The Gift of Birthdays

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Photo by Kara Hathaway

He woke  up today like he does pretty much every morning, curled at the foot of the bed, his back pressed against my legs. Howie is not the cuddly type, but he always lets me know he’s right there. It’s comforting to stir in the night and feel his warm presence.

To Howie, our beloved senior Dalmatian, today probably seemed like every other day. Get up, stretch, rub your face vigorously into the bedspread (it’s a Howie thing). Then it’s out the door to leave a streaming calling card on a favorite fence post and back inside to watch the she-human for any sign that she might be heading toward the dog bowls to prepare breakfast.

Little does Howie know, however, today is anything but a normal day. Today is Howie’s 14th birthday. It is a milestone day. Maybe he senses it in the extra dose of attention he’s receiving from me and Jim. I give him a big kiss and a hug that results in an “oh-mom” expression on his face, his ears sticking out to the sides like those of a baby goat.

Maybe he recognizes his own name highlighted in the lyrics of the happy birthday song…especially after I’ve serenaded him about 10 times. Maybe the little bites of chicken topping his morning meal make him realize today is no ordinary day. Maybe he somehow knows that the good smell coming from the oven is a cake for him to share with his canine family.

Maybe.

Or maybe the fuss and celebration is actually more for me. During a time when the world seems to have stopped spinning and seeing those I love means having to step away instead of stepping in to give a big hug, celebrating something as beautifully normal as my special dog’s birthday is a gift. A gift to myself.

I love this dog. He is my guy. He has been firmly attached to my heart since the day I lifted his little eight-week-old body from a crate and held him close. He is smart, he is lord of this doggy castle. He is stoic and strong. He is loyal and devoted. And when he lets his boss-dog facade slip just a bit, his head nodding low, his ears pushed comically sideways, his eyes darting up to meet yours, he will surely melt you into a puddle.

And so today, on April 5th, as I have for 13 years before, I am celebrating Howie’s birthday. I am following a well-established routine and reveling in the sweet normalcy of it all. No hidden demon can disrupt this simple, day-long ceremony. I’m ecstatic about normal. It is a blessed escape from the world outside the gate of our little farm.

Today I am also celebrating the birthday of my darling great-nephew, Caleb. He is funny, cute, clever, and when he smiles his whole face just glows. He deserves a great celebration and yet his birthday party will be anything but normal. We won’t be gathering close around him to sing and shower him with gifts. We won’t be there to see him blow out seven candles with one to grow on.

This is the reality of our lives right now. But while the threat of a virus and our new practice of “social distancing” may have put our idea of normal on hold for a bit, in its place I have seen more creativity, determination, and pure human spirit than I have ever seen before.

So today, Jim, Howie and I got to be in a birthday parade. A line of cars, each filled with family and friends and festooned with streamers, balloons and signs, created a mobile surprise party parade, honking and calling out greetings to the obvious delight of the birthday boy.  On the second pass by their home, each car in the parade stopped to express personal wishes and to drop cards and gifts in a bin placed by the curb. Caleb and his family waved from their porch, laughing and calling out their I-love-yous.

In Caleb’s own words, his birthday parade was “epic.” No, it was not normal. It was not a party with a bouncy castle, games, party favors and a dozen friends. But it was filled with pure joy and fun. It was creative. It was uplifting. And the love surrounding that little boy couldn’t have been stronger.

So today was a day of celebrations. One beautifully normal, one beautifully creative. And in the end, I’m pretty sure I’m the one who received the best gifts. I have the gift of quietly celebrating Howie, my special spotted boy, who is living a long, healthy life. I have the gift of celebrating Caleb whose huge grin and waving hands served to lift a chunk of the weight from my shoulders that has been trying its best to drag me down.

Today was a day to be reminded of gratitude. A day to feel connected and grounded in a time of such extreme uncertainty. A day to recognize that normal and out-of-the-ordinary can be equally beautiful.

Happy, happy birthday to Howie and Caleb. Thank you both for the gift of your celebrations. Thank for reminding me that the human (and canine!) spirit is strong, alive, and well.

 

I Dare Me.

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Today is my Birthday. Number nifty-four. Happy to me!

A Monday birthday and I didn’t even take it as a bad sign that my special day started with a record-breaking stock market crash and four buzzards (I kid you not!) lurking on the road just outside our gate. Nope…Monday, stock market, death birds…you cannot, will not, did not ruin my day.

Fiddle-dee-dee.

Now, back to ME.

Years, and years, and more years ago, I made a vow that on each birthday I should do something I’ve never done before.  It was my own little dare to myself to help keep things interesting, adventurous, and a bit on the are-you-out-of-your-mind side.

I’m happy to report that it has been mission accomplished, again, and again, and yet again. I have Jim, my very significant other, and many friends to thank for helping me stay on this thrilling and potentially destructive track.

My “dare me” initiative has resulted in some pretty exciting birthdays.

There was this…

5112_1173686145981_2397323_nWhy yes, I did step out of a perfectly good airplane at 12,000 feet. (Thanks for the gentle shove, Jim.(Not really! I jumped right out!))

It was FANTASTIC! That was a forty-something birthday.

I also had the great privilege of celebrating one of my birthdays, another forty-something event, in this venue…

Africa 3

Oh don’t get me started on this trip or I’ll fill the whole blog with nothing but amazing memories and photos of our time in South Africa. When you have had an adult male lion pass so close to you that you could reach out to tickle his ears (if you were to completely lose your mind and wanted to freak out your ranger), well, it’s an experience you never forget.

Some birthdays are more tame than others. One birthday the “new thing” was simply smoking a cigar while relaxing at a lake resort. Not a habit that stuck with me, thankfully.

Another year, a group of amazing friends and that Jim guy took me to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City so I could ride rides I’ve never ridden before. There is not a roller coaster on this earth that I won’t ride. Dare me, go ahead.

This was me on a giant crane/rip-cord/swing thing with Jim and a friend (with a death grip on Jim’s arm) who shall remain nameless, but BOY can she scream…

Worlds of fun

So this year, I honestly wasn’t sure what the new thing would be. I mean really, we might be running out of new stuff after nifty-four years, right?

Wrong.

Jim found something new. So this happened…

flyboarding

It’s called a flyboard and basically, there’s a hose that takes all of the power from the attached jet ski and funnels it at great force through a special contraption attached very firmly to your feet. If all goes well, you fly up out of the water. I think the photo above makes it appear I’m doing a fancy stunt. Pretty sure the next frame was a fancy crash-landing.

But fear not! This also happened…

Fly Nan

And some more of this looks-like-a-stunt-but-was-a-crash-in-progress stuff…

Fly Nan 2

And finally this…

Fly nan 3

And lots of this…

fly nan 4

Jim was able to do THIS…

Jim fly 2

Really high, right? He also did this…

Jim fly

I’ll let him tell you if that was on purpose or not, but let’s just say his eardrum was ruptured somewhere in this process (the entering the water sideways and really hard part). He’ll be good as new after minor surgery and several months of healing. No biggie.

Plus now he only hears half of the stuff I say to him. I’m pretty sure he’s good with that. Nancy, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Jim, “Huh?” Repeat, repeat.

Back to flyboarding. So then I did this…

Steven fly

Ok…not me. This is our instructor, Steven, showing us how it’s done.

Showoff.

I guess the back flip will be my “new thing” for my nifty-fifth birthday. Yeah.

Probably not.

But there will be a new challenge for number nifty-five, and for all the birthdays to come. You only go around once, you might as well do it with lake water up your nose, or elephants charging around you, or the ground rushing up to meet you.

So what will be next? Who knows. I’m sure we’ll think of something. The “what” is not as important as the “new” and the “with.”

Careful. If you hang out with me on a future birthday, my friends and I may drag you into something “new” too.

How do you feel about hang gliding? Hmmmm.

This Day

20140710_192150I’m not writing about wolfdogs today. I’m not writing about dogs in general today. I’m not writing about donkeys, horses, mules, hogs, or even squirrels today.

Nope, I’m setting all of my favorite topics aside to write about 9/11. But it’s not what you think.

Of course this day holds meaning for me—for everyone worldwide. I remember this day clearly in 2001. I had just turned 40 years old and I never dreamed the country that seemed like such a safe place could be paralyzed by fear, even for just a moment. Of course, I’ll never forget that day.

Today, however, I’m actually writing about 9/11/2002. That was the day we all anticipated as a gloomy anniversary; a day to reflect on terrific loss and devastation. I might have gone down that path, if not for my co-worker at the time, Weltha Wood.

Weltha is a wonderful, bright, delightfully bohemian woman who proudly marches to the beat of her own drum. She has a beautiful smile and amazing eyes that capture your gaze and almost dare you to try to look away.  She can be a bit of a force when she wants to be. I have always enjoyed her very much.

On 9/11/2002, Weltha taught me a precious lesson. As I prepared to join a nation in somber remembrance, Weltha greeted the workday with one of her terrific smiles.

“Today,” she proclaimed, “is my birthday.” My heart sank a little for her at that moment.

“Oh…this must be so hard for you,” I responded thinking how terrible it would be to have your birthday overshadowed by such a terrible event.

“No,” she said shaking her head. “This day was my day long before terrorists tried to make it their day. I refuse to let them take my day. This is MY birthday.”

And as I let her words sink in, I realized how very right she was. I would not let evil control this beautiful day either.

So I returned Weltha’s smile with a genuine one of my own and wished her a very happy birthday. Now, each year on 9/11, the first thing I think about is Weltha’s birthday. I make a point to wish her a happy birthday every year, even though we haven’t worked together for over a decade. And every year she thanks me.

I wonder if she realizes she is the one who really gave me an incredible gift on her special day.

Today I will bow my head in silent remembrance, but only for a moment. The rest of this day I will hold my head high in celebration of life, liberty, and the fabulous birthday girl.

I won’t let them steal this day from me either, Weltha. Happy, happy birthday to you.

Paying Homage to the Candy Man

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The candy of choice. Never question the Candy Man’s judgement on this topic.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013—11/12/13—my father would have celebrated his 87th birthday. This is the first birthday I have celebrated without him here.

I could have chosen to be sad that day. I could have chosen to go sit at his graveside to reflect on my loss. Could have. But BOY would I have heard about it from Dad. No, really. My Dad would have found a way to reach right out of the great beyond to shake his finger directly at my nose for sure.

Dad was not a “sit around and mourn for me” kind of guy. He was loud, opinionated, funny, kind, wildly generous, and did I mention funny? So it was important to me that I honor his special day in a Dad-appropriate manner.

Dad lived at the Oklahoma Methodist Manor (OMM), a retirement community in Tulsa. He and Mom moved to one of the small independent homes on campus in 2004, and then, as Mom’s care needs increased, he moved to follow her—first to an independent apartment in the main building and finally to a comfortable apartment in the assisted living wing. A lot happened during that journey of less than a decade, but we’ll leave most of that to another day, another story.

Mom passed away in 2009 when she was 85. She and Dad had been married for 61 years, so it was a huge life change for Dad. I know he missed her, I know he felt  lost without her. Add to that the fact that Dad’s own health challenges had forced changes that truly limited his ability to do a lot of the things he truly loved. Failing eyesight, limited mobility—yes the aging process can be a mean little bitch.

So what’s a man to do? Well, had out candy, of course. Yes, candy. Lots of it. This was not a new theme for my dad. In fact, I can’t recall a day in my life when Dad’s candy stash wasn’t filled to the brim. Oh, and did I mention he was a dentist? Yes…dental health was the man’s life, but he handed out candy non-stop. He was a living, breathing oxymoron. Or was he just creating his own job security? That little mystery has gone to the grave with him and the truth shall never be known.

So, take one outgoing man, with a sharp mind, and…well, truth be told…a pulse, and place him in an assisted living home where the ratio of men to women was approximately one to 40, and you have a very popular man. Now hand that man a bag of Hershey’s Nuggets miniature candy bars and you have basically created a modern-day, senior citizen Romeo. Yeah, Dad was one popular dude. Popular to the point that his name officially became “Candy Man.” Everyone—residents and staff alike—knew who the fabled Candy Man was.

You have to love it. I may even appreciate his genius a little more now than I did then. You see, I was his candy mule. I was the supplier. I got to make the trek to Sam’s Club every couple of weeks to clear their shelves of bags and bags of Dad’s candy of choice and then lug it back to the Methodist Manor so that everyone in his path, every single day, could have some. That stuff was heavy, but shame on me for the times when I mentally complained about having to get it (never to Dad, though. Never to Dad.).

Though there was a two Nugget limit per person to keep things in check, Dad’s generous habit still easily cost him two to three hundred dollars a month. But, it was his joy, and who was I to put a damper on that?

The kicker is that Dad had developed diabetes late in life and could not enjoy his own sweet little offerings. Not even one Nugget passed that man’s lips. He was very dedicated to managing his condition and faithful to his dietary restrictions.

Dad entered the hospital the day after his birthday last year and passed away 19 days later. I have to believe that many a sweet tooth shed a tear that day and the population of the Holliman Assisted Living wing at OMM probably lost an average of five pounds in the ensuing weeks. Oh, the word bittersweet has never been more appropriate.

So on 11/12/13, I revisited my path to the candy isle at Sam’s Club. I bought bags of Hershey’s Nuggets. I drove to Dad’s old stomping grounds. I found his favorite aide, Dunnel—a wonderfully cheerful man with an almost too-good-to-be-true African accent—and I gave him enough Nuggets to ensure that all residents and employees could have two. No more, no less. And I smiled. Dunnel smiled. And you know, I know darn well that Dad smiled too.

Happy birthday, Candy Man. I love you.