So often my mind returns to that place, a barn and pasture hidden up the winding roads in the hills of east Kentucky, out of sight from the main road. In those quick and unbidden glimpses of memory, the times when my mind goes there like a flashback to some earlier significant scene, it is always morning, always cold with my breath in the air, with the sun coming up over the ridges, and the quiet sounds of horses.
So often my mind returns to her.
Every week in the liturgy, when the pastor asks for us to remember the dead and how they have made us who we are, her name comes out of my mouth, the thought of her and the saying in one movement.
She’s been gone for years now. One morning I woke up in December to remember it was her birthday, and it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard from her in awhile. I knew the answer before thinking: she was gone. I googled her name and obituary, and it popped up immediately. No one knew to call me. She was the only connection I had to her.
When she found me, I was eighteen. I was five hundred miles from home for the first time in my life. I had no car, a mostly absent roommate, and the $60 to last me the semester that my dad had tucked into my hand as we said our goodbyes.
As my mother and aunt pulled away from the college still wiping tears, the aloneness settled in around me, at first delightful, like a relief to be on my own and free. But later the darkness settled in. I was running away from home in the only way a “good kid” could do it: Bible college.
And in the end, the cocktail of pain, the questions I didn’t dare ask, the exhilaration of being adult, the crushing grief of homesickness and a childhood over, and the loneliness – together these were too much. I would go on to fail that entire year of college, mostly invisible to everyone around me.
I didn’t know about depression, or suicide really, and mental health wasn’t talked about in the ways it is now. I didn’t know about family systems. I didn’t understand that even good families can leave deep wounds, because a family is a whole lot of humanity all in one place. I didn’t know how to reach for help, or even that I needed it.
I was oblivious about so many things, but I could feel myself drowning. I would cry out quietly in tiny acts of desperation, my voice echoing hollow down the damp cold chambers of pain. In all of it, I felt like a forgotten and lost toy ship sinking in the silent circular darkness at the bottom of a well.
I didn’t know I shouldn’t take the shame of failure upon myself, compounding everything.
I know now. I have been face to face with the abyss, have beat it more than once, and I know now.
I know now that she was the only thing saving my life.
We met at a “christian service” fair put on by the college. I was required to have 16 christian service hours per semester, and the college set up a fair with organizations to connect with. She represented a therapeutic horseback program in the area. I had left my horses at home in Michigan and was desperately homesick for them. I may have been shy and socially awkward, and painfully introverted, but I could talk for hours about horses.
In the afternoons, she would drive the 45 minutes from the countryside outside of Ashland into the tiny town of Grayson to pick me up and take me back to the barn to be a groomer and side-walker during therapy sessions for otherly-abled children, mostly Autistic or with Down’s Syndrome, and then I would stay after to clean stalls, feed and fill water buckets, and kick down flakes of hay from the loft into hay nets. After chores, we would sit in the barn kitchen, eat potato chips with dill-pickle dip and barbeque pork sandwiches, and she would tell me stories about her life.
She didn’t have children of her own (her body had failed her multiple times), but she and her husband Bill had always been drawn to those who experienced themselves as misfits or the kids parents couldn’t handle. Deeply intuitive and attentive, she had a hospitality and an authority that was hard to resist. She believed in Jesus, Patrick Swayze, poetry, and the power of horses, and saw her work with the therapy program as a ministry of sorts.
I thought I was an adult, and we were interacting as equals. It would take me years to realize I was one of her children, a rather close one in fact, and that I had belonged to her but she had given me the dignity of thinking otherwise.
I moved back home after that year. But three years later, now married with him in school, we moved back to the same college in Kentucky, and she and I picked up where we left off.
She paid me $50 a week for gas to come out and muck stalls. Eventually, I took on feeding chores as well. Every spare moment we could be at the barn, we were, helping with therapy sessions or grooming horses or being present during vet calls. One night, a big Appaloosa horse named Bluesy that we had on a lease agreement got himself down in the bottom of a stall, but couldn’t get himself back up. She told us that if we didn’t get him up, she feared he’d likely need to be put down. We spent five hours rigging pulley ropes across the barn beam down the center of his stall and then around his legs and body, digging the floor out from underneath him, rolling him and propping blankets as he tried with us to get him off the floor. We did it. We got him up. She called it a miracle.
Afterward, she brought us blankets and we made our beds among the hay bales, her little schipperke dog Reggie making his rounds throughout the night to check on his sleeping humans and horses.
With Dana, we belonged to something big, something important. With her, I was beginning to feel swept up into work that mattered. I struggled to connect with our otherly-abled clients, but she was deeply gifted in that connection and I watched in wonder and with a deep sense of the sacredness of what we were doing. But most of all, I belonged to her, with her, and she belonged to us, and as time went on, I didn’t have a name for what we were, but the sacredness of our friendship wasn’t lost on me.
That February, Bill died suddenly. He’d gone into the hospital for urinary problems related to prostate issues. The day he was to be released, the nurses had him up for a ten minute walk around his hospital floor before going home when a blood clot hiding out somewhere in his body passed suddenly to his lungs, and just like that, he was gone. She came to the hospital expecting to pick him up after a good report from the doctors earlier that morning, and instead found out she was widowed.
She called to tell us the news, and asked us to take over the barn chores. We’d leave our small apartment in town before dark to weave through the hills, arriving at sunrise hoping the hoses weren’t frozen solid and we’d be able to fill water buckets. We’d be met by whinnies and our own breath as we filled Folgers coffee cans with sweet feed and crushed pills or supplements for the barn full of mostly aging retired horses. We’d shovel and fork the stalls, pushing full wheelbarrows up the hill to the manure pile through the cold, and turning to go back to the barn, we’d see the sun climbing over the ridge. These are the glimpses my mind returns to.
We went to the funeral with her a few days later, and then to her mother’s house after for fried chicken. He was buried once the ground thawed. I remember a car ride in which she took me up the hill past the cemetery, telling me that they’d bought a third burial plot when they bought the ones for her and Bill. And on the third one, she planned to put a bench and plant a small pear tree so we could come to sit and talk, think about the seasons, and have a bit to eat. I don’t know if she ever got to do that, but the thought is so lovely, so her. It epitomizes her generosity and hospitality, her understanding of human beings and the desire to be remembered. She knew something I didn’t at the time – namely that we would need ways to connect to her when she was gone.
To be honest, the first time we prayed that part of the liturgy, about remembering the dead, I was surprised when her name was the first to come out of my mouth. At the time, I hadn’t thought deeply about her in quite awhile, though my mind would flashback to those mornings often, and though I have since I learned of her passing carried a tiny prayer box on my keychain, a gift she gave me when we moved from Kentucky.
But the body remembers, like it had been waiting every liturgy its whole life to say her name, mind be damned.
It’s not an exaggeration to say she saved me. With her, during a very dark night, was a deep sense of being wanted, cherished, important. She showed me I was beloved before I knew that word. And sometimes I think about the others she saved too, wonder if they are somewhere whispering her name in liturgies, thanking God that her body failed her and she was driven to find children to mother beyond the womb. I wonder sometimes if they also know of the pear tree and the bench, and often meet her there.