I snapped this picture in the Norfolk Library on November 10, 2020. Naturally, I posted it to the Dogspotting Facebook group to which I belong. The sole purpose of the group is to post pictures of dogs we’ve never met before and share their awesomeness with others.
A few days later, over four thousand people had liked this photo.
I didn’t have much to celebrate in 2020, but I will always have Koda.
Now that it’s 2021, it’s time for my annual death meditation. This is my fifth year in a row of imagining how I would live if I knew 2021 would be my last year on Earth, and thanks to the gut-punch-then-kick-me-while-I’m-down year that was 2020, thinking about my death this year has been quite different from past death meditations.
I experienced a staggering amount of loss and grief in the last year. It started early on with learning about Faith’s liver tumor in January, followed by the loss of Oscar Meyer Weiner Dog a few weeks later.
In February, we lost the incomparable Eve Thew, one of my first (and dearest) friends in Norfolk.
In March, the whole world changed as COVID-19 spread and we, humans, made it significantly and substantially worse than it had to be. Heath and I had to temporarily leave our Norfolk housesitting job, which meant I had to say goodbye to living with my beloved Smudge and Faith for the foreseeable future.
In June, my father went into the hospital after an acute attack of his nervous system by his own immune system. The doctors diagnosed him with Guillain-Barrè syndrome. While in the hospital, he also suffered a heart attack and contracted pneumonia. When he was released a month later, it was to come home to die.
My father died in the early morning hours of July 19th. Eight people attended his funeral, and nine people attended his burial three months later on a freezing cold and wet day in late October.
Four days after my dad died, Smudge unexpectedly collapsed. The vet recommended immediate euthanasia. I said goodbye through video messenger because that was the only option I had.
Then, on November 14th, I said a final goodbye to Faith. I had moved back into our Norfolk housesitting home on November 12th. All through the summer when I visited Faith, I asked her to please hang on until I moved back. With all the loss this year, I didn’t think I could handle losing her, too, and not being there.
On November 12th, I brought an overnight bag to get me through until the weekend. That Saturday, the 14th, Faith and I woke up together. We sang our going down the stairs song, which I created one morning while walking down the stairs back when we took care of four dogs – Tobey, Smudge, Faith, and Moon – and their tippy tappy paws provided a nice accompaniment. It goes a little something like this,
We’re going down the stairs
Without any cares
Not wearing underwears
It’s time to eat some food
We hope that it is good
If not, then we’ll be rude
Faith and I had a nice morning together. I snuck her lots of extra turkey slices every time I went into the fridge, because I thought she was looking a little thin. We went for a walk about around the pond and up and down the driveway. I even snapped a picture to send to her human mom and described Faith as being “very frisky on this chilly day!”
I then went over to our apartment to pack up the rest of my belongings since I had only brought that overnight bag for the first few days.
When I got back to the house, Faith watched me make five trips back and forth from the car. I set my belongings on and around the dining room table. That’s our staging area for whenever we leave or come back to this house. Faith has watched me do this unpacking at least a dozen times in the past.
She died less than three hours later. It was like she knew I had *finally* moved back to the house and she had fulfilled my request to please hang on until I got back.
As Faith lay dying, I lay next to her. Heath sat by her head. We both put our hands on her, giving her all the love we could. I stroked her little ears, scratched her head, and petted her back. I told her my favorite stories of our time together. I told her that she would be with Tobey, Smudge, and Moon again very soon.
I thanked her for the chance to love her and to live with her these last four years. That she brought so much joy and happiness to my life. And that it was her little face, more than Tobey’s or Smudge’s or Moon’s that I fell in love with at first sight on the TrustedHousesitters.com website that made me say to Heath, “Look at how cute this dog is! Let’s apply for this job.”
Losing Faith after losing so many other people and dogs this year was right in line with how awful 2020 was. At the same time, my love for and loss of Faith has instilled in me the mantra I want to take forward into 2021. We spent a perfect last day together. We filled it with love and fun and some of our favorite activities.
I didn’t know when I woke up on Saturday morning, November 14th, that it would be the last time I woke up with little Faith asleep next to me on her dog bed.
I didn’t know it would be our last time singing down the stairs.
That it would be our last parade up and down the driveway.
That it would be the last time I said, “let’s go to bed,” and then wait for her to walk up the stairs with me.
I didn’t know that my life would change (again) forever that day.
And it didn’t matter that I didn’t know because I enjoyed every single moment of that day with her. I loved her. I appreciated her. I thanked God for letting us be together again.
So, as I think about my own death and what, if anything, I would do differently if I knew 2021 was my last year on Earth, I think about that last day with Faith. I take that day with me going forward. That day with Faith will serve as my guideposts for how I want to live in 2021 – quality time with those I love, enjoying the quiet moments of our lives, and knowing and expressing just how grateful I am to be there.
For the last 10 years, a children’s book writer named Susanna Leonard Hill has hosted a holiday writing contest. Last year I entered a story entitled Christmas Peach Pie, and out of a few hundred submissions, I was in the final twelve. Voting ensued and I won third place! I’m now querying that story to agents and editors, so we’ll see what happens.
This year the theme was “Holiday Helper.” The stories are always judged on : 1) kid appeal; 2) adherence to theme; 3) quality of story; 4) quality of writing; 5) originality and creativity; and 6) following directions, including the strict word limit of 250 words).
I hadn’t planned on entering this year. But, the prizes seemed pretty good, and a story popped into my mind. I cranked it out in one sitting, made some minor edits and submitted it to the contest.
I didn’t win. Not in the top 12 and not even an honorable mention or special shoutout.
What a holiday bummer.
I really love the story I wrote (scroll down to the bottom of the post to read it). It features my favorite children’s story elements: talking animals being silly. I especially love a good dog story, and this one features my buddy, Smudge. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss this guy.
This week was especially hard for me because we got almost 14 inches of snow and there was no moment of joy as I opened the door for the dogs to run outside and witness their snow-fall antics.
Heath and I laugh often over the time we got so much snow, there was no distinction between the porch and the sidewalk. Smudge tore out the door, promptly belly flopped off the front porch and then swam a small circle before coming back inside, very upset at how the whole situation went down.
The absence of these moments in my life is one of the hardest adjustments with losing our Norfolk family pack.
We did, however, get to romp with Annie for a bit in the snow.
Doesn’t she look cute? I think she might have part Sasquatch in her, the way the snow freezes on her in such a becoming manner.
For those of you who celebrate, I wish you all a Merry Christmas! For all of us who are missing loved ones this Christmas, I’m holding you especially tight in my heart.
Now, without further ado, I give you:
SMUDGE AND TWIGGLES SAVE CHRISTMAS
Smudge patrolled the yard for the tenth time that night.
“Anything yet?” Twiggles the squirrel hopped from branch to branch as she shadowed the black Lab.
“Noth – hold on!” Smudge sniffed the air. Reindeer! Wrapping paper! Coal!
“He’s here,” howled Smudge. “Let’s go.”
Smudge and Twiggles scampered to the house. Three years of Christmas Eve patrolling and so far, they had only spotted the backsides of nine reindeer and a bumper sticker that read I brake for elves.
In his excitement, Smudge started barking. “SANTA! HEY SANTA!”
“HO, HO, OOOOOOOOH!”
Smudge and Twiggles stared at the lump of red and white velvet in front of them.
“What do we do now?” Twiggles poked the lump. Nothing happened.
“I think we’re supposed to put on the suit. I saw it on TV once with the humans.”
Twiggles and Smudge looked at each other. “Dibs,” called Smudge.
“Nuts,” said Twiggles “How about we split it? You take the pants. I’ll take the shirt. Then we can deliver presents together!”
They burrowed their way into the mounds of velvet. A wind began to whirl, magic began to twirl and …
Smudge and Twiggles found themselves on the roof sitting in Santa’s sleigh.
“What are you supposed to be?” asked Rudolph.
“Santa’s best helpers ever!” yipped Smudge.
“Oh, boy,” said Dasher. “This is going to be some night.”
“Merry Christmas to all,” howled Smudge as the sleigh took off.
“And to all a good night,” squeaked Twiggles. “Which way do we go?
Our daylight hours are dwindling. With the shortest day of the year only two weeks away, here in Norfolk we’re down to about 9 hours of daylight each day.
That’s a lot of darkness we’re up against.
On the other hand, it means that when I walk Dodger on Sundays, I get to see some spectacular light displays shining through the tree branches in the Barbour Woods.
I know winter is not the favorite season for most people. I think I’m in the minority as it’s my favorite season.
At least, I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite season. I do enjoy the leaves changing in fall and the promise of new life and growth in spring. And then we have those long summer days.
Maybe my favorite season is the one I’m currently experiencing?
Anyway, I do love winter. I especially love being outside when it’s sunny and cold. With the proper equipment and clothes, the experience can be wonderful.
On my walk with Dodger this afternoon, the light cast a gentle blue tint over the woods.
It’s magical, don’t you think?
And let’s be honest — Dodger is once handsome devil!
Feeling grateful to have this experience with one of my favorite dogs! At the same time, the experience is blue in other ways. Much like I wrote about when the leaves were changing color a few weeks ago, I can’t help but think of my Dad and how he didn’t know it was his last fall in 2019, just like he didn’t know it would be his last chance to see snow fall last winter. I suppose this cycle of “lasts” will continue as I work through my grief.
The only way forward is through. It’s not easy. It’s certainly not quick. But it is good. I think I’m starting to understand the expression good grief.
Thank goodness I have such a wonderful support system in place, with includes Heath, and Cecily and Dodger here in Norfolk.
Speaking of them, I managed to coax Heath and Cecily into participating in an Advent wreath lighting for UCC Norfolk’s online service this Sunday. You can catch us around the 11-minute mark. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1308360392861281
I hope you all have a wonderful week. Maybe it be blue in the very best ways!
This past week, I had to cover the Circulation Desk for the afternoon hours at the library. So, I didn’t get my usual dog/nature fix with Annie on our bi-weekly afternoon romps in the woods.
Thank Dogness, I also have this guy in my life:
Just like Annie, Dodger is a spirited dog with lots of heart and personality. His sassiness level is several notches above Annie, whom I’m convinced is an actual angel in a dog costume. As such, instead of nicknames like Annie Banannie, Dodger gets nicknames like Bossy Britches and Sassafrass.
Nevertheless, I LOVE him. I’m also grateful I had an excuse to be out in the woods this last week as fall lives up to its name and our trees are starting to get a little bare.
That’s not the case everywhere here, as evidenced by this glorious tree I came upon on Saturday while driving back from Oblong Books in Millerton, New York.
When I see this kind of overwhelming beauty these days, a sense of sadness wells up in my heart and spills out as tears. It’s the same sadness that takes over me when I watch leaves swirl through the air, then tumble to the ground for their final resting place.
I can’t help but think about how last fall, my dad didn’t know that would be the last time in his life that he would get to see the leaves change to their ultimate glory. He didn’t know it would be his last Halloween. No more eating the stash of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups my mom started buying in September, just to make sure she had enough. He would never again get to wish my niece or mom a happy birthday.
He didn’t know.
Most of us don’t.
So on this cold and chilly fall day in Norfolk, I take a few moments to Thank God that I’m still here. I Thank God that I get to watch the leaves light up my drive to and from work and brighten my already delightful time in the woods with Annie and Dodger. I Thank God for my loving and supportive husband and my family and friends.
Part of my job at the Norfolk Library is to research what other libraries are offering in terms of programming. I then make recommendations to the Executive Director and Events Coordinator.
Since nearly every library event is a virtual library event, I’ve also taken the liberty to sign up for events at libraries across the state.
On September 14th, I participated in a country line dancing class through the Bloomfield Library. The next class is on October 19th, if anyone else would like to sign up.
Two weeks ago, Heath and I participated in an online calligraphy class. In just 90 minutes, I learned some good calligraphy skills, as well as tips as how to spiff up the letters with color. We first practiced writing the alphabet, then we moved on to the most famous pangram in the English language:
For my final project of the night, we were asked to select a single word or a phrase to write. Here’s what I chose, in honor of this dog that I love so very much.
Another class I signed up for is a 5-week workshop on grief journaling. This workshop is through the Greenwich Library and is taught by a certified grief counselor. The theme of the workshop is processing grief during the time of Covid. I thought I’d make a good candidate for the class since this past summer has been especially filled with loss and sadness, in addition to the grief and loss of the pandemic, as well as the fall of our country.
One of the insights I’ve already gained from the workshop is that I’m not as aware of the quiet moments of happiness in my life anymore since this summer. I consider quiet moments of happiness to be the ordinary moments in my day that despite their mundanity, still bring about a feeling of wonder, awe, or delight. Upon reflection, the sadness from my losses or the exhaustion from having narcolepsy has consumed much of my mental bandwidth. The quiet moments are still there, I’m just not present enough to always recognize them.
Now that I’m actively trying to pay more attention, I’ve been moderately successful.
A friend recently sent me a prism so I could brighten up my day with rainbows. I often carry the prism with me to work so I can take the rainbows with me. We had a brilliant day of sunshine recently and I was treated to this quiet moment of happiness.
Then there’s the book donation chute at the library. I do NOT have a mechanical mind and understanding mechanics and engineering do not really interest me at all. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the outcome. Watching boxes of books travel down this chute takes me back to Museum of Scientific Discovery in Strawberry Square, Harrisburg, that I loved so much as a kid. Every time I put a box of books on this chute, I feel delighted!
In some ways, losing Smudge is more difficult than losing my dad. With my dad, I had a few weeks to prepare. I saw him suffer – first in the hospital and then at home in hospice care. Even with the hourly morphine he lived in pain. Nobody should have to live or die like that. I’m grateful he’s now at peace.
With Smudge, I had no preparation. I received a message on my phone that Smudge had been taken to the vet that morning. The vet recommended he be put down as soon as possible because tumors had infiltrated several organs.
I remember sobbing words like, NO, and it’s too much. I remember the weight of the news literally knocking me to the floor. I pushed a button on my phone and talked to Smudge’s human brother. He held his phone out so I could see Smudge at the vet. It was through video messenger that I said goodbye to him. I told him he was so handsome. That he was the best good dog ever. That I loved him. Then I hung up because I was afraid my sobbing through the video was causing more stress to Smudge than he needed.
I will never be able to thank Smudge’s human brother enough for calling me. For giving me a chance to say goodbye.
One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t see Smudge before I left for Pennsylvania when my dad took a turn for the worse. I stopped to see my friends Cecily and Dodger on my way out of town. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone, and I thought if I didn’t see them, I would regret it.
Dodger of Cecily & Dodger
The world can be cruel that way.
It didn’t occur to me to stop and see Smudge and Faith. I knew Faith might not be here when I got back. The vet found a tumor on her liver in January. Every extra moment I’ve had with her has been a gift. I already said goodbye to her, just in case, when our housesitting gig with them ended in June. I whispered in her ear all the things I love about her. I told her how much I loved taking care of her.
But Smudge … the last time I saw him he danced around the yard, splashing in the pond, and wagging his tail at the speed of light. I thought Smudge might actually live forever. Or at least to 16 or 18 years old.
The last time I said goodbye to Smudge it was more of a see you later. I fully expected to have more time with him. I would sit on the rock in the pond and we would be together. I would nuzzle his head and rub his ears. Then, I would kiss his forehead and say see you later. We would then repeat this togetherness for months or years to come.
I could not have been more wrong.
This pain and regret will be with me for months, if not years, to come. Much like the time I thought I had with Smudge.
The thing is, it’s totally worth it. Because I got to love Smudge for almost four years. I wouldn’t trade that time and those experiences for anything.
Yesterday I turned 43 and this blog turned 4. The amount of joy I feel on any given birthday can be hit or miss.
I’ve celebrated some birthdays in the most wonderful ways, surrounded by friends or family.
Four years ago, on the day this blog was born (and my first birthday married), Heath surprised me with the one thing I asked for: a birthday party with the animals wearing party hats. We were housesitting in Johnsonville, NY, for the summer and the animals included dogs, cats, and goats.
Only the dogs wore actual hats to the party. The cats and goats smiled for Heath’s camera and then Heath photoshopped the appropriate party wear onto those pictures.
Other years, particularly my first few in Illinois, I spent my birthday alone. On those birthdays, I sat alone on my couch. An occasional text or phone call would come in. Sometimes, I responded and sometimes I didn’t. Because in those times of loneliness it can be hard to accept long-distance birthday wishes when all you want is someone right there next to you.
This birthday, I am not alone. I am with my mom and brother. They made my favorite cake – butterscotch!
Heath showered me with treats on Thursday night before I drove to Pennsylvania on Friday, including surprising me with vegan bacon cheesy fries from Arles & Boggs, my favorite restaurant, located in Wallingford, CT. Wallingford is 65-miles one way from Norfolk, so this was quite the commitment from Heath. He then made a trip to Dee’s One Smart Cookie, an allergen-free bakery in Glastonbury, to get me gluten-free chocolate chip sandwich cookies. They’re a favorite sweet indulgence of mine and I enjoyed every bite of them.
I also received multiple birthday cards in the mail. Dozens of social media birthday greetings and text messages blew up my phone. I spoke with friends and family on the phone, some for over an hour. It was a perfect birthday.
And, yet … this birthday of mine has been underscored with sadness. On July 19th, my father died of complications from Guillain-Barre syndrome. Then, on July 23rd, Smudge had to be unexpectedly put down. It is a lot of loss and grief to experience, especially during a time of pandemic when there is already so much stress and uncertainty bubbling around us.
This birthday is an excellent example of the duality of life in which my therapist has been working with me over the past few weeks. Yes, it was a perfect birthday. Yes, I feel sad. Both can be true.
I don’t really have much more to say right now.
Thank you to everyone who made this is a perfect birthday.
For the first time in a long time, I find myself living without any dogs. Long story short: our Norfolk housesit is on hiatus due to the pandemic. Smudge and Faith now have their human brother living at their house, and Heath and I moved into a small apartment in Norfolk.
The first few days upon moving here, the sadness of being without Smudge and Faith stayed with me like a shadow. I scrolled through my phone, looking at photos of them.
I watched videos of them being silly. Even mundane videos like watching them walk down the stairs, I would watch on repeat.
Confession: It’s been about a month and I’m still mooning over their photos and videos. This may or may not be the most effective coping mechanism. Of course, I still visit Smudge and Faith, and I’m still walking Annie and Dodger.
And, yes, having Heath be so supportive and loving helps quite a bit.
But with all these changes in my life, plus living through a pandemic, and witnessing the heartbreak and injustice of racism in real time, and grieving the loss of my father’s health as he remains in the ICU without a good prognosis, I find myself struggling to let go of my attachment to Smudge and Faith.
So, when I feel like I should be doing more to help deal with my sadness over not living with Smudge and Faith anymore, I turn to the wealth of dog videos that is the internet in an attempt to branch out.
Sometimes, I think the invention of the internet has done more damage to the world than its intended benefits. But if it wasn’t for the internet, I never would have “met” Stevie the Wonderdog.
This photo is from Stevie’s Instagram account.
Stevie has cerebellar hypoplasia. This means Stevie’s cerebellum is much smaller than normal or not completely developed. It’s the reason why Stevie’s balance, posture, and coordination is much different from other dogs.
Here’s the first video I ever saw of Stevie:
You can see why I love him!
When I watch videos of Stevie, my heart does a tippy dap dance of joy the same way Stevie tippy taps his paws in puddles. It’s like I can press pause on my life for just a moment. He’s the breath of fresh air I need to know I’ll be okay with all these changes in my life.
That’s why I want to share Stevie with you today. Just in case you could use some tippy tap love and joy in your heart, too.
Last week, I experienced a one-two punch of spiritual therapy when we had an unexpected snowstorm. There I was sitting on the couch with Smudge, Faith snoozing on the floor next to me, and as I glanced out the window, the rain had turned into what looked like a snow squall.
It snowed that way for maybe an hour. Then the sun came out. The combination of snow and sun is one of my favorites for being wowed by nature, so I put on my boots and the dogs and I headed outdoors.
While we were outside, the snow started melting from the tree branches at such a rapid rate, it felt and sounded like rain.
If you’d like, you can listen to the wonder of it for yourself here.
I’ve never experienced anything like it, to feel the raindrops fall on my face, under the shining sun, while snow crunched under my feet. Then there were Smudge and Faith snooping around the yard just being dogs.
I hold on to these little moments of joy as we continue facing the uncertainty of what’s happening in the world. It’s not much, but it reminds me that unexpected events can be beautiful and wonderful and full of magic. Thank you, God, for giving me this moment, and thank you Smudge and Faith for bearing witness to it with me.