Abby Millager

Writer

Essay

 

My Sister’s Horse

We all want what our sisters have and Moreno—Italian for black—was beautiful and dangerous.

He seemed well-mannered, didn’t rear, bite, or kick the stable door. When his Italian former owner gunned the red Alfa Romeo, Moreno didn’t flinch.

But, faced with the freedom of open space, that horse would lose his head. You’d feel his haunches gather and his front end buoy up as he sprang. There was no stopping or turning: Moreno was gone.

In the meadows, the countryside behind our house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, my pony Shara would take off, too, and Bar and I’d be clinging like monkeys, willing our ponies to pass over holes and scrap wire. A sudden carcass or its surrogate—a rumpled, crusty rag—would trigger a top-speed whiplash avoidance maneuver. All but unseated, I would abandon all hope of control, hook my fingers deeper into the mane, and relish the speed, windrush and imminent destruction.

Hurricane Sandy hit Delaware this week. TV predicted major devastation. Sometimes, apart from clearing gutters and just enough garage to fit your car, all you can do is wait. I was lucky: the house stayed dry and I lost neither power nor trees.

With Moreno, you never knew. In Addis, we often rode at the British Embassy, right up the road, in a big, sloping paddock. It harbored fallen logs, creeks and other natural hazards—today, it’s a golf course. Back then, at the bottom was a small lunging ring where a German baron who could barely move his arms sometimes ran his thoroughbred in circles, on a long, white rein. Halfway up the hill, the Dormans’ house and garden jutted into the field. Mr. Dorman was Deputy Chief of Mission, that is, number two, after ambassador.

I’m not sure why we were allowed to use that field in the first place, but we tried to blend in, conscious of being loud Americans.

One Saturday, my sister was riding in the lunging ring. Dad went to the gate to let her out. The second the latch clicked open, Moreno was through it and streaking up the field. The horse galloped blindly, straight at the Dormans’ yard, garden party in progress. The smooth wire fence was practically invisible; Moreno thought to jump only at the last second. He caught a foot and spilled into Members of Parliament fresh from London.

Dad and I watched as Bar fell on the mercy of strangers. Would they be kind? Would they get in the way? Luckily, she was thrown clear, no one was hurt, and the British seemed remarkably understanding. By the time we got there, she was up, dazedly trying to lead Moreno out of that garden.

There are signs it’s time to leave, like when your hostess yawns or when the birthday child bites. My mother has end-stage emphysema.

Last time I visited, she told me she didn’t want to get to the place where she felt like she was suffocating. She said this pointedly, as if my medical training might come in handy. But apart from anything else, I’m not even there—she’s all the way in Arkansas.

This morning she calls, says she’s thinking about checking into the hospice. She’s started taking morphine—just a little in the morning when she wakes up feeling like she’s suffocating. She’s worried about my dad having to watch her suffer. He won’t say if he’d rather she went to the hospice—how could he? All the options are hideous.

I look outside at the aftermath of the hurricane. It didn’t run away with us, right here, but there’s a soggy mess of leaves I’ll need to scrape up and dump down the slope behind the fence. This is how I guard against erosion. Every time I trim, prune or deadhead, the clippings go to shoring up the hill my house is on, against the unexpected.

My mother’s not religious—she’s a gardener. So is my sister. They compost all the time. I only feel a little guilty hoping, at the right moment, the southern hospice staff will nudge a stopcock here, push a little extra morphine there, to pull my mother across the storm to the meadows.

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