by Amy Conner
In the midst of life, we are in death—or so The Book of Common Prayer reminds us in its liturgical service, the Burial of the Dead.
I can testify to that observation: one Friday morning in May of 1999, I died twice.
It was already hot at 8:00 a.m. in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana. Dew hung like burning diamonds in the spider webs when I, sobbing like a beaten child, went down to the pasture lugging six heavy buckets of grain. Half a dozen hungry, irritated horses waited impatiently for me at the gate to the field, none of them remotely concerned about my state of emotional upheaval because I was late with breakfast. Morning feeds were supposed to arrive at 7:00 a.m., sharp, and unlikely as it may seem, horses can tell time.
Breakfast was late for the same reason I was crying. Earlier that morning, my on-his-way-to-being-an-ex-husband had returned to the farm from his girlfriend’s ritzy new townhouse. It was his turn to pick up our two children and take them to school. Before he left with them, though, we’d had a fight that was, in light of the fact it was my last morning to live life as I’d known it, inconsequential. Maybe we’d fought about my attorneys’ contemptuous dismissal of his financial statements, or perhaps I’d said something snide about his practically teenaged girlfriend—I don’t remember. In those flammable days it wasn’t taking much for the two of us to spontaneously combust, but our fire-fight had made the children cry, too. Before I died that morning, my last sight of them was of their tear-streaked faces behind the windows of a Ford Explorer, twin pictures of confused misery, disappearing into the gravel road’s dusty, white cloud as I succumbed to my own breakdown.
But when you’re a trainer, horses have to be fed and ridden whether you’re in tears or not and Bally, a big, gray gelding imported from Ireland, waited for me. If I wanted to beat the worst of the heat, I needed to start my day. When I arrived at the barn, my assistant was saddling Bally.
“He’s in a mood,” Shawn warned while tightening his girth. Bally pinned his ears and snapped at her arm. He hated being tacked up, especially girthing.
“He’s always in a mood,” I said. “It’s only gotten worse since he took up with that bitch.”
Shawn gave me a look. “I meant Bally, not your husband.”
I should’ve listened to her. I rode away from the barn and hadn’t been on Bally’s back for more than forty seconds when it happened: the damned horse decided to spook at the muckheap, a ubiquitous part of the landscape he’d passed without incident every morning in the year since he’d arrived from Dublin. Like a lot of Irish horses he was a real barn rat—violently shying at squirrels, shiny objects of any description, my daughter’s tricycle, the UPS truck’s back-up beep, random cigarette butts, etc.—so it wasn’t like I didn’t know he could be difficult. Unlike all other previous stupid spooks, though, this one was the stuff of legend.
I was sitting securely in my uber-expensive German saddle and wondering if after our bad morning I should pick up the kids early from school and take them to a shrink, when in the next I was at the mercy of fifteen-hundred pound’s worth of equine bloody-mindedness. Like a reverse lightning strike, Bally exploded six feet in the air, twisted and catapulted me out of the saddle. In an ignominious involuntary dismount, I slid down his croup face-first with the gravel road fast coming up to meet me. All I could think was oh shit, this is gonna hurt.
Much later, Shawn and David Dirks, the older guy who cut the farm’s hundred acres of grass, described what happened next. Tornado-like, in mid-air Bally spun, descended and as he hit the ground his huge front hooves, shod in steel, stomped my back. My face was in the gravel so I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t connect the immense, shocking and sudden pressure crushing my ribs with Bally or his airs above the ground, but instantly I couldn’t breathe and my shoulder, the point of impact, felt like it might be broken. Meanwhile, Bally, galloped off into the adjacent subdivision’s mini-estates, bucking in triumph and tripping on his reins.
Gasping for air, I rolled over and sat up. Nothing hurt as much as I’d feared it would—or at least, not yet—but at that moment I began to die.
“Don’t move!” White-faced David jumped off the lawnmower and hurried to kneel beside me. I remember he smelled of gasoline and cut grass, and his big, work-scarred hands were gentle on my shoulders as he urged me to lie down again. For her part, Shawn ran back in the barn and called 911.
Their actions were the first of those that ultimately saved my life. I was already in shock since Bally’s hooves had crushed my spleen like a ripe tomato and snapped six ribs. Moreover, one splintered rib had sliced open a big vein in my abdomen, but I’m a profoundly stubborn woman. I was determined to get up and run catch the son-of-a-bitch horse before he absconded to Washington Parish. I thought I was only a little breathless still, but had I gone after Bally, I wouldn’t have gotten fifty yards before bleeding out: the heart, that noble beast, keeps pumping. Had I risen and walked, the blood seeping and trickling inside me would’ve turned into an unstoppable torrent.
“Dammit, David,” I griped, once more prone in the gravel. “I’m not fucking crippled!”
“The fire department says an ambulance is on the way.” Shawn, seeming a lot more shaken than I was, joined us by the muckheap. “I’ll catch Bally,” she said. “Stay still, you could be hurt, like bad hurt. You don’t know what he did to you.”
“Give me a break,” I wheezed. “I know when I’m hurt. No more drama, okay?”
I was still arguing with her when the fire department arrived. In no time they strapped me on a backboard to wait for the ambulance which came an incredible five minutes later. Providentially, the paramedics started an IV line before loading me in the crash wagon and thereby contributed to an already eerily improbable run of luck. By keeping my blood volume more or less stable with saline, those EMTs saved me from dying beside the muckheap.
The farm was isolated, over twenty miles from the nearest town with a hospital. During the ride to St. Tammany General Hospital, in the midst of shouting at the paramedics I was fine, I suddenly vomited—a consequence, I later learned, of severe shock. I was cold and sweaty, too, and experiencing a strange, growing sense of panic.
I was an elite athlete. I’d fallen from plenty of horses without much incident—a mild concussion, a broken hand—but as the ambulance screamed down the country roads to town, I began glassily wondering if maybe this time I wasn’t going to be so lucky.
At the hospital, the ER team almost killed me when during the intake procedure someone gave me a big dose of Demerol, lowering my already dangerously low blood pressure. “I don’t hurt!” I insisted. They ignored my protests as if I was a raving drunk, though, and kept asking Shawn, who’d followed the ambulance there, if I was allergic to anything. When was the last time I’d had a tetanus shot? And could I be pregnant? Some bright soul recommended waiting before doing anything more until the CT machine was free and another discussed getting an MRI. Somebody else wondered if catheterization was indicated.
“No catheters!” I yelled and tried to heave myself upright, but briefly passed out instead. Due to Demerol and blood loss, my blood pressure had plunged to a critical low point. I suppose nobody noticed since the intake nurse hadn’t strapped on a BP cuff yet, and when I regained consciousness, I immediately hollered they’d better stay the hell away from my private parts, using all the considerable colorful language I had at my disposal. The ER team shrugged and went back to wondering whether I needed a CT scan or not. Combative and out of my head with shock, I took a swing at one of the nurses. I don’t remember what I called her, but Shawn later told me it was deeply insulting.
“Get me the hell out of here,” I shouted thickly. “You people are morons.”
“Shut up!” It was a new voice in the room, a tall man in green scrubs who badly needed a shave. He elbowed the ER staff aside, leaned over the gurney, grabbed my chin and yelled in my face, “Shut the fuck up—you’re dying.” Before I could argue with him, too, I lost consciousness again, next waking in an operating room where an anesthesiologist was trying to insert a breathing tube down my throat. I grabbed the tube and threw it at him. He tried to restrain me, but I struck at him, too, missed and knocked over his tray. Little glass vials of liquid sleep shattered on the floor as the surgeon yelled, “Put her out, goddammit, she’s out of time!”
His voice seemed to be coming from far, far away. The operating room had gone black except for a tiny, piercingly bright cone of light. Holy shit, I distantly realized, I really am dying. Breathing stopped and with a last flutter, I felt my heart stop, too.
Dead is a black place. Drifting in the dark, I became aware of an unimaginably vast, yet profoundly intimate, peace. It seemed to expect me, welcomed me, called me to it. Being dead felt almost…familiar. Back when I wasn’t dead, when life had stretched into the future like an interstate highway, the thought of my own end was too terrifying to contemplate for long. That infinite peace, though, was wholly without fear and as I joined it, my last thought separate from its infinitude was a passionate plea. Please, I begged the peace, please look after my children.
And then my life—my singular, irreplaceable life—was over. I was the peace.
While the OR staff revived me that time with a combination of bagging—inflating lungs with a rubber balloon—and those cardiac impulse paddles you see in medical television shows, the surgeon displayed raw battlefield courage. He’d only stopped at the ER to talk to someone about a fishing trip and upon hearing my loud, argumentative self, had poked his head in Examining Room 3 to find out what the hell was happening. Now in the OR with no diagnosis, although I coded again and the staff was fighting to bring me back, he didn’t even stop to scrub: without a second’s hesitation he sliced my abdomen open from sternum to navel. It was a goddamned mess in there, but for a miracle the surgeon found the source of the bleeding almost immediately and was able to stop it in time to keep me from dying for good. I’d lost over five units of blood and the average woman has only six units of blood in her entire body.
A day later, I awoke alone in an ICU bed with twenty-five staples in my belly and a plastic breathing tube down my throat. It seemed the anesthesiologist had won despite my irrational resistance, and slowly the sounds of oxygen whispering, the quiet beeping of machines and the tinny rattle of the IV monitor registered and told me yes, I was indeed alive.
But like I said, I’m a stubborn woman: before the black hole of sedation swallowed me again, I managed to yank the obnoxious breathing tube from my throat and threw it on the floor.
Recovery was long and painful, but after all, I had six broken ribs, as well as anemia from blood loss. While recuperating, I sent Bally, that jerk, to Virginia to be sold and over the rest of that summer all upheaval entered a period of stasis. My husband and I negotiated a truce: I wasn’t strong enough to fight anymore and he’d become disillusioned with being a sugar daddy. As the domestic front’s issues more or less normalized and the kids warily forgave us for putting them through that, as my ribs knit and my red blood cells regrouped, I had plenty of down-time to come to terms with my near-death experience, to marvel at my second chance.
Only I couldn’t do it. If ever I accidentally thought of how a wildly fortunate combination of factors had saved my life—the frank bones of the matter being if any one circumstance had gone differently, I’d be dead—my mind simply slid sideways from that realization. Some other thought would skate into view and I’d gratefully follow wherever it led me instead. I couldn’t allow myself to contemplate that day, not even when family and friends would clasp my hands, gaze searchingly into my eyes and ask how it felt to know I’d been so damned incredibly lucky.
No, I went back to work, my husband and I agreed to enter a new phase in our marriage and we reconciled. I drove the kids to school, managed our farm and consulted on a dozen projects related to our other businesses. I rode again, too, except with a new and disquieting caution. I’d always been pragmatic about disciplining a bad actor, but now was too afraid to go to war with a difficult horse. Now I knew it: with no effort at all, death would find me whenever death was ready to take me.
Consequently, I began teaching more and training less, still refusing to address my fear—and it grew worse. In time, even mounting a geriatric, broken-down school horse would set my heart to pounding and you can’t ride like that. Horses feel the rider’s tension, but don’t understand it, thus creating a feedback loop of sweaty, escalating anxiety flowing from the rider to the horse and back to the rider again. Even the most bomb-proof creatures react with deep distrust to that kind of ride. They skitter at shadows, their musculature tense and uncooperative because horses are herd animals and their survival depends on obeying a leader. Just as following the alpha mare from one watering hole to the next gives them a sense of safety, so does the rider’s uncompromising domination, and when they feel secure in strong hands, they accept training. After being acquainted with my own mortality, once I’d realized how tenuous existence really was—and then refused to face how fearful that made me—I was well on the way to becoming a real liability to myself and any horse I tried to ride.
Undoubtedly therapy would’ve helped. A good psychologist might have steered me into examining the root of my post-traumatic stress (namely, dying) but I wouldn’t even consider seeing a shrink. I couldn’t talk about it anymore without wanting to run screaming. Sometimes, though, in the quiet moments before sleep, I’d be ambushed by memory. I could never really forget the dwindling cone of light or that deep, intimate peace welcoming me into the black.
In truth, death was now my constant, silent companion, riding pillion behind me.
Five years after the accident, on Mother’s Day afternoon, a friend and client called.
“Get this shit,” she said, her voice shaking with fury and terror. “I’ve got lung cancer.”
Lynn had been my student a long time. I’d seen her through several indifferently bred, talentless horses before we found Murphy, the horse of her dreams. One of the bravest women I’d ever known, I really enjoyed teaching Lynn. She was indomitable, if not always realistic. Most of the adult amateurs in my training program were timid riders, a little afraid of their horses and usually pretty out of shape, but not Lynn. She was tireless in lessons, drinking in anything I could teach her if it gave her a competitive edge—unusual in a fifty-four-year-old woman with a straight day job and not a lot of money. Over the past year, though, Lynn had begun to tire more easily and cut her lessons short. She couldn’t shake a cough from the recurring flu she’d contracted either, not even after multiple rounds of antibiotics. In addition, she was having significant problems riding Murphy. Lynn was falling off him a lot, seemingly for no reason. One moment they’d be galloping down to a big jump and in the next she’d topple to the ground like she had a terminal appointment with gravity. I’d been giving her a hard time about what I’d perceived as stupid carelessness, but as soon as she said it, I’ve got lung cancer, I saw how very, very wrong I’d been.
I had to sit down. “Oh Lynn.” Stricken, all I could say was, “Oh Lynn. No.”
“They told me I’ve got maybe ninety days, but fuck that. I’m beating this shit. It isn’t going to win.” Lynn proceeded to lay out her grim prognosis with characteristic courage and steel resolve, but the fact was small cell lung cancer had metastasized into her bones, her liver, her brain. She was in for the fight of her life and she knew it.
All of us who knew her did what we could to help. When radiation treatments burned her throat too raw for the casseroles and soups we made for her, we brought Lynn homemade puddings and ice creams—anything to help her keep eating. We cleaned her house, looked after her livestock and her husband; we drove her to doctors and sat with her during chemotherapy.
And I rode her horse.
“I don’t know when I’ll be able to get on him again,” Lynn said to me on the way to yet another oncologist, searching for a better prognosis. “I need you to keep Murphy in work.”
I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to ride Murphy—a big, strong horse with a short fuse—but she wouldn’t let it go and I couldn’t admit I was afraid of him. No, Murphy came to my farm and I made myself get on him every day, although I sometimes had to throw up behind the barn even before putting my foot in the stirrup. He was fast, clever and aggressive, exactly the kind of horse one wants at that level of the sport, the kind of horse Bally had been. Somehow, I was able to force myself to give him the best rides I could, but would be shaking, emotional and exhausted by the end of each session.
“How’s Murphy doing?” Lynn would often ask. A month had passed and she’d become pitiably thin, her skin sallow under what was left of her tan. “Isn’t he fabulous?” I’d always tell her he was doing well, was fitter than ever and a real gas to ride. That, of course, was a lie. The truth was I could only just bear riding Murphy. Those hours were blind blurs of near-panic and once I could dismount, I still knew a doomed fear I wouldn’t be able to get on him again the next day. I managed to keep my promise to Lynn, but only by the hardest.
It was late when one night, six weeks into her ninety days, she called me.
“Hey, you got a minute?” she asked quietly.
“Always,” I answered, just as quietly.
“I have to ask you something.” She paused. “What was it like?”
In sudden dread, I understood what she was talking about. I sucked it up for her, though, and said, “I can’t really explain, but it’s not bad. Just…different, like this warm sea of peace.”
“I’m afraid, so fucking afraid. I don’t think I can do it.”
We were both crying. “I know,” I said. “But it’s not like you’re doing it tonight. Look, you know how it is when they’re counting you down in the start-box and you’re scared, like maybe this time that bad-ass cross-country course is gonna kill you?” She’d always had a pretty healthy case of start-box jitters.
Lynn sighed shakily. “Yeah,” she whispered, “I still remember how it feels.”
“Okay…dying was a lot like that until, well, the peace found me in the dark. You can do it, Lynn. You’re the bravest of us all, a real lion of a woman.”
“Thanks,” she said, and fell silent. I couldn’t talk either, but could only stay with her on the line while she, unlike me, braced herself to look eternity in the eye and accept it was coming for her.
In July, on the eighty-seventh of her ninety days, Lynn called. She was headed to the hospital. She couldn’t breathe because the cancer raging through her body like a grassfire had caused her lungs to fill with fluid, causing chronic pneumonia. A warrior always, Lynn had still insisted on fighting even after her doctors said further treatment—chemotherapy and radiation—was hopeless. Her esophagus had been so terribly seared, I strained to hear her faint voice.
“In the hospital…couple of days. Gotta…get this damned pneumonia…under control.”
Somehow I didn’t cry—hell, she was being so brave, I couldn’t let myself. “Want me to bring you anything?” I asked lightly. “Sexy gossip rags, an African violet? A fruit basket?”
“I’d love…a cherry snowball, haven’t…had one in years.”
I swallowed hard, my throat thick with tears. “Sure, kiddo. I’ll bring it this afternoon.”
I got in my truck right away and drove to New Orleans and Lindy Boggs Memorial Hospital where Lynn had been admitted. I stopped to pick up the snowball on the way.
In her room, Lynn lay in bed with a hissing oxygen tube snaking from her nostrils across her sunken chest, but when she saw the pink snowball’s drippy paper carton, she beamed.
“Cool,” Lynn rasped. “Love this shit since…I was a kid.” I sat on the end of her bed making desperately cheerful, one-sided conversation while she swallowed a spoonful or two. Lynn put the snowball on the bedside table. “Do…me a favor?” she panted. “Just…sell Murphy. Don’t know when I’ll be…back in shape to ride. Not…fair to him.”
My hands twisted in her cotton blanket. “If it’s what you really want, I’ll get it done.”
“Sell him…to a kid, he’d…like that.”
I’d be damned before I cried. I could cry in the truck on the way home. “I’ll need some video,” I said, “of him doing what he does best. I’ll take him up to the cross-country course in Bossier and jump him around it.” I promised her, but my heart sank and I broke into a sweat merely thinking of riding cross-country again. Its inherent demands—fearlessness, speed, bloody resolve, total control—seemed so far from my diminished abilities as to be impossible.
Lynn nodded, the light in her face fading, and her eyes closed. “Thanks,” she whispered.
I wasn’t there when she died around eight o’clock the next morning. Friends who were told me Lynn fought her cancer to the very end, that she wanted a new chest X-ray to see if the chemo had worked, if the fluid in her lungs had responded to the antibiotics. At the last, though, she stopped trying to talk, seeming to listen intently as if something or someone called her name from far, far away. Her crying husband told her it was okay for her to go, he’d be alright.
And minutes later, Lynn went.
A month after Lynn’s memorial service I took Murphy to Bossier City to get the video of him jumping around the cross-country course up there. I’d found my own courage, peculiar to the circumstance. With a precariously balanced fatalism, I found myself saying “yes” to perilous risk: it could be a better way to die than most. By then, I knew there were worse ways.
It was a blinding-bright, scorching Saturday in late August, the grass of the course sere and gray with dust, and the ground so hard it rang under the horses’ hooves. While Shawn held the camera, Murphy and I galloped down to the big fences, flying low through the oven-like air together. He was a machine made of hot iron, a loosed arrow of passion and desire, and I was part of him, part of the day, part of life’s glorious Now. The OR’s brilliant point of light burned like a sun in my soul and so it seemed only natural that Death be along for the ride.
Two weeks passed and Murphy sold. He went to live with a little girl in Midland, Texas.
And now, years after that summer, I can turn my head, see Death over my shoulder and nod in recognition. I greet Life’s inevitable end as I do mornings and evenings, but I don’t ride anymore. I’m older, my shoulders and knees are arthritic, and life moves on to new beginnings as well as endings. Still, though, I hear the powerful drumbeat of steel-shod hooves. I remember the fierce leap of two heartbeats galloping as one toward the joyous horizon of I Can.
I believe humans are singular in our fear of dying. All animals live in the shining, star-like roundness of pure being where birth, life and death exist together in perfect simultaneity. Horses don’t build pyramids to house their royal dead, dogs don’t write odes to lost loves and grasshoppers don’t wage war in vainglorious quests for immortality.
Call non-human Nature imbecilic innocents if you will, but they, unlike us, have an inchoate, intimate connection to death. They’re already blessed to know that vast, welcoming peace, while humans endlessly struggle to defend themselves from it if they can—or at best, to keep death separate from everything they know. In the midst of life, we are in death. We humans just turn our fear of it into a ghost.
The pale one rides only with us, and with us alone.