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I got a new donkey the year my husband moved out. Neither event was planned. Just three years earlier we'd bought a house with a big red barn set on two acres. After 15 years of marriage, four children, and 11 moves, this was it: Home, with a capital H. We planned to plant blueberries and daffodils, watch children and trees mature, put a couple of horses in the backyard.
But you know what they say about how to make God laugh? Just say, "I have a plan."
Plans change. Marriages, too. Things once sweet go sour. While we were busy watering trees and building a paddock -- and buying a horse and donkey to go in it -- our marriage hit a rough spot. Three therapists could not resurrect it, so my husband moved out.
Dizzy from turmoil and pain, I replaced him with a second donkey. I can say with certainty that this was never part of my life plan: Me, in my dream house, with a horse, four children, two donkeys -- but no husband. Every evening I dropped to my knees and summoning God like a waiter. I moaned, "This is not what I ordered."
But my prayers were drowned out by the braying. My then-6-year-old daughter made up a word -- he-honk -- for the noise that donkeys make. "Jo-Jo's he-honking again," she would announce, as if the whole neighborhood didn't already know.
During mediation the attorney listed the horse and donkey as "assets." It was the only funny thing about that horrible, soul-slaying process. They were not assets but liabilities. Good hay was $8 a bale and they needed their feet trimmed, their teeth filed, spring and fall shots, wood shavings for stalls. Supporting a horse and two donkeys cost me $500 a month, $500 I no longer had. They had to go. The horse was the first to leave. He had kicked my daughter and was kind of mean, so I wasn't too fond of him.
The donkeys were different. Jo-Jo, whom we'd acquired to babysit the horse, was a family pet. White and petite, with dainty hooves, she was more a big dog than a small donkey. She stood patiently as my 8-year-old brushed her and shuddered ecstatically when her ears were scratched. One Halloween we dressed her as a ballerina, in a tiara and a pink tutu, and she won first place in the costume contest at the garden center.
I had already lost too much; I couldn't part with Jo-Jo. So I rationalized: Donkeys don't eat as much as horses, and they don't need shoes. I could make this work. But that meant I couldn't get rid of Foggy, the shaggy brown donkey I'd gotten for free after my husband left. When Jo-Jo and Foggy met they sniffed each other and brayed enthusiastically. Donkey love -- it's a beautiful thing. I couldn't keep my own marriage intact but I would keep the two of them together.
For months I ignored my checkbook's howling that a single mother shouldn't also be feeding two 400-pound donkeys. But it wasn't just the expense. It was the workload. I was already running on fumes caring for my children and the grueling work of mucking stalls, composting manure, and hauling hay pushed me to exhaustion.
So, finally, after much angst, I decided to give them away. The children were heartbroken anew. The 8-year-old sobbed when I told her. Then she made signs that read SAVE THE DONKEYS! and taped them all over the house. My 17-year-old son, a big, tough linebacker, wrote an essay for his English class, saying how our barn, once "the liveliest place I knew," would soon become "the most dead."
Surely this was the right choice. The bills said so, if not my heart. The donkeys went to a 24-acre farm an hour away. Their new owner, Nancy, would train them for parties where they'd wear zany hats and get lots of attention. I almost, but not quite, convinced the children we had done the right thing. I almost, but not quite, convinced myself.
Winter came and the barn, as my son had predicted, went cold and dead. We had our second Christmas without Daddy, our first without donkeys. Christmas had been more magical when there was warm fur and vigorous braying in a lit barn. The season of miracles passed. And then, in January, a miracle arrived.
"I need to give you your donkeys back," the e-mail read. Apparently Jo-Jo was not getting along well with Nancy's favorite mare, and as they say in court, their differences appeared irreconcilable. Stunned, I read the e-mail again. Then I felt a ripple of something unfamiliar, something I'd known long ago. Something resembling joy.
My mind raced. The commonsense voice inside my head rehashed the reality: I still couldn't afford them. We had no hay. We had no shavings. But I was so happy, I could bray.
Jo-Jo and Foggy returned later that week and we were all ecstatic. Who knows what donkeys think, if they think at all, but they seemed to realize they were back where they belonged. For the children and me, still battered from a bigger loss, their homecoming was healing. I recalled the Serenity Prayer: the things I cannot change, the things I can, the wisdom to know the difference. This I could change, and I did.
Money is still scarce, and I'm still weary at night, but I have a new certainty in things that are right: in the value of staying together, protecting the herd. I made a new vow: There will be no more loss for my family, none that I have the power to prevent. Not on my watch. Not in my house. Not in my barn, which is alive again, fragrant with hay, hope -- and donkeys.