TRUE TALE

Few peo­ple I've known have had as much ca­pac­ity for em­pa­thy as my horse does.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Nancy J. Bailey

Learn­ing life’s lessons to­gether: Few peo­ple I’ve known have had as much ca­pac­ity for em­pa­thy as my horse does.

Ire­mem­ber when dat­ing was fun. I never took it too se­ri­ously; I just went out for din­ner and to share some laughs. But, hon­estly, I pre­ferred to spend my time rid­ing my horse, Clif­ford.

His soft foot­falls along a wooded path, the gen­tle jin­gle of his bri­dle, his sweet warm smell: What man could com­pete with that kind of soul-set­tling peace? It was a tall or­der. Plus, I never seemed to find any­one who ap­pre­ci­ated horse ther­apy the same way I did. “He sure eats a lot!” they would say. “I bet he’s ex­pen­sive to keep!” Apart from Clif­ford, my lit­tle sis­ter Amanda was the great­est test a po­ten­tial boyfriend had to pass. Amanda has Down syn­drome. She is quiet and sweet but she has an elec­tric wit and when she speaks, she has a ten­dency to snap out the truth.

Through the years, Amanda was my con­stant com­pan­ion, along with Clif­ford. I didn’t re­al­ize it, but I was build­ing a wall: A wall of ex­pec­ta­tions so high that no mere hu­man could ever scale it.

The years passed, and we all aged. Clif­ford de­vel­oped arthri­tis and couldn’t take me for long rides any­more. Be­ing a writer, I had wo­ven sto­ries about him into a book. And since he had a pen­chant for learn­ing tricks, I de­cided one way to keep him ac­tive in his se­nior years would be to teach him how to paint. It wasn’t long be­fore I had him “au­to­graph­ing” his own bi­og­ra­phy, smear­ing the ti­tle page with a sponge sopped in water­col­ors. We be­gan vis­it­ing schools and li­braries, pro­mot­ing lit­er­acy and en­ter­tain­ing kids by paint­ing and play­ing fetch.

Then my mother died and I found my­self sud­denly in charge of my el­derly fa­ther and Amanda. Be­fore long, Dad grew ill with cancer, and he passed later that win­ter. The af­ter­math of his death brought a war with my sib­lings over cus­tody of Amanda.

I be­gan to re­al­ize why I had dis­tanced my­self from peo­ple. I couldn’t bear the thought of com­mit­ting to one more per­son who would try to take some­thing from me. In­stead, for 20 years, I had found com­fort in my horse. He was funny, gen­tle and smart. He de­manded noth­ing be­sides pep­per­mints. Amanda, too, had al­ways been sweet and in­no­cent. She had no agenda. She was safe.

Now, though, Amanda was griev­ing and up­set about the up­heaval in her life. It was al­most un­be­liev­able that she was be­ing dragged through a le­gal bat­tle at a time like this. But the leg pe­ti­tions for her guardian­ship be hon­ored, so Amanda’s fu­ture was up for grabs. She was seek­ing com­fort in those who had been clos­est to her: me and, yes, Clif­ford.

As the court date loomed, about six weeks away, she wanted to keep do­ing the li­brary vis­its.

“I think we should try to make the world a bet­ter place,” she said.

I ru­mi­nated over this. Ob­vi­ously, tak­ing a house­bro­ken horse into a li­brary has an im­pact. I mean, it just isn’t some­thing one sees ev­ery day. Amanda was right. We needed to use this time to make some kind of difference. What was the most im­por­tant mes­sage we had to teach? Em­pa­thy. Em­pa­thy would have solved so many of our prob­lems. So the three of us--my dis­abled sis­ter, my ag­ing horse and I---we car­ried on our cru­sade to spread the mes­sage.

This, I re­al­ized, is my gift to the next gen­er­a­tion. I have no chil­dren, only

Clif­ford. Through him, I was reach­ing out, try­ing to leave to­day’s kids with a les­son they would never for­get: Learn to care. Lis­ten to those who have no voice. Use your eyes to see the needs of those around you. In short, prac­tice em­pa­thy!

When her court date fi­nally ar­rived, we were for­tu­nate to have a judge who was wise enough to lis­ten to Amanda’s wishes. Be­cause I was hav­ing fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties at the time, the judge re­fused to let her re­main with me, but he did grant her sec­ond choice, so she went to Ari­zona to live with our older brother.

I found my­self alone with my horse. This, I re­al­ized, was the cul­mi­na­tion of 23 years to­gether---longer than some mar­ried cou­ples. Clif­ford has lit­er­ally car­ried me through some of the hard­est times in my life, and he’s shared some of the best. I did won­der, though, about the one qual­ity I had de­fined as most im­por­tant in a life part­ner: Was Clif­ford em­pa­thetic? That’s pretty hard to quan­tify in a horse.

Then came the day in the Grayling Li­brary. We had wrapped up our pro­gram with the kids when the head li­brar­ian ap­proached me and said, “There is a lady in a wheel­chair who just came in the back door. It’s our only ramp, but her chair is too wide to fit be­tween the book­shelves. Do you think you could take Clif­ford back there? She would re­ally like to see him.”

“Sure.” I knew this wouldn’t be a prob­lem. By this time Clif­ford had braved stairs, nar­row hall­ways, and all kinds of floors and sur­faces. A few nar­row book­shelves were no big deal. I led him down the aisle and found a wiz­ened lit­tle old lady in a wheel­chair. Be­hind her stood a nurse, grin­ning broadly.

“There he is!” The nurse im­me­di­ately reached up to stroke Clif­ford. He nuz­zled her gen­tly. He then be­gan busily sniff­ing the dis­abled lady’s arms, which lay stretched on her lap, limp and pale. As I watched, he con­tin­ued to nudge and nib­ble at her arms and hands. The nurse reached down and picked up the lady’s hand, hold­ing it to gen­tly ca­ress the white stripe on Clif­ford’s face. He froze, closing his eyes, while I stared in amaze­ment.

“She’s quad­ri­plegic,” the nurse ex­plained. “She can­not move her arms. Funny how he seems to un­der­stand.”

Was Clif­ford em­pa­thetic? That’s pretty hard to quan­tify in a horse. Then came the day in the Grayling Li­brary.

COM­FORT AND JOY: Amanda and Clif­ford share hol­i­day cheer.

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