The Time Between

IMG_3559 2For the past few weeks, our house has been far too quiet.  No one is barking at the back door, letting me know that she has waited exactly five seconds for someone to let her in and she’s deeply unhappy about the delay.  When I’m working at my computer, no one is laying by my feet, snoring loudly.  I don’t hear the repetitive squeak of dog toys, or the click of canine toenails on the hardwood floors.  Our house has been peaceful, quiet, and almost entirely free of dog hair…..and I don’t like it one bit.

Lots of people have asked me if we’re going to get another dog.  That question always surprises me a little, because I would think that anyone who knew me at all would realize that of course I’m going to get another dog.   If I should spend my final years bed-ridden in a nursing home, I’ll most likely have a chihuahua hidden under the blankets and be bribing the staff to bring it food and take it for bathroom breaks.  I’m not the sort of person who wants to live a dog-free life.

But I also know that it’s too soon to bring another dog home.  My husband and I are still grieving for Lucy.  It’s still hard to remember to walk in the house and not call out, “Lucy, I’m home!” (One of the best things about having a dog named Lucy was being able to say that.)  When I’m away from the house for several hours, I still think I need to go home and let her out.  And just last night, we realized that we still had her dog food stashed in our pantry, right below the box of dog treats.  The simple truth is that we aren’t quite ready to open our hearts and our home to another dog just yet.

IMG_3983So these days, I get my “dog fix” when I walk the shelter dogs, who are always very happy to get the attention.  My son and daughter-in-law’s dogs also come visit, making themselves instantly at home at “Grandma’s” house, as they explore every nook and cranny and scope out the furniture for the best napping spots.  And they don’t seem to mind too much when we make it clear that their sleeping choices are limited to the floors and the dog beds.

One way or another, we are getting used to our life without Lucy, and coming to terms with not having a dog of our own anymore.  I know that this particular phase of our life is temporary, and that the time is coming when we’ll begin to look for another dog to join our family.  Until then, I’m really grateful for the shelter dogs and my “grand-dogs” for making this time of transition just a little bit easier.  And for reminding me of just why I love dogs so much in the first place.

There Comes A Time

The only thing wrong with dogs is that they don’t live long enough.  Lucy would have been seventeen next month, but she still didn’t live long enough.  Because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the wonderful dog who had shared my life and my home for over sixteen years, even though the time finally came when I no longer had a choice.

IMG_3829 2I have written many times about Lucy, so my regular readers know something about her history.  They know that when we adopted her from the humane society, we thought we were getting a calm, easy-going dog.  Which she was, until the sedative they had given her when she’d been spayed wore off.  And then we realized that we had actually adopted a very energetic and almost scary-smart dog who liked her own way best.  Lucy was very loving and had huge brown eyes that could melt just about any heart, and those traits served her well.  Especially since she was a firm believer that most household rules were nothing more than suggestions, and tended to live life very much on her own terms.

She loved being outside and took her self-appointed job of keeping our yard free of vermin very seriously.  The squirrels quickly learned the only safe way they could cross our yard was via the power lines strung above our back fence, and even then, Lucy would be directly underneath them, hopping sideways along the fence on her back legs as she barked madly at the squirrel above her.  Rabbits, voles, and chipmunks didn’t dare set paw in our yard when Lucy was around.

Inside, Lucy spent most of her time playing with her toys, and the squeaky ones were her favorite.  She also kept a constant watch out for unattended food, which she clearly believed she was entitled to, even if she had to climb up on the dining room table to get it.  To her credit, she left the table alone while we were eating, but once we finished and walked away, anything we were foolish enough to leave behind us was fair game.  Once she even helped herself to the gingerbread house we were using as a Christmas table centerpiece.

Still, age catches up with all of us sooner or later, and Lucy was no exception.   The dog who had always been so independent began to follow me around the house so that she could always be in the same room.  There were times when she didn’t seem to notice that rabbits had taken up residence in our back yard, and even if she did happen to spot one, she just trotted briskly after it while the rabbit hopped casually away.  The toys in her toy box were usually left untouched and she spent most of her time sleeping.

Inevitably, the time came when her body could no longer keep up with her spirit.  Her hearing and eyesight faded, her sense of balance began to desert her, and medicines could no longer ease the pain of her arthritis or help her keep control of her back legs.  And so we made the heart-breaking decision to say goodbye to our beloved, sweet and sassy little Lucy.

img_0034Rest in peace, baby girl.  May you spend your days in a heaven filled with all your doggie friends, slow-moving squirrels and low tables loaded with all your favorite foods.  And never forget just how very much you were loved.

Always and Forever

I’ve never believed that living in the past is a good thing.  It’s too easy to either wallow in nostalgia for “the good old days” or to get trapped into believing that we can never move on from a difficult or troubled history.  And if I’m honest, I also have to admit that most of the time it takes all my energy just to cope with the present and whatever happens to be going on in my life at this particular moment.  Which means that I don’t give all that much thought to my past as I muddle along in my day-to-day life.  Until, that is, something happens to make me stop and remember.

Last week, I learned that an old friend had entered into Hospice care after a prolonged illness.  Although we didn’t see much of each other in the past several years, she was someone I was quite close to when my children were young and the two of us were very active at our church.  I often relied on her advice, not only on how to be a good mother, but also on how to deal effectively and patiently with difficult personalities.  (I once heard someone refer to the two of us as, “the nice one and the bitchy one.”  And I wasn’t the one he was referring to as nice.)  Eventually, our lives took different paths and we became the kind of friends who didn’t make much effort to stay in touch, but who always found it easy to connect on the rare times we did get together.

Still, I was surprised at how much the news of her death hurt, and how many wonderful memories of our time together came flooding back. And then I realized that the strong relationships we form in our past can have a powerful effect on our lives for years afterwards.  Her friendship was not only a precious gift to me, it was also a part of my personal history, so the loss of my friend is still profound and the grief is still real.  I now know that true friendships are a life-long gift and need to be valued as such, no matter what the circumstances.

In this past year, I reconnected with an old college friend who I was dumb enough to lose touch with when she moved to another state.  She and her husband visited us twice, and we were instantly comfortable with each other, laughing and talking as freely as we did twenty years ago.  Words can’t express how grateful I am to be able to spend time with them again, and my husband and I are already planning a trip to visit them in the very near future.

I still don’t believe in living in the past.  But I have figured out that our personal histories, and the relationships we formed along our journey through life, have an enduring impact on who we are today.  Some of the relationships we had weren’t good for us, and we need to leave those behind.  But when we are lucky enough to find true friendship, we need to recognize it for exactly what it is:  a gift that is with us for life.

Easter Reality

IMG_1209I’m not sure why, but I was really looking forward to Easter this year.  I bought a bunch of Easter cards and sent them out to various friends and family, filled several candy dishes with chocolate eggs and other colorful candies, and even broke out my “Easter ornament tree” much earlier than I usually do.  I told my extended family that I wanted to have the after-church Easter brunch at my house this year, and looked up a few new recipes to serve. Maybe it’s the early spring we are enjoying, since it means we have flowers and beautiful budding trees everywhere I look, but in the past few weeks, I have been more than ready for a fun and festive Easter celebration.

But life doesn’t always go according to plan.  Two days ago, we got the very sad news that my son-in-law’s father passed away after a long and valiant battle against cancer.  He was a hardworking, smart and extremely kind man who was devoted to his wife and family, and his passing has left a huge hole in the lives of the many people who loved him. And somehow, celebrating anything, including Easter, didn’t seem so appropriate anymore.

Of course I knew that dispensing with my usual Easter traditions wasn’t going to lessen anyone’s grief, so I stuck with my normal routine.  I still invited my mother over to dye eggs on Easter Saturday; I still put together the usual Easter baskets for my immediate family, and I am still hosting Easter brunch, with the understanding that it is perfectly okay for my daughter and son-in-law to skip it this year.  But in many ways, it feels like nothing more than just going through the motions.

So this Easter, I am honoring the holiday mostly by remembering what a fragile gift life is, how important it is to spend time with our loved ones while we still can, and how necessary it is to reach out and support one another in our times of suffering and great personal loss.  This year, I am just concentrating on what, for me, is Easter’s true message of hope in in the midst of despair, and the enduring and ultimate power of love.

Just Be There

When I was a child, my best friend’s pet rabbit got sick, and my friend was very worried about her.  So when I stopped by my friend’s house on my way to school one bright sunny morning, the first thing I asked was, “How’s Jessica doing?”

“She’s dead,” my friend answered, looking away. “But at least it’s a nice day for a funeral.”  Then she reached out and took my hand, and together we ran the whole way to school.  I made sure I sat next to her at lunch, and afterward, stood with her in the corner of the playground while the other children ran around, playing games and shouting.  Neither of us said a word about her rabbit.

Sometimes I wonder exactly when it was that I forgot how to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with a major personal catastrophe.  I wonder when I decided that my job in those instances is to offer the perfect words of comfort, to try to smooth away the rough edges, or to explain the tragedy.  In other words, I wonder when I got the idea that I had both the duty and the ability to make things right for people who are going through major emotional loss.

As a child, I seemed to know intuitively that what people need most when they are suffering is for someone to simply be there with them.  There are no perfect words that are going to take away the pain, but there are a lot of imperfect words that can make things so much worse, such as: “Remember, everything happens for a reason.”  And someone coping with an overwhelming problem, like a loved one’s terminal illness or a life-changing tragedy, doesn’t need my advice or instructions on exactly how they ought to deal with it all.  They just need my caring support as they make their own choices.

Years ago, when my son was just about two years old, the father of a good friend died rather suddenly.  The funeral was on a weekday afternoon, smack in the middle of my son’s normal nap time, and my son didn’t handle missing naps well.  But I couldn’t find a sitter, and I wanted to support my friend.  So I went anyway, armed with a bag of quiet toys, and sat in the back of the church in case my son became too loud and we needed to make a hasty exit, hoping I was doing the right thing.  When the family was walking out at the end of the service, my friend looked over and saw us sitting there.  We locked eyes for a few seconds, and she smiled, ever so faintly and briefly.  And in that moment I was very glad I had come, even with a toddler in tow.

IMG_4471Being me, I’m sure I said a lot of things to my friend about her father’s death, but I don’t remember them and I doubt that they provided her with any comfort.  What gave her comfort was seeing my son and me in that church, supporting her in her loss.  Because what people who are overwhelmed or grieving really need is simply the assurance that you are there with them in their time of trouble, right beside them as they walk that difficult path.  Just like my childhood friend and I, running hand-in-hand to school all those years ago.


The Sandwich Generation

It’s not as if I had never heard the term.  People have been talking about the “sandwich generation” for years.  And is not as if I didn’t know friends who were still talking care of their kids while dealing with a parent who couldn’t live independently anymore.  It’s just that I was naive enough to think that it would never happen to me.

I had the vague idea that my kids would graduate from college, then immediately find a terrific job and a great place to live.  I’d get to see them all the time, but I wouldn’t worry about them anymore.  As for my parents, I pictured them living happily on their own until they were at least in their mid-nineties, at which point they would depart from this world quickly and peacefully, knowing they had lived a full and satisfying life.  Looking back on it, I’m amazed I didn’t still believe in Santa Claus as well.

But then reality came knocking, and I learned that life doesn’t get less stressful or complicated when our kids become adults.  A father who slid slowly into the early stages of dementia before passing away; a mother-in-law who spent three years in a nursing home (in another state) before we lost her; and a father-in-law who died unexpectedly five weeks after we lost my mother-in-law and were still in deep grief over her death, all taught me that real life is challenging and messy in ways I had never even dreamed of.  And I’m still waiting for that magic moment when I stop worrying about my son and daughter.   My mother told me that would never happen, and now I know she was right.

Maybe it was just denial that kept me believing that my parents and in-laws would never require any real care from my husband and me, and that parenting was something that you did only for twenty years or so per child.  If so, I think that’s a defense mechanism that is shared by a lot of us.  Whenever I talk about some of these issues with friends whose kids are younger and whose parents are still alive, independent and healthy, they react just the way I used to:  with sincere, but distant, sympathy.  They can’t quite make themselves believe that this will ever happen to them.  I remember being that innocent.

I’m not going to lie.  This “sandwich generation” stuff can be hard.  Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m much more sympathetic to my friends who are going through the same thing, and often much worse.   Supportive friends help, and so does a sense of humor and the occasional glass of wine.  But mostly, I just remember that the alternative is worse.  I worry about my kids because I love them, and that isn’t going to change.   And I am very grateful for the time I have with my mother while she is still here, because I know once she is gone I will miss her just the way I miss my father and my in-laws.  Being in the sandwich generation may be challenging at times, but honestly, I want to stay in it for as long as I can.