Sunday, May 20, 2012

Chewy and Kai

Nanci Wakefield is one of those rare, wonderful, red-headed, fiery, take-no-prisoners kinds of people.  I just love her.  We met when she walked into the Chamber of Commerce in my little slice of heaven we call Gig Harbor and announced she wanted to join so she could promote her new business “Pet to the Vet.” 

Before her new venture, Nanci was a nurse.  To say that she was suffering from a high degree of burn-out is a complete understatement.    Suffice to say, after a couple of back injuries, and long hours, Nanci decided to take a different path. 

When I think of Nanci, I think of the Robert Frost poem, “And I took the road less traveled by and that made all the difference,” and in Nanci’s case, those words are supremely true.  At our meeting, I recognized a kindred spirit, or at least someone that I hoped to be like one day; strong-minded, independent and fearless.  She loved her dogs with a fierce passion.  Not just her own, but those she was responsible for transporting to and from the vet, those she checked in on, and a few various cats along her daily route. 

Nanci helped get my dog, Chelsea, to Brookside Vet or to the groomers at the Purdy Prison Pet Partnership.  Chelsea pranced, I mean actually trotted and skipped out the door and down the steps on the days Nanci took her out for the day. 

After a while, it became ritual that Nanci lingered for a cup of coffee with me on the mornings she took Chelsea to the groomer or to the vet.  When I stopped working at the Chamber of Commerce and my big pregnant self sort of lumbered about the house, Nanci would often stop by in the morning and we’d sip a cup or two of “joe” together. 

How did you get this way? I asked.  How did you come to trust your instincts and have the courage of your convictions?  Did your animals help you learn this?

“Well,” she said, “Animals are great teachers.  They love you unconditionally and accept you where you are. You don’t have to be anybody with a great big title.   You just have to be kind to them and take good care of them,” she explained.   

Nanci explained that the opposite is also true.  “There is no pretense with animals, or children for that matter.  If they don’t trust you and don’t like you, they won’t act otherwise.” 

As her story unfolded, I learned that her animals and two of them in particular were the greatest catalysts for love and change in her life. 

The first, Chewbacca, or Chewy, is a great furry bear of a dog.  He is of unknown parentage, given that he was discovered in a ditch by her house with the rest of his littermates. 

“He was found the week that my husband and I were in California cleaning out my dad’s winter place after he died,” she explained. 

While Nanci was away in California, her daughter was house-sitting and got the call from a neighbor who expected to reach Nanci.  They needed to know what to do about a litter of puppies found alongside the road nearby.  Nanci’s daughter, who inherited her mom’s keen love of animals, offered to take the pups and soon had a makeshift nursery and puppy adoption center percolating nicely in Nanci and Larry’s beach house living room. 

“She found homes for all of the puppies except one by the time Larry and I got back,” Nanci said, smiling at her daughter’s ingenuity.  “I took one look at this round fur ball prancing over to me and that was it, he was mine.” 

We all have a special language with our pets.  However, dogs in particular try to reach out to us in the way they communicate.  Nanci’s new puppy was no exception; and he tried to actually talk to his people. 

"He made these throat noises just like the character Chewbacca did, you know, the one from Star Wars,” she said. “It was so unique the way he tried to express himself, that eventually, he became Chewy, just like Han Solo shortened his friend’s name.” 

He quickly got comfortable with life at Nanci and Larry’s beach house and loved walking the beach and swimming in the water.  Nanci noticed other unique traits about him as well,

“He sometimes does things that are so unique and un-doglike,” she said.  And, despite telling herself that it was just her grief and wanting to be close to him still, the similarities between Chewy and her father continued to amaze her. 

“Larry and I laughed often with each other that Dad really had come back as he promised, as one of our dogs.”

After a long while, they accepted Chewy’s idiosyncrasies as part of daily life and didn’t talk as much about the reincarnation-thing, as she puts it.  However, in Nanci’s eyes, those suspicions were confirmed one day as she went through one of her Dad’s old trunks.  She’d brought it back with her from his house in California.  It was first owned by her grandmother, used when emigrating from Ireland to the U.S. nearly 100 years before.  So this great keepsake stored her grandmother’s and later her father’s most precious treasures. 

“My father always talked about his favorite dog when he was growing up,” she explained.  “He never had a picture to show us of them together and always regretted not having one, even though cameras were pretty rare for anything but formal portraits when he was a child.” 

As Nanci sorted through her dad’s old trunk, she delved into the lowest reaches, where her grandmother stored keepsakes from her life.  First Nanci found a photograph of the steamship that carried her from Ireland to America.  A short while later, stuck in between the slats of wood, she came up with a worn, old photograph of a young boy sitting next to a great big furry bear of a dog. 

“It was my father and his favorite dog and it looked just like Chewy,” Nanci said, still today amazed at her discovery.  “Looking at this old picture, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt that my dad really had kept his word.”  Nanci continues to laugh and marvel, I think, at the supreme grace of life.  Whether or not Chewy is actually her father returned, these unique set of circumstances give her comfort and help her feel connected her dear dad whom she loved and still misses today. 

Life with Chewy changed her, and gave her a special wonder of life that exists all around her. When her nursing career took a steep nose dive due to overwork and injuries, she knew immediately it was time to take a break.

“About that time, our other dog, Kai, began having trouble with his leg,” she said.  “It was such a blessing that I was a stay-at-home dog mom, because when we found out it was cancer, he became my full-time job.”

The veterinarian and the specialist they were referred to for Kai’s care both felt strongly that his cancer was recoverable, given the proper treatment.  However, that treatment involved radiation and chemotherapy at a specialty clinic nearly 70 miles away.  Nanci and her husband decided that Kai, as their beloved pet, was going to receive that care and she dutifully made the trek, up to three days a week. 

Given all her time there, Nanci got to know the veterinarian and the other vet techs at the practice and naturally became their friend.  As we all know, friends get asked to do favors now and then.  Soon, Nanci was often transporting someone else’s pet for treatment along with her yellow lab, Kai. Each time she and her van arrived, the entire clinic would file out dutifully to help her bring in the animals for treatment.

“I learned that a lot of people would get their pets to this clinic and had made the commitment to get them well, only to learn that treatment included several rounds of radiation or chemotherapy per week.  Unlike me at the time, these people had jobs and other responsibilities that absolutely prevented them from such a tremendous commitment.  If I hadn’t been available to transport their animals for care, their only other decision was euthanasia.” 

So, along with gaining a great wonder at the mysteries of life and heaven, Nanci also learned to listen to her intuition from loving her animals.  Soon she became Nanci’s “Pet to the Vet” driving a beautiful white van around like the Pied Piper and it was full of everyone’s beloved animals, including mine. 

A couple of years later, our legislature passed a vicious dog law that soon quadrupled Nanci’s business and personal insurance rates.  By that time Kai was healthy and happily playing at the beach house again, not needing regular treatments anymore.  Along with that, cars kept hitting her van as it was parked along the roadside.  She took the hints from above and closed her beloved business.  By this time she felt restored and ready to return to nursing and there she remains today. 

Chewbacca and Kai now have a new charge, “Tracker” a black lab puppy with big feet and a shared love of the water at Nanci and Larry’s beach house. Most assuredly, Nanci’s father and Nanci’s legacy of love will continue far into the future, along with a deep sense of revelry and appreciation for the things we can only touch with our hearts. 

After a long-and-windng road, I finally tracked Nanci down after nearly stalking her on Facebook, which she checks only once a millennia.  Then, better yet, I ran into her and Larry at the Gig Harbor Farmer’s Market.  They are doing fine, still living in their little slice-of-heaven beach house, with two new dogs who are now a well-established part of the family.  I’m looking forward to dropping by to say “hello” and meet their welcomed additions. 

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