“I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.” – Anna Quindlen.
The quote spoke to me this morning. Why? Because for some time now, I’ve been drawn to the ocean. I desire to sit on the beach and stare out.
It’s odd because I’ve always been more of a mountain person—hated the beach, refuse to wear a swimsuit now, hate the grains of sand that get between my toes and stick to my feet. I still have sand in my suitcase from my trip to the Oregon coast four years ago. But . . .
For some reason, I need to sit in the sand at the point it touches vast lonely waters and let the waves roll in and wet my toes. I need to hear the sound of the crashing sea. I need some deep sand thinking, I need some reflection, I need to be in tune with my world and my God. And I need to see His truths there. I need a balance.
I think I need that after loss. I don’t deal well with change, and I’m tired of death, the most recent being my sixteen-year-old dog. It has always haunted me how I can stand on a beach and leave my footprint there, and then a wave comes in and smooths out the wet sand, and there’s no sign of the print. I don’t want my life to be that way. I don’t want the lives of my loves to be that way.
I want to sit and look out at a cerulean sky and feel the water cold on my toes and watch it roll out toward a distant horizon. But I need to wait for the second act. Because the water comes back in. Life takes away; life brings the new. I need to see the going out and the coming in.
I need the coming in to offset the going out. I need balance.
It’s at that point when I recognize that people, or pets, come into my life for a time and then go out, and it is not the end, but a beginning, and I must welcome the new and live and look forward and onward in the time I’m allotted, that growth and contentment and joy occur.
One day soon I just might pack away in Sweet Madeleine the Outback, hop on that ribbon of 65 highway, and head south to the white sands and blue waters and sit there where the going out meets the coming in for hours and hours and stare out and breathe in the waves and then breathe them out, and find me anew.
Anna Quindlen also said that I am the only person alive who has sole custody of my life.
I got a sympathy card in the mail from cousin Gloria, expressing regrets over the loss of my dog Chaeli. She said, “I still laugh at the time you took Chaeli’s medicine.” Yes, me, too. It wasn’t funny then, but it is now.
It was on a Sunday morning, and I was rushing around doing five things at once. I zoomed through the kitchen and threw my hands up in a halt when I saw the dog there. “I need to give you your pill.” She had congestive heart disease and was a five out of a six for years and took a little white pill every morning. I popped open the green Pet Vet bottle, shook one out in my hand . . . and with my mind scattered and racing from thing to thing and not paying attention, I popped it in my mouth and swallowed.
Oops. I realized what I’d done. I tried to cough it up and couldn’t. Oh Lord. I figured I had about twenty minutes to act before I passed out or died or had heart palpitations. I called my doctor — and got layers of “If you want . . . then press ___.” I did not have time for this. So I hung up, then pushed three numbers.
“This is nine one one. What is your emergency?”
“Ummm.” Squeaky, high-pitched voice in a panic. “I took the dog’s heart pill by accident.”
“Calm down, ma’am, and let me get you to poison control.”
A nurse picked up and asked one calm question. “Do you take blood pressure medication?”
“I take a small dose of lisinopril.”
“And what was the dog’s pill?”
It began to click: pril and pril.
“Same family. You should be fine.”
I hung up. The phone rang again and it was emergency dispatch.
“Ma’am, we have to come check you out.”
“No, really, it’s okay. I’m fine.”
“No, we have to come. You can refuse to go to the hospital, but we have to come.”
“Please tell them not to turn on the lights and siren.” I heard the sound in the distance. “Never mind.”
My shoulders sank to knee level, and I paced in embarrassment as the siren wailed closer.
Not one. But two. Two ambulances with loud sirens and lots of red flashing lights parked at the curb. Did I say two? The orange and white ambulance and the big red fire department one. You mention “heart,” and they send the advanced lifesaving team.
I had two EMTs and two paramedics . . . all because I freakishly took the dog’s pill. I let them in and waved to the neighbors that came to see what was going on and spoke to the two little girls from next door who followed the ambulances in on their way home from Sunday School. I got my blood pressure taken, I refused to go to the hospital, they checked me out, and then they left. (Thank you, Williamson County.)
I hid out and held my head low the rest of that week.
And I’m not sure I ever gave the dog her pill that day.
I lost my family.
Yes. I lost my family. My dog was my family. For seven years [since my husband died] she was all I had all day, all night, weeks, months, years. She was the first and only one I saw each morning, and she was the last I touched every night. She was the joy in my life, and she was also the challenge the last year as I had to stay a step ahead and help her have quality in her geriatric days. I am still processing her loss.
Some say, it’s just a dog. Some say, I’ve been there, too. Some truly understand.
She was my people. My blood-family people all live four hours and plus away. She was the one I talked to, and she answered with her eyes. She was the one I cried to. She was the one I laughed with and at. I could read her mind, and she could read mine. She was the one that slept close when it was cold. She was what I looked forward to when I drove into the driveway. She was the reason I had to come home at night.
She was the reason….
As her vet said in a sympathy card, “She was truly a great gal with a perfect personality. I know she will truly be missed in your home.”
And so I thank her doctors, and I thank my faraway blood-family people who call and worry about me, and I thank many kind friends who express such caring and warm feelings, and I thank all my Facebook friends who have had no choice but to indulge me over the past months in my posts on the Geriatric Dog, and I thank everyone for patience as I move on looking for that new reason to come home, because home right now is just a house. It is not a home.
Yesterday, I had to put my sweet spaniel to sleep forever. I talked by phone after-the-deed with the mother of my grandchildren, who expressed her regrets over our loss of Chaeli and then said, “You’re going to grieve, you’re going to write a story about it, and then you’re going to be okay.” Does she have me hanging on the right peg, or what?
This morning, Sweet Madeleine the Outback became a hearse, and together we delivered my Chaeli to Pet Angel (Cedar Hills), a crematory south of Spring Hill. It’s the same facility my vet uses. I’d asked Dr. Butler an occasional question about end times over the past year, because after all, my dog was sixteen. I’d even called the crematory to ask about private arrangements.
I am talking about this because I speak to grief groups, and I do a lot of talking to people who have experienced loss, encouraging them to do what feels right to them, to give it some thought, and to insist on what they need for healing. This includes the pet parts of our families. For me, I did not want to take my Chaeli to be euthanized at Pet Vet and leave her there. I wanted her with me. I wanted to be the one to take her to the crematory. It was important to me and the right thing to do, I felt. You know, you “do” for family.
So when I took Chaeli in to the clinic yesterday morning and learned it was “time” and it really needed to happen this day because she probably wouldn’t make it through the night and the last hours are difficult, I asked Dr. Butler about my need. He is extremely sensitive to death situations, and he was supportive.
I kept Chaeli with me through the day and returned at six o’clock for the final moment, and afterward, the doctor wrapped my dog carefully and carried her to my car. She spent the night with me in my house on her favorite spot, the air conditioning register in the living room. Then, this morning at nine, I loaded her into Madeleine and drove her to the crematory.
I found it empowering to state a need, to go with it even if resistance was met from some (which it was), to do for her what I needed to do for her and me. Sometimes these needs can make a difference in how we heal and go forward.
I truly hope this gives someone the encouragement to carry out a want or need for self and a loved one.
And the stories about Chaeli, well, I could go on and on, but I think my favorite was one time when Nicole was feeding the grandtwin babies. They were in their carriers on the floor, and she was spooning out baby food. Chaeli quickly took note of what was happening and that food was involved, went over and sat down in between the carriers, and waited for her spoonful. It was the cutest thing you ever saw.
And now I’m grieving, I wrote a story, and I hope to be okay. One day.
I’ve only been kayaking once this summer, on the Duck River south of me. Maybe I can get in another adventure or two before winter. I don’t think about being on the river without being reminded of one expedition with my son Cory and his girlfriend Leah when the river was completely blocked. Below is part of a chapter from my book Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing.
Eleven months after the Nashville area thousand-year flood of 2010, we took our boats out on the Harpeth River in Franklin for a short ride. We put in at the Rec Center, and we’d take out at Cotton Lane, which was in my neighborhood. The Rec Center put in was steep—stairs that went straight down—and I didn’t like it one bit. The river water was high that day, though, so it was easier to get in the boat.
Cory held my kayak while I stepped in. I had to turn circles and work to keep my boat stationary while he and Leah put in. We paddled, took pictures, watched birds, practiced skills, and fussed about all the garbage in the water. The Harpeth was trashy before the flood, but afterward, it was filled with junk—an old rusty car, plastic chairs, tires, plastic bottles and tin cans, and natural debris like fallen trees and somebody’s cornfield that got washed away.
We moved downstream in the twisting, coffee-colored flow, by the bridge on Hillsboro Road, and then through the southern part of Fieldstone Farms, my neighborhood of two thousand homes. I’d been looking at houses to buy and would’ve liked one that backed up to the river. I could go out in my back yard and put the kayak in. But that dream ended after the Flood of 2010. Those houses were filled with river water, and I’d never trust living there.
We were nearing our take out, and I kept looking ahead for the bridge off Cotton Lane. We’d get out just before the bridge and carry the boats up the embankment. If we missed it, we’d have to . . . paddle backward.
Then I saw something ahead. A strainer? A big strainer.
“Strai-ner!” I liked shouting it out to show that I knew the word. “Look at the debris way ahead,” I said. I kept trying to see an opening that we could paddle through. “Is it . . . blocking the river?”
I saw Cory’s eyes look left, then right, and his eyebrows tightened.
“You stay here,” he said. “Keep your boat way back here. Paddle in circles, paddle backwards. Don’t get anywhere near that. We’ll go check it out.”
They paddled to the left bank, then across the river, which was moving faster up there and making a whooshing sound, over to the right bank, then back toward me.
“It’s blocked. There’s no way through,” Cory said. Leah nodded.
“What do we do now?”
“We’ll have to take out here, climb this bank, walk around the blockage, and put in on the other side. We’re almost to Cotton Lane, so it will be a short run.”
I looked at the embankment. A dirt wall. Straight up. Maybe twenty feet. Or thirty.
“I don’t think I can get my boat up that cliff.”
“Leah and I will get all the kayaks up, then I’ll come back down and help you.”
“I’ll be fine. You worry about the boats. I’ll get up by myself.”
They took me up on it. What had I gotten myself into?
We scrambled for the boulder-lined water’s edge. I was last to get my kayak nosed in between rocks so I could get out. I stood and put one foot out on a slippery rock and tried to keep standing without sliding. I had one foot still in the boat, and the boat started moving downstream. I was doing the splits, and I tightened every muscle in my thighs to keep my legs from moving further apart and to hold my boat. Cory reached for me and grabbed my kayak.
I watched as they climbed, Cory with two boats, and Leah with hers. He got to the top, threw the boats up, and pulled her up. It was a difficult climb, even for the younger ones.
Then it was my turn. I could see the two disappearing into the woods with the boats.
“Y’all don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” I yelled after them. They didn’t seem to be worried.
I started scaling the dirt-mud cliff. I pushed a Chaco sandal into the earth and clawed into the dirt with my fingers. There was a clump of weeds, and I grabbed hold. The plant began coming out of the earth. I had to pull at one plant, then grab another. There were no saplings or sturdier plants to use in my climb. I got halfway up and looked back down at the stones below and the water moving fast. I looked up at the top of the hill, and there was a contemporary house nestled under trees not far from me. It had walls of windows. I imagined someone inside looking out at this poor, crazy woman struggling up the straight side of the cliff, fearful of her being dashed onto the boulders below, and wondering if they should call 9-1-1. I wished they would.
I began to fail myself, thinking I needed a rescue squad to come pull me out. I was unsure about going higher. I looked back down at the water moving fast over the jagged rocks. I knew I had to do it. There was no other way out. I took a deep breath, took on new strength, and pushed myself upward, grunting with each foothold. I grabbed onto any little green thing growing out of the mud wall, watching and groaning in fear of the earth releasing it.
Then Cory was there at the top.
“Come on, Mama!”
I sank back into weakness. “I can’t do this!”
“Yes you can. You’ve got to.”
I could feel my face hot and red, I dug my feet in, tightened my leg muscles, I pulled at the clumps of green, and got to where he could reach me. He held down a hand.
I reached up, and he pulled me to the solid surface, and I clawed into the dried grasses on top to secure myself. I made it, and as I lay there on my stomach, arms outstretched, I wanted to cry from the emotion of it all.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a peaceful run. We were spent, strained, hot, sore, and hurting, and we still had to put in and take out again.
I would realize later how much like grief this little outing was.
I was moving along gently down life’s way, following the peaceful sounds of the river and tracking through the choppier places, gliding over riffles, runs, and pools, and suddenly, there was a strainer. The water could move on through it, and I couldn’t. I was knocked out of the flow.
I was at the bottom of a ravine looking for a way out.
I couldn’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under my fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out in pain and agony and pulling myself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until the dirt was smeared all over me, and I clung to weeds with shallow roots and tugged some more and waited for those fragile stalks to give way and drop me down again because I didn’t know if I could make it out. But I kept trying, I kept looking at the top, and I saw a hand reaching down for me.
A hand. Reaching down. For me.
By this midsummer date, pretty much everything is dried up, brown, or dead. Hot August bears down too hard, too hot, and saps the life out of every delicate plant. I stand in scratchy grass watering by hose instead of sprinkler to soak stressed roots, supply nourishment, and summon growth.
The pencil bush I planted last year has dried up, the little dogwood is limp, and the new pink and white hydrangea looks spent. I sense them all fighting against the elements. The vegetable garden I hoped to eat from all summer is gone—shriveled and browned to nothing but stalks. The little Japanese maple I bought in April and placed in a big pot on the deck dried up in a day’s time as a fiery sun beat down and the heat took its toll. To save it, I dug it out and put it in the ground on a shady side of the house.
Usually, by this time of summer, I am away for vacation or visiting family, and the yard goes to waste. Good things get compromised, and evil things like crabgrass and Johnson grass and wild vines move in. The balance gets out of whack quickly.
It can happen to me, too.
This is a reminder that the tender things in life need care. Life is hands on: daily culling out the unwanted and giving nourishment to the good. I can’t stand back and just let things happen. It changes daily. Ugly, thorny weeds grow faster than blooms. Harsh extremes sap freshness and greenness. The sun bakes everything and curls it all down to the earth in surrender.
I need an innerspring.
At some point life boils what’s in your crucible down to the salt of you. It did to me. June 28, 2008. My husband died.
It has been a long and incredible journey of grief and healing, of learning things I didn’t want to learn, of giving up things I didn’t want to give up, of building a whole new life. As hard as it was to fathom that I had to build anew, it was a given. It happened by default. The old life existed no more. As much as I tried to gather in all the residuals of that old life, I could not.
My journey of loss, grief, and rebuilding is presented in a memoir published in 2013: Remember the Dragonflies. It’s all there: the loss, the raw pain, the sheer agony, how I dealt with the pain, how I dealt with the “why” of it, and walking up that road of rebuilding. It’s a long, hard journey.
Now, I can say that I am well, I have coped, I am content with my life, I am happy. Yes, I miss him.
Seven is the number of completeness … and rest. And so I leave it with that. I am complete, at rest, at peace.