It’s that time of year again. The time when we scramble around trying to get twice as many things done in a day as we would normally and as we try to find gifts for those we love. No matter your beliefs, we are in the holiday season and most of us engage in traditions which involve expression of our love for friends and family through exchange of things.
The pandemic has made life immeasurably more difficult for many people either because the are working from home while trying to home school children or because they are in the medical field and cannot be with their families at all for fear or infecting them or because they have lost their jobs and worry about paying bills and putting food on the table. With the possible exception of people over the age of 100 who were alive during the last pandemic, no one has been through this before. We all try to do our best and try to cope as we go. The ordinary stress brought on by the holiday season seems doubled as we try so hard to get everything done to our satisfaction.
I’ve blogged before about holiday gifts for animal lovers, one of which is the gift of a donation to a non-profit organization in honor of the person you love. It’s a one-size-fits-all gesture that does not involve shopping and which helps someone do something good. You can choose a non-profit organization you know your loved one supports or find one whose mission is something that would matter to your loved one whether it relates to animals, people or the planet.
Regardless of your ability to make a donation, I hope you will consider giving the most important gift of all. The gift of time. It is free. It is priceless.
If you have ever lost someone you love to age or disease or tragedy, you know you would give almost anything for just a little more time with them. A week, a month a year. For all the things we give each other and buy for each other and obsess over during the holiday season, there really is no more precious gift than your presence with those you love. No distractions, no phones, just being present. I am not suggesting you do this in person outside of your immediate household. Use the phone. Use Zoom or FaceTime. Find a way to spend time with those you love in any way you can which does not put any of you at risk.
One of the best ways to share time with those you love is to learn more about them. You may say, “but I already know who they are” and that may be true. But how much do you really know about your parents? Do you know how they met? What did they do on their first date? Was there a job they always wanted or some place they always wanted to travel and life put them on another path? If your grandparents are still alive, how much do you know about all they've seen in their decades on the planet? How much do you know about your siblings? Do you know what challenges they’ve faced this year? Do they need anything? Do they just need to talk? Or perhaps you can spend time sharing childhood memories with them and see if they hold precious memories you forgot long ago. When it comes to your companion animals, when’s the last time you took your dog for a long walk or actually played with your cat? Ever thought of making some homemade dog biscuits or cat toys? It can be rewarding and cathartic for you and your pets.
I hope this year you’ll be more patient with yourself and those around you. This has been hard for everyone and it will most likely get harder. I hope you have taken stock of what really matters to you and even give some thought to your own morbidity as part of that process. No one gets to stay. And then I hope you’ll give the gift of time. It is the one thing we miss the most when it is gone.
But at my back I always hear, time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near - Andrew Marvell
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 spent part of my lunch hour at a local pet supply store recently. It was a serious case of sensory overload. One whole wall is devoted to toys of every shape and size. It reaches from the floor all the way to the ceiling. I was in the store looking for a couple of Rusty-proof toys for our new dog. We learned pretty soon after we adopted him a few months back that fabric toys and even toys made out of ballistic nylon are no match for his teeth. Toys that are generally rated as chew-proof have not lasted particularly long and we've found he does best with rubber toys like the Kong Extreme, the GoughNuts ring, the Play Strong Bone and the West Paw Zogoflex Zisc. I found a couple of new toys in the store I think he'll like, a travel water bowl and a rug designed for drying off wet dogs to fit into our routine of wiping damp/wet feet and body every time we come inside. The dog's, of course.
I know a lot of people think that buying toys for pets during the holidays is nuts. Luckily I know more people who do just what we do. They consider their companion animals family members and they shop for their pets just like they shop for parents, siblings and children. I won't go so far as to ask Rusty to wear an antler headband so I can take cute photos, but he will get some gifts from Santa Paws, along with the stocking I'm cross-stitching with his image on the front.
On an intellectual level, I know that giving him gifts is more for our benefit than ours. As a formerly chained dog who lived outside before he ended up in an animal shelter, he's almost as easily entertained with rocks and leaves as he is with dog toys. Much like a cat who shuns a fancy toy in favor of an empty box or a paper sack, he is used to keeping himself entertained and could get by just fine without toys or special towels (although the elevated feeding tray with his name on it which was lovingly made by my husband will actually serve a purpose related to his digestion). We shop for him so that he feels included and because "we are pack."
All this shopping got me thinking back to a concept I have mentioned before and which I'd like to mention again during this season of love, compassion and giving of gifts.
Most of us love our companion animals and do treat them like family members with fur, feathers or scales. Because of that love and how much we value them in our lives, we want the very best for them. Always. Which is why I sincerely hope you will take some time during the holiday season to give your pets the most important gift of all: the gift of security.
None of us knows how long we will live or what tragedies may change our lives with no notice. We can get sick, lose our job, lose our home to a fire or die in an automobile accident. The list of what ifs is almost endless. If something happened to you, who would take your pets and love them as you do? If you have family or friends who live close to you, you may assume they'll step up and care for your pets. I've seen enough emails, texts and posts on the Internet and social media to know that is not always the case. Animals end up in shelters or with rescue groups every day because of some unexpected tragedy and because the person who cared for them failed to make a plan for their care.
Please give your pets the gift of a Pet Parent. This is a person you've talked to ahead of time who has agreed to take your pets in the event you died or could no longer care for them for some reason. In choosing your Pet Parent, be mindful of how your pet gets along with other animals and their general health. Give some thought to whether or not you should include financial provisions in your will to pay for the care of your pets for the rest of their lives. Consider how someone would communicate with the Pet Parent on your behalf if something happened to you. Do not just presume that someone will step up and take your pet or pets - this calls for an actual conversation to make plans just like those made for your children.
We have a plan in the event that anything ever happens to both of us at one time. Rusty will go to live with a member of our family in Texas who will help him adapt to living in her home with her rescued dogs and who will love him as we love him. And she will care for him the rest of his days. We'd like to think the odds of this happening are really small. But we'd rather have plans and never need them than to have Rusty put at risk in some way.
I think Rusty will like the gifts we're giving him this year, although he'll still play with leaves. I know that we'll sleep better at night knowing that we are prepared to give him the best possible gift by ensuring he is cared for the rest of his life, even if it is not by us.
Please think about it.
My normal "MO" on my website is to talk about animal welfare advocacy issues. I'm taking a break from that today to talk about a lighter topic, but one which may benefit some people. It's my Top Six list of must-have products for dog lovers. Some of the products are of more help with older dogs and some products are also great for cat lovers (I mean no offense to my "cat people" out there.) I'm sharing these items in no particular order.
Champion K-9 Seat Belt System. We have all seen it. People driving with dogs in their laps, in the beds of pick-up trucks or laying on the rear deck of a car behind the passenger seats. When you travel with your dog, even for short distances, you owe it to your dog to have him or her restrained. You would not travel in your vehicle without having your human child restrained. For me, dogs are no different in terms of safety concerns. You can be the best driver on the planet and that does not protect your dog if some other driver hits you, making your dog a projectile. There are a variety of vehicle safety restraint systems for dogs available on the market. I prefer the Champion System because it is comfortable for the dog and because it is incredibly sturdy. It looks like something made for NASCAR but I take comfort in that. This system is intended for medium and large sized dogs. If your dog is smaller, you will still be able to find something appropriate for his or her size in a different design. Do not let your failure to properly restrain your dog result in tragedy which will not only change your life forever, but will have been preventable.
Foster and Smith Quilted Super Deluxe Dog Bed. We've had a lot of dog beds over the years and there are multiple beds in our house at any given time. Probably the best money we ever spent on a bed was on an orthopedic bed we got for Snake years ago after our vet told us Snake's days were numbered due to degenerative issues with her spine. After looking around at a variety of orthopedic beds, I chose one made by Foster and Smith. Rich joked that it was large enough for a small child and he was right. But it lasted not only through Snakey's lifetime but also through Aspy's lifetime. We have had this particular dog bed for about 13 years and it is still going strong. Because the covers are washed in the dryer, they do tend to fade over time. The bed itself is still in wonderful shape and in spite of faded covers, the zippers never failed and we would be able to use the bed with another dog today. While this bed has retained its quality, some other beds we bought along the way did not. It is really worth the money for a dog of any age and most definitely for a senior dog who may have issues with arthritis.
Woodrow Wear Dog Socks. When we moved to a new house a few years back, I was worried about the hardwood floors. Aspy was getting older and I knew he would have traction issues. He did. We ended up with a host of skid-resistant rugs in different rooms to help him navigate more easily. It was just this year that I did research on skid-resistant socks to help him with mobility. We tried a number of brands. Some did not fit. Some did not allow his feet to "breathe." It was only when we got some test pairs of Power Paws Socks from Woodrow Wear that we found a really good product. The socks come in a variety of sizes and designs and they have a non-skid pawprint pattern on the bottom of each sock. Socks come in sets of four. We ended up only putting socks on our dog's rear feet since those were his pushing feet. It took him a few minutes to get used to the idea but he adapted quickly. He did fairly well on his own during the day due to rug placement, but we put his socks on each night as part of our bedtime rituals. The socks fit much like a human tube sock - they are designed to be snug so they don't rotate or fall off - and you toss them in the wash with the rest of your laundry.
Joint Max Triple Strength Soft Chews. All dogs develop issues with mobility in their later years. When we saw that our dog was slowing down a bit, we talked to our vet about using supplements to help him feel better and without having to rely on a prescription. She recommended a supplement with both glucosaimine and chondrotin. After comparing labels on a number of brands and reading reviews, we tried a soft chew made by Joint Max and never regretted it. Our dog got two chews a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. He loved those things. They look and smell like a treat but with a wonderful list of ingredients to help his joints and connective tissue. You can get this brand through a variety of retailers. We tended to use Entirely Pets because of good service, low shipping costs and coupons.
Shelter Pups (and cats). I first learned about Shelter Pets thanks to my ties to the families of Harley Taylor (the 2015 American Humane Association Hero Dog) and his faithful sidekick, Teddy Burchfield. Shelter Pups sells handmade dog and cat stuffed animals, both ready-made (so you can choose the animal to "rescue") or made for you using images of your beloved pet. I admit that I first looked into this company to have stuffed animals made from images of our own dogs, thinking it was just a specialty company. When I learned that the mission of this company is to raise awareness and help real shelter animals, well, I was hooked. I invite you to visit the Shelter Pups website to learn how this all started with a little girl named Theodora who wanted a stuffed toy which looked like the shelter dogs she loved and while working to help dogs at her local animal shelter. The images here of our dogs simply do not do justice to these creations. They look so much like our dogs that seeing them for the first time took my breath away. And it's nice to have them at home to see every day.
Perpetua DNA Life Jewels. I am not a big jewelry person. I wear one of a host of necklaces I own which have sentimental value to me. One carries a locket which holds images on my parents and our dogs. Another carries charms engraved with the names of our dogs. A few months ago, I heard about a special product you can have made using DNA, either human or animal and I was intrigued. I thought it might just be a rip-off or a scam. I mean, really, how can a company take DNA and use it to make jewelry or other items? I did some homework and you can now call me a believer. Perpetua Life Jewels was the inspired idea of a veterinarian who wanted to memorialize her lost dog using DNA. There are a host of products available on the website and there is a video which shows how the process works. Rich gifted me a Duet Life Jewel necklace which includes the DNA of both of our dogs. Aspy was still alive when he had it made. Now that he is gone, the necklace is all the more precious to me. I cannot touch our dogs or see them, but I can feel closer to them every time I wear my DNA necklace, as I am today.
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