On October 2nd, 2007, my life came crashing down. It seems so strange to think that this was almost 10 years ago. A decade. And yet some memories are so vivid from that day, while others are blacked out permanently.
I was a senior in college and the fall semester had just begun. I was desperate to get into veterinary school, and knew that these last few grades were paramount. Studying in a sterile room in the Johnson Hall of Science was my life, even on a sunny afternoon. And yet my phone kept ringing. I hit ignore at first, seeing that it was my best friend Mindy. But it rang again and again, and I finally answered. She just wanted to know what I was up to, and if I was alone. I remember shaking my head in exasperation, and telling her that of course I was alone, and of course I was busy. I had a biochem exam the next day, and I needed to study. She acknowledged my stress, hung up, and 10 seconds later my phone was ringing again, only this time it was my mom.
I answered in extreme frustration, not understanding that the next two minutes would alter my life for forever. Rage turned towards fear, and anger towards tears.
My mom told me that my dad had cancer.
I can remember marching down the hall and into a lab full of perplexed freshman, grabbing my best friend, and pulling him into the hall way. I remember sinking into the wall, and sliding down to the floor. But I don’t remember anything else that my mom said. I can remember the smell, the temperature, the cold hard tiles under my legs, but I don’t know what she said.
Like a horse who has a fight or flight mechanism, I became desperate to escape. I began searching for my exit, and without rhyme or reason, I thought that ending the phone call would get me there. So rapidly and swiftly, I told her that I had to go.
I now realize how well my mom knew me, because instead of telling me no, or getting upset with me, she just said, “OK Carleigh, have a good ride.”
I don’t remember driving to the barn, or how I got to my horses stall. But I do remember the perplexed looks of fellow riders and boarders as I flung myself onto my horses back with a halter and a lead rope and fled.
I spent the next few hours with one leg on either side of my trusted thoroughbreds barrel, hitting ignore on numerous phone calls, and staring off into the distance. I spoke out loud to Levi, reasoning with the world as to how my life was at this place, and asking for advice on how to handle it. From a higher being, from the world around me, hell, even from my horse. I had no idea how to cope with this assault to my senses, and wasn’t mature enough or prepared enough to handle it.
But I knew I had two things to handle before I could process anymore: that exam in biochemistry, and arranging for my horse to be cared for while I went home to deal with this. And that meant that I would be unable to fly to fathers bedside as I wanted to. That meant days of cloudiness, ignoring my true feelings, and the pain that comes with the unknown. I spent my days on my horse and my evenings in the library, trying to use the therapy of one to weigh me down to reality for the other.
And during these long hours in the barn, I was reminded that there was a jumper show being hosted at the barn where I boarded. With a $1500 round at the very end of the show. It was at 3′-3’3 with the jump off 3″ higher. I hadn’t jumped my thoroughbred in over 3 years, as we had just been hacking and playing, with him securely in retirement from eventing due to my own inadequacies and his extreme hatred of water.
But with this diagnosis came an extreme lack of caring. I didn’t care if I had a rail. I didn’t care if we got eliminated. I didn’t care if the people around me mocked me or harassed me. I just wanted to feel the adrenaline of a fence taken with your best friend. The wind that hits your face as you soar over an oxer. I wanted to feel alive, for the last few days had been consumed by nothing but the fear of death.
So on the day of the show, I walked into the barn and dusted off my Crosby and replaced my Billy Cook. I found my open fronts and polished off the mildew. I dug through my trailer to find my hunt coat and helmet, and I swung on.
I warmed up Levi in a haze. Not really knowing what to expect, or how this would end up. But as I took one fence after another, I realized something. Levi 100% had my back. He was there for me 100% of the time. If I missed my distance, he would guide me. If I didn’t turn quickly enough, he would angle for me. If I didn’t keep my leg on, he would pack me down the line. And for the first time in days, I finally smiled.
We won that day. From fence to fence, round to round, Levi held my hand. We were the only pair out of 17 to go clean in both the round and the jump-off. But more importantly, I learned that I could trust him. That he would support me. And he did exactly that for the next 11 months; the hardest 11 months of my life.
And I tried to learn from this. I tried to model myself after my horse. I tried to step up to the plate. To carry the weight of those loved ones around me that were weak. To be a good friend and a great partner. I left the barn that day with a kiss on his nose, and headed to Pittsburgh to sit vigil by my father’s bedside. Only I didn’t show up lost and defeated. No, I didn’t. Because Levi had taught me that the underdog can succeed.
That the odd’s can be stacked against you, and you can still triumph. And he taught me that if all else fails, sometimes all you need is a fistful of mane, a prayer to the Gods, and a good friend.