On This Day.

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Toby…it seems like yesterday. Photo by Jim Thomason

There’s a nifty little feature on Facebook that gives you a recap of the things you shared on on this day in years past. For those of us who have a tendency toward being memory-challenged, it’s really a fun daily reminder.

11705360_10207560189026489_6028331319248977405_nGenerally, as far as my personal On This Day feed is concerned, the posts are funny, lighthearted reminders of events, jokes, and bits and pieces of my life. I try to keep Facebook fairly recreational. No discussions about religion or politics on my page. Nope, just fun and games…and occasionally shared life events.

Today’s On This Day reminded me that last year I was working to figure out what to do with three German shepherd mix puppies dumped along our road (I’m happy to report that on this day, they are happy, healthy and in loving homes).

I was reminded that I had dinner out with Jim at Louie’s Bar and Grill on this day two years ago. I’m sure we had the fried green beans. Yes, fried green beans. Is this just a heartland/southern thing? We take perfectly good veggies and make them ridiculously fattening and delicious by dipping them in batter and frying them.

I was reminded that today would have been my dear sister’s 63rd birthday. Happy birthday Cindy. I love you then, now and always.

And I was reminded that four years ago on this day one of my heart and soul dogs, Monte, passed away at age 15 years, seven months. Ah, Mont-ster Man…I love remembering you.

Next year, On This Day will remind me of the day we helped our Toby escape a body that was swiftly failing him. This day will apparently always be a day filled with emotion.

It’s funny because I am really not the type to highlight sad anniversaries. I don’t focus on the day someone left. I choose instead to focus on special memories and birthdays. I love to celebrate Cindy’s birthday by doing something very fun and nice for myself as well as for others. I think this is the best way to honor her and share my love for her.

But oh Facebook, you are also very good at reminding us of the not-so-joyous anniversaries. And now I will always know the exact day Toby left.

We didn’t know how very ill Toby was until it was simply too late to react. It’s funny, you can start to come down with a simple cold and you know it two days before the full blown cold takes hold. But it seems the big stuff can hit out of nowhere like a train with no working brakes.

WHAM. “Toby has lymphosarcoma,” the veterinarian said. “The cancer is throughout his liver, abdomen and likely other areas of his body.”  Our brains barely had a chance to absorb this reality before the disease started to take its toll.

Within the span of one week, our bold, bossy, clever boy melted into a weak, tired old man. And all surrounding his 13th birthday. We still have the birthday cake he never felt like sampling.

We learned of the diagnosis late Friday evening. We made plans to meet with a veterinary oncologist on Monday morning. We never made that appointment.

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A cool cloth and a good friend.

Fate had a very different plan. After holding steady through a week of daily hospital care with IV fluids followed by diligent supervision at home every evening, Toby grew increasingly weak over the weekend and developed a very high fever on Sunday. We raced back to the emergency vet to hopefully get his steadily climbing fever back under control.

I will admit that one look into Toby’s eyes told me that we might not be bringing him back home, but that’s not something you admit out loud when you want to cling to the idea that there is still hope. I think Jim and I were both forcing ourselves to be overly calm, bordering on casual, as we carried our boy into the lobby of the ER vet.

We rattled off his medical history as if we had been awarded doctorates ourselves. He’ll get some fluids, perhaps some antibiotics, we thought. They will give him the little boost he needs to feel better and then we’ll see the oncologist in the morning to formulate a treatment plan.

“Really Nancy?” said the little voice inside my head. “Look into your dog’s eyes. Look into the truth.”

Shut up, my brain said back. They will give him fluids and he’ll be fine. This is Toby. He is strong and bossy and the leader of our pack. Shut up, I said and said and said.

But within just a couple of hours the truth could no longer be silenced.

Next year, on July 19, I’ll see a post about the day we chose to ease Toby out of this life. I will be reminded of the amazing outpouring of love and support from friends who knew Toby or who just know our hearts. I will see photos of my spotted boy and I hope I will smile in remembrance.

His life with us was amazing, though admittedly too short. But what would have been long enough? Fourteen years? Fifteen? Sixteen? Forty? Never enough. A good, good dog always leaves you wanting more.

Jim and I came home from the hospital with red-rimmed eyes, heavy hearts, and Toby’s fur and scent from last goodbyes clinging to our clothing.

We did not, of course, come home to an empty house. We share our home with a great number of wonderful dogs, both foster dogs and permanent residents.

We were swarmed with greetings, then quieter investigation as the dogs sniffed our hands, shirts, and even our salt-stained faces. Dogs, and all animals, seem to understand and accept death with so much wisdom and grace.

I think our dogs knew, well before we did, that Toby was leaving. I believe the scents we carried home told them the final chapter to his story. I know they could sense our sorrow.

I don’t think either of us quite knew what to do with ourselves after the week of giving Toby constant care came crashing to a halt. We wandered about the house, going through “normal” motions. We talked here and there about Toby and the funny things he did in life, how well he bossed the other dogs around, how much we would truly miss him despite the herd of dogs still gathered around us.

Toby was a big presence in our world. His void would not be lost in the crowd.

As exhaustion claimed Jim, his best-buddy-in-training, Bernie the pit mix, stretched out by his side on the couch for a nap. I sat and stared at the television, though I can’t really tell you what I watched. Our other dogs were in various stages of settling in for the night, scattered around the family room and overtaking our bed in the adjacent room. The comforting sound of contented snores eclipsed the volume of the TV.

bed partyJust then Kainan, our resident wolfdog, appeared right in front of me, breaking my unfocused stare. In his mouth he carried a large red Kong, a sturdy rubber dog toy that is shaped like a beehive.

This toy was not one of Kainan’s normal favorites. But there he stood, offering the toy to me. I reached out and took it, he backed up few steps with an expectant look in his wise, captivating eyes.

Kainan has never played fetch with me one day in his life here on the farm. Never. But tonight, when my heart needed a little Super Glue, here was my big boy, teasing me out of my funk.

I tossed the toy just a few feet and it bounced crazily on the hard floor. Kainan pounced on it in delight and immediately brought it back and shoved it in my hand.

I tossed it again, giving it a little spin so it would hop and dance away from the wolfdog’s big feet. Again he chased it, pounced on it with great theatrics, and brought it straight back to me.

This game went on for about 10 minutes until the smile on my face, and in my heart, could not be suppressed. Finally I grabbed my big dog and gave him a huge hug, burying my face in his thick woolly coat.

A game never played before, perhaps never to be played again, but just the medicine I needed on this day. Wise Kainan reminded me that where one great story ended, there are others waiting to begin. My heart is certainly big enough and strong enough to embrace them all.

On this day, I am grateful – grateful for the story played out by a spectacular Dalmatian dog named Toby, as well as for the many stories yet to come.

To our dear Toby. You came into our lives during a time of change, uncertainty, and upheaval. You were the perfect dose of spotted joy to help heal our hearts, to help us look forward instead of backward.

90273524.cdPiKRSfYou were the dog who figured out, all on your own, how to use the ice maker in the door of the refrigerator (see video here). You were the clown who tried valiantly to balance on a big rubber ball. You were the flying dog who would leap in the air to bite at a stream of water shooting from the hose.  You were our unfailing foot-warmer every single night. You were the big tough dog who could never hold his licker, washing our faces thoroughly given the chance. You were our resident, unflappable boss dog, even exercising your authority over the wolfdog that was twice your size and a fraction of your age. 

You were, quite simply, our best boy. 

11263005_10153097727529422_2025888387682140569_nI don’t really believe that you are sitting at the edge of a rainbow waiting for us. Instead I believe you are running and leaping right over rainbows, tracking down our loved ones who left before you.

Hey, on this day, wish Cindy a very happy birthday for me, will you? And unleash that tongue of yours to give her face a good wash. Thanks Toby. For everything.

Sometimes It All Comes Down to ChapStick…Remembering Cindy

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The sister-friends, left to right, me, Terry, and Cindy

The room was dim. A little light filtered in from the hall, mixed with the noise of activity that suggested there was still a world out there, but it all seemed a million miles away. The room itself was quiet. Deafeningly quiet. I just kept my eyes focused on my sister. She kept her eyes focused straight ahead…somewhere else. Somewhere seemingly far away.

I had volunteered to stay the night with Cindy. Not so much out of strength or some sense of duty, but more because if I left, I would have no idea what to do with myself. Everything would just seem out of place, out of sync. At this moment, in this situation, everything that mattered to me was lying in the hospital bed next to my chair. She was right there, and yet I still couldn’t reach her.

The doctor’s words from earlier in the day were still bouncing around inside my head. I couldn’t remember the whole one-sided conversation, only specific points.

“It has spread.”
“Liver.”
“Happened very fast.”
“Aggressive.”
“No, there’s nothing.”
“I’m so very sorry.”
“Maybe two days, maybe two weeks, it’s hard to say.”
“We’ll keep her comfortable.”

Though I remained silent, in my mind I was begging the doctor to do something. There had to be something. But no. There was nothing. Nothing but this exact moment when the world seemed to simply stop revolving, all of the color drained away, and everything turned to shades of gray.

Then the voice inside my head started screaming. How can this be? How can this happen? Didn’t we say she was winning this battle? Wasn’t that just a month ago? My sister was going to be a breast cancer survivor. We were so sure of it. She was fine one minute and then…then there was this. My mind just couldn’t make sense of any of it.

After the doctor left, I remember seeing my sister’s boyfriend, Mickey, sitting by her on the bed, talking to her so very gently, so calmly. He knew exactly what to say. Though disease had robbed my sister of the ability to talk easily, she was fully aware of everything the doctor had said. Mickey knew exactly what her eyes were saying and he knew how to answer her unspoken questions. His connection with her was profound.

My sister Terry and I slipped away from the room and hid in separate corners of the hospital to make phone calls. Phone calls we desperately did not want to make. Trying to find the right words, knowing there were no right words. Then we went together to my parent’s house to deliver the news, in person, that no parent should ever have to hear; to inflict pain no parent should ever have to know.

Looking back, I remember all of these moments not as a participant, but rather as a third party looking in. I was hovering in the cloud of confusion that swirled above my dear, struggling family. I was detached, yet desperate to engage. Desperate for a moment of connection and understanding. Any moment.

And so when everyone gathered in the hall of the hospital, caught in the ultimate “what now” moment, I found myself immediately volunteering to stay the night with Cindy. I would stay to keep an eye on things. I would make sure Cindy was as comfortable as possible. I would be there to call the others if there was any urgent need. There was an unspoken agreement between us that Cindy would not spend one moment alone.

So I sat. I watched. I listened. The cold, dim room offered little in the form of physical comfort for me, but that somehow seemed appropriate. I desperately wanted to hold my sister’s hand. To stroke her arm. But her hands and arms were swollen…edema caused by the liver that was betraying her…by the demon known as cancer. Physical contact seemed very uncomfortable for her.

So, in the quiet of the room, I sat while my mind raced. They say that when someone is dying the movie of their life plays in their mind…flashes before their eyes. Cindy’s life—the parts I had shared—was playing out in my mind. The oldest of three girls, Cindy was our trailblazer. The one who taught our  parents to be parents. The one who left the nest first. The one who had figured out so much on her own, and then thankfully shared her knowledge with Terry and me.

She was my shoulder, when I needed one. She was my sounding board when I was unsure. She was ready to celebrate every little triumph with me. And now she needed me. She needed me and I had no idea what to do.

My frantic mind searched for some grand gesture. Some way to make this whole mess right. Where were my super-human powers? Why couldn’t I do something to make this go away; to rewind the clock and give her much earlier warning of the storm to come? Irrationality…you did me no favors that night.

So, doing the only thing I knew to do, I watched her very carefully. If she moaned or seemed restless, if her heart rate escalated, I ran to have the nurse come check on her, to administer more pain medicine. I smoothed her sheets, careful not to touch her sensitive limbs. I talked to her softy. I shared stories of times when we had laughed, of times when we had been silly young girls. I prayed. I prayed a lot.

Then, as I studied her, I noticed that she kept trying to wet her lips…running her tongue over them and rubbing them together. Over and over.

chapstickThat’s when it hit me. You know the feeling when you’re sick? You’re a little dehydrated, you’re breathing through your mouth. Your lips become so dry, so uncomfortable.

And in that instant I finally knew the one meaningful thing I could actually do for my Cindy. The one little thing that I could provide to give her comfort, to let her know that I was with her. I dug in the side pocket of my purse and found my tube of ChapStick.

“Cindy,” I said softly so as not to startle her, “I’m going to put some ChapStick on your lips. It’s going to feel good.”

I gently rubbed the balm on her tender, chapped lips. Slowly, as she rubbed them together, her eyes shifted to look directly into mine and we had our moment of beautiful clarity, of connection.

With great determination, her voice reached through the fog to whisper, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Cindy.”

Nothing more needed to be said. Everything had poured out in a simple eight word exchange.

As she drifted back to that place inside herself, I spoke quiet promises to her. I promised her that Terry and I would take care of our aging parents. I promised her that we would always be there for her two children, young adults now, but still not quite ready to be without their mother. Never ready. I promised her that I would remember her with smiles, laughter, and that I would perform her patented silly dance for future generations to enjoy.  I promised her that we would still talk every single day. I promised her.

Night finally surrendered to a gray dawn. We moved Cindy away from the institutional setting of the hospital and into the warm embrace of an in-patient hospice called Clarehouse. Clarehouse was our safe haven, the place that allowed beautiful colors to return to our world. It was a blessing that deserves, and will get, a story of its own someday.

In this warm, safe, beautiful place, surrounded by her family, my Cindy left this life quietly and peacefully. The ultimate educator, she gave me one more lesson that day—that there is beauty in everything; in new life, in life well lived, and even in life’s end.

After the nurses had taken care of Cindy’s body, I slipped back into the room alone, needing just a moment more. I looked at her face, carefully positioned by the nurses into an expression that was pleasant, but not one of her expressions. This body was no longer my Cindy. She was gone. She was really gone.

Then I saw the tube of ChapStick, still sitting on the bedside table. Upon seeing that reminder of our final shared moment, my heart filled with all of the memories and love this woman, my dear sister-friend, had ever given me. My Cindy came rushing back.

And so, with tears that were a mixture of grief and gratitude tracing paths down my cheeks, I slid the ChapStick into my pocket as I also tucked my sister’s spirit safely inside my heart.

My amazing sister Cindy passed away nine years ago on Memorial Day weekend. She was the age I am now. I do not remember my sister with feelings of sorrow. She would hate that. Cindy was a positive, spirited, fun-loving woman. Any tears that come are just reminders of how much I miss her, but do not define my memories of her. I celebrate Cindy with pure, unabashedly silly joy. I still have the tube of lip balm that gave us our final connection. Thank you Cindy, for giving me that last great lesson: Sometimes the most meaningful moments in life, in relationships, don’t come in the form of save-the-day acts of heroism or over-the-top grand gestures. Sometimes the most meaningful, beautiful moments are brought about by something as simple as a tube of Chapstick.