If Wishes Were Horses

For Missy

Is there any woman alive who can’t recite the old nursery rhyme “If wishes were horses,then beggars would ride”?  The line is etched into the memory of every little girl who ever wanted a pony, but its true lineage dates back to James Carmichael’s Proverbs of Scots circa 1628 when the original read  “and if wishes were horses, then pure (poor) men wald ride.”  In my post entitled “Nana”, I recounted my short though blissful riding career at age 10, ended prematurely by the illness of my grandmother.  During a brief college fling with a polo player (yes, he had a string of polo ponies and yes, his name was Julian, and yes, his family were Hungarian emigres of questionable political  heritage), I was treated to a ride at breakneck speed that started with an innocent giddyup and very nearly ended in my demise.  Ultimately I decided that I would prefer life and limbs intact and gave up on Julian and his horses that handled like Ferraris, but without brakes.

Twenty years went by– medical school, two residencies and three children later—I found myself as the Radiation Oncology director of a community cancer center equidistant between Cape Cod and Providence RI.  One day, I saw a young woman in her early thirties who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  She had elected to have a  lumpectomy and radiation, and when I saw her for the first time she had just completed her adjuvant chemotherapy.  I noticed two things about her immediately—the first was that despite her hair loss and other effects of her chemotherapy, she was beautiful, athletic, confident and in control of her body, her life and her situation.  The second thing I noticed was her bracelet.  It was perfect—a golden circle made of beautifully worked horses heads, eyes alert, nostrils flared, ears forward, manes flying, the horses of my dreams .  There was no way that I was going to ignore that bracelet. But first things first—the cancer.  We spoke about radiation, the risks, the benefits, the course of treatment, the side effects.  She told me her biggest concern was her little girl who was only three years old—she wanted to make absolutely SURE that I knew that she was going to make it, because she could not bear the thought of her daughter growing up without her.  I told her I understood perfectly, and I did.

At the end of our session, I could restrain my curiosity no longer.  I asked her about the bracelet.  She told me she had always loved horses, and that she had grown up riding on the Cape. The bracelet was a gift from her husband, as was her horse, Percy.  She told me she rode that horse every day, rain or shine, stopping only briefly for her breast cancer surgery, and continuing on right through her chemotherapy.  She said, “He keeps me sane”.  She asked me if I rode horses.   I said, “No, but I always wanted to—I just never had the money when I was a teenager, and as I got older, with career and kids, I just never had the time.”  She looked me in the eye—and said to me, “Well the time is now.  You never know what is going to happen.  You could end up like me, with breast cancer or something worse, when you least expect it.  If you’re ever going to do it, you should start NOW.”

That was it—my wake up call from a patient who was smart enough to see what I had missed and game enough to point it out to her physician—that the only time and the best time one is ever guaranteed is right now, right here.  The following weekend, I got my 8 year old daughter out of bed, made a beeline to the girls boarding school riding stable near our suburban home, and signed us both up for riding lessons. My 5 year old son followed in breeches, knee straps and short stirrups, and my 2 year old– ever the cowboy—well, when he turned three and got his helmet, he loped Old Ellie around Far West Farm much to the shock and dismay of the other boarders, to see such a small boy piloting such a huge animal, completely on his own.

Twenty one years have passed since I saw and treated that patient.  I left the practice to move out west in 1993.  But every year, at Christmas, I get a card from her wishing me well, and thanking me.  Always included in the card are photographs of her, usually on her horse, though Percy is long gone, and also photographs of her daughter, now grown and a beautiful young woman in her own right.  And there is always a gift, a little something “horsey” chosen specially for me– a picture frame, a Christmas ornament, a beautiful box of stationery, a silk scarf—with ” clouds of white stallions with bright fiery eyes”. Every year, without fail, there is that renewal of our friendship, and a reminder of what is important in life.

As for the horses themselves– Rosie, Lucky, Veronica, Harmony, Sissy, Romeo, Truffles, Oscar, Shorty, Besty, Norman and good old Dash—they’ve served my family well over a period of twenty years, carrying us over miles of trails, and through both adolescent and midlife crises. They are the best therapists—they listen without comment or criticism, and they never mind when you cry into their thick strong necks. Winston Churchill said  “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.”  But I still think that J.D.Salinger said it best in The Catcher in the Rye:

“I’d rather have a goddam horse.  A horse is at least HUMAN, for God’s sake.”

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