One spring afternoon, I watched my 11-year-old daughter, Haley, lead an ugly, half-trained horse named Lightning into the center of a ring. The woman who owned the barn had offered Haley extra saddle time if she would spend two afternoons a week putting this particularly stubborn horse through his paces. On those days, I did everything I could to get home from work early. Each time I did, she would be waiting for me with her helmet on her lap, homework done, room clean, eager to go.
My son, Chase, never came with us when Haley rode. By that spring, he was 15 years old and had been in the acute-care unit for adolescents with mental illness for five months. In the autumn, he'd fallen ill with a psychosis that defied diagnosis and medication. The doctors argued among themselves about what was wrong with him and what drugs to try. When I visited, he'd kick me and claim that I was an impostor; his real mother had been kidnapped by terrorists.
Haley walked Lightning in a slow circle while I stood on the side and watched for things that might spook him: a plastic bag coming across the field on the breeze, a bird flying up out of the long grass, a rope dangling from the jump in the corner. But the ring was still. No birds flew, and the grass rustled,and nothing came across the pasture, not even a leaf.
Lightning fought Haley at the corners, fought her when she asked him to trot, fought her when she asked him to halt. When she gave him directions, his eyes rolled and popped, and he shuddered like an animal possessed. But she held him with a grim look on her face and finally he did what she asked.
She trotted Lightning twice around the ring and asked him to canter. He twisted and straightened and then flung himself forward and arched his back. She sat hard and hauled on the reins and slipped to one side but stayed on. Again, she put her heel to him and hit him with the crop and said, "Canter." Again, he put his head down and bucked. She lost her stirrups and grabbed his mane. She pressed him forward into a walk, and when she got to the far corner, she called for a canter again. When he threw his head down and bucked, she held on, but when he finally stopped, she swung her leg over and jumped down. She ran her stirrups up and took him by the bridle and yelled to me to open the gate as she led him through. When she passed me, I could see that she'd been crying and her mouth was set in a line as straight as a hyphen. "I hate Lightning," she said fiercely.
"I know you do," I said.
Haley walked by Chase's empty room every day, but she didn't go in and she didn't talk about him.
It may have been spring, but the air still smelled of cold; the horses in the dirt lot blew clouds of smoke. I watched Haley lead Lightning back to the barn. He was a brown horse with a head that was too big for his body, and a body that was too short for his legs, and a wiry black mane and a brushy black tail. He reminded me of everything that was misshapen in Haley's life, as if this horse, whom she loved and feared, could stand in for her brother, whom she also loved and feared. She didn't visit Chase at the hospital, and I didn't blame her. How could her brother be found in the filthy and emaciated boy who stalked the hospital's hallways and claimed to be the angel of death?
There are no guidebooks for the siblings of those who travel to the country of mental illness, and no road maps for their mothers. No matter our vigilance, in that country we are spooked and thrown by things that seem to rise out of nowhere: language that sheds meaning, common things grown unfamiliar, all the bucking and struggling of our unspeakable loss.
But Haley and I found a way to hold on: She never quit riding, not even the difficult horses, and I never quit watching, not even when she rode hard at high fences. For Haley, the horses were wishes that she meant to bend to her hand. For me, they meant something else, and I came to watch her with a longing that felt like a prayer: If Haley could ride, she could do anything, and if she could do anything, she would be safe.