My sister Karen passed away peacefully in her sleep on March 14, probably of heart failure, less than 3 months after her husband, Marv, died of cancer.
Where to begin? The first word that comes to mind is “diabetes.” It’s an awful disease. It rules one’s life, plays havoc with one’s plans, and distorts the personality. It chains a person to a daily ritual of blood tests and insulin injections just to stay alive. Diabetes constantly attacks other organs, little by little, every hour of every day, day after day after day. The fight for simple, physical survival is also a battle of the spirit.
Karen was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 7 years old. In 1954, her prospects for survival was 15 years.
Another word that comes to mind when thinking of Karen is “horses.“ My earliest memories of her all have something to do with them. She had pictures of horses on her bedroom wall, statues of horses on every level surface, and books about horses everywhere in the house. When she took up painting, she painted pictures of horses. As soon as she was able, she bought what was to be her first of many more horses to come.
Everyone who knew Karen when she was young, and in relatively good health has at least one horse story. Going horseback riding with Karen was always an adventure. Karen never had a lot of money so the horses she could afford were usually old and not particularly well trained. And since Karen didn’t have a lot of energy to spare, she didn’t spend much time training them herself. I think she mostly just liked having them around. They were good company.
I remember Karen’s first horse, a gigantic Palomino named Gypsy. She was a beautiful animal; solid golden brown with a white mane and tail. Karen was so happy and proud. And why not? It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. I didn’t have to wait long to get an invitation to go riding.
“Wow Karen, nice lookin’ horse.”
“Yeah.” she said, her eyes sparkling with a smile as big as she could make one. It was the same look and lack of speech once reserved for Paul McCartney.
As she prepared Gypsy for riding, she started explaining all the things she was doing and the bad things that could happen if she didn’t do them; cleaning the hooves, checking the teeth, brushing, diet, and so on. As she lifted the saddle onto Gypsy’s back, she explained the importance of getting the tightness of the saddle strap just right. If it wasn’t tight enough the saddle would slip and you’d fall off. If it was too tight the horse wouldn’t like it and you’d get bucked off. There’s a fine line for how tight the saddle strap should be.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that most of what Karen knew came from books. Back then, she had very little practical experience . Of course, everything I knew about horses came from Karen.
We walked Gypsy out to the pasture gate, and Karen turned to me and said, “OK. Hop on.”
After getting on, I shook the reins, said giddy-up, kicked her ribs and anything else I could think of to get Gypsy walking. She was having none of it. She just stood there. After several more attempts to no effect, Karen walked over and slapped Gypsy’s rump and with a giddy-up away we went at a full gallop. I can still hear Karen’s voice as it receded in the distance, “Pull back on the reins! Pull back on the reins!”
Nothing I did had any effect on Gypsy, but more than that, I noticed that I wasn‘t quite sitting upright anymore. Like a ship on a reef taking on water, I was beginning to list to starboard.
With no command from me, Gypsy switched into cruise control and began an easy cantor, but by then I was at about a 30 degree angle to the horse. I decided it was time to abandon ship.
Letting go of the reins and grabbing the saddle horn, I somehow got my feet out of the stirrups and, with a half twist, executed a near perfect Pete Rose style sliding face-plant through the muddy pasture, Gypsy galumphing along beside me.
After coming to a stop, I began to gather my wits. Nothing seemed to be broken. I looked up to see Gypsy standing several yards away staring at me, the saddle now completely under her belly. It’s impossible to say which one of us looked more ridiculous at that moment.
I was not amused, but Karen, who had been trailing us, thought it all hilarious. In between fits of laughter she would say, “Sorry… I can’t help it… Are you OK?” I had the distinct impression that Gypsy had arranged it all for the amusement of her new owner who had been treating her so well. Once Karen convinced me to get back on, Gypsy behaved herself and followed my every command.
There is an odd connection between people and horses. Well, some people anyway. Scientists from archeologists to psychologists have studied this strange connection. Poets and philosophers have written about it. It’s observable everywhere on the planet, and has been for thousands of years. It’s almost mystical in a way. I don’t have it, but Karen certainly did. So did Karen’s husband, Marv. Whatever it is, it’s real.
Even after Karen’s health deteriorated to the point where she could no longer ride, she and Marv continued to adopt horses. They built a barn to hold six of them and put up fencing so the horses could run around if they wanted. They spent untold thousands on veterinary bills, money they didn‘t really have. When one of the horses would die of old age, they’d get another one. It made no sense to anyone but Karen and Marv.
By the time Marv died last December, Karen’s health was so bad that she wouldn’t be able to stay in such a remote location by herself. Nearly blind with a bad heart, failing kidneys, constant numbness in her arms and legs; she was taking insulin shots 4 times a day. She was going to lose everything.
Karen, our brother Steve and I had gone up to the house to collect a few things Karen wanted to keep; Marv‘s cowboy hat, their wedding album, that kind of stuff. I was standing at the back of the house just looking at everything; the barn, the fences, the tool sheds, all the miscellaneous equipment still parked where Marv had left them. All of the animals had already been given away. It was its own miniature ghost town.
Karen came up behind me. She was crying. “We had so many plans,” she said. I was too choked up to speak so I didn’t say anything. It occurred to me that we are all planners. We have our projects, great and small, from the glorious to the mundane. It’s our fate to leave this world with things unfinished.
Later on, Karen would say more than once, “I just want to be with Marv.”
Somehow, somewhere, out there in the darkness, a minor detail in the biggest plan of them all met with a leftover hope from an unrealizable dream. The timing was right. The pieces would fit. They connected, and Karen was gone.