Kitty Silverwings

She and her horse were soul mates, a match made in heaven.

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Patti and her equine friend, Kitty Silverwings

Get me home to Kitty.  If I could have uttered those words that August day in the hospital, I would have. Instead I was reduced to scratching out my plea on a notepad. Even that effort exhausted me. I slumped against my pillow, the pen slipping from my fingers.

The diagnosis had come out of the blue. What I’d thought was a swollen gland turned out to be a rare, aggressive throat cancer, Stage 4. Doctors told me that even with radical surgery and intensive radiation and chemotherapy, my chances of survival were slim.

The surgery to remove the main tumor temporarily stole my voice. Raging fevers from peritonitis, a life-threatening infection after a failed attempt to insert a feeding tube, left me drifting in and out of consciousness for several days.

But now the fever had broken. I knew what I wanted. What I needed. And I had to make sure my husband, Pat, and our two grown sons knew it too. They hovered around my bed, their faces etched with worry. I looked from one to the next, holding each of their gazes. I was so thankful to have them there, but someone was missing.

Get me home to Kitty.

My horse. My riding partner. My best friend and soul mate.

She was born on our ranch, the Rocking A, 13 years earlier, in the middle of a March night in 1993, a beautiful Appaloosa foal. Strong and sure-footed, Appaloosas were the legendary warhorses of the Nez Perce tribe. And this little filly took my breath away. Her sable coat had perfect Appaloosa markings, like a dusting of snowflakes on her hindquarters.

I watched her try to stand. She staggered against the stall door and slid back down into the straw. Again and again, she tried to rise to her feet. She’d pull herself halfway up only to collapse. It usually takes foals several attempts before they can stand, but this wasn’t just newborn unsteadiness. Something was wrong. Her right foreleg kept flopping uselessly.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I supported the filly’s right side and walked her over to her mama for her colostrum, the first milk, which jump-starts a foal’s immune system. She suckled healthily. That had to be a good sign, right?

The vet arrived. “This filly has a severed radial nerve in her right front leg, no muscle in her right upper leg and shoulder, and a severely contracted tendon in her foot,” he told us.

“What can we do for her?” Pat asked.

“She’s not going to survive with only three usable legs,” the vet said. She can’t regenerate nerve and muscle tissue that she wasn’t born with. Euthanasia is the kindest thing you can do.”

No! I sat down in the straw next to the filly. “You are so beautiful,” I whispered, stroking her silky neck. She gazed up at me, no distress at all in her expression. Her eyes were soft. Serene. Trusting. Believe in me, she seemed to say. I’m not hurting. I’ll be okay.

“I want to give her a chance,” I said.

“If she can’t stand and walk by the time she’s six weeks old, you’ll still need to put her down,” the vet said. I moved into the little filly’s stall. I’d just settled in to get some sleep the first night when I spotted some of the barn cats. “Here, kitty, kitty,” I said.

The filly turned her head immediately, as if I’d been calling her. “Looks like you’ve got a name,” I said.

For six weeks, Kitty fought valiantly. I’d help her up every couple of hours so she could nurse. She put on weight and got a bit stronger each day. But she couldn’t stand on her own, no matter how hard she tried. The vet was blunt. “Patti, it’s time to let her go.”

“Give me one more night,” I begged.

“Fine, but that’s it.”

That night I sat in the straw with Kitty stretched across my lap. She gazed up at me and, as on that first night together, once again I knew what she was telling me. Keep fighting for me.

I put one hand on her neck, the other on her damaged right shoulder. “Lord, Kitty’s fighting for all she’s worth, but she needs your help,” I said. “Can’t you please save this little filly?”

By the end of my prayer, Kitty was asleep. Was the Lord telling me it was time to say goodbye? I kissed her forehead and left the stall. I slept in the house for the first time since she was born.

At dawn, I walked out to the barn. Through the misty air, I saw an upright silhouette in Kitty’s paddock. Had one of our other horses gotten in there? I squinted. It was Kitty. Standing!

She looked like a warhorse, strong and proud. Slowly, step by purposeful step, she walked across the paddock to me. “Atta girl, Kitty!” I shouted. She pressed her muzzle against me, and I threw my arms around her neck, soaking her mane with tears of joy.

I went back to sleeping in the barn to help Kitty nurse. It took until she was three months old for her to be strong enough to walk regularly. Three months—a holy number, like the trinity. A guardian angel had to have been with her. That’s why I gave her the second name Silverwings.

The vet was amazed. “She still has no discernible muscle tissue in that right foreleg,” he cautioned me. “You’ll never be able to ride her.” We showed him, didnt we, Kitty? I thought now, slumped in my hospital bed.

Against all odds, the missing muscle tissue regenerated. Not only did Kitty grow strong enough for me to ride her, we went on to win championships in horse shows. We even placed in the top 10 at the 1998 Appaloosa world championship show.

Maybe it was those three months spending almost every moment together, but our connection went so deep Pat marveled at it. “It’s more than Kitty reading your body language,” he said. “It’s like she can read your mind.”

Really, it was as if Kitty could see into my soul. That’s why I needed to be with her now. I summoned the last of my strength and gripped the pen again. Slowly, purposefully, I tapped each word I’d written on the notepad.

Get me home to Kitty.

“Oh, honey, I wish I could,” Pat said with a sigh, worry and fear in his eyes. “The doctors need to keep you here.”

I must have fallen asleep after that. When I opened my eyes the guys weren’t hovering around my bed anymore. But what I saw was even better. Kitty! My favorite photo of her. Of us. Pat had taped it to the wall facing my bed. We were in profile, Kitty leaning her head close to me to give me a kiss.

I felt like I was back in the barn. I could feel the familiar pressure of Kitty nudging me with her shoulder. I could see her eyes meeting mine. Soft. Serene. Telling me, I believe in you. You’re going to be okay. Trust me.

I did. Who knew better than Kitty what it took to keep fighting, to survive? I had to stay in the hospital for my treatments. My neck vertebrae broke, weakened by radiation. Chemo made me so sick, I lost 53 pounds.

“Keep praying, and keep your eye on Kitty,” Pat told me. Every time I looked at her picture, I felt the strength and courage of a warhorse surge through me.

At last, one day in November, my scans were clear. My oldest son took me home to the Rocking A. Instead of turning at the driveway, he kept going and drove into the barn. He stopped in front of a stall. You can guess whose. She was facing the opposite direction.

My son helped me out of the truck. “Kitty,” I whispered. She turned and went stock-still. “It’s really me, girl!” I said. She nickered softly and came to me, leaning her head close. She nuzzled my neck as if to say, I knew you’d come home. Then she gave me a kiss.

Kitty had given me the strength to survive the past three months. The same amount of time I’d spent with her when she wasn’t expected to live. I don’t think that was coincidence. It was the Lord working. He knew how much Kitty and I would need each other. Partners. Best friends. Soul mates.

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Spirit of the Warhorse coverPatti Ansuini is the author of Spirit of the Warhorse: Kitty Silverwings, an Appaloosa Story (Xulon Press, 2013).

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