Feet Don’t Fail Me Now

On Friday, once again, I cancelled my elective bilateral foot surgery, cheilectomies to ameliorate the effects of decades of running miles a day on hard pavement and wearing high heeled shoes to work. Like many other physicians faced with the dilemma of elective surgery, the “what-if’s” got the better of me—what if I get an infection, what if I have a poor result and am worse off than before, what if—god forbid—I end up with an amputation?  In the end, I opted out.  Six weeks after retiring from my job running a satellite radiation therapy facility for our local university practice, I am having far too much fun traveling, writing, gardening and culling the accumulated belongings of sixteen years in one house to undergo a forced “lay-up” for the summer.  The pain I know is preferable to that which my imagination can manufacture.  In short, I am a chicken.

Prior to becoming a chicken, I had always been an athlete.  At age seven, a swimming instructor announced to my mother, “She’s got talent!” and the next thing I knew I was trying out for the old Shamrock Hilton swim team in Houston, Texas.  To this day, the audition remains crystal clear in my mind—the coach asked me to swim the length of the fifty meter outdoor pool.  I had never seen a pool so enormous, but I resolved to try.  After all, what was the worst that could happen?  I jumped into the deep end reasoning that if I didn’t make the whole distance, at least by the time I tired, I would be able to stand up.  I reached the shallow end and touched the flagstone, gasping for air.  I stood up.  The coach said, “Okay, great, now SWIM BACK!”  I looked at my mother and began to cry.  She commanded, “DO IT!”  And so I did, despite the fact that the deep end loomed like a dark lagoon ahead.  I made the team.  Ultimately, my small stature and dogged nature suited me best for distance events—the 400 meter individual medley, the 1500 freestyle. The fact that I had once been daunted by swimming 100 meters seemed ludicrous a year later.

I graduated from high school one year before the passage of Title IX, the law that ultimately mandated athletic scholarships for women at every public university that offered the same for men.  With no incentive to continue a grueling five hour a day routine which produced green hair, bloodshot eyes and oversized shoulders, I turned to running for exercise.  And run, I did, for the next thirty five years—on the road, on the treadmill, in hot humid Houston and freezing snowy Boston—I ran away my fatigue, my stress, my disappointments and my sleep deprivation.  At age thirty one, after two residencies, I looked to be about eighteen years old, and so I wore heels, to make myself taller, more imposing, more apt to be taken seriously by patients and peers. Oddly enough, that strategy seemed to pay off, when my introduction of myself as “Doctor” no longer resulted in the question, “Really?”

The year before we left Boston in 1992, I watched the “Marathon Man” Johnny Kelley run his last full Boston Marathon at age 84.  Many years later, with these feet broken down from walking on tip toe when not running on asphalt, I am no Johnny Kelley. My running days are over for good, and even my walking days are fewer and farther between.  But as I contemplate the various ways in which our bodies fail us as we age—cancer, heart disease, stroke and dementia—I am thinking that arthritis and bone spurs aren’t all that bad.  I can always go back to the pool.  Or maybe get that little buckskin Quarter Horse I’ve always wanted.  There is no landscape, emotional or physical, that isn’t improved by the view from the back of a good horse.  I’ll get around to fixing those feet one of these days, sooner or later.  Probably later.

Empty Nest

My sister was here recently to help me out while my father was in the hospital.  She is much kinder and more patient than I am, so I was very grateful for her help. She is leaving to go home to New Jersey tomorrow.   Tonight before dinner we took the deerhounds for a walk.  In my better days, I could walk four at a time.  Last weekend, I tried three on three leashes and it did not work out too well.  They spotted a man they did not know walking up our street.  Perhaps they found him threatening.   With three hundred pounds of dog lunging and barking, it took all my strength to maintain control.  It turned out to be a very short walk.  Today, my little sister took Magic, who outweighs her by at least 20 pounds, while I took the two Q’s, Queen and Quicksilver.  We had a pleasant time.

As we ended our walk this evening by coming through the back gate, near the barn, Norman the Lipizzaner stuck his head out the stall door and nickered softly.  I said to my sister, “Let’s go visit the horses before we cook dinner.”  Into the barn we went, where the two old geldings called to us with some degree of impatience.  We loaded their mangers with Purina Equine Senior and horse treats and prepared to close up.  As we walked by the closed door of the tack room, I stopped.  I said to my sister, “Do you want to see the saddest thing?”  She looked at me, her eyes questioning, then said yes.

I pulled open the door to the tack room.  In that room there were five closed tack trunks, each stamped with the initials of a family member.  Saddles were cleaned and covered and neatly perched on their racks, ranging in size from a small child’s Western saddle with full Quarter Horse bars, to my husband’s beautiful dressage saddle.  Blankets were washed and wrapped in plastic.  Shipping wraps were bleached white and stacked in place.  Bridles were oiled and ready and bits were gleaming and polished.  But there was no one home—just old framed photographs on the walls.  I said to my sister, “Enjoy your children while you may.  This room is the ghost of childhood past.”

I hope that my children appreciate and look back with fond memories on the years when we would saddle up and ride out together.  It was a special time to me.  Lucky and Harmony and Veronica are gone now, but Dash and Norman and the memories remain.  To me, it was time and love and money well spent, and I hope that my kids, now grown, feel the same.

Back at the Ranch

“The sun is riz, the sun is set, and we ain’t outta Texas yet!”

It takes a full day to waltz across Texas.  I’ve been reminded of this twice in the last four years—once in July of 2009 when I drove my daughter from California out to Houston to start medical school, and the second time eighteen months ago when we drove my mother’s barely used Subaru from Colorado to Houston to replace the now ancient Volvo we had bought my daughter for her sixteenth birthday.  A girl’s got to have wheels, you know. Both of these trips reminded me of the long charter bus rides that I used to take as a child competing for the Dad’s Club YMCA swim team at out-of-town meets all across the state.  My favorite ride was through the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio in the spring, when thousands of bluebonnets carpeted the roadsides, punctuated by red dots of Indian paintbrush.  Back in those days, I would gaze out the window at the Herefords and Black Angus and I would imagine that one day, some day, I would have my own ranch.  Others would complain about the endless stretch of highway between San Antonio and El Paso, but not me.  I could easily imagine myself owning a thousand barren acres in west Texas, where I would have all of the dogs and horses I could ever want, and not have to talk to anybody, nope, never.   How I would make a living out of that ranch never crossed my mind.

That fantasy came to an abrupt end a few years ago as both of my parents faced major health crises.  Twenty five years back, they had retired from Houston to live out their dream in the Aspen/Snowmass area of Colorado. Well, perhaps “retired” is not quite the right word, since my mother never worked outside the home and my father never stopped working—he  likes to call himself “the oldest practicing plastic surgeon in the United States”, to which I rejoin, “Perhaps you shouldn’t brag about that, Dad.” But I am digressing.  They became avid skiers in the winter, and enthusiastic hikers in the summer, and they played golf and tennis and rode horses on the mountain trails.  They did that until my mother became ill in the spring of 2005, gradually losing her ability to walk, and to think clearly, and I discovered that while Aspen is a glorious place to have a cruciate ligament repaired, or to fix a compound fracture fresh off the slopes, it is no place to come down with a lymphoma of the central nervous system requiring chemotherapy to be instilled directly into the ventricles of the brain.  They don’t do that at Aspen Valley Hospital, or likely anywhere in the middle of that stretch of Interstate 10 between El Paso or San Antonio.  My father’s recent bout with pneumonia and a touch of heart failure confirmed my suspicions that, cowardly as it sounds, I want to be near good doctors and good hospitals as I age.

I never did get that ranch in Texas, but fifteen years ago we bought three level acres smartly outfitted with a four stall portable barn and a couple of grass paddocks here in San Diego County, on a street which was originally named Caballo Rojo.  My first Quarter Horse, and the first tenant here was a little red gelding named Lucky, so with a sly smile and tongue firmly in cheek we called our new place Rancho del Caballo Rojo and the name has stuck. And when I fall off my horse, as I have on occasion, I am deeply grateful that some of the best hospitals in the country are less than twenty five minutes away.  Dad, for the meantime, is living with us.  But he held on to a hundred acres or so that he bought years ago in Pleat, Texas, southwest of Houston, with its own working oil well on the property.  On a good day, that old well pumps out five barrels of oil a day.  Sometimes I dream about retiring there, so last time I was in Houston we went out to see the old farmstead.  Say what you will but I was very glad to see that a large and very modern appearing hospital has been built very, very nearby!

The Stars are Misaligned Tonight

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.  King Lear, Act IV

There are certain days that everyone will always remember.  People of my generation uniformly remember where they were and what they were doing the day that John F. Kennedy was shot.  My children’s generation will never forget 9-11.  For my parent’s generation, images of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burned into their brains.  But these were all public moments—John John’s salute, the mushroom clouds, the fall of the twin towers.  Amongst these more public iconic moments are the quiet ones, the ones that hit each of us hard individually.  For me, I think of the Challenger disaster, played out on the television screen in the waiting room of my department.  I tried to go on seeing patients as Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, and her crewmates exploded before our eyes.  I had wanted to teach, and had dreamed of being an astronaut while growing up in Houston.  They were there, and then suddenly, they were gone.  The bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City was another of those moments—for me, that firefighter will be carrying that baby out of the carnage forever. Thirteen years after it happened, I dragged my youngest son to Oklahoma City to visit the museum, and to sit and contemplate one of the loveliest and saddest public memorial spaces ever built.

Today was another of those days for me as I tried to keep my patient flow going and stay on time while watching the Connecticut school shooting play out on my computer.  I can read the eyewitness accounts, and I can put my thoughts on paper, but it is the images, the pictures that will forever haunt me—the teachers and SWAT team members leading the frightened children, eyes and mouths open in terror, from a school which will never be the same out into a town that will likely never be able to celebrate Christmas again.  Where is the soul of a human being who can fire point blank into the heart of a child?  I asked my friend, who is a devout Catholic, “Where is God while all of this was going on?” She did not have an answer which I could believe or understand.  It rained a cold wet rain all day, here in this city where it never rains.

As I was driving home tonight I got a call from Daniel, my farrier.  Daniel never calls me at 7 pm on a Friday night, so I knew something was wrong.  He said, “Come home quickly, Gabriel called– Dash is colicking.”  Dash is my 27 year old Quarter Horse, recently laid up and on antibiotics for lymphangitis, an infection in his legs brought on by a late season of heat and drought which triggered a swarm of blood seeking flies.  Colic in an elderly horse who has never colicked before can be a bad sign—a stone perhaps, or a lipoma twisting the gut.  John, my horse vet for twenty years, got here quickly, sedated and tubed the old boy who is now resting comfortably.  I will be on horse watch for the rest of the night, armed with syringes full of painkillers and sedatives.  I know one thing for certain—this old horse has had a full, long and happy life—something those children who died today will never have.  It is almost midnight here.  Can this day be over soon?

He Was Just Lucky

Maybe it was the half-starved little bay mare I saw on the San Diego Humane Society’s website today, or maybe it was the sight of my husband cleaning his saddle, the one he hasn’t used since old Veronica died back in 2005—I don’t know—but something’s got me thinking about horses again.  And remembering the first one I called my own.  His name was Lucky T Bonanza and he was foaled in 1977, a grandson of the Quarter Horse legend Coy’s Bonanza, but when I met him he didn’t look like much.  He was underweight, under-exercised, and had big sores on his withers from an ill-fitting blanket.  And he was sixteen years old, not exactly a spring chicken but “well-seasoned” for the rank beginners that we were, and of course the price was quite right.  We bought him for my husband, since I was able to ride my kid’s Quarter Horse mare, Rosie, barely bigger than a pony at 14.2 hands, but plenty big enough for me.  I like my dogs big, and my horses low to the ground for an easier landing when I fall off!

Although a local horse trainer brokered the deal, we met the old man who was selling his horse.  Stiff with arthritis, he had swung his bad leg over that horse’s back one too many times, and had accidentally kicked the horse, spooking him, resulting in the old man losing his balance on the mounting block and having a bad fall.  His doctor said, “No more.”  For a few weeks after he sold us the horse, I would see him slowly winding his way between the corrals with a large bag of carrots in his hands, feeding the horses one by one, until the bag was empty.  After a while, he just didn’t come any more.  My husband rode Lucky a few times, but then there was another incident where the horse bolted, literally BACKWARDS into a pipe corral, ejecting my unfortunate spouse.    Suddenly, Lucky was for sale again.  But there was one problem—nobody wanted to buy him.

Now I am not a brave person—far from it.  I’ve always been quite cautious in fact—managed to make it to adulthood without ever breaking a bone.  But I am stubborn, and I’d be damned if I was going to feed and house a horse that no one was going to ride and that no one wanted to buy.  Besides, that horse just had the kindest eye.  So about two weeks into Lucky’s second time around “for sale” in less than a month, I announced that if no one else was going to ride the horse, I was.  I won’t lie—I had the trainer hold him steady the first few times I got on, but after that, there was no stopping us.  That horse was my good companion, my therapy, my “go anywhere—do anything” horse, except that he didn’t like getting his feet wet and so I learned to jump in a Western saddle.  Oh, and every so often when we were out on the trail, he’d break into a dead gallop, completely unbidden.  As it turned out, that was where the old man would gallop him, and old habits die hard with old horses.  My heart pounding, I managed to stay on, at least most of the time.  After a while, I had to buy a new house because my old one didn’t have a place to keep horses, and of course Lucky deserved a grass pasture.  When we moved we got him a girlfriend, big Veronica, an 18 hand Dutch Warmblood mare, a retired dressage horse that my husband adored.  He always said she smelled good.  She towered a good foot above Lucky, but he thought she smelled good too.

Lucky died at nearly 28 years old in December of 2004; he was loved every minute of the last 12 years of his life. Veronica joined him two months later at age 26, a grand old age for a girl her size.  But what of the old man who sold me my first and favorite horse?  As I mentioned, we saw him daily for a short time after we bought Lucky, and then no more.  One day, I was sitting having my morning coffee, and reading the obituaries, and there it was—“Dr. Sol Roy Rosenthal, dead at 92.”  Ninety two?  I was in shock.  That man rode that horse and galloped the trails of the San Diego back country until he was ninety two years old.  As it turns out, Dr. Rosenthal was actually famous, not just for one thing, but for two.  He was one of the original developers of the BCG vaccine, used extensively in Europe to help prevent tuberculosis.  But the other thing that he became known for was even more interesting—he believed that high risk exercise makes you live longer. He published extensively on this theory, and he galloped every day, and he lived to be 92.

Maybe he was just lucky.  But I think maybe he was right.

All the Pretty Horses are Gone

Somewhere in times own space
There must be some
Sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing on
And tall trees grow
Some paradise where horses go,
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again.
~Stanley Harrison

It was a tough week for the ponies, this one.   Earlier this week, Sandy Arledge lost her 30 year old black gelding Delmer, a grandson of the great Quarter Horse Poco Bueno.   Delmer was a fixture at Far West Farm for the past generation of children, who learned to ride on his gentle back.   And Robert Dennis lost Squirt, the old horse that taught his kids and grandkids to ride.  Here is his moving tribute from his  www.dennisranch.wordpress.com, shared by Robert:

‘We lost an old friend around here. Squirt, a little half horse. Chance found him dead in the corral this morning….
He wasn’t real pretty, or of great conformation, but he sure made a lot of little cowboys and cowgirls happy over the years….
He was born on this ranch, out of a little Shetland mare. His sire was a half Quarter horse, half Belgian, we had raised and had not gelded as quick as we should have. He and Topsy, the little mare, had a fling and 11 months later, here was this tiny little horse walking around with this little squirt of a horse following her.
Dusty, my nephew, started him when Squirt was 2 and Dusty was about 13. I lead Squirt afoot while Dusty rode him, after a blizzard, and we went thru’ and over quite a few snow drifts to get him comfortable with a rider on his back. Not much longer after that, if Dusty pointed him at a telephone pole Squirt would try to climb it, so to speak. Once Dusty came in soaking wet as he had decided to cross the water in a creek where he didn’t think it was too deep. It was…..
Another time, I jumped on Squirt bareback to run the horses in the corral from a small trap. For some reason he decided to buck and when his butt went up, my head went forward and the his head came up… our heads collided in mid air. Some say I am hard headed… but not as hard as Squirt was! I fell off like Artie Johnson used to when he was riding his trike on Laugh In, years ago.
Squirt taught my 3 sons to ride and then moved on to the neighbors kids and then on to Dusty’s son and then on to another set of kids. He came back here a few years ago to train on my grandkids and was doing a good job.
He was never bad about bucking, but would kick up, especially in his later years when he was asked to move at more than a trot. All in all, he was a good feller…
He will be missed.”

Back to me now.  Not every horse is temperamentally suited to be a good kid’s horse, but when you get one, you know there is nothing in the world quite as wonderful.  I have one of these good old boys at home myself– named Dash, registered as Red Dee Lux.  We bought him when he was about 14 and he’s coming 28 in the spring.  He’s been a kid’s horse since he was three years old, which is saying a lot if you know horses.  His conformation is terrible—he was born over at the knees and it’s only gotten worse with age.  I haven’t been able to ride him for a few years—he stumbles if there’s too much weight on his back.  He can be ornery in the cross ties and he’s taken a couple of pieces out of me as I lean over to do his feet, but put a kid on his back and he’s as good as gold.
There is no happy face in the world like that of a kid on a good horse.  It’s better than drugs, and they will always remember the ride.