Friday, January 28, 2011

Dog gone love

In remembrance of Alex who we sent to the bridge one year ago today, I share the column I wrote that was published in the Boston Globe Magazine on 4/11/2010.

We made the decision to put our beloved springer spaniel Alex to sleep on a Wednesday. It was a decision we knew we had to make at some point, and that Wednesday morning it became clear it was time. My husband, Ron, and I process grief differently. He reacts immediately with tears and retreats to a quiet space in his inner self. I, on the other hand, go into what-needs-to-be-done mode.

Alex was our first foster dog when I volunteered for a local springer rescue group, and we failed Fostering 101 horribly, or, rather, fortunately: We kept him. Alex bonded with our younger rescued springer spaniel as if they had been friends in another life. They were good for each other. Alex was the calming, reassuring peer that Brittany needed. She was the anxious one, always afraid she would be ditched again. But Brit had much to give Alex as well. Alex came from a home where he was the only dog of an elderly owner with no time to exercise him. Brit loves to play, and after just one day together, I found them bouncing around the living room in a joyous dance with a stuffed animal in their mouths.

They saw each other through some tough times in their eight years together - a lifetime for some dogs. Other foster dogs came and went; various health issues arose for both of them. Each time, the healthier one would comfort the other with snuggles and kisses. Ron and I always exchanged knowing smiles during these times. Alex and Brit were soul mates.

So when Alex's health started the long, slow decline, our thoughts often turned to how Brit would handle the loss. We had taken in an older cocker spaniel in the past two years when her owner, our friend, had passed away. But as sweet as she is, Shawna didn't bond with Alex and Brit the way they had with each other.

On that Wednesday, Ron and I asked our vet when she could come to the house to put Alex, then 15 years old, to sleep. She could either come that day or Friday. Since he was not in pain or in crisis, and we needed time to say goodbye, we decided on Friday.

The next two days were both horrible and wonderful. Ron and I took turns being "the strong one," and I tried to focus on making Alex's last days happy. Ron's grief was almost overwhelming at times as he struggled to cope with the reality that he would lose his friend. They had a special relationship that I had only begun to understand in those last two days. I started to see similarities in their character that I hadn't noticed before.

Ron and I met at a time in our lives when we were both convinced that we would be alone forever. He was the quiet, loyal, bighearted oldest son who was both dependable and sensitive. I was an outgoing middle child who always worried about pleasing others and thought she had to be perfect to be loved. We were both easily hurt because we expected so much of ourselves and, by extension, others. So relationships never seemed to work. Until we met each other on a blind date. We had both sworn off these fix-ups because they always ended in disaster. But for some reason we allowed ourselves to be talked into it by a mutual friend.

Ron was different from the others. He was kind and sweet. A calming presence in my life who embraced me and all the anxiety that came with me. Eventually, a funny thing happened - my anxiety disappeared. I was accepted and safe now. And Ron? Well, Ron let his guard down and even started fast-dancing. One day he asked me to show him some moves so we could dance together.

Years later, when I asked him if we could adopt a rescued dog, he said yes. And when I asked him a year after that if we could take in a foster dog, he said yes. Having dogs was an emotional release for Ron that I hadn't seen until that Friday.

That Friday. The day that Brittany said goodbye to the transforming partner in her life. The partner who helped her feel safe and accepted. The partner who calmed her when she was anxious and danced with her when she was filled with joy.

That Friday . . . when I saw for the first time that Alex was meant to be Brittany's partner, like Ron was meant to be mine. Rescued - all four of us.

Landscape-changing terms

State-sponsored gambling has existed for a long time in Massachusetts and other states. It's called "The Lottery". However, extended use of gambling has been a real political football for years in this state. With taxes going higher and few revenue alternatives available, the topic of gambling is continually raised as a new revenue option.

The governor is opposed to gambling mostly because of ethical reasons. He is concerned, as are many others in the state, that if casinos were to be built in the state, the money would be coming from those who can least afford to lose it.

The pro-casino crowd--including leaders in the legislature--argue that people who gamble are already going out of state, so we would simply be keeping the revenue local. And that the state cannot stop gamblers from gambling anyway so why not capitalize on it.

In recent political discussions, I've noticed that the word "gambling" is slowly being replaced by "gaming" by the pro-casino crowd. I assume this is an attempt to change the anti-gambling crowd's negative reaction to what many consider an addiction. I react to this change in terms more in a George Carlin/English major sort of way.

A percentage of the population hates politically-correct phrasing--as witnessed in some viral emails on the subject that are often forwarded to me by conservative friends. Since the right always seems to be the side most upset by attempts to soften language, I find this subtle switch from "gambling" to "gaming" interesting. Why haven't I heard the left complain about the softening of a practice or term they are opposed to?

20 years ago, I started hearing the term "pro-choice" turned against the left as "pro-death." Only occasionally did I hear the term "pro-life" rephrased as "anti-choice" and used against the right.

The left is quick to change terms like "handicapped" to "challenged", and "Indian" to "Native American", yet it seems rare that they object or even recognize the opposite.

The metamorphosis of language is one of the reasons I pursued an English degree. One word can change so much in our collective reasoning and communication. The political spin doctors already know this and it's why some are so successful.

But I'm also interested in watching which groups use language as weapons and which groups use it to create civility. And, ultimately, I'm interested in who eventually wields enough influence to change it permanently.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hangin' on for the ride

It's been a little while since I've written about my mom. We actually had great news two weeks ago that the second type of chemo agent is working. Her latest CAT scan showed that the tumors are shrinking and the tumor markers in her blood are coming down dramatically.

I was there with my folks when the oncology folks delivered the results. We all but jumped for joy, even the oncologist and the nurse practitioner. I had recently made reservations to celebrate mom's 80th birthday with just her immediate family (as she requested) on Feb. 5th at her favorite restaurant. So now, it will be quite the celebration.

The fact that she even made it to the holidays was a huge gift. Not many people with Stage IV pancreatic cancer live very long after they're diagnosed. She received her diagnosis in August and we were prepared to have just a couple of months left with her.

She says she doesn't "have an ache or a pain", as she puts it. And, when asked how she feels, she says everything is "hunky dory." My mom has always been an amazingly positive woman.

I remember a particularly miserable and long winter years ago when we had record snow in MA. She called me one day in March when I was in a funk and said, "Haven't you noticed that the sun is out longer?" I replied, "Well, ma, I would if I could see over the snow banks!" It was then that I told her she was a "terminal optimist." The glass is half full? No. To her, the glass is overflowing.

There are many times in my life where seeing a half-full glass is hard. By nature, I guess, I'm a realist. But, at the same time, I am also an optimist. I do think it's possible to be both.

I think mom is a realist too. And, even though the words aren't spoken, we both know that this is a reprieve, not a cure. Can people go into spontaneous remission? Sure. Does it happen often? No.

The chemo is doing its job on the cancer, but that doesn't mean she is home free. The chemo creates other conditions that the doctors are, at the moment, treating with supplements but those conditions can become serious. So, we monitor.

Because I'm an optimistic realist, I approach all of this with a sense of hope tinged with caution. Mom's attitude remains upbeat. I can't imagine a time when her outlook will change and I truly think that attitude makes a difference in your physical health.

So, for now, we all hang on to the rollercoaster called "cancer".

When I talked to my dad privately after the CAT scan results were delivered, he said, "But it just means more time." I told him that time is all any of us can ever hope for.

Today is a good day. And today is all we have. Frankly, I wouldn't want it any other way.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A time for dogs

The Pack, Christmas 2009
Ron and I have gone from three dogs to one in less than a year. It's been a huge adjustment each time we've lost a dog. We only started with one (Brittany) 10 1/2 years ago. Alex and Shawna came to us as fosters and became part of the pack.

They all became elderly at the same time and caring for them has been a lot of work, both physically, emotionally, and financially.

Ron and I aren't saints. We've loved our dogs to distraction but lose our patience sometimes. When we get frustrated or just plain exhausted, I always say calmly and quietly, "They'll be gone soon."

That always brings us back to the reality that their lives are short ones. And so are ours.

Pre-Brittany, I had an immaculate home. Floors were shiny, carpets were like-new, kitchen was spotless. I took great pride in my home and still do. But since the dogs came along and my ability to work full time disappeared, the house is, well, lived-in.

During those moments of frustration with the dogs, I've sat and thought about how much easier my life will be when they're gone. I'll get my floors refinished, I'll get all of my rugs cleaned, and I'll stop tripping over stuffed animals, dog beds, and dogs.

My credit cards will be paid every month, we can start saving money again to do projects around the house (and for retirement), and I won't have to go out in freezing cold or driving rain to do a potty run with a dog.

No more being awakened at 4 am because a dog has to go out or is sick. No more looking at my watch when I'm having fun with friends because I have to get home to take a dog out to pee. It will be freeing to have my life back as well as the finances and energy to accomplish the things that matter to me.

I go down that road pretty quickly when I'm tired. When I get to the cul-de-sac I start thinking about what I'll miss.

No more tail-wagging and happy talk when I get home. No more company as I work at the computer. No more cold, wet noses on my bare legs. An almost unbearable silence when I'm home alone save for the cellphone buzzing and the email notification dinging.

I'll miss the people that my dogs have introduced me to -- the vets and all of the amazing caregivers at the animal hospital, the kindest dog groomer on the planet, the cheery woman who runs the independent pet supply store nearby. And the countless strangers who stop to say, "What a beautiful dog!" while we're out walking.

Still, I have to remember how many friends I've made because of my dogs, either through Rescue work or simply a shared bonding over the love of a pet. That won't end. And that's where I'll find all of my dogs -- in those relationships.

I always quote Ecclesiastes in my blog since that's really what my life philosophy is. There is a time for all things. There is a time for dogs, and there is a time for remembering dogs. There's a time to take care of, and there's a time to be taken care of.

Recognizing and accepting these cycles of life is what "grace" is. I know there will be a time for me to reflect on all of this. But now is a time to take Brittany outside for her daily walk.

Friday, January 7, 2011

It's 1986 all over again

Me in college
There aren't a lot of regrets in my life. I'm actually very proud and happy to say that. Sure, I've made mistakes but that happened mostly when I was young and clueless.

I do, however, have a couple of major regrets that haunt me. I was reminded of one of them tonight when I read the local paper. It snuck up on me five years ago as it did tonight. I hate it but can't escape it.

This article in the Lowell Sun details a horrible crime. No, I wasn't a party to the crime, but I feel that I could have prevented it and always will. If I had only been wiser.

I was dating a guy named Michael in 1980 and we were headed out with our friends Mike and Judy for a Friday night date. When Michael picked me up that night, he said plans had changed. We were meeting our friends to help them look for Mike's nephew Patrick who had run away from home.

We all met at Patrick's house - the home of Mike's brother Richie. A plan was devised and we split up to look in places that Patrick's parents thought he might be. We spent quite a bit of time roaming around Tewksbury but found nothing.

The next day Mike called me and told me that a neighbor reported finding Patrick hiding behind their wood shed and he was now home safely. I asked Mike if Patrick had run away before and he said he ran away a lot and caused his parents a lot of worry.

Fast forward to 1986. I'm 27 and flipping through the Boston Globe before heading to work. I see a familiar name and realize it's my old college friend Mike's brother. I had lost touch with Mike a few years after our search for his nephew.

The article in the Globe reports that Richie is accused of murdering his son Patrick while drinking and snorting coke. It was a gruesome scene, according to the Globe. Richie also tried to stab his wife and daughter when they walked in and found Patrick's body.

I held my breath and I could swear my heart stopped cold in my chest. This was Patrick. The young kid who ran away from home. The kid I tried to get back home. Home, if you can call it that, ended up being a nicer name for "hell." The article claimed that Richie had been abusive to the entire family and they were all scared to death of him. Just as they are now as he tries again for parole.

My thoughts then and now, and every five years when I read that Richie is trying again for parole, are ones filled with guilt. How stupid I was not to see the signs. How trusting I was that my friend's brother had the only side to the story. I never even questioned why Patrick had run away so much. I was in love and playing "responsible adult" with my boyfriend by bringing a child home where he would be safe. I felt closer to Michael because we were working together during a friend's crisis. How Pollyanna.

I look at the Kathy I was back in 1980 and know I was naive. I was a very young 20-year old. Though, to be truthful, 20-year olds back then were a lot "younger" than they are today. But still, I was only about a year older then than my oldest nephew is today. Would I expect him to recognize the evil in that household? Could he possibly know to even question the situation? No. But that's him. I hold my own street smarts to a higher standard.

There is no undoing the "miss" on my part. I will always feel like I could have at least asked some questions. The hardest thing for me to let go of in all of this is that if I had just had a couple of more years under my belt, I could have maybe been that outsider who pulled the alarm.

I look at Patrick's picture in the paper every five years and think, if only.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Random thoughts while grocery shopping

As I was coming out of my weekly mindset to just get through the grocery store without my head exploding, I started to notice little things that made no sense to me. I list these not so that I can get an explanation, but so that you might add some of your own.

1) Why do tomatoes that sit in the sun until they become dry and unrecognizable as tomatoes, cost more than the fresh ones? I have access to sun and could use that extra money to buy fresh tomatoes.

2) Imitation meat products are, in reality, imitation food products.

3) How does an item that is listed as an "everyday low price" make it into the sales flyer? I thought sale meant "less than the everyday price"? If they're going to add things that are the same price every day, wouldn't the entire store need to be added to flyer? That would be a lot of work and I'm not going to be the one to do it.

4) Why is it that if you give the bagger five reusable totes, he squeezes everything into four? Is there a contest going on that I am unaware of?

5) And why is it that two of those four bags contain all the glass and canned goods, while the other two have paper napkins, a loaf of bread, and an avocado?

6) I used to always stand on the back of my carriage and ride it to the car. When did I stop doing that and why didn't I notice? I miss it.

7) If we're such great multitaskers in this millenium, why do people talking on their cellphones always walk into traffic without looking? Have we started counting only those tasks that are dependent on electronics? If so, that would mean that walking and breathing at the same time is off my already short list.

8) If we have clothes washers and dishwashers, why do we have car washes and not car washers? Should we start saying "I'm going to run the dishwash?" Consistency is all I ask for.

That's all I've got for ya. Tell me what you come up with.