Quiet days, lessons to learn

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Yes, I have been quiet for quite a while. Work keeps me very busy and the dogs keep me sane. Unless they’re driving me crazy.

As I watch them age, I marvel at how they live their lives. They are so much in the moment that it is hard for most people to fathom.

They remember the past but don’t obsess about it, they anticipate what’s next but don’t worry about it. They simply “are,” right here, right now.

They take joy in the little things, a scratch behind an ear, tracking the flight of a butterfly across the year (and always out of reach), fence running with the neighbor’s dogs – there is no malice in their barking and running, just making their opinions known.

Each day is a wonderful, treasured gift, a new adventure, an opportunity for joy.

Some days I worry that my days with them are numbered, I cannot imagine my life without them. Then I realize that they aren’t worried about any of that, they only know that we are here now, together, with a chance to play and rest and enjoy these moments. Worrying and grieving too soon get in the way of that.

I may be a slow study, but I am learning. They are good teachers.

Choosing joy

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It has been just a little more than a year since we lost my Dad. There are still the occasional waves of sadness and loss, but mostly there are smiles and gratitude.
Smiles because of the love and care he lavished on his family. He was not particularly demonstrative, but we always knew he was there for us and that he would help us learn and grow. And we always knew that he loved us.
And he loved dogs, especially our dogs – first the dogs we got when I was three, and then the dogs his daughters acquired over the years. Even on those days he was confused or in pain, his face would light up when one of us was there with a dog or two.
I miss him terribly, and I always will, but he also taught me the importance of joy, in the big things, certainly, but especially in the little things.
The sound or a tennis ball hitting square in the middle of the strings,
The sight of a moose calmly walking through the woods (as long as we were out of range),
The lovely patterns of the petals of a rose opening to the morning sun,
The grace of a dog running with abandon just for the sake of running. With joy.
My father rarely spoke of any hardships or troubles or sadness. He chose to focus on the good things in this world and making as much as he could possible for as many people as he could – especially for his family.
He chose joy.
There is still sometimes a tear or two as I indulge in these memories, but more important is that I remember the love and the joy, not the sadness.
He taught us well.
I choose joy.

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.

Canine health – Hope and Tragedy

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Why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves through this over and over and over again?

This morning I found out that a dear friend’s dog was diagnosed with cancer – a cancer all too prevalent in the breed we love. This is the second dog she has had with this form of cancer this decade.

Years ago I lost my beloved Border Collie to hemangiosarcoma. At the time, I could imagine nothing more devastating.

Then I fell in love with Bernese Mountain dogs.

Sanity would suggest that these dogs are their own Greek tragedy. Their life span is one of the shortest of all breeds, they are subject to multiple cancers as well as having a tendency to bloat, bleeding, and dysplasia. Why anyone would self-select for the kind of grief that is almost certain is almost beyond comprehension.

Until you meet the dogs. My first Berner was not my first dog. And my relationships with my dogs before her were wonderful relationships. But something in Sophia really, really got to me.

She was a challenge, both in attitude and health. We had a lot of issues to overcome before she blossomed into the dog we always both knew was lurking behind her pain aggression.  We worked together to make her well. She taught me so much about patience and courage and perseverance and joy. Especially joy.

Even on a bad day, she could light up with energy, happiness, goofiness, … She was clever and she was smart. And she needed me in ways I had never expected. When she was young, she wasn’t ready for the responsibility of the whole house – I quickly learned the up – and down sides of crating. For her, a few months of being crated while I was at work gave her the time to mature to the point where she could take care of the whole house while I was gone. She became my most trustworthy, ‘bulletproof’ dog to be loose in the house.

Berners love their people – and don’t like separations. For a time (after she had once again been given full run of the house all the time) she was growing increasingly agitated when I got ready to leave. After a week or two of this escalating anxiety, one day I turned around, set my stuff back down, and sat down in front of her.

“I always come back. I will always come back. As long as there is breath in my body, I will come home to you. I will never, ever abandon you.”

I sat with her, looking into her eyes and telling her this, for several minutes.  I watched and felt her body relax. She finally put her chin down between her front paws and gave me that look: “What are you still doing here?” I never had another moment of separation anxiety from her.

My girl died of cancer, Malignant Histiocitosis, several weeks shy of her eighth birthday. Although we tried chemo, we were too late. She let me know she was ready to leave.

I wish that no one ever again would have to experience the kind of grief I felt, but I know that isn’t going to be a reality for some time to come. I fear that my friend’s dog, another goofy, sweet, intelligent and challenging dog, will break her heart much as mine was broken.

But I know, too, that the sorrow we feel is a reflection of the love and the joy we have known, and I have never known dogs that bring more joy than these.

So we keep coming back to these dogs. We rescue, we support the health studies, we support each other in times of illness or injury (to our dogs, mostly – our own illness or injury seems trivial in comparison).

And we support the breeders who carefully track the health of the dogs they are considering breeding, and of those dogs’ relatives, and of the puppies they have been responsible for bringing into this world – those breeders who work so hard to breed toward longevity and health and self-confident dogs.

We know they exist – we have met some, and we celebrate the 10- and 12- and 13-year old dogs, and the people who love them. And we weep with the people who love the 4- or the 5- or the 7-year-old dogs who have just been diagnosed.

It isn’t fair that such lovely, loving and intelligent dogs should have such short lives. It isn’t fair that the people who love them feel such grief at their loss.

But we are so lucky to share what few years we do with them.

And I will put in a plug for the Canine Health Foundation – they support research into so many of the ills that plague our dogs, of whatever breed. If we keep working and searching for the answers, perhaps someday I will not see the letters MH and feel like I have been kicked in the stomach.

We can overcome. My Berner taught me that.

Season of Hope

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I won’t be home for Christmas this year. Mine or my parents’. My dogs won’t be with me, and we won’t even be celebrating as a complete family on Christmas Day.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we will all be together as a family, celebrating the season, the day, the hope and each other.

It doesn’t matter *where* we celebrate, what matters is that we are all there, together. We love each other, like each other, support each other and celebrate each other.

We all will grieve this first Christmas without my father, but we know how much he loved having everyone together, safe and happy. We will miss him but to be sad would not honor him. He always hated to see his girls sad or hurt.

So we will take his lessons and carry on, with joy and love, and celebrate this season of our lives.

Merry Christmas to all. May the Joy of the Season give light to your life.

Seasonal stress?

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That wonderful time of year – when there’s far more to do than time to do it, it’s so cold outside that it’s almost hard to enjoy watching the dogs play in it, it gets dark so early that I have to choreograph trips outside to make sure that none of the big black dogs get lost in the dark.

We really are so busy now, everyone is multitasking and trying to do everything they can for everyone they can and sometimes it gets to be too much! For me, holidays have always been about home and family and making the conscious decision to stop, to take some deep breaths, to enjoy the company of family and close friends.

Parties are lovely when they’re relaxed, comfortable affairs that require little more than company and some food. But even such pleasant get-togethers cost precious time that could be spent at home. We get so wrapped up in trying to do so much that it’s easy to forget what any particular holiday celebrates.

And these are biggies!

Christmas and New Years are both about hope, redemption, renewal, rebirth. They are about love, and forgiveness, and getting our priorities straight! They are for sharing with the people we hold most dear (and the animals, too!) and celebrating both what is and what can be, if we are willing to make the effort.

Take a moment in this busy time to remember that we all can be striving to be better people, better sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, and friends.  How little it costs us to offer a smile, a hand, a word of encouragement or comfort, yet how great the rewards when we do.

Time is made up of a series of moments, strung together in some odd linear pattern. I will choose to make my pattern relaxed and loose and warm – if others want to yank on it, fine, so long as they realize that when it gets tightened there will be little room for error or spontaneity.

I will take my instruction from my dogs and endeavor to live in the moment, with grace and joy and generosity. As long as I give them enough time outside, enough food and water and love, their attitude remains “Stress? What stress?”

I agree.

I couldn’t, I will

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I couldn’t call you to dinner tonight

Nor take the time to lovingly prepare your food

I have no need for turkey necks or sweet potatoes or summer squash

Your brush lies idle, I cannot use it on the other dogs

There is no silken fur that compares with yours

I could not lie on the floor with you

Playing pattycake or just quietly sharing a moment of calm

I could not take delight in watching you run

Nor smile at your expressions as you watched the other dogs getting all worked up about something or other

Your special chair is not a spot for the others to rest

I have put some papers there, and computer bag

It isn’t a place that can be taken

I could not take time before sleep to hug you,

To tell you how much I love you,

To tell you how big a place you will always have in my heart

The little things we shared are bittersweet

I still hear you, see you, talk to you

But I don’t know whether you hear

You stayed so faithfully by my side

Not long enough, though I am grateful for every moment

I will always love you

I will always remember you with joy

I will always remember the feel of your lovely head

Your warmth and trust, your stubborness and your strength

Your special grace and beauty

A year does not ease my sorrow

Any more than it could lessen my adoration

It only helps me realize that much more how remarkable you were.

Tonight I still miss you.

Tonight I still wish you were here.

God speed, sweet girl.

I will see you again someday at the Bridge.

Thanksgiving – a hard year, and yet…

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This is going to be a very odd Thanksgiving.

A year ago my sweet Sophia was diagnosed with cancer and I lost her less than three weeks later.

In July we moved our parents into an assisted living facility near two of my sisters and both Mom and Dad promptly ended up in the emergency room. The move meant leaving the house where they had lived almost 60 years, the only home I had ever known until I left for college.

Though both parents bounced back from the stresses of moving, in October Dad died, and I’m not sure that I have really gotten through even the first few steps of grieving.

In March I welcomed Hagar into my home. He’s settling in, finally, still a goofball, still a challenge at times, but a sweet, silly Berner boy.

And I remain thankful, even in the midst of grief and stresses and a complete lack of time and organizational fortitude, for how incredibly lucky I have been.

I got to spend more than 57 years with the support and love of two of the best parents anyone could hope for. They have challenged me, helped me, guided me and given me a foundation in life that I have been privileged to pass on to my own children.

I have three of the most remarkable sisters on the planet. We often disagree about the little stuff, but we all understand the importance of family and being constructive and being there for each other. I don’t think any of us could have gotten through the difficulties of this past year without each other.

I have sons of whom I am unapologetically proud. They forgave my mistakes in childrearing and embraced the lessons passed on through me from my parents, and have become thoughtful, considerate, wonderful young men. I’m not sure exactly what I did right, but I’m so glad I did.

And then there was Sophia.

As I approach the anniversary of her death, I feel her loss more strongly than ever. She was my beautiful silk scarf, a little exotic, a little fragile, definitely exquisite in her grace and joy in life. We had a bond that was born of struggle, as we worked through her pain aggression, her food allergies, her hip and elbow dysplasia and finally her cancer.

She taught me patience, determination, forgiveness, and faith. She approached each day, even when I knew she was in pain, with such courage and strength that I was in awe. She knew how to stretch the envelope – whether helping convince my vet that a raw diet was not some sort of fringe cult behavior, or helping me learn about canine health, positive reinforcement, and not leaving eyeglasses or Pringles cans or First Editions of books out where a curious puppy could get to them. After all, exploration is the the start of knowledge!

Even with four other dogs in the house when I lost her, and then the addition of Hagar, I miss her more than I can begin to say. As a friend wrote when she lost her own Berner, as much as she appreciated how lucky she was and as much as she appreciated the outpouring of sympathy and support, she just wanted her girl back. I still wish I could give her one more, ten more, 100 more hugs, hand her a few more turkey necks, cajole her a few more times to come back inside so we could go to bed.

But she isn’t coming back. And it hurts.

I still feel so lucky to have shared almost eight years with her. I know that few people have the kind of relationship with their dog that I had with her. I still see her, hear her, sense her presence in times of both quiet and chaos. I know that she, like my parents, my sisters, my kids, will always be a part of me, a part of who I am and what I do, and for all of them, I give thanks.

Thank you for being here, for sharing so much with me, for helping me be a better person. Were it not for the love, there would be no grief.

 

Snow!

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Okay, there wasn’t much, and what there was was pretty wet and sloppy, but the dogs didn’t care! (And the mud will vacuum right off the carpet as soon as its dry.)
Watching dogs playing in the snow has to be one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Old dogs look young again, young dogs’ exuberance is multiplied tenfold, adult dogs are puppies again.
I can even forget for a time that I hate being cold – the dogs do a wonderful job of teaching me live in the moment, and they give me som many moments to cherish.

Stop. Think. Listen.

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For some reason we have become so worried about compromise or losing our lofty position that we draw a line in the sand and refuse to acknowledge that there could be anything of any value on the other side.

And, God forbid, someone on the ‘other side’ should make overtures and offer a few steps in our direction, we get so rattled that we step farther from the line and now even refuse to acknowledge that where the line was had any merit.

Polarization and finger pointing and demonization of opponents helps no one, and only costs us the opportunity to learn something. Even if all we learn is that the other side has fair reasons for their opinions, though we can’t possibly share them. And it costs us the opportunity to share the information we have, potentially swaying, if only a little, one or more from the other camp. At least we might educate a bit.

It does us no good to rant against injustice if we cannot define justice. And how do we weigh the facts if we refuse to listen to them?

We must at least admit the humanity of those with whom we might disagree, however vehemently. And there, in our common humanity, is at least *some* common ground. Who knows what else we might discover if only we took the time, opened our eyes and our ears and our minds, and listened.

We don’t have to agree. We just have to quit disagreeing simply because of who said it – whatever ‘it’ may be.

I know, I’m dreaming. I just can’t help it.