Sir John Falstaff was my hero. He wasn’t just a horse . . . he was the most amazing, empathic, caring and perfect friend anyone could ever ask for. I got him when he was three, an oversized bay paint/draft cross with a sweet disposition and a shy eye. I lost him at age 14 to complications from coronavirus, and while a year has passed, not a day goes by that I don’t feel the pain of his absence. When Falstaff was alive, each morning I’d feed him breakfast then lead him up the hill to his paddock. After I removed his halter I’d wrap my arms around his neck and tell him he was my hero and that I loved him - and I meant it with all my heart and soul. Most days I’d lead him back down the hill to the barn to help me with one therapeutic riding lesson or another, knowing I could count on him to be perfect.
Because of Falstaff, many autistic adults learned to ride independently. Even if a rider couldn’t quite communicate what he wanted the horse to do, one word from me, or a gesture, or even a thought, and Fally would instantly comply. As gentle as he was with my special riders, he also was a skilled jumper and a better-than average dressage pony. Sure, he could get as wired up as any other horse, but the moment I asked him to shift gears and become a perfect gentleman, he’d settle right down and I’d pop a one-year old grandchild on his back. And did I mention he was handsome? Oh, so handsome . . .
It was, however, touch and go when we first got him, and for several years he bucked and crow-hopped with no warning, and seemingly no reason. I later discovered the woman I’d trusted to be his trainer (I worked long hours as a journalist at the time and learned the hard way to take time out to listen to my animals) was beating him and telling people that I was the reason Falstaff would buck her off and take off at a dead run, sometimes dumping her at the airport grounds and galloping a mile home – whatever it took to get away from her. Later, when he’d had enough of her abuse, he went “lame” for nearly a year, managing to avoid all contact with her. When I finally realized what a terrible person I had working with my animals and fired her, within 24 hours Fally completely recovered and went right back into work. Yes, he was also a very, very smart horse.
So, to lose him, this horse that was my partner in my work and in my life, was one of the most devastating moments I’d ever known. And yet, even in death, the gentle and wise Falstaff left me with a precious gift that I am only just beginning to understand.
People who are close to me know I have the ability to communicate with animals, both alive and crossed, humans who have crossed, as well as angels and elementals. It’s a gift that I hid, ignored, and dismissed and then downplayed for years. In my constant battle to be “normal” I did whatever I could to hide what I’d labeled a freakish oddity. My children knew and accepted it – growing up with me they didn’t know anything else. My husband, David, had a suspicion, but didn’t understand the full spectrum of my “specialness” until years after he’d married me and it was too late to run screaming into the night. My close circle of friends also had a clue, but it wasn’t until about two years ago that I began to publicly use my gifts, holding spirit circles on the farm and inviting friends to join in (and I only did that because The Farm, which has a spirit of its own, asked me to.) The truth is, I could very well be the world’s most reluctant medium, and would happily spend my entire life hiding out in a barn.
The day I finally cried, “Uncle!” and allowed all the voices to come pouring in (and there were a LOT of them) was almost a relief; keeping my guard up for so many years had been exhausting. Once I sorted them all out, I was amazed by who was on my side on The Other Side. One of the biggest and boldest guides to step forward was a Native American Chief named White Dove. As I expected, I also had many of my crossed-over relatives in the queue, a long list of very cool animals, a smattering of saints and, of course, angels. (As I reread what I just typed, I am laughing out loud, thinking what kind of crackpot believes she can see these things, and yet, to me, they are as real and visible as the pair of dogs now lying at my feet as write this.)
But now that you understand the background . . . back to the valiant Falstaff . . .
When Falstaff got sick with coronavirus, I knew in my heart it was fatal, but wished with all my heart that it was not. As one horse after the other fell victim to the fever, dehydration and loss of appetite, 18 altogether, I began to sense that one horse would take the fall for the rest, and I knew it would be my most special man.
Less than 24 hours after his first symptoms, Fally was desperately dehydrated. Our equine vet was out of town for the day, and I spent four hours that morning trying to convince a vet, any vet, to come to the farm immediately and install a catheter so we could get fluids into him; I knew it was a matter of life or death, but I couldn’t seem to make anyone else understand.
It was nearly three that afternoon before one finally arrived, and my futile attempts at syringing fluids into his mouth hadn’t touched his level of dehydration. I smelled rot on his breath, and despite 10 liters of fluids dripped into him over the next few hours, Falstaff didn’t improve. His level of pain was increasing, as well, and later that night when our regular veterinarian, Stacey, made it to the farm to help put more catheters into other sick horses, she sniffed his breath and her facial expression registered my worst fears.
We didn’t finish dispensing fluids and meds until nearly 11pm. A combination of tired, frozen and terrified had me shaking uncontrollably, so my husband offered to spend the night in the barn and keep Fally hooked up to fluids while I got some sleep and checked on all the animals in our house. Morning, I hoped, would be brighter.
April 4th, 6am. One glance at Falstaff and I knew he had to get to the clinic at Tufts immediately. Barely 48 hours into this disease and he was failing rapidly. David would have to trailer him up alone as I needed to stay home and take care of all the other sick horses. At that point we had four with catheters hooked up to IVs and several others with high fevers and no appetite. I could hardly bear to see my horse leave the farm without his mama, but with the barn set up like a hospital and all 48 horses needing their temps taken twice a day, I was trapped. We loaded Fally, whose pain was horribly visible, onto the trailer. I wrapped my arms around his neck one last time, told him he was my hero and that I loved him. He held himself together for that short moment, but when I stepped away, he began to rear and kick out from the pain.
I watched as David pulled the trailer down the drive, and then went back to checking catheters and marking temperatures on charts; a broken heart is never a good enough reason for a mother to stop taking care of her children, but all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sob.
The trip to Tufts takes two hours, and David called me two hours and 15 minutes later. Within moments of arriving the clinic veterinarians had recognized something had gone terribly wrong and my Falstaff wasn’t going to survive. My poor husband had called to break the news to me.
“Let me talk to the doctor,” I said, as I got back into my truck to return next door to our house where I felt I could better handle the news.
David handed off the phone and I listened to the list of Falstaff’s vitals – there wasn’t much left to work with. The vet said they could try surgery, but with his heart and lungs as weak as they were, there was little hope he would survive the anesthesia. She handed the phone back to David and I told him I needed five minutes to think.
“He may not have five minutes,” he replied. “His pain is so great that nothing they’ve given him has touched it.”
“Five minutes,” I said, and hung up the phone and called Stacey.
I quickly described what the other veterinarian had told me, and she gently found a way to tell me it was hopeless, but offered to call Tufts and try to get a little more insight. She hung up and I called my husband back.
“It’s too late,” David said. “We’re out of time. I’m standing next to him – he’s lying down in the stall. We have no choice, he’s all done.”
“Don’t let them do anything yet,” I begged. “Just hold the phone to his ear. Please.”
“Go ahead,” David said, “it’s there.”
And one more time I told Falstaff that he was my hero, that he was the most wonderful, handsome, amazing horse ever born, and that I was so sorry I’d ever let that disgusting trainer hurt him, and that I would think of him every single day for the rest of my life and that nothing could ever stop his mama’s love from reaching him, wherever he was. And then my husband took the phone and said it was time and he hung up and I crashed to the living room floor and sobbed.
I knew I would feel it as soon as Falstaff crossed over, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next . . . or maybe I was, as I somehow managed to deal with everything as it unfolded . . .
Moments after I hit the floor, I felt Chief White Dove arrive, and I acknowledged his presence because even when I’m a disgusting, sobbing mess I have to be polite to my guides. The chief was solemn, wearing his full headdress, almost all white with tips of red feathers. He noted my pain, and then, very gently and respectfully, asked if he could take Falstaff as his own horse as he was one of the bravest warrior horses ever known. I didn’t hesitate – if I couldn’t have him, my hero of a pony might as well be with one of my strongest spirit friends. Chief White Dove nodded, bowed his head, and barely a moment later . . . Falstaff was there. He bowed his head in my direction, and before I could even speak to him, White Dove was astride him . . . the light surrounding them was brilliant, like sunlight striking a diamond. The great chief paused to tell me he would give me a gift in exchange for my gift to him, and then they were gone.
There I was, lying in the middle of my living room rug, destroyed and alone. Why did I continue to bring in these animals that I love so much only to lose them and suffer this pain over and over again? My arms began to tremble, and I wrapped them around my chest to try to make them stop, but instead, my entire body began to shake. I held my arms above me and stared at them, but instead of my own two arms, I saw nine sets of arms altogether, eight sets brown and strong, women’s arms, and I understood they were medicine women and White Dove had left them with me as guides. But . . . how? Why?
As I dealt with the details following Fally’s crossing over and the agony of losing him, those arms haunted me. What was I supposed to do about them? Why, oh why, didn’t these celestial gifts come with an instruction booklet?
David had wanted to bring Falstaff home to bury him, but we had decided to allow an autopsy so they could try to understand why this disease took him so rapidly. When they opened him up they were able to immediately tell us that nothing would have saved him as his intestines had deteriorated to the point of being irreparable. A horse with a contagious disease could not be removed from the clinic with an exposed body cavity, and we couldn’t afford the expense of an individual cremation along with the mounting medical bills for the rest of our herd, so the most beloved and perfect animal on the planet was anonymously cremated; my husband returned home with only his mane and tail in a plastic bag.
I wanted to spend the rest of my life in mourning, but alas, I still had a sick herd, and the next two weeks were filled with nursing duties, catheters, IV solution, injections and actually finding new ways to treat the symptoms of a disease that had gotten little attention over the past several years despite its growing presence in the northeast. It was nearly a month before I could take the time to figure out why I was now always surrounded by the spirits of eight Native American medicine women.
I mentioned it at a spirit circle one night under a full moon, and walked around the gathering laying my hands on each person, asking them to tell me what they felt. Each person had a very different experience; some felt electricity and others saw colored lights. Nothing conclusive, but certainly interesting. I knew it had to be somehow connected with healing, as they were, after all, medicine women, but how? I was lost. So I began searching for people with health problems, whom I trusted not to assume I was insane, and asked if I could allow the medicine women to work on them. I started with my daughter, Bo, who was struggling with planters fasciitis, and not only did her feet feel better after the first session, the “Ladies,” as I had begun to call them, told her she needed to take strips of willow bark and wrap them around her feet for several hours . . . again, the pain lessened.
I asked my friend Kim, who had chronic Lyme disease, if I could work on her. Kim was a desperate woman as she’d been partially disabled for years, but within 24 hours of laying my hands on her and asking the Ladies to do their “thing,” she was dramatically better. Repeated sessions led to greater improvement, and within a few months she was able to start riding horses again for the first time in many years.
I begged my daughter to find me a hard case. The Ladies were helping people on the farm who had bad backs, stiff necks and pulled muscles, but I wanted to give them a real challenge. The next day, Bo, who is a massage therapist, called me and said she had a tough one for me, a young woman who had been sick for nearly a decade with no real diagnosis. Her name was Jackie, and her muscles and joints were so stiff and painful she could barely walk. Her digestive system was almost non-functional, and she couldn’t eat. She’d been to dozens of doctors, and all of them agreed there was something dreadfully wrong, but none of them could figure out what it was. Her family was terrified she was going to die. I told Bo to explain to Jackie that I couldn’t make any promises, as I didn’t know the extent of what my Ladies could do but I would be happy to try.
Jackie was at our house within 48 hours, and I placed my hands on her shoulders the way the Ladies told me. Off they went, all eight of them, examining Jackie, collecting up information and bringing it back to me a little at a time. I described the symptoms they gave me – chronic diarrhea, often with blood. Undigested food, food molecules passing into her bloodstream before they were broken down which poisoned her system and stiffened her joints. Jackie corroborated all of this information and asked if the Ladies could help her.
“They say they have this figured out,” I said. “If I work on you twice a week, they say they can heal you. I believe them,” I added.
With nothing else on the horizon to help her, Jackie agreed. Twice a week, whether she felt like it or not, she trekked to Bethany and sat for an hour while I placed my hands on her shoulders and back precisely where the Ladies told me to, and each week Jackie would get out of her chair with a little more ease. It wasn’t a quick cure, for sure, but 10 years of physical decline is a long time. Yet, by the end of the first few weeks, Jackie was eating. A lot. And a few weeks later she noticed she was actually starting to digest her food. A few more weeks and her dozens of trips to the bathroom each day had been cut in half, and in another month or so she saw her first normal bowel movements in years. By then, instead of stiffly hauling herself out of the car and hobbling up the walk to our kitchen door, Jackie could slip out of the driver’s seat with ease and lope to the house with a bounce in her step, arms swinging, smile on her face. Now, some nine months later, Jackie works two jobs, socializes like a normal 20-something year old, and still comes to see the Ladies and me around twice a month, although I’m not sure she needs us anymore.
Meanwhile, the Ladies and I have worked on all kinds of physical and emotional issues, always with success. So far it has only been word-of-mouth bringing people to us, but as I approach the one year mark of the loss of my beloved Falstaff and the gaining of this amazing gift, I feel it’s time to tell the entire story of my horse and his new rider, Chief White Dove, and the medicine women they left behind as they rode off into a brilliant sunset.
I feel the void of Falstaff’s absence every moment of my life, and that will never change no matter how long I live. I console myself with one thought - instead of being a hero for just me and my special needs riders, Falstaff is now a hero to all those that his gift of passing has helped to heal.
Every great gift requires great sacrifice, but the truth of it is . . . I would still give so very much for one more chance to wrap my arms around Falstaff’s neck to tell him he is my hero and I love him . . . and as for having the love and respect of such a noble and extraordinary being for 11 years of my life . . . for me, that has been the greatest gift of all.
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