A Private Loss

Charlotte Miller

Every morning this week there was a reason to weep. Of course, every week, every day, somewhere, there are a million reasons to weep. But this week we saw the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and a tragic, personal loss in my circle of friends.

I cried a lot for Bowie, for his boldness and thoughtfulness, recklessness and wisdom — such a rare combination. And for his music: more than a dozen of his songs are in the soundtrack of my life. I pored over videos of his performances and interviews, read articles, looked at photos from his remarkable career. I even dreamed about him. I shared eulogies, sad emojis, and videos on Facebook. Heroes and Let’s Dance shuffled on my inner radio, the one I can’t turn off.

Two days after Bowie there was news of actor Alan Rickman’s death. Another artist gone. Everyone was saying that both were “taken from us.” But as I became aware that a friend’s daughter had died on the same day as Rickman, all public mourning was eclipsed by a private tragedy.

Charlotte was the fifteen year-old daughter of my friend Barney Miller, a musician and film editor in NYC. Reading Barney’s initial Facebook posts, I didn’t immediately understand that her death was by suicide. It sent me, and all of Barney’s cyber friends, into despair.

There is a photo portrait of Charlotte that her mother, Caitlin, took last summer. She is dressed in a navy blue English riding show coat, a white show shirt, and a Charles Owen helmet. She is holding a red ribbon in her black-gloved right hand, in front of what I imagine is a happy smile. Maybe she is squeezing her smile behind her lips. Her dark eyes snap directly at the camera. I love this photo, I relate to it. I was that girl once. I’ve known many girls like that since, girls who bloom in the company of horses and become strong and sensitive like them.

Charlotte Miller

When Barney first posted the photo I commented, “Well she certainly has the equine ‘virus’. Good to see her wearing the Charles Owen. PS she may never recover!” I was confident in my long-held opinion that horses can teach us to cope, help us grow up, even save us. But now I want to take back my comment. Instead of never recovering from a love for horses, a love so much like a virus that stays in the blood for life, Charlotte will not recover at all. She will never bloom in that way, or maybe she never found enough solace in a horse’s warm breath, tempered strength and generosity, in anything, to spare herself. I see no hint in the photo of the distress that drove her but it seems no one could save her.

Public and private loss. I know that private loss happens all the time, everywhere. All the time. Every day there is a reason to weep. Death reaches in, overwhelms. No one escapes, no one is immune. My own losses compound as I age and I have to find a way to balance them with beauty, memory, and hope. It’s hard.

Years ago I had a personal loss in the midst of a public tragedy. On April 18, 1995, my father died one day after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He succumbed ten days after being hospitalized for a head injury due to a fall. His health had been compromised from radiation and chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer metastasized to the brain. Like Bowie and Rickman, he was just sixty-nine years old. Meanwhile, the airwaves were flooded with video, photos, and interviews expressing outrage, grief, and analysis. One hundred sixty-eight died in the explosion in Oklahoma City, including nineteen children, and more than more than six hundred eighty were injured. This pre-9/11 tragedy, a homegrown terrorist attack, was inescapable and distracting, forcing my grieving family into a silent, altered universe of private grief set apart from the rest of our culture. I looked for connection and meaning everywhere, anywhere.

I found it in the hot summer of 2000 when I visited the memorial at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing while I was playing gigs nearby. In some ways this was the most important event of that tour. As always, while I sang and played my songs, I felt the familiar longing for connection, and its partner, skepticism about ever finding it. But it wasn’t until I visited the memorial site that I made the connection. I spoke with one of the uniformed docents, who stood respectfully nearby as visitors walked the grounds. She was dark haired and trim, in her 20s, hands loosely clasped behind her back in a show of deference. I told her my story. We walked together a bit and stopped to look at the empty chairs. I wrote Sunny Day in Terre Haute after that experience.

Charlotte’s death only touches me on an angle, but it is so harsh, so loud, much louder than Bowie’s and Rickman’s, louder than whatever personal drama I was playing in the days before it. It stirs up the deaths of my husband Eric, my father, my cousin Billy (suicide), my beloved horse, Shady. I look at Charlotte in her show clothes, proudly holding her red ribbon. I grieve for Barney, Caitlin, and Charlotte’s sister, for Charlotte’s friends. I grieve for families who have lost teenaged children to suicide, children who were truly and unspeakably taken from them. I will admit that I grieve for myself. And for Charlotte, because inside me, what hurts the most is that nothing could save her. Not even horses.


Charlotte’s family have created a Suicide Prevention charity in her name.

Photo © Caitlin Felton

 

Spring Haiku 2011 – Part 2

a single egg fell
from the nest in the pine tree
doves in grey mourning
4/17/11

sometimes when I ride
i want to close my eyes and
let the horse rein me
4/19/11

having a kitten
means going through bandaids
like a house afire
4/20/11

on May twenty-first
at precisely twelve a.m.
rapturous moonrise

as the clouds were limned
just before the moon came up
i heard coyotes
5/21/11

Song: When The Horses Start Singing

A deep winter song, for the longest nights, the coldest nights, when your breath opaques the air and the snow squeaks under your boots.

Video: When The Horses Start Singing

Lyrics:

On the coldest night of the year
Everything stops
No spin to the earth
No turn of the season
Words have no meaning

Black sky curves overhead
Inverse of snow
Sublime, absolute
We are mute with conviction
Then the horses start singing

We were waiting for the reset of time
We were waiting for this moment to arrive
We were waiting for it all to synchronize

On the coldest night of the year
when all the words fail
Our breath falls like diamonds
Language is silenced
When the horses start singing
We listen

This Is My Horse

Shady has been getting Platinum Performance supplement for several years. Recently she was featured on the company’s blog.

It’s interesting and moving to read horse owners’ accounts of their companions. I am amazed at the variety and scope of horses and horse activities.

There are some celebrities, too. I always liked Lyle Lovett. Now I like him even more, knowing he is a “horse person.”

Read the Blog

Germain and Jim

Germain is a serious rider, a veterinarian and animal behavior consultant. Sometimes I’m a little alarmed by his methods. But there is no doubt he has done an amazing job training Jim, his OTTB (off-the-track Thoroughbred), in dressage and pleasure. He uses a Dr. Cook bitless bridle, as do I with Shady.

Visit  Animal Behavior Consultants of Upstate NY

Here he is on a cool early spring day, with Jim.

Germaine and Jim stretching.
Germain and Jim stretching.
Groundwork.
Groundwork.
Eh, bon.
Eh, bon.

John Martyn has died

John-Martyn-770-2-600x337

My college friend Eric Amrine introduced me to singer-songwriter John Martyn in 1976, when we were just 20 years old. We were both guitarists and drawn to mind-altering experiences. Martyn’s Scots-folk-soul was instantly addictive: full of yearning, hypnotoc, melancholy, angry-yet-sweet.

Just the other day my doctor, who is British and the same age as Eric and me, mentioned Martyn and Nick Drake to me in the same sentence. We were standing in the barn as the horses came in for the night, and our breath fell from our mouths like clouds. In winter, when the air is so cold that we are reminded of the thin line between liquid and solid, this is the music we listen to: John Martyn, Nick Drake. Solid Air is the record I still own. Martyn dedicated the title track of his best-known album to the brilliant and insomniac Drake, who died of an overdose at age 24.

Eric and I went to college a mere 200 miles from Woodstock, NY, where Martyn and other lights of the music world also lived in the late 1960s. Martyn once said, “Jimi Hendrix owned a house literally over the road. He used to fly up every Thursday in a purple helicopter. He was very quiet and used to tell me how much he loved the animals.” I was surprised to learn John Martyn was only 60.

John-Martyn-770-2-600x337

My capacity for denial is selective and applies to the passage of time. Eric is forever 20, for instance, and Martyn’s music is frozen with our youthful faces in that time. Yet death looms. It always has and always will, of course, but as my own age trespasses on the  territory of the daily obituary, death is so close you can touch it. Every morning of this cold spell I worry about the deer and the feral cat that I have seen once, whose tracks I see in stringing through the snow. How do they survive? How do the birds keep warm in their tiny of feather coats? How do they hold on in the wind?

I don’t know. I hear Martyn singing, I don’t want to know about evil. I only want to know about love.

The cold-backed mare

Shady has always been “cold backed.” That’s what horse people say when the horse has a sore back, flinches at pressure, grumbles at being saddled or girthed, or exhibits any sign of unhappiness at weight or pressure on the back.

Shady, spring 2009
Shady, spring 2009

This gets in the way of riding. Unfortunately that’s how I saw it before I understood it. But I have finally seen that a prejudice about horses and what they could do for me got in the way of an appropriate response to my horse’s pain, or what I could do for her.

I was raised to presume any resistance on the horse’s part was unacceptable behavior. It never occurred to me that anything other than lameness or signs of colic was cause for a change in my behavior, not the horse’s behavior. I regret this but I have changed.

I learned a new word: diskospondylosis, also known as “kissing spines.”

Now, a properly fitted saddle, steroid injections, correct shoeing, massage, layoffs and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory tablets are part of Shady’s routine care, and part of my own behavior modification.

Of course it’s harder in winter. But every now and then we have a near perfect ride, like yesterday. At 18 (her age) and 52 (mine) this involves much creaking and grimacing, but we still click. We have a long walking warm up and then I have to stay off her back as much as possible, giving her muscles freedom to support the spinal impingement. I post lightly in my seat for the trot, get up in my 2-point for the canter, and then she relaxes. My wonderful, beloved, dependable dead-broke mare replaces the resistance.

It’s hard on my knees and not exactly the kind of riding I wanted to be doing right now — I was doing training level dressage — but that’s life.

Once again my horse has taught me about my shortcomings, my capacity to change, and the need for sensitivity and compassion. Proving again that I need her more than she needs me.

Shady and me in 2003.
Shady and me in 2003.