatever comes next.
We lose things. People, jobs, places that we love—sometimes lightning fast, sometimes after a desperate journey. After it’s done, all we have are the people who will stand in the corral with us. Look for them.
Mary Kettl is an English teacher in Rochester and a summer camp wrangler in South Dakota. She has a horse named Scout and is well-supervised by a Corgi mix named Ben.