It's been nearly six months since Junior left us, and it is a loss that I still have not permitted myself to fully feel. I spent the day of April 26 with him as he struggled with the colic, hoping for a good sign that never came. Throughout the day, we were joined by newly emerged swallowtail butterflies, whose optimistic fluttering provided a welcome distraction for Junior and I both as the hours wore on. When the vet returned just before sunset, he confirmed what I feared. The old horse was suffering and the impaction was not passing. My sister was here with us, and we surrounded him with love and thanks as he took his last breaths and Maven called out from the paddock. In the days after he died, I made a video tribute for him, which was helpful during that initial, acute stage. I've discovered about grief that a creative outlet is important. When someone you love is gone, you need somewhere to put the love. So here is where I put it when Junior died.
April 26 is the day after the anniversary of Legend's death. I'd been missing Legend in painful pangs as the anniversary approached, but also celebrating with Junior in our quiet way, all the love and happiness that we had been able to experience together, despite the shattered state of our hearts when we first met.
The day before Junior died, I had sat in the shade with him, twirling my fingers in his mane and stroking his neck gently as he liked, thanking him for guiding me through my own grieving process, by opening himself up to the possibility of happiness on my farm - something that he had been quite resistant to at first, so stubborn in his disappointment with a world that had betrayed him in untold ways.
I had learned at some point along the way, from a friend in the equestrian community, that Junior had previously been known as "Nick", that he had been a police horse and then a children's lesson horse, and that he had been devastated when his best friend and pasture mate of seven years had been sold. Not long after that, Junior was also sold to a young couple who kept him in a small dry lot with a half dozen pregnant mares who bit and kicked him and ran him off his food. He was a sensitive horse who had been deeply attached to his original pasture mate, and he did not handle these transitions well. He dropped weight, his demeanor soured, he became unsafe to ride, and he seemed to find no pleasure in life. His body was tight and tired, and his expression when I met him was vacant. The people selling him were telling me that he was everything that he wasn't, and I knew right away that we needed each other.
I can't exactly explain why I wanted him, but I did. So he came home. I thought he was going to murder Maven at first. He tried. If you've read my posts about Maven, you know that he is a horse who is bursting with energy and enthusiasm, the opposite of Junior at that point in time. But Maven, either very dense or a complete genius, depending on how you see things, persisted in his determination to win Junior over. He would come in, rebuked and rejected, with new bite marks day after day, and every day, he would cheerfully try again, undaunted. For months. Until one day, I saw Junior walk right up to Maven and sniff him on the neck. It stopped me in my tracks because it was the first time I had ever seen Junior interact with Maven on purpose! It was always Maven seeking acknowledgment, and Junior actively bristling, sometimes violently refusing.
Eventually Junior yielded fully to Maven's relentlessly jovial harassment; I don't think anyone could resist that much friendliness forever. And as his anguish eroded, he found something that he had previously given up on every having again - a best friend. The two of them would romp across the pasture, one carrying a stick or a rubber feed pan, taunting the other to play. They would wrestle like a couple of puppies, and I would even look out to see Junior - crotchety, grumpy, curmudgeonly Junior - fancy-prancing circles around Maven on a brisk day. I watched this horse undergo a total transformation, from skinny, used-up, and withdrawn, to a warm, even silly, companion who was beloved by his herd.
As I witnessed this change in Junior, it was evident to me that although Maven instigated it, at some point Junior became an active participant. Junior eventually had to decide to let the big grey gelding in. His willingness to participate in such a close friendship had led directly to his heartbreak in the recent past, but he let go of that loss in order to form new family bonds with me and my horses.
In the weeks before Junior died, I had been noticing a turn in my own thinking about Legend's death, entertaining the possibility that I could perhaps let go of my own sadness, as Junior had done. It had occurred to me that I was clutching the sadness so tightly, genuinely afraid to let it go, because it was the sadness that made me feel connected to Legend. Previously, I had felt like the sadness over the loss was something separate from myself, and something much larger, over which I had no control. Now I was playing around with new thoughts. Thoughts that originated in my observation of Junior's living example, and that were just beginning to crystalize when he suddenly left.
I don't know why Junior died so close to the anniversary of Legend's death, but afterward, I had the distinct feeling that Junior and I had come together specifically to help each other through our respective losses and that the purpose of our time together had been fulfilled, though I wish we'd had longer. I imagine Junior and Legend grazing together, side by side, with their backs warmed by the late-afternoon sun. I know they would be friends.
Now it is Maven who is grieving; he hasn't been quite the same since Junior left. Not long after Junior died, my grey mare Nova came home after 18 months out on lease. She has her own complicated past with loss; she shares with me the loss of Legend. The two of them, I think, are a comfort to each other, but also a reminder of the absences that they each feel. For the last week or so, I've been working on another video that captures where we are at these days. We are older and wiser and recognize how important it is to be gentle with one another, and we are finding our way.