Reflection: A very generous benefactor

Chelsea Alexander, a 20-year-old rider and student at Queen Mary University of London, sent us this wonderful essay about a random act of kindness that changed her life forever.

From Chelsea:

I never thought that I would be able to take riding lessons. My family was comfortable, financially, but we were by no means wealthy, and in our town riding was thought of as a sport for the rich. I never thought to ask if I could take lessons until I met one of my best friends, Maggie, at the age of ten. After months of begging and wheedling my parents, after months of explaining that yes, lessons were only $25 dollars per half hour, and no, it wasn’t an extraordinarily dangerous sport, my parents finally agreed to let me take lessons at Maggie’s barn. I was ecstatic.

My very first lesson was on a small paint horse named Toby, exactly one day after my eleventh birthday. I spent the lesson on the lunge line, but by the end I had already learned how to walk, sit the trot, and post the trot. I had a blast, and after months of anticipation, it was everything I had expected. I loved the smell of leather in the tack room, loved the feel of Toby’s warm neck beneath my fingers, adored the feeling of working so closely with such an amazing animal. I could not wait to come back the next Saturday and do it all over again.

I never made it to that next Saturday lesson, however, because on Thursday afternoon I came home from school to find ambulances and police cars and even a firetruck outside my house. My mother was crying on the front lawn. My father had died of a massive heart attack while I was at school.

Death comes for us all eventually, but I didn’t understand that at eleven. I’d lived in a perfect world up until then. I was devastated. My whole world just shattered right out from under me. And there was no escape from the sadness. I took a couple of days off school, but that didn’t help—I was just at home with my sad siblings and my weepy, panicked, stressed out mother. When I went back to school, they all just felt sorry for me. I didn’t want their pity. I didn’t want them to look at me funny. I wanted to forget it had ever happened. I didn’t want the school counselor coming up to me and telling me that it was ok to cry or feel badly. I didn’t want to be called to her office for no good reason, I didn’t want to go to banana splits, the group counseling session for kids with single or split up parents at lunch once a month. I just wanted to go back to normal. I wanted to pretend. But there was no way that I could.

I’d stopped going to riding lessons because, well, I was hardly going go and have fun on a Saturday two days after my father’s death, or even a week afterwards. Once the funeral was done and things were relatively back to normal, I asked my mother if I could go back, even just for one more lesson. She looked so sad, so stressed out, and so upset that when she said “I don’t know” I told myself I wouldn’t ask her ever again. Suddenly a single mother of three, my wonderful mother was struggling to pay for a funeral (my father hadn’t had life insurance), for a house that was falling apart (our air and heat regularly broke down, not to mention the front of the house was in appalling condition), and for three children and herself who needed to eat regularly and have a roof over their heads. Really, it had been selfish of me to ask for even one more lesson. We had nothing to spare.Maggie asked me a couple of times at school when I was coming back to the barn. I told her the first few times that I didn’t know, but eventually I told her the truth: that there was no way my family could afford it. She was sympathetic, and I knew that we would stay friends even if I couldn’t ever ride again.

But that didn’t make it any less upsetting for me. I’d looked forward to that lesson for a month beforehand. I’d been so excited to start riding, and once I’d started I’d loved it more than I thought I could. And all of the possibility that riding had presented was just ripped away from me, like my father.

Things were tough for my mother, for my whole family. We had people helping us—my grandpa paid to have our A/C and heat fixed. Our neighbors set up a program with their church to bring us food every few days so that my mother wouldn’t have to cook. My best friend’s father, who was an architect and builder, got his team to come fix the front of our house, replacing the rotting boards with tougher material and a clean coat of white paint. I will never forget the people who came together to make our life easier in those first few months.

But there is one person in particular that I will never forget, and I don’t even know his or her name.

I was sitting in the family room one day, watching TV. My mother was in the kitchen on the phone. When she hung up, she came into the family room, a stunned, disbelieving expression on her face.

“You have a lesson on Saturday,” she said.

“What?” I asked. I didn’t dare to believe her.

“Your instructor just called. She said that someone paid for your lessons for a whole year,” she told me, sounding like she didn’t quite believe it herself.

I’m pretty sure I cried, such was my joy. I still cry whenever I think about it. That person will never understand what they did for me. Horseback riding lessons might seem like a frivolous gift when compared with the necessities—the food, the air conditioning, fixing the outside of the house…but to me it was a gift of life renewed. My whole world had changed when my dad died. I never thought I’d get a piece of it back. I never thought I would get back that hope, that possibility, that excitement.

And over the years, horseback riding has been my place of refuge. When I couldn’t take anything else, I could go to the barn. When I didn’t want to deal with people, I could deal with Toby instead. When I did want to deal with people, I could call up Maggie and the rest of my barn friends and hang out at the stables. This very generous benefactor didn’t just give me riding lessons. He or she gave me years of happy memories.

I wish I could thank them.

About Chelsea: I love horses and have been riding on and off since I was eleven years old. My experience and knowledge, as a lesson rider only (as opposed to being a horse owner) is limited, but I am working on gaining more and have recently taken up a position this summer as a sort of working student (in the sense that I will exchange work for knowledge and riding) with my long time riding instructor. As a lesson-only rider, I think I bring a unique perspective to the sport, and bring up problems or difficulties not experience by riders fortunate enough to spend several days a week at the barn.

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