Honesty Isn’t Easy

A close friend recently said to me, “Some people will say something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ You on the other hand are more likely to say, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be okay, but we are going to get through it together.'” Initially I was surprised by what she said. As I continued to think about it, I realized this was an insightful observation.

Some people – maybe many people – don’t want to deal with the reality that life is fragile and unfair. Instead we want to believe the age-old adage that if we do the right things, it will all work out in the end. I am not pessimistic or overly cynical. I have simply learned that life doesn’t often work that way. People die prematurely. Bad people sometimes win. Health-conscious people develop cancer. Some are born into great families while others are born into terrible families. Poor decisions can sometimes have no negative consequences and good decisions can sometimes lead to trouble. And on and on and on. You can imagine how popular I must be, especially at parties.

The downside to being honest is that one then has to face the implications of this honesty. And this is why I believe many people prefer the easier-in-the-short-term answer of “It’s going to be okay.” They can keep doing what they have been doing and believe at some point that the outcome will be different. But what if the outcome never changes? What if you wake up tomorrow and things are exactly the same?

Believing everything is going to work out alright is really just a procrastination. Acknowledging everything might not be okay invokes decision-making. Instead of waiting for change, one seeks to change what one is able to change. We see this in nearly every survivor story, nearly every heroic story: letting go of the outcome and do what one can do in the here-and-now is often how we see a person make a difference for the better. But that takes work, painful work often.

I imagine all of us from time to time are too tired to really be honest, especially with ourselves. But if we avoid honesty altogether, we will find ourselves living superficial lives. And the superficiality is the first thing to go when life throws us a curveball. Maybe this is why I have found it helpful to be honest when things are relatively calm in my life. What do I like about my life? What is missing? These questions help me to see how I might reprioritize or what I would like to change. That begins with an honest look at how things are actually going. No bullshit. No excuses. What is working and what isn’t working? In this process, I am exercising the mental, emotional and spiritual muscles needed when tragedy does hit. Tragedy is still incredibly hard and painful. And it is a lot of work. But I have begun the conditioning that will help me through.

I don’t fault those who walk away from honesty. Perhaps if I could believe everything will always be okay, I would choose that too. But I have noticed that those who walk away take their pain with them. I have also noticed that the folks who espouse everything will all be okay rarely get their hands dirty, so-to-speak. They are supportive from the sidelines. I have been left behind by “supportive” people. I want people in my life who will stay beside me no matter how uncomfortable that space is. Hopefully you know what I am talking about: The friend who will sit with you as you ask the unanswerable questions. The partner who will hold you even when you are inconsolable. The family member who doesn’t take it personally when you lash out in your darkest moment. These are the people who will inhabit that difficult space with you. These are the people who provide love and hope when it is most desperately needed. I suppose that is why my mantra is twofold: I don’t know if it’s going to be okay and we will get through it together.

Yeah, I believe my friend was right in her observation. This has been a guiding principle of mine for most of my life, and I couldn’t really name it until she stated it so simply and matter-of-factly. I am so grateful for her honesty, which she has demonstrated time and time again. May we all have at least one person who chooses honesty over ease. Or better yet, may we be surrounded by many who do.

I wonder what it’s like to love without risk.

I wonder what it’s like to be able to walk away.

I wonder what it’s like to give without meaning it.

I wonder what it’s like to take without a care.

I wonder what it’s like to cause hurt without a bother.

I wonder what it’s like to have no regrets.

I wonder what it’s like to feel so entitled.

I wonder what it’s like to look away.

I suppose it’s like being forgotten.

I suppose it’s like having no one in your corner.

I suppose it’s like hating most of what you see.

I suppose it’s like always blaming another.

I suppose it’s like being stuck in the same vicious cycle.

I suppose it’s like frowning most of the time.

I suppose it’s like living without really being alive.

I suppose it’s like being so utterly alone.

Messy Relationships

I am frequently reminded of the fragility of life. I am often reminded of the fragility of relationships too. I came to a crossroads with a friend, someone who didn’t like what I had to say about how it felt being his friend. My words had been carefully chosen because I cared deeply for him and for our friendship. It was because of my care for him and the hurt I had experienced from him that I felt I had to say what I was seeing and feeling, and what was causing me concern. He didn’t want to hear my words.

A few weeks after that incident, I wrote the following about my work as a pastor:

My dream of a church came from my desire to be part of a community that goes deep. It is in the depths that relationships are forged that can last a lifetime and withstand the storms that can come with life. I also believe that it is in this depth God is most profoundly experienced. The heart of The Other Church’s vision is connection. Connection is fun, but in ways it can feel painful too at times, because in the depths we are most vulnerable, most human. Our flaws are laid bare along with our hopes and dreams and disappointments and hurts. I have felt this pain, along with great joy in these last few years as I have done a lot of my own work as a pastor, spouse, mother, chaplain, friend.

I wrote these words because maybe I needed to remind myself. To be deep, it will be messy. And painful. But it will also be healing and hopeful and sustaining. This is the kind of community I have been called to serve. This is the kind of person I am called to be.

Sometimes when we stumble upon a wound, we touch it and feel pain. I realize now that this is what I did to my friend. I didn’t look for a wound. I didn’t know I was touching it. I didn’t intend to cause him pain. But in my passion of connecting deeply, I did just that. We have a choice whether or not we want to tend to our wounds. My friend had a right to walk away, and he did.

I know the pain because I have felt it frequently in my own work of healing. And I will feel it again. I am thankful to have some people in my life who, when they touch my wounds, stay with me as I work towards my healing. All relationships are messy. But not all relationships are healthy. It is worth the work to find those who will take this journey with us. Jesus is quoted several times saying, “Follow me.” But he didn’t walk ahead of people like the leader of a parade. He journeyed with people. He ate with people. He got to know people. And he touched their wounds. He didn’t judge those wounds or shame the wounded. He offered healing. I think this is why I have so profoundly experienced God in this work. It is about connecting honestly, deeply, meaningfully, sometimes painfully, certainly safely and joyfully too.

I hope my friend is doing okay. I still sometimes feel my own tinge of pain when I think of him. But the pain is my reminder that I connected with him.

The Perfect Dog: an epilogue

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The Perfect Dog struggled to stand up. I helped and held her while she found her footing. She stumbled outside. When I tried to slow her down, she would only move faster, stumbling all the more. We reached the back yard and I sat nearby. She promptly relieved herself. She then walked a few steps and stopped, staring off into nowhere. I wondered if confusion had set back in. I continued to watch. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving. Then it struck me. She wasn’t confused. The Perfect Dog was soaking up her surroundings. The wind was lightly blowing, bringing all kinds of scents to her. I could see her nose twitch like it was tapping out a melody. The trees rustled, as if to suggest birds and other wildlife were just beyond reach. Her ears moved to capture as many of those sounds as she could.  There The Perfect Dog stood. There the Perfect Dog stayed. She was still but alert. Did she know? She must. She stayed until her legs began to wobble. She wagged her tail a few times as if to say thank you, then slowly and happily headed back toward the house. What a moment to experience. My heart was bursting with pain and gratitude to be its witness.

~~~~~~~~~~

Days have past since that occurred. I got Lucy inside and settled down, and immediately wrote about what I had just seen. I didn’t know what kind of time I would have with her, but I knew what I had witnessed needed to be remembered. I had never seen her stand that still for that long in such an alert state. I couldn’t help but think she was taking this in – her yard, her life – while she still could.

My Perfect Dog has passed away. She had three days of struggling, some hours where death seemed imminent and some hours where she actually seemed to be feeling better. Part of my sitting with her included reading to her The Perfect Dog, parts 1, 2 and 3. More than once, she would lift her head and look at me as if to say, “Stop blubbering on so.” But I couldn’t help it. I wanted her to know how much I loved her. I couldn’t expect to adequately convey my love for her in words or in such a short period of time. It’s a cumulative thing. But the compulsion was there nonetheless. The compulsion to make sure, to be crystal clear, to avoid any regrets down the road because you recognize that each minute counts.

As difficult as it is, I think it’s a privilege to be with one’s pet for his or her last breath. While I’ve been through this several times, this is the first time I noticed the last physical breath. Maybe it’s because each breath of hers was labored and therefore obvious. But there it was – one breath she was with us, and then she was gone. I held my breath wondering if there would be one more, but I already knew the answer. She would not breathe again.

I still head to the pantry to feed her. I still go to the door to let her out or in. I still look for her, listen for her, wait for her. I imagine that will be the case for awhile. Fourteen years of these habits don’t die as quickly as the ones who inspired the habits do. Yet I find myself grateful for that. I like to think of her as often as I do, even when it makes me cry. I am thankful that for over 14 years she was happy and healthy, and for a mere three days she was not. What a tremendous gift that is. Thank you, Perfect Dog. I love you. To the moon and back and then some.

A Rock Star for a Song

We were invited to celebrate a good friend’s upcoming 50th birthday. Mutual friends/fellow invitees secretly learned from his wife that when alone, the birthday boy loved to rock out to Bon Jovi’s 1986 song, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” No surprise he would want to keep that secret. So naturally our friends decided to perform the song at his party.

My husband and I were hanging out with these mutual friends/fellow invitees. When they mentioned their plans to do the song, we decided to collaborate. While I’m not a Bon Jovi fan, I’m a huge fan of both surprising and embarrassing friends. The men would play their acoustic guitars and the women would sing. Note that I am not a singer. But it sounded like fun so I decided to ignore my lack of talent.

I had two parts in the song that I took very seriously. One was the echo and the other was the final verse. (This would be a good time to stop and watch the video. For those of you who remember, it’ll be a nice stroll down Big-Hair-Glitz-Rock-80’s-Bands-Bad-Rock memory lane. For those who didn’t live through that era, it’ll make you appreciate it all the more. Although before you get too judgy, remember your own musical embarrassments. Every generation has them.)

The echo was a vocal strain but required commitment. The final verse, well, with these lyrics you either have to go all out or risk looking ridiculous. “I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back. I play for keeps ’cause I might not make it back. I’ve been everywhere, still I’m standing tall. I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.” If you don’t sing it like you mean it, you’ll look like a joke. But singing with conviction just might make it appear you are in on the joke, and thus look very, very, very cool. Except to my kids because I am never cool to them.

The four of us practiced together and I sang the song on my own. A lot. I sang it on my way to work. I sang it at home. I sang it in my head and I’m pretty sure I sang it in my sleep. I was determined in spite of my limited musical ability to own my performance like I was meant to be there. Admittedly I questioned my participating, but I never wavered on my desire to do it and I never stopped having fun along the way. It helps when you are willing to look like an idiot.

The party night arrived. The ShuPots rehearsed ahead of time. (Yes, we named our band.) We arrived and settled in for a bit, wanting to allow everyone to get a drink or two in them before we did our song. The time arrived and we performed our hearts out. I could see the birthday boy’s face, which looked thrilled, mildly horrified by his secret being exposed, and touched by our gift to him. The crowd was gracious and sang along. Thankfully there were no videos taken which allows me to remember our performance as nearly perfect.

Happy 50th, AB. I know it’s still early, but I’m hoping our performance will go with you as you near that big day.

Blowing Up Mother’s Day

I had a wonderfully relaxing Mother’s Day. My oldest came home from college so both kids were there along with an attentive husband who took care of nearly all the day’s details. I relaxed. I received a beautiful gift. We ate. We laughed. We enjoyed being together. Or at least I enjoyed being with them. I didn’t ask if they enjoyed being with me because it was my day to not worry about what they wanted or needed.

While I indulged in being the center of attention, I couldn’t help but think of those I love who no longer have their moms around to hug or call. I found myself wanting to gather them together, to acknowledge their loss and give them the opportunity to say and do what they needed for this Mother’s Day. I wanted to do something fun with them to celebrate their moms. I wanted to laugh and cry and reminisce with them. But I didn’t want to invade their space or take from them what they needed in the day. Admittedly I can overdo something. It doesn’t take an elephant in the room for me to speak up. Even the anticipation of an elephant causes me to want to talk about it.

As I held myself back, I started to think about even the casual friends and acquaintances I know who no longer have a mom around. And I was surprised by how many there are. When did this happen? Why have I not thought of this before? As I processed my revelation, it wasn’t that I didn’t know. But I hadn’t thought what Mother’s Day would feel like for someone else.

What about the women who aren’t mothers but wish they were? The women who are mothers but with major regrets? The people with terrible mothers? The women and men who are mothers by way of their love and nurturing, but without the official title? The seemingly innocuous holiday began to scream out for more than a sweet card and dinner out. I found myself wanting to embrace the motherless, apologize to the abused, hold the unloved, laugh with the lonely, cry with the mourner, and celebrate with all the men and women who are surrogate moms. The mom in me wanted to do this not only for the children young and old, but for the moms who couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.

While I am all for being celebrated, Mother’s Day isn’t just about me. It is for my family and extended family. It is for my friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Mother’s Day should be a celebration of love and support. It should be a reminder that family can emerge anywhere. Moms are so much more than biology, legality, or gender. I think it is time to blow up Mother’s Day.

Of course this could all just be in my head. I might be trying to fix something that isn’t broken. The good news is I have a family who loves me in spite of my crazy ideas. If I find myself hosting an open house next Mother’s Day, I’m sure they’ll go along, if only because it is Mother’s Day.

 

The Perfect Dog: part 3

If you’ve read my previous posts about “The Perfect Dog” you’ll know that my desire for the perfect canine companion goes way back. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a dog could offer in friendship that I have always longed for and/or enjoyed. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that there is no such thing as a perfect dog in the literal sense. Each dog has its annoyances, its imperfections. But what is it, sometimes in spite of that dog, that does so much for one’s soul?

Here are a few aspects of what I love and value so much about my perfect dog, Lucy:

  1. She’s uncomplicated. I don’t need to understand her past. I don’t need to anticipate her future. She needs to be fed, played with, walked, and given affection. When she receives those things, she’s content.
  2. She’s a great listener. She never interrupts or tells me to hurry up.
  3. She’s always up for whatever I suggest, whether it’s a nap in the early afternoon, a ride in the car, or playtime at 10pm. When I ask, she always says yes.
  4. She makes me feel special. When I return home I’m always greeted with tail-wagging. It doesn’t matter if I was gone for a few minutes or several days. She’s excited when I return and she lets me know.

In this list, I see not only what I long for, but what I often fail to give to others. I’m complicated, sometimes excruciatingly so. I am not always a great listener. I rarely hear a suggestion without offering at least a slight amendment. I never wag my tail. My perfect dog has been perfect because she’s made me feel loved, needed, and special. She’s been a faithful companion in the good times and the not-so-good times. When I skimp on a walk because it’s too cold, she doesn’t hold a grudge. When I cut playtime short because I’d rather put my feet up, she doesn’t punish me. She enjoys what she’s given. She gives back without condition.

Lucy is well over 13 now. We have had so many wonderful adventures over the years. She has gone with us to the beach and the woods and the wide open fields, romping and chasing and playing all the way. She has never refused an invitation to climb under the bedcovers for a nap or full night’s sleep. She has protected us from countless squirrels and cats that have dared to step into her yard. She has run more miles than most, an eager companion to Jeremy and me over the years, although admittedly far more of those miles were Jeremy’s. She has rescued us from ocean waves she thought were dangerous and UPS workers she thought were sinister. She has given our family countless memories.

While my children have nearly grown up, Lucy has grown old. She has a heart murmur that causes her to cough deeply. She periodically has a leg collapse which often results with a faceplant to the ground. Why can’t dog years be the same as people years?  For the time we used to spend playing, I find myself petting her and thanking her for loving my family so well. She’s now got several lumps, “fat pads” the vet said, apparently common in aging labradors. The lumps used to gross me out, but now that it’s almost unavoidable to touch one, I pet those too.  She looks at me with longing eyes, almost confused by what she’s done to warrant the affection.

Because animals are easily cared for and unconditional in their love, one has a choice whether or not to do the bare minimum. I could have met Lucy’s basic needs and left it at that. But I wanted to do more for her. And I guess that’s one of my biggest lessons from this perfect dog. Just because one can get away with the bare minimum, doesn’t mean one should. I have also learned how important silence can be to another human being. I see the value in trying to put into words or actions what I feel, rather than assume my feelings are understood. It’s not that my humans lacked these traits, but a dog offers them without expectation of something in return. I don’t know any human, myself included, who doesn’t get in the way of a relationship from time to time. Dogs are different.

As I watch Lucy age, as I awaken more frequently to her coughing, as I see her struggle to sit her long legs down or get them back up, I find myself saying “not yet, don’t go.”  Letting go of what has become part of you is so hard. Because she has been part of our family for so long and is integral to who we are, it is nearly impossible to imagine “us” without “her”. And yet, life has been showing me for awhile what that will look like. We are reluctant to bring her along on our adventures, knowing she doesn’t have the stamina she used to. We are making memories without her. We are saying goodbye in little ways. But we are also a different family because of her, and so even when she’s not physically present, she’s still with us. I will give Lucy all that I can give, including letting her go when it’s time to say goodbye. It would be easy to ask more of her than I should by extending her life longer than she might want. But I won’t. I love that dog, knowing she deserves to live and die with dignity. I will be with her to the end. And until that last day comes, we will love her and play with her and pet her and tell her over and over how wonderful she is, giving her all the joy we can give just as she has done for us. Thank you, Perfect Dog, for being my perfect dog. Your human is so grateful to you and for you. Wag, wag.

 

Dear Catherine

It seems fitting that I write to you today. It was you who encouraged me to write, said that I had a way with words. You told me to write often, vulnerably and honestly. You said it would occasionally be painful, but that I would be a better person for it. With the end of 2014 approaching and a new year just ahead, it’s to you that I most want to write.

It’s been quite a year. I am writing at my kitchen table and imagining you sitting across from me. You purse your lips because you know I’m writing about you. I give you my best, “Do you think I care?” glance. You cackle and I laugh. How I wish this were really happening.

While this is a letter I would normally consider extremely private, I have learned that grief is deeply lonely. And so if my letter to you can help give voice to another person’s grief, then I think it is worth sharing.

I recall certain aspects of 2014 with clarity, intermixed with huge gaps of time that feel lost. I suppose the fog is normal. January and February were so busy for me with classes and physical therapy and traveling.  I remember the last time I saw you. It was the end of February and we had breakfast together. Afterwards we went to your house so that you could show me all you had done for your Etsy shop. Once again you floored me with your creativity and hard work. When it was time to go, I remember standing in your living room and saying, “I won’t hug you because I don’t want to get cat hair on you and make you sneeze.” I wish I had hugged you. I’m so sorry that I didn’t.

The day we lost you happened to be Ash Wednesday. How painfully appropriate to lose you on a day that begins a season of mourning. I find myself intentionally recalling that day in detail. It hurts to do so, but it’s become my lament for you. I speak aloud the day’s events to proclaim the day’s injustices and the loss felt by so many. Each tear is my crying out to God, both in sorrow and anger. Time has made the burden of losing you bearable, but time has not made your death acceptable.

Grief is such an intimate experience and can be navigated in very different ways. There have been moments of agony unlike anything else I’d ever gone through. And in its midst, irreverent moments broke through. I found myself laughing at you and your silly ways, perhaps because I was so tired of crying for you. I knew you’d understand. I knew you’d do the same. I realized that the one friend I needed most in dealing with my loss was you.

I hate having to choose between talking about you in present versus past tense. Past tense suggests that you are no longer you, or that you no longer matter. Present tense denies the loss of you and all the pain felt. Neither is fitting. It’s just one more thing that sucks about losing you.

I graduated in May with a degree that you regularly reminded me made no sense to you. “What are you going to do when you finish?” That never bothered me because most of the time I didn’t know either. Now as I move ahead with my work, I often wonder what you would say about all of it. Would you grow increasingly annoyed with me as I became busier with theology and church? Would you finally start to understand what I am trying to do? I remember the day you gave me Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things and said to me, “I think what she does in this book is what you could do for people regarding faith and God.” Now that I think about it, maybe you got it all along and were just waiting for me to catch up.

I have so many things I could share regarding our children. But those are their stories to tell. Let me just say that you’d be so proud of them all. Walking alongside them in their grief has helped me, sometimes even forced me to deal with mine. I’ve learned from watching them and listening to them. Where I have at times inundated myself with thoughts of what I should be feeling or doing, they have been much more patient with themselves, willing to accept who or where they are without judgment.  My logic has often made grieving harder by adding expectations or time limits to the process. The kids seem to more readily able to acknowledge what is real, set aside what they cannot deal with, and come back once they are ready, particularly when someone is there to “come back” with them.

I think the hardest part about looking into the New Year is facing a full year without you. It feels like another goodbye in this process, and goodbyes aren’t getting easier. Our friend framed your words from last New Year’s Eve for me, and they continue to resonate deeply:

Create a wish list – not a must do list. There are 365 days in which to try and make something on the wish list happen… Don’t rush it. Approach new things with the outlook of nothing ventured, nothing gained. What you gain may not be what you expected. Look forward to the surprise but know that some of the best gains are not tangible and cannot be measured. Be kind. Be generous. Be yourself.

I’m sorry you only got 64 days last year. It’s just not fair. Thank you for what you taught me. Thank you for believing in me. I will approach 2015 with courage and anticipation because that is what you would want. You lived your life quietly yet your absence continues to leave a deafening noise.

To you my friend, I love you.

Jennifer

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The Perfect Dog: part 2

184001_10150094379129299_4124971_nAbout a year after we got our beloved Lucy, we traveled from Pennsylvania to Michigan. Jeremy had work where his extended family lived, so we packed up the car, Lucy included, and traveled 650 miles for our week away from home. Although his parents were in Arizona for the winter, we stayed at their house which was on a lake. While Jeremy worked, the kids and I enjoyed the beautiful setting. We walked and explored and relaxed. Ice was still on the surface of much of the lake, but we knew that it was thinning.  I repeatedly warned my eight year old son, Isaac, that he could not walk on the frozen lake because it might not be able to hold his weight.

A few days into our vacation, with Jeremy not vacationing but rather away and working, the kids and I ventured outside with Lucy. Isaac was looking for anything to pick up, throw, or pull apart.  Liv, who was not quite two, was by my side and barely able to walk with all the clothing I had on her to keep her warm.  While in the midst of our exploration, I heard a sound that didn’t register. I looked around and on the lake about 20 feet from shore was Lucy. The sound that I had heard was her paws navigating the ice as she slipped and jumped and played. As I opened my mouth to angrily call her back to shore, the ice broke and she went completely under water.  Her head came up and she placed her front paws on the ice’s edge.  She attempted to pull herself up, but couldn’t get her front legs high enough to pull her back legs out and onto the ice. The kids were silent. My mind raced.

Lucy attempted a second time, a third time, and a fourth time but failed.  With each attempt I could see ice breaking and her getting weaker. By this point I was using my most upbeat, I’m-not-freaking-out voice to call her. “Come on, girl! You can do it! Come on, Lucy! You got this! Come on now!” While yelling, I was also thinking, “My dog can NOT die with the kids here to watch.” Seriously. I clearly remember thinking that her drowning in that lake on that day was something I could not allow. I think this refusal to stand by and watch was my mind’s way of pushing me forward into action. I made a decision in that moment that I would do everything I could to get that dog out of the water alive. I was cognizant enough to know that I couldn’t put my life in danger, but there had to be more I could do.

And so I formulated my back up plan while I continued to call for her. I figured the water was maybe 5 to 6 feet deep where she was. I would send Isaac with Liv to the neighbor’s house to get help. Meanwhile I would run to the garage and grab some rope, tie one end to the fishing boat on the shore nearby with the other end tied around my waist. This would enable me to walk to her with some connection to shore. I had unsettling images in my head of her slipping under and beyond the ice’s opening and my trying to get her. I kept planning and calling for her and planning and calling for her while keeping an eye on my kids. Isaac was now calling her too while Liv silently watched by his side.

Lucy continued to try to get herself out of the water, but she was pausing longer in between tries. She wasn’t pulling herself up as high. I thought, “This is it. Either she gets it this time or she’s giving up.” I called her with every ounce of my being knowing that my next move would be a sprint to the garage while yelling instructions to Isaac to take Liv next door. And finally, miraculously, Lucy did it. She got her front paws far enough onto the ice that she was able to just barely get one back paw up as well. She scooted herself forward and eventually got the other back leg up. She crawled to the shore’s edge and collapsed once she reached us. We wrapped her in towels and I carried her to warmth. The kids were thrilled. I sat down and wept. All the emotion, the intensity, the fear, the near loss, the what if’s overwhelmed me and I shook uncontrollably as I cried.  My kids stared, unsure of why I was crying since Lucy was now safe.  I could see their alarm as I kept crying, but I couldn’t stop. I cried until I had nothing left.

When Jeremy returned later that day, we told him what happened. He scolded me for even considering going onto the lake to get her. But as I think back, I am quite sure that while I would not have done something stupid, I would have tried whatever was reasonably possible to get her safely back to shore. In this near tragedy, I learned that I am able to stay calm and be proactive in a crisis, and a complete wreck afterwards. I learned that miracles do happen. I learned that love can be painful, because even the thought of loss hurts like hell. I learned that my kids come first, but my pets are a close second. I learned that dogs need to be told to stay off the ice just as much as eight year olds do. And I learned that a good, hard, shoulder-shaking cry is cathartic. I was crazy mad at Lucy that day, but even still I’d have to say she’s the perfect dog.

The Perfect Dog: part 1

While growing up, I wanted a dog that would play and run and follow me around. I wanted a dog like I had seen in so many movies that would nuzzle next to me when I was sad, and rescue me if I ever fell down a well. What I had instead was a lump-on-a-log dog, a lhasa apso named Fluffy. She slept, sniffed,  and constantly wandered out of the yard. She didn’t really play or cuddle, and she hardly lifted her head when I entered the room. Even when I was sick and pleaded with the most pathetic eyes I could muster for a companion to help me through my long day, Fluffy was ambivalent. She was a huge disappointment. Unfortunately Fluffy lived a long and happy life, and so my childhood dream of having the perfect dog was never realized.

Jeremy and I weren’t married long before we fostered a golden retriever named Sierra. We weren’t in a position to have a dog, particularly a big dog, but my heart couldn’t resist and neither could Jeremy’s. This was my opportunity to finally Sierrahave a real dog. Fostering turned into adoption and we loved that dog dearly. She was calm, trusting, loyal, playful, and attentive. All it took was a lingering look and she would get up from where she was and plop down right next to me. That dog stole my heart.

We didn’t have her quite a year before we had to find her a new home. We were moving cross-country and into an apartment. I knew we could not give her what she really needed – outdoor space and lots of it. Letting her go was tough because I wanted to see her grow old. I wanted her to be there when we someday had children. She was a perfect dog, but she wasn’t meant to be my perfect dog. And so my in-laws helped us find her a new home. She went to live with a couple who owned a farm. Sierra would spend many years to come roaming acres of land all day, being companion to the farmer and playmate to his grandchildren who lived nearby. We would hear regular updates on our beloved Sierra, and how the grandkids would take her home with them because they couldn’t bear to part with her at the end of the day. Sierra lived a long, full, and wonderful life.

After we settled into our new home, we went to the local animal shelter to pick our next companion. Sierra had affirmed for me what I knew I wanted, and it was time to get our perfect dog, for keeps this time. We would look for a smaller dog. Thanks to Fluffy, I knew to avoid the toy breeds but I was sure we could find a small dog with a big personality. We walked into a large room which housed many cats. There was a desk in the room with the shelter’s volunteer sitting there. We told her we were looking for a dog. In the corner, caged, were two adorable dachshund brothers.  “Last of a litter” we were told, and about 10 months old. I hunched over the crate and opened the door.  One brother came out immediately and confidently greeted me.  The other stayed back, timid and shy.  I looked up at Jeremy : “We can’t just take one, especially the outgoing one.  It would devastate this other guy.”

G&SSo off we went with our two new dogs, newly named Gilbert and Sullivan, forgetting to ask why they were caged in the cat room rather than being outside with all the other dogs.  We would rue that oversight. We quickly learned that our dogs hated all other dogs. In fact there was a long list of things they hated. They hated doorbells and door knocking. They hated visitors. They hated sharing, even with each other. But what they lacked in love, they made up for in personality. Sullivan was sneaky and naughty. He would pull out all the trash but be far away from the scene of the crime when we got home, leaving his brother in the rubbish while sitting innocently on the couch with his head slightly tilted to one side as if to say, “I don’t understand why Gilbert would do that.” Gilbert was loyal but dumb. Sullivan would lure Gilbert off my lap by romping around, an invitation to play, only to jump onto my lap as soon as Gilbert jumped down. And Gilbert would fall for it every time. We were never bored with those two. We had them for over 10 years. I loved them, but I promised myself we would never own another dachshund. They were not the perfect dog, by any stretch of the imagination.

When it was time to get another dog, we had finally learned an important lesson: I cannot make a logical decision regarding animals.  The greater the need, the more I feel compelled to respond.  If I went to the shelter, I would probably come home with the three legged, blind dog.  We now had two children, ages 7 and 1.  I wanted that childhood dream dog for my kids and for me. Jeremy wanted a dog who would run with him. But I knew I didn’t have the strength to pick that dog, because everyone wants that dog. So Jeremy went to the local shelter, alone. After a half dozen visits or so, he found our Lucy, a black lab mix. She was four months old and big-screen-adorable.  She romped and played and cuddled with all of us. She tackled our 7 year old and his friends, and was attentive and gentle with our 1 year old.  Lucy was everything I ever wanted in a dog.  And she would stay ours. What I longeFamilyd for in my childhood, I was able to give to my kids for theirs: an affectionate, playful, loyal, loving, will-drag-you-out-of-a-burning-building-if-needed dog. It was a gift they might never fully appreciate, but one that has made all of our lives better. We all need a Lucy, in some shape or form.