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.   

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