Trying as he is, he’s always been here to stay.
My husband always wanted a Boston Terrier. But the few I had known were just OK..nothing I could get excited about. So when a new puppy was in our future, he insisted we at least go and look at Bostons. So I found the best breeder in the region and grudgingly made the trip deep in the south Texas countryside. To convince him this was not the breed for us. So I could get on with the business of finding the puppy (whose breed shall remain anonymous) that was really right for us.
It was love at first sight.
Who could resist that mischievous little face! But it wasn’t just that. He was so full of joy – so excited just to be Jake. And we “got” each other. The breeder even noticed it – “He usually doesn’t like people..” she said. Thirty minutes later I was headed home with my Jake.
As anyone who has spent any time with a Boston knows, they are sweet, loving, intelligent, AND stubborn AND full of mischief.
Jake was not an easy pup. I stopped counting the shoes he destroyed. I never could find him when he didn’t want to be found. He opened cabinets and unzipped backpacks. He was an escape artist – we traced him to a friend’s pool two neighborhoods over, retrieved him from a disgruntled farmer’s chicken coop. We chased him down railroad tracks, through the piney woods. But we always found him and I think he somehow knew we would.
But Jake was so much more. We trained as a therapy team and he was a star. He brought so much joy to the people he visited. When he was with fragile patients he was a different dog, calm, sweet, loving. When we brought Jesse home, he loved her on sight. He seemed to think she was his puppy. He was her protector, her best buddy, they were inseparable. They loved
rides on the boat long walks, chew toys after
dinner. They never fought. I never heard Jake growl. His heart was soooo big.
I knew I would probably outlive Jake. But I didn’t believe it. I’ve never been prepared for the loss of a pet, but this was a sucker punch. Cancer hit him hard and took him swiftly.
Within two weeks of his first hacking cough, I was holding him in my arms as his last breath drifted from his body. It did not comfort me that his suffering was brief or that he had a good life. Nothing did. I was frozen.
After a few days I put away his harness and collar, his bowl, his favorite pillow. So I’d know he wasn’t coming back. But weeks later, I still expect to see him snoozing on the sofa, think I hear him barking at the neighbor dog, expect to see him bolting through the dog door, chasing Jesse.
Each day is less raw. And one day- it won’t be soon – as it has been for all the little animals whose lives I’ve privileged to share, I will feel more gratitude for the joy he gave me than the pain of his loss.
A phrase from my faith practice that speaks strongly to me today.
Brokenness is all around me – in my family, my community, my country. And through this division, distrust and discontent, runs the meandering river of my loved one’s decline.
My impotent attempts to “fix things”, to re-establish “normalcy” — crash
onto the rocks of despair and heartbreak.
My only hope of healing is to feel the brokenness and share it.
Can I help you with that? – a jar top, a sack of groceries, a heavy box. It catches me off guard – I’m always surprised to find it’s directed toward me. I’ve always been the helper, not the one who needed it.
I am more than grateful for the many wonderful helpers that make my very comfortable life possible. Professional and personal, family and friends, neighbors, and of course, the furry ones. It’s just that I’ve always resisted asking for help – preferring to correct mistakes over taking directions, hiding my troubles behind a practiced smile. Insisting I’m “just fine” while my insides are screaming for help. Mind you, I’d run out in front of traffic to help someone else…I’m thinking I’m not alone here.
I was taught from an early age to help others. And I know well the joy it brings. But I was not taught how to be helped. It was deep in my family’s psyche, in our very blood; that barring natural disasters or
catastrophic disease, we don’t take help. It follows then, that if you need help, there’s something wrong with you – you’re lazy, you’re not very smart; you’re weak and needy. And you’re definitely not one of us.
Not only was this curious concept fundamental to my family and my community, it was deeply embedded in twentieth century American culture; likely tracing to our pioneer days when survival really did belong to the fittest.
Whatever the reason, I don’t remember any discussion in my family, community, school..anywhere, anytime – about how and when to ask for help. Community support services in our society largely developed in the late 20th century. For example, tutoring, a popular way to gain a competitive edge nowadays, was originally remedial, and therefore, to be avoided. Treatment centers were non-existent. Pre-Oprah, family problems were suffered in silence. And therapy dogs? PTSD? Seriously?
Thankfully, It’s easier for me than for my mother; certainly than for my grandmother, to ask for help. But in spite of our relaxed attitudes toward human vulnerability, I still don’t hear much about receiving help
I’m pretty much making it up as I go. Learning to simply say “Thank You” without a litany of qualifiers and a compulsion to repay. To ask for help but not be crushed by a negative response. Learning to be the source of someone else’s joy of giving.
Like any art form, I’m learning, gracious receiving requires patient, persistent practice. Habits of a lifetime will not go quietly.
Marriage is not easy. I’m just going to say that. Even the best ones are hard work. They’re messy and often distressingly inconvenient. One in every two marriages ends in divorce today. Lots of folks don’t even try anymore.
It took me well into my seventies to finally, grudgingly, concede that yes: I was aging ..but not elderly. Not yet. After all, I could still swim a mile, keep up with the 40 year olds in my Yoga class – most of the time. My mental faculties seemed intact; I maintained a blog – played the piano – was at least as computer-savvy as my kids. My grandchildren were still in primary school – some of them anyway.
People said I looked young for my age. I felt young. To reinforce my mindset, movie stars, book authors and TV personalities offered endless advice about how they stayed young and beautiful, and therefore how anyone could. Media ads inundated us with products guaranteed to make us into super-active, beautiful, deliriously happy retirees. Memory failing? Arthritis pain? Chronic fatigue? Sexual malaise? Pills for that, lots of them. Wrinkles? Creams for that. Or surgery. So what you’re a little “older.” No worries. There’s an App for that!
But there were these nagging signs, milestones, I couldn’t ignore. My husband’s failing eyesight now prevented him from driving; we were a one car family for the first time in our 40 year marriage. Less than half of my high school classmates were still alive, and many that were, lived with debilitating, often painful and humiliating disease. Lately friends had been insisting they had told me something; I just didn’t remember. It was getting a little harder to walk apace my 40-something friends. Gravity was making a frontal assault on key parts of my anatomy. Walking in high heel shoes was high adventure. Bedtime was getting earlier. I needed a knee replacement.
Unacceptable! Clearly I had missed something: the right foods, supplements, exercise, meditation technique. Maybe I should go to a health spa, get some “work” done. I’d talk to my longtime friend and confidant; we’d figure this out together, like we always did. “Super-retirement” or a reasonable facsimile thereof, was surely possible. I just needed a strategy.
But incredibly, my friend didn’t have a plan. In fact, she seemed not a little exasperated with me. “Aging,” she told me with a sigh “is a process. A process of letting go”.
Not what I wanted to hear. At. All.
In my gut I knew she was right, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. It was probably true for her, but it didn’t have to be that way for me. I embarked on a mission to “fix” the situation, to make my husband’s landing softer, to keep up with the 40 year olds at the gym, to make excuses for my forgetfulness, delay my surgery. It was pretty ungraceful. It felt like holding my finger in a dike that threatened to crumble any minute.
I’m not sure what life event eventually penetrated the thickly insulated layers of my denial. Probably it was a series of little losses. A friend’s hospitalization, needing help with something that used to be routine, the growing number of medications in my pillbox. It took what it took. But slowly the stark light of reality broke through. And surprisingly, it was not the downer I expected. It was a relief.
It took awhile, but these days I smile at the money grubbing commercials promising the fountain of youth in return for hard earned retirement dollars. The famous personalities attributing the result of their cosmetic “work” to exercise, good food, or their favorite potion. Accept the door opened for me by the 30something. Do the exercise and eat the foods that work for me. Hang with my peers. Admit I forgot – and make notes. I’m no longer backing into the future. I’ve found the shoes that fit and can finally move forward.
Because letting go is not giving up, it’s just moving in a different direction.