Hippotherapy

[fiction]

“Daisy, I am sick and tired of seeing you in front of me.”

Judge Doyle sighed and I grinned at him. Despite all my “little” troubles with the law, I liked the juvenile adjudicator. He always seemed like he really respected me, like a kind grandfather who was both amused and annoyed by my little peccadilloes. It probably didn’t hurt that my mother was a lawyer and my stepfather, David, was the city attorney. Plum Grove is a small town—small enough that everyone knows everyone else’s business, and quiet enough that petty teenage transgressions make headlines in the local paper.

“I can’t let this one go, Daisy,” the judge said. “You damaged property and that thing could have hurt someone.”

“C’mon, Judge, it was just an end-of-school prank,” I wheedled.

“You’re fifteen and you think these are just jokes, and I know you’re not a bad kid. But this time you’ve gone too far.” 

He peered at me over his glasses. “I’m assigning you to three months working at the Glee Stables. Maybe spending a summer shoveling manure will help you realize what your life will be like if you continue on this path.” He slammed down his gavel. “Three months. Any more problems will extend the time.”

What was this? Three months shoveling shit? So much for trusting the justice system! I had planned a nice summer of swimming and fooling around free and unfettered with my few friends who hadn’t dropped me since I started my life of crime a year ago. 

My mother came up and touched my shoulder, her sad smile making me feel even lousier. Her wig was slightly listing left, and I reached up to gently pull it back to center. The cancer had really done a number on her, and I patted her wan cheek. 

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whispered, and she kissed my cheek. 

“I know,” she whispered back.

The judge smiled at her. “How are you doing, Linda?” he asked kindly. Everyone in Plum Grove knew about her illness, and I knew they all despised me for giving her grief. But believe me, no one hates me more than I do. 

“I’m okay, Harv,” she said. “One more course of chemo to go, just for luck, but I feel good about it.”

I am such a shmuck. I hate the way I disappoint her, even more so because she’s never made me feel anything but adored.

We headed out of the courtroom, my studded heels chunking on the marble floor. “We’ll get through it all, Daisy, I promise,” she said in her weak voice, then reached a thin arm around my shoulders and I leaned gently against her frail little body. She was still the strong one, always there for me to lean on, and I honestly wished I could do better. I didn’t know what made me so bad, and her tacit understanding always comforted me, even as I berated myself for being such a screwup. I really wanted to believe that I could, but deep inside I felt fires I couldn’t quench. 

The next Monday morning, David drove me to the stables, a hippotherapy facility. I’d never even heard of such a thing, and a little computer research taught me that this was a place where mentally and physically disabled kids and adults got riding lessons and worked with horses, apparently to bond with the beasts and develop some kind of wellbeing. It didn’t matter to me. I was there to clean up after the animals and to do menial, humiliating work like repairing fences and mowing lawns. 

“Okay, Kiddo,” David said. “You made your deal with the devil, so try to make the best of it. Please?” David always took my side: not bad for a stepdad, yet lately I had held him at bay. 

“I will,” I mumbled. 

He gave my shoulders a hug, and I regretted my transgressions even more. David had been in our lives since I was seven, appearing soon after my own dad cleared out. He convinced Mom to marry him, saying he fell in love with both of us. When he adopted me and when my little sister Ana was born, I thought we had the world. Then Mom got cancer two years ago, and everything turned upside down. We all clung together through the surgeries, the radiation, and the chemo. When her results started getting better, and it looked like things would be okay, we released our collective breaths.

Complacency is a bitch.

Last fall, Mom had a recurrence. Another surgery, more radiation, and more chemo. But this time, I started pushing David away, snarling and avoiding him around the house. He didn’t treat me any differently, but somehow I resented his very presence. Sometimes when I watched him with Ana, I’d get a hard little knot in my stomach, and then I’d say or do something mean. I couldn’t seem to help it. He always took it, giving me a look that said, “I understand.” 

That made me feel even worse; how could he understand, when even I didn’t? I hated the way I was feeling, what I was doing, how mean I was to everyone, but I still kept doing stupid, destructive things that led me to a summer of hell at Glee Stables.

We were met by the assistant manager, a perky cheerleader-type who wore khakis and a puke green polo shirt emblazoned with the stable’s crest. 

“Hi, there, Daisy,” she chirped. “I’m Tessa, and I just know this is going to be a wonderful experience for you.”

  “Just point me to the chain gang,” I snarled, and saw a flicker of amusement in her eyes.

“Let me show you around the place,” she smiled and turned to David. “Thanks, Mr. Cohen. Just leave Daisy to me.”

David held me in a hug, whispering, “We’ll order pineapple pizza from Angelo’s for dinner tonight.” It was a bribe: I loved Angelo’s pineapple pizza. But it was his hug that melted me, just a little.

“I’m trying.” 

“I know.” He kissed my forehead and I suddenly shook away from him, not knowing where the sudden frost came from.

Tessa stepped up. “C’mon, Daisy. I know this wasn’t your choice, but let me show you around, and maybe you’ll get a different perspective. I know I did. I started here as community service, too.”

“Yeah?” I eyed the erstwhile debutante. “What did you do, shoplift some eye shadow?”

Tessa laughed. “Grand theft auto.” 

I stopped walking. “You’re kidding!”

“Took my teacher’s car for a joyride. I was fourteen and they sent me here. Best thing that ever happened to me. Last year, I got my Clinical Therapist certification and joined the staff.”

Chastened, I trotted meekly behind as she strode along, waving to everyone she met and pointing out the different areas of the property.

I had figured Glee was just a bunch of riding rings, but it turned out to be so much more, with large grassy areas, woods, trails, obstacle courses, and even a lake and beach. Everything was spring-green and had the earthy smell of an awakening world.

As we walked, she explained, “We work with kids and adults who need something to help them feel whole. Some of them have a congenital disability or physical problem from an illness or injury. Some can’t walk, some can’t even sit up, and riding horses strengthens their balance and empowers them, gives them a freedom out of a bed or a wheelchair. Some have cognitive problems or difficulty communicating with people. They connect with the horses and develop channels of communication they never had before. It’s actually life-restoring.”

Back in the front yard, I was given my first assignment: clean out the stables. “There’ll be more pleasant details,” Tessa said. “I promise you won’t always be shoveling horse apples.” 

Suddenly, the sound of a Harley filled the air, and into the yard roared a sweet ride, with an even sweeter rider: Mason Donnelley, a senior at my school whose scruffy beard and rippling biceps filled my dreams in ways I didn’t quite understand yet, but still enjoyed enormously. I’d spent the past school year watching him stroll the halls with his shoulder-length hair, hirsute beard, and confident swagger. He had graduated the week before, and I wondered now what he was doing here, all sexy in denim, leather, and metal.

He parked the Harley and ambled up to us. “Hey, Tessa,” he said, then glanced at me. “Daisy,” he grinned. “So they finally got you, huh?” Humiliation mixed with elation. Not only did he know who I was, which made me go warm, but he knew my history, which sent a simultaneous chill down my spine. 

“Mason,” I mumbled, unable to utter anything else.

“Hi, Mase,” Tessa said. “Coming to get your summer schedule?”

“Yeah.” He started off. “Catch ya later, ladies!” 

Once he was gone and not taking up all the oxygen, I was able to speak. “What’s he do here?”

“He’s a volunteer.” Tessa sighed and came back to earth. “Verne’s in the stable and he’ll get you started. Let me know when you’re done and maybe we can find you something a little more fun to do.” I headed for the waiting manure piles. 

Fun. Right. 

Still, the thought that Mason would be around was certainly a picker-upper. The thought of a summer working with a sexy stud muffin hit a wall the next day. When I heard the roar of the Harley, I ruffled my hair a little so it fell across my face in what I hoped was a sexy mess. Cool. I could be cool.

So imagine my shock when Supergeek Mason appeared wearing the moss green T-shirt over khakis, hair pulled into a chubby ponytail. Most unnerving of all, his luscious stubble was gone, his handsome face still pink from the razor. He dismounted, waving to me.

“Hey, Daisy.”

“Mason?” I stared. “Is that you? You’re so—so neat!”

He laughed. “What’d you expect?”

“I guess the rebel I’d seen around school, the guy who fought for allowing shirtless vests and beards. They guy who fought the Man!”

He looked amused. “First, I don’t think anyone uses that phrase anymore—especially not suburban white girls. And second, that was a debate team assignment: find something stupid and argue against it. The dress code was stupid.” 

“I didn’t know you were on the debate team.”

He laughed. “Not part of my image? Well, I also belong to Demolay and I’m an Eagle Scout. Disappointed?”

“But you ride a Harley!”

“More fuel efficient than a car. Wish I could take it to college.”

“I’d kind of imagined you backpacking around Europe or joining a rock band or something after high school.”

“Oh, you imagined me, did you?” He laughed again and I felt myself go scarlet. “No, I want to be an architect like my mom. After college, I want to join my parent’s construction firm. They do green construction, off-the-grid stuff, and I want to design and build tiny houses someday. It’s one way to help curb global overcrowding.”

“Wow,” I said. “Not what I expected.”

“Things never are. Keep an open mind about everything. It’s better than making judgments without any basis.” 

“But you always dress so cool,” I said. “Like you don’t give a damn about anything.” 

“I think you may have caught me out. I kind of like the bad boy reputation, but it’s just not me. Still, it’s fun sometimes to pretend to be something you’re not, maybe someone tough or even a little dangerous.” He looked sideways at me and asked, “Isn’t it?” I felt my blush deepen as he continued, “Looks are artificial, and you can’t hide behind something you’re not. Sooner or later you have to be honest.”

“Sometimes you’re just scared,” I mumbled.

“We’re all scared of something. But when you can face your fears and say, ‘This is who I really am,’ well, that’s true freedom.” 

A minivan drove up just then. “There’s our first appointment. See you later.” And he ran to the van. The side opened and Mason slid a ramp out for a little girl in a wheelchair to roll down. Mason pushed the ramp back in and, after a moment talking with the driver, ostensibly the girl’s mother, he commandeered the chair, pushing the little girl toward the stables. 

*     *     *

That evening at dinner, David questioned me about Glee Stables, and I answered in monotones, glad for his lawyerly habit of asking yes or no questions. Mom looked awful, her eyes so heavily sunken and shadowed, she looked like someone had punched her in the face. She said she was too warm even for the light headscarf she sometimes wore, and her face and bald head were glistening with sweat. She was trying to participate in the conversation, but we could see the effort, and David finally demanded she go lie down. When she got up to go, her legs wouldn’t hold her, and David swooped her up and carried her off, her shiny head cuddled against his shoulder. I watched them go, selfishly feeling sorry for myself. A scraping sound brought me back to the table, where Ana was scratching her fork through what was left of her potatoes. She looked up at me, her big eyes frightened, and she finally said what I had been pushing out of my mind for so long.

“Is Mommy going to die?”

I looked at her filling eyes, and grabbed her hand, unsure how to handle this. I decided to try honesty.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope not.”

She started to cry then, big gulping sobs. I pulled her onto my lap and she sat there, crying into my neck, until David came back.

“C’mere, baby,” he said, peeling my sister from me and sitting down to rock her gently, murmuring soothing syllables. It felt cold where her warm little body had pressed against me, and I jumped up to clear the table, trying to swallow the huge lump in my throat.

“You okay, Daisy?” David looked at me over Ana’s blonde curls. I thought about how her hair looked so much like our mother’s—when she’d had hair—and I felt a tenderness toward them both. Then with a painful little jolt I wondered if Mom would be around long enough for hers to grow back, and I felt the ice creeping up to my heart.

“I’m fine,” I mumbled, rushing the dishes to the kitchen and shoving them into the dishwasher. By the time I finished cleaning the kitchen, David and Ana were gone—I presumed he was getting her ready for bed. I flopped onto the couch and flipped on a video game to lose myself in killing aliens.

*     *     *

The next day I was back on manure detail, scooping up the wet, filthy straw from the horse stalls, and flinging it into the big-wheeled dumpster. Afterwards, I headed to the office when Tessa caught up with me.

“Hey, Daisy, would you help us with one of the clients today?”

“Me? I don’t have any certification, or even experience.”

“One of our volunteers called in sick. All you have to do is walk alongside and see that the rider doesn’t roll off the horse.” She sniffed at me. “You can take a quick shower in the office. I have a company polo and some extra khakis you can wear.”

When I was human again and geeked out in company clothes, I was directed to one of the stables, where I saw a big chestnut mare being readied for a ride. On its broad back sat a girl about ten years old, with short caramel-brown curls peeking out from beneath her helmet. A woman was adjusting the child’s seat, and a little jolt went through me when I saw that the spotter on the other side of the horse was Mason. 

“Daisy, this is Princess Emily,” he said, taking the child’s hand and kissing it as she giggled. He patted the big horse’s neck. “And this fine beast is Sammy. Today, we are her knights, ready to protect her from highwaymen.” The child giggled again. I wondered what condition had brought her there. The woman finished tightening the seat and turned to me.

“Hi, I’m Jeanette, Emily’s therapist,” she said. “Let’s get this princess on the road.”

“What do I do?” I asked.

“Walk along and watch her,” Jeanette said. “If you see her starting to tip over, push her back up. If she seems to be having trouble or getting upset, tell me.”

Mason’s constant chatter to Emily about the imaginary journey through enchanted woods was a pleasant counterpoint to the easy sway of the horse and the occasional shifts in gait or movement that came with Jeanette’s soft clucks and whistles. Emily smiled but never said a word.

After the session, we waved at Emily’s departing van, and I turned to Mason.

“What’s wrong with Emily?”

His face darkened. “Nothing’s wrong with her. She’s a wonderful child, sweet and cheerful.”

I realized how terrible my question sounded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. I’m just wondering why she needs therapy. Why doesn’t she talk?”

“She was in a car accident and sustained head trauma, which affected her brain like a stroke, paralyzing her right side and causing aphasia—the inability to speak. The riding is to help her with balance.”

“Sounds like she needs a miracle.”

Mason smiled. “Miracles happen mainly with a lot of hard work.”

That night I had the dream for the first time: I was riding on Sammy’s broad equine back, with Mason walking along on one side and David on the other. I kept tipping, first one side and then the other. I couldn’t seem to make a sound, and I was scared, but each time I slid over, either Mason or David pushed me back up. I woke crying, feeling drained yet somehow relieved.

*     *     *

As the summer went on, I continued the grunt work, but more and more I was asked to help with the clients, and I found myself looking forward to the job. Mom slowly began the long climb back, but was weak, and David started taking her and Ana out for a walk every evening. I wanted to go with them, but something made me beg off, and as I watched them walk down the long driveway together, a feeling like a rock formed in my chest. They looked like a real family, a solid unit. Without me. They were pure and perfect, and I was awful and bad: there was no space there where I fit in.

But I fit in just fine at Glee. I found the physical labor cathartic, my aching muscles replacing my aching soul, and I especially enjoyed working with the clients. I found that despite severe disabilities, these children and adults had a strength and dignity that awed me and minimized my own self-inflicted pain. How could I act out when Princess Emily got so much joy simply being tethered to Sammy’s broad back? How could I revile the world when Harry, a fifty-six-year-old stroke victim, could take such delight at a sprig of Queen Anne’s Lace? How could I feel sorry for myself when Iris, a girl my own age with severe cerebral palsy, could revel in the freedom on horseback that she had been denied on the ground? I found myself enraptured by this stalwart group’s acceptance of the hand they had been dealt, tempered with determination to surmount their obstacles. I loved listening to Jeanette and the other therapists get excited about a client’s progress and found myself celebrating with them even the tiniest vocalization or muscle movement. 

Mason and I took to eating lunch together on a bench, and as he talked about making the world a better place, I realized that maybe I could do that, too. I felt uplifted and positive, ready to be and do better.

But then I’d go home, where I was helpless to do anything to make my mother’s life better—or longer. I’d watch her try so hard to make a normal life for us all, even though she tired so easily and hurt so much. I watched David cheerfully play board games with her and Ana, joking as though there was nothing wrong, and I’d feel that hot ball of anger burn in my belly again, feel the desire to go out and write obscenities on walls or pound my head against a tree, or just scream and scream and scream. It got so that I couldn’t wait to get to Glee every morning, and started going even on weekends, just to be to someplace that made sense to me, where I felt like I was doing something real to help. I didn’t want to act out there, I just wanted to act, to do something good. 

*     *     *

The world turned down toward autumn. As the summer ended, so did my court sentence, and I felt another hole in my heart—a new one, in the space that had been filled by my summer at Glee. School would start soon and Mason would leave for college. That night I had the dream again, but this time, as Sammy started running, I started tipping, but no one was there to push me back up. I was sliding down the horse’s side, nearer and nearer to the sharp, pounding hooves. Suddenly, I looked up and there on the horse was Princess Emily, silent and smiling, reaching out to me. I woke up, covered with sweat, heart pounding and mind racing.

*     *     *

On Mason’s last day before he headed off to college, we had a little farewell party in the office. After the others left for their duties, he and I lingered around the table, nibbling on cake crumbs. 

“This place won’t seem the same without you,” I said, and saw his eyebrows go up.

“Sounds like you’re going to stick around, huh?”

“Yeah, I’ll be an official volunteer after school starts.” I sat back, trying to act cool. “You know, just for something to do.”

He smiled. “Sure. Just to keep from being bored.”

I leaned forward, serious. “I want to help them. The patients. Not as a therapist, that’s not for me. But somehow.”

“Your folks are lawyers. You ever think about doing that?”

“Actually, yes,” I said. “That’s always kind of been in the back of my mind. But how can I—”

“These people need advocates,” he said. “Someone to fight for their rights. You could focus on disability law and be that advocate.”

The idea made sense. “Something to think about,” I said. “Seriously. Thanks.”

“I know you’ll do good things, Daisy. Just trust in yourself.”

God, I would miss him. But he was leaving me with hope. Not a bad deal.

He gave me a ride home on his Harley and left me at my driveway, high with optimism. But when David opened the door, that euphoria was dashed by the look on his face.

“I was just going to call you. Come on, we’re taking your mom to the hospital.” 

*     *     *

Ana squirmed on my lap. “C’mon, Daisy, read.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. It was the next day, and we were in the waiting area outside her hospital room. David’s mom, Nana, sat across from me, her nervous hands shredding a tissue. 

I didn’t understand how this happened. Mom’s chemo effects had started to fade, and she’d seemed stronger and happier the past couple of weeks. Just before I got home, David said, they had been folding towels on the couch when suddenly her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed. 

Dr. Rodriguez was talking to David just outside Mom’s door. As I read to Ana, I split my mind between the words on the page and watching them. Then I saw the doctor put his hand on David’s shoulder, and David’s head dropped, and his shoulders sagged. 

And I knew.

David took a moment, then straightened up and turned to come back to us, his face solemn. He picked up Ana and brushed back her hair. “Daisy and I are going for a little walk,” he said. “You stay here with Nana, okay?” 

“Come here, love, I’ll read to you,” Nana smiled, and David indicated I should follow him. We went to a little room down the hall, and he closed the door behind us. I spun around, trying to keep my voice even.

“She’s not going to get better, is she?”

David hesitated, his face a thousand years old. “No.”

I pushed down my panic. “How long?”

He shook his head. “Not long. A few days, maybe weeks.” His mouth twisted. “If we’re ‘lucky.’” He sat down and covered his face with his hands.

I digested this news. I thought about all the pain my mother had gone through the past two years, how she had never lost her positivity, had always been there with an arm around my shoulder, letting me lean on her no matter how bad I was. What would I do without that arm, that shoulder? Without that smile, that love? 

And I hated myself for thinking of myself when my mother was dying, while David was silently sobbing, while Ana was out in the waiting room, oblivious. 

I wanted to cry: for Mom, for David and Ana, and for me. But no tears came.

David stood and put an arm around my shoulder, but I shook him off.

“Don’t!” I snarled. “You’ll just make it harder for me to go.” I don’t know where the words came from, but suddenly it made sense, everything I had never even considered before, everything that had been curdling inside of me this past year. 

The dream. My father had left. Mason had left. Mom was leaving. David . . . 

David looked perplexed. “Go? Where are you going?” 

“Wherever you’ll send me.” I felt the rock in my chest turning to ice. “Maybe to Aunt Didi. She’d be the most logical.”

Then something like a light came on in his eyes, and he took both of my hands in his and forced me to look in his eyes. “Daisy, you’re not going anywhere, and neither am I. You are my daughters, you and Ana, and the three of us will only get through this together.” He held my hands tightly, as though he could get through to me through a physical connection. “I told you from the start I fell in love with your mother and you together, and I meant it. Daisy. You’re stuck with me, kiddo. Forever.”

“Really?” I whispered. As I looked at him, suddenly he wasn’t David anymore: he was Dad. Just like that, the rock in my chest dissolved into tears that flooded my bottled-up anguish down my cheeks, and I leaned into his arms, sobbing against his shoulder.

Prior to earning her MFA from Northwestern University, Joyce Becker Lee worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, theater columnist, textbook developer/writer/editor, and high school and college instructor of English, writing, and theater. Her stories, features, and poetry have been published in print and online in the US and Canada, and she is currently shopping two novels and a screenplay. A dedicated theater professional, she has spent a lifetime in educational, community, and professional theater as a director, singer, and actor, and she is the author/composer of ten children’s plays and musicals.