The day the laughter died for little Debbie was the day her best friend died in a car crash. A head-on collision with another car whose driver fell asleep on the wheel.
Bill heard of the accident when Debbie's parents moved into the house next to his farm and came to introduce themselves.
- We just wanted you to know... You see she hasn't spoken a word since the accident and won't answer if you say anything to her, Debbie's mother said, - But it could be she comes here because she loves horses.
Bill observed the dark rings under the eyes of both parents.
- You'd better come in for coffee, he opened the door, - I just made some.
They sat in the old cowboy's plain kitchen and accepted two chipped mugs with Happy Horses Farm painted on them. The good strong coffee smelled delicious.
- Why has your daughter not spoken since the crash? Bill went straight to the point.
- She was in that car. She was the only one who survived. She had to sit in the wreck long enough to see Jessie and her mother die. It was a miracle she survived, Debbie's father said quietly, - The shock was so severe she hasn't spoken since. She hasn't cried once. It has been three months now.
- You are trying therapy, I suppose, Bill said.
- Yes, but so far it has not helped her. Her therapist named the day of the accident as the day the laughter died. After this summer we are thinking of sending her to a hospital for intensive therapy, mother said.
- How old is she? Bill asked.
- Ten, father said.
- A bit young to end up in an institution... Bill said what he thought, like he always did. He looked out of his kitchen window. - The day the laughter died... No child should ever look back in their lives and see such a day there... I think your therapist should be more careful with her words. If she keeps calling the day of the accident as the day the laughter died, your daughter might just start believing her.
At this the mother started crying. Bill looked at her and nodded.
- Well. You tell Debbie she is more than welcome to see the horses. The only rule here is that she has to obey what I say. All these horses aren't safe, you see.
- What do you mean? Debbie´s mother looked at him suspiciously.
- My own horses are ok. I call them the happy horses. You can sleep on their backs if you want to, but the small barn over there... Bill pointed to a red barn at a little distance away, half hidden behind the big barn - That's where I keep all the tired horses. Or the disturbed horses to use the correct term.
- The... what? father looked alarmed.
- They are burned-out horses that deserve a second chance. I keep them there and slowly gain their trust. Teach them out of their bad manners. Give them time to heal, Bill rose from his chair, - So you tell Debbie that is a place she is not allowed to go to. Those horses need total peace and quiet and are not safe to be around. If your therapist was here she might say they also experienced the day the laughter died. And now I need to go to work with my happy horses. It was good to meet you.
He walked out of the kitchen, leaving them there with their coffee mugs. Bill never was good with small talk. Horses did not understand it and people around horses usually went straight to the point. With horses you had to.
It did not take many days before the little girl appeared. He saw her from the corner of his eye when she timidly appeared through his gate (Happy Horses Farm was carved on it) and walked along the driveway towards the big barn. Bill did not let her see he was observing her from under the brim of his hat but carried on his work with the saddle.
Tiny little creature she was. Light brown hair, well worn jeans and very dusty sneakers. Reminded Bill of a scared horse, the way she walked.
- The day the laughter died, he spat the words quietly out of his mouth, - Laughter may hide but if ever there came the day the laughter died, there is no hope left in this world... I sure wish I could say a few words to that therapist...
A passing cat looked at him curiously.
He waited until she was within earshot and then looked straight at her. The girl stopped and just stood there and looked back. Her eyes revealed no emotion. Bill noticed a nasty red scar on her left arm but did not let his eyes stop there.
The expressionless face told Bill all he needed to know about the day the laughter died for Debbie. There was nothing there - the girl looked like a little robot. He had seen that expression often - in the eyes of all the tired horses in the small barn. No life there, just the request to be left alone, into the healing silence.
For a short moment he felt a shiver inside. What if the therapist was right. What if there would never be laughter for this little girl again? What if the day of the accident had really been just that - the day the laughter died.
Bill did not let his emotions show but nodded to Debbie.
- You are Debbie, aren't you?
The girl kept on staring and said nothing.
- You prefer not to talk, I heard. Well, that is fine here. Horses don't like loud people.
Bill cleaned his hands in a water bucket.
- Well, let me just say you are welcome to the Happy Horses Farm. And now that you are here you just might make yourself useful. See the wheelbarrow over there? Push it into the barn with me and I´ll introduce you to the happy horses.
Clearly this was not what Debbie had expected, but Bill just bent to lift up the heavy saddle and started walking towards the barn door. He did not look back.
A short silence. Then the sound of the wheelbarrow moving. Bill smiled.
She soon became a daily visitor at the stables. She was seen sitting on a fence surrounding the paddock, looking at the two mares with foals. She watched from a little distance when the men saddled their horses and rode off. She sometimes helped carrying the hay to the horses, but never unless Bill was around.
There were days when she did not come - those were her therapy days. When she returned the next day, she was even more ghost-like than before. Bill was not at all sure if it was a good thing to make a little girl go through the accident all over again. But what did he know - he was just an old cowboy.
She was there when the day began, watching the cowboys joking and laughing while they worked on their happy horses. And she was there at the end of the day. The laughter died, the men went home at dusk, and only then she left for home.
Bill had made sure it was ok she stayed the whole day. When Debbie´s parents said it was fine, he kept her lunch box in his fridge and made sure she ate during the day. Often he cooked a warm meal and shared it with his silent visitor.
Once he found a paper in her back bag. It fell out when he lifted it indoors from the porch. When he lifted the paper up, he saw what it said. Written in block letters were the dreaded words all over the paper. There was a drawing she had made - a mangled car and three people inside it. The day the laughter died was written on the side of the car.
Two of the people had their eyes closed. One was staring out from the drawing. The figure had no mouth. Just two round eyes. All around the car she had written it over and over again. The day the laughter died. The day the laughter died.
Bill had never felt so angry and sad in his life. His hands shook when he folded the paper and put it in the backbag again.
Debbie did as she was told and did not come into the small barn. One day a brightly colored paper had appeared on the barn door, though. "All the tired horses" it said. Debbie had drawn a horse sleeping in bed. The paper was hanging from a nail. Bill took it and put hanging on his kitchen wall.
There never was a picture of the happy horses.
Bill had told his men her story and they understood. They greeted Debbie when they saw her but never teased her. They couldn't have, really, because she shied like a wild horse if anyone approached her. Anyone but Bill.
She trusted the old cowboy and he let her stay quiet. But she was as shy as ever, jumped at every loud noise and preferred to hide from people. And after her therapy days she shied from Bill too.
- The day the laughter died, he mumbled to himself on those days, - How does that therapy help her, I´d like to know... It only seems to make her feel worse!
Bill heard Debbie´s parents had not let her go to her friend´s funeral. He sighed at hearing this. People needed their chance to say goodbye in a proper manner. Even this had been stolen from Debbie.
Then Goliath arrived. It was a rainy morning when the horse truck came. Bill saw Debbie standing in the barn doorway, half hidden by hay stacks.
- Debbie! he shouted, - You stay there. This horse is dangerous.
The girl stared at the horse truck that was heaving. Enraged neighing and kicks that sounded like thunder underlined Bill´s words.
- Wooo... What have you there, Bill? one of his men came to the yard.
- A tough one, Bill said, - I almost did not take him. A Percheron stallion that had a nervous breakdown. He was found in a stable in the city, tied to his place. Bought as a show horse but was too strong for his owner. Hasn't been out in months. Almost killed his owner a month ago. They tried to beat him to make him obey. Finally they were going to shoot him, but someone mentioned my name. I said I'd have a look. After all he could be a breeding stallion.
- Shall we take him to the small barn then? To all the tired horses.
Men had started calling the small barn after Debbie´s drawing.
- No. We shall let him out. There. On his own field. He needs to run.
The horse truck turned and backed straight to the gate of the paddock. It had strong wooden fences around it. Bill opened the little door in front of the horse truck and went in. After a while he came back outside, holding his arm with his other hand.
- He bit me, he said, - But I managed to get the rope off his halter. Open the back door now.
They did. The horse had probably been waiting for this because he stormed out of the truck like a white lightning. He run with ears flat and disappeared behind the little hill in the middle of the field.
- Let him settle for a few days, Bill said, - Then lets see if he still has hope.
When he turned back he saw little Debbie standing in the middle of the yard, watching in the direction where the massive work horse had disappeared. Water was pouring on the girl, but she did not seem to notice. Her eyes were big and round and her mouth was open.
- He is a beauty, isn´t he? Bill said when he walked past the girl, - But remember: he is very dangerous. Stallions can kill people. Do not go near him.
Goliath did not let anyone touch him and no one tried to. They kept a water tank filled near the fence to make him approach humans and Bill saw the stallion in the mornings drinking from it when no one was around. During the day the horse stayed as far from the barns as he could, hidden by the hill.
Bill observed Goliath through his kitchen window in the mornings. He was a magnificent horse. No sports horse but an old fashioned heavy working horse of perfect proportions. It would be such a pity if he had to be put down. His problems were all caused by humans, he was not born evil.
Then one morning Bill observed something else too. This time he was up really early, having just returned from the barn, tending a horse that was sick. He poured himself coffee when movement caught his attention. He looked - and saw a familiar little figure by the fence.
It was Debbie. She stood very quietly behind a bush that was growing by the fence - and Goliath approached the water tank right next to her. Bill almost ran out, but then stopped. The girl was very careful with horses and she knew this one was dangerous.
He decided to trust the girl. He watched how the big stallion came to the tank and very carefully lowered his beautiful head to drink. He drank deeply, his ears catching every small noise, his big dark eyes hidden under his forelock. Then suddenly something caught his attention and he shied away quickly.
Bill tried to look closer and saw it. A carrot. A bright orange carrot was placed on the fence near the tank. The little girl stood like a statue.
Curiosity got the better of Goliath. Very carefully the massive stallion approached the fence, quickly took the carrot and trotted away. Debbie turned and started walking towards her home. She passed very near the kitchen window.
Bill almost choked on his coffee when he saw her expression. There was the slightest hint of a smile. That was the first time he had seen any emotion on her face since the brief moment of surprise on Goliath´s arrival.
- Well that´s something the therapist should see! Ha! Bill had to bang his fist on the table.
Next morning Bill was peeking out of the kitchen window at sunrise. He felt almost guilty, spying on what was obviously a very private thing for Debbie. But he had to keep an eye on the horse. The stallion had not let anyone touch him yet and tried to bite or kick anyone who even tried. And with those massive hooves a kick was very dangerous. He had seen a normal-sized horse kick another horse´s leg so that it broke.
This time Debbie put the carrot on the fence and stepped so that the stallion saw her.
He did not approach. He stopped near the fence but did not come closer. Eventually he turned away and left. The scene repeated for a few days.
Then Debbie came up with a new plan. The carrot was on the fence again and she stood in plain sight of the horse. She had another carrot in her hand. Her hand was bent so that the carrot touched her chin.
Goliath approached. Bill could have sworn he did not look as alert as before. Still, he stopped before reaching the fence. He smelled the carrot and took one hesitant step.
Debbie bent her head and bit into her carrot. Bill had kept the window open for a few mornings already so he could hear her crunching the carrot clearly. So did the stallion. In one quick step he came to the fence, reached for his carrot and was gone.
Now it was Bill who was smiling.
And then came that morning. Bill was positioned by his window, waiting for Debbie to arrive. Goliath approached the water tank. Bill wondered where Debbie was.
Then he saw her and chills ran down his spine. The stupid little girl was in Goliath´s paddock! She was standing by the fence, behind the bush, but she was on the wrong side of the fence! The stallion saw her, stopped and his ears went flat. The stallion shook his head sideways and stomped his front hooves to the ground.
The little girl did not move. She was holding a carrot and some hay in her hand, palm up, towards the stallion. Bill tried to calculate in his head how quickly he could ran out, jump the fence and rescue the girl.
And the unbelievable happened. The horse stopped. The ears turned forward. The little girl stood totally fearless.
An eternity passed. Neither the horse nor the girl moved. Then the stallion trotted a few steps and stopped again with his head high, the whites of his eyes showing. Debbie stood totally still.
Maybe the horse had some good memories left of being treated well. Who knows if he had once been loved by a small girl. Whatever the case, he did not attack. He took one shaking step at a time towards the girl, nostrils huge, drinking in air. Bill could see he was afraid, but Debbie was so small she did not look threatening.
And then he was right in front of the girl. He smelled her. He blew a huge breath of air to her face, making her hair fly. And Debbie answered. She blew air into the stallions nostrils, just like Bill had taught.
"That´s how horses make friends," he had said, "They blow air to your face and you do the same to let them smell you."
Bill realized he was holding his breath. How easy it would be for the big horse just to extend its neck and bite Debbie in the face or shoulder. He knew he was insane not to intervene. But he didn´t. Something in the horse´s expression stopped him. The look in his eyes was soft, not threatening.
And then Goliath bent his head and with soft lips took the carrot from the girl´s hand. Her fingers curved ever so slightly to caress the horse´s lower lip. She had seen Bill doing that to a colt. The foals seemed to like it and usually pushed their heads to Bill´s armpit when he did that. It was like the gesture made them feel secure.
For one enchanted moment the stallion stood still. And then Bill heard it.
- Good horse, she whispered, - Good boy!
Then she turned very quietly and on all fours crawled from under the fence back to the yard. The stallion gave a huge sigh and turned away. She got up and walked past Bill´s window, tears streaming down her face - smiling.
- You´ll be fine. You both will be just fine, Bill whispered to himself and looked at the sun rising above the trees, behind the slowly walking stallion.
When Bill returned for lunch that day he found Debbie sitting by the kitchen table with her crayons. She was drawing. He recognized the drawing immediately. The day the laughter died written all over, the wrecked car, the three figures.
Debbie took a red crayon and carefully drew a mouth to the little figure with round eyes. It was not a smiling mouth, but it did curve ever so slightly upwards. Then she used the same red crayon and carefully colored over one of the sentences, written on the side of the car. The day the laughter died disappeared under heavy layer of red color.
Then she took a green crayon. The day the laughter died did not have a chance against it and succumbed to bright green grass. Then she took the blue crayon and colored over the sky. The day the laughter died vanished from the sky. Next came the brown crayon. The day the laughter died disappeared under a new tree trunk. Then the green again - and the day the laughter died was lost in the midst of the green leaves of the tree.
And then she took one more crayon and carefully drew angel wings on the two people in the car.
The day the laughter died had disappeared. There was hope in the world yet.
The incident that made me realize how close sadness and laughter are of each other, happened when we were arranging for the funeral of my 26-year-old brother-in-law. It was the day after his death and my mother-in-law was looking at pictures of different flower arrangements. Someone suggested lilies.
- Oh no, no lilies! she spontaneously answered, - They remind me of funerals!
For a few seconds it was totally quiet - and then everyone burst out laughing. We literally laughed with tears in our eyes.
The following year I understood the connection more deeply. You see my brother in law committed suicide and I was so angry at him. Angry at the sorrow he caused. So angry I now realize I refused to grieve for him after the initial shock was over.
I have always believed in life after death, so that was not the problem. I knew I´d meet him one day again. But deep within I could not forgive the pain he caused my husband´s family and all his friends. Back then I considered his act to be the ultimate selfish act with total disregard for anyone else´s feelings. The day he died was the day the laughter died for all of us.
I decided to be strong - and acted accordingly.
And then a year later I suddenly realized something was wrong. I felt nothing. No emotions whatsoever in any given situation. I would have been surprised if I could have felt anything. But even without emotions my intellect told me things were not right.
On hindsight I know understand I was depressed. I should have sought for professional help, but did not understand to do so. Instead I used methods I read from books and developed myself and did manage to climb back up again. First using my intellect - and then later when the emotions returned, it became easier.
Still - it was a long process, a journey taken one step at a time. After it I was not the same person anymore. I understood what they meant with the metaphor of the broken vase glued back together again. I was like that vase. I might have looked the same but wasn't the happy go lucky person I had been before.
It was a tough journey to get over the day the laughter died for me. But afterwards I sure recognized the connection between tears and laughter.
What I learned was that if you have faced a shock that has robbed you of joy, try the opposite of laughter. Try tears. Take that box of tissues and watch those emotional movies. Or if you hear or see something that makes you suddenly feel sad, let the tears come. Understand you are letting out old bottled up sadness you did not deal with before.
Tears are a sign of releasing resistance of your mind. Once you let them come, you open up emotionally and can start your way towards healing. You allow yourself to heal. And that is when laughter can come back again. And so the day the laughter died will lose its power on your mind - through grieving and healing tears.
Am I still angry at my brother-in-law? No. Once I got through my own anger and sadness, I could look at what he did and understand his action was caused by depression too. He was a very quiet person, I did not see him laughing much.
So obviously he had also faced the day the laughter died - and did not know how to find it again. He certainly could never have cried openly. The family had lost an aunt everyone loved dearly just before his suicide - perhaps this was the event that plunged him into depression. Maybe that was the day the laughter died for him. We´ll never know.
Demanding my brother in law to take other people's emotions into consideration was actually the most selfish thing I could have asked for. We can only live being true to our own emotions - and he obviously had reached a point where he considered he could only reach for relief in death.
If only we had seen any signs of what was coming. But he never was a dramatic person and all his life had controlled his emotions. And so it happened that he surprised us totally with his suicide.
Rememeber: if we deny our emotions of sadness, we block the positive ones too. So give the tears a chance - by doing so you give laughter a chance too. The old saying that time heals is also true.
I wrote this poem after my brother-in-law´s death. If you have lost a loved one, I hope it gives you some relief:
When life gives a wound
right into our heart
and those who were bound
and the nearness is gone,
and it feels like a crime
the thing we can trust on
is the patience of time
May you never have to look back in your life and see the day the laughter died for good. Understand that life consists of different phases or "building blocks" if you will. Some are sad, some are joyful. Be true to yourself and your emotions and then you can look at those phases as the true treasures they are - reminders of how fragile and yet wonderful life is.
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