Clifford was mighty excited when Stayner showed up. I think he figured it was about a trail ride. On other days, when Stayner has pulled the “Silver Bullet” down the driveway, it has meant an adventure in the woods.
Even though he is 27 years old, Clifford is still a kid at heart. And with a horse, that can be a pain. He wouldn’t stand still to have his purple cooler put on. He jigged around on the lead line and didn’t want his mane brushed.
I asked Stayner to hold him while I ran to the house for something, and when I came out, I saw Clifford leaning on my friend with his hind legs yawning backward, pushing, pushing into the soggy ground. Stayner was pushing back against his chest, and not very successfully. The two of them were forming a human-equine pyramid.
“Is he leaning on you?!” I said.
“Yes. And this isn’t very comfortable.”
“Clifford! How rude!” I took the lead rope.
Clifford clambered into the Silver Bullet with no objections, and we were off. Along the way, I got an email from our nurse friend, Judy, that the number of cancer kids had been whittled down to just two individuals. The others were not well enough to meet us in the hospital parking lot on a fifty-degree day.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I will do it for two kids. I would do it for one kid.”
When we arrived at the hospital, Clifford had deducted that we were not going for a trail ride, but instead were up to a meet-and-greet. He was all good with that. Anything to break up the monotony of his pasture-bound, when-can-I-get-back-to-Drummond-Island horse life.
Judy met us outside and suggested we leave him in the trailer until the kids were outside so they could watch him unload. In the meantime, the Channel Six guy asked if he could pin a mic on me. I stood by the trailer, where he had a clear shot of Clifford looking through the side window over the manger. I answered the questions.
- Yes, he really is housetrained.
- He is 27 years old.
- They can live into their thirties.
- He is the only horse in the world who signs his own biography.
- He is an abstract artist.
- Yes, he likes to paint.
- He is a Morgan horse.
Suddenly, Clifford took a messy mouthful of hay, swung his head out through the window, and threw it in my hair. He went back for another batch, shoveling hay at me, and the gathering crowd laughed while the loose chaff fell all down my shoulders and fluttered to the ground, with bits and stems sticking in my coat sleeves on the way.
“He is ready to come out,” I said.
Stayner and I lowered the ramp and Clifford backed down, looking excitedly around the parking lot. His gaze came to rest on the hospital doors. “He thinks he is going in there,” I told Judy.
The first patient was Jordan, a beautiful girl about nine years old, in a wheelchair. She was covered with a yellow blanket that was so thin I wondered how she could be warm enough. Clifford and I walked over to her. “Hi!”
“They told me it was a mini horse!” she said.
I looked at Clifford and shrugged. “Not exactly. He’s not huge. But he probably looks pretty big from where you are sitting.”
She nodded. She whipped out her phone and started snapping photos. Clifford obliged her, posing instantly, gazing off into the distance like any proper movie star.
“He’s beauuuutiful,” she said.
Clifford performed some tricks. He did his little dance number. He nodded his head yes and no. He counted with one forefoot. He picked up his lead rope every time I dropped it, ad nauseum. Jordan was happy with her phone in her hand, like a tiny shield, but she laughed and praised everything he did, and just kept taking photos.
Behind her, wheeling into the parking lot, pushed by a couple of women in scrubs, was a hospital bed. A child lay under the thin blankets, which were snugged up under his chin. He was so tightly swaddled in the white linen the only thing visible was his head. But when he saw Clifford coming toward him, he immediately sat up, the thin blanket fell away, and the waif transformed into a smiling little boy.
When Matthew and Clifford came together, it was as if they were old friends. Clifford thrust his nose down into the boy’s chest, blowing soft warm breath, and Matthew embraced him, running his tiny hands over the long face.
“Do you want to give him a treat?” I said.
I knew cancer patients probably shouldn’t have sugar. So I offered him a condition. “You can feed him this twizzler. But don’t eat it, because it has been in my pocket. It’s nasty.”
I handed Matthew one piece of licorice after another, which he took and shoved toward the horse’s mouth, where it was instantly swallowed. Clifford behaved as if he were an attentive dog, watching for the next snack, and barely resisting the urge to climb up on the bed.
“More!” Matthew would say, every time a twizzler disappeared. I started breaking up the river of treats by handing him the end of the lead rope and saying, “Okay, but first he has to do a trick! Throw it, Matthew! Throw it HARD!”
He threw down the lead rope and Clifford promptly picked it up. He was rewarded with another Twizzler.
There we were, playing in the parking lot, a little kid in a hospital bed, playing fetch with a horse.
There were moments when Matthew grew tired and he would lean down, resting his head on his arm, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. I don’t know how old Matthew is. I guess around four. But in those moments, when his eyes became dreamy, I thought he seemed way beyond his years.
“Clifford is on your shirt,” he said to me.
“Yes that’s right!” I said, looking down at my shirt front. I had forgotten about it. “That’s Clifford on there.”
He lay his head down again, and again with the dreamy look. This was a lot of excitement for such a little guy. He was getting tired, I knew. I thought it was time to give Jordan another moment with Clifford.
But as I turned away, silently signaling for Clifford to follow, Matthew roused himself, pointed at the horse, and shouted, “More!”