A Prairie of Grief – Part 1

In addition to the professional work you see on the Equi-Libris website, I am also a creative writer.

During my equine literature courses, I write, as well. The following piece is one I revised during the last Horsetography class. Following some of the prompts I gave to my class, I wrote a piece that explores the role my horse played during a summer of grief.

Stay safe, stay home, stay connected.

My hips shift back and forth to the cadence of my horse’s walk. Sheaths of alfalfa scrap against his belly as he plows through the sweet grass, beating down a new path with his legs and chest. His head bobs just above the prairie’s surface, and his body moves as if he swims across a creek, swollen after days of rain. Gathering burrs and dandelion seeds without intention, his mane knots up like a bird’s nest. I loosen the reins. I trust this horse enough to close my eyes, sure that he will not run, and lean back in the saddle, my boots drifting in and out of the stirrups. The animal tolerates my listlessness.

When the trill of a red-winged blackbird takes him by surprise, he stands stock still with pricked ears. Waiting. I push my fingers underneath his mane to feel the heat rising from his body and reach down between his front legs to touch his heartbeat, gripping his physique tightly when my tears begin.

I refused to see my father’s body before he was cremated. I could not live with the lasting image of my father, lifeless, and cold. I chose instead to carry my last exchange with him at the airport before my mother, and I boarded a plane to fly to England to see my grandmother and great aunt. Hidden in the deafening blasts of plane engines, my father whispered his love for me. After boarding the plane, I sat by the window, waving madly, trying to attract my father’s attention.  He stood pressed to the glass, one hand over his eyes, methodically searching each oval window for a distant glimpse of the familiar.  Finally, his eyes paused, lingering over the movement of my hand.  Raising his hand to touch the pane, his fingers traced the faint genesis of our final separation. That day, I learned that for love to be real, it had to make me ache, plunge me into darkness, leave me weak and exposed. Five weeks later, my father died, and I learned people go when they say I love you.

I had just turned fourteen when I saw my father collapse, his knees bent forward, his arms clasped over his chest.  His body landed awkwardly, his legs twisted beneath his heaving torso.  I stared at his weakened, stricken body.  I am convinced this could not be my father.  He laid mumbling on the wet sidewalk. My mother propped his shoulders up on her knees.  His eyelids fluttered, responding to her voice, “Serhij, ca you hear me?”  He did not answer.  She frantically slapped his cheeks, willing him to open his eyes as I stood immobile, convinced I am watching my father die by the ocean.   We are in Rio de Janeiro, and my father had finished speaking at a medical conference earlier that day.

Above the deafening surf, I barely heard my mother order me to fetch medical attention from the hotel.  I panicked.  Who should I tell, who should I ask?  What if they don’t speak English?  Just go, she cried.  I ran.  Fluid-filled my lungs within seconds from the effort.  I gulped mouthfuls of air.  I could not feel the movement of my legs, the striking of my feet on the pavement.  When I reached the hotel desk, I exhaled a flood of jumbled sentences, pointing frantically towards the ocean.  I was crying.

The young desk clerk’s brow tightened, his puzzled voice wavering in Portuguese.  He motioned with his hands, begging me to hush.  He signaled an older man over to the desk, perhaps the hotel concierge, to calm me, the hysterical tourist.  I did not know the word for a doctor in Portuguese.  I pointed to the ocean, motioning to the older man to follow me.  I led him to the site of my father’s collapse only to find the sidewalk vacant.  I am drowning. Alone.

I did not realize my mother was seated with my father, a few yards away, on a bench with curved armrests.  My father sat upright, arms outstretched, leaning into the weathered iron.  His collapse, merely a memory receding below the horizon.  He spoke to the concierge in Portuguese, graciously rejecting his offer to summon medical assistance.  I looked to my mother for an explanation, but her gaze lingered on my father’s face, quietly pleading with him to reconsider.  She knew he will not seek medical attention, too stubborn to admit he needs anything outside of himself.  All those years in the camps, he had survived.  What could another doctor tell him that he didn’t already know?  After a few minutes, the concierge returned to the hotel.  I was afraid to look at my father, to see him, founder, again.  I stared at the shoreline, instead.  While the three of us ambled back to the hotel, I timidly asked him if he is okay.  He dismissed my inquiry, instead of exacting a promise from me not to tell anyone of the incident.  Two months later, my father was dead.

Soon after my mother and I returned to Sioux Falls, we drove to the farm outside of town, where I board the horse I ride, lost in the prairie.  As I stepped through the barn door leading to the exercise paddock, the crepe paper decorations and a stenciled sign reading, “Welcome back, Anna.  Dino and all of us love you”, briefly coaxed my undigested grief to surface, my body lurching forward, frantic to expel the sorrow.  Neither my friends nor I spoke of my father’s death afterward.  I learned others also viewed grief as a private matter.

See You Tomorrow for Part 2