The View from My End of the Shovel
By Sandy Gilbert of REFUGE FARMS
When we talked last, you will remember that Andy Durco had just left me in the driveway with a clubfooted 4-month-old Clydesdale colt – the result of a hasty surgery. Andy had gifted “Charity Case” to me with the directive to “Take this horse, Sandy, and make a difference in somebody’s life.”
I looked at this horse and just shook my head. Now how do you make a difference in someone’s life with a horse? Would anyone else be touched by their ability to forgive and their never-ending willingness to trust? Would others find what I had found? Or was I just a softie and a sap for broken down horses? Would others find the power of their hearts? The peace of their eyes? The comfort of their smell? Did Andy and I think we had something here but in reality, was it just a herd of rejected horses with a huge feed bill and an even larger vet bill?
“Charity Case” and I spent time getting to know each other and I quickly came to marvel at this little guy. He was quick and playful and comical in his clumsiness. He would trip over himself, quickly look around and then he’d do some frantic head tossing and a flurry of body activity to cover up his fall. He was a show all by himself!
An eleven-year-old girl came to visit “Charity Case” almost upon his arrival. We decided that we must rename him – a name with class and show. A name equal to his beauty and our high hopes. A name that reflected his eyes.
Yes, his eyes were a marvel. You see his left eye was the color of a summer blue sky. And his right eye was divided right down the middle in to an eye that was half summer blue sky and half so dark it was black. People were actually stopping their cars on the side of the road to watch this colt play and run in the pasture. But when they came up close – every single time – they would turn to me and say “His eyes! Look at his eyes!”
So his name must reflect his eyes first of all. And that name was simple. His first name became Frances. Nothing else would do. My mother had been a huge Frank Sinatra fan and so Ole’ Blue Eyes immediately came to mind. Frank was too plain. Frances it was.
That young girl was given the task of selecting his middle name. I told her about Andy and his charge to me. She left THE FARM and promised to get back to me with her decision.
Three days later she called me and said, “I’ve got it!” She told me that whenever I said his full name I would remember what we were building up here on this hill. She said his middle name was Andrew, after Andy Durco. And so it was. Frances Andrew. How regal! How stately! How fitting a name for this creature!
* * * * * * * *
Frances Andrew was presented as the finale horse at the Open Barn that year. He came out and I could hear people commenting on his appearance – he was tall and sleek and a most striking animal. At 16 months he was just shy of 16 hands and weighed in at 1600 pounds. I was just about bursting with pride! And then I brought him up close to the corral rail and you could hear the reaction to those blue eyes.
Frannie, as he was called in everyday life, was turning out to be a good addition to THE FARM. The children loved him. The parade men wanted to buy him. The women just fell in to his eyes. I was thrilled with his personality and convinced that Frannie would be a draw to Refuge Farms for many years to come. In the mornings as I fed him, I would tell Frances “You will be 20 when I turn 70, Frannie. I expect you to take care of me, then.”
* * * * * * * *
After the Open Barn the October weather turned sour. It was windy for the entire month and cold, bitter, and wet. On a Sunday in this bitterly raw month, the telephone rang in the early afternoon. The voice on the other end sounded small, but the inquiry was about being open that day and I, eager for any visitors to THE FARM, responded that yes, we were open and most certainly would welcome visitors.
A single person arrived in 45 minutes. A little blue sedan brought her in the driveway and she parked quite a distance from the house. I ventured out of the house and approached the car. Immediately, I knew this visit was going to be different. Very different.
The woman was shorter than I and very slight. Tiny. Or at least I believed she was tiny under all of the jackets and mittens and scarves she had on. But her face told me the story. The color of her complexion told me all I needed to know. Tiny and weakened and freezing from her insides out due to the effects of the chemotherapy, this woman was fighting for her very life.
She avoided eye contact and I knew not to extend my hand for the customary handshake due to the risk of germs and her weakened immune system. I simply said, “Welcome to Refuge Farms”. She quietly responded that her name was Diane and thanked me for letting her come.
There was space between us – not just physical space, but emotional space. I wanted to comfort and console and my heart ached for her. But Diane remained aloof and wanted no part of human support. She was here to see the horses.
I chatted about everything and anything on the way down to the barn. Never once did I ask a question. Never once did I solicit a response. I just filled the air and the time with chatter to ease the walk down the driveway. That old nagging worry was back welling up inside of me. Was there really something here to help others? Is there really healing here? I was about to find out.
There were 14 horses on THE FARM at the time. I introduced Diane to Jerry and Jimmer and Slim and DukeDuke – each with their huge, healing eyes. Or so I thought. I proceeded to introduce Cole and Blaise and Sweet Lady Gray and Ruby and even Randy Dandy. But for each of the big horses, Diane simply nodded and never once – not once – took her mittened hands out of her jacket pockets.
This entire group of horses never even approached Diane. I had only 4 horses left. If these 4 horses didn’t work for Diane, I was out of horses and Refuge Farms was out of luck.
Ms. April, Blind Ima, and Ono came in the barn and soon left since food was not offered. That left only one horse and he soon made his grand entrance.
Frannie came bounding in to the barn from out in the pasture! At an uneven gallop, due to that clubfoot of his, he came ungracefully around the corner of the door. His feet flew out from under him in that slick mud and down he went! I stood without uttering a word. My mind was racing! How do I protect Diane? I stood frozen as my mind raced! What do I do?
Frances got himself up out of the mud and looked around to see who had seen his tumble. “This is Frances Andrew”, I said. He shook himself off and entered the barn calmly and deliberately. I put myself between him and Diane and outstretched my arms to create a human fence, thinking I was protecting Diane.
Frannie walked right around me. You see Diane had moved herself from behind me and had opened the path up between herself and Frannie. The two met each other half way and then “it” happened.
Diane took her mittened hands out of her pockets. She moved toward Frances and Frances walked up to her in a slow, guarded pace. They touched in the center of the barn and Frances lowered his head so his forehead was in Diane’s chest. Diane reached out to touch his neck and softly said, “I’ve come a long way to meet you, Frances Andrew.”
The communication between those two creatures was so intense you could feel it. Frannie stood stone still and Diane was talking with him and touching his neck. I was now the intruder. I quietly asked Diane to lock the gate when she left. Closing the barn door, I left the two of them to share with each other.
I watched from the house window and in about 15 minutes or so, I noticed the little blue sedan was gone. A tour of the barn showed me that the gates were, in fact, closed and then I found Diane’s signature.
Diane had a way with chain. You had to about be Houdini to get her chained locks open. It took me a while to get the loops and kinks out. But I did and I chuckled thinking of how much time she had spent chaining the gate that lead to her Frances.
Frannie stood quietly until I opened the barn door. Then out he ran as if nothing had happened. I went back in to the house not sure if the visit had been a worthwhile effort for Diane. Would she return? Time would tell, I told myself. Be patient. Now.
* * * * * * *
In the next months, I came home from work to find Diane’s signature lock on the gate to Frannie 3 different times. Each time I checked to make sure all was safe and then I would look Frances over to see evidence of the visit. Usually he appeared as though he had been brushed.
Then about Thanksgiving time, I noticed that it had been a while since Houdini had closed the gate. I saw no more evidence of Diane’s visits. I prayed that she was winning her fight – whatever that meant for her.
On December 23rd an envelope appeared in my mailbox. It was postmarked Eau Claire with no return address. It was a plain white envelope but it burned in my hand as I carried it in the house. I was shaking as I opened it. I knew it was important.
Inside was a yellow 3M sticky saying “We thought you should have this note of hers.” Folded in three were pieces of paper that had been cut out of a journal of some sorts. There, written by hand, were these entries:
October 20th – Went to Refuge today. Very cold. Met Francis. He’s remarkable. He listens.
October 29th - Spent time with Francis today. I have washed his mane with my tears.
November 3rd – Francis does not try to tell me “it” will be okay. It won’t. He listens. I need that now.
Diane had passed away. She had moved on but she had found Frannie to help in some way on her journey. I was surprisingly relieved to know her struggle was over and that she was at peace – and finally warm – now. Tears flowed for her. I spent a long time that evening hugging Frances for Diane and for me.