Two New Teachers

By Deborah Straw

I’ve always kept my eyes and heart open to new teachers. In the past, I sought out women 20 to 30 years my elder, but this prospective group has diminished as I am now in my 60s. My recent teachers sometimes appear in surprising forms.

My first recent one, Roy sits up tall on the Morgan horse, holding onto the reins, and circles round and round the ring. As he is physically disabled, three of us barn staff help him. (I am a weekly volunteer at this riding facility.) We gently help him get into the saddle, and then hold on to his feet while someone leads the horse. Roy is deaf, (he does sign), and he doesn’t speak except to utter occasional shrieks or laughter. He wears heavy plastic leg braces (has he had cerebral palsy or polio?) and uses a modified walker. He’s possibly around 20, maybe older. The horse is around 30.

Roy reminds me, visually, in some ways of a young, dapper Woody Allen. He always wears his helmet and is neatly dressed in tan khakis and a polo. Some days he’s on the walker; some days he walks in slowly with an aide.

Roy is always smiling and happy to see everyone at the riding stable. Once he’s on the horse, he’s happiest. He has been riding for two years. An experienced equestrian tells me riding a horse is next to swimming as a useful exercise, working on muscle tone and flexibility.

While riding, he occasionally does a high five with one of us, he also raises a hand up in a victory sign, and he watches himself in the mirrors as he rounds the bends. The other day, he reached down to shake my hand. If a garbage truck or a fire truck goes by, he screams along with it, sort of like our dog, Wanda, used to do with fire trucks. He must feel the vibrations or see it out of the small windows of the barn.

He seems always content. I am always glad to see him.

I have never seen him frown or cry. Not even wince. On the horse, he looks like king of the world.

My second unlikely teacher is SweetPea, my female, one and a half year old cat. Ever since we picked her up at a rescue kennel, she has had some ailment or other. She is fussy about food; she periodically has the runs; she has a dermatological disease that no vet has been able to diagnose.  We change her food flavors based on possible allergies, over and over, each brand has fewer ingredients and is more expensive. My husband makes her tiny sweaters to cover her bald spots, and we wait for them to scab over and heal.

We find her puzzling illness heart breaking; she lives through it time after time, complaining little.

SweetPea is consistently good-natured, if occasionally offish for a few days if she’s especially hurting. She is beautiful, longhaired, with a wonderful face, the most affectionate cat we’ve ever had (on her feel good days). She can turn herself almost inside out trying to look cute, which she must not realize comes naturally.

Despite not feeling l00%, she is a busy kitty, playing, destroying pens and yarn I forget to hide, chewing paper, chasing her larger healthy brother, staring down our 35-pound dog. Even though we get frustrated trying to figure out what is wrong, or trying to figure out if she’ll continue to get these bald spots all her life, we continually feel love for SweetPea. I am amazed at her resilience, love of play and people.

Of course, I am hardly the first to learn from observing animals not human. “…They [animals] do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not …weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago…” (Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman).

On many days, I am nowhere near as happy as either Roy or SweetPea. In part, because newly retired, I’m a bit unfocused. Someone yesterday said to me, about Roy, “Those who have so much less seem to use that so much more.”

I want to go to Paris twice a year. Roy wants to ride a horse once a week, in the same place, on the same horse, for the same amount of time. He is proud of his achievements; that is obvious. SweetPea wants to feel good, and to get consistent lovies and admiration, yummy food and fresh water.

Some would say I’m spoiled. I may well be. What if, like my 99-year-old mom, all I had to look forward to was three square meals a day?

It’s true; I’m getting old. It was inevitable. And like my most influential mentor, writer May Sarton, I now believe the transient is what is most important: the moment, the journey, the simple meal, the first red leaf, the sight of a friend after long absence. I still love big excitement, but for a shorter period. If I went to midtown Manhattan today, I’d be wiped out in two hours, as much as I like the city. I can no longer dance the night away or stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve.

But I still want to be in the world, to contribute, to use whatever energy I have left. To be respected and to laugh. I am trying hard to appreciate my smaller achievements. To believe that I still have several more productive and healthy years.

To me, adjusting to older age requires much observation and admiration of others, not only contented older women. With the help of my two new teachers, I am beginning to appreciate the life and gifts that I still have.

About this writer

  • Deborah Straw

    Deborah Straw

    Deborah Straw is a semi-retired college writing and literature teacher and a long-published author. Two of her books have been published: Natural Wonders of the Keys and The Healthy Pet Manual. She lives in New England with her husband, a dog and two kittens.

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One Response to “Two New Teachers”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Your story touched my heart. I taught for many years, and one of my special needs boys also did equestrian therapy. Like you, I am a retiree, glad to be alive, slowing down, but not at a standstill.

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