My cousin Peter stood next to his mother’s hospital bed. The machines that had been keeping her alive were now silent. Nurses had removed all the tubes and electrodes. She was gone.
Two days earlier, my aunt was mowing her lawn when she hit a nest of ground bees. Though she had never had a prior reaction, the sheer number of stings sent her into anaphylactic shock and then cardiac arrest. My uncle found her unresponsive and called 911. Paramedics were able to restart her heart, but she had gone without oxygen for too long. After extensive medical interventions and a barrage of tests, she was declared brain dead. Her organs started shutting down before they could be donated, and she passed away on her own. She was 67.
Peter, an only child, put a hand on my aunt’s arm. I stood behind him, my hand on his back. He leaned over his mother’s body.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you for everything.”
Aunt Jo was my mom’s identical twin sister. She was my godmother and the matron of honor in my wedding. She was my second mom, my most trusted sage, my biggest cheerleader and one of my absolute favorite people.
She was also my induction into horses.
Though a horse-crazy child, Aunt Jo’s own equestrian dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled until she was an adult. Her family faced a series of obstacles during her childhood: a younger sister died at age 2 from a sudden illness, another sister fought childhood cancer, and their father died of a sudden heart attack in his late 40s. My grandmother was widowed with five children between the ages of 8 and 21. Riding lessons, for Jo, were never an option.
So she tried another route. Year after year, Aunt Jo would ask Santa for a horse. And year after year, as my mother watched her twin sister’s face alight, my mother would walk away from that jolly man with a pit in her stomach. Her beloved sister, she knew, would be disappointed again on Christmas morning.
Eventually, Jo gave up on Santa and turned toward the heavens. “Every night at dusk,” she told me, when I was a little girl wishing for a horse of my own, “if I saw an early star in the night sky, I’d wish on it: Star light, star bright… pleasepleaseplease let me have my own horse one day.”
But for as much of her life that she spent wishing for a horse of her own, I never knew her without.
The timeline is hazy, but sometime around my own birth, she and my uncle bought Sundance, an ex-barrel racing Colorado Ranger mare, and Aunt Jo’s childhood dream came true.
I don’t know if Aunt Jo ever took actual lessons, but she rode any time she could, and she quickly found a barn family that taught her and Uncle Mike what they needed to know to enjoy relaxed trail rides around their boarding stable.
When our family was selecting photos for her funeral, I came across the photos the day Sundance arrived. Aunt Jo was young, her permed, ’80s hair was a little Ronald McDonald-eqsue, and she was beaming. There were two dozen pictures arranged neatly into an album: the trailer pulling down the gravel driveway, Sundance’s gray head peering out the slatted window, Sundance backing off the ramp, Sundance and Aunt Jo next to the trailer, Aunt Jo grazing Sundance outside of the barn, Sundance munching hay in her stall. I imagine this as was one of the happiest days of my aunt’s life.
Shortly after Sundance’s arrival, they bought Gypsy, a chunky leopard Appaloosa mare who—quieter and steadier than Sundance—became Aunt Jo’s main mount. Uncle Mike enjoyed Sundance’s spunk, and my aunt and uncle rode together regularly.
I was a toddler when Aunt Jo first sat me on Sundance’s back. That one move—her grown-up hands under my armpits, a swing and a lift—shaped my entire life.
Every visit to Aunt Jo’s required a trip to the barn, no matter the weather or the season. She was never too busy to take me. If it was winter, the outdoor arena too frozen to ride, we’d chop up apples and carrots, scoop them into a leftover cottage cheese container and make the short drive to the old bank barn. I’d breath in that comforting smell of horse and hay and lift the treats to rubbery lips, the horses’ breath steaming in the frosty air.
In warmer seasons, Aunt Jo led me in endless circles around that grassy arena, always giving in to my request of “just one more lap.” Eventually, she taught me to steer on my own, but never strayed far from reach as I, feeling on top of the world, circled and figure-eighted in the grass.
As soon as I learned to write, HORSE (always in caps, obviously, to signify its importance) topped every Christmas and birthday list. Finally, in fifth grade, when we moved up the road from a dilapidated little barn, my non-horsey parents agreed to weekly lessons. It was a start.
As my dream of regular riding lessons was becoming a reality, another dream of Aunt Jo’s was being fulfilled: she and my uncle built a beautiful wooden barn on the hill behind their house, and they brought Sundance and Gypsy home.
My own riding lessons turned into leasing, and by age 15, after lots of negotiations and prerequisite $2,000 of babysitting money in the bank, I’d worn my parents down enough: Elmo, a penny-red Quarter Horse with four white stockings and a big white blaze, was my birthday gift.
By the time I graduated from high school, Sundance had died from old age. Gypsy now lived with Jasmine, the mini I’d insisted they needed for my cousin Peter (who, it turned out, much preferred video games). When I decided on a college just 45 minutes north of their farm, Aunt Jo said there was plenty of room for one more horse. Thanks to my aunt and uncle’s generosity, I was one of the lucky horse-loving teens who was able to keep my horse when I went off to school, and I’d visit them all on my way to or from school. Thankfully, they didn’t evict Elmo during those four years, even though he took down several fence rails, a door frame, and a rain gutter with his cribbing habit.
Six years ago, when I was 35 and Elmo 27, a trailer pulled into the farm my husband I had purchased just months earlier. Elmo stepped off, his coat still bright chestnut, though his face more speckled with white. I walked him into his stall, checked his hay and water like an anxious mother hen, and cried tears of joy into his neck. I hope that Aunt Jo knew that same sense of joy when she saw Gypsy and Sundance from her kitchen window.
When Gypsy died in 2009, Jasmine was passed on to a friend with small children. Aunt Jo’s barn has sat empty ever since. My uncle, 13 years older than my aunt, struggled from Lyme disease that, undiagnosed and misdiagnosed, went neurological. They would never have horses again.
But Aunt Jo has been a staple at our farm since we bought it in 2017. Without fail, she was the first to pull in the driveway for every summer camp, every horse show, every fundraiser, every work-day, every everything. For the last six summers, my campers lovingly looked to “Aunt Jo” to show them the difference between a curry comb and a brush, or how to pick up the feet of my Gypsy, a little black pony with a delicate face and white star.
Just weeks before she died, Aunt Jo chased my toddler around the farm while I, stomach full of butterflies, walked a little crossrail course with students at our stable’s first horse show. That morning, she’d carried my son down the hill to the outdoor with a slice of zucchini bread, reminding me to eat. “It’ll be great,” she said. “You’ve got this.”
I have never felt a loss so heavily. It hits me at odd times: in a classroom full of my high school students, in the middle of teaching a riding lesson, in the line at the grocery store, driving trucks on the floor with my toddler. And when it does, a brick to the stomach, I push it away. I refuse to face it. It’s too big, I think. I just can’t. It’s too big.
My uncle can’t stay in their home by himself. Their little farm will be sold. Aunt Jo’s three sisters, my mom and two aunts, have been clearing out the house. I help when I can. A few weeks after she died, I was given the task of her office bookshelf. Maybe, the sisters thought, I could use some of her books in my classroom. As I sorted the books into piles to keep or donate, I spotted a figurine on the shelf: a faceless wooden angel holding a metal sign that, in cursive, says, “thank you.”
I remembered my cousin in that hospital room, and his last words to his mother. I tucked the figurine into my purse.
Gratitude, I realized, would be the only way through this grief.
My mother hosted Thanksgiving this year, as she always does. Our family watched football and laughed and ate too much, as we always do. But the empty space that Aunt Jo always filled was palpable and intense. Just before dinner, I disappeared into the bathroom, sat on the floor with my back against the wall, and choked back sobs. Breathe, I thought. Not now.
I thought of the little figurine that now sits on the desk in my classroom. When the thought hits me she’s gone and I want to push it away, I try, instead, to think thank you.
Thank you, I thought, my back against that bathroom wall. Thank you for igniting my passion for horses. For always having time for one more lap in the arena, or a trip to the barn in the cold. Thank you for keeping Elmo, so that I could later look at him through my own kitchen window, the way you looked at Sundance and Gypsy from yours. Thank you for showing me unconditional love and selfless generosity. Thank you for helping me share our love of horses with so many others. I wouldn’t be here without you.
Many of you have an Aunt Jo, the person who introduced you to horses. Maybe it was a parent, and horses were in your bloodlines. Maybe it was an instructor or a summer camp counselor. Maybe it was a neighbor or a friend. Someone changed your life the way that Aunt Jo changed mine.
During this season of thanksgiving, if that person is still alive, however corny it may seem, please tell them how they shaped your life. And if they, like Aunt Jo, have passed on, feel free to join me in sending a thank you out into the universe, for the gift of love and horses.
Sarah K. Susa is the owner of Black Dog Stables just north of Pittsburgh, where she resides with her husband and young son. She has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Allegheny College and an M.Ed. from The University of Pennsylvania. She teaches high school English full-time, teaches riding lessons and facilitates educational programs at Black Dog Stables, and has no idea what you mean by the concept of free time.