I never really know what to write on these posts, or how often I should write, or even where to start. But every once in a while I remember a great story that I have never told anyone, or look at my computer and realize that on this specific day I was doing something either extraordinary, or maybe suffering in a way that I think people can relate to. I discovered that by getting them published by websites like Horse Collaborative and the Paulick Report that I have filtered my writing into stories that only pertain to horses, and yet I started this blog in order to do a few things – to write, as I have always loved it and have never been able to use this love for anything besides school work, to tell my family and friends stories that I think may impact them in some way, and to take stress out of my life – as I have always found writing therapeutic. I decided after a few stressful weeks of being consumed with what the outside world would think of me and my stories, that I will go back to this — and if horses play a role in these stories, it is simply because they play a role in my life – but I will write about them because of how they impacted my life in its entirety, not for the outside world.
I woke up this morning, on October 3rd, and realized that I had missed October 2nd, and was slightly taken aback. It was the first time in 6 years that I had not felt even slight depression on this day – for this was the day that my dad was diagnosed. Whether this is a sign of healing, a sign of too much schoolwork, or simply just a sign of absolutely nothing, I do remember exactly what I was doing on that day, and how I got through that following week — Levi. If I can recruit all of these horse lovers, and how they agree with me that horses are the best therapy in the world, and mesh them with the people at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Bone Marrow Registry, it will be the greatest success of my life. So here is just another story of how leukemia, my father, and the horse that got me through this endeavor came together.
My dad was one of the healthiest men I ever knew. He was a collegiate athlete – having played both basketball and baseball at his (and my) alma mater of St. Lawrence University. We had this, among many other things, in common – same college, both athletes, and I was currently taking a class with Dr. Budd – a professor that he had also had in biology at St. Lawrence – it was only slightly uncanny. So on October 2nd, 2007, nothing was out of the ordinary when I was sitting in the brand new Biology Department at SLU, and he was at a routine doctors appointment.
He had gone to a Buffalo Bills game the previous weekend and noticed that he became out of breath when walking up the stairs to get another beer from our seats. He had been training for his first half marathon with my mother, and thought this was a strange occurrence – he should be able to leap up these thirty steps without a second thought, but instead became winded. He scheduled an appointment with his general physician, and after seeing that his blood pressure was actually quite normal and his cholesterol was fine, he demanded blood work. The doctor disagreed, saying that my father was overreacting to something that was probably nothing – but being a surgeon himself, my father continued on in his investigation and ordered the bloodwork. In a matter of 6 hours, my fathers, mine, and my families lives were turned upside down – it wasn’t “nothing” it was Acute Myeloid Leukemia – my dad had cancer.
I knew nothing of this and was sitting at a desk, attempting to actually understand transmission electron microscopy, when my phone rang and I saw that my best friend Mindy was calling. It being only 3pm, I answered and quickly tried to put her off – telling her that I was busy and needed to study. But her call left a weird feeling in me – she had just kept asking where I was and if I was with either my boyfriend at the time or any of my friends. I adamantly told her that I was not, I was in fact alone, and I REALLY needed to study for this exam and hung up. Thirty seconds later my mom called me and I picked up in absolute frustration – I was NEVER going to pass this exam, and thought to myself “my phone is getting turned off after this!” But within 30 seconds I knew that these calls were connected, as my mom also asked if I was alone, and when I confirmed that I was, she asked if there was any way that I could NOT be alone and find a friend. My heart plummeted to my stomach and I just asked one word — “why?”
My mom broke down and told me that my once healthy father had just been diagnosed with cancer — and leukemia of all cancers – the same disease that had taken my Uncle from me at the young age of 10. As is with most horrific memories, I can remember every individual moment of this phone conversation feeling like it took hours, although it must have been only 5 or 10 minutes. I ran down the hall to the general biology lab and grabbed my boyfriend, tears streaming down my face, as 30 unsuspecting freshman and a professor looked on in horror, pulling him out into the hallway and sank to the floor. My mother kept talking, telling me about the bloodwork, the plan, and that they were currently packing to head to the same hospital that my Uncle had been treated in – the would set up on the same floor, with the same nurse, and with the same despair. I couldn’t process anything — I couldn’t even speak. My mom finally ended the conversation by saying “are you ok?” And my only response was one that she, and I, have become quite familiar with – I run. I just said “I have to go mom” and she said something that I have now heard more times than I can count: “ok honey, have a good ride.”
I ran from my boyfriend and raced to my car, speeding through the backroads of Canton and Potsdam without a thought for safety or caution, just knowing that I needed to do one thing – and that was to get on my horse and get away from the world. I raced into the barn, snapped a lead rope to his halter, swung up, and galloped away – my last memory was of my friend Sara just screaming after me “are you OK??” I don’t know how long I rode for, bareback and bridleless, meandering around the dirt roads – walking at times, galloping at others, just taking all of the information in. My horse Levi had been retired from competition for almost 4 years, and he ambled on as a well trained horse does, never questioning my tears, my screams, or my tension on his back.
I returned to my house and settled into an Adirondack chair with a glass of bourbon, not wanting yet to admit to the world that this was happening, thinking that if I stated it out loud it would actually become truth. But my phone rang and I looked down and saw it was my father calling. I picked up and simply said “hi” not knowing what else to say, and in classic form for my dad, he just said “how are you?” worried about my pain more than his own. We talked about the science behind the disease, discussing potential treatments and therapies, and ended the phone call with him asking if one of my papers was ready for him to edit. He begged me to stay on campus until the following week and take my exams, and I agreed – trying to save him from any excess stress as I knew how important my grades and impending vet school applications were. I never cried, he never admitted fear, and we ended the phone call by saying “I love you” for the first time since childhood.
I knew that I needed something to distract me from all of this in order to get me through the week, and while many 21 year olds may have turned to alcohol, I turned to my horse. There was a show that coming weekend, and it included the “Healey Farms Jumper Classic” for a purse of $500. I hadn’t jumped my horse in months, and had retired him from eventing due to a water phobia years ago, but I knew that at the ripe old age of 20, he would still jump any fence I put in front of him, and on a whim I entered the class, knowing that the chances of even placing were slim – but that wasn’t what mattered – what mattered was centering my mind on something besides blast cells, bone marrow donations, and chemotherapy.
My non-horsey friends all showed up on Saturday, prepared to cheer me on in my defeat, and I anxiously put my old show clothes on and tacked up my trusted thoroughbred – patting him on the neck and whispering to him that it didn’t matter if he hit one of the rails – the fences went up to 3’6, and I just wanted to feel the wind on my face over a fence for the first time in months. We warmed up and headed to the ring for the first round. I wasn’t worried about speed, just safety – and short spot after short spot, Levi left the rails up.
The video of this round is one of my favorites — you can hear my friends in the background cheering me on with every rail that stays, and Levi is just loping around, ears up, and excited to be allowed to jump again. We were one of 4 who went clean, out of 18 riders.
I came back for the jump off and decided I was going to do this one for my dad. To prove to him that even when the odds were stacked against you, even if you weren’t the youngest or in the best shape, even if you didn’t have the most money, you could still win. I galloped at the first fence with more determination than I think I ever have. Trainers on the rail were talking about how there was no way that I was going to get around this – Levi was retired, I was a cowgirl who only ever trail rode, and they had never even see me jump. I was definitely going to “smoke” a rail. But no amount of training, or lessons, or money spent on valuable warmbloods were going to stop me from getting around this course. Levi loped over the first few fences, excited for the bigger spreads, but then came the combination. He got his striding beautifully, but going into the turn he slipped on the muddy footing and nearly went down. My breath caught and I could only think one thing — that in doing this crazy, stupid, dangerous, thing for my dad to prove to him that he could beat this, I was going to fall off and be the perfect example of why these risks shouldn’t be taken, and these battles can’t be won. I clung to Levi’s neck, praying to stay on, refusing to fail and refusing to give my father ANY excuse to not head into this battle with just as much determination as I had headed into the ring.
Levi stayed steady, regrouped, and we continued through the rest of the jump off with as much grace as we could muster. Without stirrups, my legs burning probably as much as his were, we continued on – yet again leaving each rail up in their cups, and finished the round as the only person to go clean. I was shocked. Pulling a horse out of retirement for one last victory gallop, attempting to be a metaphor of strength and determination for a suffering family, and nearly failing epically in this endeavor, I had actually won.
I called my father that night with a new outlook on life. His odds of beating AML were 30% – something that sounded so impossible, but my odds of winning that class had been 1 in 18, a 5% chance, and I had pulled it off with everything stacked against me. My outlook on life had been altered. I hung up the phone after telling him I was donating my $500 winnings to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and that I would be home in a few days to help him get through this. We could fight this. We would fight this. And we would win.