STILL HERE

It’s been two days since we said goodbye to our dog, Tuck.

Tuck was in care several times since our move to Santa Rosa. So Tuck being absent for a few days hasn’t worried our other dog, Nick.

I know dogs can’t understand human speech, but last night, I sat with him and told him Tuck wasn’t coming home. He gave no sign anything was out of the ordinary, though. Just gazed at me with his I-yam-still-a-puppy eyes.

In the comments in my last post on Facebook about Tuck, Jon posted a video we took of Tuck, howling when he hears a siren. He would do it once, and that’s it. We would laugh and laugh. It was a low, mournful song, very drawn out. We loved it.

He never did it out here. I don’t know if his hearing was worse, or if the emergency sirens are at different frequencies.

And Nick never howls. Ever. In eight years, he has never howled at anything.
This morning, Jon was replaying a recording of a siren we sometimes played for Tuck.

And Nick howled!

Higher-pitched. Shorter. But still…..definitely howling to the siren.

He did it twice, but refused to do it for the camera.

We laughed with the first joy we’ve felt in days.

It’s like….either Nick feels there is a fill the gap in our lives that he can maybe fill. Maybe he knows that was Tuck’s “job”, and wants to let Tuck know he’s gotta get back here to do it.

Or maybe someone/something is telling him to let us know Tuck is still here, in our hearts, and in Nick’s.

I remember my animal stories:

Dog tells me, “I will always walk at your side. You need never be alone.”

ALL DOG STORIES

All dog stories begin with laughter, and end with tears.

Today, we had our dog Tuck put down.

We adopted him on our last family vacation, to the Turks and Caicoes islands, over ten years ago.

We’d been looking for a dog to go running with Jon. When we landed on the main island, I picked up an island magazine to read at our hotel. In it, we found an article about a rescue group, the TCSPCA, that rescued potcakes, the island name for the village dogs that were pets, then dumped, then feral, then rescued, a common cycle for village dogs around the world.

Unfortunately, when we visited the shelter, it only had very sick dogs and puppies, as there were no facilities for all the rescues. They were all in foster care, in private homes!

While we browsed the gift shop, hoping to contribute to their efforts, the manager quietly called a foster mom. Soon, a van turned into the parking lot, and three adults and four potcake puppies tumbled out of the van.

Tuck was one of four puppies left, of eight born to a female potcake, rescued by a British family, when they took in the abandoned mother. The other four had already been adopted, and these four were left.

For the rest of the week, we test-ran puppies (literally!) to see who would jog with Jon. We loved them all, but fell in love with three. Then our first choice was adopted, and another, and we were left with our second choice, Tuck. So we brought Tuck, our second choice, and his sister back to the United States with us.

He then proceeded to change our lives.

Potcakes are an anxious breed, and they can take awhile to fully house-train. And this being our first dog, we were amazed at what they considered edible. Our most frequent phrase those early years was, “I didn’t know they ate things like that” and “Eeeeuuuww!!!”

He loved to lie on the sofa with us, and of course, he slept with us on our bed, until he got too big. And until we took in Nick, who was even bigger.

We were fortunate to have a big house and a big backyard. We lived within minutes of river trails and reservoirs with open areas, perfect for a dog to run free. I can still remember Tuck and Nick (a later island rescue) racing through high drifts of snow, plowing through snowbanks like furry snowmobiles. They loved snow, and sunshine, but hated water. Island dogs! Go figure.

When Tuck was young, he was very good with other dogs, including the dozens of potcake puppies we received over the next five years, as other returning island visitors carried adoptable puppies back with them. We would meet them at the airport and place the puppies in wonderful homes, for our remaining five years in New Hampshire.

He grew from a sweet awkward puppy into a beautiful, elegant, graceful dog. A friend’s mother remarked that he was “a noble dog”, and somehow that suited him perfectly. When he was aggrieved about something—having to share the couch with a cat (our elderly cat Chai) or Nick, he would grumble about it, but begrudgingly accommodate them.

He also kept his puppy fur. His coat was soft and dense right up to his last days with us. And that face! To his dying day, he would give us that anxious, winsome, sad-puppy dog look that never failed to melt our hearts.

As he grew older, he became a bit of a grumpy gus, grumbling and barking at other dogs, including Nick. But he never showed a sliver of violence or aggression when handled by vets and nail-trimmers. He never crossed that line with anyone, ever.

He was always a sweet, sweet dog. And he was a great dog to run with. He ran with Jon until we moved to California, and Jon had double-hip replacement surgery. No more runs. Also fewer places for a dog to be off-leash here.

So his life became a little smaller, but it was still good.

Then the year of death hit us, hard.

In one year, I lost both my parents, and my daughter miscarried with her first child.

I made many trips to Michigan and Washington, D.C. that year. Tuck had already begun slowing down, more reluctant to take long walks. And that fall, we thought we were losing him for certain. We thought he had a stroke. He couldn’t walk, he was incontinent, he couldn’t jump up on the bed, he wouldn’t eat. We were frantic with worry.

We rushed him to an emergency pet hospital, fortunately to find out he’d eaten a marijuana brownie on a walk the day before along a local creek trail. He was high on weed!

It was frightening for him and for us. But we made it through. And afterwards, we could laugh about our bongo dog. We thought we were past the hard year, finally.

Then, early in 2019, my daughter lost her second baby, this one at 8 months into her pregnancy. It was awful.

We took turns flying out to see her. She and her husband were—still are—devastated. There are no words when your child is suffering, no wisdom or insight or advice that will magically erase the horror of what they’ve gone through, what they are still going through. (Fortunately, the hospital staff were incredibly compassionate and supportive.)

We were still reeling with that when, a few weeks later, Tuck’s life took a major turn for the worse.

He developed acute pancreatitis, which was misdiagnosed by our first vet, but caught by another emergency hospital when he was referred to them for care.

After all our losses from last year, and this, we were determined to spare no expense to ensure Tuck’s recover.

That turned out to be a disaster, financially, and health-wise, for him.

The next six months were a horror-show.

When he recovered, he had developed diabetes. We worried about the cost of that, but were told, “Oh, insulin for dogs is only $60 a bottle.” No one mentioned at the time that he would need four bottles a month. Plus syringes. Plus a special bucket for disposing of the syringes. Plus a syringe disposal fee.

Still, okay. But wait! There’s more!

Our lives became a highly-scheduled regime of expensive food, multiple bottles of insulin each month, stuffing supplements and antacids down his throat. He was never a pill-taker, and forcing those pills were harder on him than the insulin shots.

The hospital and office visit costs started at few thousand dollars. Ulp. But manageable, right?

But then that got worse, too.

We had to take him in for bi-weekly reassessments, at several hundred dollars a pop, plus meds, plus everything else involved, which we did for several months. Oh, that was going to go on for several more months though. And oh! They would need to be repeated several times a year, for the rest of his life. His meds and supplements alone ran to over $500 a month, not including these additional testings. As Jon said, “We gave him more access to health care than most people in this country get.”

And Tuck hated it.

Was it worth it?

That’s a hard question. There’s no price on a dog’s life, in one sense. He’s a member of our family, and we thought it would restore him to a normal life again. Maybe we would have him for 3, 4, even 5 more years. It seemed worth it.

And it would have been. But in addition to the financial strain, it became obvious his quality of life was permanently changed, and not for the better.

He was weaker. He was in discomfort. He began to whimper, and squeal and whine constantly. He refused to even walk around the block. He lost a lot of his vision, and struggled mightily with that. Only his hearty appetite remained, and yet his diet was severely restricted. No treats (which we never gave him anyway, just a bite of cat kibble now and then.) No dish-licking. No licking the yogurt container when it was empty. Just expensive, no-fat food at almost $100 a bag, a month.

We finally found a great vet a couple weeks ago, and had “the talk” with them. What was this going to look like, going forward? Could things get better? Was it possible they would get worse?

They assured us that some dogs recover from this, and have a good life.

And, they said frankly, some don’t.

What were we looking for, they asked.

Clarity, we said.

How do we decide when it is all just too much for a dog to handle?

We  have loved all our pets over the years, every single one. When we thought they had a chance at a good life, despite their injuries and illnesses, we gave it to them.

But when it was obvious their quality of life was not so hot, were we doing them any favors by keeping them alive because we needed them to be here for us? No matter how miserable their lives became?

We are not those people.

They gave us some suggestions, some strategies, and assured us they understood where we were coming from. We left, feeling reassured that we could take a few measures to ratchet things back, and wait until we knew the time had come.

It came less than two weeks later. It came yesterday. It started last night.

He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t pee, just dripped. He wouldn’t eat. He whined, piercingly, nonstop, all night. We took turns sitting up with him.

I got angry at one point, as his piercing squeals jerked me awake dozens of times with a start. I yelled at him. Stop it! I said. Just stop it! I am so ashamed to admit that now. I didn’t realize it was his last night with us. I was exhausted, and scared.

I want to believe he forgives me for that.

The next morning, things were event worse. We knew it was time.

Unfortunately, our new vet was not available for a consult today. Once again, we took him to the animal emergency hospital. We explained why we were there:

If blood and urine tests showed that this was manageable, fine. We could go forward with treatment, and hope it would help. But unless they felt sure his new condition was treatable, easily, without incuring thousands of dollars more, we were not going forward with this. It would be time to say goodbye.

The first person who came to the lobby to discuss this was simply mean. No other word for it. They made it clear they felt we had failed our dog, that we were careless and uncaring, that our vet was out of line, that we had screwed with his meds and messed up his care. This was on us, his suffering.

That hurt. It’s hard enough to make these decisions without those who would judge us. We almost left to wait to see our vet tomorrow.

But neither of us could bear to see him suffer another 24 hours.

I’m glad we waited. The next vet tech person to talk with us was amazing. And then we spoke to the vet, and they were amazing, too.

We made it clear how much we love this dog. We made it clear it wasn’t about being “cheap”, or wanting a fancy home or car instead of a healthy dog. It wasn’t about trying to economize on the expenses, though it was causing issues for us.

But the expenses we went through meant we can’t do that for any of our remaining pets, ever. When we first went there, we told them, we met a gentleman who told us he’d spent $14,000 to save his kitten.

$14,000.

We thought at the time, “Are you crazy?!” We’ve been living with one car for five years, Jon is underpaid at his current job for his industry, we haven’t been able to set aside funds for our retirement for five years, and that’s not going to change soon. We haven’t been able to significantly offer financial help either of our kids all year because of this expense. My art and writing biz has tanked in the last five years, partly because of the move and leaving a loyal and loving audience behind, and partly for reasons that have nothing to do with me or my work. In short, that was simply a jaw-dropping amount of money for us to contemplate.

$14,000. Well, we came pretty close to that figure over six months. We knew we couldn’t go on with it indefinitely.

But even that wasn’t the deciding factor.

We were also very clear that, if we KNEW Tuck’s quality of life would definitely improve, if they told us this newest episode was something easily fixed, easily cured, we would do it.

But if not, that would be the main reason to stop this.

If we had to put him down, we would miss him forever. But putting him through more misery just because we didn’t want to feel bad about it? Not an option.

It’s our job to offer our pets the best life we can.

It’s not their job to suffer because we’re too tender to let them go.

The staff reassured us. They were compassionate enough, and honest enough, to tell us that a good recovery would not be the case. There wasn’t much hope.

And what brought the tears for both of us, is when both professionals told us repeatedly that it was a good decision. Too many people go down that other hole, they told us, and put their beloved pets through hell, trying to “fix” something that just can’t be fixed. We weren’t “copping out” like the first person implied. Yes, it is a difficult situation, really hard.

But they said we were making a decision based on what was best for Tuck, and that was commendable.

It helped. It also made us cry, again. Thank you, we said. Thank you for understanding. Just….thank you.

They put us in a private room with a soft cushion for him to lie on. I’d put my hoodie jacket on him, the lobby was so cold, but they brought fluffy blankets for him. They explained their process, which exactly met my request: Give him something to soothe him, and let him fall asleep as we held him, just like normal, just like always, one last time.

And when he was deeply asleep, and released from his anxiety and pain, then he could have the final dosage.

They gave us time alone with him so we could say our goodbyes. We said we wanted to be present for the entire process. We owed him that, to sit through something heartbreaking, to be present. To be with him to the end.

Jon and I sat with him, and held him. We whispered, “Who’s a cute puppy?” and “What a good dog!”, words that always made his tail wag gently, and perked up his ears.

He simply lay there quietly. Sometimes critters fight back at the last moment, instinctively. It makes it harder, as if they’re saying, “No! Wait!”

But he didn’t. It felt like he was ready to go.

We told him he was the best dog in the whole world. We told him we would love him forever. I traced the white patch on his head and neck that looked like a bunny. I looked into his beautiful eyes, eyes that look like he wears eyeliner. We said goodbye.

It was the softest passing I’ve ever experienced with a pet. He melted into my lap, relaxed, and closed his eyes. His labored breathing softened, evened out, gently, in. And out. And in. And out.

And then he was still.

Goodbye, beautiful boy.

Thank you for the years of joy and laughter, the wonderful memories.

Thank you your exuberance, for your companionship, for your devotion and love. Thank you for your expressive face, your noble look.

Thank you for being a poop about getting your nails trimmed, and yet not making it hard for the people who trimmed them. Thank you for being afraid of skateboards, because people glide on them in a weird way and they make a rattling noise.

Thank you for your love of a wide open field, and a brisk wind, and sunshine. Thank you for hating rain and baths. Thank you for loving smells, and cats, and fluffy pillows, and blankets.

Thank you for inspiring me to learn more about dogs, learning about their deep history with humans, going back over a hundred thousand years. Thank you for evolving right along with us, so that you always somehow knew when we were sad, or disgruntled, or afraid. Thank you for teaching me that dogs have walked by our side for an eternity, so that we need never walk alone.

Thank you for making us dog people. It wasn’t hard, was it?

We were waiting for you all along, never knowing how much we needed you, until you showed up in our lives.

After Jon and I argued a day ago, we made up and drove to Bodega Head. For the first time ever, when we put the windows down, Tuck and Nick both stuck their heads out of the window. I could see Tuck in the rear view mirror. He looked happy.

We went for along walk along the road that follows the inner bay. He tried to eat a dead crab. (No, Tuck.) He sniffed every piece of garbage. He tried to eat a sandwich wrapper. We laughed. Our last good day with him.

Today, I can still see his serene, smiling face, with his snout facing into the wind, just….happy.

And now I know first-hand, what I’ve always known is true:

All dog stories begin with laughter, and end with tears.

FINDING HOPE IN THE HARD PLACES: My Blog Tagline Works Its Magic Again.*

Don't miss Luann Udell's words on finding hope, faith and inspiration in what you do
Don’t miss Luann Udell’s words on finding hope, faith and inspiration in what you do

FINDING HOPE IN THE HARD PLACES: My Blog Tagline Works Its Magic Again.*

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

It’s been a year. A lot of death, a lot of loss, a lot of grieving.

Just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water…. (Cue “Jaws” music.)

After yet another emergency trip to the East Coast in mid-March, this last crisis seemed almost too much to handle. Our dog Tuck, our first dog, and the one who inspired not only my dog artifacts, and my dog story ***, but also this article that ran in the magazine formerly known as The Crafts Report became critically ill last week.

He stopped eating, he was misdiagnosed by our newest vet, and he ended up being hospitalized for acute pancreatitis and diabetes (as a permanent complication.)

The good news is, he has received excellent care, and may even be able to come home tomorrow.

The bad news is, this cost nearly as much as I made all last year in my art biz, including writing these columns.

I was afraid the high cost of emergency care would force us to make a painful decision. But my husband, as usual, gave clarity. “He’s part of our family,” he said firmly.

I was so relieved. We live fairly frugally (except for living in California!), so though this isn’t an easy budget item, it won’t destroy us. My heart goes out to people whose financial situation would force them to do otherwise.

Why am I writing about this today?

Because I could not stop thinking about this: The financial cost could have superseded all other factors in our decision. And yet, the devastation of losing our pet would have last for YEARS….

Love, and hope, vs. money.

In many ways, I cannot be counted as a “successful artist”, especially if money is used as the only measure of my success. Even at the height of my art biz career, I made less than minimum wage today.

I am not famous. Although I love it when someone stops me in mid-conversation and says, “Wait a minute….You’re Luann Udell?? THE Luann Udell?” it doesn’t really happen that often.  (Don’t let that stop you from saying that, though!)  :^D

So what is the “true value” of my artwork, my writing, my presence in this world?

Frankly, who can say? Who cares?

What really matters?

My art, my words, my actions, have given me a place in the world. The size of the return doesn’t matter.

My work has given me a voice in the world. The size of the audience doesn’t matter.

They have given me solace, an outlet, and much joy. What they do for others is an important, yet ultimately secondary effect.

The past 12 months have been filled with loss, exhaustion, despair, the feeling of not belonging, not being “good enough”, and not being valued. Even when I’ve traveled to be with those who are grieving, my only “gift” was being present. I could not “fix” their grief, or give them the answers they seek. I could only be a mom who cares.

But even now, I still rejoice at the prospect at getting back to work in my new studio. I know I will be restored to my better self. I know the healing power of my own art.

My words will probably never bring me wealth, or fame, nor will they end a war.

All I can offer, myself, with my art, the work of my heart, is this….

A small place for hope.

A safe place for grieving.

A little money to help those who are worse off than I.

A listening ear.

And sharing my stories, hoping someone, somewhere, they will help someone who needs to hear them today.

If you make tons of money for your artwork, I celebrate with you. I’m truly happy, because it means there’s a chance I will, too, someday.

If you have gained fame and fortune with the work of your heart, I hope you use it to make the world a little better than how you found it.

Although I usually tell artists not to “water down” their art by relying on sales of cards ($4,000 paintings, $4 cards??) I have to admit that such a card, sent by a friend recently, with their beautiful work on the front, lifted my spirits. A lot!

My hope for you today is that you feel the power of what you do. That you have faith in the power of what you do, no matter how much, nor how little, you can see.

And here are a few side notes on what the first vet, and the animal hospital did right, that also inform our art-making/marketing:

When the vet realized the condition was much, much worse than they thought, they immediately contacted us and referred us to a more experienced resource. Lesson learned: When your work gets in a rut, when things seem too hard, step outside your box and explore new options. Kick it up a notch! A class, a new body of work, perhaps even a new medium, can be just the uptick you need. Start that email newsletter! Clean up your website. Try Instagram?

The hospital saw us immediately. And every day, we not only received updates twice daily, we were allowed to visit Tuck. Which put our hearts at ease, and his, too. Lesson learned: Your audience wants to hear from you, too! Use your website’s “Events” features, your email newsletter, and other social media to let them know what you’re up to. You’ve created a relationship that goes beyond just sales. You’ve created a real human connection.

Most important, be grateful. Be grateful to those who know the depth and power of our love, for our family, for our pets, for our art. They will raise you up when things get hard.

Be grateful you are able to make room in your life for your art. So many people feel they can’t, that they aren’t good enough, that nobody wants their work, that they aren’t “successful” enough. It’s okay to want more recognition, to want more skill, to make more money. It’s also okay for “making” and “making it” to be enough, for now.

Hold on to your dreams. Know the power of love. And keep making your art!

And when we do lose Tuck (that day will come), I know we will still welcome another pupster who needs a loving home into our lives. “All dog stories begin with laughter, and end with tears.” Keep the laughter coming!

How has your work lifted the hearts of others? How has your work helped you get back to your happy place? I’d love to hear, and I bet others will, too!

*My art tagline is, “Ancient Stories Retold in Modern Artifacts. But my blog tagline is, “Muddling through life with the help of art.” (Some of my subscribers call themselves “Muddlers”. I love that!)

LESSONS FROM MY PETS: Nick the Problem Dog

by Luann Udell on 9/23/2017 4:34:27 AM
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Nick has taught me to get better at asking for what I want…

Sometimes it’s hard to know what we really want.

Oh, we may think we know! But do we really? When we say, “I want to be a successful artist!” just what do we mean by that?

Successful like Thomas Kinkade successful? Yes, he is one of the best-known artists of our time. But his work was kitsch, (and he knew it) and he died of an overdose of alcohol and Valium. Successful like Vincent Van Gogh successful? He never actually sold a painting (okay, well, maybe one), but now his work is worth millions, millions of people know who he is, and his work is considered stellar. Unfortunately, he’s also been dead for over a hundred years, so he never knew what success felt like.

 How about the Piss Christ artist? Everyone knows his work, too.

“Okay, so not that kind of successful. I just want to sell more work!”

How much more work? Enough to buy a house? Put food on the table? Or enough to break even with your expenses?

What’s in-between??

When I try to say, or write, exactly what I want for my art, it gets tricky. Am I being too vague? Too specific? What would really give me joy?

I’ve noticed it’s not just me who feels this way. I’ve asked other people. They have difficulty asking for what they want, let alone  knowing  what they want. And like me, they ask for the moon (“I want to make a jillion dollars!” or not much (“I just want to pay for my expenses!”)

I’m now thinking that in order to KNOW what we want, we have to get better at ASKING for it. Because this is what happened with my dog, Nick.

 So, a little backstory here. Nick was one of our rescue pups, puppies from the Turks and Caicoes we fostered and placed in wonderful homes over five years in New Hampshire. (Long story for another time. Or maybe a new series…?? Hmmmm.) I would meet tourists returning from vacations to these beautiful islands, at the airport, where they had brought back a puppy or two, courtesy of the TCSPCA. The pups were in excellent health, with all their vaccinations, and allowed in the cabin in a carry-on bag. There are too many dogs in the Caribbean isles with no homes, while New England, thanks to successful spay-and-neuter programs, have a dearth of puppies.

Nick wasn’t one of our rescues. He was a ‘failed adoption’ from another volunteer in Boston who did the same work. The new owner said her older dog ‘had issues’ with the pup, and so the volunteer asked if I could help. I said I would, and picked him up.

Nick was 5 months when he came to us, and we quickly realized there were other issues with HIM. Of all our fosters, Nick had ALL of the difficult growing pains most puppies have: Not housebroken, a chewer, a barfy pup, nudgy (constantly poking for attention) and a submissive pee-er. We weren’t able to place him for several months. Then I had surgery, and was unable to look for another home for him.

Nick, 5 months, trying very, very hard to be good. Succeeding only intermittently.

By the time I’d recovered, he’d been with us five months, and was officially ‘our dog’.

 Nick is seven years old now, and is still a little problematic. A year ago, I realized my husband and I were part of the problem. We were both constantly annoyed at his bad habits, and Jon still does not consider him ‘our’ dog. We didn’t choose him. We were left holding the bag.

 That’s not a good attitude with any parenting/foster situation, kids or critters. How does a dog fare in such an atmosphere?? They certainly know our hearts—they’ve been with us since the dawn of time: https://luannudell.wordpress.com/tag/potcake/

 I finally realized Nick knew he was not loved fully, and I vowed to change that. I looked for the good things about him, and opened my heart to him. He’s much better now!

The biggest change came with the new house we moved into last spring. We live on one floor now. It’s extremely easy to let the dogs in and out to the backyard.

Soon I realized NICK lets me know when he has to go outside. That’s what the wet nose nudging was about!

So whenever Nick started to nudge me, I would ask, “Do you want to go outside?” His entire body, from ears to tale, goes full attention mode. “Yes! Yes! I do ever so want to go outside!!”

 Within a few weeks of this, this paying attention to his signals, I noticed something amazing: Nick would ‘ask’ to go outside when our other, older dog, Tuck, wanted to go outside! (Tuck never asks, he just suffers in silence until we remember to let him out.) Nick is asking on behalf of TUCK!

 Nick continues to get better at asking. In the last few months, he’s evolved from a) asking to go outside; to b) asking if TUCK can go outside; to c) asking if he can have dinner early (sitting by the dog food container with wistful eyes; d) asking if he can lick the bacon grease from the frying pan (sitting by the stove with wistful glances at the pan); and now e) asking for an ear scratch.

 

Nick asking for bacon grease.

In fact, now when Nick nudges me, I stand up and say, “What do you want?” And then he shows me. Every. Single. Time.

What’s the difference? Nick has discovered he can ask—and get an answer. A response. A gasp of amazement—“You’re asking for Tuck’s sake?! Cool!” A chuckle—“Nope, no bacon grease for you.” And an ear scratch.

Within a few months, Nick has gotten very, very good at asking for what he wants. And in doing so, he’s reminded me that I can do the same.

When we are encouraged at asking for what we want, we get better at it. And we get better at knowing what we really want. 

We get better at knowing if we get it, too. 

I’m going to think deeply for the next few days: “What is it that I want?”

I’m going to write about it, too. Because for me, writing lets unexpected insights pop up out of nowhere. Let’s see what comes of that.

How do YOU figure out what YOU want? Let me know your process.

And if you’re vaguely unhappy, or disappointed, or even just temporarily at loose ends about your personal, professional, emotional, and spiritual goals right now, pretend there’s someone or something out there that cares, no matter what your spiritual beliefs or practices.

 Go big. Get small. Be precise. It doesn’t matter.

Just practice, and see what happens. It worked for Nick!

Er…Would you like me to scratch your ears?

HOW TO VISIT A SOMEONE WHO’S IN A NURSING HOME Part 1

Recently I accompanied my mom to visit two of her good friends in a nursing home, one of whom I wrote about yesterday.

I could tell Mom felt a little awkward. One woman was napping in her chair. “Don’t wake her!” mom exclaimed. (Okay, whispered. Exclaiming would have awakened her fried.) She wanted to leave immediately. Unfortunately, Robin sat on her bed and set off an alarm. Erna awakened, and fortunately, was happy to see us.

At first, with both there was a lot of cheerful chatter. Mostly the old stories told and retold. When the stories ran out, Mom wanted to leave.

I have vivid memories of my dad doing the same, years and years ago. There was an older woman, who grew up in Scotland, who worked for my dad in our family restaurant. She retired; soon after, she was confined to a wheelchair and eventually moved into a nursing home. She had no family here in the U.S. except for her son, who rarely visited her. I remember “making the rounds” every Sunday after church–out to the nursing home in the country to visit Bessie, back to town to visit my grandparents, and then maybe back to the “store” for an ice cream cone.

Bessie adored my father, and was always happy to see us. Dad would chat about ordinary things–the restaurant, our doings and comings and goings. I remember him bringing her flowers from our garden.

But sometimes, especially near the end of our visit, she would cry and beg Dad to get her out of there. As time went on, and she became more frail, this happened more and more, until every parting drew tears.

I remember standing there, embarrassed, wordless, having no idea what to do. I would look at my Dad. What would he do? How would he handle this?

Well, my dad would get embarrassed, too. He would weakly try to reassure her that everything was alright, and we’d all make a fast dash for the door.

In my later years, I pretty much kept up the family tradition. I felt awkward visiting folks in such places, even hospitals. I would agonize over what to bring. Flowers? Candy? Can they have candy?? A book? Maybe they’ve already read it…. I would fill the room with cheerful chatting, clumsily reassure them when things go tearful, and beat a hasty retreat.

I’m still not the soul of compassion, but I try to do better now. Because I know better.

The old rules of how to behave are gone. The circumstances have changed, and so must our patterns.

I try to see what is needed, and what is wanted. I listen. I observe. I touch.

People who have been in such places a long time have different needs. No, I take that back–they have the same needs. But we have to fill them differently.

STOP

Relax and be present.

It’s okay to be with them as they sleep. Sleep is important, yes. Especially near the end of life, deep work takes place during sleep. And it’s still rude to awaken someone suddenly, especially with shaking and loud voices. But perhaps you can sit quietly by them, gently taking their hand. Many times they will sense your presence, and awaken gently. If not, be assured they still sense you on some deep level. Even 20 minutes simply sitting quietly, and holding their hand, can be deeply reassuring.

However, don’t stare at them. Waking up to someone watching you sleep can be icky. Sometimes I just take those moments to think, or daydream. But it’s okay to bring a book if it’s hard to sit quietly.

TOUCH

Taking their hand can seem awkward and forward. When have we ever held hands with our friends, or our family, after we’re five? But people need the touch of human hands, now more than ever. It may be years since someone has hugged them, or stroked their hair, or simply held their hand.

No need to envelop them in a bear hug! I start by nonchalantly taking up their hand and cupping it gently. If someone does not want to be touched, then they will withdraw their hand. But if they welcome it, they will not. They may even clasp your hand tighter.

My friend Bonnie Blandford taught me the “hospice hug“. Instead of our quick little social hugs, it’s simply a longer hug where you let the other person choose when to stop. In fact, if they pull back after a few seconds out of habit, try holding gently for another few seconds. You’ll be surprised how many people will relax and hang on for dear life. I did this with a friend recently who had suffered a dreadful loss. When she realized she could have a long hug, she melted into my arms, and began to sob. Yep, some guys in the group got nervous, and began to make jokes about lesbians. I ignored them all. My friend had lost a new grandchild. She needed a deep hug.

LISTEN

Sometimes people want to be entertained with light chatter and news of the outside world. But sometimes they are scared, or anxious, or lonely. They yearn for richer connection. If they are scared, don’t pooh-pooh their fears. What are they afraid of? What’s making them anxious? You don’t need to fix their problems. But we all appreciate someone who listens to them!

By the way, Erna had trouble speaking and forming words. My mom assumed she was “out of it.” By sitting closer and listening carefully, it became obvious that Erna was actually quite aware and responding appropriately to everything we said. She just needed more time to respond.

STAY

I’m not so nervous about people crying now. I just keep the Kleenix coming until they’re done.

OBSERVE

As they talk with you, listen deeply. Watch “the light”. Note where they are making light of something that actually pains them. Observe the topics that make them light up with joy. For one of Mom’s friends, it was a passing comment about our dogs. She asked, “What kind of dog?” We told her. I asked her if she’d ever had a dog. Her face lit up. “Oh, yes!” She told us several stories, and then got to the one that was painful–the family dog hit by a car, and how terrible it was. The pain, the suffering, the family’s anguish. All these years later, and it was still hard. On impulse, I told her a quick version of the delightful movie, Dean Spanley*. A dog who is killed suddenly, describes it as something he didn’t understand. His former master asks if he suffered. No…no…. There was no pain. It was time to go home. How did he get there? He simply turned towards home, and went there. When asked how he knew where home was, he said, “One just knows. So you turn that way, and go there.” Erna smiled sweetly and sighed.

BE A WITNESS

Tell them about the gifts they’ve given you–the gift of their friendship, their kindnesses, their thoughtfulness. If they were feisty friends, tell them how much you admire their courage to be themselves. Though I didn’t know either woman, I knew my mother treasured their friendships, and said so. To Frannie, who changed her dress on her daughter’s wedding day, I said, “That was such a gift you gave your daughter!”

Ask questions, especially if you don’t know them well. Don’t interrogate–it’s not a fact-finding mission. Just show interest in what they have to say, how they lived their lives, what gives them joy. When they tell you hard things, say, “That must have been hard” and let them tell you more. When they tell you beautiful things, ask them what their favorite part was. Let them tell their stories.

READ

When I do hospice visits, I take books. I take one for me to read to myself and one to read aloud–a book of poetry, or short stories, or novels where individual chapters can stand alone. If the person is religious or spiritual, I’ll bring a book of prayers or blessings. I’ve found that we never lose the desire to be read to, provided the person is up for it. It’s a way to take a break from conversation, a way for them to simply listen, even a way to ease them into sleep. My daughter loves the scene in the movie WIT, where the main character (who is dying) accepts her old teacher’s offer to read to her. John Donne gets voted down, but it turns out the children’s book The Runaway Bunny is beautifully appropriate.

FORGIVE YOURSELF

It’s okay to be thankful it’s not you lying there in the nursing home. They know you feel that way. And it’s okay. You’re not a bad person. Just human. And they know that, too.

There’s more, but I forgot.

This is just quick overview of how to make such visits easier, deeper and fun. I would LOVE to hear your suggestions, too.

How did I get so smart? Listening to my daughter speak of her experiences working in such institutions–nursing homes, assisted living units, rehab wards. And my hospice training, which was rich with insights and practical advice.

*Dean Spanley is my new favorite movie. It starts slow and quiet, fueled by odd and cantankerous British humor, with the most incredibly beautiful and poignant ending. WATCH IT TO THE END!! I fell asleep halfway through the first time I watched it. Fortunately, I made myself watch it again. STAY AWAKE, or watch it twice, and I think you’ll find yourself deeply touched by its message. If you love dogs, you’ll find it triply delightful. But you don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate its message.

EVEN GOOD CHANGE SUCKS

If I had to choose one word that describes the last year of my life, it would be “change”.

At first I thought it was “transition”. My daughter transitioning from “single” to “engaged” and then “endangered” and now “safe.” Even “happy”. My marriage transitioning from “good” to “awful” to “problematic” to….well, “transitioning”. With glimmers of “hope” and “even better”. (I hate picking just one word.) My son from “independent” to “nearly died” and now “healing”. Oh, and even better, “OMG, has a girlfriend”. (See? I needed four words to say that.) My health transitioned from “pain” to “painfree”. My art/business from “stalled” to “energized”, my cash flow from “steady” to “nada”, but now “increasing”.

But then I realized transition is just another word for “change”. And frankly, change sucks.

Change is hard. Even when good things come of it, it’s still hard. You just get things figured out, you just find a way to get through life smoothly, everything is in its place and that’s that. And then the applecart gets upset. And you have to start all over again.

A reader posted this comment on my blog a few days ago:

I have always been fascinated by loss and “the breakdown before the breakthrough.” as it is called in certain circles.

The breakdown before the breakthrough…. That just about sums it up.

It seems I still have to learn these same lessons over and over again. So many times, the things that seem awful, or stupid, or thoughtless, are still based on good intentions. We have to learn not to assume, but to check out our assumptions.

Sometimes the things that seem problematic, turn out to be the best possible solution after all.

Sometimes, that solution is right under your nose. You just can’t see it til you’ve run through all the other possibilities. And you run through all those possibilities, considering this one, objecting to that one, despairing and lost, until your brain finally goes, “Oh. OH! Yeah, that’ll work!” And sometimes it takes a second person (oddly, who’s also the person you’re arguing with) to see the simple solution.

Sometimes you have to clear the deck (or it gets cleared FOR you) in order for something else, something better, something wonderful to get through.

Changes in marriage suck. But marriages aren’t static. They evolve. They grow. they change. Sometimes things get hard. But sometimes, they get easier, too.

Changing how many dogs are in the house is hard. The idea of managing four dogs for a few weeks seemed insurmountable. And now we find four dogs are actually easier to deal with than just one bored dog. (He’s way too busy to chew our furniture this week!)

Sometimes we lose something we think we can’t live without. And if we’re lucky, we find something even better to replace it.

So I’m sitting here writing this on a Friday morning. Today looked so awful from yesterday’s viewpoint.

And it looks so different now.

Yep. Someday I’ll be able to handle change a little bit better (I hope.) And life will truly be just a dream.

But in the meantime, I’m so grateful I have a way to think these things through–by writing in my journal. By writing a blog post. By arguing with a man who loves me better than anyone has ever loved me. Even if he does suck at negotiating sometimes.

Because he’s learning to deal with change, too, right along with me.

Change. It sucks. But then, the really good things in life are always worth a little extra effort. Or even a lot.

So often, the breakdown is never something we would willingly choose.

But the breakthrough is the blessedly shiny reward that makes it all bearable in the end.

From two dogs….
….to four! (But only for awhile.)

BIG PUPS

When your life is full of poop, it’s time to stop and smell the roses.

We had a rough week. Nothing serious, nothing even very exciting. Just one of those times where you feel out of it and out of synch. You feel your battery draining instead of charging, and your feet drag for no good reason.

We also picked up two more Potcake puppies from Logan Airport in Boston. And for the next two days, I was frantically thinking, “What have I done??!!”

The pups seemed overly shy and anxious. To make it worse, they’re BIG. Much bigger than any pups we’ve fostered. And heavy. It’s hard to keep up with two puppies to begin with, let alone two you have to chase, and hoist with a big ‘oof!’ and even then, I could only hold one at a time. Twice as hard to manage.

I complained loudly to anyone who would listen. The woman at the rescue operation on the islands they came from; the shelter contact we’ll be delivering the pups to soon; my husband. And myself, in a running chattering dialog of “What-was-I-thinking-I-can’t-do-this-these-pups-are-awful-who-knew-such-a-small-critter-could-hold-so-much-poop-dammit-get-back-here-oh-my-back-OMG-he’s-peeing-AGAIN-help-help-HELP!!!!”

Having kids was like this. And starting my art career. And doing my first show. Come to think of it, doing all my shows. Learning how to shoot my own photos for my online shop. Teaching my first workshop for artists. Teaching my first grief writing workshop.

Get it?

Everything that’s worth doing comes with some dog doo.

Two days later, the pups have calmed down. They’re on a schedule of eating/outside to eliminate/play/sleep. Rinse and repeat.

My sanity returned. Time for damage control!

I wrote a contrite letter of apology to my island contact and another to my local shelter contact for my overreaction. I eased up with the pups. I made peace with my husband.

I realized the gift these puppies are to me.

They’ve traveled a long way from home, through scary airports with complete strangers, without food, in tiny carry-on bags. They arrive to a place with snow (yes, we had snow on Easter Sunday!) and a suspicious older dog and a houseful of grumpy teens and adults.

If that were me I’m not sure I would have been on my best behavior, either.

Marriage, kids, puppies, and yes, art, come into our lives with much romance and excitement. Eventually this is overshadowed by the sheer drudgery and weight of custodial care. You and your spouse have to agree on who’s turn it is to do dishes, and who gets to go into their office and shut the door for a few hours. Kids need custodial care the first few years, and emotional care forever. Pups and kittens sometimes seem to be a conduit of poop from another dimension. (Well. Human infants, too.) With art and career and writing come days of discouragement, missed deadlines, disgruntled gallery owners, difficult customers, sagging sales.

When everything goes wrong, we’re very quick to complain. We want to bail. We wonder if we made the right choices. And is a quickie Mexican divorce really that simple and inexpensive?

When I feel this way, I know it’s time to stop. Breathe. And think about what has to change.

Sometimes we really have barked up the wrong tree. (Dog pun. Sorry!) If everything about what we’re doing is draining our battery and never recharges, then maybe it’s time to consider a new direction.

Maybe we need to change our way of doing things. What’s worked for us in the past may need to be tweaked now. With teens, we learn to choose our battles. At shows, we find ways to streamline our set-up. With big puppies, more structure and containment is necessary.

Sometimes we just need to see beyond the poop for a moment. We need to stop and smell the roses. We must remember that the most fragrant and beautiful roses–antique roses–come with plenty of thorns. When the thorns prick us, that’s the time to slow down. And sniff.

Caring for these puppies transports me to the days when my children were young. It was a lot of work, but there was even more joy. Like children, these pups come into this world with a powerful need to be loved, and the desire to love in return. Both of these young ones will do almost anything to get that love. They learn to control their bowels and bladders (though it can feel like an eternity, as my teacher sister says, “They’re always potty trained by kindergarten.”) They learn not to chew on your favorite shoes, or use them for a Barbie bathtub.

In return, they teach you that it’s never a waste of time to sit quietly in the sun on a warm spring day, watching young things gambol and cavort in the new green grass.

They teach you that there is nothing quite so wonderful as a good belly laugh–from them, or from you. (And I swear those pups are laughing.)

They teach you that when you hold them in your arms, and they gaze at your with perfect knowledge they are safe and sound, and profoundly loved, there is no better balm in the world for a troubled heart.

So I’m grateful for the gift of these puppies today. They’re beautiful dogs, full of joy and hope, ready for their forever homes. They’ve given me peace in my heart. They’ve reminded me of what it means to be alive, to be in the world, with all its joy and beauty.

And all the poo that comes with it, of course.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t say you had to learn to love the smell of poo?

P.S. Jack and Gillie will soon be on their way to the Monadnock Humane Society in Swanzey, NH soon. Help spread the word!

Run, baby, run!
Jack and Gillie.
Jack, in perfect Potcake tail mode.