There is before and there is after. Nothing else matters some days, but this morning I hear the horses nickering gently to each other in the corral outside my window, waiting for me to get up and feed them.
Hill Country bluebonnets are beginning to bloom and soon the roads surrounding our ranch will be choked with cars bringing the tourists that subsidize our rural economy, allowing us to live in this beautiful place.
My son, the college boy, is still asleep and I tread lightly, as I head outside, to keep from waking him. He had a rough time of it last night, with leg spasms that kept both of us up. I laid warm compresses on his legs and gave him an extra dose of muscle relaxant. He finally fell asleep about four o’clock. No such luck for me. I wish Josh would get home soon. His working on the rig for two weeks on then two weeks off never used to bother me. Now, since the accident, his two weeks away seem like an eternity. When he is home, I sleep easier knowing he is there, another set of ears to hear our son call out in the night.
Outside in the warming sun I feel better. The air smells of last night’s rain, fresh with new life. I call the horses and they quickly gather round me, as I set out hay and fill their water trough. Black Gold (our BG) nuzzles the pocket of my jacket to find his special treat. He seems to sense he is my favorite and I sneak a bite of carrot to him, out of sight of the others. His name, a nod to oil rich Texas, where we live, and the horse of Marguerite Henry fame, suits him well. He is coal black with white hind stockings. “Hey beautiful,” I murmur as I rub his forehead. He butts against my hand, looking for another treat, a spoiled teenager, blossoming into grace.
“Hey, Mom, we’re out of juice.” Isaac sits, his wheelchair in the doorway, dressed only in boxers, his wavy brown hair tousled from restless sleep, a grin on his face.
“Put it on the list,” I shout back. “I’ll be in soon.” I hurry and finish with the horses. I have to shower and dress and get Isaac to rehab by nine. Every day, Monday through Friday, this is our routine. Our lives before and our lives after. I shake my head forcefully, trying to dispel the sadness that clouds my days now. I cannot let it in.
Everything had been so normal. Isaac had joined some friends at a local swimming hole at the river, before heading back to college for Fall semester. He swore they hadn’t been drinking, that the rope swing had snapped, dashing him back first onto the shallow bank, shattering his spine.
“How are your legs this morning?” I ask as I grab a piece of toast from the toaster.
“Better, I think the compresses worked,” he replies softly. I can hear the gratitude in his voice, even though he doesn’t speak the words. “I think Crystal is going to try and stand me in the parallel bars today.”
Isaac is a paraplegic, retaining the use of his arms and upper body. His is an incomplete break, meaning he has some feeling and control below the level of the injury and may possibly walk again. A one in eight chance. Crystal, his physical therapist, knows what makes my son tick, when to push and when to hold back, and he has made amazing progress with her. He can care for himself now, albeit from a wheelchair, something he prides himself on. For a 21-year-old, this is crucial.
“You’ll see. Before long I’ll be training Black Gold.” I pray that he is right. I am only the colt’s caretaker. He belongs to Isaac.
The colt had a rough start in life when our mare Chauncey fell ill and almost died shortly after the foaling. With Josh away, Isaac and I took turns bottle feeding him, hence his strong bond to us. The spoiled rotten part is probably my fault, another baby to love.
“Have you eaten something yet? Hurry and get dressed. I need to make a stop on the way and pick up some worming medicine at the feed store.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he mutters as he pops a wheelie in his chair and heads into the bedroom.
Josh will be home this Saturday and we will start the sorghum planting. I have asked him to put in some sunflowers as well, as I have a buyer for them already. Their bobbing yellow heads cheer me as I drive up to the house, as if in greeting.
It is too quiet in the truck as we drive to therapy. I know Isaac has something on his mind and is hesitating to speak. I try to make light conversation. “It’ll be nice to have your dad back home next week and start the planting, don’t you think?”
He nods. “I’m going down to Galveston next week with my friends, for spring break.”
I shake my head no before I find my voice. “It’s too soon.”
“It’ll be fine Mom.”
“How are you going to manage? What if the leg cramps come back? How are you even going to get on the beach? And there’ll be drinking.” I struggle to come up with more reasons.
“I won’t drink, I promise.”
I shake my head no again, trying to remain calm and choose my words wisely.
He is silent. I glance sideways at him and his face is masklike, angry and pained at the same time.
“I’m not asking your permission,” he replies curtly. “I just thought you should know.”
My throat tightens and I feel the fear creep from the pit of my stomach into my chest, its cold fingers gripping my insides.
“Why don’t you talk to your dad about it when he gets back? He’s home on Saturday.”
“No, Mom. We’re leaving before he gets home, this Friday afternoon. I’ve told the guys I’m coming. I knew you wouldn’t like it. That’s why I didn’t tell you sooner.”
“What about your therapy?” My voice sounds desperate.
“Crystal is going on vacation next week, so I would have a different therapist anyway. She’s okay with this.”
I feel the damp tears on my cheeks. They blur my vision and I grip the steering wheel so tightly my fingers go numb. I can’t let him go and yet I have no choice. A sob escapes, and I stop myself from losing control by biting my bottom lip hard.
“Don’t. Mom. Don’t make it harder. I’ll be okay.” Isaac’s face has turned from cold to worried. We pull into the outpatient center and I nod, realizing I have forgotten to make my stop on the way here.
“I’ll run to the feed store while you’re at therapy,” I say, tears streaming down my face. I turn my head to hide them from Isaac. I have cried enough for the both of us in these past months. I pull his wheelchair from the back of the truck. Isaac slides out of his seat into it, saying nothing and heads slowly up the ramp into the clinic. Driving on, I let the sobs wrack my body, forcing me to pull over until I gain my composure. I cannot risk losing him again and I cannot demand he stay. He is almost 22, an adult, and I share the burden of all mothers, the caretakers of our families, trying to keep our loved ones close and out of harm’s way. He is home out of necessity, not of desire. I know he wants to be on his own again, but I am so afraid.
“How’s Isaac coming along with his therapy?” Fred at the feed store asks, leaning his hefty frame across the counter and giving me a concerned look. He has known Isaac since he was a toddler, chasing errant chickens around the store. So many of our neighbors rallied around us after the accident, bringing over casseroles, offering to feed the horses, calling us to offer their moral support. We were overwhelmed with their kindness. But they have gone on with their lives, as we struggle with ours. Josh, Isaac, and I are trying to move forward on our own.
“Pretty good,” I reply. “He’s going to Galveston for spring break with some friends this week.” I try to say it flippantly, but Fred sees through my false bravado. He is a father of three sons.
“Worried, huh?” I nod and he reaches a large hand across and pats my shoulder. “Josh know?”
“Not yet, but he will soon enough. Thanks, Fred.” I grab my bag and leave in a hurry, yelling thanks as I let the door slam behind me.
I decide to take Chauncey, our mare, out for a long ride in the afternoon, to clear my head. I have been too busy to give her the exercise she needs. I’ll phone Josh tonight and tell him the news. He’ll likely take it better than me.
A soft breeze blows and I smell our neighbors’ apple blossoms. A tufted titmouse sits on the fence and calls to his mate. I am glad we have left the blackberry brambles and grasses unmowed, so that the birds can raise their young there. Community is important, whether you are a person or a bird. Chauncey’s ears perk forward at all the spring sounds and she strains at the bit as I ease her into a gentle lope across the pasture. I see the creeks are swollen with runoff from the recent rains, a good sign for those of us who farm.
My parents bought this ranch in the seventies, as a midlife retreat. Josh and I had hoped that our son would farm it someday. He is studying agriculture and business at the University of Colorado, but I wonder now if it will be too much for him, if he will be able to manage it. Some days he seems content, accepting of his new life, unlike me, but I wonder if he is in denial, that he believes he will defy the odds and walk again. I see clouds gathering to the west and wonder if we’re in for a storm tonight.
After supper Isaac and I watch the news, which confirms my suspicions of a storm. We head outside to make sure everything is securely tied down. He follows me on the cement walkway Josh and I had poured around the house and barn, after he struggled in the dirt with his wheelchair. I consider putting the horses in the barn but decide to leave the door open instead. They are used to the freedom of being outside
There is no further discussion about spring break. I phone Josh later, from the bedroom, and tell him the news quietly, so Isaac cannot hear me.
“It’ll be okay,” he reassures me. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, like you.”
“It’s not Isaac I’m worried about. It’s his friends not looking out for him because they’re too drunk to notice.”
I hear Josh take a deep breath. “I know,” he says softly. “I love you and I’ll be home first thing Saturday and we’ll do something fun,” he says and his voice comforts me a little because he shares my fear.
Before getting ready for bed, I look in on Isaac, who I find reading a textbook in his room. He is hoping to resume his studies, possibly next semester. “Need anything before I turn in?”
He glares at me. “I am going with the guys to Galveston, just so you know. I’m not a little kid anymore.” He takes a deep breath, as if gathering strength. “Mom, it didn’t happen to you. It happened to me. Don’t you get that?”
I feel gut punched. I try to speak but no words come. He is right, but so wrong. It happened to us, our family. Does he not understand that? Why has he been able to move forward and I have not? I back out of the doorway slowly and say nothing.
The storm comes in with a rage later that night and I am awakened by a large crash. I make my way to the front door with a flashlight and look out onto the yard, past the barn. I see that a large limb has broken off our old oak and I hope it hasn’t damaged the fence. It is too wet and miserable out there now to explore it further, but I will check it at first light. I return to bed with an uneasy feeling.
Early the next morning I am awakened from a beautiful dream. My son and I are running with our old hound Cody, long gone, through a meadow filled with flowers, down to our creek, where boy and dog hunted for frogs. Our horses graze in the long grass. Isaac is shaking me roughly. I long to stay asleep where I am safe, happy.
“Black Gold has gotten out. The fence is broken,” he says, the words barely registering in my fog-filled brain. “A huge oak limb crashed right through it.”
“Are you sure? Are the other horses there?” I ask, now wide awake, my adrenaline pumping.
“They’re in the barn.”
I pull on my clothes as quickly as I can, splash some cold water on my face and grab the keys off the dresser. “Are you sure he’s not around the back of the barn?”
“I checked already, twice.” He sounds scared. BG is his baby and I can see the strain on his face.
“Meet me at the truck in a couple of minutes. He can’t have gotten far.” I blame myself for not locking the horses in last night.
We drive along the narrow lanes that split the ranches, eyes peeled for a black horse. It is so unlike him to leave the safety of his barn, his mother, his herd. The crash of the limb must have frightened him, causing him to panic and run. I pray he hasn’t made it to the highway or tried to cross a swollen stream.
“We’ll find him. He’s smart, I know he’ll be okay.” Isaac seems to be reassuring himself instead of me. The words sound so familiar. The day of the accident comes rushing back to me. I was in line at the grocery store. Have you heard? The rope swing on the river broke and one of the boys was rushed to the hospital with a possible broken back. I knew my son was at the river with his friends that day and I began to tremble. Let it be one of the others, I selfishly thought. It can’t be Isaac. He’s too smart, too careful. It must be somebody else’s son.
I put my hand on my son’s shoulder. “He’s a smart colt,” I say.
“He just got scared and ran off. Don’t you think?” Isaac says. I nod and keep driving, feeling tiny fingers of fear taking root in my gut. Don’t let this end poorly. Don’t let more pain into our lives than we can bear. A memory: my son cradling the tiny newborn foal across his lap, bottle in one hand, as he strokes and soothes him to sleep. “Like Black Gold,” he whispers. We continue to scan the fields for Isaac’s colt, his baby. He pulls out his phone and calls his friends, asking them to help us in our search.
We stop at our neighbors, Tom and Lucy, and inform them. Tom offers to help us look. We map out a plan and he hops in his truck and heads in the opposite direction. That’s how it is, not expected, just offered, a lifeline in a storm.
We drive past field after field of blue, the morning sun now shimmering on droplets left from the night’s rain. I think to myself how beautiful the land is and how lucky we are to live here. We drive down back roads rarely traveled, some just paths really, searching, searching, until our eyes ache. There is no sign of Black Gold. My stomach growls, reminding me I haven’t eaten since last night. I glance at my watch. We have been searching for three hours.
“Let’s go home and grab a bite,” I say. I hear the sadness in my voice. “I’ll saddle up Chauncey and ride into the hills after breakfast.” Isaac nods sullenly as he stares at the road. He sees none of the beauty of last night’s rain, the beautiful greening of the land with the arrival of spring. I feel his heart breaking in his silence because I have been there. Am still there. The pain of losing himself and now this.
As I pull the truck into our driveway, I see something in the distance that makes my heart soar, a black rear end trotting rapidly toward the barn, in an apparent hurry to get to breakfast. I tap Isaac on the shoulder. “There, ahead, looks like the wayward son has come home”.
He shouts and lunges forward in his seat with excitement, as we pull alongside the colt. I jump from the truck and call “BG,” touching my pocket. He stops, turns his head to look at me, then spins around and gallops toward the barn. He whinnies a loud greeting to his barn family, before stepping carefully over the broken fence to join them.
“Ungrateful beast,” I say grinning at my son. “You need to teach that colt some manners.”
“You’ve got that right.” I can hear the relief in his voice.
Isaac releases the other horses from the barn while I prop up the broken fence, a temporary fix until Josh gets home. Isaac meets me by the gate.
He turns and whistles to his colt and Black Gold perks his ears toward us, hesitates, then continues nuzzling the others, seeking comfort in the closeness of his family. It has been a frightening night for him too.
The daffodils have burst in bloom along our fence since the overnight rain, a neighbor’s gift of spring, planted in the midst of our darkness. The morning sun warms me, as it does the flowers. Why is it so easy to love a place? It cannot love us back. Colts grow into horses and boys into men, and it is our privilege to love them both. I touch my son gently on the shoulder.
“I’m starving. How about some breakfast?” I say, as I turn toward the house.