Seismic shifts

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On June 20, I held the door for my mother one last time as the funeral home personnel wheeled her body out of her assisted living facility.

She was 98 years old. My sisters and I had celebrated with her just two months before. She barely acknowledged our presence, but it mattered to us that we were there to honor her. She had been on Hospice Care and off a couple of times, but we knew that there would not be an amazing rebound this time.

She was born in Chicago, before the Great Depression. Her father held a number of jobs, including with Selig Studios when they were based in Chicago. When the studio was getting ready to move, he was invited to go with them, but his ties to Chicago were too strong. My mother’s best friend was her older sister, who still lives on the North Shore. Mom and Dad married in 1944, and my oldest sister was born while Dad was in the Navy in Hawaii. For about a year, Mom lived with her mother-in-law, which is testament to Mom’s strength and patience. My grandmother was a force of nature.

Eventually, there were four daughters. My parents made sure we had every opportunity: dance lessons, art lessons, voice lessons, tennis lessons. And we couldn’t get our drivers’ licenses until we proved we could change a tire. Mom helped us learn to bake, although cooking for the family was a privilege she held for herself. She survived our teen years, and saw us all off to college and our new adventures. She did it all with a grace and beauty that was incomparable. She served on several charitable Boards, but family always came first.

They moved into a lovely house when I was just a few weeks old, and lived there 57 years. We tried to make sure they could stay there as long as possible, but finally it was time to move them into assisted living. Dad died within a few months, Mom did well for a few years but gradually disappeared farther and farther into herself. She continued to love music and birds and flowers, and pictures of her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

The evening of the day Mom died, I closed my eyes to try to shut out the world and process the day. And I saw them, clear as day, dancing, laughing, Mom in a long gown, Dad in his dress uniform, eyes only for each other.

Together again.

Life songs

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I used to sing. A lot. I performed as a folk singer during high school, as well as in musicals, and I continued singing in college and after my kids were born. I sang my joy, my anger, my frustration, my hopes.

I sang to my cats and to my dogs.

Until I didn’t.

i didn’t really realize that it had happened until my niece mentioned that she heard my sisters humming or singing a lot, but not me. Which seemed backwards to all of us. Heck, I had sung at one sister’s wedding.

I tried blaming it on it on all the screaming I do at basketball games, but that wasn’t it.

When Sophia died in 2009 I lost my voice. Never before or since has a loss affected me so deeply. While I learned to function well enough, even found joy, the songs had been stilled. Every now and then I might sing along with the radio for a minute or two, and it is a given that family members get their annual renditions of ‘Happy Birthday.’ But something in me remained broken, but so deep in me that I didn’t know how to fix it.

Something has happened the past week or so and I have felt the music bubbling back through my soul. Maybe the impending birth of my granddaughter, maybe the approach of another Spring, perhaps even surviving my first six months of retirement.

Whatever it is, I am thankful. There are lots of songs I want to sing, even if it does alarm the dogs. And the songs are there, just waiting their turns, everything from Fire and Rain to Big Yellow Taxi to Will You Still Love Me to Laura Nyro and Dylan and Donovan and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Show tunes, rock and roll, folk music and lullabies. With joy.

Today I sang. Tomorrow I will sing. With Sophia forever cradled in my heart, shining through in every note.

More lessons my dogs taught me

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A Berner owner expressed her sadness today that her dogs will likely have less than a decade with her. Yes, it is depressing to realize that a companion who creates so much joy will be with you only briefly. But I asked her – just as I occasionally have to remind myself – not to grieve too soon.

“There are no guarantees in this world. Not for tomorrow and not for next week. Let your dogs teach you to live in this moment, to revel in the rain and the sunshine, in each meal and every loving touch, to dance when you want to and sigh as you relax. They have no fear of the future, they are here now, and they want you with them. Our dogs can teach us well. If grief is to come, and eventually it will, don’t compound it by grieving too soon, for then you will have missed the exquisite joy that is today.”

Cleaning up old drafts

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As I get ready to retire, I am finding a few nuggets stored here and there so I wouldn’t lose them – which often means I don’t see them for years.

After losing Minco this Spring, these few paragraphs are words that I live with a lot. I am finding our new normal, our new balance – one which I will be tossing like 52-card pick-up when suddenly the dogs have me home way more than they’re used to. I think we’ll manage.

The draft that I found, just a few years ago:

 

A friend reminded me a few years ago, that no matter how philosophical or positive or anything else we are, we just want them BACK!

I don’t think they do really leave us. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt Sophia with me, and more recently Faith, too. And though my eyes may fill, that sense of their presence cannot help but bring a smile, too. I remember a catch phrase I used for years with them both, “How did I get so lucky?” And I feel them with me and I hear that phrase again, in my voice, talking to them, hugging them tight to my heart.

We want them back.

They’re still here.

I know she is with you, a paw resting on your shoulder.

Woven into your heart, part of your very soul, one with the air you breath.

New Normal

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Its always informative to watch the dogs who remain, following the death of an old dog. The dogs I have now have shared all of their lives with Minco, and I guess I expected more confusion or sense of loss.

It hasn’t happened.

My dogs haven’t missed a beat.

They walk by Minco’s crate without a second glance. They zoom around the yard just like always. Domino, now deaf, used to express alarm when Minco left the room, now his alarm/anxiety is less predictable.

While I am still coming to terms with the lack of a huge physical presence, the dogs know their roles and keep on keeping on – it may be that the bond was much stronger between me and Minco than it was between him and the other dogs, or maybe they know something I don’t quite get yet.

I do feel his presence with me each day, and I know he would be here physically if he could. If ever there was a dog who would find his way back home, it is Minco. I don’t know when or how, but I suspect that another dog will come into my life who will elicit the same kind of trust, the same sense of strength, the same watchfulness. I know it won’t *be* Minco, but I know my heart will heal.

Someday.

Loss of a guardian

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MincoStandI had to say goodbye to Minco yesterday. The tumor on his ankle had become too painful to manage, and his other rear leg could not have supported his weight for much longer.

He was not quite 12 1/2 – so I suppose I should count myself lucky for having had so much time with him, and having learned so much from him. He taught me a lot about ear infections and how to avoid poultry and flaxseed, how to manage resource guarding and an independent thinker.

I had given up trying to teach him to sit, he was simply not interested. But he was watching as I worked with my English Shepherd, and he saw that she was getting REWARDED for sitting down! He kept coming over to try to get in on the treats (without doing the work) and in exasperation I told him to “plant that butt!” And he did. And he got his reward. And he had a perfect sit from then on, the only problem was that I had to repeat that original instruction. We did finally winnow it down to just “plant.”
Minco overcame the loss of vision in one eye, a multitude of urinary crystals, a tumor in his spleen and then Babesiosis a couple of years later. His back end never completely regained strength after the Babesiosis, and he stopped jumping onto the bed about 8 months ago. But he never tired of letting me know if I was moving a half-step slow when it was time to eat. I have never heard a dog scold as effectively as he did. But he also stopped putting his from paws on my shoulders to look me square in the eye to tell me really important stuff.

He was always looking out for me – if I was outside too long he would come get me, or he would watch from the doorway to make sure I didn’t get in trouble. He would always elicit gasps when we walked into the vet’s office, with people exclaiming not over his size, but telling each other, and me, what a beautiful dog he was.
Although he wasn’t a National Anatolian Shepherd Rescue Network dog, Carleen and the group provided a lot of support and patience once I figured out his likely heritage. Thank you for the knowledge you shared. I hope that I have helped pass some of that knowledge along to others who have found themselves in possession of these marvelous dogs.
RIP sweet Minco. I will see your beautiful cheetah run in my dreams.

Fur therapy

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I’ve gotten back to being more hands-on with the dogs the past couple of weeks.

I hadn’t been ignoring them, but I hadn’t been as relaxed and close with them, either.

I could blame it on the cold and wearing gloves and being all bundled up while they played in the snow, but that wasn’t it. I could claim fatigue or being too busy and a half a dozen other things – none of which would be accurate.

I realized as I was brushing dogs the other day that the last time I had done that calmly and peacefully was while I was trying to convince my Pyr that it was okay for her to quit struggling to take care of me. I spent what seemed like several lifetimes gently massaging her shoulders, running my hands through her thinning fur, drinking in the smell and the feel of her coat, absorbing every moment’s memory knowing that there would be no more moments to treasure with her.

I hadn’t realized how much that tactile exercise was intertwined with my grief.

My other dogs still got hugs and scratches and belly rubs – but it was different. I was holding back, afraid of diluting the memories, or maybe of moving on.

It’s almost spring, and bits of green are starting to struggle through the dirt and dead vegetation. I guess I am ready for renewal. too. Brushing the dogs out in the yard, sending fur flying all directions, getting back in the habit of those quiet massages.

Life happens.

Grief

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Some stages of grief are predictable and fairly universal.

But our styles and methods of grieving are as unique as we ourselves. Expecting someone else to grieve the same way that you do is a recipe for additional pain.

Many of us rail at the gods and try to bargain for signs or something, anything, that will bring our lost loved one closer/back to us/whatever.

Many (most?) of us wonder what we could have or should have done differently that might have changed the outcome. A moot point, since the outcome has already been, but we still do it. I don’t know whether it’s a guilt complex, shouldering of blame, or just a need to better understand what happened and can we prevent another similar event.

Since my loss of my Pyr, Faith, last week, at least a half dozen people I know have also lost dogs or cats. I can tell them I sympathize with their pain, I can remind them there was little, if anything, they could have done differently or better or faster. I can validate their loss, their grief, let them know that what they are feeling is normal and doesn’t follow a schedule or a highlighted map.

Some of us feel the strong presence of those animals we have lost. Knowing how tightly woven they are into our hearts and souls, we carry them with us and take comfort in not just the memories, but the strong bonds that will never be broken. But those who are new to this kind of grief may struggle with that concept.

Their grief is theirs and they need to find the path that is right for them. Sometimes all that another person can do is tell them “I am here for you if you need me, and I am so sorry that you have to walk this path.”

Particularly when the grief is raw, no one can do what the grieving person wants more than anything in the world – give them back the physical presence of their beloved companion.

A Fare-Thee-Well

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Yesterday evening I had to say good-bye to my 11 1/2 year-old Pyr, Faith.

faithfulShe helped more than a few dogs in her day, whether in transport or foster. Though she was the least likely to play of any of my dogs, it was to her that one special Berner boy made his first play bow, when we didn’t know at first whether we would ever be able to draw him out of his shell of fear.

Faith came to me from the local shelter, intended as a companion for my BARC Beauty Sophia. They quickly became fast friends, and they made sure that all other dogs coming to their house knew the rules. She was true to her breed, keeping me and our property safe from all manner of trucks, buses, birds and planes. We NEVER had a plane land in our driveway!

Age and years of property management caught up with her, she spent the past few years on monthly Adaquon shots and Salmon oil seemed to ease some of her cognitive issues, but a recent infection recurred and may have had an impact on her liver and gall bladder. X-rays indicated that her hips and knees were failing, making the option for gall bladder surgery more problematic.

She refused to tell me that it was time for her to go. To the end, she was trying to protect me at her own expense. But I told her that I would do what was right for her, and I know that was what I did.

Three of my dogs are fine, but my ASD/Pyr mix, who was her closest companion after we lost Sophia, is taking it hard. But I know he will help me keep my promise to Faith tonight that I would be fine. He’s sneakiy that way, making sure that I don’t have time to wallow. He will keep me grounded, Berner Hagar will keep me laughing and Duffy and Domino will make sure that I PAY ATTENTION!!!

Run and spin with abandon, dear Faith. You were greatly loved all eleven years I got to share with you, and I will carry you in my heart until we meet again.

Calm

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It always amazes me the difference it makes to spend time with lots and lots of dogs – and the people who love them.
Having just spent a week at a National Specialty show, I find that I am calmer, happier, and far less reactive.
Granted, the dogs I spent time with are happy-go-lucky people lovers, calm and elegant dogs with remarkable spirits.
That they are willing to share so much of their spirit with us, mere humans that we are, is what is truly amazing.
Perhaps the reason they are so short-lived is related to the parable of the boy saying goodbye to the family dog, refusing to lament that he is losing a dear friend:
The vet who was there to euthanize the dog was trying to comfort the family when the child said, “I know why animals don’t live as long as people.
“We are all put on the earth to learn to love and make others happy. Animals are born knowing how to do that, so they don’t have to stay here as long.”
They give us love and joy, asking so little of us in return.
They are treasures, blessings to our lives, if we will only just stop to see it.