The blind horse got loose on Thanksgiving eve. It was a steel-grey day, 4 pm and already twilight. I was reading to my girls on my mother’s couch, dizzy from a raging ear infection.
Vertigo whirled the room so strangely I couldn’t lie down or I got bed-spins– like coming home drunk from a college party nearly two decades ago, creeping back into my dorm double at 2 am sweating Kahlua, techno thudding in my eardrums as I climbed the ladder to the top bunk and prayed for sleep to consume me.
Only this time, I hadn’t done anything fun to get so dizzy. On Thanksgiving eve, nothing eased the vertigo. I managed as best I could, which meant pushing through the illness rather than resting, functioning as an active (though not very nice) mother of two.
Somehow I drove my children over winding mountain roads to my mom’s house, where we sat by the fire and read until someone knocked on the door to tell us the blind horse and her donkey companion were out in the road. I stayed inside with the girls while my brother and his wife went out with a bucket of grain and a halter. Five minutes later, they rushed back in hysterics.
Tillie had galloped wildly in circles, frantic at finding herself out of her paddock, loose in strange territory. At 37 years old and completely blind, she was in her dotage, spending her last days grazing the pastures of South Williamstown. She had far outlived the normal horse life expectancy of 24; in human years, she was over 86.
That evening, my sister-in-law nearly threaded the halter around Tillie’s white speckled neck. But the spooked horse shook herself free and ran in crazy circles, mimicking with her hooves the spinning in my head. Then at full speed, she careened head-on into a giant maple on the front lawn. Her body crumpled on impact. When we ran out to look, she was lying on her side at the base of the tree, a hairline of blood on her forehead. Biscuit the donkey kept guard by her body and refused to budge.
I’d left A. and C. inside on the couch. I was dizzy, my mother was hysterical, and I didn’t know what gruesome sight I’d find by the tree. Indeed, it was eerie to see an enormous, leggy creature splayed out on the ground. But Tillie also looked peaceful, at rest. Apparently her owners had been debating whether or not to have her put down.
Although everyone was crying, it didn’t feel like a tragedy. She’d died like a horse– running at full-tilt, felled by a tree rather than the vet’s needle. But what should I tell my children? It was almost dark, and men were coming with an excavator to bury the horse up in the apple orchard.
“Tillie ran into a tree and she’s hurt,” I said. A partial truth, but all I could handle in the moment. A. grilled me with questions while C. kept playing. Later, after dinner, I explained that Tillie had died. Immediately, Ava wanted to see her.
“Well, you can’t see her, honey, she’s already buried,” I said.
A long, desperate 5-year-old tantrum ensued, complete with furious sobbing and lashing-out at Mommy. “WHY didn’t you let me see her? I want to see her! Let’s go up to the orchard and find her NOW!” yelled A.
My daughter had seen dead animals before–small ones– birds, mice, chipmunks, a baby bunny. She’d helped bury one chicken and witnessed the slaughter of another. Each time, we’d talked, sometimes tearfully, about the mysteries of life and death.
“It’s Life Cycle,” I’d told her. “When animals die, their bodies return to the earth so new life can grow.”
This sounds good in theory but in reality, it’s not a comforting philosophy for a 5-year-old. On Thanksgiving, I lay quietly with my daughter after her bedtime stories. I thought she was asleep until she spoke:
“Mommy, when I die, please don’t bury me.”
I tried not to react. “Okay. What would you prefer?”
Her small voice shook: “But by then you will be dead too.” She started to cry.
“Probably,” I said. “But honey, that’s not for a very, very, VERY long time. So long you can’t even imagine it.” Then I held her and sang the happiest, silliest songs I could think of, starting with “Do Your Ears Hang Low.”
Was I telling the truth? Why tell a Kindergartener about car accidents, about cancer? Children only need to know the natural order of things, which is that most creatures die of old age. To help parents, there are some beautiful kids’ books about this process, like The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, and Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie de Paola. A. can’t read these books without crying–although that’s not necessarily a reason to avoid them.
My oldest is unusually sensitive to matters of death, perhaps because she was in utero when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. I always assume it was my private grief, but it was hers as well. She experienced it through my blood, my shocked breath, my cells. Now she is attuned to any loss, and often comforts me with her intuition. “I was singing to your Daddy, Mommy, up in the sky,” she says.
On Thanksgiving day we walked up to Tillie’s grave in the orchard. It was just a raw, bull-dozed open piece of earth, hard to believe an entire horse lay beneath it. A. placed a crayon drawing she’d made of Tillie under a stone and we said a quick blessing that she rest in peace.
Days later we lit the Hanukkah candles together. In the darkest time of the year, the first night prayer resonated as I breathed gratitude for my healthy young family:
“Blessed art thou, O Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who hath kept us alive, preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”
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