I can’t remember the first time I rode a horse. I grew up on 40 acres in the middle of the rolling hills of Tennessee, and horses have grazed in the fields alongside the half-mile driveway to my childhood home for longer than I’ve been alive. We have pictures of me, barely more than a baby, propped up in the saddle in front of my dad on his horse, Tarzan. Then there are pictures of me just a bit older, sitting with my brother on his pony, He-Man (the 80s bore a very strong influence on our horse-naming strategies), lead rope loose in my dad’s hands. But I don’t remember the first time I ever rode all by myself, just like I don’t remember the first time I jumped off the diving board at the pool or finished reading a book on my own. The horses have simply always been there, a part of my story from the very beginning.
I do know my father was the one who taught me. He grew up showing Tennessee Walking Horses as a boy, and rides a horse as if it were an extension of his own body. He made sure I understood early on that their size and strength must be respected, but I couldn’t be rattled by it.
“The important thing to remember is that you must never show your fear,” he told me. “Talk in a low, calm voice. Grip the reins firmly, but don’t pull back on them. Let the horse feel that you’re in charge and you know what you’re doing.”
Because I was a child, I asked why.
“Horses can sense when you’re afraid,” he said. “The calmest, most broke horse in the world will run off with you if it thinks you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What’s the hardest thing about loving me?”
It’s a dangerous question to ask your spouse at 9:45 p.m. on a Thursday night as you fold a week’s worth of laundry together. My husband Jon cocked an eyebrow at me and gave me a mocking smile.
“Nothing. You’re an absolute delight,” he said, tossing a rolled up pair of socks playfully. I laughed as I threw them back, but I didn’t abandon the question.
“No, I’m serious,” I persisted. I told him I wasn’t asking for a catalog of my faults—in the interest of going to bed at some point that evening—but I was curious. Of all those challenging bits and pieces, which one did he find the most difficult?
Jon sighed. To be fair, he also hates when I ask him what he loves most about me, arguing that he’s not the wordsmith, I am. He studied me thoughtfully, as if weighing how safe an honest answer was. I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin, as if preparing to take a punch.
“You won’t say what you need,” he said finally. “Your mood will shift and I can tell there’s something you want or need, but you won’t tell me what it is. It’s incredibly frustrating.”
It was a precise strike to the gut. I had expected something about my inability to close drawers or maybe even my more introverted, homebody nature. But Jon’s insight, born from 16 years of intimacy, cut right to core of me.
To need or want is weakness, or so my mind tells me. It’s an admission of vulnerability, and vulnerability is just another word for fear, and I remember the lesson from the saddle about fear.
I must never show fear.
I mechanically folded one of Jon’s t-shirts and placed in on the pile. Jon picked it up and shook it out and my jaw tightened reflexively. I still can’t fold his t-shirts to his exacting preference, despite my painstaking efforts.
“I fold them in half now, instead of thirds,” he said by way of explanation. My tightened jaw had not gone unnoticed. “Now that everything is in the two drawers, I have to so they all fit.” He nodded in the direction of the armoire. Until recently, his clothes were housed in the top three drawers; mine in the bottom two. But he watched one Saturday morning as I tried to force one of my overflowing drawers closed in vain and remarked, “looks like you could use a bit more space. Would it help if I shifted some stuff around and gave you an extra drawer?”
“No it’s fine,” I had replied, in a voice that said it really wasn’t fine at all. “I can manage.”
Later that afternoon he beckoned me to the bedroom; he had something to show me, he said. It was my clothes, spread luxuriously over three drawers, folded neatly and organized.
I watched Jon refold his stack of t-shirts with military precision and sighed as I started matching up socks.
“Why don’t you hop in the shower, Love?” he asked. “I can finish up here.”
“It’s fine; it’ll go faster with both of us.” Jon’s hand reached out to still mine.
“Baby. I’ve got this. Go shower.” I nodded and turned to the bathroom. I turned the water on full blast and as I let it warm, I poked my head back through the cracked door.
Jon was halfway out the bedroom to place the kids’ folded piles next to their doors, but he stopped and looked back, with the smirk of a smile I fell in love with when I still spent my weekends riding horses.
“Have we ever talked about your family history of breast cancer?”
I clutched the thin cotton gown closer around myself and shifted, the paper beneath me rustling loudly as I nodded.
An aunt and a grandmother on my father’s side; another aunt on my mother’s. “I know it doesn’t look great on paper,” I said, forcing a laugh.
My doctor flashed a smile and then pushed up her glasses. She explained there were new recommendations now—more frequent screenings, twice a year—for people deemed high risk.
“And I am high risk?” My surprise was evident; my eyebrows were practically touching my hairline.
“According to your family history … yes,” she answered. And I felt it, an overpowering mixture of confusion, fear, and panic trying to claw their way up my throat. I swallowed instinctively and took a deep breath, forcing a steady voice that belied my galloping heart.
“Okay. What do you suggest?”
Genetic testing, she explained. Let’s see if my bleak family history translates to real risk and then go from there. The geneticist’s office would call later that week to schedule a counseling appointment, if that worked for me.
I nodded. Calm and in control, as always. “Sounds like a plan.” I smiled and thanked her as she left me to get dressed. But my fingers fumbled twice with the clasp of my bra as I tried in vain to still my shaking fingers. I put my shirt on backward and struggled to twist it around correctly. Grabbing my purse, I rushed out of the waiting room, down the elevator, and into the car. As soon as I sank into my seat, my shoulders began to shake.
It was the week of Thanksgiving and we’d invited some friends over for Taco Tuesday. The kids were playing together and the husbands were chatting over beers while my friend Emily and I stood shoulder to shoulder at the stove. As I flipped the fish on the grill pan, I told her about the doctor appointment and the recommended testing.
“It could be no big deal,” I said, trying to sound casual. Emily wasn’t buying it. She wanted to know when I found out. A couple of weeks ago, I said, and her blue eyes widened.
“Why are you just now telling me?” she asked. “This is the kind of thing we tell each other.”
I know is what I said, but what I thought was is it? Is this the kind of thing we tell each other? Because it feels like the kind of thing you tell no one. It’s a silly thing to be afraid of, really—the mere possibility that something could maybe eventually go wrong one day. Isn’t that the reality of everyone’s life—that we will all be on the receiving end of bad news one day? The last thing I need is someone minimizing my fear; I know there’s nothing to be afraid of. Not yet, anyway.
It was the not yet of it that had my stomach in knots.
Dinner was ready, and we started dishing up plates for the kids.
“Well, if you want me to go with you to the appointment, let me know,” she said.
“I will,” I said, knowing that I wouldn’t.
When I was about 12, I got a new horse. Her name was Precious and she was a beautiful Arabian—her solid white coat interrupted with a dusting of gray spots across her back. Arabians are especially spirited horses, and Precious was the most challenging horse I had ever attempted to ride.
I tried to calm my nerves with a few steadying breaths as I swung my leg over her back and settled my feet in the stirrups, but she could tell. I planned to do a brisk trot once around the barn to get acquainted, but as soon as we turned the corner, Precious broke out in a gallop. I pulled on the reins and said “whoa” firmly. She ignored me and continued to race at top speed. Finally, in the farthest corner of the front field, she stopped short underneath a large oak tree. My heart beat wildly in my chest and I still clutched handfuls of her mane as she placidly reached out to grab a mouthful of fresh spring grass. My dad arrived, breathless, on his own horse moments later.
“Are you okay? What happened?”
“I’m fine,” I said shakily. “I think she knew I was a little nervous though, and just took off. I couldn’t get her to stop, so I gave up and held on.”
“You did the right thing,” he said. “Even though it feels like they’re running away with you, they won’t run forever. They’ll always stop once they get where they want to be.”
We sat for a few moments so I could catch my breath, and then my dad asked if I was ready to head back. I nodded, chin up and shoulders back as if my posture could keep my fear at bay. I think my dad knew, though.
“Stay behind me,” he called over his shoulder. “If she tries to run again, steer her right into ole Blaze’s rump,” he said, with a pat on the neck of his horse. “He won’t mind and it’ll sure slow her down.”
I haven’t ridden horses in a couple of years. The last time I was on one, in fact, I took a bad spill and ended up with a nasty black eye and some nerve damage in my face. I still can’t feel two of my front teeth. I was ready to get back in the saddle the next week—can’t let fear have the last word—but it was Jon who stopped me. He asked me to be more careful; reminding that there were people who needed me. I’m not afraid of riding and wanted to argue, but the people I care about matter, too.
Last week, I sent Emily a text.
“This is like three months out, but … my genetic counseling for the cancer screening is on Feb. 26 at 1:30. If Jon is out of town, would you be up for going with me?
Minutes later, her reply.
“Absolutely. I’ll put it on my calendar.”
It turns out there’s an alternative to walling off my fear. I can let someone else in, and ask them to share it.
The chinks in the wall are where the light gets in.