I hear her crying behind the closed door—my mother, maybe on the floor, having wet herself, or maybe in the bed, can’t pull her legs over the edge. Maybe she’s in the wheelchair looking at her body in the mirror and crying for the self once reflected. She sobs like a child, loud, gasping. She doesn’t know I’m there. I’m embarrassed, as when I would catch a glimpse of her naked when I was a kid. I want to turn away from the door like I used to turn away from her flesh, the easiest thing to do.
Once my mother and I were riding horseback to my grandmother’s house a few miles from the ranch. It was Mother’s Day, and we had some baked item in the saddlebag. Early May in South Dakota: Winds at least thirty miles per hour, temperatures in the 40s, overcast and dry. Over a freshly planted wheat field we rode, our horses’ hooves stomping round holes in the dirt. We wore denim jackets and stocking hats. I was perhaps fifteen. The horses were galloping, and suddenly hers shied at something, maybe a grouse flying up. My mother fell sideways from the saddle, and her foot hooked in the stirrup. She dangled upside down with her face dozing the dirt as her palomino horse spun circles, trying to shake my mother’s body off. I saw this in a flash before my own horse flew past. I swung the mare around, came back, but by then my mother had freed her foot and lay gasping on the ground. By some miracle the horse didn’t drag her to death.
When a parent develops something like multiple sclerosis, you might experience a realization that the tables have not turned but flipped over, rattling to the ground with the clang of metal on tile. The crippling is more mental than physical actually. First there is the crippling of your relationship, which shrivels into the illness—the pain of it, discussions of it, decisions on how to combat it (these, of course, are useless). Your love expands more than you knew it could, but the experience of your mother shrinks, slows, immobilizes. There is no way to talk of a future. You are careful not to venture too far into your life when you talk, because doing so will remind her that she won’t be there. Or worse, she’ll be alive but as independently functional as the chair you’ll be sitting in beside her, thinking of your pony from long ago that, in his old age, developed such debilitating emphysema that your father put a merciful bullet in his head. You’ll remember how even as a child you understood that such suffering was intolerable, inexcusable. Yet there’s something worse that happens long before the pony memory comes rushing back: You both realize how much time you’ve wasted—on arguments, on resentments, on being the same short-tempered person in two different bodies—but you both lack whatever it is that allows people to change their ways.
My mother falling from the saddle must’ve been an early sign of the MS, for my mother would never fall from a horse unless it fell with her. She used to rope steers from the backs of horses, break colts, barrel race in rodeos. Five feet tall, 105 pounds, long brunette hair, chaps: That’s the woman I see in pictures. A tiny but determined conqueror of all tasks. A leader who organized a rally at the state capitol to protest budget cuts to public education. When I was a child, she worked like a horse, balancing on ladders to wash windows and frying chicken for crews of men. She would clean bathrooms or refinish wood trim or wax the family car to a spotless shine at three in the morning. I see the pictures and remember and even watch her life unfold on home movies, but for the love of God why can I not find that woman in my mother’s face, in her voice over the phone?
Ten years later that horse is still dragging my mother. I flew past, and now I’m watching like an audience, unmoving but not unmoved. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to swing my leg over the horse’s back and jump off to help her. I have the paralyzing sense that there’s nothing I can do. I’ve been grateful for so many years that she didn’t die on that Mother’s Day. Although now she says death by dragging would have been better than living to this day, dragging her legs behind her on the kitchen floor.
Horses are flight animals. They’ll drag you until they can’t run anymore. They mistake your body, bouncing behind them like a sack of flour, for a predator in pursuit. I should have jumped down that day, loosened my mother’s foot from the stirrup, helped her up. But I’ve discovered that I, too, am a flight animal. The sack of flour scares me. I stand at the door, hearing her crying, but I can’t jump down from the horse. I turn and run through the field, dragging the guilt until I collapse.