There are some universal truths in life, one of which is that no one gets to stay. Our time here is limited even though we act as though we literally have all the time in the world for ourselves and with those we love. Another truth is that we all want to matter. We all want to make a difference in some way through the legacy of our families, having contributed to some change or having helped others. We seek confidence that our time here was well spent, regardless of our individual beliefs about what comes next when we die. The 10-year anniversary of my dad’s passing is at the end of this month and I’ve been reflecting on his influence on almost every aspect of my life, one of which is my animal welfare advocacy.
In the fall of 2009, both of my parents were diagnosed with different forms of cancer. Dad’s lung cancer diagnosis was early September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis was early December. As I struggled to process the realization that I would lose them both not decades in the future but at any time, I found myself thinking of my own mortality. Where I was in my life at the time. Choices I had made. What was important to me in the big scheme of things. It was sobering to say the least. I had been doing animal welfare video projects for a few years to help animal rescue groups, but was there more I could be doing to make a difference? The answer to that question was yes.
In late 2009, I decided to publish a website to help other people like me who may consider themselves “animal people” but who may not be aware of some of the issues related to companion animals in our society. I wasn’t sure what I would accomplish, but thought it was worth the effort to try to reach some people. I chose the name Paws4Change. This is an intentional play on words. My goal was to present content which may cause people to pause and then perhaps learn something new or change some previously held belief. I knew from my own awakening about issues related to companion animals in our country that there were a number of subjects which were all related to some way to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters using our money and in our name. Puppy mills. Free roaming cats. Chaining of dogs. Spay and Neuter. Breed bans and restrictions. And, of course, no kill animal sheltering philosophies.
I shared my website with my parents in January of 2010 during one of many visits to see them over a short period of time. They were both undergoing a dueling chemo schedule and I honestly wasn’t sure how much they would care about my efforts. Their lives were in the balance and much more important issues challenged them every day. They did take time to look at it and they each gave me a long hug. I distinctly recall dad saying, “the website looks great. But why is your name not on it anywhere?” I confessed that I had not included my name at that time because some of the issues I covered were the subject of intense debate and I didn’t want anyone to threaten me or try to damage my reputation in some way for having had the audacity to speak. I also distinctly recall the next thing he said: “if it’s worth your time to set up a website to help people and take a stand, it’s worth putting your name on your work. Own it.” Yes, dad. You were right then, just like you were on so very many subjects over the years.
My parents are both gone. Dad left us on October 28, 2010, after his lung cancer moved to his brain. Mom left us on March 20, 2011, having outlived predictions for her lifespan by more than a year. We lost Rich's dad to cancer five days after my mom; it was a tough six months to say the least. I wrote about the loss of my parents before in my blog about placement of their cats. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them and don’t miss them. I carry them with me each day.
My website has changed over the years. Some of the early content I thought would help people was of limited value so I got rid of it. I was looking back at it on The Wayback Machine for this blog and had forgotten how the site has changed over the years. I had to trademark the name a few years back after some folks decided to not play well with others and I've had to remind people about trademark protections a few times. I’m considering a new look in the next few months just to make the site appear a bit more modern.
The site content will remain essentially the same because the goal is still the same: to try to help people like me learn something new so they can make better personal choices which may have positive effects not only in their own lives, but in their communities. I still do my video work for nonprofit rescue groups and some for animal shelters. I now do periodic fundraisers to help those same organizations and published a book about my no kill animal shelter advocacy last year. I’d like to think both my parents would be proud and would approve. I could not help them stay here. But I give thanks each day for the time we shared and how they helped me become the person I am today. I honor them through my advocacy as I hear dad’s voice in my mind, telling me to “own it.” I'm not sure how much of an effect my efforts have. I know I have regular traffic to my website and my blogs are shared by some. As much as I would like to change the world, I know I cannot. But I can change some small parts of it and that's good enough for me.
We are all shaped by events in our lives, some of our own choosing and some over which we have no control. If there is something important to you, whether it is some wrong in society you want changed or some need to be fulfilled, I hope you will strive to get into what John Lewis called “good trouble.” We can all make a difference in a myriad of ways in our own families, with our jobs and with how we live our lives each and every day. As the tag line for my website says, your values are expressed by the choices you make. Go forth and do great things. You can make a difference. Time is both fleeting and precious.
you know life's too short to live it in fear
only thing you will regret is what you
do not do at all even more than the
stupid things you do
better take the chance
listen to your heart, no one can tell you
what your spirit wants
(Aspy next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course, watching Rich putt)
The 4th of July is a day of celebration for many people. I know that it should be for me, but it honestly is not. The 4th of July is the day that we mark the passing of our senior dog, Aspy, under what I consider traumatic circumstances. Much like we involuntarily mark the dates of the people we love who have left this Earth, we do the same with our beloved companion animals. We do our very best to focus on lives well-lived and be thankful for the number of years we shared walking a path together. That is what I will try to do on July 4th. It will be bittersweet as I do my very best to force away the memories of our dog's last day with us.
As I've written about before both of my website and in my book, I became an animal welfare advocate when I learned what was happening at my local animal shelter and in the wake of another personal loss. It is abundantly clear to me that using the word euthanasia to describe the destruction of healthy and treatable shelter animals is entirely misplaced. Making a decision to euthanize a beloved animal has nothing whatsoever in common with decisions made in shelters every day to end the lives of animals who were, or could have been, someone's beloved companion.
But back to the subject of euthanasia of beloved companions. Anyone who has ever made what Marian Hale once called "That Terrible Decision" regarding a companion animal is torn with having made that decision. We are plagued by doubts about timing. Did I wait long enough? Did I wait too long? Did I allow my selfish love and need for that animal to cloud my thinking? Did I really put the welfare of my beloved companion first? Could I have done more?
I've come to believe that when the decision to euthanize an animal is made from a place of love, it is always the right time, because it will never be the perfect time. We do our very best with the information available to us and once the act is done and our companion no longer shares our lives with us here, we have to forgive ourselves. I know that's easier said than done and I struggle with the decisions we have made regarding our own beloved pets throughout the years.
It is easy to look back and say that we waited too long with Snake and we kept her around for us and not for her. It is easy to say that we waited too long for Aspy. That we likely should have let him go after he had his stroke in the summer of 2015. But he had so many good and happy days after his stroke that I choose to focus on those extra months he had. He was fiercely loved. He was a member of our family. We did and would have done anything for him. And in the end, that caused just to make the decisions that we did.
While others are celebrating on the 4th of July we will be experiencing our day of remembrance.
Love your companion animals for as long as they are with you no matter how poorly they behave or may frustrate you at times. They have the cognitive function of children and they do not act with malice. If you believe your pet is suffering or his or her quality of life has diminished so greatly that you are wondering if it is time to let them go, please consult with your veterinarian. Euthanizing pets is very difficult for them; they are attached to the faces they have cared for over a period of years. But they have a degree of objectivity based on their education that we lack because we are thinking with our hearts.
When your beloved companions are gone, you will find yourself wishing you had just one more day with them. That is natural. But likely not what they need from you.
One more day, one more time
One more sunset, maybe I'd be satisfied
But then again, I know what it would do
Leave me wishing still for one more day with you.
(our annual memorial trip to the places Aspy loved; next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course)
("One More Day" by Diamond Rio)
April 22nd is Earth Day. A day celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection which was first celebrated in 1970. In our household, it is a day of remembrance as we recall the passing of our beloved dog, Snake.
My husband, Rich, rescued Snake in 1992 with the help of the Lassen County Game Warden in Northern California. She was a German Shepherd/coyote mix dog who spent the first two years of her life chained to a tree with a heavy logging chain. The the only way to save her was an adopter who was experienced with dog behavior and trauma. It took time to take her from a dog who “pancaked” and did not trust people to a dog who was confident and loyal. Snake was a sight to behold. She looked like a German Shepherd in the body of a coyote, all muscle and heart. She was incredibly smart and a true athlete. She lived to chase a Frisbee, jumping and twisting in the air to catch her toy. She was very protective of us, and we were always careful with her around other dogs and other people; she was part domestic dog and part wild child.
Snake had been declining for years and we knew the day would come when we would have to make the decision that was worst for us, but best for her. She had become trapped in a body that no longer functioned well. She had trouble digesting food, was intermittently incontinent and had mobility issues. When she began to have cognitive issues in addition to her physical issues, we knew it was time. On a sunny Saturday morning in 2006, Rich called our veterinarian and asked her to come to the house. This was something we had arranged months in advance, but we did not make the decision until that morning.
I took her for one last walk as I tried to hide my anguish. I worried she would feed off my emotions and be scared. It was a beautiful day, and she seemed to be feeling pretty good, but we knew it was time if we were to save her from suffering and pain. We didn’t realize until later that it was Earth Day. We buried her on our rural property (we called it Snakehaven) in a breathtaking casket Rich had been quietly building for months. (We were later forced to move thanks to a shooting range which opened near our home; Rich undertook the heart wrenching task of recovering Snake's remains so that we could have them cremated to take the with us to our new home.)
Even when we know ahead of time that the ones we love are going to leave us, dealing with that loss is another matter entirely. The void left by the absence of someone you have lived with for so long is both striking and shocking. We told ourselves Snake had a long and wonderful life because those things were true. Having her euthanized was one of the hardest things we had ever done, and so we struggled with the decision. Did we let her go too soon? Had we waited for too long? We agonized over our decision for days, weeks and months.
I've had numerous conversations with people in the last 14 years about the decision to euthanize a beloved pet. Marion Hale once aptly described it as The Terrible Decision. It is difficult enough to lose someone you love to tragedy or under natural circumstances. Losing someone by choice for their benefit to either prevent or alleviate suffering is another matter entirely. We anguish over timing. Should we wait? Is it too soon? We tell ourselves that today was bad, but maybe tomorrow will be better. Sometimes that proves to be true. Other times it does not.
I have come to believe that there is just no good time to say farewell. It is an imperfect process which is clouded by love, compassion, memories and hope. It can be hard to think clearly as we try to force ourselves to choose what we hope is the "right" time. There is such thing in any absolute sense. Any time a decision is made to euthanize an animal for reasons of mercy, that decision is right because it is made from a place of love and sacrifice. It is putting aside our own selfishness and making the selfless decision to let the soul we love go as peacefully as possible.
When the time comes for you to say farewell to your beloved pet, I know that you too will do so from a place of love. Make your best decision based on the information you have about quality of life and once the deed is done, forgive yourself. The passage of time may not heal all wounds. Grief does become less painful in time as you shift from focusing on the void left and you focus more on positive memories, giving thanks for the time you walked a path together.
Our companion animals speak with us through body language and behavior. If they could talk, I feel confident they would tell us what they want and they would say, "please. It is time to let me go. If you love me, give me wings."
We love you, Snakey. Run wild and free. May we meet again some day.
I’ve written before about my parents. About how my siblings and I were raised in an animal-integrated household and how we lost both of our parents to cancer in a six-month window of time. When I first wrote, “The Cats Flew First Class,” only people with the link to the page could read it. It was a bit far removed from the purpose of my animal welfare website and I thought it would be upsetting to some people, so I hid it for years on a special page. I’ve since shared it a few times as I’ve marked the passing of my parents and thought back to how their lives were enriched by their cats who turned into therapy cats (and who later went to live in Austin with my aunt for many years before they passed away as well).
I’ve had my dad on my brain a lot lately. As fickle as my memory sometimes seems to be – some things stay and some don’t last – the last few days or his life are etched on my memory in both bad ways and incredible ways. I think of his passing as The Long Farewell. My dad was diagnosed with Stage 2 non-small cell lung cancer on September 12, 2009, which later moved to his brain and ultimately led to his death just over a year later. I got the “come now” call on October 23, 2010, and he was gone five days later, on October 28, 2010. The last thing he said to me from his hospital bed, in barely a whisper with my ear right next to his lips was, “help. I have to go.” I’ve always thought of his words as relating to a destination, but that’s just based on my beliefs. I told him we were helping him and he could go. We would take care of mom.
Time does not heal all wounds. Our losses begin as gaping wounds which time turns into scars that stay with us always and change who we are as people. They become part of us moving forward. I think about my parents every day and I miss them every day. Whether I am making important decisions or I am engaged in my animal advocacy work or even just enjoying the sun on a beautiful day, I am always mindful of the lessons they taught me as I strive to honor them with my own life. It was my dad who encouraged me years ago to put my name on my website at a time when I had not; many of my views could make me a target for haters and I originally published the website anonymously. “If it’s important enough to write about, it’s important enough to stand behind,” he said. Agreed, dad, agreed. Some days I feel the scars of my parents' deaths more deeply than others, particularly near or on the anniversary of the dates they left. If you have not lost someone very close to you, that may sound strange. Why would anyone want to mark the day that someone died? It’s just something that happens. We can’t possibly forget the dates on which people left this Earthly place and we tend to relive what happened in one form or another as “the day” approaches.” This year as I have reflected on dad’s final days, I have found myself thinking of another man of a different species. His name is Cinnabun.
My dad was in a hospital in Encinitas when I got back to San Diego on October 24th. There was no more treatment to help him and he needed to be moved to another facility. He made it clear in the weeks leading up to his death that he didn’t want to die at home. He knew it would be too hard for mom to continue to live in the house they had shared for 40 years if that happened. I found myself trying to scheme a way to bring the cats to the hospital to visit dad, but was too scattered to figure out a way to pull it off. My brother found a wonderful place for dad to go which was a concept I had never heard of before: residential senior and end-of-life care. Dad was moved to an Eagles Nest Eldercare Home in northern Escondido on October 25, 2010. It was a house on a residential street that looked like every other house from the outside. The inside also looked pretty much like any other house and it was just the people who lived inside who were different – they were all people living with debilitating conditions and people like dad who were going to die.
I will be forever grateful to the administrators, Kevin Calhoun and Maria Richley, for their compassion. I was thrilled that Doug had found such a great place for dad. It was clean and inviting and nothing at all like a hospital environment. There were recliners set up in a living room area for residents to watch television or listen to music, a large dining room where people could sit to eat if able, and each person there had his or her own bedroom. The best part of the experience, other than the people caring for dad was a little dog named Cinnabun. He wasn’t an official therapy dog, but he might as well have been. He was an adorable little bundle of fur with an outgoing personality who loved to play with toys. He brought smiles and an incredible amount of entertainment to what could be considered a depressing environment. Having a dog running around the house helped us all as we did our very best to get through our last days, knowing our time was so very limited. It’s hard. You know what is coming, but you also know you have to be strong and you have to be careful about your inner energy and the things you say, lest your loved one feel your despair. All of our conversations referenced dad and included him as if he was participating even though he could not speak.
A group of us were visiting dad on his second day he was at Eagle’s Nest. Maria took the time to shave dad’s beard and gently trim and clean his fingernails. She said, “everyone needs a little TLC to feel their best.” It was an act of care and tenderness. While she was tending to dad’s Earthly body and a group of us sat around and visited, Cinnabun decided it was time to tend to dad’s heart and his soul. The little dog jumped right up on dad’s lap with no invitation and made himself comfortable. We were surprised at first. Dad was no longer able to speak by this time and had not moved on his own for days that I observed. But he did that day. He reached out and touched Cinnabun as we all looked on and my tears began to flow. Dad’s body was shutting down and his life was ending, yet here was the comfort of a small dog, of hand on soft fur. That image will be with me always, along with my memory of dad’s last words to me.
Dad taught us so many lessons over the years. About the value of family and hard work and about humor and the love of reading and to always, always get the oil changed in my car following the maintenance schedule. Many of the lessons we learned were about compassion for all people and compassion for all living creatures, great or small. We grew to know the value of having companion animals in our lives who helped us become better people as we provided them with their new homes and their new lives.
No one gets to choose how they leave this world. Life happens, Death happens. When my time comes, I can only hope that I will have had that last touch of hand on soft fur and the warmth of an animal companion as I hopefully look forward to seeing those who have gone ahead of me, both human and animal.
I love you, dad. I miss you. I wish you could have stayed longer.
Thank you, Cinnabun. I am told you have continued to help care and comfort the elderly and dying all these years. Yours is a Higher Calling indeed.
I can count some of the worst days of my life on one hand and they all relate to loss. The euthanasia of our dog Snake on April 22, 2006. Earth Day. The death of my father on October 28, 2010, from lung cancer which had moved to his brain. The death of my mother less than six months later on April 20, 2011, from stomach cancer. The death of my father-in-law who had lived with us for more than 15 years exactly five days after mom died. And the euthanasia of our dog, Aspy, on July 4th of 2016.
Aspy was sitting in front of my living room chair when the first seizure happened. I thought he was dreaming at first, but when I looked down at him, it was obvious I was wrong. Rich jumped into action and held him steady while I stroked his body and prayed out loud and repeatedly for God to bless his soul. The seizure lasted two to three minutes and it was terrifying. He howled. I was surprised at how hard his body shook. Rich called our vet as soon as the seizure ended in hopes that she would be able to see us that afternoon. We were only 15 minutes away and could leave right away. She could not help us. She told us to go to the emergency veterinary hospital about 40 minutes away. We waited in an exam room for more than three hours just to be seen. After a CT scan was done, we were told about an hour later, in the waiting area, that Apsy had a mass in his liver, one in his spleen and that the cancer had likely moved to his brain. We were also told the first 24-hours were critical and to monitor him. It was early the next morning when we got home tired, upset and confused.
Aspy was sleeping on the rug in our living room in the early afternoon hours of the 4th of July when the second seizure hit. It was much worse than the first. He shook and howled. He lost control of his bowels and his little heart was beating so fast I was sure he would die from the seizure. I stroked his body again as I tried unsuccessfully not to cry and as I prayed out loud again and over and over for God to bless his soul. I’m pretty sure the seizure lasted about 45 minutes; I kept looking at the clock and know it was at least 30 minutes. I just don’t know. We could not reach our veterinarian so we took him back to the same animal hospital where we had been earlier that same day. The seizure stopped while we were on the way to the emergency hospital and we almost turned around. We did not. We had Aspy euthanized that day.
I could tell you about our disappointment in our veterinarian of 20 years. She has her own life and could not drop her plans to help us. I could tell you about how our experience at the emergency hospital the first night was one of the worst experiences of my life; I’ve had more compassion shown while getting my car’s oil changed. I could explain in detail what happened during the euthanasia process which had me cussing like a sailor, banging on the walls and contemplating criminal behavior while Rich endured his own private hell and wondered what in the world was going on. We later wrote a three page complaint letter to the emergency hospital, not that they cared about our complaints. We told them that when dealing with people like us, they should be mindful that they saw us, and our beloved pet, on the very worst day of our time together and that it was seared in our memories for all time. No one ever bothered to call or apologize in any way for what we experienced and the trauma we endured. I call it trauma because it was. We both had a really hard time in the days, weeks and months to come. We tried to but really could not talk about what happened. The memories were very real and playing almost nonstop on a loop inside out heads; talking just made it worse. Even as the months went by, the memories managed to rise to the surface without invitation or warning. We were told we should get another dog. It would make us feel better. We just could not.
If you are reading this, you probably have a veterinarian you trust to care for your animals. That person is likely only available to help you during normal business hours Monday through Saturday and may be closed one weekday. But do you have a plan for after-hours care? For emergency care or treatment when your vet is on vacation? How about holidays?
I cannot encourage you strongly enough to develop a plan for veterinary care when your own veterinarian is not available. If your veterinarian provides after-hours care for established patients, that’s wonderful. You are fortunate. If that person or veterinary practice does not, take time now to figure out where you would go and what you would do if you needed help outside normal business hours. Determine how long it would take to travel to emergency providers near you. Read the reviews for those providers. Have a plan in place ahead of time for care whether it is injury care for a broken bone, torn ligament or some other non-life threatening situation. Have a plan in place for end of life care. Will you take your dog or cat to the veterinarian? Will your veterinarian come to your house when the time comes? Don’t assume that you can just make good decisions from the hip when accidents happen or tragedy strikes. Your brain may not process information well when you are under duress and you just may not think as clearly as you normally would.
We did adopt another dog last September, over 14 months after Aspy left us. We still miss Aspy and I try really (really) hard to not think about his last 2 days. It’s just too difficult to go there. We found Rusty at an animal shelter with the help of Petfinder, a wonderful tool with which I have a love-hate relationship. I love how it helps place animals; we never would have found Rusty if not for Petfinder. I hate how many animals there are in need of new homes.
We have a new veterinarian we work with who is closer to our house. His office has after-hours care for established clients. We call a number and the on-call vet is paged. Although we probably won’t need it, the veterinary hospital has a storm shelter in the basement in case of severe weather (we have our own storm shelter at home). Our Pet Parent Plan for our new dog, Rusty, provides for him to be boarded temporarily with our veterinarian if something happens to both of us at the same time. Our vet has said he won’t charge for this. Boarding Rusty short-term until my cousin can transport him to Texas will be on the house. We were told, “it’s the least we can do.”
Be ready. Please.
If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. - Hamlet
(candles image courtesy of Mike Labrum)
1 safety harness
5 bags of snacks
6 pairs of socks
We met him when he was just a baby and it was love at first sight. The bond was immediate. We cleaned him up, got him the medical care he needed and began teaching him language skills. We taught him right from wrong and as he grew, he learned to trust and became a key part of our family. Rich took him everywhere. He loved to travel and would sing along with songs on the radio. He was sweet and mellow and while he wasn't gregarious, he was friendly to everyone he met. People regularly remarked on how handsome he was and how well behaved he was. We took him golfing with us and he loved to ride in the golf cart and sing. As he aged and time began to take its toll, Rich put up a ramp for him and modified his diet. When he got sick, we cared for him. When he had an accident, we cleaned him up and assured him that everyone had problems sometimes. When he didn't feel well, Rich made him special food. After his stroke, he stayed in a baby's playpen for days so he wouldn't try to walk on his own and hurt himself. He rebounded from that and while he was never quite the same physically, he was always just so happy. Even when walking became more of a challenge, just the idea of going for a ride led to him do what we called The Happy Dance as he leaped and bounded toward "his" truck with joy. He was with us for 17 years.
If you didn't know me very well, you may think I was talking about our child. And he was our child. He was a dog. But he was just as much a child to us as any human child.
When we say Aspy was our child, some people either bristle at the notion or they just don't understand it. Love for the human species and love for other species are not mutually exclusive. I can love my spouse with all my heart, as I truly do, and still love a dog with all my heart. And to say that our dog was our child does not mean that we humanized him. We did not. It means that much like a human child, we cared for his every need. He had the cognitive function of a child. He was with us from the time we woke up to the time we went to sleep and sometimes during the night if he needed us. His presence was as woven in the fabric of our lives as any other child. And as we try to find our way forward without him, we grieve for him and we miss him as we would any other member of our family, human or canine.
I know there are people who have animals and those animals are mostly just present in their lives. They may appreciate them in some ways and be annoyed by them in other ways. But to truly bond with an animal is a unique experience in life and if you have shared such a bond, count your blessings. Anatole France once wrote that until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened. Yes, yes and yes.
If you have had to say farewell to a beloved dog or cat and you sometimes cry over that loss, even years later and for no obvious reason, you are lucky. If there are days when you think you hear them or see them, you are very fortunate. If you sometimes find your mind wandering to the years you shared and the unconditional love provided to you, you are blessed. Some people will never know that love or that type of bond. I've come to understand that as much as the grieving process tears us apart, it is also something we must honor. Grief is an emotion which is as powerful as the love which creates it.
I love our boy. I miss our little man. He was our child.
1 Christmas stocking
2 rain coats
3 tooth brushes
4 travel bowls. . .
our heartfelt thanks to Ron Wasserman for this lovely piano composition about our loss
simply entitled, "Losing a Friend"
We met him over 16 years ago. We saw him in the cow pasture on a parcel adjacent to our then rural home. A small, white dog, lingering close enough to the cattle to stay warm but not so close as to bother them. It took my husband weeks to gain his trust in order to feed him. We hadn’t planned to keep him originally. Snake, our coydog, wasn’t good with other dogs and we feared she would hurt him. But he came to trust Rich, Rich fed him and we housed him separately from Snake as we tried to find a home for him. One day during a “let’s hope she won’t hurt him session,” Snake decided to chase the puppy around our dining room table and they developed a sort of friendship. We named him Asp and he became a member of our family. The bond between Asp and Rich was really beyond description. They were like two peas in a pod. After Snakey left us, the bond grew even stronger and it was as if they were two parts of the same person. Rich often joked that they could speak to each other telepathically and teased me about the fact that Asp sometimes didn't listen because I was speaking "with a cat accent."
I have told people over the years that I think there are times when animals enter our lives as part of some bigger plan. Believe what you will. This is my belief and I cannot be convinced otherwise. Sometimes we cross paths with animals because we are meant to help them in some way, even if it’s just to be a stepping stone to some new life. Sometimes we are meant to share our lives with them and they are meant to share theirs with us as they teach us what we value and how to be better versions of ourselves. We know all along that they cannot last as long as we want and we accept that as part of the relationship. We know they will leave us some day. We just try our best to focus on the present and how very much they enrich our lives just by being there to accept us unconditionally, make us laugh, make us cry and help us cope.
Asp had a stroke last September and it was debilitating. We were less than 24 hours from having him euthanized by our veterinarian and had even called the local business which provides cremation services. We didn’t want him to suffer and we were prepared to put his needs first, as every animal lover must. We decided to go for one last R-I-D-E and when he rebounded, we decided to let him stay and see if he could recover. He slept in a child’s playpen for days so he wouldn’t hurt himself trying to walk on his own and Rich boiled chicken to feed him because he had trouble chewing kibble. As the days and weeks went by, he improved. Life got back to normal for the most part and he was happy and eating and back to being our boy. We knew it would not last, but we followed the lead all dogs show us: try to live in each day and just enjoy the now.
I think most people can count on one hand the worst days of their lives and we are no different. The 4th of July holiday was one of those days for us. Aspy had a seizure on Sunday night and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. It didn’t last too long and we took him to an emergency clinic for help. The vet who ordered his ultrasound gave us the grim news. Aspy had a mass in his liver, a mass in his spleen and it was likely that the cancer had moved to his brain. We took him home and hoped for the best, but it was not to be. We let him go on Independence Day after a prolonged seizure, the vision and sounds of which will surely be seared in my memory for all time. Did we do the right thing? Did we wait too long? Did we not wait long enough? Such are the questions which haunt and plague every animal lover who has ever had to make what Marion Hale once described as That Terrible Decision.
I know we are blessed. I have faith that the soul of our little man was saved and that he is not in pain. Each day was a gift and while life will never, ever be the same, our focus has to be on what was best for him. No matter the cost to us. Some people have never known the type of bond we have shared with our dogs and for them I feel sorry. With great and powerful love also comes great and powerful loss, but we wouldn’t miss any of it for anything. We love him. So we gave him wings.
He asked her, "what gifts can I bring you
to prove that my love for you is true?
I want to make you mine forever.
There's nothing on this earth I would not do."
She said, "anything I've wanted
you have given willingly.
So now there's only one more thing I need.
If you love me, give me wings
and don't be afraid if I fly.
A bird in a cage will forget how to sing
If you love me, give me wings."
I originally posted this a few years ago as a way of honoring my parents. They say that story telling is good for the soul. I am re-posting it here in advance of the 5th year anniversary of my mom's passing and as I reflect back on times shared and values forged through family bonds.
I’ve often told people that I grew up in an animal-friendly household. Thinking back, that’s probably an understatement. It was more like an animal-integrated household. We never had a dog. I just recently learned the story behind that and while I’m a huge dog fan now (often accused by my husband of speaking with a “cat accent”) it all makes perfect sense to me in hindsight. We always had cats and sometimes had many of them. In our childhood home, animals were family members to be loved and respected - quirks and all - just like humans. It started with Spot and led to Callie and Mark and Leroy and Barbara and Annie and Dave and Tommy and Batty. Most had “people names” and that pretty much reflected their status in our house. We never questioned how animals were to be treated and the fact that my siblings and I all have animals as adults (all of whom are rescues) speaks to the values taught to us at a young age.
In the Fall of 2009, Time’s Winged Chariot took two swipes at our family. Dad’s lung cancer was diagnosed in September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis came in December. To say we were all in shock is another understatement. Dad’s cancer was somehow easier to rationalize. He had been a long-term smoker and had worked his entire life in an industry which was at one time replete with carcinogens. Mom’s was less fair somehow. She was a 20 year breast-cancer survivor and I think I had allowed myself to believe she had paid her dues to The Fates and would live for decades.
Both of our parents were in really good health before being diagnosed. No serious chronic conditions. Very physically active. That state of being “otherwise in really good shape” served them both well in the months to come. They began this dueling schedule of chemo and radiation as they tried to keep balance and make sure one of them was in reasonably good shape at any given time. At one point, dad’s oncologist (whom mom later worked with) commented that our parents really were taking the whole concept of doing things together way too far. My sister and brother, both of whom live close to our folks, were there each step of the way and I’m eternally grateful to them. I can only imagine the juggling acts they both went through as they tried to retain a degree of normalcy in their own lives - work and family - while being there for mom and dad and doing everything possible to help keep our parents in their own home. With the cats. No one really talked about how long the arrangement could be sustained. We knew they wanted to be in their own house and we all pretty much assumed that dad would outlive mom by years. I distinctly recall a conversation with dad at Scripps Green in La Jolla (mom was doing prep work to have a power port implanted) in which dad said he really thought he had another good 8 to 10 years left.
I made multiple trips back in the ensuing months to see my parents and to help in some small degree. Each time I’d visit, I’d marvel at their strength. Dad said he felt good. Mom was as funny as ever. During that time, I came to have an even greater appreciation for creatures who can only be described as Feline Therapy on four legs. I know that the concept of therapy animals is normally associated with dogs, but the cats were as empathic and as nurturing as any mutt I ever met. Batty loved to stretch out on dad’s legs as dad sat in his favorite chair with his feet up on an ottoman, sometimes pushing whatever book dad had been reading out of the way and demanding attention. Mom couldn’t rest in her bed or sit on the couch near dad without at least one therapy cat at her side, providing comfort just through breathing and the touch of hand on soft fur.
Time’s Winged Chariot returned in the summer of 2010. We didn’t know exactly what was wrong at first, but dad’s cancer had moved to his brain. We lost him in late October. It was quick and it was awful. And it was only then that the subject of the cats came up. Mom was devastated, of course. She and dad had been together pretty much their whole adult lives and as she tried to process the loss of her life partner, she also knew she had to make plans for the cats. They would outlive her. I remember her asking me in a phone call if I had rescue contacts I could reach out to who might take them together. She did not want them separated. I said, “sure, mom. Don’t even worry about it.” She had a similar conversation with my aunt (who was also doing the back and forth visiting routine), soon after and the deal was sealed: the cats would move to Austin and that’s just the way it would be. A great weight was lifted from mom’s heart by her sister and she was able to return her focus to her own treatment as we all grieved the loss of dad. Mom had one condition on the relocation of the cats: they could not be transported in a cargo hold. She just would not hear of it. We assured her that we would come up with some other plan.
And we did. Mom left us in April of 2011, less than six months after dad left. It was quick and it was awful. But I guess there’s a degree of poetic justice to that. Together in life, together beyond. As we began the “what do we do now?” process, the cats were a priority issue. We had to relocate them soon and had to come up with a plan. In the end, it was better than our folks could have ever hoped for and was totally in keeping with how we were raised. They could fly on American Airlines in the cabin but each cat had to be in a separate crate and each had to have a human escort. We had two friends who were willing to escort the cats, having been offered an all-expenses paid trip to beautiful Austin, Texas. My brother had a lot of frequent flyer miles and while I’m not sure how they work, he was able to get flights quickly even though the flights were almost fully booked. Each cat took a separate flight with a separate escort and both Feline Relocation Operations went off without a hitch. How'd he get seats on such short notice?
Not to worry, mom, dad. The cats flew first class.
When the singer's gone, let the song go on.
It's a fine line between the darkness and the dawn.
They say in the darkest night, there's a light beyond.
But the ending always comes at last.
Endings always come too fast.
They come too fast, but they pass too slow
I love you and that's all I know. - Art Garfunkel
A friend of mine said farewell to her beloved dog last week. Rawley had a sarcoma. He survived the surgery, but went into respiratory distress two days later. It's thought that he threw a blood clot. He was getting the very best of care and his family was there to make sure his departure was peaceful.
I cried when I heard the news. I know that makes little sense to many people. He was not my dog and I never met him. He was my friend's beloved boy and because I understood her grief, I developed what I call empathy grief from thousands of miles away. What I felt and still feel pales in comparison to the heartache I know she is enduring, but between myself and others, there is this sense of community loss for a single dog. I think that for those of us who have shared incredible bonds with our companion animals, the loss felt by another person just takes us back to our own losses. We relive that feeling of helplessness as we try to do or say something, anything that might help.
To my friend, I truly am so very sorry for your loss. To Rawley, I am so very sorry you could not stay. I am sure you had a wonderful life here and I just wish it could have been longer.
I spent a lot of time just staring at my own dog in the wake of Rawley's passing. Our dog had a stroke in early September and it's a miracle that he's still with us. His days are surely numbered and I really do my best each and every day to be thankful for the blessing of his presence in our lives. A day will come when we too have to say farewell and there will be nothing we can do to keep him here. And I know my friends will feel that empathy grief for his passing.
When I think of the complete anguish over losing a beloved pet that I have felt and which I know is felt by people like my friend, it brings home to me the tragedy that is loss of life in our nation's animal “shelters.” Thinking back, pretty much every animal I've ever loved and lost would have been destroyed in a traditional animal shelter and while it is tragic that their lives are so short even with the best of health, the true tragedy would have been if their lives had been ended for no reason at all.
Each and every day perfectly healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in shelters using our tax dollars for no other reasons than they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and we have failed to end the outdated practice of killing them. We like to think that ours is a great country in terms of our lifestyle and our values. I think we can never really consider ourselves a great country until we stop being hypocrites. We cannot possibly say that we are animal friendly as a nation while we continue to spend countless tax dollars each year destroying the very creatures we say we love. It just doesn't make any sense.
Rawley mattered. Rawley was much beloved. And he is much missed not only by his own family but by people like me who never met him. Each and every shelter dog in America deserves the same. They matter. They too could be much beloved and much missed when the time comes when they can no longer stay here. But that time should come as the result of old age or incurable disease and not at our hands. Only when we end the public shame which is our sheltering system will we be able to call ours a truly animal friendly nation.
That's all I know.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson