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.

One More Christmas

IMG_2153We were sure that last year would be our dog Lucy’s very last Christmas.  She was fifteen years old, and had survived a couple of serious health issues.  Signs of her aging were obvious: stiffness in her joints, hearing loss, and worst of all, a digestive system that obviously could no longer handle the variety of “food” she still found and insisted on eating.  Lucy had been part of our family for over fourteen years, so our Christmas morning was a little bittersweet as all photographed and video-taped what we thought would be the last time she would ever help us open presents.

Clearly, Lucy had other ideas.  Because Christmas is a week away, and she is still with us.

I’m not sure if it’s her competitive nature (her doggie sister lived to be sixteen and a half, and I think she has every intention of exceeding that goal), or just that she is still enjoys life.  She turned sixteen last October.  Lucy’s hearing is basically gone, her eyes are somewhat cloudy and she can no longer balance on three legs while I trim her nails.  But she still has a healthy appetite, still trots briskly after the occasional squirrel, and still plays with her dog toys now and then.  She can even still chase her tail a little bit when she gets really excited about something,  such as her dinner being served.

I know that eventually my family will be facing a Christmas, and a life, without Lucy.  She won’t be with us forever despite her best efforts.  Time moves on and those we love, both human and otherwise, grow old and die…often before we are ready to let them go. And since Christmas is a time when the influence of the past seems to be stronger than usual, acknowledging that loss can be hard.

My father has been gone for eight years now, and both my mother-in-law and father-in-law have been gone for six years.  And while my husband and I miss them all the time, we miss them especially during the Christmas season, when the memories of the holidays we celebrated together are especially strong.  We didn’t live in the same state so we had to be flexible about when we got together, but they were always a part of our Christmas celebrations.  And Christmas isn’t quite the same without them.

Yet Christmas is still a beautiful season.  It’s a time to treasure the family and friends we still have and to appreciate the new people who join our family and enrich our lives. My mother may be in her late eighties, but she is still with us, and so is her elderly Chihuahua.  My children and their spouses live close by and we are very much looking forward to the arrival of our first grandson in just a few weeks.  Some change is good indeed.

And the fact that Lucy will get at least one more chance to find the special present that Santa Dog left under the tree will just make this Christmas that much sweeter.

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.

Twilight Years

This morning I noticed a rather strong and disgusting smell in our basement.  It’s not unusual for us to spot the occasional mouse down there once Fall arrives, which my husband promptly dispatches.  (One of perks of being married is having someone else deal with unwanted house guests.)  Judging from the smell, we assumed that one of our mouse visitors must have died down there, so we called in our dog Lucy to help us find it.

Lucy has always been known for her keen sense of smell and her willingness to chase any small furry animal that dares to cross her path.  She came downstairs and obeyed our command to “find it” by sniffing eagerly around the basement walls.  Then she froze in front of the recliner on the family room side of the basement, staring intently underneath it.  “Good dog,” I told her, getting down to peer underneath the chair.  Only to find out that what had caught her attention wasn’t a mouse at all, but her favorite red ball.   I pulled it out and handed it to her, and she trotted off with the satisfied air of a dog who had done her job well.  And just so you know, after she left my husband and I found not one but two dead mice down there, and one of them was very, very, ripe.

img_0034I supposed I should be annoyed with Lucy, or at least disappointed that the dog who used to be able to sniff out a rawhide toy stored on the upper shelf of my closet in two seconds flat seemed to be unable to locate a very pungent rodent carcass.  But Lucy turned fifteen this month and this is just another reminder that she is aging, far more quickly than I would like.

When she first came to live with us, Lucy was eleven-months old and had been turned into the animal shelter as a stray.  Although she seemed quite calm when we picked her out, we quickly discovered that was only because she was still feeling the effects of the anesthesia from her recent spaying.  Lucy was actually a bundle of energy, almost scary-smart, and had very little inclination to follow the household rules.  I suspect most families would have promptly returned her to the shelter from whence she came, but instead we fell in love with her and learned to live with her eccentricities.  For her part, she did learn what “sit,” “stay,” “leave it” and “come” meant, and sometimes she even obeyed those commands.  Later, I added such useful phrases as  “Get off the dining room table!” and “Get your furry butt back in bed!” (spoken at five a.m. on a Saturday morning, when Lucy decided she needed breakfast) to her vocabulary as well.

But for some reason, I didn’t believe that a dog as energetic and smart as Lucy would ever age.  I couldn’t picture her no longer being able to hear anything but the loudest noises, and not even waking up when someone knocks at our door.  I couldn’t fathom a time when she would be willing to substitute a short walk around the block for her usual forty-five minute treks through the neighborhood.  I didn’t envision a time when she would hesitate before climbing a flight of stairs, as if debating whether the effort was worth it.  But all those things, and more, have come true in the past of year or so.

img_0992I know we are now living in Lucy’s twilight years, and that her time with us is drawing to an end.  To my mind, the only thing truly wrong with dogs is that their life spans are far too short.  We may have another year with Lucy, or we may only have another few weeks; we have reached the stage where either is possible.  All that we can do is enjoy the time we have left with our loving, neurotic, and smart little Lucy.  And if that means we have to sniff out our own dead mice, then so be it.

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.

Hidden Gifts

Personally, I have always found it hard to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” and that our lives are pre-ordained.  There’s a randomness to the universe that I just can’t ignore, and more loss, violence and cruelty than I could ever attribute to a loving God.  But what I do believe is that even the darkest of times can bring gifts if we just allow ourselves to look for them.

I was sick last week, which meant I had to miss a fun social event and was also not able to do my usual shifts down at the Humane Society.  I was very disappointed to miss the special luncheon, and also worried that, without my help, not all the shelter dogs would get walked.  But several of the other volunteers went out of their way to tell me that I should stay home until I was well, and assured me that they would stay at the shelter until all the dogs were taken care of, no matter what.  I was surprised and touched by this show of support, and my illness was the reason I got to see just how wonderful these friends really are.

My mother-in-law suffered a series of strokes and spent the last couple years of her life wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, which I thought was a horrible thing for a woman who had always been so vibrant and active.  But every day that she was there, my father-in-law made the fifteen mile trip over country roads to visit her, missing only if he was sick or the roads were not safe.  He spent hours by her side, talking to her (even though she couldn’t always answer him), chatting to the staff, and generally making sure she was well cared for.  My father-in-law had not been a man who showed his emotions easily, so seeing his obvious devotion to his wife was a gift that I will always treasure.  And I wouldn’t have seen it so clearly if she hadn’t spent her last years in a care home.

Coleman Application_page 3 8Our dog Sandy’s fatal heart episodes started the night before my husband and I were scheduled to go on a long weekend trip to Charleston.  We were all packed, airline tickets bought, hotel reservations paid for in advance, and we scrambled to cancel it all last minute. At first it seemed like bad timing, but we soon realized how much worse it would have been if Sandy’s heart had started failing after we were already in Charleston.  There’s no way we would have made it home in time, and I am so glad that we were there to take her on that sad, final trip to the vet.  She needed us, not our dog sitter, to be with her at the end.

In the same way, any disappointment and pain I’ve endured in life have made me much more compassionate towards other people when they are suffering.  Because I know what it’s like to worry about paying the bills, I’m more generous to others who are struggling financially.  I know what it’s like to lose a loved one, to feel rejected by a good friend, to have career hopes dashed.  And while I wouldn’t have chosen to experience any of that, the fact that I have makes me a more sympathetic person than I would otherwise be, and that’s a good thing.

I may not like it when bad stuff happens to me, or anyone else for that matter, but I have learned to realize that that I can use the bad times to learn and grow.  I have come to believe there is always some good in almost every situation; I just have to remember to look for it.