MARLEY RIDES: His story
Ever since childhood, riding hard and fast was central to Marley Pratt's life — and when he received a terminal diagnosis during high school, it became a metaphor for life itself, something that helped him live extra years and buoyed up family and friends.
As detailed in the new book "Marley Rides," written by his mother, Jennifer Hart of Ashland, the boy's relentless philosophy of getting the most from each day was played out on horseback for many years and, when his bones became too fragile for the knocks of equestrian life, he expressed his vigor on a more stable, four-wheel all-terrain vehicle from Make a Wish Foundation.
Diagnosed with squamous lung cancer at 15, Marley was given six months to live. He fought to extend his life, and he succeeded. "I gave them three and a half years of living," Marley said.
He died at 18, on June 30, 2003, and Hart's account of her son's life, fleshed out with comments from a large support circle, was published a few weeks ago by Lost Borders Press.
While most people gather round to support and lift the spirits of the dying person, it was the other way around with Marley, says Hart. "Because he was dying, he was free to live and it kind of woke us all up. He lived and loved big, rode fast and hard and gave us courage to do the same."
Relaxing in her mountain home in "God's Pocket," a community off Old Siskiyou Highway, Hart gazes longingly at a framed picture taken six weeks before Marley's death that shows the yound man leaning against a fence, wearing a cowboy hat and chaps.
"He was a weird kid. He didn't care what anyone thought. His cousin said he saved us all from normalcy. He was in special ed and they said he was mildly retarded from 9 to 3, school hours," jokes Hart, adding that if anything was retarded in Marley, it was a sense of individuality apart from others.
"He thought it was much more fun to do things with people. Whether playing, living or dying, it's better if you do it with others. His goal was to unite people around him and when he got cancer, we paid attention," Hart says.
As a gesture of love, people from all over sent Marley pebbles, "so he wouldn't feel alone." He put them in a shrine and, she says, "he rode as fast as he could, had parties, laughed too loud and told dumb jokes. He had nothing to lose and he took us, hundreds of us, on a wonderful journey.
At 16, Marley had a lung and rib removed and a received steel knee implant. That was the end of horse riding, but as his bones disintegrated he rode his Kawasaki Mule, even volunteering for the Colestin Rural Fire Department as a fire spotter and earning their Firefighter of the Year award, days before his death.
Marley grew up with his horse, Nike. The family bought Nike when Marley was born. When Marley died, the horse went out in the pasture, laid down and refused to get up. She died two weeks later. One week after that, Marley's dog Grace also died.
The community created around Marley persists and became co-authors, as "Marley's network," of the book. They gathered at a three-day memorial on his next birthday. His sendoff was typical Marley, says Hart. They put his ashes in a skyrocket and scattered them all over the hills he loved to ride.
The book stands apart from most books on dying (and dying far too young). Its message, free of self-pity and laced with humor, can be summed up in a quote from the TV sitcom "Doctor, Doctor," found on page 218: "Never knock on death's door. Ring the bell and run away! Death really hates that!"
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.