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By the Grace of a Horseback Ride


The thing Elizabeth Beller discovered about suffering is that it makes you different. It separates you. It puts you in a bubble when you're sitting around with the neighbors talking about the leaves or the school bus or the possibility of rain. You participate but you don't really participate. You're in this bubble, looking out.

So the thing Elizabeth asked herself one day was: Am I going to let my differentness take charge of me, or am I going to take charge of my differentness?

She called a grief counselor, said, "I need help." The counselor gave her an appointment. She seemed nice enough. She said she had two rescued greyhounds that she sometimes liked to bring to the office. Would Elizabeth mind? Of course not. Whatever.

Elizabeth planned what she would say to the counselor. She would just start from the beginning: She married her college sweetheart, Eric. They wanted a family. They wanted at least one child to come into their family through adoption, because that's what Elizabeth's sister did, that was her model of motherhood. They weren't getting pregnant, so they went ahead with adoption plans for a baby from Korea. When 4-month-old Brandon was finally placed in their arms, they were deliriously happy. By the time Brandon was 2, they made plans for a second adoption. They named her Hannah. Eric traveled to Korea to get her, so Elizabeth could stay home with Brandon and so she could be with her father, who was dying. He died six days before Eric returned with Hannah, the most beautiful little baby. Elizabeth loved her instantly. She missed her father deeply. She was 29 years old, just discovering how huge and flexible a heart can be.

This was good. Elizabeth would tell the grief counselor all of this. She would just have to get through the next part: It was a little over a year after Hannah came home. They were on vacation, a cabin on the Outer Banks. They put the crib in the small room, under the window. They tied the pull cord of the mini-blind up to keep Hannah's curious fingers from getting into trouble. They put her down for her nap.

Eric is the one who found her. He screamed. Elizabeth rushed in. Eric was jumping up and down, screaming.

Apparently, there was another cord on the mini-blind. An "inner cord" running down the middle. It can be pulled loose. In the past decade, 16 American children have died from inner-cord strangulation. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall just this month.

Elizabeth hoped the grief counselor wouldn't need more detail. She walked in, sat down, looked around. Where were the greyhounds? The counselor said she hadn't brought them that day. Elizabeth found herself strangely and deeply disappointed. Her dad had always turned to animals, to nature, for comfort. You can say anything to an animal. And an animal won't say anything stupid like, "Things happen for a reason." Or, "Well, at least she wasn't your real child." People had actually said these things to Elizabeth. No wonder she was in a bubble. She couldn't even talk to the grief counselor. Nothing else made sense, so why should this? She was so disappointed about the greyhounds, she left.

She was lost. She decided to go ride a horse. She had always wanted to ride a horse. Soon there she was, 31 years old, sitting atop Shelby, a paint/draft cross. Big and fat and round. He held her, he rocked her, every Saturday. He was her link back. She knew what she had to do for Eric, for Brandon, for herself. She needed to try again.

They named the new baby Jordan. They dressed up the nursery. They were about to leave for Korea to go get him when they got the call: sudden infant death syndrome.

Elizabeth collapsed, right in front of Brandon. She will never forgive herself for that. She wondered if it was just going to keep happening. First her dad, then Hannah, now Jordan. She believed it was just going to keep happening. She said that's it, I'm done, I can't go through this again. But what about Brandon? He was 5 now, crying himself to sleep, longing for a baby brother or sister.

The adoption people found a sister for Brandon almost immediately. Elizabeth and Eric named her Briana Hope. She's 10 months old now, chasing Cheerios around her highchair tray. The story could end here, inside Elizabeth's home in Ashburn, Va. Elizabeth could just say, thank God the nightmare is over. But what about Hannah, what about Jordan, what about the senselessness? Kids shouldn't die. This is what she can't stop thinking.

She thinks about the bubble. She thinks about Shelby. She gets to work.

Life Horse will open at Stonelea Farm in Aldie, Va., in April. It isn't so spectacular. It isn't a giant wing of a hospital. It's a chance for terminally ill children to come out and get to know a horse.

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