On this Mother’s Day Eve…

A pattern is emerging in my journey of these last several years. I am increasingly becoming uneasy, dissatisfied, and even resistant to limited thinking and exclusionary expression. I first noticed it in my journey of faith, and write about it often. Nearly all of my posts under the “faith” category name this directly or indirectly. Religion has created a small god which continually seems to underserve the big God I encounter in my life and reading and interaction with others. While I am grateful to have started with a smaller god in order to understand, dig deep, and find my footing, I am now realizing limitations of what I know or think I know. My understanding is but one grain of sand on a beach that runs eternal. And while on some days that is frustrating, more often I am grateful that my job isn’t to know and explore that beach in its entirety but rather to be the best little grain of sand I can be as I mingle, explore, learn and interact with other grains of sand.

Two years ago, Mother’s Day was expanded in my thinking as well. You can read that marvelous post here. On this eve of Mother’s Day, I am reminded of my need to experience tomorrow in a way that is meaningful for me without doing so at the exclusion of others and their experiences. In fact, I want to not just avoid exclusion but to find ways to include more than what I bring to this Mother’s Day.

Tomorrow my grown up child will be home for a day, for which I am so grateful. I love him in ways that I cannot put into words. He is my first born, my first experience of someone part of me yet separate from me. I am immensely proud of the man he is.

My nearly-grown-up child will be with me part of the day. She is my daughter while growing into one of my dearest friends. She is my joy and my delight and probably the only person I could travel with around the world and not drive crazy.

I will have part of the day with my husband who helped make these children possible. He is my partner and my friend. He makes me laugh when I am in desperate need of it.

And I will have time with my faith community who lifts me up, loves me, supports me and believes in me – things we all need from our “moms”.

I will not have time in person with my mom. I am sorry I cannot say to her face-to-face how much I love her and how much I have learned from her and how grateful I am for her. But here is a picture of her and me from a little over a year ago:

Thank you, Mom, for, well, everything.

I won’t be able to see many women who have influenced and loved me, due to distance or time or no longer being on this planet in bodily form. And there have been many men too who have been like mothers to me in their care and nurture and life-giving ways of loving me. To all of you, thank you.

And for the ways in which I cannot fully understand or will not experience tomorrow on Mother’s Day, I seek to make space for you here. I wish to find ways to honor you so that you know you are not alone. I hope others join me too in this.

To you moms who have lost a child, I have seen your pain in a hospital room, a mother unable to put into words what she is feeling as she looks upon the body of the child she has just lost. Whether you are 25 or 95, that pain is palpable and deep. May you find comfort in this day, some how… some way. May you know that your mothering continues in so many ways.

To you who are hurting, who are angry, who feel lost, who have been let down, who have had to say goodbye, who live with regret… may you be found by others in your pain, your anger, or whatever it is that you are feeling. May you know that you are loved and you are lovable.

May we all join together in our need for a mom and in the ways we have been, are, and will be “mom” whether to our children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, pets, relatives, neighbors, friends, or even strangers. Happy Mother’s Day.

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.

Another Tough Goodbye

Jen.Kids.KittyThis is Pumpkin, along with 6 year old Isaac and newborn Liv. I am the giant in the middle. We often called Pumpkin “Kitty” because when you said KittyKittyKittyKittyKitty in a relatively high voice, she would nearly always come. Jeremy surprised Isaac and me with Kitty back in 1998 while living in Merrillville, IN. Isaac was almost 4 and Kitty was 7 months. Upon meeting her for the first time, Isaac responded, “I wike that wittle kitty cat.” Thankfully we have the moment on video.

At the time we lived in an apartment with a long hallway, the family room and kitchen on one end and the master bedroom on the other. Twice a day, for about half an hour each time, she would play by running back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Often she would run to one end with me at the other and not return. Sometimes this meant playtime had ended. But every so often, just when I assumed she had settled down, Kitty would burst back into the room and then just as quickly run away. The routine burned kitty energy and greatly entertained me.

We were in Indiana less than a year when we moved to the Chicago area. Liv was born about a year or so after our move. Kitty accepted her immediately, I assume since she was still able to keep her place on our bed. As you can see in the above photo, she liked to curl up on my side of the bed between me and the bed’s edge. (Thankfully I didn’t have twins. Otherwise resentment might have occurred.) Kitty not only accepted Liv but seemed to carry a sense of responsibility for her. We would often find her curled up in Liv’s crib on the opposite end of where Liv slept. I don’t think Kitty wanted to be in reach but seemed to want to keep an eye on her. She would leave as soon as one of us would arrive, as if to say “Your turn.” Kitty also tolerated behavior from Liv that she has never tolerated from anyone else. Normally if someone got too close, particularly young children, Kitty would run and hide. But on multiple occasions, Kitty let Liv carry her around, upside down no less. As Toddler Liv walked by with Kitty in her arms, Kitty would look at me but never struggle to get free.

For 17 years Kitty has slept by my side. 17 years. 17 fucking years. While the family certainly loved her, I think I gave her a sense of belonging. I interacted with her frequently throughout each day, and when it was time to go to bed she would be by my side. She would either be sleeping in her spot waiting for me or she would arrive shortly after I got in bed. If she didn’t show up within minutes, I would go looking for her, often finding her locked on the porch or garage. When away from home, I would struggle to sleep without her next to me. It was just part of settling in, a routine of having her there next to me.

Up until two months ago, people could not believe her age. She seemed significantly younger in appearance and activity. But her age finally caught up with her. In the final few weeks, I watched as she lost weight and energy. She became increasingly unable to get comfortable. She would hide for hours at a time. Eventually she gave up eating. Her back legs began to give out. I would find her laying by the water bowl, either without energy to leave or an unwillingness to have to make the inevitable trip back. And yet she continued to sleep by my side… until her last night with us. She no longer belonged. She couldn’t belong anymore. I needed to let her go. It was time.

I sat in the vet’s office saying my goodbye. As her sedative was kicking in, my memories flooded back. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Kitty. I was saying goodbye to a lifetime. Isaac doesn’t remember life before Kitty and for Liv, there was no life before Kitty. I tried to be strong for Kitty so that she would drift off into deep sleep hearing my comforting voice. But I couldn’t do it. What she heard instead was my shaky, raspy voice. What she felt were my tears streaming off of my face and onto her fur. She didn’t get a pillar of strength to lean upon. Instead she got someone feeling a little lost herself. I couldn’t be strong, but I could be there. I was where I belonged, by her side. Just as she had been for me, so many times and in so many ways.

We have lost three pets in three months. While all three were older and we could say had lived full, long lives, there never is a good time to say goodbye. As I look now over at my very old black labrador sleeping on her pillow nearby, I am comforted by this. I might still whisper, “Don’t go, not yet.” But as with Kitty, I would never want her to linger and suffer for my sake. Goodbyes are hard. Watching suffering is harder. Godspeed, Pumpkin Kitty. My life is richer because of you.

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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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