|"The horse on the table"|
It was only comparatively recently that a friend wrote to me and said, "Have you ever read that story about the horse on the table?"
I had to admit that I hadn't.
I went searching for it online and found it. It's only a couple of book pages in length, but the intent of the story can be condensed much further. Reading it will set the scene fully, but here's the gist of it.
The horse on the table is a rather more specific form of the 'elephant in the room' – the thing strongly affecting people's lives that is very important but no-one can bear to talk about.
In this case, it's referring to the impending death of the person being visited. It sits on the table right between the visitor and the person with the illness. Very often, no-one knows how to deal with it, because it's not going to go away. It's just there where it doesn't belong. Like a horse between the salt and pepper shakers.
The problem is that sometimes it's X, the ill person, who doesn't want to confront it, and at other times Y, the guest, prefers not to. Both might not want to. Both may want to, but are scared the other does not.
So more often than not, the horse sits there as the visit goes on, looming larger and larger as long as it doesn't get a mention.
I've had this sort of experience, but much depends on my visitor[s] and my relationship with them. I surely don't want to spend the entire time talking about my illness, and I'm certain they don't want it to be the sole topic of conversation. I do want to know what is going on in my visitors' lives, and the wonderful gossip they have up their sleeve to share with me.
I have no qualms in talking about details of my illness or, for that matter, my impending death, with detachment that makes some people shrink in horror. With some people I can even joke about it, up to a point – sometimes in a macabre way that would unsettle others.
Tracey and I have no horse on the table. What's happening to me physically and intellectually as this disease progresses affects us to the core and there's simply no room for equus mortis.
The only visit that's unsatisfactory is the one where we're trapped in this groove of talking about inconsequential things when, after the best part of an hour, no true contact has been made. I haven't even been asked how I feel. That question's too much like inviting the horse to loom up with a quizzical look in its eye.
By the end of the visit I end up knowing how painting their back room is going, the antics of their neighbour I wouldn't know from Adam, and the potholes in the street down the road, but they have no better idea where I'm at than they had when they arrived. Of course, they may gather a good deal about me without asking, from the shakiness of my arm and the difficulty I have to sit down and the other observable points of deterioration but....
It's nice to be asked. Watto wouldn't hesitate, so don't you.
The horse is on the table and always will be, but don't be afraid of it. It won't eat you, I promise. And you'll feel all the better for asking.
'My son, it is the horse on the dining-room table. It is a horse that visits every house and sits on every dining-room table - the tables of the rich and of the poor, of the simple and of the wise. This horse just sits there, but its presence makes you wish to leave without speaking of it. If you leave, you will always fear the presence of the horse. When it sits on your table, you will wish to speak of it, but you may not be able to.–––
'However, if you speak about the horse, then you will find that others can also speak about the horse - most others, at least, if you are gentle and kind as you speak. The horse will remain on the dining-room table, but you will not be so distraught. You will enjoy your repast, and you will enjoy the company of the host and hostess. Or, if it is your table, you will enjoy the presence of your guests. You cannot make magic to have the horse disappear, but you can speak of the horse and thereby render it less powerful.'*