I’ll Find You.

20150718_145536“I’ll find you again someday, buddy. I promise.”

The old dog looked intently into the man’s eyes, silently returning the promise. With that, the man gave the dog a final hug as the veterinarian quietly administered the injection. And then everything just faded away.

Within what seemed like just a moment, or it could have been hours, the dog’s eyes blinked open. The fluorescent lights of the veterinary hospital had been replaced by the glow of a beautiful early morning sun.

The blanket on the floor of the exam room had been replaced by a soft bed of fragrant green grass.

The old dog sat up, feeling no confusion despite the unfamiliar surroundings.  Everything should have felt new, and the dog knew he should feel lost, but instead he had the same feeling in his heart as he felt when he was at home, the place where he lived with the man.

Nearby he saw a gathering of dogs, humans, cats, horses, and other animals all waiting together, facing a stand of tall trees. The foliage was so dense that he couldn’t see what secret attraction drew man and beast to the small path that parted the formidable stand.

“You’re here!” a cheerful voice exclaimed. “We’ve been expecting you. You’ll want to head straight over to that line to be restored. You’re in for quite a treat.”

The old dog looked up into the face of a kind woman who reached out to stroke one of his silky ears. She seemed somehow familiar to him, but at the same time he was sure they had never met before.

With a long, lazy stretch, the old dog got up and joined the others in line. After a time, it could have been a minute, it could have been an hour, the dog emerged from the trees.

A treat, indeed. The dog was old no more. He was restored to peak physical condition, with a spring in his step, muscles strong and firm, eyes clear and sharp. His coat was a field of pure white adorned with glossy black spots. He shook his body from nose to tail tip in delight.

“Ahhhh, look at you, boy. You’re so handsome.” The dog glanced around to find the kind woman, who knew exactly how to rub his ears, admiring him with a delighted smile on her face. “Oh, but wait,” she said, “you missed one thing…your foot.”

The dog glanced down at his right front foot. The woman was right, this foot had only three toes instead of four. One of his middle toes had become swollen and painful years ago in his life and it had been removed. “Don’t you want your foot restored?” the kind voice questioned.

Looking directly into her eyes, the dog dropped into a playful bow and wagged his tail in the crazy circle wag reserved by dogs for only the happiest of moments. He trotted over to plant his paw into the soft dirt of a nearby trail as he looked back at the woman one last time, and then loped effortlessly down the path toward a new horizon.

The woman watched the dog as he quickly became a speck in the distance. “Well done, boy,” she whispered, nodding in unspoken agreement. “Well done.”

Sometime in the future, it could have been just a few minutes, but it was really many decades, a tall man emerged from the dense forest on a slender, shaded path. He took a deep breath, reveling in how wonderful he felt. “I think I could run a marathon right now,” he said aloud to himself.

“I believe you can too,” a woman with a kind face laughed as she approached the man. “Is that what you’d like to do? It’s completely up to you now.”

The man returned her smile, feeling that he should know this woman, but unsure how. He stretched his long arms, once again firm with muscle as he looked around at this place that was new to him, but at the same time so oddly familiar.

Toby sand-paw-printsJust as he was about to respond to the woman, the morning sun rose just enough to shine beams of gentle light on a nearby path. The man stared down at the soft dirt and saw a set of paw prints – four toes, four toes, four toes, three toes.

With a grin of realization spreading across his face, the man’s eyes locked onto the prints and without hesitation he started down the path, following the mismatched paw prints at a strong, steady jog. “I know exactly what I want to do and where I need to go,” the man called out over his shoulder.

“I have a promise to keep.”

The woman watched in the warmth of the dawning light until the man became a speck on a distant, new horizon.

Sometimes It All Comes Down to ChapStick…Remembering Cindy

Image

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.

Image

Remembering Me. Someday. In the VERY Distant Future.

 

Daisies (3)It’s Easter Sunday morning and I am reflecting on my dogs…the ones who have died.

Now WAIT! Don’t run away. I promise you this is not a depressing, tear-jerker of a blog post. It’s not. There is a perfectly logical and uplifting reason why I am reflecting on my dearly departed dogs. So stick with me. Come on. Suck it up.

Ok. So I started thinking about my dead dogs because they have all been cremated, as I would like to be someday in the incredibly distant future, and I happened to look at their urns today and realized how dusty they were. So I started cleaning them and in doing so I read all of the inscriptions on their urns—you know, their doggy epitaphs.

The tricky part of the epitaph is to come up with one line to summarize an entire life.  Just one little line to recap a lifetime of meaning and experience? Whew. Heavy responsibility.

We should all be allowed to hire the guy who came up with all of the Burma-Shave billboards to be our end-of-life copy writer. He’d come up with something memorable. (Ok, I wasn’t around in the 50s either, but anyone who studied advertising in college was introduced to the genius of the Burma Shave Cream billboards. Here…I’ll help you whippersnappers or those who majored in engineering or accounting: http://www.fiftiesweb.com/burma.htm)

Back to my dogs. Here are a few of their epitaphs.

Carter – “Me, Myself and I are all in love with you”

And I was in love with this dog. The words are lyrics from the Billie Holliday song from which Carter’s registered name was born. You see, his dad’s registered name was BISS AM/CAN CH Roadpartner Billie Holiday (all of those letters in front of his name mean he was a champion show dog in the US and Canada). Yes, his dad was named after a female jazz singer. I don’t quite get it either, but his owners were Canadian, so maybe that clears things up a bit. (Oh come on now…I love the Canadians! Our family to the north! I joke. I jest. But seriously, a boy Dalmatian named Billie Holiday?) Anyhow, Me Myself and I was a Billie Holiday song and I used it as Carter’s registered name.

Teddy—“The sweetest dog in the world”

This one needs no explanation, especially if you knew Teddy. Nicknamed Bear, he was a big, huggable Dalmatian guy. I always joked that you could leave Ted alone in a roomful of toddlers for an hour and when you came back, they’d all be cleaner and peacefully napping.

Rascal—“Our Loyal Protector”

And he was. Or so he thought…and I’m sure not going to claim otherwise. More often than not, we were being uproariously protected from, perhaps, a falling leaf or a bird flying by, but in Rascal’s mind he was protecting our fort. In the end, I believe he gave his life protecting the rest of the dogs, so it’s fitting that he be remembered for it. Ok, that’s the only tiny sad moment in the post. I promise.

Clyde—“Happy, Happy, Happy”

It just sums Clyde up. That dog was always happy. Despite a lot of physical issues that probably caused him discomfort, he never failed to greet you with a soft face and a wagging tail. I stole the line from Duck Dynasty…Uncle Si, I believe? It helps set the tone if you repeat it with a good hick accent. Clyde would have wanted it that way.

So anyhow, I’m dusting the dogs’ urns (we have shared our world with a lot of dogs…A LOT. We foster many senior dogs so we have a lot of dearly departed friends here) and I it gives me time to ponder what I hope my last impressions will be someday. Someday in the seriously distant future.

This question pops up on Facebook from time to time and everyone gives pithy answers—more often than not things that I believe family members would NEVER inscribe on the old headstone. This made me curious about some epitaphs that DID make it into granite. Here are a few examples and I know they are real because I found them on the internut (sic) and we all know that everything on the internut is true.

“I told you I was sick!”
In a Georgia cemetery

“Here lies the body
of Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake.”
Memory of an accident in a Uniontown, Pennsylvania cemetery

“That’s all, folks!”
Mel Blanc

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
Winston Churchill (good one, Winston)

So this weekend we are paying homage to one of the most famous deaths in history that turned out to not be a death at all. Well, it was a death, but then it wasn’t. Obviously it’s Easter, so I’m talking about Jesus.

Can you imagine the pressure of trying to come up with a fitting epitaph for God’s son…the man who would be the savior of mankind? Heavy responsibility. I think if Jesus could have directed his own memorial, he would have asked that his stone say something like…

“Stay tuned…I’m just getting started”

Or

“Be right back…Really, I will”

Or

“The best is yet to come…I promise”

Or

“Don’t worry. I’ve got this”

Perhaps it’s clear that I would not have been the appropriate one to memorialize the Chosen One, but truly, my heart is in the right place. I don’t even think the Burma-Shave guy would have been clever enough to sum the gift of Jesus up in one line. Whether you are a Christian or not, you have to admit that Jesus made quite a lasting impression.

So this brings me straight to how I would want to be remembered someday…in the REALLY distant future. And maybe, if I decide what that one-line legacy might be, I can make sure I’m living it now.

The one that always comes to mind is, “That was so much fun! What’s next?”

This one hits home for me. My life is fun and I don’t believe it just ends. I believe there is another crazy adventure after this one. Heaven is paradise, right? So does that mean that God will occasionally let the angels dress up as zombies to chase me around and scare me a bit? I think maybe yes. My God gets me. He really does.

Another that speaks to me is, “One heck of a ride. I’m getting back in line.”

This covers the possibility that I will return in another life form. Just don’t let it be a snail or a slug or something equally slimy.

If we are going to wax poetic, it might be, “All Creatures Great and Small, She Really Did Love Them All.”

And I do. Even the snails and slugs. I was never the kid who poured salt on slugs or fried ants with a magnifying glass on a sunny day. Nope. I take care of God’s creatures to the best of my ability. Unless it’s a really big scary spider and then I call for Jim and I just don’t want to know what happens. (Ok, yes, I might be a bit wimpy when it comes to really big spiders.)

If I’m going to just be brief and let people draw from my epitaph what they will, I think I would like, “She was quick to smile.”

I think that one is a great way to be remembered and I’m going to work to make it so. A smile is a gift…you can lift your own spirits with one, and you give smiles freely to others. (Please note…practice your smile. You don’t want to do the “creepy person standing in a crowded elevator” smile.)

You really never know how a random, sincere smile might make a difference to someone. So if you see me, I’m going to give you a smile. I hope it brightens your day.

Of course none of these lines are going to end up on a gravestone memorializing me because, as I stated earlier, I’m going to be cremated someday in the VERY distant future and I plan for my ashes to be mixed in with the soil at the roots of a very healthy tree. Yes, I shall become one with a tree and I will see the seasons, the sunrises, and the sunsets with birds and squirrels dancing in my branches, bunnies nibbling grass beneath me, horses likely scratching their butts on my trunk, and dogs…well…hiking their legs on me. It’s all good. I’ll also make sure to have one strong arm extending out just right for the best tire swing ever.

That should inspire some smiles right?2014-04-20 11.34.33 (2)

But today is Easter and Easter Sunday is about life renewed. So I’m going to get out there to honor this day, honor the life that made it all possible, and yes, I’m going to eat a chocolate bunny.

Thanks for that, Jim. You made me smile.

 

Finding the New Normal

Sunflower sunset (2)I attended a very moving memorial service this past week. A man—husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend—died suddenly and very tragically. He was an exceptional man in life—talented, accomplished, intelligent, faithful, loving and devoted, to name just a few of his attributes. In one horrible moment, in one terrible accident, he was gone.

I sat in the balcony watching the church sanctuary fill with faces like mine, strained with disbelief and sorrow. It was just unimaginable that we were going through these motions “in memory of” this vital man. It was impossible to grasp that he really could have been taken so soon from this world to which he had contributed so greatly.

I watched his family file in. His wife’s expression a window directly into her shattered heart; her sons on either side of her, supporting her, while trying to come to terms with their own enormous loss. At one point, just as they reached their seats in the long pew, the now-widow turned to her oldest boy with her hand covering her mouth, her eyes folding into agonized, tear-filled creases. It was as if being in this place finally forced her to abandon shocked disbelief to come face-to-face with harsh, unyielding reality. And then I watched her son instantly became a man as he put his arms around his mother, pulling her protectively close.

This very poignant, private moment, only fleetingly visible to me from my balcony vantage point, transported me back to not-so-distant times when my own sense of loss and confusion seemed too great to bear. For just a moment, I was lost in a dark and painful part of my mind that I have worked very hard to control, if not conquer. I felt the weight of loss bearing down. I felt that hollow spot grow in my heart—the one that makes you wonder if it can ever be filled again. I saw beautiful hues of color streaming through stained glass windows turn to nothing but shades of gray.

As I stared at this bereaved family, mired in the visage of my own darkness, a friend seated next to me quietly asked me a question , thankfully jarring me back into the moment. Back to this family’s moment, as the door to my own past gently closed once again.

The service was beautiful, heartfelt, and upbeat in appropriate moments. There were memories shared, moments of laughter, and heads bowed in prayer as a brilliant, but all-too-brief life was honored. Following the service, we all congregated in a reception hall to offer condolences, hugs, tissues, and support. I made my way to the brother of the deceased—a high school classmate of mine. He, like the rest of his family, was encircled by dozens of people offering their love and words of solace. I stepped forward for my turn in the long line and saw a glimmer of recognition bring a smile to his face—we had not seen each other in years. I hugged him and told him that I too had lost a sibling, my sister, at about the same age as his brother was. He said, “So you know. You know what this feels like.” I said, yes, that I did know. He looked at me with pooling eyes and said, “I’m just hoping that it gets easier. I hope it gets easier.”

I found that I could not bring myself to say the words he so desperately wanted to hear. Just then, another friend walked up and the conversation moved on, but his words, and my lack of a ready response, remained stuck in my mind. Why hadn’t I been able to tell him that yes, with time, it will get easier?

I thought about it the rest of the day and then finally that night, in that quiet time when my brain is not asked to multitask, the answer hit me. I don’t think it does get easier. This kind of loss does not heal, or go away. You just get better at it.

You get better at dealing with it. You find a way to think about your lost loved one not in terms of tragedy, but in terms of joy, of shared experience. You feel them in your heart as a living force that, while gone from this immediate existence, is still very much a part of your life, part of the fiber of who you are.

This family has so much ahead. Perhaps the hardest moments of all come when the shock of the death, the quick planning, and the memorial service come to an end. The hardest moments come when you walk away from the funeral, back into your home, back into your life.

It’s at this point that the world seems to come to a halt. Everything is too quiet. And the stillness does nothing to calm the chaos that rages in your mind as it tries to make sense of something that defies all rationality. Everyone else gets to go home to their normal lives, but you’re just not sure what that even is now.

The concept of picking up and moving on seems impossible. Old routines seem foreign. Everything is out of order, everything seems incomprehensible, overwhelming. You can dream about the “old normal,” you can yearn for it, you can try to cling to it with all of your strength, but it’s gone. There’s no going back.

I remember a time of being at this very point of transition, firmly in the grip of darkness, praying out loud for normal. Dear God, I begged, please just let me find my new normal, whatever that may be. No more highs, no more lows. Please just bless me with normal.

And eventually, the new normal does appear. Daily routines alter, but become comfortable. A certain rhythm falls into place, and if you let them, rays of warm light start to penetrate that dark place in your mind. Not driving the darkness away, but helping it find a place where it can rest, where peace is allowed to blanket it.

Now, for this lovely family, I wish for them memories filled with joy, strength in unity, grace to allow the tears to fall, and, when the time is right, a new normal that leads to an exceptional life for all. I believe that where there is immense sorrow, our loving God, our universe, will replace it with an equal amount of jubilation, happiness and fulfillment. We just have to be willing to embrace it, and give thanks once again.

Finding the new normal is the first tiny step.