Friday, December 06, 2013

Fallen Comrade in the Fall

In 1979, when I was 14 and my younger sister 12,  our parents bought us a horse. A chestnut Thoroughbred-Morgan. Her name was Brandy, and my sister had fallen in love with her at the stable where we took riding lessons.

Gentle, beautiful, smart, strong, Brandy was the kind of horse that every horse-loving  girl dreams of growing up with.  (Andrea's first word as a toddler was "horse," which came out "wuss.")

Brandy was  really Andrea's horse, as she was the best rider, most attentive caregiver, and wannabe
cowgirl.  Every day from March till November, as weather permitted (and  sometimes even when it didn't) Andrea was in the saddle, trotting or cantering her, making her jump without balking (something that unseated both of us a couple times).

Fifteen years passed.  Our parents had encouraged us to follow our dreams, and for the most part, we did.  At our Thanksgiving table in 1994,   just after we sang the "Happy Birthday" song to Daddy and Andrea,  she made an announcement: she had joined the Air Force. She would be heading to Lachland AFB in Texas in early January.  We didn't see that coming.

During a tearful heart-to-heart with her a few weeks into December, I asked her  her biggest fear about joining the Air Force. Was it that war might break out?  That she'd crash a plane?  That one of our parents would die?

No, none of that was on her mind. Her biggest fear?  That Brandy, then 25 years old,  would die while Andrea was gone for four years.

Eleven months later,  in mid-November of 1995, Brandy was struck  with a neurological disease that made her unable to walk a straight line. Instead, she took wide steps to the left with her hind legs, followed by her front legs.  Literally she was turning in circles in the pasture, in the sort of pain and confusion that horses can't really tell you.

Andrea flew home on emergency leave when my parents called to tell her it seemed critical. That was just before her birthday and Thanksgiving,

She had to be there for her beloved friend and to make whatever painful decisions had to be made after speaking with the vet.  If there was one thing no one could bear, it was to watch suffering that seemed to have no end in sight. No medicines, no therapy, no amount of rest or change in diet would help Brandy.

Her last days in our pasture would end as they had begun--by her being coddled and cuddled.  She had no appetite left-- wouldn't eat grain from a bucket, nor hay from a bale.  My children's eyes filled with tears . "Why won't she eat? Why can't she walk straight? Why does she keep holding her back foot up like that?"

I suggested maybe Brandy would eat baby carrots or apples from their hands.  Ben and Sarah ran to the house to ask Ima for those special treats. Their soft-hearted grandmother pulled some from the fridge, gave them a rinse, and loaded a mixing bowl. The children ran back to the pasture to see if Brandy would eat for them.

Sure enough, the old mare nibbled small orange carrots and small red apples from their tender palms.
Brandy blinked slowly. Her big, brown, shiny chocolate eyes seemed to say, "Mmm. Perfect. Thanks for loving me."

I could hardly bear to watch Brandy's erratic ambling.

To see her turning in wide circles, as if she were trying to get away from pain--real or phantom, in her left hind leg.

To watch her stop and gaze wistfully at the barn, and then turn her head toward the pine trees in the "back forty," as if looking for  the comfiest place to die.

To feel my sister's heart breaking into a thousand tiny pieces all over windblown leaves under a crisp blue sky.

To  know that my little sister with whom I played countless games of Cowgirls and Indians, was now  preparing to bury the horse she'd galloped in open fields. When watching an old western, Andrea didn't mind riders getting shot, but she would cry her eyes out when a horse went down.

Soon Andrea would be hearing taps in her mind, a tribute to her beloved steed, her fallen comrade.

Andrea stayed up very late that last night, all alone in the barn with Brandy, lying down with her, holding her around on the neck. Inhaling her unforgettable beautiful aroma, hearing her shallow breath in her ear as she stroked the soft grey muzzle.

"Goodbye, dear girl. I love you. You're the best.  I'll ride you in heaven someday."

Andrea awoke at dawn the next day, checked the barn and found Brandy still alive. She returned to the kitchen and made oatmeal on the stove for her horse.  That was our mare's last Thanksgiving meal before the vet came.

My dad and Andrea buried Brandy in the back forty on our farm, where her bones and soul rest deep under a kaleidoscope of leaves, pine needles,  and earth. She joined many of our other four-legged family members, but her death  carried much more finality.  Her death not only marked the end of a life, but the end of an era.


I wanted to give a nod to Brandy in my quilted table runner,  as a way to remember the joy she gave us to the very end, and also the pleasantness of late November when we celebrate Andrea's birthday, my dad's birthday, and our many other blessings.

Sorrow and joy, pain and elation, like the mixed beauty of autumn colors, somehow come together around everyone's Thanksgiving table. 


Carrie Bullock said...

Oh my gosh, I had tears in my eyes reading this! A really beautiful tribute AND beautiful runner too!

April said...

What a moving post! Really heartfelt! Please be sure to stop by today and enter my giveaway for a Christmas banner. Would love to have you join!

Joyce said...

So very touching!

Lea said...

Oh, such a sweet, sweet story. Thanks for sharing it with us.