Friday, July 10, 2009
Elegy for Ali
She was the most beautiful horse. An Arabian mare, white, with a gorgeous dark mane and long white tail. It seemed like every little girl who saw her thought she looked like a unicorn. It wasn't just her look, it was the magic she exuded. And now that she's gone she has gained the unicorn's immortality.
What I knew about horses I knew from Santa Anita. There was a time when I regularly attended Santa Anita as a way of disposing of the excess tip money I was earning. I would always work my way down to the paddock when a really high stakes race was being run to see what the great thoroughbreds looked like, how they carried themselves. I learned by watching horses like Affirmed and Spectacular Bid and Cigar that you can see much of a horse's character and heart in the way he carries himself, in his gait, in his bearing, in his aura. More than most animals, humans included, a horse is honest in the way he presents himself. There is a wonderful dignity in that.
The first time I saw my wife Kathleen with her horse Ali I fell even deeper in love with her. If ever a horse and rider were made for each other, I thought, these two were. Ali was simply breathtakingly beautiful. But like so many beautiful females, Ali was shy. Her beauty was a given, she seemed to say, but try and see past it. She walked with uncommon grace and delicacy, as if she were walking on the edge of the visible world all the time. There was kindness in her eyes, not a quality one often sees in thoroughbred race horses, but in Ali it was unmistakable, the same kindness Kathleen radiates. The bond between them was palpable, a living thing that they each held in deep reverence.
Kathleen had rescued Ali from a life of being confined to a stable, weaving all day long (and throwing a pot occasionally to break up the monotony--not easy with hooves) and suffering from bowed tendons. Ali was her first horse, purchased with whatever money she could scrape together, and was paid off slowly. But Kathleen knew when she first set eyes on a photograph of Ali that this was her horse, that Ali was the horse she was meant to ride. Kathleen knew she was meant to ride Ali, but she had no idea the remarkable journey Ali would take her on.
Their journey began thirteen years ago in Southern California and ended last Tuesday in a beautiful pasture in Healdsburg. When I was first getting to know my gorgeous wife Kathleen I asked her, "How did you meet your best friend Melanie?" I still love her answer. "Our horses are sisters." As if that explained it. Yet it was true. Melanie's horse Tawni and Kathleen's horse Ali were sisters. It was Melanie, then just an acquaintance of my wife, who showed Kathleen the picture of an Arabian mare she needed a home for, the picture that changed my wife's life. It was Ali that introduced Kathleen to her best friend Melanie. It was Ali who took my wife for a journey into horse training and healing, into becoming a certified TTouch practitioner, a path that has completely enriched her life. And when we moved to Healdsburg, it was Ali who opened the doors for Kathleen to make new friends. Other horsewomen would stop her, admire Ali, her beauty and carriage, and new friendships suddenly blossomed. Kathleen's shyness together with Ali's shyness was irresistible. It was magic.
I will never forget this beautiful, shy, kind mare. The first time I was assigned to care for Ali while my wife was out of town, I was really frightened. Not of Ali, but of my own stupidity, which, believe me, is frightening. I love all animals, always have. As a child I insisted on going to the zoo on my birthday where my siblings asked for Disneyland. I read countless books about animals and watched goofy old Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom religiously. "So while Jim is off allowing the rhinoceros to mount him from behind, I want to remind you not to fall 'behind' in your life insurance coverage..." But I had never taken care of a horse. I'd ridden a few, strictly rentals (a lot like my sex life), but was completely unequipped otherwise.
The first afternoon I went to walk Ali I was very skittish. Ali didn't look too sure about me either. I entered her stall with the halter, she graciously put her nose down to help me slide it over her head, which I did rather gracefully I thought. But there was something strange about it. It just didn't seem right that the rope was extending from Ali's forehead instead of below her jaw. Kind of made her look like a unicorn with a limp horn, but definitely not good for walking her. I'd put the damned thing on upside down. Ali just stood there. Didn't move her head, just eyeballed me with that great giant eye and its feminine eyelashes as if to say, "Even I can't believe you're that stupid." But there was deep kindness in her eyes, the kindness of an old soul. I took the halter off, got it on right side up, and Ali took me for a walk. She could be kind of skittish, Kathleen had told me, so be careful if there are cars near her. We were walking across Riverside Drive in Burbank, Ali and I, I was sweating parimutuel tickets worrying Ali would rear or spook or takeoff with my right arm dragging behind her, when a big damned Chevy truck pulled onto the street blasting mariachi music and sounding like the First Armored Division out to get Saddam Hussein (another skittish Arab). Shit, I thought, now what do I do? But Ali just stopped, perked up her ears, did a little bit of what seemed to me salsa dancing, and that was that. That was the moment I fell in love with that magnificent mare.
Ali fell last Monday afternoon, a serious fall. The lovely woman who owns the property where Ali was boarded called Kathleen to tell her that Ali was unable to put any weight on one of her hind legs. Kathleen rushed to her, called the vet and waited. After the vet had arrived and taken X-rays the news was not good. Fractures and serious damage in both hind legs. Trying to fix her would involve lots of surgery, years of rehab and stall confinement, and then no guarantees. She would never be able to be ridden again.
Kathleen slept on the decision overnight. Well, she didn't really sleep. Ali is her soulmate, her horse Other, her companion on what has been a remarkable journey. Doing the right thing for Ali was all that mattered. I know Kathleen, I love Kathleen, I've never seen her more distraught, more devastated, more forlorn. But I knew that she would make her decision not from a place of fear or selfishness or anger, but from a place of courage and compassion and kindness and love. She did.
Kathleen went out early Tuesday morning to be with Ali. She had made her decision and she had called her veterinarian. She spent hours talking to Ali, thanking her, talking to her gently with words and with touch about making the transition, about the beauty of the place where she would soon be grazing, the always green pastures where she would once again be able to run and run and toss her mane in the wind and carry her tail high and proud and beautiful. She gave Ali treats and reminisced about the ridiculously steep trails Ali and she had ridden together, remembered the feel of the gigantic heart of that gorgeous, courageous Arabian pounding in her chest, astonished at her drive to keep going and going, a drive inextinguishable. And she just sat with her girl, her horse daughter, her horse companion, her horse teacher, and tried to be strong for her, tried to lead her. One last time.
When the vet arrived it was a matter of getting Ali out to the pasture from her stall. Nine hundred pounds and two fractured hind legs. How do you move that? Simple. Cookies. Following the cookies offered to her by her beloved Kathleen, Ali slowly and excruciatingly dragged her self and her two fractured legs into the pasture. She must have known. But she would follow Kathleen anywhere. Wherever you are leading me, I trust you, I love you. And you have cookies.
The vet gave Ali her final injection and death came quickly. As is its custom. Kathleen felt Ali leave behind her beautiful but crippled body and felt that enormous heart stop. Ali's job here at this crazy rodeo was over. Ali had taken Kathleen to places no other living being could have, carried her on her back in real and metaphorical ways, and she was clearly tired. But Arabs, those remarkable endurance horses, never quit until they are at the finish line. Ali had crossed the finish line a champion. But the finish line had come too soon for Kathleen.
Ali was buried where she fell, in a pasture overlooking the Russian River. Ali had found Kathleen thirteen years ago, taken her for a long and beautiful ride, and her job here was done. But Ali will be back. We know she will return. Ali will find her way back to her human soulmate Kathleen. We still have some cookies.