Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chapter 4 -- Buttercup and Peanut

"Who ever said money can’t buy happiness never got a puppy."


So, all throughout my pregnancy, even with Chelsea walking merrily beside me, I gained weight.  Well, truthfully, I gained a LOT of weight.  Not as much as some, but more than I would have liked.  It’s important to say that during my pregnancy I craved BEEF.  I write it with all caps to emphasize the fact that I could not stand the smell of wimpy-ass chicken. Potatoes, even french fries, turned my stomach.  Yep, when I was hungry, I wanted red meat and lots of it. I should have known I was in trouble when the “large”-size pregnancy shirts got snug, but I was in a perpetual state PD, that’s Pregnancy Denial for you folks on the outside edge of this condition. 

I couldn’t imagine that the girth I was adding to my body was anything more than the baby in my belly.  And to put it modestly, I was in shock that it all didn’t fall off in the delivery room. 

For the first few months, as you know, I had enough to deal with between learning new motherhood and caring for Chelsea when she was ill.  Then, after she passed away and we brought Saint Nicolas into our new little family, I spent my time cleaning up after both the baby and a puppy…and not necessarily in that order. 

Amid the cacophony of activity in my ever-changing world, I’d step on the scale every week or so and now and then.  Occasionally, I’d cheer myself on with the loss of a pound or two.  Everyone around me said things like “you look great,” and “It looks like you got back down to the weight you were before having Samuel.”

And I took those comments for the charity that they were.  If stepping on the scale or looking in the mirror didn’t do it, the change of seasons brought out another set of clothes that I “used” to wear, which of course no longer fit.  In most cases, the zippers wouldn’t even zip, nor would buttons budge.  Along around mid-April I had to admit I had quite a case of the pudge.  And, no clothes that fit for the summer. 

So, in our little slice of heaven we call Gig Harbor, lovely clothing shops abound to help me fix that problem.  There, tucked in between the shops was a new clothing store, with the name Rebecca’s Closet beautifully swirled on the door.  And, there I was in the need of a new size of clothes for Spring. 

Oh, I’ll just take a look, I thought to myself.  Nothing harmed in looking. 
The place was fabulous.  Something in between Shabby Chic meets retro 50’s décor.  But, most importantly, she sold vintage clothing.  Not the smelly things you have to sort through at the thrift shop, but racks and racks filled with those favorite pieces you have in your wardrobe that you hold onto for years.  Then, she mixed it up with a line of new jeans and a few cuter-than-cute tops to make the inventory stand up and shine. 

I was in heaven. 

Sitting at the counter was this young girl, looking all of sixteen.  I asked her about the shop and, absent-mindedly mentioned something about how much she must enjoy working here. 

“Well, I do, actually, because I own the shop,” she answered, smiling politely and petting a small Chihuahua. 

Whoa.  Hold the presses.  This young girl owns the shop?  I felt terrible and apologized immediately.  She just smiled and said something funny, like how looking so young worked well when she didn’t want to talk to salespersons.  She told them the shop owner wasn’t available, which was technically true because she didn’t actually want to talk to them anyway. 

I introduced myself and she did so, in turn.  “Hi, I’m Rebecca and this is Peanut,” she said, introducing me to the little whisp of a dog curled protectively in her arms.  I noticed her dog was quivering and I wondered if I was maybe scaring him. 

“Oh, no,” she explained. “You’re not, he’s just cold.”

Those who don’t own tiny dogs (like me) don’t know that even though it was nearly 75 degrees outside on this warm spring day, the physiology of Chihuahuas and other very small dogs makes it easy for them to get too cold.  With the air conditioning going ‘full-tilt-boogie,’ the shop was a chilly 65 degrees.  Peanut, as a result was shivering from being cold, and nestling in his “mommy’s” arms to warm up. 

He was also wearing a dapper “Dog shirt” which led me to remark about his fancy attire.  “That’s another thing I do,” Rebecca explained. “My mom’s business has grown so much that I also help her market and sell our line of clothing for small dogs.”

After Rebecca bought Peanut, she and her mom both liked having the little dog around so much that they decided to purchase another pint-size companion, Buttercup.  Peanut was bought through a breeder in Texas and this time, they found Buttercup from a breeder in California.  Just like people, not all dogs are the same and while Peanut was a relatively healthy small dog, Buttercup was a bit more sensitive.

When Rebecca’s mom took Buttercup in for her immunizations, she developed a reaction at the injection site, which ultimately formed a cyst that needed to be surgically removed.  “She wouldn’t stop biting at it,” Rebecca told me.  Her mom, a former clothing designer, whipped up a small shirt in a soft cloth.

It was a big hit. “Wearing that clothing helped soothe Buttercup, and she stopped nipping at the incision so it could finally heal.  Plus, it kept her warm and she was a lot more comfortable all around.”

Being an entrepreneurial family, Rebecca’s mom started making small lots of clothing for dogs.  She developed a web site and named the clothing line after…you guessed it, “Buttercup and Peanut.”  If you visit their site, you can find anything from a simple shirt, like the one made for Buttercup when she was healing, to elaborate wedding attire, when you want to make an “honest woman” out of your dog about to be mommy herself.

In the years since we met, Rebecca’s closet has closed.  Nowadays, Rebecca and her mom can be found designing and marketing a top-brand clothing line, though it’s for our four-legged, not two-legged fashionistas. Rebecca’s closet is full again, but this time it is with clothing designed for the fun and caring of the smallest companions. 

Buttercup and Peanut inspired Rebecca and her mom.  Good karma is the gift that keeps on giving.  With their entrepreneurial spirit and their love of very small dogs, Rebecca and her mother have lots and lots of it.  You can visit them online at  Happy Shopping!

I checked in with Rebecca recently.  She included an update, it’s below…enjoy:

Peanut passed away two and a half years ago from a heart condition from birth called mitral valve regurgitation. He lived to be six years old.  My mother’s dog, Buttercup, is still with us at eight years old. Now, my husband & I have two little girl Chihuahuas, Daisy & Paris.  They are both three years old.  I got both of them from the Chihuahua Rescue & Referral.  We got Daisy as a puppy, just a month after Peanut's passing.  We just couldn’t stand not having a little one to hold and it helped with the healing process. We got Paris just last year when she was two.

Becca wrote poem for Peanut.  I included it as I know you will understand its heartfelt message:
My Sweet Little Prince: March 1, 2002 - July 12, 2008
My sweet little prince
Oh how I miss you
Your broken little heart held so much love
and I am blessed to have been your mommy.
To know you and the love you gave to everyone you met. 
Your sweet little kisses and the looks you'd give me will always be in my memory.
You are still my good boy, my sweet little protector & friend. 
Now you are with Jesus and showing your love to those in heaven. 
Now you are my little angel watching over me.
You have changed my life in more ways than you will ever know. 
You have given me the love I needed and I know you still love me and your daddy. 
You may be gone from my arms but you will never be gone from my heart. 
 You have left your little paw print there. 
You have touched so many lives with your little
waggily tail and your soft little tongue. 
You are missed but never forgotten. 
Now your heart isn't broken.  It is as healthy as it can be. 
All because you are with Jesus, the healer of all.
I may cry for you but I know you are happy.  You were always a happy little puppy. 
Keep Bamma Gramma company, and play with Ebony.  Tell all those in heaven we love them.
I love you for always, I'll love you forever.  Where ever you are, my baby you'll still be.
I love you my sweet little Peanutty Buddy.
Your Mommy

Friday, March 25, 2011

Chapter 3 -- Jolly Old Saint Nicolas

To say that I did not enjoy celebrating the holidays with my relatives for my son’s first Christmas, and Chelsea’s last, was a complete understatement.  To say that my relatives can put the “fun” in dysfunctional is truly not without humor, however ruefully put. 

So the season started off with its general, run-of-the-mill frantic Christmas gift list-making frenzy.  I, the new mother, was busy taking care of Samuel and keeping a watchful eye on Chelsea.  At the time she seemed better from her November episode but she was just not her usual perky self.  Of course my husband was deployed again, to return home five days before Christmas and three days before his parents arrived to spend the holiday with us.  So, that left me to buy all the Christmas gifts, get the tree, bring home the groceries and prepare the menu for our festivities honoring jolly ol’ Saint Nicolas.  Oh and did I mention performing all these dazzling feats with a two-month-old in tow?

Even the Christmas tree lot guy felt sorry for me.  I got the seven foot Alpine Fir for twenty bucks, with a Christmas wreath thrown in as well. “Honey,” he said with his hands on his hips.  “You’d better tell me your neighbors will help you unload that tree or I’m coming over to your house myself.”  Of course I assured him all was well and I’d be fine, but my body was still reeling with new-mommy hormones and I shed not just a few tears for myself on the way home. 

Undaunted by my frantic foment of pre-Christmas activity, Chelsea and Samuel watched me ready the house for the holidays.  During nap times and at night, Chelsea was there at my feet while I surfed the Internet and let my fingers do the shopping…I’d appointed myself Mother Christmas.  In hindsight, of course in its 20-20 vision, I wish I’d just blown off any gift-getting and just spent time on the floor playing with the baby or stroking Chelsea’s fur.  But, I digress.  You must know the rest of the story, first.  Or, nothing else will seem miraculous. 

Throughout December, in between breast-feeding my baby every three hours, I was whipping up a meal or cleaning up from one. Early Christmas morning, I put out all the gifts under the tree.  Only Chelsea knew or appreciated how much of a feat I’d pulled off.  When I gave her a new dog bed and special dog biscuits dipped in white chocolate she seemed surprised and genuinely grateful.  She sniffed the bed all over, ate her treats with glee and kept coming over to say ‘thank you’ in her special way; wagging that beautiful bushy tail and smiling with a happy pant.

My gifts were grim and included a cartoon statuette of an old lady in garden gear and an ergonomically correct pillow that arrived unwrapped two weeks earlier.  If it wasn’t for my husband who managed to order a few things when he’d gotten some computer time at a stop somewhere in the Middle East that twenty-dollar Christmas tree would have been completely devoid of anything with my name on it.  Oh well, I surmised, I guess that’s what happens when you become Mother Christmas. 

On to the turkey.  For the rest of Christmas day, I was making breakfast, cleaning breakfast, arranging hors d'oeuvres, prepping turkey, stuffing, et al.  Chelsea and my new little son faded into the background as I whipped into culinary high gear, only stopping once every three hours to feed the baby.  That old Enjoli song kept humming around in my head.  You may remember it going something like “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…” and, if you can actually believe it, at the time I actually wondered why? 

They say God gives special insight to mothers and about an hour before dinner I suddenly knew three things with absolute certainty:  My relatives were reaching a decibel level rivaling a 727 at take-off, the Jim Beam was half-empty and dinner needed to be served ASAP.  For those of you who want to know that my holidays were over at this juncture, I apologize. The alcohol + relatives combination continued through Boxing Day.  I didn’t know we celebrated Boxing Bay in the U.S.  Ah, relatives.  Predictable. 

You know, during those few days, I’m not sure when I fed the dog.  Chelsea was always so generous with me, but never so much so as during that holiday season, which was sadly, her last.  It was also my only year to serve as Mother Christmas.  Up to that point, I was working hard to learn the lesson of NOT being the family DO-er or the resident PLEASE-er. I totally exhausted myself and had such a horrible time that I finally GOT IT! If there were any true gifts from those holidays, I counted them as those I learned--to love myself, to do the things that felt joyful, only, and to shed the rest.

My New Year’s resolution was to take a family vacation.  That is, a vacation from hosting anyone at Christmas except those who will savor our time together and have a reverence for the holy season.  I’m not a religious fanatic; just don’t ever want my Christmas dinner to devolve into a frat party.   That lesson was enough of a special gift given to me during that holiday season, or so I thought.  

As you know, Chelsea died just a month after my “horrible holidays.”  The next week, a small piece of paper kept falling out of my wallet. Written on it was the name of a golden retriever breeder I’d met by chance at a pet store/vet clinic with Chelsea two years earlier.  I wondered why it was still in my wallet.  I remembered the note, but thought I’d discarded it long before. 

At the time, I thought it was too soon for the Dog Angels to send me another.  However, I tried to visualize what it would be like when one did come my way.  Would a dog just show up on the doorstep in a box or with a bow on it?  After yet another day of that tiny scrap of paper finding its way into my hands, I decided what the heck and just called the number I’d scribbled down years before. 

“You may not remember me,” I said in the voicemail.  “Met you at the dog store.  Big peach and white colored husky; lost her too soon; kept finding your phone number on a scrap of paper in my wallet; wonder what that means.”

The return call erased any doubt of why I kept finding their phone number.  This picky breeder who only has one litter a year had a litter at that moment.  The pups were about eight weeks old and ready to be adopted soon.  Two were already spoken for, but the third, a big fluffy male, she had been thinking about keeping for herself.  My phone call changed that.  “You can have Nic if you like, I think I was holding onto him waiting for your call,” she said as if it was a perfectly rational explanation for the unexplainable.

“Nic?” I queried.

“Oh, you can change it, but we named him Saint Nicolas because the puppies were born on Christmas morning.” 

At that moment, I thought of Chelsea.  In my heart was this feeling she sent me a gift.  One final gift from her, for the big dog bones, the bed she never used, for the way we loved each other.  I said “thank you,” told the breeder I would be a good dog-mom, hung up the phone and cried – again.  I’d done it so often over the past few months.  This time my tears mingled with both joy and sorrow.  Khalil Gibran never spoke about those twin cups, equal in capacity to one another, being full at the same time. 

That first month, it was more than a bit of a challenge to orchestrate life smoothly.  My husband left for another deployment to the Middle East one week after Nic arrived.  If I had ten dollars for every pile of poop I cleaned up, Nic’s or Samuel’s, I’m sure we’d have gone to Hawaii the next Christmas. 

Getting Nic to the vet, with Samuel in tow, was a sight to see.  I kept visualizing the scene like one from an old silent movie:  Get Samuel in the car seat, lug the dog crate into the van, find a pile of poop in the hallway, clean it up with a note-to-self to put pup into room with vinyl flooring when prepping for next trip, load stroller in van, remember purse, cell phone and oh, yes, car keys.  Reverse process at vet clinic, to the hilarity of all on-lookers. 

I imagined it as if it were filmed in black and white – no voice over, just piano music and periodic cut-aways to subtitles.  Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops would have been proud.  I still laugh when I think of it.  It’s my joy.  Heaven knows, after loving Chelsea, my big beautiful apricot and white dog, I’m gaining a great capacity for it. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chapter 2 -- Buddy

I met Darla by chance at a summer country music concert in Oregon sponsored by my great telephone company.  In the way things tumble out as they are supposed to, somehow I told her about my beloved Chelsea, and how she inspired me to love and to become a mother.  There in the warm night air, I watched Darla and her husband, Troy, exchange knowing glances.

“Buddy,” they said simultaneously, more to each other than to me.  I recognized a love, too perfect, immediately and asked how I could reach Darla to talk about Buddy.  By the way, what type of animal was he? 

“Buddy’s my horse, and I’d love to talk about him anytime,” she replied eagerly, handing me her business card.  Glancing at it, I read the words “Strawberry Mountain Mustangs, a 501©3 Non Profit organization.  Did she train mustangs? I wondered to myself. 

Troy and I rescue them,” she answered to my unspoken question. I stowed the card in my pocket and then filed it for safekeeping knowing that in the right time, I would be ready to hear this story about the love between a horse and his girl. 

Life being what it is, with a kidlet, a full-time career and all the stuff we juggle in between, I was well into the Christmas season before that time actually came.  On a quiet afternoon I finally dug through my “Too Perfect folder,” and with a sigh of gratitude came out of the morass of papers with Darla’s card in my hand. 

As I read it closely, this time I noticed these words:  Adopt ~ Foster ~ Donate ~ Volunteer.  Below that was their website:  Even though I was eager to talk to Darla, I decided to peruse her site and learn more about the organization, first.  Then, we could spend time talking specifically about Buddy and how he inspired her. 

As the site came up, I was humbled and dumbfounded.

There on the homepage was a photo and eulogy to Buddy, who died from colic at the end of August, just a short three weeks after my chance meeting with Darla. 

His was a story that needed to be told.  I read the eulogy, cried, slept on it overnight and then the next afternoon, I gave her a call.  Even though it had been quite some time, Darla remembered me and graciously accepted my request to hear her all-too-brief love story about Buddy.

“I’d always had horses growing up,” Darla explained, after I asked her how she had the courage to take on wild mustangs.  After graduating from college, working in the world, and then marrying Troy, some years had passed. 

“Then we bought 110 acres and I thought, maybe it was time to bring a horse back into my life.” 

Little did Darla know at the time what could come from owning just one horse. 

“My dad and I liked palominos, so he went to work scanning the want ads and Internet bulletin boards for one,” she explained.  “I wasn't really looking for a horse when I found Bud.  I kept bugging my dad, but we weren't really out "shopping" or anything.  It was a friend of his who had Bud.”

So, the trio decided to go out and take a look.  “At the time he was only a scraggly little yearling.  Still half wild...and a long ways from being the big "golden boy" he would turn into,” she remembered.

“I was trying to be level-headed before I got there,” she laughed, remembering.  “I said to myself, if this isn’t the right fit, I can walk away, I don’t have to go home with the first horse I see.  Now look at me, I have 28 of them.” 

When they got there, Darla found him to be a gentle giant, standing well over 16 hands.  The owner explained the big boy was an adoptee from a mustang herd and she was more than just a little surprised.  Mustangs, as many know, are thought to be descendents of the compact, nimble Spanish “Barb” horse breed.  These animals arrived on the continent several hundred years ago aboard explorer ships and took up residence in the open plains of North America.  To see this big beauty one would think ‘thoroughbred’ or ‘quarter-horse’ – definitely not ‘mustang.’  Darla was intrigued…and smitten.

They loaded him in the truck that afternoon and after he settled in at home, Darla got curious about his history. 

“You see, I knew right away that Buddy wasn’t a typical wild horse,” Darla said.

“How so?” I wondered.

“Well, horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM, get a freeze-mark on their necks.”

“Why?” I asked, learning as I went and grateful that Darla was an eager teacher.

“That freeze mark is a series of numbers that identify it as a government animal and gives pertinent info on the history of the horse.  Buddy didn’t have that mark and I wanted to know why.” 

“What was important about the BLM freeze mark?  Why did they do it?” I asked, curious.  I’ve never seen a wild horse up close and personal much less see the freeze mark that Darla was referring to.”

“That freeze mark means the horse can’t just be sold at auction by the adoptee.  Whoever adopts a BLM horse must own it for at least a year.  It’s a better screening method for potential adoption and the person can’t sell the horse for slaughter, for example.”

“Horses are still slaughtered?” I was clearly naïve and uninformed. 

“Well, I found out that Buddy came from Sheldon Wildlife refuge and at the time, a person could just drive there with a big rig, load up as many horses as possible, and then drive straight to the rendering plant.”

“Buddy was part of a large group that somehow got to Oregon and he was adopted as a colt and he had just one owner before me.  He was very lucky.  But so was I,” Darla observed. 

After adopting Buddy Darla found he was an easy keeper.  “He was so gentle, so big and so beautiful people just couldn’t believe he was not only a wild horse, but an adoptee as well.”

“Buddy was willing to do anything I asked,” Darla told me with as much pride in her voice as we mothers have for our children.  “He was just a big, golden horse that could carry a two-year-old as well as a three-hundred pound man who had never ridden a horse.  And, so after a while he just became an ambassador not only for wild horses but for animal adoption in general.” 

Darla began rotating through her ranch a small handful of other horses that were, for lack of a better word, projects.  She would get a horse, rehab it then find it a home.  “In one case, I bought a horse from a gal who needed bail money,” she laughed. 

The horses came to Darla in a myriad of ways.  Some came free, given by people who lost interest or had a problem horse.  Others she had to buy.  As the horse angels do, I suppose, once those in her care found better lives, the word seemed to spread around the universe and the ones needing her most found their way to Darla. 

“Did Buddy help the new horses adjust to their life at the ranch?” I asked

“Oh no,” laughed Darla.  I was surprised and she sensed the question.  “I know I said he was an ambassador, but that was for humans not for other horses.”  Buddy, she explained, was very mischievous and especially picked on the newest horses to the herd. So, he had to be kept only with those who wouldn’t put up with his hi-jinx. 

In researching Buddy’s history, Darla made a connection with the woman who ran Sheldon’s adoption program.  By then, she knew of Darla’s budding interest in horse rescue and rehab and in trying to do the best thing for the program, one day she called Darla in desperation.

“I know you have land and you’ve got the experience,” said the woman with near-panic in her voice that afternoon.  “Darla, I have a round-up of wild horses standing outside my window in holding pens and the wild horse sanctuaries they were supposed to go to just backed out. Can you take fifty of them?”

After Darla picked herself up off the floor, she replied with the appropriately dumbfounded response of “huh?”

These horses were so wild that they were almost like deer. “They were feral,” was Darla’s simple explanation. It was such an overwhelming thought:  Fifty wild horses? How in the world could she do that?  What would Troy say? 

The woman understood.  “If you can take a dozen,” she offered, “I’ll have them trucked to your ranch in Oregon.”

So, in the fall of 2004, Darla and Troy received their first load from Nevada’s Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.  Soon it became apparent that with all the costs for feed, farriers, veterinarians and the general upkeep around the corrals, they needed to become a full-fledged non-profit organization, with all the rights and responsibilities therein. 

With Buddy by her side all the way, Darla grew her rescue and rehab herd to hover around the thirty-head mark.  “But Buddy was my star,” Darla said.  “Everywhere I took him, he taught people about Strawberry Mountain Mustangs and dispelled negative notions about adopting and owning a wild horse. He was an easy keeper and such a gentle giant.” 

Buddy’s story has touched hundreds, if not thousands in the region and made a major impact on the practice of selling truckloads of wild horses for slaughter.  A local newspaper article said it all when it quoted Darla, “Buddy would make horse-people out of anyone.”  Currently, Sheldon Wildlife refuge can not operate its horse sales program. 

That summer seemed too perfect.  Income met expenses most of the time, enough to ensure feed, and all the other necessities.  Buddy, who had visited a nursing home and had no problems around the many wheelchairs and other equipment, was being prepped for more community outreach visits. 

Then it happened.  Buddy was hit with a terrible case of colic and died suddenly, leaving Darla too soon. 

On the jacket cover of his book, True Love, my favorite author Robert Fulghum wrote “every love story has an unhappy ending, sooner or later.” To expound upon that notion in his introduction, Fulghum explained “love is the grand prize and the garbage heap.  Love is a spiritual root canal and the only thing that makes life worth living.  Love is a little taste of always and a big bite of nothing…The love we really live is all the love we really have.  And the love we really have is the love that’s true.” 

Some animals come into our lives to open our hearts to love, to help us become better people.  These stories are important, so that we appreciate the role of animals in connecting us to the divine, to help us become closer to God and to trust that we can love and be loved unconditionally. 

However, some animals come into our lives to do more.  They inspire us to accomplish great works of service and fulfill an important mission here on earth.  Buddy inspired Darla to do just that.  In his brief time with her, he not only nickered his way into her heart, he drew her to help many, many other horses and their people.  Darla, along with her husband Troy, is now an ambassador like Buddy was.  She is also an advocate; a protector and healer for those equine friends in her care. 

She observed with a rueful chuckle at the end of our conversation that afternoon, “after all I’ve seen through the rescue group, I’ve come to believe that you should have to get a license to reproduce – anything:  kids or animals.” 

With that hudspa, I know Darla will find peace and understanding at Buddy’s too-soon passing.  Much of that will be due in large part to the mission she now fills in his memory. 

I wrote her the other day, to let her know I would be publishing Buddy’ story.  Here’s her update: 

Things continue on here @ Strawberry Mountain. We focus more on programs now than ever, knowing that there are just too many who need rescue, maintaining right at about 15 horses on site, with almost that many in foster homes around the state.  Our continual goal is quality over quantity. We work closely with local law enforcement, taking in all breeds of horses, even the occasional llama, stray dog or cat...but deep in my heart I still have a love for the wild ones…especially those on Sheldon.

One of our most recent cases is Grace - the most emaciated case the county - and most of the country has ever seen.  I started a Facebook page to chronicle her recovery.  It now has nearly 6000 (yes, SIX THOUSAND) fans from around the world. 

Buddy's legacy lives on through horses like Grace. Because of him, I've been able to communicate with people as far away as Bulgaria about rehabbing a starved horse there.  I've been able to educate people that "old does not equal skinny” and share information on the best way to rehab and feed emaciated or older animals.  Here’s Grace’s FB site:   As you’ll read…she’s Grace:  the little horse with the big spirit.  Make sure to click on albums and look at the very first pictures.

Please also read on to see Darla’s tribute to her beloved Buddy.

On August 28, 2007 we lost a legend. 

Born in the Nevada desert with a pedigree written in the sands, he was as pure as the air he breathed.

From the inside out, he was pure gold; soft and gentle, yet tough enough to survive the brutality that would have faced him in the wild.  He belonged to Mother Nature and no one else, but he CHOSE me.

His amber eyes shone and melted the toughest of souls.  If the eyes didn’t do the trick, a persistent lick would.  He won over the heart of even the toughest cowboy.

Towering at 16.2 hands, some would call him a giant.  I called him my friend.

He won no races, no ribbons, no trophies.  Instead he won hearts.  He never competed in a halter class.  Instead he spent his time visiting elderly at assisted living centers.  That was where he chose to stand at attention, perfectly still, for those in the wheelchairs to judge him.  

He wasn’t a reining champion.  He did no fancy rollbacks, sliding stops or quick turn-arounds.  Instead he chose to move carefully, cautiously and slowly so that he didn’t dislodge the rider from his back.  Whether they were two or 62, Buddy took care of them.  I think he earned more “high points” this way than any other national champion ever could have.

Saddles and bridles didn’t fit.  Maybe they were never meant to?  After all, he had much more important things to do in his short life.  Instead we went bareback and with a halter and lead.  We didn’t need anything more.  We had each other.

Buddy was a wild horse from the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.  His heritage was cavalry, old stock run by ranchers for our military.  It was in his blood to serve, to protect.  He did just that.

The lives he saved are countless.  Mine was just the first.  He showed me what true passion is, that there was more to life than a paycheck and that even a small town girl could make a difference.

Buddy went on to save hundreds of equine lives as well, many of them the wild horses on Sheldon.  Lawmakers and the media have learned about the inadequacies of a poorly run adoption program there and the danger our wild horses are in.  He also brought us the quiet survivors of abuse and neglect cases.  The malnourished, the broken, the beaten and the forgotten.  He stood back and watched them all come in, for us to care for and mend, and he waited patiently for his turn to shine.

Webster’s dictionary defines legend as:  a person or thing that inspires.  I struggled with the term I wanted to use when writing this.  Was Buddy an icon?  An idol?  A legend?  After reading the definition, it became clear.  He was my dream, my hope, my love, my reason and my inspiration.  He is, and will forever be, my legend.

Darla Clark, September 8, 2007

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chapter 1 -- Chelsea

   Too Perfect
Chelsea and me....

I loved Chelsea and she loved me.  It’s as plain as that.  Before we go any further, let me explain that while Chelsea was a family pet, she was my dog – or I was hers – the line between who owned who blurred between us a long time ago.  Back then, I was a military wife and I first met Chelsea when our newest next door neighbors moved into our fourplex at Andrews Air Force Base.  They walked outside to help their dog inspect the new yard just as I was watering my flowers.  Since our homes were adjacent, I went over to the fence to say hello before I realized they had a dog with them.  Chelsea trotted out at me with a loud “woo-woo-woof” and I flinched. 

Then, I took stock of this dog, roughly 60 pounds of apricot and white fur – looking mostly like a husky mix of some kind and I said “now don’t do that or I won’t give you any treats.”  She wagged her tail, sheepishly smiling (those who own dogs know what I’m describing) “Sorry,” she seemed to say.  “Won’t happen again.”  And it never did.  In fact, that introduction began a two-year odyssey highlighted by treats across the fence and walking Chelsea to help the neighbors, who were new parents.  During those years I considered adopting other dogs.  Each time, it didn’t feel right. 

Then one day the neighbors asked if I would adopt Chelsea.  When she came to me, I needed her so much.  Her love, exuberance and beautiful, bushy apricot and white wagging tail – I needed all of her and she gave her love joyfully.  At the time, my husband was stationed in Central America for a year and I was flat out lonely. 

Chelsea turned our house into a home for two – she and I.  My work hours were long and she got bored, as well as needed a potty break.  So, one day, out of desperation, I left her in the back yard for the day.  She took it upon herself to go find friends.  Thankfully, another “dog” person found her.  Sharri Foy, had two shelties and, after learning our story, offered to “dog sit” Chelsea during the day while I worked.  We became lifelong friends as Chelsea played gleefully with her two dogs.

Moving from D.C. to Seattle with a big dog proved a major ordeal.  I gained not just a little confidence from caring for Chelsea and keeping her best interests at heart.  And, she returned my love by sharing her joy and making me laugh.  As soon as we ‘landed’ in Gig Harbor I found a house and embarked on a less-than-well-planned remodel (aren’t they always?).  In the tenth week without a kitchen, we returned from yet another dinner out to find Chelsea sitting on the roof of our house!  The guest bedroom window opens onto a low roof and there sat Chelsea, smiling and wagging her tail.  We laughed for days and it lightened our load.

When I became the executive director of our local Chamber of Commerce, Chelsea became our office mascot.  I learned that Chelsea had a great memory for directions when, after her daily walks through town with our neighbor’s daughter, she decided to venture down on her own.  I looked up from my desk to see Chelsea on the landing above my window, looking down at me, wagging her tail, and (I think) she said “see, I can find you.”  After that, she joined me at the office on quiet days. 

Our Chamber volunteers and staff laughed at Chelsea’s three ways of greeting folks.  Most common “Welcome to the Chelsea Petting Place,” the slightly standoffish “State Your Purpose” and on two occasions, the “Be Gone Bad Spirit.”  Chelsea was a great judge of character and she taught me to trust my instincts about people. 

Since she was now a public figure, keeping Chelsea pretty was a priority.  It was then I met Nancy Wakefield, who at the time owned a business called Pet-To-The-Vet. She helped me keep those promises.  Nancy took Chelsea to her monthly “spa days” of grooming at the Purdy Prison Pet Partnership Program.  Doris, who now owns her own boarding and grooming business, Von Vinzant Kennels, managed the prison’s grooming program at the time.  Doris and her team took such great care of Chelsea that on ‘spa days,’ she trotted out of the house without a backward glance.

When I became pregnant, Chelsea knew long before I did.  One night late, I woke to find her sniffing me from head to toe.  Putting it together, I bought a pregnancy test, which of course was positive.  Chelsea walked with me almost every morning for three years.  Until my fifth month of pregnancy, we motored at a jog.  After that, she politely slowed her pace and became very protective.  Fellow joggers and dog walkers were greeted on Chelsea’s sliding scale, but mostly to “Be Gone Bad Spirit”.

When Samuel was born he had to remain in the hospital for an extra week.  Chelsea patiently waited it out until we were all settled in at home.  For the first month, it was simply too perfect.  Our new family took walks up and down the hills of Gig Harbor.  The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny.  We were getting to know Samuel and loving each other more and more each day. 

The nights were long and Chelsea, as always, followed me closely.  This time, it was into the baby’s room for feeding, changing and to help our new one get off to sleep.  She rested patiently, waiting for me to be awake enough each morning to feed her and let her out for a potty break.  That’s why it surprised me so much when she pressed for my attention at the bedside.  When I finally rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I saw that half her face was slack.  Dr. Lisa Woods, my veterinarian, said that I shouldn’t use the “T” word (tumor).  I hoped she was right.  After a couple weeks, Chelsea seemed okay, albeit slower.  She was herself, but just at ¾-time.

The first week of January, it hit again.  This time, she couldn’t keep her equilibrium.  Then, she lost her peripheral vision.  I met with Dr. Lisa and agreed it was probably a tumor – deadly.  What was I going to do? 

Lisa told me to make Chelsea comfortable.  When it was “time” I would know.  The words of Kahil Gibran stayed in my head, from his essay on Joy and Sorrow in his book, The Prophet.  He wrote that our sorrow and joy are equal to one another; that our capacity for joy is equal to the sorrow we know in life.  I experienced it in what I felt was a two-to-one ratio.  For the immense joy she brought to my life, I felt double the sorrow at knowing she would soon be leaving me. 

As it turned out, we had three more weeks.  Chelsea and I and the baby took our last walk together on a Sunday – her last good day.  It was sunny and mild.  On Monday, it rained and Chelsea woke up blind.  After the baby’s three a.m. feedings, I coaxed Chelsea downstairs for water and a potty break.  By Thursday, I knew it was “time”.  Chelsea whimpered quietly and laid her head in my lap as if asking me to take the pain away.  It was more than I could bear.

It was on a Saturday morning and Nancy came to the house early to help wait out the inevitable.  I fed the baby at noon, and then, he went blissfully off to sleep for nearly three hours. 

I lay a throw on the floor and sat on it with my back resting against the sofa.  Next, I asked Chelsea to come sit by my side.  After pacing all morning, she surprised me by settling in beside me.  When Dr. Lisa arrived, she quickly set up and injected Chelsea with the anesthetic. Chelsea helped me through so much in our three years together; it was my turn -- to help her die, as comfortably as possible, with dignity, without fear.  “Meet me in my dreams and we’ll play again, like we used to,” I said.  She died with her head in my lap and with me looking into her eyes.  Dr. Lisa helped me snip a bit of her fur and we loaded Chelsea into her car.  Then, she was gone from my life.

It was terrible loss for me.  Yet, it was a wonderful gift to give this dog that gave so much to my life.

Three days later, in my early morning sleep, I heard panting at my bedside again.  It startled me so much I called out “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea!”  She leapt in one motion on top of the bed with grace and muscle.  She pranced around and tussled the sheets.  We embraced.  My hands ran through her long fur and I breathed in her clean, fresh scent.  She was Super Chelsea, with flecks of gold on the tips of her fur.  I love you.  I love you back.  Joy, joy, joy, joy.  Wiggle, squirm, laugh, smile, pant…then, I woke up.

I hope to see you again in my dreams Chelsea.  Thank you for showing me you are well, safe and happy.  I miss you every day.  It was too perfect between us. 

I thank you for reading my tribute to this wonderful dog.  Some people would say “Geez, she was just a dog.”  But, I suspect you understand my grief and the need to tell you how much I loved her.  Maybe you had a pet that you loved especially, or whom you are enjoying every day right now.  Please write me and tell me about it.  I know it would be a great story to share.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Too Perfect: a prologue...Is this heaven?

A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.

He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.

After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight.

When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.

When he was close enough, he called out, "Excuse me, where are we?"

"This is Heaven, sir," the man answered.

"Wow! Would you happen to have some water?" the man asked.

"Of course, sir. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up."

The man gestured, and the gate began to open.

"Can my friend," gesturing toward his dog, "come in, too?" the traveler asked.

"I'm sorry sir, but we don't accept pets."

The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.

After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence.

As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

"Excuse me!" he called to the man. "Do you have any water?"

"Yeah, sure, there's a pump over there, come on in."

"How about my friend here?" the traveler gestured to the dog.

"There should be a bowl by the pump."

They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.

The traveler filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself then he gave some to the dog.

When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree.

"What do you call this place?" the traveler asked.

"This is Heaven," he answered.

"Well, that's confusing," the traveler said. "The man down the road said that was Heaven, too."

"Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope that's hell."

"Doesn't it make you mad for them to use your name like that?"

"No, we're just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind."

A dear friend and fellow dog-lover, Don Kirchoffner, sent this story to me.  It’s one of those that circulate around the Internet once-a-year.  I almost missed it because these things have a tendency to fill up my in-box beyond a reasonable capacity and sometimes I’m so busy I delete them before opening. 

In my experiences with animals, I’ve learned that they come into our lives for three key reasons -- to love us, to comfort us and to inspire us.  And when it’s their time to leave us, it happens for two reasons: In some cases they have fulfilled their purpose as we have learned the lesson(s) that were given to our animals to teach us.  In others, they must leave us so we will grieve them and make the changes we must in order to fulfill our purpose on this planet. 

Not everyone learns key life lessons from animals.  Sometimes it’s from our kids, our parents or another person close to us.  Other times those lessons are learned when we make horrible or just plain dumb mistakes.  However, I think that often the gentlest teachers are those silent animal companions we know. Their simple acceptance of we humans speaks in far greater volumes than silly words can ever express.  When we come into this world we are a blank slate.  When we leave, the only things we take with us are the experiences from knowing others. 

And, as such, over the past decade or so, I’ve gathered a small collection of stories that describe the serendipitous love we share with animals which fundamentally transforms us. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed hearing them and writing them down.   Each story describes how and when we make a shift from the person we were to the person we become.  Afterwards, we love more generously, more freely and with fewer conditions attached to it.  Thank heavens for these blessings.  They are just too perfect.