Saturday, November 06, 2010

Goodbye Old Barney

It has been a week about horses. First we took the kids and watched "Secretariat". While I had a hard time reconciling myself to seeing John Malkovic in a Disney film, it was a fun movie to watch. Tess and Colm were completely mesmerized by the horse. At the end of the film, Tess beamed and said, "I want to do that with Stormy!" I couldn't argue with that sentiment. Within the space of five minutes however, Tess had worked out the fact that Secretariat had died years ago. The horse on screen had been so powerfully present to her. She took the realization of his death hard, like she had that very moment lost her best horse friend. She was pretty inconsolable for a nearly a half hour after that. A couple of days later, Beth and the kids were visiting her folks place where they keep the horses, Barney, Sadie and Stormy, who Tess is learning to train. The vet had come out to check on Barney but he couldn't really come up with any thing. Barney actually seemed a bit better. Everyone went inside and watched a documentary on the phenomenal racing mare, Zenyatta. Her final race was the next day. Plans were made to view it as a family. Everyone came home chattering about Zenyatta, how big and beautiful she was, how she danced a pranced and preened for the cameras, how she always won just like Secretariat, by starting last and finishing strong, only unlike Secretariat, she had never lost a single race. Later that night, I invented for Tess another installment about our favorite fictional horse character, Kadiddlehopper. It was a silly story about Kadiddlehopper trying to shoot snowballs out of his nose with the help of his friend raccoon. His nose got all plugged up with ice balls and when I tried to shoot the snowballs out of his nose his ears popped and he farted at the same time. This was right up Tess's alley, and she laughed uproariously. When I ended to story, we both settled down. I noticed Tess had almost immediately become pensive. She turned away and stared across her room. When I asked her if she was okay, she barely answered me. I climbed down off the loft bed. Her face was pressed against the safety rail. "What's wrong, sweetie?"

She said, "I'm worried about Zenyatta. What if Zenyatta loses tomorrow?"
I hadn't imagined where her mind was. "Don't worry," I said. "She's won lots of races. If she loses, she'll still be a great horse."
"But she's never lost."
"Secretariat lost his very first race. If she loses her last one, they'll be tied."
I left her in the dark and went to bed. Suddenly I felt like I had a vested interest in a horse that before that day I'd never even heard of.

The next morning, we were all in the kitchen just getting ready to sit down to some french toast and syrup when the phone rang. It was Charlotte, Beth's mom, calling to say that Warner had found Barney dead in the pasture that morning. Her voice seemed tired and burdened; Warner was at work taking care of getting someone to dispose of the body. I whispered the news to Beth. I commiserated with Charlotte for a bit. I told her what a good life I thought Barney had spent, first with my dad and then later with her and Warner.
She said, "I'll always remember seeing Tess and Colm riding Sadie and Barney along the fence line together singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" at the top their lungs. I'll always think of that when I think of Barney."
Charlotte said she'd called in case we were planning on showing up to their place early. I remembered then the plan to watch Zenyatta. I hung up and consulted briefly with Beth. It seemed like there would be no better time than the present to tell them. They were both in full Saturday morning chatter mode, alive and vibrating with energy. Halloween candy negotiations were still ongoing and Colm was working on a deal to trade his candy for money to spend on Legos at the toy store.
"Kids, listen up. I've got some bad news."
They both fell silent. Then Colm blurted, "Is the toy store closed?"
"I'm afraid it's worse than that, Colm."
Tess was studying my face intently. We made eye contact, and then she said, "Did Barney die?"
I nodded. I knew what was coming. While I watched Tess begin to tear up, I felt the weight of Colm's body land on my lap. His arms were around my neck and he was weeping. Beth had moved in to hold Tess. We all four sat like that at the breakfast table for a few minutes. Both of us, Beth and I, tried to console them. "I'm sure we'll get another horse."
Colm's reaction was instantaneous. He sobbed and said, "I don't want another horse. I want Barney."
I watched my kids work through it, and I marveled at the power animals have over us. I also appreciated the life lessons they bring before us by virtue of our caring for them. Charlotte called Barney an honest horse. That struck me as an apt phrase. I never once worried about my kids when they were around him or on his back. He was honest and true.
In time the kids came round. They loosened their hold on our necks. The air grew lighter; their eyes cleared. They even ate some of their breakfast. Both of them painted rocks with Barney's likeness on them to put over his resting place. Tess's stone had a horse standing beneath a brilliant but declining sun. It said, "Good Old Barney". Colm's stone showed a horse with a brilliant but declining sun overhead.
Later that afternoon we gathered round the tv with Warner and Charlotte, and, mesmerized once again, we watched Zenyatta lose her first and last race in the most improbable and nearly miraculous manner possible...done in by Blame, the pre-race favorite.
A little nervous, I checked Tess for a reaction. She was already leaping to Zenyatta's defense, "The other horses were younger than her, and she still almost won!" No tears, just a determined and even defiant effort to keep faith with a beautiful horse. Both of them honest and true.


Blogger Melissa said...

I read this yesterday and haven't stopped thinking about it. So much to think about (and, oh, how I cried and cried reading this entry and the next). Your writing really resonated with me on this entry. I like how you can be so observant at emotional observant of those to whom you are so close.

10:34 PM  

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