A Little Grace In The Middle Of Some Mayhem

I’ve spent the last eight weeks in a heavy-duty sling after surgery to repair an old injury and getting freed from it a few days ago feels like I passed “Go” and received my “get out of jail free card.” The surgery was a little more intense than I had imagined it would be and my two months in the penalty box started out a bit rough. To begin with, I did a really poor job of setting my expectations around how long it would take me to get back to functioning somewhat normally and when I failed miserably at that (for the record, I gave myself five days), my first two weeks found me fighting through some storm clouds. More than anything, the evil pain meds they give you after surgery put me in a foggy mental state and left me in no shape to bring my best to work even though at the time I believed I could. It took me a little while to figure out how off I was (it didn’t help that I was one-armed and using dictation software).

After about a week I started weaning myself off the meds and by the week after that the cloud had lifted. I settled into a routine that didn’t vary much until a few days ago. I sat at my desk in my home office and did as much work as I could handle. Despite what I had hoped for, voice-to-text for more than short messages (while pretty incredible when you think about it) still has a lot of ground to cover to become ubiquitous and no matter how many hours I sat talking to my computer, it felt like I was falling further and further behind. I knew that sleep would also be difficult as I’ve had shoulder surgery before and had experienced how much sleeplessness accompanies it. Knowing it and dealing with it are two different states of mind though, and no matter what, having 2-3 hours being the longest stretch of sleep I could put together for a couple of months took its toll.

Two bright spots during this stretch made the ordeal a little easier to handle. First, being around Pam and the kids for two straight months without being allowed to get on a plane was a real treat. Family card games made a big comeback at the kitchen table (euchre and hearts and they didn’t make me shuffle once) and the kids indulged (and even began enjoying) some of dad’s Spotify playlists (with a strong dose of the 60’s and 70’s). The other source of inspiration for me was our dogs Ruby and Maggie. Ruby’s our 10 month-old puppy (yellow, golden & poodle mix) and Maggie’s our 14 1/2 year-old yellow lab. Being home all the time, I found out just what a busy life my wife leads as some days it was the three of us, but Ruby enjoys bopping around town in Pam’s passenger seat so most days it was just Maggie and I. Anyone that knows me well knows that I enjoy a very special relationship with her. For years she was my companion as we explored the hundreds of miles of trails out our back door together and it’s been a little tough for me seeing her slow down so much over the last year. The best Maggie can muster these days is a walk around our neighborhood for about 15-20 minutes.

I’ve begun to cherish our strolls together more than ever these last few months. Whenever I needed a break, I’d find her (napping at my feet mostly) and she’d build up a head of steam going down the ramp we’d built for her and off we’d go. She can’t hear anymore and only two legs work well, but she lights up and her tail wags like she’s a pup when we get outside. I’ve been walking Maggie around the neighborhood since she had to give up the trails last year, but since my surgery, I’ve noticed myself being more patient than ever with her as I just wasn’t in any particular rush anymore. What a sight we’ve been. The guy in the sling trying to pick up poop with one hand and his nonagenarian dog (I looked it up here – 14 1/2 year-old 70lb dog = 90 human years). My daily strolls with Mags have provided me with a lot of quiet time and for some reason lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of grace. It began as the word kept reverberating around my brain as I watched Maggie during our walks. Her back right leg gives out pretty regularly now and she falls once in a while, but she always lifts herself up and manages to keep going, tail wagging. I’ve been saying to myself that I hope I can accept aging with as much courage and grace as she is.

For some reason though, I can’t seem to get the word out of my head lately. Perhaps it’s the mounting evidence when we watch this election cycle how our country’s losing its grip of the concept these days. Grace once again made an appearance in my head on our walk tonight so when I came inside, I decided to look it up. Turns out there are a handful of definitions, but in Western Christian theology, grace is defined as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” Despite not considering myself religious, this is nevertheless my favorite definition. I think it’s because I understand that’s exactly what Maggie has been giving me all these years; she’s given me love not because I’ve earned it, but because she wants me to have it.

Spring has sprung and our walks are getting a little longer. It’s seems there’s more dogs to greet and lots of new things to smell. With my arm free now I know I’m going to get busier and I’ll have to remind myself to make sure we have time for our long walks.  I don’t know how much longer we have together (we thought we lost her two years ago), but I’m cherishing each of our neighborhood excursions. Maggie’s name is borrowed from the song Sugar Magnolia by the Grateful Dead and she’s reminding me these days (as Jerry used to sing) that “once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look for it right.”

File Mar 20, 10 54 18 PM

Maggie on one of our neighborhood strolls a few months ago

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maggie

I just drove back to Boise after a terrific family vacation in the mountains. If you’ve never driven along Highway 55 in Idaho, it’s one of the most scenic stretches of asphalt you can imagine. I’ve driven it countless times over the years but this was the first time I had a chance to experience it in my “new” 1986 Jeep with the top off. The beauty and magnitude of the mountains and rivers was the perfect setting for reflection on some blissful time on a lake with family and close friends.

The most profound moment of our time away for me however came in the form of our dog Maggie. Two days ago, Pam and I awoke to the sound of Maggie crying (both Maggie and her sister Rosie slept on the floor of our bedroom in the cabin) and I jumped up assuming she was letting us know that nature was calling. I knew right away though that something wasn’t right. She was struggling to get up and I saw that she wasn’t able to use her hind legs. Her eyes grew wide and I got down to hold her. Within a few seconds I could tell she was in real distress and I yelled to Pam to get a vet right away.

I held Maggie while Pam found an amazing gentleman to rush to our cabin at 7am on a Saturday in a sleepy mountain town. The fifteen or twenty minutes it took him to get there (we feel remarkably lucky) felt like hours to me. They certainly felt like the last moments I was going to be spending with her and I wasn’t prepared for that. I’ve grown really close with her and I always imagined I’d have the opportunity to say goodbye to her like Owen Wilson did in Marley and Me – a sloppy affair with me sharing some well-thought out vignettes of our time together. This was sudden and real and all I wanted to do was end her suffering.

Maggie’s seizure was still happening when the vet showed up. After examining her, he told us that she’d had a stroke and was coming out of it, though there was no predicting yet how it would affect her but it was clear to him that she was going to survive. He shared stories with us that had both tragic and heart-warming endings. As she started to relax, he gave us instructions on how to care for her for the next day or two and to call him if things turned for the worse.

After about 90 minutes she calmed down enough to lay on the bed and take a nap with me. We both woke about 30 minutes later and she was looking better. I lifted her down to the floor and while as wobbly as a drunken sailor, she made her way down the hall and onto the porch where she staggered around for 15 minutes or so, falling down and dragging herself back up. Each time she got up, she did so with a little more confidence and she eventually got to the point where she could stand for a couple of minutes. We gave her some food and she happily ate it – a good sign for any Lab. We decided to take her down the steps to the lake shore and her tail started wagging – more good signs – and we watched her spend an hour walking in and out of the water’s edge – staggering, falling and standing over and over again on the warm soft beach.

Miraculously, by afternoon Maggie was about 90% of normal. We threw her tennis ball a few feet into the lake and she eagerly fought off Rosie to win the short swimming races – we were stunned. The next morning, Maggie was back to herself. She bounded up when I awoke, ate a hearty breakfast and resumed swimming activities with her usual vigor. 24 hours after thinking we were losing her, she was back to normal.

I spent a good deal of time in the jeep today thinking about her and the profound effect she’s had on me. Maggie’s the first animal that I’ve had a deep relationship with. I’ve had pets in and out of my life but I never connected with an animal the way I have with her. While a little late in life to finally experience that, I feel grateful for the twelve years I’ve had with her and fully recognize how lucky I am for each of our remaining days together. I told her this morning that she’s on bonus day number three now and the sparkle in her eye and the wag of her tail told me she gets it. We went down to play in the water one more time and I got in the jeep and left for home with a new appreciation for the special bond that we share.

RIP “Miss” Betty

In 1996, Pam and I moved into our first apartment together in Boston’s South End. 529 Columbus Avenue was our first real home together. We were recently engaged and loved our three story walkup. It had a back porch with an amazing panoramic view of the Back Bay and our bedroom window looked down on Jae’s Cafe, which doubled as our kitchen table.

Pam had a cat named Sadie that she brought to our relationship but that didn’t stop her from thinking we should get another. Not exactly a cat person at the time, you can imagine my surprise when she brought home two new kittens from the pound, a mangy brother & sister who were found on the streets and were both pretty sick to boot.

We named them Jerry & Betty. The brother was easy. A tiger-looking tabby (who’s still with us), he had the marking of a giant peace sign on his side when he was a kitten (since faded). I’m pretty sure Pam caved and let me name him Jerry in honor of Jerry Garcia and his unique “tattoo.” Pam named the sister Betty in honor of her best friend Lynn. (makes perfect sense, right?). Lynn’s middle name is Betty and they’ve called each other by their middle names since they were kids.

I remember we put them in the tiny room next to our bedroom to nurse them back to health. It was then that we discovered what would become Betty’s lifelong favorite game. Being extremely skittish, she wasn’t a lap kitty until her last couple of years. But as long as she had some sort of barrier between you and her, she loved to play with our fingers. She would stick her whole skinny arm under the crack at the bottom of the door and chase our fingers. She had furry little paws and our whole family delighted in playing this with her. Through our next three homes, Betty always found a place where she could play the “finger game” where she felt secure with a barrier but could still play her favorite game.

Betty in her favorite spot to play the "finger game"

Betty was a real lady, that’s how she earned the nickname “Miss Betty.” No rough stuff for her. Skittish for years, as she got older she’d surprise us by curling up next to us if we were really still. In her last couple of years, she would finally let us pick her up and stroke her in our lap. Her favorite spot was always under our bed where should could avoid the chaos of our two young kids, two dogs and two other cats. Betty’s weakness was Salmon which has always been big in our house. She’d smell it cooking and come running. No sooner than we’d sit down for dinner and Betty would have her front paws on your leg looking for the little Salmon treats that we all enjoyed giving her.

Last week Betty grew weak. She stopped eating and had a hard time standing up. After some tests we learned her kidneys were failing. It was the right decision for us to put Betty to sleep yesterday. We could have kept her alive with needles every day but if there was one thing Betty hated it was being pushed and prodded. We knew that this would be what she wanted. She’s now curled up in a blanket in a beautiful box hand-painted by Mimi (my talented mother-in-law). We had an “open casket” yesterday where we caressed her, shared our memories and cried our eyes out. Later today, we’ll have a ceremony on the side of our house where Sadie is buried and lay her to rest.

It dawned on me yesterday that Betty represents the first commitment that Pam and I ever made with each other. She and Jerry were the first animals that I ever really had feelings for (bawling as I write this) and her life has marked my time with Pam. It’s going to be strange not having her around. Rest in peace Miss Betty. You were loved and we’ll miss you…