GRACIE

GRACIE

From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Gracie

Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles, which he has overcome while trying to succeed.

Booker T. Washington

“Dr. Wendy, I really need your advice . . .” Ralph’s voice quivered. He and his wife, Teresa, lived several hours north of the mixed animal veterinary hospital my husband, Bryant, and I had started from scratch six years earlier. The reason for his call today was the plight of his beloved mare, Lady. Lady was an older bay rackingmare that he had bred to a nice black and whiteWalking Horse stallion the previous year. Lady had developed a severe cancer in hermouth and he did not expect her to live long enough to carry her foal to term. I was uniquely qualified to help him, not only because of my veterinary expertise.

At the age of thirty-one, my discovery of an unusual lump in one of my breasts was a devastating introduction to cancer. I underwent a double mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and took Tamoxifen for several years. I was a cancer “survivor” but I truly felt like a “victim.” Bryant and I had been married five years and were talking about starting a family when the appearance of the lump changed our plans. After treatment I still had a strong desire to start a family but I struggled with the “what ifs” that I was facing. What if I got pregnant and my cancer returned? What decisions would I have to make concerning my baby and my treatment options? What if I died? Who would take care of my child? Would he or she experience enough love without their real mother?

One Sunday afternoon in April of 2002, a home pregnancy test leftme stunned as Iwatched an unmistakable double line appear. It is the rare moment in life when abject fear blends with incredible jubilation. I wasn’t sure how to handle that moment. I turned on the shower and let the hot water wash overme, stiflingmy sobs and takingmy tears down the drain.

A little over aweek later Ralph brought Lady into our clinic to follow through with the plan we had devised. Lady’s cancer had indeed progressed quickly and although Ralph had given her the very best of care, he was no longer able to help her stay comfortable. Lady had given up and itwas evident in the distant gaze of her eyes and the solemn droop to her once-proud head. Although she was past her due date, we had no idea how developed the foal would be considering the stressed state Lady’s body had been in for many months. I said my good-byes to Lady as Bryant and Ralph were in the clinic getting things ready. She stood weakly in the iron stocks of our horse barn as I cradled her head in my hands, trying to avoid the ghastly tumor that was coming out of her jaw like a large melon. Blood and liquid gruel drained from the corners of her mouth.

She was one of the first to learn that I was pregnant. I revealed my own fears as my tears mixed with her blood and dropped to the barn floor. I told her that I was going to be a mother myself, that my only wish was for my child to be healthy and happy and to have plenty of love and attention. I promised her that I would help make sure her foal got the best of care and that I would mother it as best I could while it was here. For a moment, human and horse were uniquely connected by the bonds of both cancer andmotherhood. And for a moment, I prayed that Lady would understand and would be at peace.

As the sun set that evening, Bryant quickly and expertly performed the C-section and laid a perfectly marked black and white filly onto the blankets next to Lady. The tiny form of a horse that looked like she wasn’t ready for the real world yet struckme. Still, she was beautiful. Her tiny ears curved up and the tips touched, forming a little heart halo above her head. Ralph and I dried her off and stimulated her chest trying to turn her tiny gasps into deep healthy breaths. I didn’t watch as Bryant injected Lady and laid her to rest. I concentrated instead on my promise to save her foal. Several hours later, Ralph and his father sadly drove away with Lady’s lifeless body in the back of their trailer.

The filly was alive, but barely. We laid her on thick comforters against a bale of straw and put a blanket on top of her. Warm intravenous fluids flowed into her jugular vein and a heat lamp sent a rosy glow over the stall. One of the barn cats kept me company that night, sitting on the hay bale perched over the filly, while I lay on a blanket on the stall floor next to her. The filly was weak and slipped in and out of consciousness. I felt silly telling her to be a fighter . . . telling her about her mother and about all the trouble Ralph had gone through for her. I didn’t sleepmuch that night but I remember hearing her first throaty nicker as I drifted into one nap, thinkingwhat a beautiful sound that was.

For the next few days, I alternated between caring for the filly and reporting her progress to Ralph and his family and to the Internet group on a popular gaited-horse forum where Lady’s story was well known. The filly grew strong enough to sit up and stand with assistance.We fed her foalmilk through a feeding tube every few hours and kept her on every drug and supplement we knew of to keep her healthy and strong. Either Bryant or I—or both—slept in the stallwith her.During this time, Bryant and I would talk for hours. I revealed to him at one point that if our baby was a girl, I wanted to name her Grace, because it was only through the Grace of God that I had survived my cancer and was pregnant.

The next day, Ralph and Teresa came down to check on the filly. They knelt by her side as Ralph told me that they had picked out a name for her. “Grace,” they both said at once. Through misty eyes, I told them that Bryant and I had recently found out that I was carrying a baby and that we had decided to name it the same thing if it was a girl. My connection to the little filly grew even deeper.

Gracie was seldom alone in her stall. When she was three-weeksold, she was drinking well froma bottle and we felt like she was strong enough to go home. Less than forty-eight hours later, poor Gracie was back in our clinic. Ralph and his family had spent most of each day and night with her, but the stress of the trip had given her pneumonia. She was very sick. Morale in the clinic, on the gaited-horse forum and in Ralph’s household was at its lowest. I felt like I had failed Ralph, Gracie and Lady.

We started from the bottom again, putting Grace on intravenous fluids andmedications and tube-feeding her.Morning sickness crept into my life about that same time, eerily similar to the nausea that chemotherapy brought on years earlier. I sat next to Grace, stroking her silky curved ears and giving her—and myself—pep talks about being a fighter. I told her about all the support and love she had, as if a tiny filly would understand any of that.

Grace slowly responded and over the next week rebounded. It wasn’t long before Ralph was able to take her home again . . . this time to a Thoroughbred nurse-mare he had lined up. Unfortunately, the mare would allow Grace to nurse only if several people restrained her and Ralph feared the mare would injure Grace if the two were alone together. Just when all hope seemed lost, Ralph recalled an e-mail he had seen shortly after Gracie was born. A farmmanager’s wife had offered the services of one of many soon-to-be-weaned Rocky Mountain Horse farm mares. In desperation and exhausted from bottle-feeding Grace at all hours, Ralph contacted the farm and was elated to hear the offer still stood. Gracie’s new mom was a gorgeous, large buckskin mare named Dolly. They allowed Dolly’s colt to nurse one last time, then led him away and introduced Gracie. Ralph says it was a magical moment when they realized the new pairing was going to be successful. Gracie took several long drinks of precious realmilk froma realmomand the pairwere loaded back up onto Ralph’s trailer and taken home. Dolly nickered and talked to Gracie the entire ride and by the time they got home, they were inseparable.

Several weeks later, Bryant and I drove to Ralph’s house to see the pair in person. At the sound of Ralph’s voice, Gracie tore around the corner of the barn to the fencewherewewere standing. Dolly followed in panicked pursuit, notwanting her filly to get too far from her side. As Dolly came up to us, she nickered and nudged Gracie with her muzzle, with all the love a mother has for a child. It melted my heart. As Gracie turned and hunted for Dolly’s milk, I drew a large sigh. Lady would be so happy at this scene . . . her foal was well taken care of and well loved. I instinctively put my hand on my growing belly and smiled.

Bryant Jr.—Bart—was born five months later. I remain healthy and as I write this, Alex is growing insideme. If something should happen to me, I no longer worry about the “what ifs.” I know both boys will be raised surrounded by love and attention. Meanwhile, Gracie is a gorgeous three-yearold celebrity. She has been shown in halter and under saddle and Ralph enlists her help every year for the local Heart Association “filly bingo.” Everywhere she goes, she attracts attention. Her pretty ears remain curled inward and her gorgeous velvety coat glows with health. I will always remain indebted to this special filly. She showed me that despite the darkness of cancer, the circle of life flourishes.

Wendy Wade Morton, D.V.M.

More stories from our partners