The words fell like cream into coffee, slowly ballooning beneath the surface, expanding in that void somewhere between hearing and understanding. As calmly as she might tell me that she had bacon and eggs for breakfast, my mother told me she had endometrial cancer.
And no, not the garden variety endometrial cancer, that operable, slow-growing, only mildly inconvenient, drive-thru edition of uterine cancers. No, she had the big one, the unpronounceable, incurable papillary serous carcinoma, that pit bull of cancers that sinks its fangs in and despite “de-bulking,” doesn’t relent.
Shortly before my mom’s diagnosis, I sold Corey. Salt stinging my eyes, I said goodbye to his precious pink nose in August as he departed for his new home in Ohio. I knew it was the right thing for him and for me, but that didn’t make it any easier. His new owner, Dave, told me that he’d lost his beloved “heart horse” a few months before coming to try Corey. Corey had big shoes to fill, because according to Dave, his predecessor was the best horse in the whole history of horses.
A couple of weeks after Corey left, I started to get updates from Dave. One line has stuck with me ever since. Dave wrote, “I never thought I would find another horse to love like those that I have lost again… I think he’s healing all of us.”
Throughout my life, horses have healed me. When the going gets rough, I go to the barn. Unbeknownst to me, at age 5, when I slipped my foot into the rubber-banded safety stirrup and climbed aboard an ancient off-track Thoroughbred for my first riding lesson, I was being healed.
You see, my mom was also sick then. She had stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time I didn’t understand the gravity of the cancer situation, didn’t understand that horses were the necessary diversion to bring light into what had the potential to be a very dark time. I now know that as I bounced around on that benevolent chestnut horse, learning to post the trot foreshadowed much of what was to come in life—“up, down, up, down.”
Through some miracle of modern medicine, witchcraft, Ouija boards, or just plain luck, my mom’s lymphoma went into remission. She was granted this eleventh hour pardon nearly 20 years ago. I should be thankful for this time, for this life I’ve had with her. But I’ve gotten greedy, and I am not ready to let go.
We’ve always lived in the shadow of lymphoma, knowing that it could, and likely would, recur. We’ve tiptoed around the beast, not fully acknowledging its presence, for fear it might awaken and topple the delicate framework of our lives.
But this is something different. It’s not the same cancer monster that I grew up with, that familiar, lumbering creature nibbling at lymph nodes. This is the ugly cousin, recently escaped from the mental ward and accumulating assault rifles with high capacity magazines. I am grateful to have been shielded for many years from the pain I will soon come to know, grateful for the life with her I have had. And yet, part of me rages at the unfairness of it all.
One of the many things my mother taught me was that life isn’t fair, so this should come as no surprise. But, I find myself filled with a fierce jealousy when I hear people my age talk about their mothers, grandmothers. I feel in some way entitled to a mother. That her presence on this earth is a given, a standard, a keystone part of the great machinery of life.
And I am filled with regret. For every time I didn’t call when I should have. For every time I was too busy to talk. For growing up. For leaving home. For ever letting her think I didn’t need her. Because I do, more than she can ever know, I need her every minute of every day of my life. For all my shortcomings she has always understood me, loved me and been my lifelong ally.
So now again, I look to my horses to heal me, to reassemble the broken parts. To steady my thoughts, which drift and spiral like wandering planets, just outside their proper orbit. That sweet horsey smell, the familiar cadence of a canter, the sound of hooves in the aisleway—these are the things that keep me sane.
Chronicle blogger and hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.