Thursday, July 14, 2011

All dogs go to heaven

Originally published Feb. 28, 2008

I didn’t want a dog. It was early 1994 and my sister and Dad wanted to get a puppy. Our Siamese cat, Riley, had to be put to sleep the year before because of organ failure brought on by undiagnosed diabetes, and I would have preferred a kitten. I was outvoted. A good friend of my father’s had a Gordon setter, Maggie, with a big litter of puppies. Dad wanted a bird hunting dog
What we got was Katie.
The litter of black and golden-tan puppies were supposed to be purebred Gordons, but as Katie and her siblings grew, it became apparent that some other dog had been a bit too familiar with Maggie. We’re not sure who her father was, but Katie’s tail looked more like it belonged on a German shepherd than a Gordon.
Puppies are a big responsibility. My father had a nearly one-hour commute to his job each way, my mom’s office was 10 minutes away and my sister was in high school. The community college I attended that spring was about a mile from our house. Ironically, the person who least wanted a dog wound up being the one who had to take care of her during the day, driving home on my longer breaks between classes to let her out.
Katie was a scamp, and I’ll admit I didn’t like her much at first. If she wasn’t on a leash when taken outside for potty breaks, she’d try to dash up the hill that separated our house from my grandparents’ farm house. She loved to roam the farm with my dad.
My grandmother dropped off an apple pie late one afternoon, still warm from the oven. My sister and I resisted the urge to dive right in, and virtuously went downstairs to finish our chores first. We came back to the kitchen for our treat, only to find Katie with her paws up on the counter, eating the crust off the top of the pie. Katie repeated that trick to get into take-out pizzas.
Eventually, Katie won me over with her cuteness and her big, soulful brown eyes. I’m convinced that babies, be they animal or human, are adorable for a reason. It’s their secret weapon to make you love and take care of them, and it works.
During her first year, Katie would get over-excited when company came over, greeting them with a puddle on the floor. Though she came from a big litter, she never liked being around other dogs. I’m not sure she knew she was a dog, she was such a people-puppy. She liked to lick, and would often come up and lean against you, laying her head in your lap.
In 1996, my son was born, and we spent his first week at my parents’ house while I recuperated from his arrival. Katie appointed herself his special guardian and would sleep under his crib. If anyone but me approached the crib, she let out a warning growl. She adored children.
My parents moved to Wisconsin later in 1996. When they were preparing to leave on trips back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they would ask Katie, “Do you want to go to the farm?” She would not budge from the car door, waiting with her tail whipping in excitement to be let in for the trip north.
Katie loved car rides unless she figured out the destination was the kennel. She listened best to my father, but never quite worked out as a bird hunting dog. A flock of wild turkeys passed through the yard of my parents’ neighbor one brisk afternoon. When the birds were nearly to the safety of the tree line, we opened the front door to let Katie out, asking her “Where are the birds?”
She took off in the opposite direction.
Katie never lost her puppy face, and continued to delight, amuse and confound us with her puppy-like antics. She considered it her mission in life to kill the squeak in any noisy dog toys, her favorite a hedgehog toy. She’d bring one up to you and want to play fetch or tug-of-war.
Until the last year or two, the only hint of Katie’s age was a bit of gray around her muzzle. Then her eyes got cloudy, and she lost most of her hearing. She used to be waiting at the door when anyone ever arrived at the house, but in the last year, we often had to go looking for her, and she could usually be found curled up on her bed in my father’s office.
It became harder for her to lie down and get up, as she began having pain in her hips. The vet gave my parents pain medication for Katie, but in the last few weeks she began having some really bad spells, including one that required her to get an IV to prevent dehydration. We didn’t like to see her in so much pain and knew a hard decision would have to be made.
Last Thursday, I brought my son to my parents’ house so he could say good-bye. Katie was not having a good day. She was barely eating, ignored the treat my son offered her, and kept pacing around, exhausted because it was so hard for her to lie down. Animals may not be able to clearly verbalize their pain, but I could see it in her eyes. Watching her slow, agonizing effort to lie down that night made my heart ache. My son’s last glimpse of Katie came as we were backing out of the driveway when mom let her outside. From a distance, she still looked like a playful puppy.
When a beloved pet ages, you try to ready yourself for the loss and the need to make that hard decision that will end their suffering. While you can try to get ready mentally, there is no preparing your heart.
Last Saturday, I got up early and drove to my parents’ house with the sun rising behind me, and the moon dropping to the horizon ahead of me. There were patches of fog, and the trees were covered in crystal-like frost.
When I arrived, Katie was having a good day. I think it was because she was happy to see my father, who was home from Ohio for the weekend. During the trip to her final veterinary appointment, my parents and I only talked about how lovely it looked outside, and how thick the fog was in patches. I was with Katie in the back seat, where she rested her back end against the seat as she licked the seats, the console and my hands.
We stayed with Katie, stroking her fur as the vet administered first a sedative, and then a final shot. I know that this decision was the right one, having seen the pain in Katie’s eyes lately, but it was so incredibly hard to lose her. Her suffering is over, but we will bear the pain of her absence for a long time. It will ease in time, helped by 14 years worth of memories — the good, the amusing, the frustrating and the sad.
My parents’ house seems so empty without our beloved black mutt wagging her goofy-looking tail, laying her head in our laps, and blatantly begging for treats. You could not have asked for a more loving or loyal dog than Katie. When we get her ashes back, they will be brought to the farm she loved to roam.
For a dog I didn’t want, I failed at trying not to like her. Good pets become members of the family, and Katie will always be in our hearts.

Celebrate the remarkable women in your life

Written for Mother’s Day, 2008

There are a lot of remarkable women in my family who serve as role models for me on how to live as a woman and as a mother.

I come from a large family — between my father and mother’s sides I have 10 aunts related to me by blood, and have had five women who are my aunts by marriage.
I could write volumes about my maternal grandmother, Ethel. She continues to amaze and inspire me with her passion for life and learning and her devotion to her loved ones.
On my father’s side, my grandmother Jacqueline passed away when I was 8. I treasure the few memories I have of her. I remember her mother, Blanche, better. She was with us until 1997, although dementia took her away earlier. I have three great aunts, each a unique and lovely lady who speaks her mind and shares great family stories.
My father has two sisters. One died before I was born, and I have been slowly solving the mystery of who she was and the choices she made. His other sister, a gifted musician, lives in the U.P. with her teenage son.
My mother has eight sisters, ranging in age from their mid 60s to early 40s. It is always fun to see them together. Each is unique and beautiful in her own way, but they are undeniably sisters.
The bonds of sisterhood extend beyond blood. My mother’s three brothers have brought more aunts into my life. My oldest uncle married a lovely woman whom I am getting to know much better as an adult. My youngest uncle’s first wife holds a special place in my heart. The end of a marriage doesn’t cut the ties of the heart. I look to her as an example of how to raise sons.
There are the aunts I adored when I was a child, and still love dearly. There are other aunts who I appreciate more now that I am an adult and a mother myself.
My grandmothers and great aunts lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and raised children though tumultuous times. My aunts and mother are Baby Boomers, and have grown up and lived during a time when the role of women at home and in the workplace has been redefined.
The women in my life are survivors. They have been widowed, served in the military and fought leukemia, breast and other forms of cancer.
The women in my life have been through many of the issues women are faced with — from infidelity, domestic abuse and divorce to unplanned pregnancies, miscarriages and giving up a child for adoption.

The women in my life are teachers, business women, homemakers and much more. Some of my aunts and my mother are now grandmothers. One is a great-grandmother.
And there is my mother, who has worked as an advocate for children caught in custody disputes and for the victims of crimes. Her compassion and caring humble me.

Turning into your mother is not the insult I pretended it was when I was a teenager.
Mother’s Day is Sunday. Celebrate the women in your life and give thanks for their compassion, care, hard work and self-sacrifice.

Most of all, give thanks for their love.

Since I wrote this, my beloved Aunt Kathy and Great-Aunt Helen passed away, as did a family friend who I love dearly.

When strawberries bloom

One of my favorite columns, published May 31, 2008
When we lose a loved one, we carry them with us in our memories and in our hearts. Sometimes they leave behind other reminders of themselves. It could be opening a closet and getting a whiff of their cologne, or finding an old letter or photograph tucked into in the back of a drawer, or a note written in a book.
My son and I spent Memorial Day weekend in Ironwood, Mich.
On Sunday, my son and I climbed the back hill of my grandparents’ farm with my cousin and his two children. We climbed to Castle Rock, a formation of rocks visible from the kitchen window of the farmhouse. My son and his second cousins represent the third generation of children to climb Castle Rock to enjoy the view. A small white pine tree grows near Castle Rock, and I began digging a hole under it.
When the hole was as deep as I could make it with a garden trowel, we brought out the ashes of Katie Dog and buried them. I planted daisies on top, and in July we may come back and build a cairn of lake rocks to mark the spot.
Earlier that day, we drove to the cemetery to tend the graves of family members with my grandmother, aunt and my grandmother’s sister. The first stop was to the grave of my great-grandparents, the parents of my grandmother and her sister. Great Grandpa Waino and Great Grandma Alma died in the 1960s. My grandmother talked about the last time she spoke with her mother.
“She told me ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, we’ll go picking strawberries,’” Grandma said.
Great Grandma Alma died later that night.
At our feet - blooming around the graves of my great-grandparents - were wild strawberries.

We buried my father's ashes near Katie Dog's resting place, and marked the spot with a mosaic garden tile.

Summer blooms

My Aug. 2, 2008 column

Last summer, I tried to maintain a container garden on my back patio. Since I rent, I can’t really dig a garden in my back yard, and the little patch of tillable soil already has plants. A previous tenant planted bleeding hearts and bachelor’s buttons, which come back every year.
I bought planters, and visited several local garden centers and bought zucchini, lavender, rosemary, lamb’s ear and more. I planted seeds for jalapenos, tomatoes, cilantro, basil, catnip and black-eyed susans.
I grew to love summer squash as an adult, having refused to touch it as a child. What finally hooked me was a casserole my mom concocted with zucchini, onions, tomatoes, red pepper flakes and lots of cheese. I soon find myself grilling squash to eat on its own or serve on a veggie pizza and even deep-frying it.
I planted jalapenos, tomatoes and cilantro because I love to make pico de gallo. The cilantro was harvestable, but I never had a tomato, and the only jalapenos came from the plants I brought to my parents house. The peppers thrived in a pot on their driveway. My parents must have harvested about 30 peppers.
My son gave the lamb’s ear to his grandmother on Mother’s Day. Little did we know then that they’d be living in a new house a year later.
I brought the rosemary and lavender inside for the winter. The rosemary did not survive, and I nearly killed the lavender. It’s starting to thrive again in a pot on my back stoop. The catnip did not last long. My cat rolled herself on top of the first seeds that sprouted. We tried to hide subsequent plants from her until they could be moved outside, but the little addict needed her fix.
Nothing came of the black-eyed susan seeds I planted, or so I thought. I was debating what to plant in a huge black pot on my patio, when something sprouted on its own. I decided to let it grow, and was rewarded with black-eyed susans.
The front of my duplex is all asphalt, as I share a driveway and parking lot with my duplex neighbors. A few weeds pop up in the gaps where the driveway meets the stoop and the house. There is a raised bump that has cracked open between my stoop and my neighbor’s. Every summer since I have lived in this duplex, an orange daylily sprouts up there, growing thicker and taller each year.
It’s a late bloomer, given that my duplex faces north. Similar plants along roadways and in a neighbor’s yard bloom weeks before mine does.
I admire the persistence of the plant. It forces its way through and refuses to be held back by its unpleasant environment, bringing a spot of color and grace to my doorstep. The leaves remind me of yucca, a plant I saw often in Western Colorado, which thrives in a high mountain desert environment.
This daylily grows in an asphalt desert.

Perhaps it is a metaphor for life.

We may not be in an ideal environment, and have to weather less than pleasant circumstances, but it is still possible to bloom.