In a personal memoir, our writer Elisa T. Keena tells of how her dreams and journey through a life dancing with cancer led her to love wild horses.
I’ve just seen my lifelong childhood dream become a reality. I was on the range surrounded by wild horses. It was a magical, healing experience, so filled with feeling and emotions that words have a hard time capturing it. Not just for me… everyone I share the pictures and story with is touched by the beauty of these national icons of our American heritage. It speaks to a part of the soul, conjuring our romantic past when we were all free and had the space to run in the wild.
I thank Deb Walker and Mary Ciofe and everyone at Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates. They introduced us to the members of the herds, told us their family genealogy, their personality traits and their very human-like interactions. I come from a large extended family (with my friends too), so I get it!
Our guides work with other advocates that utilize the range for recreation, enjoy their hobbies or just to get away from it all. They showed how important it is to keep the range healthy and show that the horses are not doing damage.
Arranging an amazing lunch sitting in the hills surrounded by wild horses! I told them that this had been on my bucket list for as long as could remember, maybe as long as I breathed.
From what the doctors tell me, the time I have to complete that bucket list is approaching in the nearer, not farther, future.
So when I saw “Lake Tahoe Wild Horse Adventure” available on the last 19th of October in the Wild Gala online Auction, sponsored by the Bentley Foundation for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, I started to giggle! There it was – right in front of me – my dream sent to me by my angels through modern technology! I hoped I was going to win. It was serendipity, it was fate! Especially because the 19th is my niece’s birthday and also marked one year since I had emergency brain surgery for a metastatic tumour. Another miracle was that I was not having too many complications from it but…. a few days more and I would have. I felt it was in the stars, but when I learned that I’d won, I was filled with gratitude. I got the email from Grace Kuhn at the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and it was completed and reserved fast. I was talking about it to everyone in the stores I go to, people who visited, and my large family, urging them to support the campaign. I was wound up and raring to go where my dreams have always taken me in good times and bad… into the wild.
But let me start at the beginning, 54 years ago. From my earliest memories, I’ve been enthralled by horses. I had a rocking horse which I rode around all day. I didn’t like anybody else to sit on her! I collected horse, unicorn and Pegasus statues. I would pick race horses out for my great grandfather when he was kid-watching me: he would drink his Martinis as I ate olives. I drew horses constantly, always wanting to be the American Indian riding bareback with wind blowing her hair over the open plain (I’m a smidge Mohawk). My dad was going to buy me a horse, since that was all I ever spoke about, but then I turned 13 and my life changed forever. My innocence was swept away with a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Disease and a barrage of doctors’ appointments, surgeries and radiation treatments.
I’m blessed to be born to a mother who read all the medical books and fought the doctors tooth and nail. That’s why I’m still alive. That’s also where a little girl disappeared and a warrior for her health emerged, as a butterfly from a cocoon. They told me that if I didn’t listen to them I would die, probably within five years, but we chose what we wanted to do – listening to our dreams and instincts. I was a sensitive child, even crying if you picked a leaf off a tree because you were hurting it! I’d agonize over the harm the human race inflicts upon itself and the animal kingdom we share this planet with. So, you can imagine how I fared in a hospital filled with pain. We chose radiation treatment after consulting some of the top adult doctors who were supportive. I knew that if I had the surgery or the chemo I would die. It turns out that I had a reaction to the anaesthesia at a much smaller dose. I won’t bore you with the details of being a stubborn hippie child in the medical system of Memorial Sloane Kettering in the 1970s. But it was at that moment that I decided to live life to its fullest, live in the moment. “Carpe Diem,” my mom would say – and carpe diem I have!
My next major change came when I was 18 – I’d continued to pursue my love of horses by taking riding lessons. One day I went out with my sister to a different barn where I wasn’t familiar with the terrain or horses. Out of nowhere, dirt bikes came screeching past and my horse Mickey, being an independent creature, headed for home. I was flying around that saddle like the Paul Revere cartoon. I almost had Mickey reigned in, then I was back on top. I felt like one of those Indian riders I’d always dreamed about, hanging off the side of the horse, big smile on my face! But then off I went, wrapping my femur around a tree – “snap” – face in the dirt, ankle over the shoulder. It wasn’t my back or neck, and I survived. Another group of surgeries, metal rods, pain, physical therapy, limping. I realised that I could only walk without a limp in 3-inch heals or higher, or at least attempt to walk. It was an episode that lasted nearly five years. Two years after that, I was back on a horse in Sedona. The wrangler, Ken put me on the pony they gave to kids as I built up my confidence and released my fear. Carpe Diem again!
Fast forward, another couple of years. I become a nutritionist working in a hospital. I was treating people with all types of diseases, using holistic and traditional principles. I also started attending workshops by Elizabeth Stratton, a pastoral/ spiritual counsellor. Her father was a horse whisperer and she also works with horses herself. I still see her today, weekly, for my own healing journey.
I’d completed more than 10 cancer free years after treatment. But once again, that feeling of safety was shattered. This time I was 32. I had a lump in my breast. The doctors knew, but did not tell me, that almost 96% of teenage girls treated with radiation went on to develop breast cancer. So the treatment that cured me ultimately initiated my next 23-year dance with cancer.
Because this cancer was caused by radiation, I chose a lumpectomy and holistic treatments -nothing else. “If you don’t listen to us, you’ll be gone in five years,” I was again told. I thought that nobody is going to tell me when to die, try to control me, or force me to do something I don’t feel was right, by fear. I just smiled and kept dancing and dreaming.
I can’t remember how many lumpectomies I wound up having. It had to be around 10, but every year small amounts of the cancer would come back .Off I’d go to surgery and then find some adventure or goal I needed to get done for the bucket list! This went on until 2001, when my mom was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer which moved to the brain. I’d just completed another surgery when we got the news about my mom. I remember walking on the beach and having a discussion with my maker. I couldn’t afford to be sick now. I had to take care of my mother. If the cancer returned one more time, I would have the stupid mastectomy they suggested .
My mom died nine months later. She took her last breath in my arms. That was by far the hardest thing that I had to do. But it renewed my determination to carpe diem.
Of course, within weeks, the cancer was back and I was off to surgery. Then, another one after that, when it returned in the same area after the mastectomy a year or so later. But the passing of my mom encouraged me to follow up on the things I loved, not to let them sit too long, because you never know. We always watched movies with horses, westerns with Clint Eastwood, every American Indian and wildlife movie out there – Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Jerimiah Johnson: Dances With Wolves and In Pursuit of Honor were two of our favourites. Mom always wanted to go to Ireland, but never got a chance. I thought, I’m going to make it to all those dreams and places mom – I’ll make you proud. I’ll live, not survive.
So, I did. I learned to play the harp, took French and Italian lessons, visited national parks, the Pyramids and the Temple of Philae (where Cleopatra and Julius Caesar got married, according to legend). I went hang-gliding in Santa Barbara and swimming with sharks in the Bahamas. I saw Le Printemps by Botticelli in the Uffizi in Florence, went to the Venice Carnival, walked the streets of Assisi, the halls of the Vatican museum and the Palantine Hill. I rode horses and camels in Petra. I drove through the Highlands of Scotland, drinking Talisker on the Isle of Skye. I went on safari in Kenya to the Masi Mara where Elsa the lion from Born Free was born. I saw the Tower of London and went to Amsterdam for the Van Gogh anniversary. I walked along the bridge at Chenonceau, spent New Years in Paris, and went to Rhine wineries. I taught yoga at a Costa Rican school we were fundraising for, and jumped in the ocean with polar bears for Make a Wish. I hiked the red rocks of Sedona, reliving memories of the times I’d been there with my mom. I saw whales swimming in Alaska. I fell in love with Lake McDonald in Montana and bought a rental condo there. I rescued a three-legged abused pit bull, named Hope. And yes, of course, I climbed the cliffs of Moher in Ireland, so my mom could finally get to go.
During these years, the cancer became metastatic – first to the bones then to the liver. I tried many different biological or hormonal treatments, but never cytotoxic chemo. To the repeated warnings of five years left alive, I would just smile and keep dancing, swirling, twirling and dreaming.
We are a stubborn lot: My dad passed away a few years ago, also from cancer. All of us chose our own path – none did chemo. I had survived 23 years, at least eight with metastatic cancer, but I wasn’t ready yet. The plains were still calling to me.
About three years ago, I had to stop working and slow down. That’s when I became involved in my horse advocacy. I read up on the issues, then started to visit and support sanctuaries. I have my legislators, the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, even some in the White House on speed dial. I called, I wrote, I annoyed, I raised money. It helped to make me feel useful. You’ve no idea unless you have been there, what you are capable of at 2 a.m., on massive doses of steroids for a brain tumour. I think people signed my petitions just to keep me quiet, which was almost impossible. I had done this when I was a child and here I was, years later, still fighting for what almost every American wants – to maintain the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Protection Program. The aim was to humanely control heathy populations while maintaining gene diversity. To stop round-ups and transport of our horses to other countries for slaughter.
Now back to the trip. The day we travelled from New York to Nevada, I was ill from the medication. I couldn’t make the walk to the airport gate and had to ask for a wheelchair, because the distance was too long. That was crushing for me. The harsh reality that the dance was slowing to a waltz. Yet I was going see the wild ones, hear them and feel the wind streaming in my hair.
The following morning, when I woke, I thought I’d better get some food into me to stop the nausea. I sneaked out to get some breakfast down the hall.
I have a lot of sympathy and gratitude for my friend Rosanna who accompanied me on this trip, and on many other adventures. After a bit, she started calling me. I didn’t answer. She went running to the bathroom thinking “Please no – let her not have passed out or worse, before we see the horses.” She was in a state of panic while I was happily chatting up an attendant.
All the herds were out that day. Rosanna and I had much photographic equipment, but it was a comedy of errors. She forgot the battery and I didn’t know how to use some of the settings. But we got some great shots. Everything came together and we had a lovely day with Deb and Mary. We met some of their friends and a woman who had cancer three years ago and comes every year to be “healed” by the horses.
The guides said the horses liked our energy and allowed us to get close. The evening ended with dinner at a place on the lake where they had live music. The first song we heard was Sweet Caroline (my grandmother’s favourite song), then Three Times a Lady (one of mom’s), followed by Mr. Bojangles (I used to stay up every night to hear that song!)
My ancestors had come to walk on the range with me! The singer performed a special number for me – Wildfire. As I listened, I remembered being sick at 13 and singing Wildfire and crying, but knowing that one day, just like in the song, that hoot owl was going to come for me too. I remember belting out the song in defiance. Back off, hoot owl. And so 40 years pass by…
Now, as I sit at home looking at pictures of the experience filled with joy and emotion, it reminds me of my motto: “Everyone Dies but Not Everybody Really Lives,” as in Braveheart.
I’ve certainly chosen to live. As the pictures roll across my screen I take a deep breath, feel the soil under my feet, smell the sage brush, see the mountains and hills filled with flowers and horses. The hoot owl may come back soon for me, well for any of us, you never know, so live your dreams. Don’t procrastinate! I have been so blessed – my life has been so magical. And as I begin to fade or need to rest more, I will close my eyes and send my spirit to run the hills of Pine Nut Mountains.
I will hear Harley call to play with a friend, I see Jaci Mystique skipping around. Sweet Charlotte napping. I see Blondie majestic and powerful. Samson and Blue. I see the Bachelors showing off and playing just like regular teenagers. Luna, scratching her back. And Little Sox. But mostly, I see Shorty. Majestic, fierce, beautiful cheekbones, wild and free. And I know Shorty saw me. He calls to me to join him in the canyons and I will send my spirit to join him.
I am reminded of a Viking prayer from the movie The 13th Warrior, about the Saga of Beowulf. It goes like this:
“Lo, there do I see my father;
Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers;
Lo, there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning;
Lo, they do call to me.”
They bid me take my place among them in the hills of the Pine Nut Mountains where the brave may run free forever.