There was recently a blessed event in our family—the wee hours arrival, several weeks overdue, of a healthy baby girl. Big brown eyes, hair on the wavy side. Mother doing fine. When we got the news, my daughter Nat was so overjoyed she ran through the house jumping and shouting, "A girl! I knew it! I'm naming her Cookie!" We drove to Pennsylvania that night and headed straight for the barn. Not yet 24 hours in the world, the foal was adorable, impossibly leggy, sweetly fawnlike. That is, when we could steal a glimpse of her. Shortcake, being a good mom, kept shifting around uneasily, placing her big old self between us and her baby, nickering softly in protest. In the glow of the flashlight, I saw a ginormous smile on Nat's face, a look of pure, radiant joy. Her dad and I had to drag her back to the house and to bed, where she blissfully nodded off as John told her about the birth—how it happened overnight, as it usually does, how he found the foal that morning, standing wobbily as she nursed, her coat fluffed and dry. In the morning we slipped into the stall and put a halter on Shortcake so John could steady her while we cuddled with Cookie. So soft and plush, like a puppy! Nuzzling her forehead, she smelled faintly of fresh hay. While touching her is delightful, it's also a job someone's got to do; foals are skittish, wild things, and they have to get accustomed to being handled before they get too big and strong. Nat eagerly signed on, hugging, kissing, and stroking Cookie head to hoof every chance she got. Nature is a great teacher, but her lessons have been harsh as well as happy. At 12, Nat has already had to say goodbye to three horses—Ramona the Appaloosa; Peaches, the palomino she used to ride with cousin Mandy; Charlie, the pony she learned to canter on. All had to be put down because of age, illness or injury, and all are buried on the farm, on a gentle rise by one of the trails, deep in the ochre-colored earth. We pass them every time we go riding, as we did that afternoon, and I always get a bit sad—and worry that Nat does too. (Then again, when she was little I used to run to the pet store to buy a lookalike Betta fish so she wouldn't know hers had died.) When I asked her about it the other day, she said that while their deaths were hard at first, it's not so much anymore. She does know, though, that when the time comes for Nina, the black Lab she loves more than anything, she will cry her heart out for a long, long while. But for now Nat has Nina, she'll watch Cookie gambol and grow, and all is well. Matters of life and death—my not-so-little girl is learning them, just as she should be.
The burial ground, where Peaches, Charlie and Ramona rest in peace.