Sunday, July 30, 2017

Beginner's Guide to Joyful Living -- Day 30

During my 31-Day challenge, I wrote about the quest for joy and the roadblocks that prevent us from developing a resilient foundation. Sometimes I think I wrote more about the roadblocks, but it was a necessary part of the journey. My goal was to face my fears, to stop dousing my writing with vanilla flavoring, and to be as honest as possible. 

Along the way, I realized that I'd never written a eulogy for Zap, my Yorkie, who died two years ago after a long battle with diabetes and kidney failure. I had written a eulogy for Mister, Zap's brother, and but when it came to this second, devastating loss, I just couldn't find the words. I was completely broken. Even now, as I write to you all this time later, tears patter against the keyboard.
On Day 30, in this penultimate post, I want to share a story of how loss can open us up to the sweetest joy.
The illness of a beloved dog can take you straight into the heart of darkness. 

The late Barbara Stanwyck once said, "No matter how horrible things are, they can always get worse." They can, and will. "In the meantime, keep busy," my grandmother, Mimi, used to say. In good times and bad, my dogs have always been my joy and my touchstone. However, in the autumn of 2014, one of my Yorkies, Mister, was diagnosed with liver cancer.

The vet didn't think our boy would last the weekend, but I firmly believe that "where there's life, there's hope." I have a BS in Nursing, and my husband is an MD. With the help of our son, we set up an ICU in the den. We took turns going to the grocery and running errands, so that one of us was always home. [I won't go anywhere unless my dogs can go, too.  My motto hasn't always been well-received, but it was, and is, the only option for me.]

 My son and I gave Mister round-the-clock care, from cooking special foods (anything to tempt his appetite) to twice daily IV infusions. When I was in the kitchen, he sat in his stroller, looking at me with an alert, "feed me" expression, waiting for a little taste. The vet was amazed that Mister stayed with us this long. But I could see him starting to fade. Then one icy February night, he gave us a long, loving look, as if to say, "Love you forever...and remember, I'll see you on the other side." Then he slipped away in our arms. Thank you, Lord, for letting him go swiftly, peaceably. He was my heart.
Mister's photo appeared on the dust jacket of my 6th book. When I'd leave for a book tour, he would bite my ankles and try to keep me in the house. I always arranged tours so I wouldn't be gone for more than 2 consecutive days--and in past years, I would drive hours so I could be home that same night. But while I was gone, Tyler said that Mister sat by the door, his head on his paws, waiting for mom. This broke my heart.

You can try to mentally prepare for a loss, but you're never ready for it.

Mister Big West

Our Sweet Boy
December 21, 2003 - February 15, 2015 "Warm summer sun, shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind, blow softly here;
Green sod above, lie light, lie light--
Good-night, dear heart, good-night,good-night."

-- Mark Twain, Epitaph for his daughter.

🐾 🐾 🐾

 Barbara Stanwyck was right. More trouble was on the way. After a bitter winter,the  spring of 2015 finally arrived. The irises bloom defiantly, as if to say, "It'll take more than sub-zero temperatures to subdue us."  I liked their attitude. It was a reminder to never lose hope, that ordinary miracles were possible.

  00001a zap

Instead, I was about to pass through another heart of darkness. Mister's brother, Zap, had been diagnosed with diabetes four years earlier, and even though his eyesight had failed, he'd held his own . . . until now.

Never a picky eater, he began to hesitate when I brought his food (a prescription diet). He would eventually eat, but this initial hesitation made my chest tighten. Because he also suffered from chronic kidney failure, we whisked him straightaway to the vet. The prognosis was grim. Despite daily IV infusions for over a year, Z's blood tests showed a high BUN and Creatinine levels, which meant his kidneys were failing. Our vet said it was time to think about making a hard choice, and soon. Time to say good bye to our boy.
"Better to make that decision a week early than a day late," he said.

My heart made a cracking noise, like a branch snapping in half. We were facing the long weekend, which meant the vet's office would be closed. 24-hour emergency clinics were an hour away. The hours between Friday and Monday seemed unknowable and threatening. But I could not think about the world of hurt--my impending loss-- that lay ahead. All that mattered was Zap's immediate comfort . The vet warned that my little fellow did not have long, and the family needed to say goodbye over the weekend. To enjoy every moment that we'd been granted. He gave me instructions to continue supportive measures, including twice-daily insulin injections, his special diet, and subcutaneous fluid therapy. On my way out of the office, he gently made an appointment for the following Monday, when we would discuss euthanasia. Then I stepped into an abyss.
 That night, Zap was still jumping off the sofa and following me around the house, but when it was time for meals, the hesitation turned into a full refusal. He wouldn't eat. He couldn't. After nursing two ill dogs, I had learned that an appetite--positive or negative--can show health or decline. But Zap accepted a little distilled water, which I offered by a dropper. In the morning, we went outside and sat in the sunshine, soaking up Vitamin D.
By God's grace, he made it through the next 24 hours.
With Z by my side, I set my alarm and got up every hour to give oral fluids. Every two hours, I tested his blood glucose. It was high, the kind of high that can easily slide into diabetic ketoacidosis. And he'd received his insulin. My husband just shook his head and told me to give him another unit of NPH and to keep pushing fluids.
A time or two, Zap got up and found his piddle pads, then returned to me. So, he was still ambulatory, still voiding, and he continued to accept the water.
In the morning, my eyes were swollen shut from crying, but we took Zap to Home Depot, thinking it might be his last trip.  He had always loved the garden area of Home Depot, and today was no exception. He barked at a Shih Tzu, played with a small child, and smelled everything.
 By Monday, Zap was still with us--and he'd improved. His appetite had returned, and he was eating organic brown rice and 99% fat free ground turkey.
We had an 11 a.m. appointment, at which time we would see Zap to the rainbow bridge; but look, he was rolling on his back, growling at imaginary beasts. Even though he was blind, he found his ball and brought it to me. Surely he wasn't ready to leave us. What if the lab values had been wrong? I'm a nurse, but when it comes to the heart, a medical professional can slide into denial. Yet Zap was active, eating and drinking. When Bandwidth picked up his car keys, Zap spun around and barked. Much better, right? Or was I seeing what I wanted to see? After we arrived at the vet's office, I told him that I just wasn't ready to say goodbye--and  Z didn't seem ready to leave us. He sat on my lap, licking my hand. I looked up at the vet. Couldn't he do something? Anything? It behooved us to wait and see what the chemistry panel showed.
The vet lowered his head. "He's hanging on for you, Michael," he said.
His unspoken words drifted between us. Zap would keep hanging on. . . I had to do the hard thing and let go from my end.
But as it happened, Z's blood values were normal, except for his BUN (which had dropped 50%) and liver enzymes (they had come way down, too). His phosphorous level was normal. The vet said he'd never seen anything like it. He told us to keep doing what we were doing--and to pray.

Ordinary miracles can seem quite extraordinary. How long would his recovery hold? I wondered. I knew the answer. Some things are unknowable. We aren't meant to know.
We are meant to focus on the here and now, so we won't miss a thing.
Zap stayed with us five more months, until mid-August 2015.
I don't even remember leaving the vet's office. Days later, I could not find consolation, yet everyone kept telling me that he was free from all discomfort. He didn't need twice daily insulin injections, and he was free from IV therapy. 
But I could not find peace. I had endured losses, but not like this. Not ever like this.

Summer melted into autumn. I told my husband that I would wake in the night and reach down to pat Zap, then I'd remember he was gone. My husband said, "Get a stuffed animal."
I never quite forgave him for that.

I remember attending a Master Gardener workshop, and during the break, a lady came up to me and commented on my knitted dog sweater. "Do you have a dog?" she asked. I said no, that my Yorkies had passed away. "Well, just get another," she said. "No, I'm not quite ready," I said. "You see, they'd been sick for so long. . . " I broke off when I saw the woman's eyes glaze over.
All this time I'd thought certain family members were insensitive louts; or that I was suffering from protracted, complicated grief. Now I realized that strangers didn't want to be around a crazy dog lady, either.  Grief for a pet just wasn't socially acceptable. Even a few dog people--folks I see nearly every day--were put off by the depth of my grief. Many times I was told to move on, to snap out of it.
But you know what? Healing has its own timeline, and it's different for everyone.

I decided that I needed to write about that, too. Surely I wasn't the only one who considered their dogs to be four-legged children. I made a few prototypes and gave them away at dog shows and silent auctions. The goal is to eventually write an informative, helpful book about pet bereavement and donate all proceeds to the Canine Disease Foundation.

Just writing the prototypes were very healing.

Then one night I dreamed that I was walking in a meadow, surrounded by all of the dogs I'd known in my life. There was Cindy, the blue Weimerainer, who, my mother claimed, had raised me. This 60 pound beauty would gently prop her nose into my crib and make sure I was breathing. If I cried, Cindy would race out of my nursery and find my mother, who was usually hanging clothes on the line. Cindy would bite a corner of Mom's blouse and pull her into the house.
I saw Scout and Scarlet, my beloved Scotties. Those darling girls had been at the rainbow bridge for a decade, but in the dream they were young again. They raced into my open arms. The love between humans and dogs is a powerful thing, crossing space and time. This love may be the only thing that endures.
Scout and Scarlett trotted away. They met up with a little black and tan Yorkie who was chasing every butterfly and smelling every flower. He could run and jump. He wasn't blind.
I knew this was his way of telling me not to worry, that he'd made it to the other side.  The Scotties joined him, then looked back at me, as if to say, "We already love him. We'll take him to Mister--and we'll be there for you."
Mister and Zap were buried in our butterfly garden.
7butterfly morning 012 (1280x1174)
When a butterfly rests on a blossom, my heart fills.
 01a 3 (873x1024)
01a flyaway (671x1024)

"If there ever comes a day when we can't be together, keep me in your heart. I'll stay there forever."
-- A. A. Milne, "Winnie the Pooh"
01a purple (663x1024)

"You think dogs will not be in heaven?
I tell you, they will be there long before any of us."
--Robert Louis Stevenson
 5butterfly morning 008 (1213x1280)
Somehow, life goes on. Wounds are healed.
A dream becomes a healing force.

Two years later, a chance meeting led me to Scout and Scarlett's breeder, who had moved to another town. Decades had passed, and her Scotties were show ring winners--and they were bred for sound temperaments and health. My friend didn't have any puppies, but she put me in touch with a lovely lady who'd just bred her Scottie girl (also named Scarlett--a sign!) to my friend's beautiful boy. A few months later, a darling Scottie puppy, Jasper, came into our lives. Though his terrier ways remind me so much of Zap and Mister, Jasper is his own man. At four months, he can catch a ball going ninety miles an hour.
A beloved dog cannot be replaced, but my grandmother always said that when the heart breaks, it just gets bigger.

"If you love deeply, you're going to get hurt badly. But it's still worth it."
-- C.S. Lewis

Endings can tear you to pieces, but beginnings are magic.
Today, I am grateful for memories and joyful for a new day with Jasper.

(Disclaimer: Please consult a veterinarian about treating your pet's diabetes, kidney disease, or any other ailment.)

A 31-Day Challenge


  1. Oh my, I just cried while reading this. We also lost our dog a jack Russell 3 yrs this fall. He was 16yrs old and he was still our puppy. Haven't talked my husband into another one yet. He took it very hard. We are both in our mid-sixties and are leary about if something should happen to us..maybe someday..can only hope we find another pet (that's me wishful thinking)

    1. Oh, Kathy, I'm so sorry. I'm 63, and DH is 67--I worried about getting a puppy for the same reason. I wish you great luck and love. You just never know when another JRT -- or any dog -- will find you.

  2. I cried reading this, it was sad and beautiful. I also lost my little fur baby but she went so quick. Lulu was happy in the morning and started acting strange, I called the vet and by the time we got her there she passed. At least she I was holding her and she knew I loved her.
    Jasper, will bring you many happy moments, he seems to have look in his
    eyes that spell trouble lol. Thank you so much for sharing this, it makes the pain a little more bearable.

    1. I'm so sorry for the loss of your darling Lulu. Thank you for telling your story--just reading it helped me, and I know it will help others, too. xxoo

  3. Whew boy, this was sad. I'm glad your heart got bigger. I look forward to getting to know Jasper.

  4. Oh how I can relate. Dexter (pointer/Dalmatian) was my everything. He gave my family so much and asked for so little. He was with us for 14 years. My little boy begged me when he saw him and said he couldn't imagine letting him stay at the shelter. They were buds, companions. Dexter never made the ascent up the stairs at night without looking over his shoulder at us as if to say goodnight. I always believed my dad who had passed away when my son was 1 had come back as Dexter to watch my son grow up. He was the proud protector of all 5 grandkids, sniffing and guarding their bassinets, he let them wrestle with him and try to ride him and pull his tail. He was the best! He had two ACL surgeries for both hind legs and six months after the last one he started falling down. Every time he walked a few feet he would fall. His back legs couldn't hold him up anymore. It was heartbreaking and then he stopped eating. I've said too much. The joy he brought is what I focus on now; he has been gone a year. Neighbors stopped me to ask about him if they hadn't seen me walking him and I would just burst into tears - yes another grief stricken dog lady here. I was torn to pieces because I wasn't just saying goodbye to Dexter but I felt like I was saying goodbye to my dad again as well. I'm not sure if I can do this again but I think in time one will capture my heart if I stay open to it as you did with Jasper. So happy for you.

    1. Your words went straight to my soul, Regina. Thank you SO much for sharing this story of Dexter.
      A Crazy Dog Lady

  5. Our 13 year old pit bull has cancer (so does my husband). You are never replacing your beloved pets, you are sharing the love you had for them with another lucky pet. In the words of Pooh: "How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard".

    1. I am so sorry. I love A.A. Milne, too. I'm going to read Winnie The Pooh all over again.

  6. It's been ages since a visit, we just got high speed unlimited bandwidth at the beach, I can finally see pics again and it looks like I arrived on such a special day! Congrats on jasper, not to minimize your eulogy, I felt I lived those pain filled times with you, it was close to the bone, but to return today on such sweet new beginnings is wonderful! I am off to read your blog, I have been away for ages...

    1. Oh, Lordy--there you are! I have missed you. What a gift on this Sunday to read your words.

  7. "my grandmother always said that when the heart breaks, it just gets bigger."
    Oh My!!! sure hope you don't mind if I write this in my journal to read over and over again!! WHAT a lovely thought.
    My face is tear stained reading your post 17 yr old sophiejane is in her last phase. Very soon, I will have to make a decision. She is now blind and deaf and has become a toddler once again. It's hard watching the struggle. But every day she kisses me and gives me that loving look as in You can do NO wrong, mom...I count my blessings that I've got one more day. She is my best friend and I have no idea how I will handle it. But I will. Have to. I will come back to his post often, I'm sure. And know that my heart will get bigger than it is now...

  8. Thank you for sharing this story of love and loss and a heart that could only get bigger. Such a wise woman your Mimi was, Michale Lee. Your dream was such a blessing for you, and now you have your Jasper to love unconditionally. You have so much love to give. ❤️

  9. I'm glad you were able to write this now. You have a big heart.
    I can't word my thoughts better than Kitty. Blessings to you, Michael Lee

  10. Oh, this was hard to read, Michael. I lost my last two dogs within two years of each other and my heart still aches. I haven't been able to get another dog(s) as my life's been in flux, but I instinctively know that I need to fill that void and will eventually. I don't know who to attribute this quote to, but it says it all: "To end a dog's suffering, you must choose to accept your own". This weekend I finally got around to watching the 2013 movie "Her" and found this statement profound: "The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love." May all our hearts keep growing.

  11. Michael Lee, this brought tears, lots of tears, but it is such a beautiful story and tribute to all your sweet dogs. Jasper is filling your heart with love again, just as it should be. Yes, it is so true that the price of love is the hurt and void we feel after the loss, but oh so worth it. Your Mimi was a wise woman. I love her thought that "when a heart breaks, it just gets bigger." Love you, ML, and all the wisdom and joy you offer to me and your other readers.