Monday, June 29, 2009
Sunday, June 14, 2009
It was the summer of 2003 and I had been working all year to qualify my horse for Nationals, which was held the first week of August in Virginia. By putting aside school, friends and even family Onyx and I were qualified to go to the competition, with only one problem. My uncle was getting married the last week of July in California and my parents insisted that I be there with the rest of the family. I would make it to Nationals, but my horse would spend the entire week prior to competition lounging in his pasture, losing training and muscle tone.
“One of these days you will understand how important family is,” my parents scolded anytime I tried to argue my attendance at the wedding. So I boarded the plane resentfully, not knowing that it would be the last trip we took as a family: my mom, my dad, my sister and myself.
I was an hour away at the time of the accident on Labor Day, September 1, 2003. While other families were celebrating with picnics and barbeques I got a phone call from my dad, telling me Kathryn had been in a wave runner accident. I wasn’t sure what to think – I could tell it was bad by his tone, but he wouldn’t give me any details. All he would say is that my uncle was coming to take me to the hospital.
It wasn’t until we walked into the emergency entrance that I realized my life would never be the same. All normalcies in which my life had revolved around up to that point had just been yanked out from under me, sending me flying unceremoniously into a dark hole. My fourteen year old sister, Kathryn Elise Henson, was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Joseph’s Mercy Center in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She was caught in a thunderstorm while trying to make it back to the dock on her wave runner. As the rain cleared my parents looked out and saw the wreckage a couple hundred yards away against some large rocks on the shoreline – Kathryn’s wave runner had gone airborne and flipped on top of her; despite all the rescuers’ repeated attempts to revive her, my sister died on Lake Ouachita.
For the next couple of days sobbing, tears, and hushed whispers filled the house as friends and family filtered in and out; bringing food and supplies in exchange for updates and the latest gossip. My parents became hollow human shells as they made the arrangements. Mothers should never have to pick out burial clothes for her daughter; fathers aren’t supposed to sign for caskets and floral arrangements for their little girls.
When visitors came to the house, visitation and funeral it became hard to tell who was comforting who. I found my only comfort in my horse. He was the only one who never gave me the dreaded looks of sympathy or those rib crushing hugs; he was just there for me, letting me cry in his black mane and mentally escape from everything going on in the physical world.
The months that followed were hollow and stale. My parents did the best they could to remember they still had a living daughter, my teachers at school cut me more slack than necessary and the students tried not to stare when I walked by. I filled my days with horses, doing everything I could to try and be a normal high school senior, but always fell short.
Graduation day sucked. There was a scholarship given to one of my classmates in my sister’s name that my dad presented. All I could think about was the fact that my sister wasn’t there and that we sat under a huge steel beam that had the words “In Loving Memory of Kathryn Elise Henson” painted onto it along with the entire student body’s signatures. As all my classmates left to go to various graduation parties and my family waited for me at my house, I drove to the cemetery and hung my tassel on my sister’s grave. It killed me that she would never get the chance to walk across the stage and receive her own diploma. She would never get to have a boyfriend or go to prom and laugh with her friends; she had such a great laugh.
I look back now at my life and see that it is separated into two sections: “Before” and “After”. Before Kathryn died I was carefree, immortal and driven. I figured that I would qualify for the 2008 Olympic and then go on to compete in the 2010 World Equestrian Games and that my family would be there for me after I’d conquered the equestrian world. I didn’t take into account that sometimes you have to put your family first; because I never had to prior to that stormy Monday.
After Kathryn died I learned the hard way to cherish every minute I had with my family and friends, because a life can be taken with just a shift of the wind. I had to put my east coast competition goals and college career aside because I didn’t want to be sixteen hours away from my family so soon after Kathryn’s death. Whenever my family needs me, whether it is good or bad, I am there; even if it means putting my own riding career on the back burner for a couple of days. I learned with a single heartbreaking experience that being with my family for a week is more important than doing well at a single horse show. There are horse shows every weekend, but I only have one family.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
The butterflies from the night before had vanished; replaced with cold heavy iron. I tightened up the girth, checked my helmet and started towards warm up. Eight horses and riders galloped around the three jumps set up for warm up, a sort of organized frenzy. Though it was hardly my first cross country course, it included one of my greatest demons. Seventeen jumps completed the Training level course in
I completed my quick warm up with a stern face, nearly everyone at the show stayed out my way - they knew it was one of my last chances to prove myself. The night before, two hundred miles north, my high school friends had danced the night away in formal dresses, tuxedos, and limos, one of the last rites of passage of a graduating senior. This course, this jump, was more important than that, it represented more than senior year, more than caps and gowns; it was the key to my future and happiness. This was my rite of passage.
As I waited for the starter to count down from ten, everything around me dissolved, all that was left was my horse and me. We sprung from the start box straight to a gallop. Fences one, two and three came and went quickly and easily. The first real question wasn’t until the bending line at jump four. Several riders had issues here but we bounced through it as though they were x-rails. Launching into the second field I felt Onyx question a large table. SMACK with the whip. We were over it. Even over the preceding jumps I only had eyes for number fifteen. Over the combinations at jump seven and eight; through the water complex at eleven and we were on our way.
Well ahead of the clock we flew over the last couple of barriers before the trakehner. As we hit the long gallop stretch leading up to my boogey jump everything slowed down. It seemed that time went backwards; back to four months prior, the last time I faced this fence. The fence had won that time, the ditch eating me whole. White hot panic seized my stomach and I thought about turning out. Instead I pulled Onyx into a circle. In the circle I saw my parents, their faces both hopeful and scared; my trainer, she knew I was panicking; all of my friends and teammates, their faces frozen in anticipation.
In the last quarter of the circle I turned my head away from the friends and family present to watch the personal battle; I turned and focused on the two flags of the monster. Red on right, white on left. That was all I had to do: get between those two flags. Seven strides out I froze. Onyx’s strides shortened at five strides out, the demons were starting to stir. At four strides I could see the demons’ fiery eyes and sharp fangs. Three strides out Onyx and I both felt their hot breath and Onyx started to balk; then I snapped back into the ride. My leg closed, my throat growled – or was that the demons? Strides two and one were a complete fog. I saw flashes of my horrible fall a few months before: ambulances, my father running and yelling, my mom’s tears, Onyx galloping away, leaving me for the demons.
Squeals and screams haunted me as we landed on the other side, later my parents told me it was the spectators’ cheers, not the demons chasing us away. The last two jumps were poles on the ground we skipped over mockingly with our eyes on the prize: the finish flags.
As I slowed my proud steed to a trot my vision blurred. The steward, the same one from the show before, gave me a thumb up and a grin. The same friends and family that had surrounded jump fifteen came running off the course yelling, laughing and cheering as Onyx gave his trademark bit shake and stomped his front legs, proud of himself. The tears on my mom’s face mirrored those on my own and even my trainer, who claimed to have no emotions, had a telling glisten to her eyes. Cloud nine was well below where we all stood then.
After everybody left the barn to go watch the rest of cross country, after my tack and equipment had been put away I sat in Onyx’s stall while the ice melted on his legs. His head was dropped down to sniff my lap, looking for the treats he knew I had and hoping for an ear rub. He got both, of course. In the distance I could hear the announcer commentating on the rides, birds calling in the trees and a disappointed dog left behind in a stall. The
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Oh well, I'll save my money and hopefully do three events in the fall! Hope everyone's summer is going well!