• Vol. 09
  • Chapter 02
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Lessons in Grief: Steering Clear of Horses


It seems I have always, or at least since I’ve been able to read, lived my life by the saying, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You don’t have time to make them all yourself.” It wasn’t one I ever heard growing up, but I read it in an old cookbook an aunt had when I was a young child. I refused to cook, but enamored by the adages, I enjoyed flipping through the spiral bound volume. Surrounded by people heavily and darkly cloaked with the stress of alcoholism or the innumerable burdens of unwanted children, there were plenty of very important lessons for me to learn, and I was always precocious.

Several of these lessons came from a story about my father from before I was born. Back when my father was an alcoholic, he had this alcoholic horse. Fair warning: this story ends badly for everyone – every creature – involved, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Long before I was born, my father had a son – a cherished namesake, a junior – by his first marriage, and the boy loved to stay with my parents. When he was fourteen, some fourteen years before my own birth, my beloved half-brother drowned while staying with them, thinking he could swim at the local pond with his friends, when, in reality, he didn’t know how. This sent my father into a vicious downward spiral of grief, anger, and alcoholism, the trauma of which the family never really recovered from, even after he’d sobered up.


Lessons in Grief: Steering Clear of Horses


During the Alcohol Years, my father would load his beer into his truck and retreat to the pasture for work, where he’d share it with a friendly horse. The horse developed a taste for it, becoming an alcoholic itself. One time, though, my father didn’t want to share, but in the heat of a southern Kentucky summer, he kept the truck window open when he left it to go about his tedious farm chores, only to find, when he returned, that the sneaky horse, not to be denied, had stuck its head in, gotten the beer, and crushed it – wasting a treat that, to an illiterate, low-paid farmhand in a dry county, was expensive and precious. Boiling with detoxing rage, my father punched the horse in the nose. Obviously, this hurt him more than the horse, breaking his hand. Even more pissed off by this turn of events, he sent the poor horse away. My mother, when recounting this story, would never tell me where, so I can only assume it was to the glue factory.

There are many lessons in this:

Never try to swim without being taught. Never become an alcoholic. Never turn a horse into an alcoholic. And never punch a horse.

Given my motto, I learned well from this story. Not only do I avoid swimming and alcohol, but stricken with my own untrustworthy and deep-seated anger at the world, I steer clear of horses, too, just in case.