Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life with Mikey

Mikey has a big crush on Jamie.  Or at the very least he likes her a lot.  The only wrinkle in the story of these two star-crossed lovers is the fact that Mikey is a three-feet tall, big, beautiful King penguin and Jamie is a five-and-a-half-foot tall human. 

But the story of their relationship starts long before they actually fell in love…when Jamie was in high school.  Jamie’s mom raised her all on her own.  Jamie talks almost reverently, in hushed tones, about how she made such a great life possible for them despite being a single mom.  As a single mom now myself, I know it isn’t easy to provide such a wonderful life as Jamie describes what her mom gave her. 

In order to accomplish it all, there were sacrifices to be made.  With this in mind, they went lots of places and had a lot of fun, and this dynamic duo was a frugal pair.  Jamie proudly told me about it in bits and pieces as we worked together spreading good karma for the phone company and finally, the power behind she and Mikey’s love story came tumbling out while we enjoyed a too-perfect day together whale-watching.    

We motored out of Roche Harbor, in the heart of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago that straddles Washington and British Columbia.  A breeze fingered through our hair on this picturesque summer afternoon while we trolled for orca whales.  This warm season brings orca together for a clan gathering of sorts. Fishing for salmon and hunting for seals is good around the islands this time of year.  Whale babies are born in the shelter of coves and bays, and lots of love is shared among the pods of orcas as they join up to make one super pod, eat to their hearts content (on good years), broaden their gene pools and further the future of their species. 

As a result of this massive orca family reunion, tourists like me, and Jamie and thousands of others flocked like sheep in order to witness this annual love-fest. During college, I remembered that Jamie worked at Sea World in San Antonio, TX.  Armed with her knowledge of orca I knew that she could teach me a few things that weren’t on the regular tour about whales as well as enjoying the sea and sights around us. 

Everything Jamie learned in four years of working at Sea World was condensed, organized and card-catalogued efficiently into her brain.  Not surprisingly, Jamie has a teacher’s soul.  As you know, with teachers, everything has a place and must be in place, properly, thank you.  

Jamie often laughs with us, her colleagues, about the fact that no matter what the event, Jamie is always on top of the last detail.  We march to her orders like a dutiful classroom of kids.  On more than one occasion I’ve given her the all-too-plentiful advice that she should change professions and get paid to boss small children around, preferably in second or third grade.  She is a perfect benevolent dictator. 

To which she replies often that teachers do not get paid enough to earn a proper living, and so she chose the marketing profession.  I am one of those free-spirited, creative types.  I think that we are to become whatever our mission is, to connect with our soul and learn what that mission actually is.  However, Jamie decided that teaching wasn’t for her, so she chose to apply her great attention to detail, organization and logical sequence in the marketing department of our phone company.  We were kindly blessed with Jamie at our organization. 

So on a warm-breeze summer afternoon, Jamie and I sat amid all this splendor spying yachts in the harbor and letting our eyes drink in the incredible beauty of the Pacific Northwest.  It was one of those kind of days where trying to describe the sound of gray-blue water lapping against a boat or the exhale of Orca blow holes close by was woefully inadequate to the emotions raising the plum line in my soul.  Simply put, I was full of joy and wonder at the grace of life around me.

At the time we were slathering mayo onto bread poised perfectly atop our laps while making assembly-line turkey and cheese sandwiches.  On this whale-watching trip lunch didn’t come with the package even though the trip crossed lunch hour.  So we improvised, purchasing sandwich fixins’ at the market. 

Bending over to my task, I dutifully slather the bread with mayonnaise and, next on the conveyor belt Jamie is applying the turkey slices.   We took a break in the action and ponder the direction of true North and then returned to the task at hand, when Jamie opened the door to her world to tell me about herself.  I pause, looking for fairy dust and sparkles, holding my breath because I know this is a glimpse into the sacred, special part of what makes her, “Jamie.”  

She began rather benignly by pointing out parts of the Orca anatomy and their coloring that make them unique to one another. The “saddle” is a grey patch between the dorsal fin and the tail that is different for every whale.  Marine biologists use this patch as well as the whale’s dorsal fin, which is also unique to each whale, to identify specific members of a pod, as a whale family is called. 

As she got comfortable in her teacher’s role I only wanted to learn more.  Her gift of teaching was played out as she relayed to me everything she’d learned as a summer camp counselor at Sea World.  By this time, we’re now enjoying our sandwiches and Jamie carefully chooses her words and explained that growing up outside Saint Louis, MO, of course Jamie and her mom visited Sea World. 

Something about that place must have moved her, inspired her.  Seeing sea mammals in a land-locked place, listening to the sounds they make when they breach for air or just simply because they can, feeling water spray down as part of the hundreds of gallons displaced whenever whales splash back into their domain.  It’s hard to pin-point any one thing.  Jamie still holds that magical moment close to her chest.  That is her personal joy. 

Finally, though, that inspiration found a calling. “I kept surfing the Internet, not really sure what I was looking for and then I found a Sea World summer camp in San Antonio, Texas.”

After that, Jamie was bitten by the Sea World bug.  Throughout college, she spent every summer there playing camp counselor-big-sister-teacher to kids staying overnight as well as day-trippers.  While she joined the many others who were awestruck by Orca whales, Jamie’s heart was taken by the penguins.  And, in particular, Jamie loved the King penguins.  It seemed that one of them returned her admiration. 

All penguins are playful and attached to their zookeepers.  I didn’t know that when Jamie told me.  I thought they hung around for food and then turned their attentions back to one another.  However, I was woefully wrong and she patiently explained that they consider humans part of their flock and will become very attached to one or more of those taking care of them.  Over the four years that Jamie was a camp counselor, she regularly brought children in for ‘hands-on’ time with penguins.  As a result, she got to know almost all of “her” penguins by name and could recognize them as they could her. 

At Sea World in Saint Louis, they boasted a healthy and robust family of King penguins. They are aptly named. They grow to about three feet tall and weigh an average ranging from 50 to near 100 pounds.  With this size comes quite a bit of gumption and they are particularly engaging. 

Jamie laughs when she tells me about how the birds use their wings (which look like flippers and are actually used like them) when they walk up behind people and administer a healthy “whack” behind their knees, causing their legs to buckle.  Those and other antics can only be described as higher thought.  Jamie explains that she felt like the penguins actually laughed whenever a zookeeper was brought to his or her knees.  That’s just funny stuff, you know.  “The stooges,” a.k.a. Larry, Curly, Moe and Shep would be proud. Physical humor ranks just above body noises in hilarity.

So, Jamie, like anyone, had her favorites among the penguins.  Mikey was a pretty great penguin as they go, but Jamie abided by the rules of never getting too close, as they are pretty skittish and are not meant to be someone’s pet.  So, one day, Jamie was seated in the exhibit, with her small group of children sitting in a crescent-moon shape across from her.  Jamie, looking at the children, didn’t notice Mikey addling up next to her, but the kids could see him.  She talked, he inched closer.  She talked some more, he got up and scooted within a few webbed footfalls.  The kids started pointing and guffawing.

“I thought they might be laughing at a couple of the penguins showing off, but no, they were amazed at how Mikey was trying to get as close as possible,” Jamie explains.  “So I told him it was okay, he could come closer, and he did.”

Mikey sided right up next to her, and wheedled himself alongside her.  Then, he leaned against her with his head actually resting gently on her shoulder.  I can just imagine him gazing lovingly up at her!  By this time all the kids were laughing.  I’m sure if Jamie and Mikey were both penguins, the penguins in the flock would have been calling out in sing-song voices:  two little love birds sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.  Or, if Jamie had been a fellow camper and Mikey was human, the kids would have sung the same.

And so Jamie, the ever-practical, the efficient-Mary-Poppins in so many ways was completely, unabashedly undone by Mikey’s display of affection.  He touched her heart, inspired her, igniting a well-spring of joy on that day.  Fireworks exploded so brightly that even more than a decade later Jamie still beams as she tells the story. 

On that summer sunny day, with the tourist boat bobbing and the orcas blow-holing and the people beaming from it all, we enjoyed a quiet time after her story.  It seemed poignant to me, how far away she was from her work at Sea World that brought her so much joy and a sense of purpose. 

Two weeks later, while driving down to a phone company event in Sweet Home, Oregon, one of my colleagues called me on my cell phone.  I’m always grateful for the calls, as they break up the monotony of a long drive.  At the time our phone company spanned 38,000 square-miles in Washington and Oregon, some of the most remote communities in the contiguous U.S.  Despite being fully awake and using a hands-free cell phone, I almost drove off the road when my colleague blurted out, “Jamie just sent an email and she’s resigned from her position.”

“Jamie has a new job?  Where is she going?” I amaze myself at being able to choke out a discernable sentence.

“She’s got a job at a hospital conglomerate where she will coordinate marketing events and community education.” 

Ah, bliss.  I thought.  Not quite back to Sea World, but definitely close to her teacher’s soul.  Someday, maybe, she’ll find her way “upstream” just like steelhead spawning and return to Sea World.  In the meantime, she’s on her way there.  Life is a journey, not a sprint, and we are the sum total of the experiences we gain along the road.  Someday, that blessed, blissful someday, she’ll have a lot to share with the penguins. 

However, if Sea World is interested now, then I can arrange an informational interview.  Jamie and her King penguin family need to get back together again sooner than later. 

I caught up with Jamie recently.  It’s been a couple years since we spoke last and much has changed in her world.  As a new mother, she and her husband are celebrating milestones like the baby’s first smile.  She’s also moved on from hospital marketing and education.  If you can believe it, she’s now working for a pet food company, marketing their specialty veterinary line of foods!  It’s awesome! I cracked up!  It really is too perfect!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Winston & Bogey

After staying home with Samuel for over a year, I was climbing the walls; or if you’d rather, painting them.  My world, after being so full of humans at the chamber of commerce had become rather small, chiefly comprised of Samuel and Nic.  At first a world this size was enough for us. I was working at getting the rhythm of motherhood – simultaneously to an infant and a puppy -- under my belt.  Samuel and Nic both were just getting familiar with the world, itself, and we had each other for company. 

Gradually, Samuel began to notice other babies and wanted to play with them.  I tried joining a couple of mom-groups, but quite frankly I felt they devolved into what, among some are not-so-politely referred to as a “stitch and bitch.”  I had better things to do with my time than lament about the cost of pork chops and complain about how often my husband went out of town.  Things needed to get done around my house and because I wasn’t working outside our home, I felt the person just right for those jobs was me.  So, I appraised the ‘to-do’ list and started painting the place.  Samuel was underfoot and bored, so at first we tried the YMCA baby & mom gym.  That was fun but too short and kept me away from the paint cans. 

It was time for more drastic measures. 

That’s when I thought of Cottesmore.  When I was working for the chamber of commerce, we held our weekly public affairs forum meetings at Cottesmore of Life Care.  It is a nursing home that encourages the community to engage with them by offering up its cafeteria as fee public meeting space.  They also run a day care, started at first to care for the children of the nursing staff and then expanded to local residents.  Would they take Samuel one day a week so I could get back to schalacking those walls of mine?  Of course and he settled in nicely to the routine, which soon grew to two days a week – quite a luxury for a one-income family – so I painted up a storm and gardened like a fiend on those days. 

But I was lonely.  Flat out, I missed being around grown ups.  As if in answer to an unspoken prayer, while painting the kitchen walls one day the local telephone company called and offered me a job as their public relations and marketing manager.  Then, Samuel’s forays into day care became a five-day-a-week adventure.  Every morning, I’d trot into Cottesmore with him as I’d seen the other moms do two years before. 

And, there was this black and white cat.  It came in when I brought in Samuel one of the first times.    

“Oh my goodness,” I said to Maria, the receptionist at Cottesmore.  “I just let a cat in here by mistake.”

“Oh, that’s no mistake,” she assured my astonished self.  “That’s probably just Winston.  It’s okay.  He lives here.”

What?  I wondered.  A cat in a nursing home?  I’d heard of shop cats but that was a new one.  Later, when I mused on it some more, this actually made sense.  Most of the residents at Cottesmore enjoyed pets throughout their lives.  Why not bring a sense of normalcy and ‘home’ to what can be otherwise a very clinical, hospital-like environment. 

So, on most mornings when I came in, the cat went out.  And, when I went out the cat came back in.  Cats do these things. 

Then, one morning the cat went out when I came in and then was waiting to go out again as I left just a few minutes later. What?

“Oh that’s just Bogey, Winston’s brother,” Maria explained in answer to my unspoken question. 

Pamm Shelton, their activities director, told me later that Cottesmore had tried bringing in a dog for the residents, but it was just too jumpy and excitable. Then, just when the dog found a more suitable home, “Winston Churchill” and “Humphrey Bogart” came to the nursing home in an unexpected turn of events.

But when a match that’s “too perfect” between humans and animals comes together, I don’t think there are any coincidences. 

Winston or Bogey could be found curled up on a resident’s bed, enjoying a ride on a cart full of linens, or “getting a tan” under desk lamps at any given time throughout the nursing home.  “It is funny, but also amazing,” Pamm explained, “Those cats just seem to know who needs an extra bit of comfort and just when to do show up.”  They keep us either laughing or shaking our heads every day.”

A few months later, we lost our beloved day care center director and with that change, it signaled to me that it was time to move Samuel to a new daycare.  The next time I stopped into Cottesmore it was several months later.  I visited as a guest at the Rotary Club meeting, which happens each Friday morning in the cafeteria. 

At the end of the meeting one of the cats was stationed by Maria’s desk watching this large group of people leave, obviously interested in the goings-on.  Since both cats had black and white markings that were nearly identical, I couldn’t tell who-was who.  I bent over and gave him a pet and asked Maria how Winston and Bogey had been running the place lately. 

“Oh, Bogey isn’t here anymore,” she said, matter-of-factly. “He moved over to Olympic Alzheimer’s residence down the street.”

I nearly burst out laughing.  “You’re kidding,” I said. 

“No,” she said, straightening the papers on her desk.  “He and Winston weren’t getting along and we staff watched as it became clear that one retirement home full of a hundred and twenty residents wasn’t big enough for the both of them.” 

Seemed the cats figured that out first.

Later it was pieced together that they had been making forays together into the two acres of forest and houses that separated Cottesmore from the neighboring nursing home.  Soon enough, one day both cats went over and only one came back.  Bogey moved himself into Olympic Alzheimers Residence by slinking in the front door when visitors came in, just like he did at Cottesmore.  The staff at Olympic, some of whom worked at both facilities had a feeling of ‘what-was-what’ and called over to Cottesmore to let them know what had become of Bogey. 

And, just as he’d done at Cottesmore, right away he began curling up with residents, riding linen carts and warming himself under desk lamps. 

The founder of the Delta Society, and head of the Washington State University school of veterinary medicine, Leo K. Bustad, DVM, Ph.D, advocated often on the importance of bringing animals into facilities, such as nursing homes.  In his book “Compassion: Our Greatest Hope,” he cited many studies that showed that the presence of animals calm and soothe the residents of skilled nursing facilities.  And why shouldn’t it, he argues?  Many of these people lived their entire lives with pets or farm animals to care for. Why should that change because their residence has changed to an institutional setting? It’s still their home. 

When the nursing staff of Cottesmore or Olympic finds either a cat curled up at the foot of a resident’s bed and they are both sleeping peacefully, now that is inspiring.  It reinforces the basic tenets of our human-animal bond.  Our animals exist to love us and we are the stewards of their care.  It’s simply too perfect. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pohlease Hoarse

At least once in your life, consider spending a few days before Christmas in New York City.  The department store windows are all dressed up for the season and flocked with sometimes more than just a wisp of snow from the brisk air.  Of course, adding to the fun are the holiday happenings, like skating the ice rink at Rockefeller Center or enjoying the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.  At the risk of reading much like a promotional brochure, in New York City during Christmastime there are glorious sights to see and a myriad of festive things to do. 

We rode to New York City by train from Washington, D.C., and arrived one cold evening at Penn Station to do it up right.  It was just like a picture postcard and exactly how I imagined the town would be.  We ate dinner at Le Cirque, a meal that included real goose pate in our first course, for heaven’s sakes.  If our hotel room was less than glorious, we didn’t spend much time there, so that was okay. 

Taking a taxi, the subway or just walking through the city was how we spent our time. Before heading up there, I’d read extensively how the Mayor and his administration devoted a specific effort to reduce crime and it showed.  Streets were clean and we felt ‘safe’ everywhere we went.  One day we walked all the way down to the financial district and along Wall Street, which was really small surprisingly enough. We ate lunch, a Reuben on rye, at a real New York Deli. 

Of course, like tourists do, after dinner one evening we had our taxi drop us at Rockefeller Center.  The entire area was ‘merry and bright’ and filled with people skating, walking together and enjoying a crisp, clear night.  Standing at the edge of the large square, we soaked in the scene. And up from our side came the slow, methodical “clip, clop” of horse hooves. 

Two mounted police officers were on their nightly patrols.  I’m sure they were there for the PR value of it all.  As we stood beside them they were swarmed by families with kids asking “can I pet your horse, officer?” As if the horses knew the questions by heart, they bent their heads down a little for an earnest pet-n-hug from the season’s littlest revelers. 

I smiled up at one of the officers who despite not saying a word had more than just a bit of mischief playing around his face.  He enjoyed the moment as much as the kids.  We caught each other’s eyes and so I ventured a brief ‘hello.’

“What kind of horse is he?” I ventured conversation by opening with a polite question.

“He’s a Pohlease Hoarse,” came his quick reply in a thick, almost surreal Brooklyn accent; his partner just about falling off his own horse in laughter.  Obviously, the question had been asked and answered many, many times over.  Boy, did I walk into that one!  I laughed too and got the joke right away.  Ah, tourists.  We’re so predictable.

“Well, he may ‘ave a little dawnkey in ‘im,” he followed, still playing the straight man and his partner snorting and guffawing at all the right moments.  Even the horses got into it.  Pohlease Hoarse numero uno shook out his mane and snorted while the other stamped his foot and offered up a noted tail swish.  I swear, the comedians Buddy Abbott and Lou Costello would have been proud. 

“Thank you for being here officer,” said a parent. Others chimed in.  It was a Pohlease Hoarse love fest right there in the middle of Rockefeller Center.  I imagine that for all the times those mounted officers had to work an unruly Times Square crowd on New Year’s eve or some protest at the United Nation’s Building, this was their ‘pay off’ – working for a grateful crowd.  We were all glad they were there. 

Later in the week, we had dinner at Windows on the World, at the very top of the World Trade Center.

I remember savoring our appetizers and drinks while watching the jets landing, late sunset, at New York’s La Guardia Airport.  They came so close to the buildings in the financial district I swear I could see the faces of the pilots.  Little did I know just over two years later I would wake to see on the news that someone else had the same thought, only with a much more destructive agenda.  Terrorists.  That beautiful restaurant, filled with elegantly dressed people gazing onto a sweeping view of New York Harbor.  All of it wiped out with two planes flown straight into the world trade center. 

When I saw the second plane hit the building on TV my first thought was of the pohlease hoarse and his mounted officer.  I wondered what they were doing and prayed for their safety and that of the countless other ‘first responders’ who would be going into the world trade center as the victims were streaming out. 

On September 11, 2001 the terrorists did just what they set out to do, striking fear, panic and chaos in the moment.  However, it did not last long.  And it included the help of both human and animal partners to restore order where it had been stolen.  Whether it was the pohlease hoarses, the sniffer dogs or the ‘comfort’ animals brought to the rescue and salvage sites to soothe the workers, I saw countless stories of animals that inspired many and brought a calming presence to an otherwise grievous situation.

There’s a song that quotes Matthew 18:20.  “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in his name, there is love.”  Sometimes the other that gathers alongside us is an animal. It’s unexpected and yet, just what is needed in the moment. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Crackpot Women's Tank Top

You could say that my experiences with animals and the people they inspire over the past few years are somewhat unique; even special.  I feel really lucky to have been given this gift from the “Dog Gods” or whoever behind the veil bestowed this blessing on me.  It’s been a joy, a surprise. 

It took me a while to recognize the stories when they came my way.  I am still amazed at how they tumble out during phone conversations, or before a meeting starts, or while chatting it up with people in waiting rooms, even from the person sitting next to me on an airplane.

The giver often has to hit me between the eyes with it.  “Jacquie,” he or she will say, “this one’s for your book.” 

Oh, yeah, I catch myself.  Don’t question the gift, just honor it. 

I know this all came from loving and being loved by Chelsea.  She was such a specific inspiration to me.  Serendipity brought her into my life, as the “dog-next-door” and we fell in love.  Like all star-crossed affairs, she had a bright but brief stay in my life.  I mark my world as BC (Before Chelsea) and AD (after she died). 

If you asked me ten years ago what would open my heart to unconditional love, I would have naively answered you by saying, “oh, I’m already open to unconditional love.”

The truth is I never felt unconditional love until I was “owned” by that big, beautiful brown-eyed, bear-faced, honey-headed, apricot-and-white dog.  I burst out laughing the first time I saw a t-shirt that read “Oh Lord, please let me be half the person my dog thinks I am.”   

As you know you, I feel that after she died Chelsea visited me in a dream once.  Whether it was my subconscious desire to assuage my own grief or just plain truth, I still remember how I stroked her fur, embraced her and laughed with her as she wiggled and danced around me.  Then, as quickly as she was by my bedside and leapt up into my arms she was gone.  I feel so comforted and fortunate to have that memory.  I feel she came to say “I’m great.  I’m better than great.  I’m Super Chelsea.  I love you. Thanks for everything.  I’ve got things to do now, so I have to go.” 

I knew that I was the one left behind while she went off to greener dog-walking parks.  I knew that I was going to grieve her loss.  She truly was in a better place.  And, it was a tremendous comfort as I had agonized over the decision to have her euthanized. 

Since her passing, my experiences over the past couple of years replaced my sense of loss with a sense of purpose.  If there was any noble outcome from having loved and been loved by Chelsea, it was to honor her memory with a tribute to all of those who are inspired by the animals they care for.  I’ve gathered steam, and even feel at times I’m a quiet ambassador to promote the human-animal bond. 

In his book “Compassion: Our Last Great Hope,” Leo K. Bustad, DVM, Ph.D., writes about psychiatric and medical work that illustrate the healing power of the human-animal bond.  I’ve never met this man, but his words struck a resounding chord with me, somewhat like a tuning fork hitting the perfect note. 

His experiences make him well suited to serve in the capacity of encouraging scientific study to catalog the outcomes of animal partnership programs in a myriad of social, rehabilitative, and medical settings.  He is the former dean of the Washington State University School of Veterinary Medicine, a World War Two prison camp survivor and a leader of the Delta Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to demonstrating the incredible benefits that result from the special relationships between humans and the animals they care for. 

While reading his book, I had a “lightbulb” moment.  It was in his introduction when he wrote, “I believed that if we could mobilize … we could have a tremendous impact on many people—especially those who were lacking nurture and appropriate nurturing objects (which includes an ever-increasing segment of our society).”

Oh, you mean me?  Being so full of love and acceptance for myself and others as I am now stands in stark contrast to the person I was BC.  As a result of the chance I was blessed with to become an intimate part of Chelsea’s life and then ensure her peaceful death, I was a changed person.  It was a fundamentally life-altering experience. 

After a while, all this love and inspiration can go to one’s head.  I now understand the lunacy that can happen to someone after, for example, becoming a televangelist. Gradually, I settled into my new-found position as the self-appointed Keeper of the Flame for the priceless human-animal bond.  I soon floated in a sea of this universal love for my fellow man and dog…or horse or cat or any type of beast.  Animals seemed to know me; like a modern day ‘Dr. Doolittle,” I could talk to them…and their people. 

You know where this is going.  Soon you will hear a resounding thud coming from my spiraled fall out of this little slice of heaven. 

And so it happened on one fine June morning this summer that I needed to visit my veterinarian. My precious Saint Nicolas had now become a 90-pound golden retriever and a walking allergic reaction.  Even cotton, my gentle reader, can whip up acerbic responses in him tantamount to those caused by a flesh-eating virus.  It is a constant battle of me-against-skin to keep Nic comfortable.

I used to wonder why I was saddled with this great high-maintenance dog, sweet as he is.  However, with my position as Keeper of the Flame I finally accepted the possibility that it was in order to ensure my continued connection to my new “peeps”; my veterinarian and all-those-who-love-the-animals-who-own-them.

So, off to the vet I go, for a varied and sundry list of items.  I think it included some special kind of shampoo this time.  Oh, and along with me trots my now-three year-old son, Samuel.  He is the light of my life and so stinkin’ cute that entire rooms of normally lucid and articulate older women dissolve into a sea of knee-crawling, babbling idiots as they get down to eye-level with my son.  If you take a day in my world, it’s pretty much all about joy, love, controlled chaos and conversations with complete strangers that begin with the words “Isn’t he beautiful?” It’s a 50-50 split whether the compliment is directed toward my son or the dog. 

As I opened the clinic door, I scanned the room.  Off to my left I noticed a man quietly sitting there with sawdust on his boots.  He had his hands neatly folded in his lap as he stared down; counting the wood shaves speckled there.  Samuel, Nic and I entered the clinic with a foment of merriment and activity, looking like our own circus act and this man barely acknowledged our presence.  I recognized that face immediately.  It was the same one I wore while waiting for Dr. Lisa to tell me that Chelsea’s illness was incurable. 

Bringing an entourage into the clinic required my immediate attention.  Nic lunged toward people and dogs, trying alternatively to make friends and show off, while Samuel tried to disappear into the main treatment and kenneling area where the vet techs hang out.  Yes, we’re regulars.  Batten down the hatches, folks.  Here comes Jacquie and Her Boys, a.k.a. “The Wrecking Crew.”

After about ten minutes my business was completed, much to the relief of the clinic’s front office staff.  I began the process of exiting the building, taking with me one dog, one child, remembering also to take the items I purchased off the counter, and also taking inventory of my son to ensure we are departing the premises with the toys he brought in and leaving behind any items he may have picked up during our visit.  It’s a miracle I remembered my purse and keys. 

And, by the way, I did forget my keys.  So, after getting Nic stowed in his kennel and Samuel strapped into his car seat, and then undertaking a futile effort rummaging through my purse and pockets, I head back into the clinic.  On my way, I pass Dr. Kara, the clinic’s newest veterinarian, as she and one of the techs are walking out to the burgundy truck parked right next to my van.

On my way back out to the van, I see why they were headed out to the burgundy truck.  There, under the Snugtop bed cover, is the man in the sawdust-covered boots sobbing deeply over a giant, heavy-coated, gold-rust colored dog.  Dr. Kara and one of the vet techs are quietly exiting his space and I see Dr. Kara holding an empty syringe.  It’s right at that moment.  The dog is gone and so the man’s heart is actually breaking right there.   This gruff, dusty man, with logs and wood shavings scattered in the back of his truck is on his knees bent over the too-still body of his dog. 

I remembered that moment.  In stark contrast to this one; we were at my house.  Dr. Lisa kindly arrived with Elaine, her vet tech and with great compassion she helped make Chelsea’s passing a gentle, quiet time for our little family.  Afterwards we all together, she, I, my husband Sam, and my friend Nancy Wakefield carried Chelsea’s dead body out to Lisa’s car.  We all hugged and comforted each other.  This man had no one. 

I couldn’t stand it.  Knowing how much I needed help when Chelsea died, I could not in good conscience, get in my van and just drive away like who-knows-what.  Maybe that was why I was there that specific Saturday morning?  Maybe it was my turn to give back by comforting this grieving man?  At least that’s what I thought in the moment. 

Now, what’s that road to hell paved on?    

So, up into the truck bed I climb.  Kneeling in sawdust and dodging logs I sit quietly beside the sobbing man.  He leans against me and I gently lay my arm on his shoulder.  After a few moments, I ask, “What was her name?”

“Dega,” he answers, in between sobs. 

After just a few moments more, I tell him “When I lost my dog, Chelsea, I couldn’t stop crying for days.  Then she visited me in a dream, and her fur was covered in gold sparks.  I knew she was alright and I’d done the right thing.  Don’t be surprised if you dream about your dog.”

At this juncture, he actually stopped crying.  Wiping his eyes he raised himself up from his position bent over Dega and took a good look at me.  In a tone that expressed how absolutely incredulous he was, this man asked me, point blank:

“Who, who are you?”

I was so embarrassed I just about fell out of the truck at that moment.  He was right.  I could just about feel the splash of cold water as the bucket was thrown, proverbially, in laser-guided precision toward my face.  The next sound in my head was the “thud” of coming back down to earth in rapid free-fall descent from my perch, on high, as Keeper of the Flame.

“I’m just a person,” I choke out while trying to graciously swallow my slice of humble pie.  I think I managed to stammer something akin to sorry to bother you and I take several big steps back and around my van into the driver’s seat. 

Hearing the key turn over the engine, I take a quick check in the rear view mirror.  Samuel is playing with his truck and Nic quietly pants in syncopated, melodious rhythm from his kennel. 

And, I think:  What an absolute dip---- I am!

In one moment I imagine all the things this man could have done, from yelling at me to whacking me a whopper, all within an arm’s reach of my kid.  I ventured into his private, intimate, grief-filled space, a place that no one should go without an invitation.  Then, as the proverbial cherry atop the whipped cream dose of piety, I tell him some cockamamie story about how the spirit of my dog came a-calling from the Great Beyond.

He was right, who (the hell) was I?  Not everyone grieves the same.  Not everyone believes in the same things.  No one person can be comforted by anyone, for that matter, depending on the loss.  Moreover, when the platitudes include out-there-on-the-fringe testimonials from the self-appointed Keeper of the Flame, what inquiring mind wouldn’t ask the question:  “Who, who are you?!” 

If he has a generous sense of humor, I hope he’s still laughing about how some crackpot woman shocked him so much that he got wits about him enough to drive home.

So, wherever Chelsea is in the universe her memory still teaches me great truths.  Good thing the Dog Gods are teaching me humility with grace and mercy.  Grace, for giving me some things I don’t deserve, like the love of a brown-eyed, bear-faced, honey-headed dog.  And great mercies, for NOT giving me things I do deserve, like a Kapowie right in the smacker now and then.