I Used to be a Rider

I used to be a rider.

When I took my first lesson at age six, I finished in tears, horrified by how large the horse was, how far I was from the ground. My mum warned me that she had purchased a ten lesson package and I had better take all ten. Molly was technically my first horse at 12, but when I was 14 we bought Taz, who I didn’t have to share and who didn’t take a bizarre pleasure in bucking me off so regularly and dramatically that concussions were a part of everyday life. And Taz taught me everything — he was endlessly forgiving and possessed a work ethic so determined that in the 13 years I owned him I never saw him tired. He also loved pop tarts, rice krispies, and once shook an entire bag of carrots out onto the ground only to keep shaking the empty bag long after the lightened load between his teeth should have cued to him that something was amiss.

He was not smart. He was loyal and honest. We put him down one day after my 27th birthday when a series of strokes suddenly attacked him and made his life too painful to live. He was 30.

Losing Taz felt surreal. He was my best friend and the most trustworthy horse I have, to this day, ever met. I used to fall asleep doing homework in his stall, only to be awakened when he dropped wet hay on my head to say hello (he ruined more than one calculus textbook). I never thought of life without him and in my mind he’s still retired in Ithaca, hopping — he did hop — around in his field, trying to convince his girlfriend Katie to play the hide and seek like game I taught him. He’s not dead; he’s just elsewhere.

Losing riding was different. Riding didn’t go elsewhere — I went elsewhere, my left side lost what should have been a hardwired connection to my brain and now I can’t walk or even stand up without assistance. Let alone ride. I always imagined riding centerstage in my life — it always has been. Through college and graduate school, when so many girls I know had to quit or simply stopped, I did whatever I could to keep riding. It was, to be honest, far more significant to my sense of who I was, who I am, than academics. Horses were my life. It was that simple.

And then. And then.

Immediately after I realized I would not ride again, I felt, for the first time, this overwhelming gulf in my chest that physically hurt. If I wasn’t a rider, who was I? If riding was no longer my escape from the thick, tangled weeds of cancer, what was? What could be? Nothing could repair or even bridge that gulf. I kept thinking in unsteady circles, testing the past tense for stability and finding none — I used to be a rider I used to be a rider I was a rider I used to be a rider

That gulf is still there. But so am I.

In the process of spinning and losing ground far faster than I could recover it, I somehow didn’t unwind. I used to be a rider. But I still am a rider, too. The things we cherish that we lose continue to define and shape us long after they are gone. Identity isn’t a single point; unlike objects in motion, for which you can’t know velocity and place simultaneously, identity is definable in every moment by its force, shape, speed, place. Identity you can know — you can know how fast it changes and how it grows, what seeds were planted when, where you were in those moments. The motions of the past — the places we were, the steps we took, the things and thoughts we held — are always with us. They tell us who we are, who we are to become. We are amalgamations of times, places, ideas, people, friends. What we love. They do not fade when their time is passed. They just go elsewhere.

Ultimately, I will go elsewhere too. But not yet. And, in the meantime, I am still a rider.

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Coping

Once again, I’m stuck in the hospital. I was brought here after vomiting blood (pleasant) and then got myself admitted because my blood levels were even lower than they expected. Cue the usual series of tests, scans, meetings, add in 3 blood transfusions and 1 platelet transfusion (both of which I am now an unlikely fan), and here I am. In the midst of all this, it comes to light that our apartment isn’t safe for me anymore, so now we get to move into a luxury apartment (the only kind new enough to conform to disability standards in Boston) ASAP. A necessary move that is both good (luxury apartment bitches!!!!) and sad (we love our house now — it’s our lovely little first home).

So that’s been our week. Ask how I’m not losing my mind and I can’t tell you. One of the oncs on call actually told me that I have weeks to months left, but all Kai and I have been thinking about are the logistics of moving so soon. Coping mechanism? Probably. But then again, I’ve always been a statistical outlier and that’s been in my favor in the past. And “weeks to months” doesn’t feel right — just doesn’t sit right with either Kai or me — on more than an emotional level. It just isn’t going to happen — and we’ll hold onto that for as long as we have to.

Coping isn’t always about facing the truth or the supposed truth head on. Coping is a negotiation, a maze like navigation among the thousands of stressors that push themselves into our brains and our lives. Coping is active and communal — it means sharing your fears but also embracing your hopes and placing your belief in the ideas that feel right to you. Coping is a flexible, day by day process, the outcome of which has a new shape each day. Coping works and it doesn’t — it can’t change the future, can’t predict what’s going to happen, but it does something far more important. It breeds the energy you need to shape your future as much as possible. It gives you the bravery to ask questions, the strength to listen to the answers, and the insight to write your way effectively into the story those questions and answers create.

The growing limit to my mobility has been one of the greatest tests of my coping mechanisms. I had to give up riding and climbing, two of the most important elements of my life. The night we realized I would never ride again I cried — no wailed — for an hour. I’ve ridden since I was six and worked harder on doing it well than I have on anything else in my life. I was not naturally talented. I had a feel for horses, but my position was a disaster and my body completely out of my control. At first, I was horrified of how far away the ground was. But I stuck with it, and after a series of amazing, hard trainers and horses, countless late nights watching good riders and learning their techniques, and thousands of hours in the saddle, I suddenly became good. Honestly, I was better than good. I became my best trainer’s demo rider and worked his clients’ horses. I kept learning. Compliments poured in. I knew I could ride at the highest level well, but the money for the horse wasn’t there. So I kept riding others’ horses — any horse I could — and then one day the perfect horse, who I loved and who loved me, who had the talent, who I blended with immediately, dropped in my lap.

And then my mobility failed.

Coping isn’t about managing seamlessly. Coping is recognizing the fault lines that show up across the plain of our plans. Coping is holding out hope, but taking a good, long look at those cracks. And then coping is about learning to step over them.