Why Did I Renew?!

After a slight hiatus, during which I weighed a public versus private writing practice, I decided to take advantage of the level 1 WordPress experience in order to accommodate my fleeting urges to write, without annoying the occasional (and, I’m guessing, accidental) reader with ads. I would be heartbroken if I’d written a deeply personal account of learning that it is possible to find joy among life’s troubles, only to find that readers were confronted with encouragements to try some new remedy for psoriasis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of psoriasis sufferers finding relief. I just don’t want “Big Pharma’s” dime underwriting my hobbies. I’d rather pay the fee, and call the tune.

So, after having ponied up the very reasonable year’s subscription, I now find that almost a month has passed without a single pixel having been posted. Maybe I’ve made (yet another) mistake with my petty investments in what ultimately serves as self-entertainment. It isn’t as if I have some unique practice or insight, either lofty or insignificant, to share with the world. Probably the sum total of topics about which I could write are comprised of:

  • My experiences in dealing with cancer and kidney disease
  • My experiences in trying to discover a centering philosophy
  • My experiences in trying to adjust to the mistake of retiring to the wrong place
  • My experiences in loving, and losing, beloved dogs

It is plain that the essence of these topics is “my experience”. I will carefully avoid offering advice on how to deal with chronic illness, how to winnow through the mountain of philosophic thought, how to choose the best retirement locale, or how to care for dogs and deal with grief. All I can honestly do is write about what it all feels like to me, and hope that the reader finds any useful seeds of ideas to make better sense of their own experiences. That being the case, I suppose I’ll make the effort to continue.

If one were to read farther back in the articles posted here they would discover that the bulk of entries are about the closing months, and eventual end of life of my beloved sidekick, Jessie. She was, in my estimation throughout her life, and now in my memory, the best dog in the whole world, even though she probably wouldn’t deserve such a title if her life and antics were given objective judgement. After her passing I offered a few ragged posts that were, at heart, about my grief. I’ll add an update to this meandering posting.

I still grieve. I’m sure there are reasons for the intensity and tenacity of this sense of loss, but I haven’t yet ferreted them all out. The good news is that, gradually, the sun, and the world’s colorfulness, have increased their intensity to where they once were in my view. I can often talk about Jessie with others for handfuls of minutes, only showing tears after I’ve slipped away alone. In the interim since my last post on this subject I have discovered a way to memorialize Jessie that I have come to find very helpful. It is not my idea, nor do I know who originated it. The memorial consists of one of Jessie’s water bowls (it could easily have been a food bowl) wrapped with her last collar, and then converted to a planter (succulents and cactus in this case). I added a photo of Jessie to complete the effect.

In this way I am able to give care to her memory every day when I open the blinds to let in the sun, and weekly when watering. I’ll pause in those moments, and others, to profess aloud how badly I miss her company. I don’t apply any magic to this practice. I know that Jessie is not really here with me, and cannot appreciate that I love her memory. I suppose that it is just that I had such a reservoir of caring for that dog, and this allows me to keep it flowing toward the living memorial of her.

“Ain’t No Sunshine…”

A grieving milestone

It has been 6 months, today, since my sidekick, Jessie, died. I suspected that there would be no “getting over” her loss. I wasn’t so prepared for the lingering heartache and sudden tears whenever she enters my thoughts. I think I may have figured out why she is that special, one-in-a-million dog that I just can’t let go.

One year ago, today, I wrote about the juncture of my own medical condition, and the care of Jessie and her adoptive brother, Maxx. Jessie had a full measure of social and physical vulnerabilities, no doubt stemming from a shaky start in life as a stray. She was heir to the worst attributes of her German Shepherd genes; rear-leg weaknesses and a host of digestive issues, just as I had grown up with a series of infirmities, culminating in stage 4 NET cancer and severe kidney disease. She was a shy introvert, anxious about every new and unfamiliar experience, mirroring my own retreats from social involvement. Rather than being one of those pairings where the strengths of one support the weaknesses of the other, we were alike in our struggles with living in the world. Through some inexplicable and silent communion we kept each other from succumbing to our own fears and infirmities in a “if you can do it, then so can I” kind of way.

Of course, there was also the promise.

An unspoken, inter-species mutual support system only goes so far, as one of us naturally carries the burden of sustaining the other. Being the human in a human-dominate world, that responsibility fell to me, and I took it most seriously. I had already forged a commitment within myself to assure a home and care to both dogs. To Jessie, though, I said it aloud. I knew that Maxx, in a pinch, would transfer fealty to whosoever was lord of the food bowl and treat pouch. With Jessie, it seemed that she looked to me for more than just creature needs, and I reflected back my solemn vow that I would do whatever possible to provide care and comfort to her until the very end of her life.

It is with that mission always before me that I found motivation to stay with diet and exercise plans designed to keep me as healthy and strong as possible, and to follow through with medical care crafted to slow disease progression and keep me alive longer. In this way it is no exaggeration to say that Jessie kept me going, kept me alive, and gave me purpose.

The last few years of her life were, for me, such a profound mixture of happy and sad. Her back legs continued to weaken to the point that I had to have her wear a sort of doggy orthopedic boot to protect the top of her paws from scuffing whenever we went for a walk. Her coat dulled and lightened, she spent most of every day napping, and, we feel certain, her eyesight dimmed. She became too frightened to walk down the stairs each morning after sleeping with us upstairs, so Maxx and I slept downstairs with Jessie (I exercised human prerogative, and claimed the couch) every night. The last 6 months we had to watch, helplessly, as a mass steadily grew behind her left eye. All of that was the sad part, and I was on an emotional hair trigger throughout.

The sad was balanced by a kind of blossoming that came about in Jessie. While she never outgrew her wariness of unfamiliar people, she did begin to widen her circle of exploration around our community. This lead to a widening of her socialization when, for the first time in her life, she began to make friends with various dogs she would meet on our walks. In her closing months she found great joy in her explorations. On the last day of her life, when the mass behind her eye had robbed her of most of the pleasure in her life, the very last thing she wanted to do before the doctor arrived at our home was to take one more lap around the neighborhood.

So, what is there to say about the end of a beloved dog’s life. We did our best to downplay any drama. We had the doctor come to our home, rather than have to face the scary veterinary office. We gave her the kind of massage she enjoyed, and we told her, over and over, what a good girl she was, how much we loved her.

And, I was determined to hold my tears so that she would not be troubled by them, and so I could focus completely on comforting her, my ultimate promise. Somehow I held on until the moment the doctor assured me that Jessie was beyond any further suffering.

The tears have been much harder to control since. With Jessie went so much that had given my life purpose and joy. I’d have to confess that I let myself go for several months after, and only recently have I found the determination to restrengthen myself. I do have my wonderful and supportive wife, who certainly seems to enjoy my company, and I hers. There is still Maxx, he of the shifting loyalties, entering into his own old age. I have made a similar promise to him, and I intend to help him find joy and comfort in his closing years.

But, for me, there has never been a dog quite like Jessie, nor, I feel sure, will there ever be.

Some Reassembly Required

I thought it would be easier.

I had pre-mourned every new sign of diminishment. I had established a hospice mindset, every effort being made for comfort, sparing her the cruelty of hopeless prolonging. I imagined that when the time arrived that even comfort seemed hopeless, the ending would be a sense of release, relief, and reflection; sorrow, and then a return to life.

Except that after almost 13 years of attentive devotion and sacrifice, most profoundly in the last 2 years as the weight of age became undeniable, I have no life of my own in the wake of Jessie’s leaving. It is as if, at the moment her spark faded this past Monday morning, I lost both a cherished companion and a purpose.

That, coupled with constantly running into the sharp spaces where Jessie is supposed to be, has thrown me into aching fits of sadness and longing. For those moments I completely understand the phrase, “drowning in sorrow.”

I am moving ahead, though, one foot consciously placed in front of the other. More moments of clarity than blinding pain. I believe I will eventually stand in clear, loving light, “glad that it happened”, as Dr. Suess admonished, rather than “sad that it is over.” Soon enough I hope to find a way to channel all I’ve learned from serving Jessie into a new reason for being. After all, Maxx, momma’s boy that he is, is still here, and can surely use an additional measure of unconditional love.

Still, in whatever time I, myself, have remaining in this life, I’m not sure I will be able to talk about Jessie (and I fully intend to talk about Jessie) without a tear here or there.

Jessie’s Story Is Done

For those few who have followed.

Our sweet girl Jessie passed away this morning. Her doctor came to our home and helped her avoid further suffering. A tumor behind her left eye grew until it robbed her of much of her joy in life. Her passing was peaceful, with my wife and I at her side until the very end, comforting, petting, telling her what a wonderful girl she was, and how much she was loved.

I know I promised that this blog would be a chronicle of the weeks and months of her care, but it seems I did much more caring than writing. I don’t regret that.

As you might imagine, I am heartbroken, a swirl of hurtful emotion. I should be getting her ready for an afternoon walk right now, or tossing her a few of her beloved home-cooked chicken treats, instead of reporting that she is no longer here with me. This recovery is going to take a while.

I guess for all practical purposes there is no longer any reason for additional entries to this blog. My thanks to those who followed.

What’s Really Behind This Blogging Thing?

There are probably no more than three reasons for this writing project, but there is only one fundamental motivating force bringing it into practice. That would be Jessie. Jessie is, to all outward appearances, just an ordinary dog. A mutt, really. Easily identified as a mix of Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd Dog. Thin and rangy, she has a wolf-like look and lope. Skittish, vulnerable, and slow to warm to those she doesn’t know, and know well. Always, always a challenge to me. And she is the best dog in the whole world, because I have decided that she is. In this way Jessie has taught me about the finer points of unconditional love.

She came to us when she was just shy of her first birthday. That was almost 12 years ago, as of this writing in early 2018. Jessie was a challenge out of the box. Having spent much of her first year a stray, she knew nothing about sharing space with humans, other dogs, with anyone, really. She didn’t know the rules, or the ropes. I’d like to be able to tell you that through deft perception, keen insight, and a steady hand I was able to bring Jessie along into being a dog acclimated to the world of humans, solid in her confidence of self and me, and an example of loyal obedience. The true story is that neither one of us had a clue from the start. We built a relationship from the ground up, in spite of libraries of books, classes, and behavioral consults. It was somewhere in all of that struggle that I decided to love this dog, no matter what. That for me, though I have known many, many wonderful dogs, Jessie is The Best Dog In The World. *

The idea and inception for this writing project coincides with the beginning of 2018, and the middle of Jessie’s 12th year (she will be 13 in late May, 2018). The signs of her aging are now achingly evident. The youthful pitch-black muzzle is now completely white. Her bark has softened, and become hoarse. Once endlessly curious about walks and unshuttered windows on the world, she now spends most of her day napping. Most distressing, her legs are beginning to fail her. Possibly arthritis, perhaps a neuromuscular ailment common to her German Shepherd side, or maybe just the effects of age, whenever I see it my heart breaks. I know the time remaining with her is less than I want it to be.

So it is that I wish to honor Jessie by giving her careful thought and attention, and to chronicle the closing days, months, dare I hope for years of our journey together. I want to give this more than passing thoughts, but delve into the experience of serving this dog. I hope to explore ways of coping, ways of accepting, how to make this more about her, and less about me. And, if I can avoid feeling overly self-conscious about the writing, I will try sharing this with others who may be curious and interested.

Those three reasons I mentioned at the beginning? 1. I wish to fulfill a promise to myself to write, 2. I wish to be more conscious of this life I have been given, 3. I wish to stop endlessly scrolling through social media, yet still be expressive to anyone wanting to listen.

But, more than anything else, this is about Jessie.

* Closely followed by her younger “brother”, Max.

She Can Still Run

I originally posted this elsewhere, a “test blog” if you will, on January 19, 2018.

We were out the other day in an interlude between snows. Jessie, uncharacteristically, wanted to go in the direction opposite her usually preferred walking route. She nosed around the town hall for a bit before deciding to head home, or maybe resume her normal path. You can’t be too sure with Jessie. As is usual, I was closely monitoring her walking. Leg movement, paw placement, confidence in stride all contributing to my overall assessment of where she stood on this outing’s mobility rating. With her near 13 years of age, and me approaching 64, ease of movement is a daily issue. I thought she was probably right at “average”. A little stiff-legged, with normal rear paw scuffing and the occasional scrape. She had her rear boots on, so the scraping was not audibly noticeable. I have to see it, and I did see it every so often.

It was as we were veering toward a homeward path that first I saw, and then Jessie, the big UPS truck cross our path, turning and heading away from us. Jessie’s head snapped up in recognition, one of her chief enemies clearly in sight, and running away. This was followed by a low, quiet growl, and then she launched herself in pursuit. Her initial steps were unsteady, but quick. It was all I could do to keep up. I kept thinking that maybe I should make an effort to calm her down, slow her pace. Could this level of activity lead to injury, or a setback? All the while I was increasing my own pace, allowing her to gain momentum. And then she and I were running. The run of two old beings, to be sure, but there was something reminiscent of our more youthful walks and runs in days gone by. She can still run. We can still run! And why shouldn’t we?

The Strauss Strategy

The warnings were in place the night before. By morning the threat was clear. Trouble was on the way. Mid-afternoon the target.

Surviving the onslaught was not the worry. We had been through this enough to know how to minimize damage to hearth and home. It was keeping those in our care calm in the midst of the rampage that weighed heavily on our thoughts as morning ebbed away, and the blitzkrieg advanced. The nearer drew the maelstrom, the more I considered a distraction that had shown promise once before. The Strauss Strategy, named for the man instrumental in creating the tools that might keep panic at bay.

Timing would be critical. Too late, and the Strauss Strategy would only add to a sense of chaos. Too early, it would become the baseline of consciousness, and lose its power of distraction. So it was that I carefully monitored the advance reports, ready to unleash the plan at the precise moment of maximum effect.

There was no mistaking the launch. The air was electric. The impending attack pressed against us in a manner that was extra-sensory. This was it! The tools were in place. All that was needed was the touch of a button. I looked into the trusting faces of our charges, smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring way, placed my finger on the screen, and tapped.

Immediately the air was filled with the opening orchestral salvo of “Voices Of Spring” by Johann Strauss II, followed by the lilting, sweeping melody and bass-punctuated beat (“ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three…). Outside, seemingly in synch with the commencement of the 1882 waltz, the forecast early spring storm broke with a fury. A quick adjustment of sound system volume, and the composition soared just above the tempest beyond the shuttered windows. Inside, Jessie and Max, both highly sound-sensitive dogs easily panicked by thunderstorms, rested comfortably, if ever-so-slightly on edge. Rumbles of thunder melded with tympanic musical crescendos. The thunderphobes appeared to know something ominous was afoot, but what was it, exactly? One piece flowed into the next. “Morning Papers” became “On The Beautiful Blue Danube”. “Tales From The Vienna Woods” turned into the perfect “Thunder And Lightning Polka”. The dogs were kept just enough off balance and confused that fear could not take hold.

After 5 or 6 pieces we began to notice a lightening around the window blinds. Lowering the stereo volume we could tell that the maelstrom had lumbered out of the dogs’ alarm zone.

“Wow! That worked pretty well, but I have to tell you; I was getting mighty tired of Strauss Waltzes toward the end!”, my wife said.

“Count yourself lucky”, I offered with a grin, “The John Phillip Souza Scheme was on the drawing board, too!”

After a moments reflection she nodded in agreement. Next time, though, maybe I can offer a sonic distraction that would be more universally appreciated. There are plenty of choices; the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, “1812 Overture (with cannons!)”, Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries”. But I think maybe next time I’ll see how John Bonham’s bombastic drumming stands up against nature, and put together a Led Zeppelin playlist. “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled…”