Today is Nassau’s birthday. He would have been thirty-nine years old on June 28th. He was my precious friend for twenty-five years. Only a lucky few understand the deep connection one can have with a horse. Myrna gets it; she knows what I am talking about.
I met Nassau when he was a weanling. He was an Arabian of Egyptian breeding, tall for an Arab, a handsome black that would eventually become grey. He had a white face and two hind white stockings. When the rest of his pals galloped off, snorting, and lifting their tails in mock fear, happy to have my presence as a good enough reason for flight, Nassau held his ground. His head was up, his ears forward, and he never took his eyes off me. I introduced myself with a piece of apple and a carrot. His soft lips nibbled the treats off my open hand, and I knew in that moment he was mine.
I was recently listening to a podcast Wiser Than Me with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as she chatted with Jane Fonda. They were discussing aging and what it meant to each of them and how Fonda maneuvered through what she calls her “third act”. Her therapist recommended she perform a life review, examining the achievements and details of her life the way someone who didn’t know her would do, with as much objectivity as possible. I’m sure that has value and provides insight to our sense of self, though on the surface it sounds a bit self-absorbed. Fonda examined the milestones of her life and revisited them to extract the joy, the heartache, and the lessons. I decided to do the same. No one can value your highlight reel except you and that’s all that matters.
By the time you reach my age, the highlights are many and varied. The birth of my four daughters tops the list as it would for all mothers – the whispered kisses on their new perfect skin, inhaling the essence of them as they tucked under my chin in the rocking chair, my head back, eyes closed, my arms around them to protect them, when protection was that simple. Cherished moments. I can feel it even now. Puppies, kittens, newborn calves, my first bike, catching my first fish. So many moments. But Nassau falls right in next to my children.
Nassau and I galloped. It’s what we liked to do best. The heat from his back soaked into me like a tonic as we loped along, my bare legs against his sides as I kicked off my shoes. Then I leaned forward on his neck, my face behind his ears and I whispered to him. “Nass, let’s go,” I said. His front feet came off the ground just slightly and a ripple moved along his back before he leapt into a full gallop, his hooves barely touching the ground or so it seemed despite the rhythmic thuds on the hard-packed soil. In those moments, as we blasted across the field, I was Ron Turcotte from Drummond, New Brunswick aboard Secretariat as he ran for glory in 1973 to win the Triple Crown. His records still stand for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes which he won by 31 lengths. Fifty years has passed since Secretariat won my heart and the hearts of all as he claimed the Triple Crown on June 9, 1973. I still weep when I watch the footage from the Belmont as Secretariat pulled away in what appeared to be effortless for him, leaving every horse so far behind the cameras couldn’t capture them in the field of view of the lens.
Nassau was my Secretariat, winning our own Triple Crown every time we galloped, thundering through the woods. We were one. And on his birthday and every day, I am so very grateful we spent those years together, so very grateful he was mine and I was his. We gallop at night, in my dreams and when I can’t sleep, his mane stroking my face, his nostrils flaring, his ears moving back and forth waiting for cues from me. I am more alive in those moments than any other. “Nass, let’s go,” I whisper, and we take flight.