How We Do It.

Jim and Skip 2“I don’t know how you do it,” a friend exclaimed as she watched me send one of my adorable little foster puppies off to a new home. “This is exactly why I don’t foster dogs. I could never let any of them leave. Seriously, how do you do it?”

I get this comment a lot. And I mean A LOT. Jim and I have fostered many, many dogs. We have placed many, many dogs. And we have loved each and every one of them.

It’s what we do. But how do we do it?

Well, interestingly enough, the very person who posed this question to me was a mom about to send her child off to college for his freshman year. She raised this child. She loved him dearly. She gave him everything she had to give. And now she was about to let him go.

This week Facebook has been filled with similar stories. Parents dropping kids off for that first day of kindergarten. Nervous parents seeing their youngsters smile and wave as they hop on a bus for their first solo ride to school. Moms forcing eye-rolling kids to pose in front of the very same tree they’ve posed in front of at the start of every school year for…can it be eight years now? Nine? Ten?

I’ve heard tale after tale of parents nervously adding as many home touches to a cookie-cutter dormitory room as their eager-to-spread-their-wings college students will tolerate before saying goodbyes.  Then, of course, while driving away with suppressed tears springing free, they think of a hundred more things they should have said.

So how do I do it?

I think it boils down to this, you love, you nurture, you teach, you shelter. And then, there comes a day when love means knowing it’s time to let go. It’s time to trust that you did your job and that there is a perfect home out there for that puppy…that there is an amazing life ahead for that child.

Do I dare compare a human child to a foster dog? Well…I do because it’s what I’ve got. And really, loving and letting go tugs at your heart, regardless of how many legs your kid has.

But I do have to give the nod to you parents to actual human children. Seriously, you take your child, whether born from your body or born in your heart, and you set him or her free to explore this thing called life. Maybe it’s just for the school day, or maybe it’s for an entire semester or longer. That takes some serious faith and amazing strength.

So how do I do it? How do Jim and I take dog after dog into our home, treat them and care for them as if they are our own, and then let them go to another home,  to a new life?

I think I can answer that question best with a question of my own.

How do YOU do it?

Because really, you moms and dads out there, bravo. Well done. I think you really know the answer to your own question far better than I do.

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Sharing life with Animals

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This is a photo of Vanny, one of my dear dogs from days past. This photo was taken just before he left this life for his next adventure. He was born into my hands and he left cradled in my hands. What a privilege.

I have loved many lives
far more temporary than my own.
I have looked with awe into the eyes of creation,
I have held steady in death’s unyielding gaze,
always transfixed by the complex beauty of both.

A story just beginning,
The final act coming to a close.
Performers who fast forward through life’s stages,
toddling, racing, bounding, then shuffling,
each stage easing my mind into the inescapable reality.

A glimpse at mortality,
theirs and my own.
An unremitting lesson in love and vulnerability,
but also one of joy, of strength,
of compassion, of acceptance.

My heart swells.
My heart breaks.
My heart heals.
And still, I celebrate the blessing
of embracing lives more temporary than my own.

This poem is a tribute to all of the lives that have come and gone from my world, most recently my hog, Spamela Anderson, and our old thoroughbred mare, Silent. But it’s not meant to be horribly sad, or a post mourning their loss. It’s a post about the beauty of the journey. I think living on a farm in the midst of so many animals, I am not hardened to loss, but rather the animals teach me about accepting the reality of transitions.

When you open your heart to loving an animal, whether a pet farm hog, a horse, or a loyal dog, you are allowing yourself to travel through all life’s stages with that animal. We experience their encapsulated cycle of life while gradually changing and moving through the spring, summer, fall, and eventually, winter of our own existence.

 If we let them, our animals have so much to teach us about grace in the journey.

 

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.

A Different Kind of Mother’s Day

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“Do you have big plans for tomorrow?” said the grocery store clerk named Judi, according to her nametag, as she scanned the items from my cart. I know she was referring to the two bundles of roses atop my groceries and the obvious-unless-you-are-in-a-coma fact that it is Mother’s Day weekend.

“No, not really,” I replied. “Just a quiet day.”

This was obviously not the reply she expected. After all, I am a woman who has obviously seen her child-bearing years, but who is also still young enough to have her own mom around. After a brief moment of silence to mull the lack of a rosy-Mother’s-Day response on my part, Judi offered another opportunity for conversation.

“My son called me last night. It’s a busy weekend for his family and he wanted to be sure to wish me a happy Mother’s Day.”

“That’s so sweet,” I commented. “You have a very thoughtful son.”

And then silence as I scanned my credit card and punched in my pin number. Sorry, Judi, I thought. I don’t have much to offer in return. I am never quite sure how to answer these questions…how to join in this conversation.

“I got to talk to my grandkids too,” she nudged, hopefully. “I have a grandson who is nine and a granddaughter who just turned six.”

Ok, time to give this woman a nugget…she’s trying.

“That must be fun for you. I didn’t have kids and my mother passed away a few years ago, so Mother’s Day is a bit quiet for me.”

Judi’s response?

“Oh.”

And then she proceeded to scan my groceries a tad faster. I spared her the awkward silence by asking her a few questions about her grandkids. She loved this line of conversation and I am a very good listener. Awkward moment averted.

Her son, who lives in Kansas City, actually calls her every single night on his way home from work. He has done this since her older son passed away a few years ago. He likes to make sure Judi is ok. Ah Judi, your son. That’s a tough one. I see we’ve all had our losses, I thought to myself.

“You have a very good son,” I said with a smile. “I just bet he calls you tomorrow even though he wished you a Happy Mother’s Day yesterday.”  Judi smiled and agreed that he probably would. We loaded my bagged groceries back into the cart, the flowers placed carefully on top, and I told her to have a very happy Mother’s Day.

“You too,” Judi auto-replied as I walked away.

“Thank you,” I said, “I will.” And I will.

Mom and her girls. Cindy was the oldest, Terry was the middle child. Me? Yeah, I'm the little one in the fancy glasses.

Mom and her girls. Cindy was the oldest, Terry was the middle child. Me? Yeah, I’m the little one in the fancy glasses.

Mother’s Day is not a sad day for me. I had a wonderful mom. She was loving, supportive, funny, fun-loving, compassionate, and a whole lot of other great adjectives. My mom was a stay-at-home kind of mom. She was the cook-a-big-meal-every-day kind of mom. She was a put-every-scribbled-drawing-prominently-on-the-fridge kind of mom. She was a tuck-you-in-at-night-even-when-you’re-a-little-too-old-for-it kind of mom.

She was a great kind of mom.

Mom passed away in October of 2010, after a long battle with dementia. Disease robbed my sister and I of our mom years before we actually lost her, but our memories serve us well and I still feel her presence with me. My mom is gone in the traditional sense, but she’s really not gone at all.

Mom is everywhere. Wherever I am, Mom is there too. I see little things all the time that remind me of her.

A beautiful little finch coming to my bird feeder? My mom delighted in each visitor. I learned to enjoy bird watching thanks to my parents who kept their feeders religiously filled and marked each new species sighted in their bird dictionary.

A dead tree stark against an otherwise green grove? Beautiful! My mom would want to stop to photograph the gracefully bare branches, ignoring the flourishing leaves all around it.

A precious little baby offering an innocent smile and a gurgled laugh? Melt a little. Mom sure would.

A beautiful shell washing up on a beach? You can’t have too many. Take it home to add to your collection.

In fact, anything beach related was something my landlocked mom appreciated. She loved to make pilgrimages to the beach in Texas or Florida as often as possible. Since she was, as I mentioned, an avid bird watcher, she was particularly drawn to the birds found at the ocean. Pelicans were among her favorites. The seemingly clumsy, comical birds just fascinated her as their unlikely bodies balancing those shovel-inspired beaks somehow lifted gracefully into the air and then plunged into the water to find the morning’s breakfast.

She also loved seagulls. On vacations, she would take little snacks down to the beach at sunrise delighting in finding herself surrounded by the demanding aerial acrobats.

In fact, I am quite convinced that mom now uses these particular little feathered reminders quite often. Though we are nowhere near a shoreline, there are seagulls in Oklahoma. They fly along the shores of the Arkansas River. You don’t necessarily see them all the time, but they’re around.

I truly believe that my mom sends seagulls to me when she wants to say hello, or when she knows I need her. It has happened since the day she passed. I’ll be driving along, or I’ll be out for a walk and a random seagull will appear to hover over me for a bit and then soar away. I always smile and say “Hello, Mom. I love you.”

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Amazing seagull image captured by my dear friend, Lesleigh Shaefer. Leigh is a talented photographer and when I told her how much I loved her seagull photos and why, she immediately shared some with me. Thank you Leigh…I will treasure them as much as I treasure you. This photo used here with Leigh’s blessing.

One day, not long after Mom had passed, I was having a bit of a rough day. I missed her terribly. There were things I wanted to share with her and ask her. I wanted to sit with her. I wanted to hug her. There was no denying it. My heart was heavy with a healthy bout of grief.

I was home alone and had walked out to the barn to check the water troughs when suddenly I heard a familiar screech.  I looked up to see a few obviously lost seagulls circling the barn.

As I smiled and watched, the sky suddenly started filling with seagulls. Not a few, not a dozen, literally hundreds of them. Maybe this is a scene you might find near a fleet of fishing boats, but it’s certainly not a common occurrence in the skies over Mounds, Oklahoma. Our farm is not anywhere near the river. Seagulls do not flock to my little farm pond.

I just stood in awe as the air over my farm filled with hundreds of seagulls swirling and soaring overhead. Their performance went on for several minutes. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. I searched the brilliantly blue sky for any stragglers and didn’t see even one.  In that moment I knew that I had just received the most spectacular hug my mother could deliver.

Through tears and laughter I thanked my mom for reminding me that she is still with me. No matter where I am, she can find me. Her seagulls can always find me. And leave it to mom to send them when there were no other witnesses to confirm or deny my sanity.

Tomorrow, I will take flowers to her grave—the very flowers I purchased today from sweet mom and grandmother, Judi. I will brush the dust off of her headstone and I’ll talk with her and with Dad as well. I’ll arrange the roses nicely in the urn that marks their little place in the earth. I’ll sit for a moment to enjoy the peace and beauty of this place.

And I won’t be one tiny bit surprised if I see a clever little seagull supervising my visit. Not one bit surprised.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you too.

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Golden Love. My Dad and his Girlfriend.

“Bob is seeing a young woman now,” Dad commented, trying to sound casual.

He didn’t fool me. I knew he was trying to weave his way into a specific conversation he needed to have with me, so I played along.

Bob was a longtime family friend. His wife, Dorothy, had passed away a few years ago, a couple of years before my mother had died. Now, Bob was dating again. He had met a “young woman” of 60-something—I guess to my 85-year-old father, she was just a girl.

“Really?” I prompted, deciding to let him fill in the details I already knew. “How wonderful—I’m sure it’s nice for him to have companionship again after losing Dorothy.”

“I’m not sure his family is excited about it, Bob said they haven’t really accepted the idea of him dating again,” said Dad, turning his head just slightly to glance at me, almost like a nervous schoolboy. “They haven’t been very receptive, I guess.”

“Well, maybe they just need a little time,” I said. “I’m sure it’s an adjustment to think of Bob with anyone but Dorothy.” Just as it would be an adjustment to think of my dad loving anyone but my mother.

“Well, you know, it gets very lonely…I’m sure Bob has been very lonely,” Dad said, stumbling a bit between his reality and Bob’s reality. It was touching to see my dad’s struggle to find his I-need-to-tell-you-something words. Having spent a lifetime working to find just the right words to break news to him, I found this role reversal to be a bit awkward for both of us.

My parents had been married for just over 61 years when my mother died. Dad had survived several confusing years as he watched Mom’s steady decline in the grip of dementia. Now he had been alone for about 18 months. As alone, that is, as a man in an assisted living apartment complex can possibly be. Men are greatly outnumbered by women in retirement communities and whether he realized it or not, dear old Dad was a hot property at the Oklahoma Methodist Manor. My sister and I, noticing the ladies of OMM noticing our father, had always known that this moment, the need for this conversation, would just be a matter of time.

Over the past couple of weeks it had come to my attention that one of Dad’s neighbors seemed to be by his side more often than not. She was a lovely, trim woman who was always beautifully dressed, hair always just so, lipstick in place. She had a twinkle in her soft blue eyes and a gentle southern accent that carried an audible smile when she spoke. It was more than obvious that Ina and Dad had grown quite fond of each other.

Was it initially hard to walk down the hall to find my Dad holding another woman’s hand for a little longer than a friendly moment? Admittedly, yes—it was difficult to pacify the loyalty to my mother that welled up in my heart. But those feelings were quickly, gently soothed as I would stop to watch the young-at-heart couple, just before they noticed me heading their way. The look on my Dad’s face, the tone of his voice, the smile that spread not out of a sense of politeness, but from a place inside his heart, filled me with a new kind of peace. My Dad had been devoted to my mother for six decades. How could I expect him to just abandon that capacity for love now that she was gone?

So I sat with Dad and we talked about Bob, though we both knew we weren’t really talking about Bob at all. “You know Dad, I’m happy for Bob,” I said. “It’s a lucky man who is blessed to find special love twice in his life. I’m sure his family will see that too. They’ll welcome his happiness.”

Dad looked out the window, obviously not able to meet my eyes in that moment. “I’m glad to hear you say that,” he said softly, “It’s no fun to be lonely. It’s so hard.”

“I know, Dad. Everyone deserves to share their days with someone special.”

“Everyone,” I emphasized.

We sat a moment longer in comfortable silence, everything said that needed to be said. Then I saw Ina approaching, and I saw my dad’s face light up.

“Hello, Ms. Ina,” I said to my dad’s 93-year-old girlfriend as I got up from my chair. “Here, take my spot next to Dad.” Ina smiled pleasantly, as she always did, and accepted my place…now also her place…next to my father.  As I turned to leave, I kissed my Dad on the cheek and whispered in his ear, “Make sure you kids don’t stay out too late.”

With a chuckle in acceptance of my blessing, two hands clasped openly and golden hued love, secret no more, blossomed.

My father and Ina were an item at the Oklahoma Methodist Manor for the last year of his life. They ate all of their meals together, they spent afternoons holding hands as they sat in their favorite sunny spot by a large window near Dad’s apartment. Every evening, they would watch a little television and then Ina would turn down my father’s bed before retiring to her own apartment for the night. If I happened to be there as she was leaving, she would turn to me to say—and you really have to hear these words spoken in the sweetest southern accent possible—“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to give your father some sugar right now.” And she would lean down to softly kiss Dad on the lips.

No, Ms. Ina, I didn’t mind one bit. Not one tiny bit.Dad and Ina