Where Sunflowers Grow

Run in Peace Big PaulThe patch of broken, brown earth stood out in sharp contrast to the surrounding blanket of green dotted with splashes of colorful wildflowers. This was the first time I had ventured out to visit this spot in the pasture since the day it happened more than two months ago.

I looked at the packets in my hand, eight in all. There were two each of four varieties of sunflower: Mammoth, Moonshine, Autumn Beauty, and American Giant. The promise of the massive flowers seemed a fitting tribute to my big boy. Soon, I hoped to see a small forest of sunflowers covering the bare spot in the earth that marked the place where Paul, my big draft horse, was buried.

It was a gorgeous spring day. The perfect day for a walk in the pasture. Life was erupting all around me. The trees were covered with tender, brilliant green leaves unfurling to greet the changing season. The birds darted about, busily tending their nests. Insects flitted lazily about from blossom to blossom, finding nourishment as the warmth of the morning sun fueled their meandering mission.

Hi there NanYet I stood oblivious to the spring parade. I was fixated on that one patch of cracked, clumpy earth that represented the beautiful ghost still testing my heart.

I’m no stranger to loss. We live with lots of animals…all lives more temporary than our own. We’ve said our share of goodbyes and we always find a way to celebrate the beings that have shared their time here with us. Each has taught a lesson, each has been a blessing.

But, Big Paul. I just wasn’t coming to terms with his loss. The stately Belgian horse who won my heart from one photo on a Facebook page. Our story was supposed to roll gently toward a very distant sunset. It was not supposed to be a short story, over in just a couple of chapters.

So my morning visit to Paul’s piece of earth was to find resolution. It was my private ceremony. I was going to welcome closure.

gogo 2016Standing clutching the seed packets in my right hand, I heard a quiet shuffling behind me. I turned to see GoGo, our old appaloosa mare, with her nose to the ground as she followed my trail through the pasture as surely as a faithful tracking dog.

GoGo is a special girl. She is 30 years old. She has lost her vision. But she doesn’t hide in the barn, she doesn’t beg for special care. In fact, she won’t tolerate being kept in a stall or safely confined to a paddock. She is, despite the toll advancing years have exacted, strong-willed and determined to keep pace with the rest of our horses. Where one sense has failed her, others have grown stronger. She is a survivor.

I stroked the sweet mare’s neck as she sniffed the seed packets, perhaps checking to see if I might be holding a carrot or a horse cookie. I was immediately thankful GoGo decided to join my private memorial service. The mare who had graced our farm for such a long time, joining me as I paid respect to the horse who touched my life so profoundly in such a short amount of time. Perfect.

I opened the packets, one by one, and sprinkled the contents across the bare earth, watching as the small seeds bounced and tumbled into the cracks and crevices. Soon they would find purchase, sprout, and spring back up toward the sky, strong, tall, and golden. Just like Big Paul was.

Job done, GoGo and I retraced our steps and headed back to where the rest of our little herd watched in seemingly silent homage. Did they know I needed some space? My very spoiled animals are not known for restraint, especially when they see a human that normally has pockets filled with cookies. But somehow, today, they showed quiet respect.

As I moved closer to the barn, the truce was broken and my herd surrounded me, snorting and sniffing. I looked into a half dozen pairs of soft, hopeful eyes as impatient noses pushed at my hands and nudged my pockets.

In that moment, it hit me. Just as surely as the sunflower seeds would sprout roots in the fertile soil and grow to fill the cracks and gaps in the broken earth, these silly horses and donkeys, in the here and now, would help fill the cracks and gaps in the fertile ground of my heart.

I would always remember, and I would always be grateful for what was, but I could also let go. It was time to stop replaying the pain of loss and instead focus on the good times I had with Big Paul. And it was also time to simply allow myself to appreciate what was standing right in front of me.

Just like that, a spring day became a gift. The sunflowers to come became a promise. A ghost became a beautiful memory. A heart was allowed to begin healing.

Oh…and yeah…a little herd of horses, donkeys, and one fine mule got to eat cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

It’s December 2 and I Feel Nothing.

ImageToday is December 2. I should feel something. I’m not sure what. But something.

December 2 is just another day to most people, but not to me. It’s a day I will always remember for three good reasons—and one tough one.

The good reasons.

On December 2, 1995, a litter of 12 beautiful Dalmatian puppies was whelped at a good friend’s house. I had the absolute pleasure of being there to help each precious puppy squeal its way into existence. The puppies started coming at 12 midnight and were all here by 6:00 the next morning. The firstborn was a big, strong boy that was immediately nicknamed Bear because he looked just like a little white polar bear. Eight weeks later, Bear would become my special puppy, renamed Teddy.

Myra familyOn December 2, 1997, exactly two years later, a litter of 12 beautiful Dalmatian puppies was whelped, this time in my home. I helped my sweet girl Myra welcome her family starting with the first puppy at 6:00 a.m., and ending with the last puppy born at 12 noon.  The second puppy born would be my sweet Vanny, and the fourth puppy, my boy Carter.

Two litters of 12 puppies, born two years apart on 12/2. One litter born between 12 and six, the other born between six and 12. They almost had to be special puppies…and they were.

In addition to becoming my beloved companions, both Teddy and Carter were champion show dogs. Evander was an exceptional agility dog and also performed as a fire safety education dog teaching children how to stop, drop and roll, how to crawl under smoke, and how to jump out of a window to go to a safe meeting place.

These dogs were with me through many good times and, at various points through the years, each licked salty tears from my cheeks. They were family to me.

I just lost Van on April 12th of this year. Of course he left on the magical 12th day. All three boys lived happy lives well into their teens. In all three cases, it was simply their time to go.  Their respective deaths were peaceful with Jim and I by their sides. I helped bring these boys into this world; I was there to help ease them back out.

So today I should feel gratitude. As in years past, I should feel joy in the happy memories of Teddy, Carter and Vanny. But I don’t.

Ted Dad NanDecember 2 is also the day my father died. It was last year. He had been declining for weeks. There were no miracles left for his tired heart. It was his time. My sister and I were by his side when he left.  In the embrace of our love, he passed peacefully.

I’m not one to dwell on the anniversaries of death. I don’t immerse myself in grief. It’s just not how I choose to cope. It’s not how I want to remember my loved ones.

But I will always remember 12/2. It has been a fixture on my calendar for 18 years. And now it is the first anniversary of Dad’s death.

And I should feel something.

All day long I waited for it. The meltdown. The melancholy. The hollow sense of loss.

Or maybe the annual feelings of celebration would surface. The faint smell of puppy breath.  The warm memory of promise in each precious first breath.

But no. Just nothing.

I couldn’t believe it. What was wrong with me? Am I that hard? That callous?

No.

The truth finally spoke to me.

If I opened that door in my mind, even just a tiny crack, I would be surrounded by fog of loss, of longing. I would have to surrender myself to feelings that just did not have an appointment on today’s busy calendar, or within the walls of my bracing heart.

It’s not that I don’t feel anything today. It’s that I just can’t. I won’t. I won’t allow it.

Maybe later, when my day is done, when I’m not required to be a functioning adult for another eight hours or so, maybe then I’ll open that door and I’ll welcome Dad and three handsome spotted dogs in for a visit.

Maybe then I’ll let myself cry. Maybe? Oh, who am I fooling…I’ll cry a little.

Then I’ll hear my dad’s voice saying something like, “Oh hell, Nan, we’re fine. Suck it up.” Dad could never stand to see one of his girls in tears. I’ll picture the dogs wagging their tails and dancing in circles to cheer me.

I’ll listen to Dad, and I’ll smile at my boys. I’ll let my tears dry as I quietly shut that door again, lingering on the threshold for just a moment to say another goodbye.

See you next year, boys.

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.