Letting Go

I have a box in my basement marked “Ann’s keepsakes,” filled with things that are special to me.  Anyone else would probably consider it a box full of worthless odds and ends, and wonder why in the world I’m saving it.  The battered stuffed pony,  the cheap ring with an artificial emerald, the red dog collar,  the purple lace ribbon and all the rest of the contents have no real value at all.  But to me, every single item in that box is special.

Ann's photo 1The stuffed pony was my favorite childhood toy and almost constant companion…it’s no wonder he looks so well-worn.  The “emerald” ring was a graduation gift from my grandmother, passed on to me because we both had May birthdays.  The dog collar belonged to Genny, the first dog who was my very own and not a family pet.  And the ribbon was a gift from a good friend’s mother, who made it to cheer me up after I came in last place in my heat during a Junior High track meet.  (Lots of people have ribbons for winning races, but I bet I’m the only one who has a last place ribbon.)

I think it’s normal to hang onto to the things we treasure and to the people we love.  We want to keep what, and who, we value in our lives.  But the problem is that there is so much that we can’t hang on to, no matter how hard we try.

One of my very first “blogging friends” was a woman from Australia, who wrote a great  blog about the trials and joys of farming there.  She read every one of my posts and never failed to leave an encouraging comment.  But one day she blogged about an upcoming surgery, and that was the last I ever heard of her.  I still have no idea if she simply dropped out of the blogging world, or if the surgery went horribly wrong.  And I doubt very much that I will ever know.

Life is full of losses, both large and small.  Favorite restaurants close, neighborhood friends move away, treasured family traditions come to an end.  And if you’re like me, you sometimes try a bit too hard to hang on to what is slipping away or even already gone.  It’s hard to lose the things and people we value, but sometimes don’t have much choice.

And so I keep my little box of keepsakes, stored away on my basement shelf.  I don’t get it out very often, as most days  I’m too busy dealing with the stuff that is happening in my life right here and now.  But every once in a while I add something to it, when I find myself facing yet another loss and want to save a little something to remind myself of a gift I once had.

In a way, I suppose, that’s the real purpose of my keepsakes.  They represent the good memories that are mine forever, even when the actual people and things are gone.  The influence of the past has helped shape who I am now, which means that those memories are a very real part of me and always will be.  And knowing that makes it just a little bit easier when the time comes to “let go.”

A Fond Farewell

IMG_0358I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye, especially to someone I really like.  So when I heard that one of my very favorite staff members at the animal shelter where I volunteer was planning to retire this month, I didn’t react well.

First I tried to convince her to stay.  When that didn’t work, I tried to convince management that she wasn’t really old enough to retire yet.  Sadly, I never did figure out how to forge a fake birth certificate that would back up my claim, so that didn’t work either.  All I had to fall back on was denial, but as the day of her actual retirement crept closer, that stopped working as well.  You can’t help plan someone’s retirement celebration without also recognizing that they actually are going to retire.

I know my friend deserves to retire and that she is ready for this new phase of her life, and I also know I need to support her in this decision.  That’s what friends do.  But the problem is that knowing she won’t be at the animal shelter anymore just makes me incredibly sad, and even a little bit lost.

She taught the volunteer orientation class I took when I first started at the shelter over fifteen years ago, and I still remember what a great job she did of preparing us for the realities of volunteering in an open-admission animal shelter.  It wasn’t long before I, along with most of the other volunteers, learned that she was an excellent source of advice, guidance and support when we needed it.  I saw how protective she was of the animals in her care, and how compassionate she was towards the people she worked with, and how helpful and patient she was with people who came in to adopt a new pet.

Lots of people are good at their jobs, but my friend was one of those who always went the extra mile, both for the animals and for the people around her.  She sent regular texts and emails, letting volunteers know that a favorite dog had finally been adopted so we could celebrate the good news even when we weren’t at the shelter.  She listened to us when we needed a sympathetic ear, and cheered us up when we were down, and was rather well known for her habit of breaking into an impressive “happy dance” when she thought the situation called for it.

My friend was a fixture at the animal shelter and her departure is going to be felt deeply by all those who worked with her.  I suppose our grief over her retirement is the proof of what a terrific job she did during her time there and what a wonderful friend she was to all, of both the two-footed and the four-footed variety.   We only miss what, and who, we truly value.  And we will miss her very much.

I still can’t quite imagine what the shelter will be like without my friend, and I know that the next few weeks are going to be a major adjustment for many of us.  But we will continue our volunteer work, doing our best to help the animals, celebrating the successes, and offering support to each other when we need it.  And I can’t think of any better way to honor my friend’s legacy than that.

What Will They Say?

IMG_4471Yesterday, I attended a beautiful and moving memorial service for the husband of a long-time family friend.  Afterwards, we all gathered at her brother’s house for some food and drinks, as is often the custom after such services, so that family and friends can comfort each other and share stories and memories about the one they have lost.  I’m sure most of us have been to several of these gatherings, but there was something especially touching about this one.  The toasts and tributes were so heartfelt, the memories were so special and the sense of loss so deep, that there was no doubt that my friend’s husband was not only a very special person, but was also dearly loved but all who knew him well.  Clearly, he had left a powerful legacy of goodness, tolerance, and love.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder how different our lives might be if we thought just a little bit more often about how people we will remember us after we are gone.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve attended a funeral or memorial service, people don’t really talk about the sort of things that seem so very important to us as we live our daily lives.  No one mentions what car the deceased drove, how much money he made, how she always looked ten years younger than her actual age, what advanced degrees he earned or what a prestigious job she held.  Sure, some of that information might make it into an obituary or be a part of the life story shared during the service, but when the time comes for people to share their own memories of their loved one, that’s not what they talk about at all.

In the personal tributes and toasts, people talk about the real gifts that their loved one gave them.  They talk about how he was always ready to listen to their problems, without judgement, and without jumping in to offer quick and easy advice.  They talk about how she always made time for them, no matter how hectic and stressful her life happened to be.  They talk about the good examples he set by the way he lived his life, or how she had the courage to follow her own dreams and encouraged others to do the same.  In short, they talk about the important things, and not the inconsequential stuff that occupies far too much of our attention.

I have always been taught not to worry about what people say about me (easier said than done), and I understand that is meant to be good advice about not letting other people’s opinions dictate how I live my life.  But I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea to consider what people are going to say when I’m gone, and how they are going to remember me.  Am I a positive and encouraging influence on other people?  Am I helping others when they need it, and not just when it’s convenient for me?  Will anyone be able to say, honestly, that I left this world just a little bit better than I found it?

The beautiful tributes and heartfelt toasts I heard yesterday are the kind that can only be earned by living our lives as fully and compassionately as we possibly can.  And I can think of no better way to be remembered, and no better legacy to leave behind.

Lucy

IMG_0143I didn’t really want another dog, as I was perfectly happy with the one we already had.  Sandy was a sweet-natured and happy dog who fit in beautifully with our family, and I felt that one dog, a long-haired rabbit who required daily brushing and a gerbil were more than enough for me to take care of.  But the kids really wanted another dog, so I foolishly told them that once the gerbil and rabbit were gone, we could get a second dog.  Unfortunately, within six months after I said that, the gerbil and rabbit both died.  Which is how Lucy came into our lives.

When we found her at the Humane Society, she seemed to be a calm, friendly dog who got along well with Sandy, so we signed the adoption papers, handed over a check and took her home.  The next day, we were surprised to discover that our new dog had suddenly seemed to acquire a very high level of energy indeed.  Closer inspection of her adoption papers revealed that we had adopted her less than twenty-four hours after she’d been spayed, which was a mistake none of us caught at the time.  That explained the “sudden change” in her personality.  She hadn’t been calm when we’d met her at the shelter; it was just that the sedation hadn’t completely worn off.  But by that time, she was already of member of our family and returning her was out of the question.

We quickly learned that Lucy was easy to love, but not so easy to live with.  We discovered that she not only had extraordinary energy, but was also very independent and unbelievably smart.  Sadly, her intellect has never been matched by a desire to please, or to abide by the household rules.  Lucy lives by her own rules.  She raided trashcans, even the ones with lids, which meant that she was constantly supplementing her diet with used kleenex and other disgusting things she couldn’t digest properly.  I’ll spare you the gross details.  She left muddy footprints in our bathtubs, strolled casually across the living room window sill, and waited patiently for the exact moment when no one was looking to jump on the table and polish off the cheese ball during a party.  She prided herself on keeping our backyard squirrel-free, and would also leave us little tokens of her love on our back porch:  a piece of charcoal, a chunk of our landscaping border, a dead vole.  Staying one step a head of Lucy required constant vigilance, and even then, I wasn’t always successful.

IMG_4966I guess I thought I’d be glad when Lucy grew older and slowed down a little.  But I’m not.  She’s thirteen now, and has been an only dog since last September, when our beloved Sandy died at the age of sixteen. Lucy seems a bit lost without her, and after Sandy’s death, she has aged much more quickly.   These days, the dog who was so independent and afraid of nothing trembles when I drive her to the vet, and sticks close by me when I’m home.  The dog who always launched herself enthusiastically at our household visitors doesn’t even hear the doorbell any more, and  the dog who once had boundless energy is happy to spend most of her time sleeping in a patch of sunlight, especially if I am nearby.

I may be middle aged, but Lucy is old, and there’s no escaping the fact that she is beginning to fade away.  Her hearing is almost completely gone, she’s getting cataracts and sometimes she seems bewildered and confused. I know she’s “just a dog” to many people, but those who truly love their pets will understand that I am just not ready for this particular loss.  Maybe its because we’re still adjusting to life without Sandy, maybe I’m still feeling the effects of the empty-nest syndrome, or maybe I’ve just known too many people who have died in the past few years. But for whatever reason, I sometimes sit with Lucy and quietly whisper to her, “Stay.”  She’s smart enough to know what I mean.