This woman. Right there. With the thousand-watt smile. I've written about Kathy before. We met when I decided I needed horses back into my life and started volunteering at a therapeutic riding stable near my home. I thought volunteering for people with special needs would be a way to give back.
I was so wrong about who gave and who received.
At Windrush, riders may have been born with a challenge or life dealt them a hard blow. For Kathy, she was born healthy, then, at two years old, she contracted a virus. It's with a bit of irony that I tell you the virus was Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a devastating virus that causes inflammation of the brain. Many people die from it. Very few survive unscathed.
Kathy was left with physical and intellectual challenges, but she was able to balance well in the saddle on her own. She didn't need anyone to help her stay on the horse. But horses can do unexpected things. My role as a horse handler is to make sure the rider stays safe from those unexpected things.
In the picture to the right, you can see the lead line gripped in my hand. Kathy is effervescent. Evan the horse is calm. That lead line is the fail safe. The horse is always under the control of an "able bodied" person. You know, just in case.
Our pairing was random. No one saw what the other needed and put us together in some great spurt of inspiration. Kathy wanted to learn how to ride. I'm an experienced horse person and wanted to get a horse fix. That was over five years ago.
Kathy had been riding at Windrush for seven years before we became a team. She had never ridden independently, unclipped from a lead line.
In our weeks together, I came under Kathy's spell and was flattered when she asked for me to be her exclusive partner. I began to understand her capabilities and saw her through the prism of what she could do rather than could not do.
And then, one day when I knew she was ready, I unclipped the lead line and Kathy rode independently for the first time. Ever. She steered the horse in a small circle and I was never out of reach of the horse. You know, just in case. The instructor and other riders whooped congratulations. She squealed with joy and we both got a little misty eyed. Eventually, she learned to do a posting trot around the arena. Unclipped. On her own. In control.
Our time together was defined by simplicity. Nothing else mattered but what happened in the arena. Trail rides after the lessons were a treat. We both loved walking through the woods. We talked a bit on those rides. I told her about writing and books and my kids. She told me about her sister and cat.
Each Wednesday at Windrush Farm, I'd get the horse ready and wait for her in the arena. She'd always meet me the same way...arms outstretched, a squeal of delight, and a hug. Each lesson, we'd laugh together and try new things. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we failed, but we always laughed.
She rode in the Special Olympics and won ribbons and medals. She made this picture of the two of us into a mouse pad and gave it to me for Christmas. As I write this, it sits beside me. Kathy's amazing smile urges me on.
My knees weakened one day when she handed me rumpled sheets of paper. She had written a short story. It was the first story she had ever written. I was humbled.
I learned more about joy and resilience from her than I can say. I fooled myself by thinking I was helping her learn. She helped me learn the lessons in life that are really good, wonderful lessons about generosity, love, and friendship.
Kathy passed away this week due to an unexpected and incomprehensible turn of events. I'm gutted.
The world is an emptier place today. Joy like Kathy's is hard to find. I will miss her.