People often say “Rest In Peace” when a loved one dies but that’s not how I’m thinking of Homer. He’s at peace but he got enough of resting in his last couple of weeks. So instead of Resting in Peace I’m sure he is Frolicking In Joy, chasing baseballs and snitching tacos off the counters of heaven, delighted at the return to vigorous activity.
We had many great moments with Homer, some of the most poignant ones within the past week. I know he felt loved by my almost constant presence, by sitting outside together, by sitting in the hospital together, by me sleeping beside him the last two nights.
Here is Homer, resting against me as I read the hundreds of beautiful stories people posted about their own beloved pets in response to my Loving Homer blog piece. Story after story of love and pain and healing enough to do it all over again. Picture after picture of adorable dogs and horses and cats. Reading the stories was so soothing to my raw heart, knowing how many people have felt exactly like I feel, and have not regretted it for a moment. Social media can be criticized for being a time suck or often superficial but one of its great uses is connection. To find other people in a similar situation, to feel not alone in your experience, to feel close to and understood by other people, this is technology at its best.
Homer got extraordinary care, IV’s of fluid, medications to combat his GI bleed, three infusions of blood, three generous dogs and their owners (two of whom work at the hospital) doing their best to keep him going.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Who am I to decide how long a good life is? Maybe he lived the exact right amount of time. Maybe this was a perfect life for him, rescued from Taiwan, four years with a family who loved him. Somehow we all get an idea of what is enough of a life. But who is to say long is better? Maybe a well lived shorter life can be perfect.
Each person in our family dealt differently with saying goodbye to Homer. There is not one right way to deal with a pet at the end of life and my husband and I wanted to make sure our children each did what was comfortable for him/herself.
Eventually it was just me sitting with Homer for that final step in the journey.
I sat with Homer’s head in my lap as Dr. Nurre injected first the anesthesia to make him sleepy, then the euthanasia meds. He slid his stethoscope under Homers chest and we sat in silence, tears running down my face, until he softly said, “his heart has stopped.”
And then I sat alone with Homer until I knew it was really just the form of Homer left, knew that Homer’s soul was not in this body anymore. I’m typing this through blurry eyes because I am still crying.
But I know this. Homer doesn’t have to be here for my love to go on. He was here and he was loved and that doesn’t have to end. Even though he is not actually lying beside me while I type anymore, I will never stop loving Homer.
I just stress-ate a cold McDonald’s hashbrown. I wasn’t hungry and it didn’t help with the stress but then again, it didn’t taste awful either. I’m headed to the Vet hospital to visit my dog Homer who has been admitted because the chemo that so quickly shrunk his massive tumor has wiped him out and he is not eating or drinking or even moving around very well. When a ten year old Golden Retriever is too sick to retrieve it is time for lots of loving care and that is exactly what Homer is getting.
I am worried and I am sad, thinking about whether Homer is in the home stretch. But I am also feeling a sense of amazement and love because I’ve been spending a lot of time at an extraordinary place, East Bay Veterinarian Specialist and Emergency, and have witnessed love in all its rawness.
On the first day I arrived with Homer, I looked around the waiting room and saw a mix of people and pets. Dogs and cats and young people and old people and prim ladies and tattooed teenagers.
The owners of hurt pets are chatty, they connect with each other, recognizing fellow tribe members. “What’s his name?” “What’s going on with him?” Easy trading of stories and sympathy. People sitting in this waiting room are all there because they care about their animal and can recognize other people who feel the same way.
Everyone in this waiting room has a pet who is hurting in some way and everyone here has opened their heart, made themselves vulnerable to pain. Because, unless your pet is a tortoise, your pet is going to die before you. These people know this and yet they have opened their hearts anyway. These are the brave ones, the ones who are sharing their hearts knowing those hearts will be broken. These are the people who are brave enough to LOVE. I look around and I realize, this whole room is filled with love. This room is filled with people who have said, screw it, I’m putting my heart out there onto this little being who can’t even talk to me but who I feel so connected with I’m going to empty my bank account to get another month with him.
[The only other time I felt this kind of easy connection was the first time I went to a writers’ convention and was stunned to find so many other cranky creative introverts all forced out of our holes by the common bond of this agonized path called writing.]
My daughter, watching me cry about our dog who might be at the end of his life, said, “is it worth it?” And she meant that in a completely honest and curious way. She was aware that after losing our last dog, Beau, she didn’t quiet open her heart as much to Homer. She was sad, a combination of empathy for my sadness and a regret that she didn’t love this dog more. Her question was actually quite profound.
What she was really asking was, “is love worth it?”
And through my tears I said, “for me, absolutely.”
But I also told her it is a question that each person has to answer for him/herself. It is not something anyone else can answer for you.
Only you know the stretchiness of your heart, how much pain it can take.
But pet owners, these brave people, sitting around the waiting room with their three legged dogs and angry shaved down cats, they’ve answered that question.
These are my people, willing to cry as we mop up the pee of an incontinent dog, willing to get blood on the car seats as we drive to the vet, willing to empty the bank account, willing to weave that dog into our heart knowing it will unravel that heart when it when it goes.
And when the treatments have all been given and the beloved pet is gone and our trampled hearts have somehow smushed themselves back into a sort of heart shape, we do it all over again.
We sign up all over for a new dog, knowing we will watch the same play, the same ending, the same unraveling of our heart.
Because the gift of loving that deeply is worth it. That wagging tail when you walk in the door, that head on your knee on a mundane TV watching Thursday night, that jingle of dog tags in a dark middle of the night that reminds you that you are not alone.
And isn’t that what love is for? Knowing you are not alone.
It is perhaps a larger question, love. Not just love of a pet but love generally. Who among us truly opens his heart to love? Who is brave enough to open it knowing it will be stepped on and yet knowing it is really the only reason we are here. To take the chance and connect.
We are not here to tiptoe carefully to the grave. We are here to open our hearts, to love and be hurt and love again and nothing makes that more apparent than loving a pet.
I’ve been at the hospital five days in a row, both in the waiting room and then back in the treatment area and here is just a sample of what I’ve seen.
A couple with two young boys and big chocolate lab blew in the door. The boys were small enough that their baseball uniforms were baggy and their hats too big. One of the boys had a bright green cast on his arm. The dog had apparently just eaten rat poison and the tech immediately took the leash and headed back into the treatment area. The mom turned around, harried but laughing and, looking at the boy with the casted arm said, “we are an accident prone family!” That family, like so many of us, had enough love for kids and their dog. There is always enough love.
I watched an older man come in and say to the receptionist, “I’m here to pick up Missy.” The young woman behind the desk said, “of course,” very sweetly and then walked around from behind the desk/counter and handed him a small wooden box with a design or picture of some sort on top. He took it in both hands and kind of bowed his head towards it and said, “oh, it’s pretty.” And she nodded, “yes,” and then he turned and walked out slowly, with great dignity, with the ashes of his pet.
And I thought of the young family, who seemed at the beginning of it all (the lab looked just out of puppyhood) and the older man, whose pet was at the end of it all, and it was the whole circle of life, right in front of me. It made my place in that circle seemed okay, just part of what life is.
Then there is the staff member whose own dog donated blood for my dog’s blood transfusion. She tells me this as she expertly loads up another syringe to be pushed into the IV Homer is getting. Homer now has a bit of Hank in him and the tears that seem permanently at the edge of my eye start falling, again. I’m overwhelmed with the generosity of a dog owner who would give her own dog’s blood to a hurting animal. I never even knew this was a thing, blood donation from other dogs.
And the nurse/tech who came in and cheerfully cleaned Homer’s behind when he couldn’t control his poop. In such a friendly way she told me how great it is that they have waterless shampoo, as she carefully cleaned each bit of poop out of Homer’s fluffy tail (and then they wrapped his tail so it wouldn’t be a poop collector, and shaved around his behind to make it easier to keep clean. So thoughtful this group).
And the nurse/tech who brought a selection of foods to see if we could tempt Homer to eat (he didn’t), and then offered me water, coffee, Kleenex, and Purell (the Purell battled with the Kleenex for most favored status, lots of crying, but sitting on the floor with an oozing, pooping dog, also lots of germs).
Eventually Homer is kept in the x-ray room, off the big central treatment area and as I sit with him I have a chance to observe the goings on. I am so struck by the loving professionalism of the entire crew (and there seem to be so many of them! At least 15 on a shift that I could count). They are relentlessly kind and upbeat. As they expertly take off casts and clean out wounds they use calm and friendly tones. They aren’t just calming the animals, they are calming me too.
I’m still worried and sad but it feels like a place I can be worried and sad in. Other people are taking care of Homer, my job is to sit with him and let him know he is loved and not alone. To rub his head and tell him we have loved every minute of his time with us. To thank him for his companionship, the way he moved room to room with me every day when I went about my work at home. After the kids are off to school I head upstairs to write at the computer and Homer would plop himself beside me and stay there until the end of my work was signaled by the turning off of the lamps. Only when he heard the clicks would he stretch himself and get up and follow me to the next home work location. At night Homer would insert himself into even the smallest spot on the couch, nudging his way between anyone sitting there, confident he belonged right in the middle of the family.
Homer is the most social dog, you can tell he believes his place is in the middle of the pack. When we have guests and people are congregated in the kitchen, Homer splays himself out right in the middle of the floor, letting people step over or around him, not moving no matter how crowded the kitchen gets.
So I thank Homer for all his love and his quirks and tell him it is okay to rest. His breathing gets slower and more regular, he is asleep. And then I shift my legs (the floor is hard but the lovely tech/nurses have brought me a soft blanket to sit on) and Homer’s eyes pop open. His puts his paw up on my leg, like a hug, like holding hands. He leaves it there and drifts back to sleep.
In this moment life has become very simple. There is no thinking about dinner or carpool or cleaning or even writing, this moment has distilled down to me and a dog.
How do you thank someone who just gave you the gift of your own child? As in, all six years of elementary school? My friend Susan texted me the other day to say that she had just dropped off a ‘wee gift’ in my mailbox. When I opened it up I found a CD with pictures of my son and all his school buddies from Kindergarten through their just completed fifth grade. Set to music. I watched it three times in a row, reliving so many moments from his elementary school experience, things I had forgotten, things that made me laugh and then cry. The missing front teeth, the longish hair then the shortish hair. The matching Paul Frank t-shirts with a buddy. The Halloween costumes, the field trips, the goofy poses only eight year old boys can do, the half shy, half confident brink-of-maturity smiles of eleven year olds. All that time, from Kindergarten on, Susan had been taking beautiful pictures, and keeping them in some sort of order, and then she put them all together, set to music, everyone represented, and gave us all the gift of our own children. She would probably say she was just doing something that interested her. She would be modest about her skill and her passion and most likely doesn’t realize the value of the gift she has given me.
Part of why I don’t take a lot of pictures (aside from being cataclysmically bad at it) is that I like to enjoy the moment that is happening. That’s hard to do when your face is behind a camera, when you are focusing on the focus, the centering, the zoom in or zoom out issue. Susan made that sacrifice and we all are benefiting from it. She didn’t get to live in a lot of moments so that we could have them preserved forever and I don’t know how to thank her enough.
Because what she did is part of what saves my marriage. I don’t take good pictures and with someone like Susan around, I don’t have to expect my husband to take good pictures. With people like Susan (and there are more, lots more in this community) I don’t have to expect him to do all the stuff that I can’t do (the old ‘you complete me’ bullshit, can we all just agree to stop expecting our romantic partner to complete us? My work here on earth would be done if I could convince people of just that one thing). All the people in my community who do the stuff my husband doesn’t do (and sometimes I don’t do), they are the glue that keeps us together. Not just as a couple, but also as a family, and as part of this community. My book club fulfills my deep need to talk about a book I just read (making it fine that my husband isn’t much of a fiction reader). My group of boy-mom friends gives me the chance to laugh about the intensity of odor emitting from boy feet. My group of girl-mom friends helps me figure out what age girls are starting to shave their legs these days.
I’m grateful to the dads and moms who give up so much time to coach my kids, because neither my husband nor I are up to the task (he has the skills but no time, I have the time but no skills). I’m grateful for the parents who prep the fields before every baseball game. The moms who remember to collect money for coach’s gifts. The mom who set up a google docs spreadsheet for soccer carpool (I would have no idea how to set that up. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to just open it).
Thank you to everyone who has given what you have to give, it has kept my life full and satisfying, it has kept my marriage happy. You have allowed me to appreciate what my husband brings to the party without focusing on what he doesn’t. I can enjoy his humor and his affection and admire his unmatched work ethic (really, I do admire it, except when I’m tired. I feel all too mortal next to him, He Who Never Tires). I can appreciate his brilliant baseball mind, his amazing understanding of people, his kindness. I can enjoy watching him throw a baseball with my son and a football with my daughter without getting all bent out of shape that he didn’t drive carpool or read that parenting book or take me to see Magic Mike XXL (that would really be asking too much, wouldn’t it? Definitely a job for a girlfriend).
Some of us probably don’t feel like we are giving a lot to the world, at least not in a Sheryl Sandberg or Oprah kind of way. But maybe what we are giving comes so easily it doesn’t seem like a gift. Maybe just pursuing something that is interesting to you is enough. As Howard Thurman (theologian) said, “Don’t just ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Susan, my deepest thanks for doing something that makes you come alive. It was just what I needed.
I am the worst photographer in the history of time (and also modest and not at all prone to hyperbole) so the credit for this picture of cherry blossoms is shared by Mother Nature and my Android phone (with a small nod to my kids for teaching me how to use the phone).
I took this picture of blossoming cherry trees on February 26 in northern California along the walking/running/biking trail near my house. I often see people tromping along this trail, faces tense, arms in motion, grimly determined to get that workout in. With their heads down, slogging along with not even a glance at the spectacular show Mother Nature is putting on. No judgment here, I’ve been that person, putting my time in on the trail just to check it off my To Do list, but I’m on the hunt for joy these days (and free joy is my favorite kind) so I’m trying to slow it all down a bit (you know, in between my jobs as chauffeur, cook, laundress, coach, nurse, butterer of pancakes, and did I mention chauffeur? Basketball, soccer, baseball, softball, these things all have practices and guess how kids get to practices?)
We have lived in our house for, yikes, fifteen years now and one year, in a flurry of child rearing and work, I missed the blooming of the cherry trees. Oh, I knew it was happening, I saw them as a blur in my windshield as I marched along the ant trails I follow day in and day out. I kept meaning to go for a walk and see them up close. But by the time I actually got out to the trail to see this particular trio of pretty ladies all that remained was a sprinkling of faded petals littering the grass below. In my rush to Get Things Done I had missed one of my favorite parts of spring and now I would have to wait an entire year for the chance to see it again. An entire year.
I am in a busy phase of life (maybe they are all busy) and most of us have a To Do list that is longer than the day. So it is all about choices, which task to do (brush teeth), which activity to skip (we missed the Science fair this year), do I fit in a quick trip to the grocery store or play a game of Horse as my daughter is begging me to and just have breakfast for dinner again? I would like to sometimes choose joy, or fun, or a moment with one of my children over being an efficient family manager. The cherry blossoms have become my version of Cat’s in the Cradle (the Harry Chapin song of a father who keeps putting off spending time with his son, and his son who grows up just like him). For me, the lesson of the cherry blossoms is that life doesn’t have a pause button, it moves on with or without you, and far faster than you expect.
So I made time to walk the dog past the blooming cherry trees (still feeling a bit of the ‘hurry-up-and-slow-down’ but I was out there) and then, too quickly, the blooms were gone. This left me a bit sad, it would be so long until they bloomed again. And then I opened an email from my sister who lives in New Jersey, sending me a picture of her backyard on the first day of spring (March 20).
Talk about Fifty Shades of Gray, and not the fun ones.
First. Day. Of. Spring.
It kind of put it all in perspective. So what, my cherry blossoms are gone. At least I’m not on my 25th day of school closings. And look what is blooming in my backyard now?
So, yes, I want to live in the moment, enjoy the blossoms or the story my daughter is telling me or the sunset my son ran inside to get me to watch. But I also want to let go and move on to the next moment, the next set of blooms. I want to trust that more good moments are on their way and not cling to the ones that have passed. As George Santayana said, “To be interested in the changing seasons is . . . a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.’’
(And for those of you living in New Jersey, here’s hoping the changing of the seasons comes, like, yesterday.)