Creative Writing 1st place winner: Pandemic Angel – every moment a gift

Tears were streaming down my face and the anguish in my voice was palpable as I cried “Nooooo!!!” I had to let him go and I knew that, but I did not know how I would go on without him. The desolation I felt in my heart was as if a black hole had appeared and enveloped my very soul … by Sally Kidson


Perhaps, I should start at the beginning.

Like most Canadians, my husband and I watched the news of a novel coronavirus in China over the New Year with interest, but not much concern. After all, China was on the other side of the world and we were far removed from it. We continued to finalize our plans to take our truck camper to Florida for some sunshine and warmth in the early spring with much excitement and when the time came to leave at the end of February, we were definitely ready for Florida! We packed up our dog and ourselves and I entrusted my horse to the great care of the people at his barn while we planned for 5 weeks of sunshine, beaches and State Park visiting. The virus had started to spread around the world and we were aware of some serious outbreaks in Europe but so far, there had been no significant spread to North America, although Florida was reporting a few cases. Given that we would be camping and not physically staying in a hotel or resort, we felt safe as we travelled across the border to our destination. It wasn’t long before we realized that the situation was evolving more quickly than we could imagine.

After our first week in Florida, we started to hear messages from our Prime Minister that Canadians abroad should come home. At first, we dismissed it. Surely the hundreds of thousands of snowbirds in the Southern States would not have to head home and neither would we! We were just settling into the beautiful weather and scenery. However, the messaging became stronger and after conferring with some friends via Facebook, we realized that our out of province health insurance would be cancelled ten days following the issue of the travel advisory to Canadians. We reluctantly packed up and headed home.

The drive home was very eerie. The roads were almost empty. Of the vehicles we did see on the roads, most were from Ontario. As we drove north, an increasing number of restaurants and businesses were closed with only take out service available. The messaging on the news became more urgent and we started to realize that this virus was very serious indeed. Even the Canadian/American border was being closed. Despite the trials and the suddenness of the journey, we arrived back home safe and sound on March 17th and began our mandatory two week quarantine period where we did not leave our property. There were mixed messages about what to do and how to “stop the spread” and “flatten the curve.”

We had to stay home. No driving. No visiting. No activities. No events. Only essential trips to the grocery store were allowed once our quarantine was over. The entire world was in shut down mode.

Yet, in a somewhat strange way, it was quite wonderful. The birds flooded the trees and the air was filled with birdsong. The animals started to take back the neighbourhood. While gardening in my front garden, a big black bear lazily walked down the street beside me. It was a bit of a shock as you can imagine, but it was beautiful and wonderful to see how quickly nature reclaimed its space. There were no traffic jams. All construction projects ceased. Only essential services remained in operation. It was incredibly peaceful.

However, many people were suddenly out of work. Massive government bailouts to keep people somewhat financially stable came out of the gate very quickly. Hoarding staple supplies like toilet paper and antiseptic wipes was rampant. Many items in the grocery store were scarce. Some items were rationed. One of the most difficult things to watch was the news coverage on how the virus spread in many long term care facilities throughout the country. Tears would spring to our eyes when watching the images of elderly Moms and Dads behind windows where family were no longer able to go to visit. Daily case counts and death totals were announced.

We were among the lucky ones. We were healthy and enjoyed our home and working in our yard. My husband and I did some repairs and projects and I spent a great deal of time with my horse. I was blessed to be able to jump on his back and ride across the fields, meadows, streams and through the trails. It was the perfect way to practice physical distancing and still feel free.

A horse is so much more than a pet. A horse is a companion – a friend in the truest sense of the word. Riding and caring for a horse creates a deep and lasting bond. A marriage. This particular horse was very special indeed. I had owned him since he was two years old. He was christened “Mac’s Stardust Cody” due to his impressive purebred American Quarter Horse lineage but his barn name was Pharoah. This suited him because when he was very young, his face looked a little like King Tut’s mask and he was a bit arrogant too. Through the years, he and I reached a deep understanding and he became the kindest, gentlest horse I have ever known.

 Sally the ‘Elf’ in the Southampton                   Santa parade

In fact, as the years passed, it was almost as if we became one entity. I knew every hair on his body. I knew where his hooves sometimes cracked. I knew his smell, his soft nose, the look in his eyes, the feel of his mane and tail and the beating of his heart as well as I did my own. For his part, he was the keeper of my most deeply kept secrets and feelings. I cried on his shoulders during sad times, held on to him for dear life during frightening times and celebrated with him during happy times. For more than 30 years, we shared many adventures. We rode in horse shows and travelled miles of trails. My children, grandchildren and great grandchild rode him. Many other friends and family rode him. He even helped a young girl who was born premature strengthen her legs through riding him. He was always so gentle and loving with the tiny ones. As spring turned to summer, our bond deepened even further. I shared him with the little boys at the barn – giving a few riding lessons to provide some relief for their Mom who was working at home and trying to look after a 6 and 4 year old! The boys loved their rides on Pharoah. They called him “Row Row”. More than ever before, he became my escape from this crazy world and in particular during this time of the novel coronavirus, now known to us as Covid-19.

As summer came to a close on Labour Day weekend, my husband and I decided to plan a camping trip to Lake Temagami. The media was talking about a second wave of the virus that would hit in the fall. We did not know how severe it might be. Our area had escaped with few cases and no deaths as people were faithful to following the guidelines of physical distancing, hand washing and wearing masks. However, with a long winter looming ahead, we opted for a change of scenery just in case another lockdown occurred.

Before we left, I went to the barn and groomed Pharoah. I hadn’t planned on riding that day, but the day was glorious and he was in good spirits. So I saddled him up and we went for a ride down by the stream. We followed the trail and splashed through the gurgling water. He willingly cantered and trotted and happily looked around. At his age of 35, I knew that every day, every moment, was a gift. I patted his neck and sighed. I said “If this is our last ride, Old Fella, it’s been wonderful”. When we got back to the barn, I groomed him from nose to toes. I bathed him and polished him until he glistened in the sun. I wrapped my arms around his gorgeous neck and told him I loved him and would see him when I got back.

However, one week into our trip, I received a call from the wonderful young man at the farm who was watching Pharoah. He had found Pharoah down in the stall that morning – unable to rise. He called the vet and she treated the horse for a serious problem called colic, which meant his bowels were not working and he was in great pain. I felt something break inside of me. I called the vet to speak about her findings. She was not very encouraging. At Pharoah’s advanced age, it could be a strangulated lesion, or tumour – a fatal diagnosis. Tears came to my eyes and I looked at my husband and said – “I want to go home.” I was hoping that Pharoah would be fine. I was hoping that he had just eaten some frosty grass too hard to digest and that the medicine would work to clear his bowels but that broken part of me whispering “go home” would not be silenced. We headed out on the long 7 hour drive. Pharoah’s next dose of medicine was 8 pm that night and I was determined to be there to give it to him. In the meantime, the owner of the barn would try to keep Pharoah walking because if he was to go down again, it would likely mean he would not recover.

About an hour south of North Bay, still four hours from home, we received a phone call. It was a pocket call from Dylan, the man looking after Pharoah. I could hear Pharoah’s hooves walking on the soft earth – the rhythm so familiar to me. I heard Pharoah’s steps falter. I heard Dylan say softly “come on boy, keep trying” and I heard him quietly crying. Then the sound of Pharoah’s hooves stopped, Dylan gasped and the call went silent. I immediately called the vet and asked her to go back to the barn. I was told that Dylan had also called and that she was on her way.

My husband kept driving – God bless him, I don’t know how but he did. The truck kept moving, but time had stopped for me. When the vet called, my stomach was in knots. She had completed her reassessment. She was very kind and through a fog, I heard her say disjointed phrases … “In my professional opinion ….he is suffering ….kindest option ….put him down …” I tried to be strong and pragmatic but my heart was screaming NOOOOO – I wanted to be there. I wanted to be the one to hold him and support him and tell him I loved him. I wanted it to be ME! More importantly, though, I knew I had to do the right thing for him. I did not want him to be in pain. I did not want him to suffer a minute more. I was also keenly aware of the anguish that Dylan and his Mom were feeling. I knew that they had been doing everything possible to save my horse for me. I knew it was time to let Pharoah go. I heard myself whisper “Okay” to the vet. I said one more thing “Please give him lots of sedative. I don’t want him to feel anything.” She assured me that she would. I spoke briefly to Dylan’s Mom – thanking her and Dylan for all they were doing and apologizing profusely for not being there. I ended the call and at that point in time, I was swallowed by a black hole. I knew the exact moment when he ceased to exist because, in a way, I ceased to exist too.

We made it back by sunset and I was able to see him before they laid him to rest. Dylan had covered him with blankets and I found him lying in the field. I knelt down beside his body. I told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been with him. I told him I loved him. I stroked his beautiful, silky neck and hugged him. Time passed and darkness fell. The temperature began to drop and I started to shiver. My husband came and held me and I looked up to see Dylan standing a little ways off. I ran to him and hugged him and thanked him with every ounce of my soul for all he had done for my Pharoah. We all cried tears of anguish. It had been an extremely difficult day. I tried to gather myself knowing that practicalities were pressing. We discussed the burial, which Dylan mercifully said he would handle. I wanted to stay. I told Dylan we would wait in the truck and watch from afar. However, when I saw the lights of the heavy equipment heading into the field, I could not watch. With tears flowing down my face, we slowly drove away while Pharoah was laid to rest in the meadow where he had enjoyed the last several years of his life. It was over. He was now an angel horse.

Pharoah was not human, did not die from the coronavirus. Even though our bond was great, it cannot compare to the bond shared by human beings. That being said, I feel that I have had a glimpse into the feelings of the many people who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. They were not allowed to be by the side of their loved ones as they passed. They relied on the care of professionals to be at their loved ones’ side. They only had telephone communication during their final moments. I am certain that they too felt swallowed by a black hole when their loved ones passed on.

There are over 1 million dead worldwide from this pandemic at the time of writing this and the second wave has just begun. It is essential that we find strength and courage to carry on with public health regulations. It is essential that we offer comfort. We must honour those we have lost by loving one another. Instead of fear, choose love. Instead of anger and mistrust, choose kindness and tolerance.

Although I no longer have the pleasure of riding Pharoah through the fields with the wind in my hair, I feel his presence. His memory is indelibly linked with this pandemic. He will always be my “pandemic angel”.