the printed thoughts of a woman on a journey towards awareness, truth, acceptance, clarity, and forgiveness...with some fun and fearlessness thrown in

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

a dog's dash

"...but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years."
 (from The Dash, by Linda Ellis copyright 1996)

I've been missing Bennie a lot this past week.  Maybe it's the holidays.  Maybe it was my birthday, which is when I usually reflect on the previous year rather than on New Year's Day.  Or maybe it's just that my heart has healed enough to allow my brain to start thinking about her again.

I still can't believe that she's gone.  That little dog was a fighter from the moment she wandered into my life right up until the moment she took her last breath.  I knew she would fight the ending.  I told Mitchell that she would.  I worried so much about it that I considered putting off the appointment for another day.  I wanted her to give up, but she wouldn't.  Her body had given up;  it was her spirit that hadn't.  Her final days consisted of a cycle of her lying down on the bed, sleeping, and going out to the bathroom.  She had stopped eating altogether three days prior.  Her seizures had increased in frequency and in severity.  I witnessed two that I thought would take her life.  Yet, still she fought.

She fought the injection by the vet.  She had to be catheterized.  She jerked her leg back again.  I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, "STOP!!!  JUST STOP!  I'm taking her home!"  But, I didn't.  I knew that it was time to let her go.  I knew that her life had lost all pleasure.  I mean, really.  This dog had lived to eat, and now she couldn't be enticed by any of her favorite treats.  I knew that she must be in pain.  Her liver was not working properly.  She was toxic.  It had affected her brain.  I knew that it was time.  I knew that my duty now was not to take her home and keep trying to keep her alive.  I knew that it was my job, my duty, my responsibility, to help her die.  I knew that I loved her enough to face that task.

I left her side and went to the end of the table--to her head.  I cradled her little face in my hands, and I buried my face into her cheek.  "You can go now," I whispered.  "It's OK to let go.  You don't have to fight anymore."  I felt her relax--not from the sedative, but from the comfort of having me close.  She stopped fighting.  She trusted me, and she let go.  She let one last sigh pass through that perfect, little, black, wet nose, and she left her no-longer-useful body behind.  She left me behind.

I debated about sharing her last moments.  I felt guilty for telling her to go when I so desperately wanted her to stay.  I felt like a fraud for putting her to sleep when I should have been doing more to keep her alive.  I felt like a failure for not being able to fix her. 

But, the truth is that I had already fixed her--at least a couple of times.  I had already saved her life.  She probably wouldn't have lived more than a few years longer if I hadn't found her.  She was so heavily infested with heartworms that her heart would have become unable to beat.  She was nearly bald and would have likely lived in constant pain and discomfort from her irritated skin.  She was not yet spayed and would have probably become pregnant again and again, bringing litters of unwanted puppies into the world and becoming more and more depleted and malnourished with each pregnancy and nursing cycle.  She would continue to wander loose, perhaps being hit by a car, maybe being picked up by someone with less than noble motives, certainly never knowing as much love as I would eventually feel for her. 

She wouldn't have received treatment for her heartworms, or if she had, she may not have survived.  She nearly died on me following her second injection.  She wouldn't have had the x-rays that revealed the pain that she lived with daily, her ribs splayed outward on one side, her left rear femur bone had been out of the hip socket for so long that it had created a pseudo socket from wearing down the pelvic bone, and her left rear kneecap refused to stay in place due to the angle of her hip.  She wouldn't have received the care she needed when one of her molars became infected.  It was during the pre-anesthetic bloodwork for that tooth extraction when her liver issues were first hinted at.  She wouldn't have been on a daily supplement to support her liver from that first early warning. 

She wouldn't have survived the gall bladder issue that emerged in May 2012.  She had only missed one meal.  Most owners wouldn't rush their dogs to the vet over that.  I did.  I knew better.  The stars aligned and she received an ultrasound that day that diagnosed the severity of the problem.  Her vet had just been to a workshop on the same topic.  She knew that surgery was the best solution, but didn't feel that Bennie would survive it.  She prescribed a medication that was compounded especially for Bennie.  I believed that she would heal, and she did, surprising every vet who had seen her.  She wouldn't have been put back on the gall bladder medication when things seemed "off" again later that year.  She wouldn't have had the last sixteen months.

And when she had the first seizure, she might not have gone to the vet immediately.  She may not have been diagnosed as being in the end stages of liver failure.  She may not have gotten the medication that helped her body shed the toxins that were building up within it.  She may not have gotten a choice of chicken salad (from Leblanc's, not Albertson's) or hot dogs or cat food or cooked chicken or whatever-she'll-eat.  She may not have been able to stretch a two-week prognosis into a two-month process of living each day to the fullest--a prolonged kiss goodbye.

She would not have had any of these experiences.  She would have lived and died in Indiana.  She would have never seen the inside of a U-Haul truck on its way to Chattanooga.  She would have never lived on or near a mountain.  She would have never spent a week without power after an early Nor'easter.  She would have never been to the city that housed the famous coffee shop where her namesake "donuts" were made and sold by the millions every year. 

She would have never, ever, ever have been as loved as deeply, madly, truly as she was by me.  And, I never would have known what an amazing little soul she was.  I wouldn't have been saved by her.  I wouldn't have known her constant and faithful companionship.  I wouldn't have experienced her soft moments.  My life would have been much emptier.

I miss you, Bennie.  More than words can ever say...

In memory

Sunday, July 28, 2013

the accidental cat

Crossing the road and walking past just one house from my neighbor's house to mine, my sister, Laura, and I encountered a little, furry, grey kitten.  "If that kitty follows us to your house, you need to keep it."

I already had two cats.  I wasn't looking for another.  I responded with one of our usual responses--"whatever" or "I'm sure" and kept walking.  The kitten kept walking, too, following us across the yard and up to my front door.

"If this kitty comes into your house, you have to keep it," she said while she literally nudged the little fuzzball with her shoe towards the open door. He walked in.  My fate had been sealed.

That was over 17 years ago, and that little kitten never left, even though he was the only cat I really ever let outside for any length of time.  He loved to roll around on the concrete, covering his back and sides with dirt and dried leaves.  He would literally go out with the dogs and come back in when they were done.  It seemed that for whatever reason this cat had made a conscious decision to live with me.  Maybe he heard and understood Laura's imperative.  We had made a contract with each other, a commitment formed without words.  We were in this together.

From the beginning, Eli was different than any cat I'd ever met.  He seemed somehow mature and knowing.  I spoke to him like he was human.  On some level, he was.  When there were no words, we communicated telepathically.  I believe that it was our connection that saved his life during that first year.

I was doing laundry, transferring a load of items from the washer to the dryer when he somehow got into the dryer.  I didn't see him in there when I started it.  I walked away and started the shower.  I had just climbed in when I heard something and felt my stomach drop to the ground.  I ran to the dryer, opened the door and called for him.  I felt around with my hand.  I didn't see or hear anything right away.  Maybe he wasn't in there.  But, I somehow knew that he was.  My greatest fear had been realized!  Eli had been killed in the dryer!

Then, I heard a faint meow.  I frantically started pulling things out of the dryer until, finally, a visibly shaken Eli wobbled into my hands.  It was late on a weekend night, so I called my vet and requested a call back through the answering service.  When Dr. Dircksen called, he asked me to describe Eli's condition and told me what to look out for.  He agreed to call me every 15 minutes for a status update.  We spoke throughout the night until we were both satisfied that Eli would be ok.  Before we hung up the last time, he pointed out to me that in my initial description I had said that Eli was "extra fluffy" and we had a laugh over that and joked that he was now "April fresh."  He was no worse for the wear from his ride around the inside of the dryer, but years later, Mitchell joked that maybe we should run all of our cats through the dryer to make them come out as cool as Eli.

Whatever lesson he might have learned from this experience, though, certainly wasn't generalized to the dangers of climbing into other large, metal objects.  About 10 years passed without incident, but early one morning, Eli decided to climb into the open trunk of Mitchell's car while he packed for a business trip.  He went unnoticed and seemed unconcerned until Mitchell was over 30 minutes into his voyage.  Somewhere just outside of Andrews, NC, Mitchell heard the panicked and harried meows emanating from his trunk and pulled over.  I was surprised to see him return home, but I wasn't surprised to hear the reason.  Once again, I was just grateful that Eli's curiosity hadn't gotten the best of him and that he had found an effective way to communicate.

It was in that year that Eli's life really changed.  He had already moved with me from Indiana to Tennessee and then to North Carolina, but he had always had his brothers, BoBo and Otis, to keep him company.  Unfortunately, though, BoBo lost his fight to chronic kidney failure that year at the age of 16.  The younger duo missed their older brother, but then welcomed a new brother into their lives a few months later when Manny came to live with us.  Towards the end of the year, Otis got sick for the first time ever in his 12 years.  In January, he was very sick as we made our next move to Connecticut, and by March he had lost his life to intestinal cancer.

Eli suddenly went from the "baby" of the feline branch of our family to the patriarch.  And, he took his new role seriously.  When Manny pestered me to go outside on the deck with Eli, Eli gave me a knowing look and assured me that he would take his brother under his wing and would keep him safe.  I watched cautiously from the back door as Manny jumped down from the deck into the yard and headed toward the corner of the house.  Eli immediately fell in line, following him and then circling around in front of him and corralling him back into the backyard once that invisible line at the edge of the house had been breached.  I watched him do this time and time again until Manny had been trained to stay inside the area defined as safe by Eli.  Manny was allowed to hunt and play in the backyard, but he knew not to ever leave and he learned from Eli to come in when called.  Eli and Manny became good buddies, and they spend a lot of time together enjoying the sun from our deck.

Sadly, only a couple of years later, Manny succumbed to intestinal cancer, just as Otis had.  Eli was the only cat in the house for six months until we adopted Alla, a breathtakingly beautiful Birman cat.  She was just seven months old and brought a new energy and youthfulness into the home, and Eli loved playing with her.  Just seven months later, she withdrew from the family and lost weight.  A simple trip to the vet ended in a terminal sentence of FIP (feline infectious peritonitis).  Alla was gone within two weeks, and Eli was alone again.

I was devastated by Alla's loss and didn't want another cat, but Eli made it clear that he wanted company.  I was so afraid of losing another pet, but I knew that I would have to take that risk to make Eli happy.  Only one month later, I found myself agreeing to adopt a cat from the Savannah, GA shelter after receiving her picture from a local rescuer.  I met the transport van the next weekend, and Hazel joined our family in a seamless transition.  Eli was happy once again.

Maybe it was his own rescue that inspired him, but I always felt that Eli was my silent partner in fostering and adopting new animals.  He welcomed every cat that came to stay, whether for a short time or for good.  I never heard him hiss at a cat who was scared or confused and who hissed or swatted at him.  He also allowed every dog to paw him, mouth him, and nudge him with its muzzle.  He never showed fear, and he never reacted.  He showed the most spastic, cat-chasing pup that there was more reward in being calm than in running after a cat.  He showed the paranoid, possessive, and territorial dogs that there was no difference between the cat in your yard and the one walking by your yard and, therefore, no need to freak out.  He was brilliantly effective in a completely unassuming way.  He was steady, confident, and constant.  He was literally the coolest cat I'd ever known.

It's now been seven weeks since Eli let me know that after over 17 years he was ready to leave his little body behind.  He had lived for several years with an intense allergy that caused his intestines to thicken and lose their ability to absorb nutrients from his food.  He had been diagnosed through bloodwork after I took him to the vet saying that there was something wrong with his belly.  "He's meowing weird," I said.  "I think his stomach hurts."  The vet looked at me strangely, but then apologized when his values came back.  "How the hell did you know what was wrong?" he asked, and I explained that I just understood Eli. 

I understood Eli, and he understood me.  He was more than a cat.  He was my friend.  He had been my friend since he walked through my front door that night.  I miss my friend.  I miss him so incredibly much.
Alla & Eli

Monday, April 29, 2013

a perfect gentleman

re: need a foster for an 8 year old PERFECT lab in Baton Rouge
This fellow came from the Baton Rouge shelter.  He is housetrained and gets along with all dogs.  He is incredibly sweet and has perfect house manners.  He is ½ thru his heartworm treatment.  He is easy to keep calm.  His foster mom is pregnant and getting close to her due date.  Can any one  foster him for 3 weeks????

That was the email I responded to when I agreed to foster Bach.  It was March 7, and he came to me on March 12.  My 3 week, easy fostering assignment has turned into a 7-weeks-and-counting mission to save a dog's life.

Bach is the sweet, good-mannered boy described in the email.  He's clearly lived a rough life.  His elbows and heels are heavily calloused, and his teeth are worn down to nubs, probably from chewing on rocks out of sheer boredom.  He hates to be outside without a human, and he loves tennis balls with an obsessive joy.  He climbs on the couch to snuggle, and he flops over on his back to wriggle and scratch at least four times a day.  He really is a wonderful dog.

There's no telling how he ended up in a shelter at his age, but it's clear that he wasn't valued by the people tasked with caring for him.  He had not been neutered, and he tested positive for heartworms, a preventable and potentially fatal parasitic infection.  He was saved by the rescue organization and neutered.  He was then treated for the heartworms, a risky and potentially fatal procedure on its own.  And then, I realized that he was occasionally dripping urine.  
Combined with the fact that he had some weakness in his hind end, we guessed that he had some sort of nerve damage.  The rescue coordinator was advised by one veterinarian to euthanize Bach, because he was "unadoptable" as he was.  I urged her to at least have him examined by another vet to determine what the cause might be and whether there might be any medical options available.  I let her know that I was committed to his care and wanted to give him every chance possible.  I bought him custom made belly bands, and I cut up blue pads to use as "panty liners."  I made special beds for him in his favorite spots (right next to me) that could be washed easily and kept the floors protected.  I started giving him homeopathic drops.

As suspected, an X-ray showed that two of the sacral vertebrae are closer together than they should be, indicating that the disc between them is likely bulging or ruptured and pressing on the spinal column.  This explained both the urinary incontinence and the difficulty getting up in his hind end.  We added steroids to his daily regimen of an NSAID, glucosamine, and chondroitin.  I ordered two more belly bands.  Bach continues to be a happy guy, unaware of any problems.  He sometimes goes for days without dripping, and then he sometimes drips all day. 

I urged the rescue coordinator to put out an emotional plea for Bach, and we both shared it far and wide.  I hoped for an immediate response from someone with a big heart and a patient soul who wanted to give him the retirement home that he deserves.  No such offer has yet come in, but we have been contacted by a chiropractor who would like to help.  She has offered to treat Bach without charge.  Again, I become hopeful.

I believe in a forever home for Bach.  I know that he didn't survive his rough life, his time in the shelter, and his heartworm disease and treatment only to be "put to sleep" over some dripping pee.  I'm sure that there's someone out there for him.  I imagine him leaving my house to have his happily ever after, and I'm doing everything I can to get him ready.  He's learned to take treats nicely and gently.  He knows how to sit now, and he sits for his food and treats.  He has become acquainted with cats, and he's learned that they exist on level somewhere above even the humans in the home.  He walks well on a leash, rides well in a car, and (sort of) understands what "go potty" means.  He's an old man with some medical needs and some routine maintenance requirements, but, other than that, he's absolutely perfect.

Bach's Petfinder profile can be viewed at:

Bach was adopted and is a much loved family member living in the Bronx, NY.  The day after meeting him, his new parents wrote:

"Yesterday morning we went up to Exit 14 in Spring Valley arriving at 8:30.  A large van was in the parking lot giving a family a dog.  The driver said that he was going off to Danbury, Connecticut and that another van would soon arrive.  About 10 other cars arrived with children and adults  At 9:00 a.m. the second van arrived.  Each family stood in a row holding a leash.  The driver asked, "What's the name of your dog?"  Then the driver went into the van returning with their dog.  There were yellow and black Labs and an assortment of other dogs.  They were all wagging their tails and all the families had smiles on their faces and were joyful.  The driver came over to Val and asked her dog's name.  "Bach" she said.  The driver went into the van and walked back with Bach, the king of all the dogs who was wagging his tail.

We brought him home and he played catch most of the day.  His tail never stopped wagging.  We love him and he loves us!  We gave him his pills and his dinner at 6:00 p.m.  He is loving, beautiful and friendly--we feel he has adopted us.  Bach is a great dog.

Thank you for all you do for Labs and for bringing Bach into our lives."


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

sweet & sour

 I haven't written much about Bennie, but she has been a constant in my life for almost 14 years.  She's seen many animal faces come and go and has lived in five states.  She's been around for the end of a marriage and for the evolution of another.  She's gone from being the youngster to the matriarch.  And, after all these years, I can still remember the first time I saw her like it was yesterday.

I was on the phone when I noticed a skinny, nearly hairless, little beagle wandering around the homes of my cul-de-sac street.  I grabbed a handful of dog food, filled a bowl with water and went outside to see what I could determine about this dog's condition and where it might have come from. The dog came right to me and was obviously hungry and thirsty, but her priority was to give and receive love.  She was the sweetest thing, not at all scared, and she climbed into my lap as soon as I sat down on the sidewalk next to her.

Up close, she looked even worse than she had through my front window.  Her coat was extremely thin, and her feet were completely bald.  I can remember noticing that I could see bare skin where the nails grew from the toes.  I had never seen that before.  And when I ran my hands over her body, I could feel that her ribs were deformed and turned out where they should turn in.  Her back was humped upward, and she walked with a limp on her back left leg, which turned outward from her body at an awkward angle.  She was absolutely beautiful!

Of course, she wasn't wearing a collar or any form of identification.  I suspected that she might belong to the neighbors directly across the street from me, but I didn't knock on their door.  I had had experience with them and their pets before.  Once, I found a young Golden Retriever with an injured and severely infected tail on their property, and I had called the animal control officer.  On another occasion, I took in what I thought was a stray Basset hound.  Several weeks later, those neighbors came to my door looking for the dog.  When I confirmed that I had her, they asked if I wanted to keep her, so I did.  I thought that they had had two beagles, but I hadn't seen the dogs in months, and their grass was over a foot tall in the backyard.  If this little one "belonged" to them, I certainly wasn't going to be the one to return her to that hell.

When the animal control officer showed up, she confirmed what I had been thinking.  She was sure that this dog belonged to my neighbors, but she told me that she wasn't going to contact them.  If they wanted the dog back, she said, they would have to answer to her, explaining the dog's condition and probably facing charges for animal cruelty.  "They won't call," she said, "and in three days, she's yours if you want her."  So, three days later, when I called the officer, I was informed that the gate would be unlocked and I was free to claim my "new" dog any time.

A trip to the vet confirmed the degree of the neglect that she had seen.  She had heartworms and she had bone deformities on her ribs which were most likely caused by malnutrition and neglect as a puppy.  (It would be several more years before I discovered through an x-ray that her limp was caused by her left rear thigh bone being out of the hip socket, probably since she was a puppy.)  Her hair loss was not the result of mange, but was also most likely caused by a lack of nutrition.  The vet explained that her body had gone into survival mode, so any food that she did eat had gone to simply sustaining her life and other functions, like growing and maintaining her coat, had shut down.  It would be a long road of recovery ahead, but since this little dog had escaped that horrible place, I was committed to doing what I had to do to help her get there.

The first big decision was to pick a name for this sweet, cute, little dog.  Beagles may just be the cutest dogs ever to walk the earth, and this dog was superbly cute, even by beagle standards.  She had big, brown doe-like eyes, floppy hound ears, and freckles up and down her legs.  She loved to be held like a baby and was as quiet as a mouse.  She needed a name that matched her cute face and sweet disposition.  I also wanted something that represented my Louisiana roots.  I soon settled on Beignet and started calling her "Bennie" for short.

It would be several months before the vet would determine that Bennie was healthy enough for the dangerous and painful heartworm treatment.  She had the first injection on a Thursday afternoon and the second injection the following day.  She was released to go home on Saturday morning on a strict order of crate rest with limited activity.  That was no problem since she wasn't a hyper dog anyway and seemed even more content than ever to nap her time away.  I was sitting at the kitchen table, her crate at my feet, when I noticed that she didn't look quite right.  I opened the crate and pulled her towards me.  She was too still, almost listless, and when I pulled back her lip, I noticed that her gums were a pale gray color.  I called my vet, who instructed me to take her to the vet on-call, his father, who ran a small, country vet practice.

I've never driven as fast as I did to rush her there, and I was relieved that she was still breathing when we arrived.  The vet told me that a large clump of dead heartworms had been released from her heart, entering her bloodstream, and becoming lodged in her lung.  He would administer steroids, fluids, and oxygen and would watch her through the night, but he didn't give me much hope for her survival.  When he called me the next morning, he actually sounded surprised when he said that she was ready to go home.

Bennie is now almost sixteen-years old.  She has been relatively healthy until a year ago when she needed to have an infected tooth removed.  A few months later, she suddenly refused to eat, and it was discovered that she had an infection in her gall bladder and gall stones.  Her age didn't make her a good surgical candidate, so she was treated with medications and a change of food and recovered.  Another month later, a lump was tested and removed successfully when it indicated a cancerous growth.  Now, she is experiencing new problems with her liver and is being again treated with medication and a food change.

She has evolved from that sweet, quiet, little dog in need of love and attention into the queen bee of the household.  She found her beagle bay after a few years of silence and now slips easily into it whenever another dog (or person) needs to be given a warning.  And, her warnings sometimes aren't the end of it for the offending party.  Bennie has been known to relentlessly pursue her target, requiring intervention and removal to stop the attack.  At this point, she has completely and totally embodied the "grumpy old lady" moniker, though her face, now white with age, is no less cute than it was in the beginning.  She still has those same puppy dog eyes that hold the power to melt the coldest, hardest heart and, of course, those freckles....those freckles!

Those freckles belie the tough spirit of the dog inside that little, less-than-perfect body.  Bennie's attitude and tenacity have carried her through some hard times, and she has been at death's door more than once only to turn her tail on it and to walk away from it.  She's a survivor, and she's taught me about what it means to face adversity with bravery, faith, and more than a little stubbornness.  And now, as she returns to the vet tomorrow for a recheck of her bloodwork, I pray that I will have more time to learn from her, more time to make up for her rough start in life, and more time to admire those freckles.

Monday, February 18, 2013

in search of identity

"A veterinarian."

I was that kid who knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.  I can't remember ever wanting to be anything else.  I knew that I would go to an Ivy League school.  (I thought that it would be Harvard until I learned that they didn't have a vet school.)  I knew that I would not have children.  I didn't plan on marrying anyone, opting instead for a male neighbor who would cut my grass and let me borrow his big, woolen sweaters.  I wanted to have horses, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, goats, and a donkey.  I knew exactly what I wanted and how I was going to get it all.

Until I failed.  In my defense, it wasn't through a lack of trying that I failed, but rather through a lack of focus created by trauma and its resulting mental health disturbances.  You see, I hadn't factored into my life equation things like rape, self-injury, dissociation, and clinical depression.  I didn't plan for my complete and utter unraveling, for the alienation of my friends, for the judgment of my family, for the feelings of despair and hopelessness that would rule my life for so long.  I hadn't prepared for the unhealthy relationships, the financial hardships, and the lack of direction or purpose.

I lost years to this detour, but unexpectedly found a new path when I became involved in helping others who had experienced sexual violence.  I was trained to answer the phone to speak with survivors and to provide emotional support and information about available services.  After some time as a volunteer, I was offered a full-time position with the agency.  I started doing public speaking and community outreach on sexual assault.  I suddenly felt a sense of excitement about my work, fulfilled by the promise of doing something that might prevent another person from experiencing what I had, and happy for the first time in over ten years.

That was almost 15 years ago, and now I am beginning to question whether I have followed this path as far as it can take me.  I am frustrated by so many aspects of the work that never seem to improve--the police response to reports of sexual assault, the low likelihood of arrest or prosecution of the perpetrators, the judgmental reaction of the general public, including the professionals tasked with providing care and services to victims, and the constant justification for the work that I do, from the begging for funding to the meticulous documentation of client demographics and services provided.  I feel powerless to truly help victims and particularly powerless to end the cycle of violence faced by women in our culture.  I dream of an end to the sadness, pain, and confusion that I feel vicariously through the people that I try to help.

I'm facing a direction leading me deeper into the work that I have been doing with more credentials and new skills and the other direction leading to a fresh start on a brand new path.  I don't know how to choose.  I don't know which option to follow.  I don't know whose advice to heed.  But, I feel a sense of obligation to that little girl, the one who knew so strongly and so deeply what she wanted to be when she grew up.  She didn't get to fulfill her dreams, and life led her into a new direction.  Now, I have the power to make a choice, to let that girl be who and what she wants to be, to take control of the next phase of my life.  I may not have become a veterinarian, but there's still time for me to dream and to make my dreams come true....once I decide.