In ninth grade, a boy named Melvin called me “Giraffe.”
I’ll never forget that day. I walked into the classroom. Melvin announced my likeness to a creature with a long neck and a recessed chin. A boy named Ned laughed out loud. Others followed. Only a classmate with oily hair and homemade clothes did not snicker.
The nickname stuck. I suppose it had every right to. After all, I did have a recessed chin and a thin, long neck. Never mind that I also towered over my other classmates. What also stuck was a feeling that I did not measure up to the “popular” girls — the ones who were pretty, who had budding breasts, who wore white go-go boots and owned Aigner fish basket pocketbooks.
I was an oddity, an outsider. Only made to feel more so because I did not get in one of the numerous girl’s high school social clubs in Columbia. I knew I had not gotten in when the selected girls came to school on a Friday morning with their hair covered in Vaseline. It was part of their initiation. My hair was clean, probably done up in pigtails. And my self-esteem was sunk. I’m sure my mother, if it was even brought up, said something to the effect that I was not like all those other girls and I should be glad of it. Right, Mom. You tell ’em.
So, school was a nightmare for me, but I credit one special place and person to this day with saving my life. Several times over, in fact.
Belle Grove was a 900-acre riding farm on Bluff Road, on the banks of the Congaree River, owned by Sinkler Manning, a tall, handsome man who wore a cowboy hat. My sister, an accomplished poet, referred to him in a poem as “the magical one who kept his horses like wishes, like promises. You loved him, loved them…”
Indeed, I did.
Belle Grove was my sanctuary; Sinkler was my friend. He understood me well enough to know that I should pursue writing. He saw something in me that others did not. I learned to ride at Belle Grove, fiercely, without fear. I learned to appreciate myself. I could make a horse do. I could fly through the vast fields, over the big jumps. I could be brave, successful. I could be free from the pressure of pretty girls, go-go boots, spiffy pocketbooks, and Vaseline hair. And Melvin.
Fast forward through life, and I found myself in a therapist’s office in Columbia two years ago. My life was coming apart; I had been diagnosed with stage 2, muscle-invasive bladder cancer, which meant my bladder was shot and the cancer was poised to invade other parts of my body.
I was also dealing with other deeply personal issues. My life was on the line.
A surgeon told me the bladder would have to come out. I would live with a plastic pouch, attached to my abdomen, which would collect my urine. I could not fathom it. Frankly, I could only imagine death.
My therapist took me through a series of exercises to identify the physical place in my life where I felt most safe, most comforted. I closed my eyes as her questions led to more questions and more questions and finally an answer — Belle Grove.
When I began to panic, she said, in chemotherapy or before surgery or after surgery or anytime, really, I was to close my eyes, breathe, and see Belle Grove. See the long entrance road, the grand trees on either side, draped in Spanish moss. See the barns, the fields, the horses. See the man who kept them like promises.
I have gotten used to wearing a pouch. I have learned to live with a thick, angry scar and the notion that most of my body parts that make me a female were also taken out with my bladder. I deal with the odd weariness — both mental and physical — that sometimes washes over me, the fact that the cancer has a 30 percent chance of returning elsewhere in my body.
But here’s what else I do: I ride. I don’t ride like the wind anymore, but I have pushed myself to get back in the saddle and to become a whipper-in for The Camden Hunt.
And I write.
And I breathe.
And I close my eyes.
I see a tall man in a cowboy hat who believes in me.
I see horses.
I see Belle Grove.
And I feel salvation.