Braids

“There is such tenderness in braiding the hair of someone you love. Kindness and something more flow between the braider and the braided, the two connected by the cords of the plait.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

“May I braid your hair?”

There were several nurses around me making final preparations, checking my IV line and securing my plastic bag full of Personal Items under the gurney. I was moments away from being wheeled into the OR. Moments away from receiving general anesthesia and – with any luck at all – a fully mobile shoulder joint. The woman at my side asked me if she could braid my hair.

I struggled to read her face without my glasses. “Of course,” I mumbled. “Thank you.”

Surgery is a fascinating adventure for the layperson to contemplate. I believe there is a certain courage in the surgeon to go against a deep and primal taboo – the sanctity of the envelope of the human body. To cut into it, to open it up, or as in The Knight’s Tale “to make your entrails your extrails” is ballsy as fuck.

In those last moments right before the nurse anesthetist puts your lights out, there you are, naked, and utterly vulnerable. And backing up from that only two minutes or so, a woman I’d never met asked me if she could braid my hair.

My hair is long, gray, and unruly. I think I had attempted a ponytail in my vain effort to control and render tidy the mop I proudly describe as looking rather like a Scottish Deerhound. The nurse explained “I think it might be in the way as the surgeon works on your shoulder.” Makes sense. My hair is often in the way.

My hair has a backstory. I was born with normal baby hair – black and wavy. It all fell out and I was bald for quite a while. When my hair finally grew in, it was strawberry blond, and hung in ringlets. As I got older, my hair got darker, straighter, and thicker. At age 10, I had flower child, waist-length, plain Jane brown hair.

Super thick and dead straight, I was the queen of poodle perms for most of my teen years. Then I shaved my head because Art College. It grew back and I got busy with life and left my hair alone for a few decades. Then I started going gray.

It was at a friend’s wedding that her mother leaned over to me and stage whispered “you’d look ten years younger if you dyed your hair.” I was about 35. Welcome to a decade of stained towels and bad “wash in wash out” shades of cinnamon and cloves. In my forties I waved the white flag. No more dye, no more haircuts, no more perms, no more battling to make my hair conform to some societal notion of what a professional woman and mother should look like. I might add that it was in this era that my mom remarked “you look like a haystack with a nose poking out of it.”

At 55, I have salt and pepper locks that tumble down my back and breast in a most untidy manner. 99% of the time I just could not muster up even a microgram of caring. Whenever Tom wants to get an easy laugh, he insults my hair. It’s become our darling whipping boy. Even my daughters, step and bio, have gotten in on the teasing and hair jokes. It’s an easy target, low hanging fruit.

Fast forward to 2020. While I evaded Covid, the pandemic held special charms for me. I had a frozen shoulder that stubbornly refused to thaw. And my ability to swallow shit the bed.

Achalasia. How rare is achalasia? Well, let’s put it this way: you’re 10,000 times more likely to die in an auto accident than be diagnosed with achalasia. But sure enough, I’m the one. Reaching a diagnosis took a number of steps, and most of those involved sticking a probe or camera or sensor into my esophagus.

I started showing up with purple hair to have these test done. I’m not sure why. The first time was unintentional, but the doctor complimented me. Baaahahahaha. That was all the encouragement I needed. Purple. Teal. Green. Silver mixed with purple, aiming for pewter. Every procedure earned a new shade. I felt like the staff at all these hospitals and treatment facilities deserved a chuckle. Covid was sucking all the joy out of health care the way terrorism had sucked all the joy out of travel. The weird old lady with the incredibly rare disease also dyes her hair purple… let’s face it, even if they don’t laugh, it’s memorable. It’s stands out and that helps make the work day go by. Pandemic times, and I’ve become a frequent flyer at the local hospital. Feels like the least I can do is be entertaining.

So after failing physical therapy, and a failed cortisone injection, I dragged my frozen shoulder and my paralyzed esophagus off to the hospital one more time, to have that shoulder freed up surgically. If I can’t swallow, I reasoned, I want to be able to use both arms. It made sense in my head.

No one has braided my hair for me since high school. Jen and I used to practice French braids in art class… until we had a falling out. I don’t know exactly what happened, but one day Jen hated me. And then if she did a poor job braining some other girl’s hair, she would tie off the end with a hair tie and the quip “if anyone says anything, just tell them Heather Rolland did your braid.”  

A stranger’s hands in my hair… a stranger’s hands inside my body. Surgery is profoundly intimate. So is hair braiding, albeit in a different way. The nurse stranger was older than me, her hands gentle and her movements deft. She didn’t pull or pinch. The anesthesiologist had come in to speak with me moments prior, and his first words were “I read your chart and I’m sorry you’re going through this.” I teared up at the candid acknowledgement. “I’ll take care of you,” he said. I was still reeling from this human moment, tucked into the bee hive busy-ness of surgical prep, when the stranger braided my hair.

I don’t remember her name although she did tell me. I don’t remember her face, because she was capped, gowned, and masked. But I remember her hands clearly, long-fingered and wrinkled, like my mom’s hands.

I placed myself in her hands and chose to trust.

This is a person with a chronic illness.

That was in September, 2021. It’s January 2022, and I’ve been back to the hospital a few more times. I’ve had more tests and another surgery. And I’m on the mend. It’s been a very long 22 months, but here I am, the proud owner of a gravitational swallow. I braid my own hair, now that I have two shoulders that move freely. And I’m grateful beyond measure to all the people who have been a part of this journey. There are many problems facing the American health care system today, but the kindness and compassion of the people with whom I’ve crossed paths is undisputable.

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Consolation Prizes

We all have been conditioned to equate thinness with goodness and fat with badness. Lazy, slovenly, no will power etc.
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I bring my own spin to this because eating is such a crazy adventure for me. For the past 19 months I’ve struggled valiantly to eat at all. One gift achalasia has given me is the total “fuck it” attitude when it comes to food. All I care about is if I can swallow it with a minimum of drama. Chocolate pudding for dinner? Sure. Cookies go down well so I’ll eat them. Every day. In any quantity.
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I had a crazy thought the other month, as I battled a belly that just seemed to defy caloric rationality and get bigger and bigger despite my ever more restricted intake: I had hoped achalasia would make me look better. When I realized I had lost weight, I was actually happy. (Side note – it wasn’t h til I reported weight loss that my doctors got interested in my situation. Prior to that, I had been told to eat more slowly… chew more thoroughly. Once weight loss entered the symptom list, tests were ordered and attitudes changed.)

I thought there was a silver lining, and that a flat stomach was it. I have an incurable chronic illness but hey, I get a flat belly as a consolation prize. I was stoked.
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No such luck. Menopause or some other process has meant my body is rearranged. Yes, I’m thin in some places, but I’m expanding in others. That’s reality. I can be angry, sad, feel betrayed, disappointed, or anything else. What I can’t do is have a flat belly. I have bigger fish to fry.
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My illness has given me the gift of throwing out all the rules. I drink seltzer at breakfast, eat whatever the fuck I want and answer to no one. Maybe after surgery, when I can swallow again, I might be less feral. But I doubt it.

This post was inspired by an article published on the Scary Mommy website: Please STFU About Your Diet. The article is great; the site has tons of advertisements and pop ups.

This is me. This is a person with a chronic illness. I look fine. Healthy even.

Making peace with who we are, what we look like, and how we feel is a tall order. I’m a short person. But I’m trying, some days a whole lot harder than others, to do my best to just shut off any voices in my head that tell me I should. I reject any should at all in any arena. I’m doing my best to live “shouldlessly.” Shouldfree. Unshoulded. Fuck shoulds.

When a discrepancy between a healthy attitude and a healthy food choice comes up, I plan to choose the healthy attitude from now on. Because mental health requires it. Achalasia is like a crucible in which all my shoulds got immolated. I’m unashamed.

The truth is, you don’t need to get sick to get well. I hope you can take some morsel of this for yourself and join me in saying fuck it to shoulds. It’s liberating. And if you can’t, that’s cool too.

Happy holidays. Stay safe and be well. Hugs from the mountain.

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Open Doors

Right now, as I sit at the dining room table, all the interior doors in this house are open. No dogs are in crates. Everyone is loose, and all the doors are open. It has been almost a year since I have been able to do this. It is a small thing, but it is also a huge thing. I can sit and write without having one eye on dogs that might fence fight, or worse.

When Tom comes home, barking will erupt. The dogs will respond to the crunch of tires on icy gravel with excitement and intensity, but they will not tip over into aggression and redirect that out-of-control emotion onto each other or me. I’ll scatter kibble, but it won’t feel panicky. I won’t be in “life or death” mode. It won’t be “reduce arousal at all costs.”

Yesterday I dropped Willa off at a boarding and training kennel in central NY. I will not be picking her up. I signed the papers, surrendering her to ABMR, and she will be fostered or adopted as soon as an appropriate home is found. And as gutted and heartsick as I am, I am also glad. I am relieved. I am so deeply, profoundly, bone-crushingly drained from the worry, effort, and stress of managing her after the incidents that made me decide to surrender her. Today I am just drinking in the tiny yet gigantic newness of having all the doors open.

On Sunday, November 14, Willa had a rather full day. We extended our hike, and she bolted after a scent trail (I had dropped the long line – just for a second – to go around a tree). It took me longer than usual to get her back but she did respond to a recall. That afternoon, a friend of mine came over for a cup of tea and a proper chin wag. While this is not a stressful event, per se, it is out of the ordinary. Later that evening, Tom and his daughter returned from scattering his father’s ashes and the mood was somber, with yet another new person in Willa’s home.

Willa was malinois-focused on something under the couch. I don’t know what. I’m embarrassed to report that the possibilities were many. There’s a lot of detritus under my couch. Bones, toys, junk mail, dog hair tumbleweeds… who knows what caught her attention. She was pawing away at the couch and I came over to help. So did Hawkitt. As he sniffed in her general direction, she attacked him.

I was on my hands and knees, in the middle of the scuffle. I grabbed Hawkitt, and yelled for Tom. He grabbed Willa and while I held Hawk, Tom put Willa back in her room. I chalked it up to trigger stacking. She’d had an unusual day. I vowed to be more careful on “exciting” days in the future.

That Thursday, after Tom came home from work, Brody was crated but the other three dogs were loose. Tom and I sat at the table; Willa napped on the couch. She had had a typical day – hiking, training, play with Bindi, and calm snoozing by the wood stove. Hawk and Bindi were near Tom and I, while Willa chose to relax on the couch.

Without any discernable trigger or provocation, she crossed the room and attacked Hawkitt. Tom grabbed Willa; I grabbed Hawk. Willa was put away in her room, and I vowed once again – I needed to be more careful. Willa could never be out loose when I’m home alone.

The next day I called her vet. We discussed possibilities, include spaying her and a trial of medication. I planned to discuss the issues with Tom and decide what to do over the weekend.

Saturday, November 20, while Tom was home, Willa went after Hawkitt once again. The situation was very similar: she had had a great day, full of typical delights – hiking in the morning, clicker training, ball play with me, and play with Bindi. She was sacked out on the couch when again – without any discernable provocation – she crossed the room and attacked Hawkitt. Hawk obeyed my command to leave the area, and I grabbed Willa. She twisted out of my grip and attacked Bindi, who was near me. Tom secured Hawkitt and then for two full minutes, Tom and I tried to end the attack. I stayed calm, and spoke to Willa in low and soothing tones, telling her to let go. We tried the kitchen sink’s sprayer, but she hung on while Bindi screamed in pain and fear. She dragged Bindi into the other room, and Tom and I readjusted our grip at that point.   She finally did let go, although I believe she eased her grip with the intention to regrip. In that split second when she released Bindi’s neck, Tom and I pulled the dogs apart.

In the space of 6 days, she had attacked on three different occasions. Two of these attacks were utterly unprovoked. Each was more intense and committed than the previous. Prior to these incidents, she had not shown any aggression towards Hawkitt ever. Not even a curled lip. She played with Bindi daily, including tug with a chuckit ball. I have video footage from the morning of November 20, with Willa and Bindi engaging in beautiful, relaxed play.

While I can wonder aloud about all the reasons why she suddenly exhibited these behaviors, the short term management trumps the figuring it out. From that evening on, she was managed in solitary confinement: a level of crate and rotate we had never done before. I messaged the NYS coordinator for ABMR the next day, and lived in fear that while we sought a safe place for her, she would break through a barrier and attack again.

I checked and rechecked latches on every door and gate. I hiked with Willa separately, played ball with her alone, and sat with her in her room to do clicker training, enrichment activities (junk mail shredding and cardboard box digging) and just snuggles. Every evening, I locked all the other dogs away in various crates and behind doors, so Willa could have some time in the house with Tom and me.

It was unsustainable. And it was doomed. After about 5 days, Tom took Willa out while I was exercising all the dogs. I was out front with 3 loose dogs and he leashed up Willa and took her out the back door. He thought it would be fine. He thought he was helping. He thought she needed a bathroom break. I realized what was happening in time to throw Hawkitt, Bindi, and Brody into safe spaces, and then unleashed 5 days worth of pent up fear and fury upon Tom. And I knew… we will fail. If we try to keep her, we will fail catastrophically and someone (dog or human) will get badly injured.

I can do sick dogs. I can do hospice care. I’ve done blind, deaf, demented dogs that cannot urinate by themselves. I’ve done Addison’s disease, autoimmune disorders, seizure disorder, and multiple cancers. I can do high drive and low drive. I can do deformed limbs and I’m up for tripaws. I’ve done hip dysplasia, rare blood diseases, and mystery ailments. I’ve done starvation cases.

But I cannot do aggression. I’m not skilled enough, and I don’t have the resources. I’ll get injured, or get others hurt, if I try. In fact, for me to attempt to manage Willa (or any other dog like her) here in my home with my current infrastructure would be irresponsible. So I let her go.

My biggest fear is that someone, somewhere down the line, will discount this story. They will see her playing with loose wiggly body language and assume she is fine… as I did. They will see her share toys and be respectful in play… as I did. And they will assume she is cured, or that I was exaggerating, or that I didn’t know how to deal with dog behavior, or any other narrative that allows them to do the natural and desirable thing: let her live with other dogs. And a terrible, preventable bad outcome will be the result.

My greatest hope is exactly the same – that she will never display these behaviors again and that somehow this truly is all my fault – my pack, my house, my handling. That would mean that taking her away from me does indeed solve the problem forever.

And while I hope against hope that this is the case – that she thrives in a different home – I feel a sinking dread. I fear that her condition is progressive. Given that it showed up suddenly and progressed to almost daily attacks in the space of a week, with dogs she had previously lived peacefully with… I fear that she will not stabilize but get worse.

The whole episode leaves me shaken, sad, relieved, angry, and heartsick. I find myself feeling jealous of people who have nice dogs, simple dogs. I’m so glad she is gone, and so sad that I feel that way. So relieved that she left before anyone was injured. So angry that I even need to think that thought. And so crystal clear that I do not have the skills or resources to work through an issue like this.

I have three dogs now, and that’s the lowest the census has been in a decade. I am committed to not adding to this pack. Brody needs the peace and quiet of the void into which he can shriek and howl his complaints. Hawkitt needs to navigate the world as a senior dog with grace and dignity. And Bindi deserves a home where she need not fear her packmates.

So tonight the doors are all open and the dogs are unrestrained. I felt the pang of loss and grief when I emptied the dishwasher – Willa’s bowls now clean and packed away. Tomorrow I will wash the crate pads and bed covers. I will sweep out Willa’s room and reclaim it for all of us… for the uses we designed and built it for. And I will likely cry as I complete these chores, weeping for a world where humans determine dogs’ fates and do so with bad intentions, lousy intel, and profit as a motive. And then I’ll train Bindi and Hawk, cheer for Brody as he manages to stagger up and down the driveway, and stroke their velvet ears while we watch TV. And it will be peaceful.

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Beginning Middle End

It struck me the other day just how much we humans rely upon the structure of the story. We need the beginning, middle, and end in order to wrap our brains around a thing. One of the most infuriating things about the pandemic has been the endless middleness of it all. The beginning was awful, terrifying, but also galvanizing. We could do something – buy toilet paper. Wash our hands. Watch the news. Await further instructions.

The endingless limbo is profoundly disquieting. Our brains crave the neatness, or at least the relief, of an ending. The middle bit is taking too long. We’ve lost interest in this performance but we can’t leave. We’re long past fidgeting and sighing.  

All good writing has a beginning, middle, and end. Novels, plays, or facebook posts, fiction or nonfiction, they all begin and end, and the better the writing, the more seamless and easy that journey from one to the other is. The places we go may be awful, the seas rough and sick-making, but our vessel is safe. The writing, the words themselves, must carry us safely and with just the right amount of consternation through the worst of it. Storms, villains, internal strife… we have the fortitude to stay with it, to carry on, to keep reading, because the vessel is safe. That and our faith in storytelling:  we believe there will be an end. We trust it will come.

I believe it was Vonnegut who said that the way to survive the unsurvivable is to imagine the telling of the story. If he didn’t say it outright, he lived it and wrote it in Slaughterhouse Five. Time travel forward to the future you, telling the story of the time you were in this particular tight spot. Skip to the end then work backwards.

The pandemic has become a stand-in for my own stalled journey. Just as the end of the pandemic remains nowhere in sight, confidence in knowing how to move forward feels equally elusive. Any direction seems as hopeless as any other; all is the same in an endless middleness of empty sea. I live in an unsustainable and endlessly expanding now, in which I have neither clarity of diagnosis, nor any semblance of a workable plan forward. Tests are ordered, eagerly awaited, and then canceled the day of. “Staffing issues.” “Equipment failure.” I’m on a first name basis with multiple schedulers, having chosen to befriend and lure with humor and pathos, rather than throw a tantrum and play the irate victim card.

Acceptance of the limitless of this middle makes planning feel impossible. I need to see my mother and my daughter and that means travel will become necessary at some point. But how can I travel when I struggle to get through the day here and now? The business of daily life requires strength I don’t have. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to ignore all I experience physically and emotionally day in and day out. Ignoring discomfort, pain, worry, frustration, and hopelessness easier some days than others. I have days where my conscious mind and my purposeful activities for large parts of the day are taken up with trying to get an esophageal obstruction to pass. Good days are draining. Bad days are survived. Truly, I thank all that is holy for beer, as carbonation seems to provoke some sort of swallowy-ish response and alcohol helps with the ignoring discomfort part. I saw a meme on some social media site that resonated a little too well: all too often people with chronic illnesses get accused of pretending to be sick. We are not pretending to be sick. We are pretending to be well.

But I think much like the rest of the world with regard to the pandemic, the hardest part of this for me has been the open-endedness of it all. Will I get a diagnosis? Well, yes, I think so, maybe, one day. Will there be a treatment? That depends upon the diagnosis. Another solid maybe. Is soldiering on like this causing damage to my esophagus? Could be. That is one theory. Will an increased dosage of the medication I’m trying provide better relief or just more side effects? Your guess is as good as mine. Will the doctor who prescribed it ever call me back? I sure hope so. Should I switch health care providers since things aren’t exactly going well? Maybe. There are pros and cons to doing so. And so on.

The dogs render the paralysis of this middle bit a luxury I can’t afford. They are the answer. They are the beginning, middle, and end of every day. They anchor me in the simplicity of just doing the next thing, the task that lies in front of me, and the satisfaction of each task completed. The dog care tasks – washing crate pads and preparing meals, scooping poop and administering medications, calling the vet, and heading out for the morning walks – repeat themselves with reassuring regularity, never finished but rising and falling, ebbing and flowing like waves.

These tasks have become foreground. No longer relegated to the background, the setting from which action springs, they are plot, front and center. They are it, they are everything. My challenge is to graciously accept this, and revel in it. A full wood rack or an organized sock drawer added to the daily dog duties? Well, they are cause for celebration, for feet up and an extra half hour of tv in the evening.

And you know what? The ending of this story is that for now, it’s kind of working. In a small sense, day to day, I’m happy. I take great pride in clean crate pads and balanced dog dinners. Pride, a sense of accomplishment, and relief: that’s one thing done, and done well. It’s why I’m pushing myself hard to do more with Hawkitt, to dive into more sophisticated training and challenge myself to teach him new things and consider competing. Because it’s one thing I can do. In an endless sea with no land upon the horizon in any direction, I have to make meaning and stay sane, steer the ship and keep it afloat. The dogs are my crew, and they perform their chores with good cheer.

Together we have found a way to begin and end each day. Yes, it’s weird and shitty to be marooned in an endless sea of middleness, but here we are. May as well make the best of it.

Hawkitt.
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The Bank and The Post Office

I bought new dog beds with zip off machine washable covers, in vibrant shades of purple and orange. And by god, I swore, I’d keep them looking decent, with weekly washings. Wrestling the inner pillows in and out of these “bagel beds,’ as they are called, is an athletic event. Thank the lord I am post-shoulder surgery and a fully two-armed operational battle star at this point, because I need every ounce of fire power to get these fuckers back together.

I also attended my final physical therapy appointment post shoulder surgery, and did some dog training in town with Willa while there. I hit the post office to drop off a handwritten card for a dear friend who lost his mom last week. I wrote the card and took care of an online donation in her name, roasted the week’s coffee, dumped the compost and ran the dishwasher and did a load of laundry before I left.

I groomed Bindi and Hawk thoroughly, Brody less thoroughly and Willa got a day off from my ministrations. I took care of some online shopping (we finally ditched a decades old mattress pad and I needed to select a new one), hiked with Bindi and Willa for an hour and hiked with Hawk for an hour.

Everywhere I look, there is more to be done. Cleaning, creating, decluttering, decorating, and whatever the opposite of decorating is. More cleaning. Painting, once Tom finishes building, trimming out, filling nail holes… I feel like my mom should have named me Sisyphus.

I meet with a surgeon on Thursday of this week, to discuss a surgical procedure designed to basically enable me to swallow. Because yeah, despite all of the above, I am ill. Sort of. I mean, am I? I still feel a deep denial, a strange unrealness to the whole thing. Could I really have an incredibly rare disease? I grew up with the message “nah. You’re just not that special.” If it was a long shot, it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a unicorn, I wasn’t the dark horse. I was solid middle ground – middle class kid in an unremarkable suburb. Middle of the road. Nothing special. And yet, when I emailed my doctor and told her that I was essentially at the end of my rope, she agreed to the referral. “Presumptive diagnosis” is how she phrased it, meaning, I guess, that we’ve ruled everything else out.

The referral to surgery speaks volumes. I believe I can now say “I have achalasia.” I still hesitate, feeling like a liar. Like I’m “being dramatic.” Like there must be some mistake. Of all the losses that this pandemic has dropped at my feet, the loss of my identity as a healthy person has been the hardest to bear.

How do I do this, this normal life juxtaposed with being the proud owner of a chronic, incurable, rare, and debilitating illness? Autumn of 1987: I was traveling in India. I don’t remember who said it to me, but it resonated so deeply, I remember it and continue to use it as a benchmark phrase today. Don’t attempt to go to the bank and the post office on the same day.

India was brutal for a 21 year old white girl from New York. I was in over my head. It was overwhelming in every way – the oppressive heat, the barrage of sensory experiences of every kind all day and night. I was constantly ill, running on three cylinders, and just struggling to survive. I can remember sitting in a restaurant in some city somewhere in the north, at the end of dinner with a group of tourists, and just bursting into tears at the thought of going back out there. Back out into India, onto the streets and being confronted with all of it again. Anxiety grew into dread, and the moments of respite, of emotional safety in tourist havens, stood in stark contrast to the realities of the streets. Everyone at that table understood and held me in their compassionate gaze. It was a shared experience. And I’d like to think it was then that someone said “don’t try to handle the bank and the post office on the same day” but in all likelihood it wasn’t.

Aim low. Do what’s right in front of you. Do one thing at a time, and rest as often as you need to. This was the advice I received and heeded for surviving India. Walking to the bank in 45 degree Celsius heat? Stop and rest as often as necessary. Drink plenty. Sleep in the afternoon. If you fail to complete your business at the bank, don’t try for the post office. Cut your losses and go somewhere shady to drink chai and rest up for the next attempt.

I coach myself to live by these words. I try to quit while I’m ahead, aim low, and not attempt the bank and the post office in the same day. I try to avoid overloading myself, despite the never-ending and Sisyphean quality of housework, dog care, and just plain life. I try to be kind to myself, to celebrate the trips to the bank or post office with rest, chocolate pudding, and cups of tea. I try (usually unsuccessfully) to mute the critical internal voice telling me that Willa’s nails need to be clipped RIGHT NOW and the dusting is an emergency. I try.

I try not to pile too much hope onto the future, not put too much off for after my shoulder is better, after my esophagus surgery, after the hot weather, after the snow season is over. I try to focus on what I can do today and do it. And let go of all I can’t do, forget to do, or choose not to do.

I don’t know how to integrate achalasia into my already rather full life. But here we are and integrate I must, so awkwardly, effortfully, off I go down this strange road. And I guess I’m dragging all of you along with me. At least you can rest assured I won’t attempt the bank and the post office on the same day.

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Crash Into Me

“Alexa, play music.” I didn’t know I could use Alexa until yesterday. I like to listen to music while I cook dinner, and yesterday being my 14th wedding anniversary, I was wrist deep in minced herbs when I thought hey, some tunes would be nice.

Alexa told me she was going to select a song from “my soundtrack” which sounded a bit ominous, but in for a penny, in for a pound: I let her choose. Crash into Me, by Dave Matthews, started playing.

It’s my wedding anniversary and the most romantic and cheeky song ever is selected by a robot. (I know she’s not exactly a robot but don’t pick nits, eh?) Dinner prep just got all the more delicious. I’m singing and swaying and chopping away, feeling the sweet nostalgia of my early days with Tom.

A younger version of me would be wistful (ok, pissed off) that Tom was not sharing this delightful moment with me. I’d be sad (translation: angry) that I was experiencing this awesome romantic moment… alone. I’d have been filled with longing (make that regret) that my partner and I could not enjoy the same nuggets of goodness the weird world occasionally serves up. Tom doesn’t like the same music as me. Hell, he isn’t even especially interested in music (the horror) and stopped listening to anything new after he left high school. The soundtrack of my life isn’t something we can enjoy together.

He will never feel the way I feel about music. I will never feel the way he feels about woodworking.

Tom is asleep on the couch. He is 63, and he is tired. The past two years have knocked the stuffing out of both of us in different ways. He needs rest, and a fat month of deep restful sleep, desperately. So do I, although I’d settle for being able to swallow without pain, a swallow that doesn’t get hung up mid way down my esophagus. An 8 hour stretch without a hot flash wouldn’t be bad either but I’m not that greedy. The pandemic hit us both hard, with loss after loss. It hasn’t stopped. We’re both beyond tired, beyond stretched to the breaking point.  

Tom indulges me. When a local cover band advertised that they were presenting Genesis’ Seconds Out album in its entirety, live, I had to go. Tom came along, happy to dress up and have an evening out. He was proud (and perhaps entertained… and maybe a little embarrassed) that I sang along to Every Single Word. I had that whole double album memorized. The stranger sitting next to me was a little surprised too, but since his son was the drummer, he was pleased. I tried to not to sing too badly off key.

When the Queen movie came out, I had to see it. Tom was game. I wept, sobbed, and hit pause to explain some aspect of why this was SO EMOTIONAL for me about 27 times. He isn’t uninterested, and he’s willing to be schooled … but it’s just not his thing. And once upon a time, that would have been a deep wound to me.

But I’m not who I was back when I was falling in love with Counting Crows’ August and Everything After album. I’ve grown, and mellowed a bit. I’m not the emotional ogre I once was, ready to rip limb from limb any partner who failed to meet my needs, the rageful victim of neglect. I’m a grownass woman, and have the hot flashes and meno-belly to prove it. I use coping mechanisms, count to ten, go for walks, and consider others’ perspectives. I’ve learned and I’m learning. It’s actually kind of fun.

Most importantly, I’ve learned compassion. Some of the lessons have been loud and yeah, there’s been some kicking and screaming. But loving is a hot mess of process, patience, and tolerating imperfection. Understanding his current status and honoring it is an act of love. It’s one of the few things I can do to ease his burden – to understand and consider his perspective. Being happy – fully happy (ok, ecstatic and almost psychedelically transported into another dimension) because of a song on the Amazon music app is also an act of love. Loving Tom means being happy – fully happy – and enjoying this crazy fucked up life in any given imperfect moment. The life we live is deeply imperfect and so are we. But it’s also good enough, and worth being happy about.

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The Dog World is not Always a Nice Place

The other day I posted a photo of Hawkitt on my Instagram account, and a friend asked me to submit it to an edited collection of photos he’s seeking to publish. A dog book, full of gorgeous photos of dogs living their best outdoor recreational lives, each photo captioned with a short write up about the dog.

Well.

I can’t fire off a glib few paragraphs waxing eloquent and comedic about Hawkie’s antics and passions. Hawkitt is amazing; he is unlike any other dog I’ve ever known. The only dog in my pack to stroll casually up to a porcupine and touch noses, then meander off unquilled, and the only dog to stumble upon a fawn and gently, tenderly (I swear), sniff and smooch the little thing all over before walking away calmly, Hawkitt is unique. He is also the dog that committed the single worst sin, breaking the ultimate taboo of pet dog life: he killed a pack member. How can I write about him and not address that?

So I didn’t fail to address it. I wrote what I could about Hawkitt and my life with him. Here’s that text:

The dog world is not always a nice place. Dogs are not always nice creatures. Dog behavior, especially at its extreme edges, is not always nice. Humans have taboos about violent behavior – taboos that get broken at the cost of our own souls sometimes, but dogs don’t have those taboos. They can behave in ways that both melt our hearts and break them. They can do things that are unfathomably horrible, including killing another family pet, or a child. And they will do things that are equally delightful, performing as a working K9, sniffing out cancer or IEDs.

The world of dogs is also a world of people, and people can be generous and kind and beautiful. We can also be cruel and judgmental and rigid. The dog world is full of contradictions – beauty and ugliness, joy and despair, the bounty of the gifts the dogs give us, and the destitution of loss that we feel when they leave. It is a place where we can experience the sublime beauty of the human-canine bond, where we can experience the pure wonder at interspecies communication at levels of sophistication that leave us breathless and tearful. It has all this to offer, but it is not consistently, reliably, or exclusively a nice place.

When Cinder died, a part of me broke irreparably. That Hawkitt (the dog whose portrait is shown here) caused her death and I live with him, cater to his whims, continue to love him, continue to meet his needs, continue to tolerate all of the emotions engendered by his presence and her absence …  feels impossibly difficult and yet necessary. Simply holding the knowledge of what happened that day is too much to bear, but I do. I carry on, hiking, training, feeding, grooming, loving, and sharing my life with a dog who killed a packmate.

I share this shameful secret because I know that others reading this have experienced this taboo being broken – family pet killed by another family pet. When I break the silence and utter the impossible words “Hawkitt killed Cinder” I know what that does in the dog world. The hope of self protection takes over and people find themselves, in the face of this gut-wrenching tragedy saying things like “Why was the dog off leash? Why didn’t you have the dog muzzled? If you knew the dog was an indiscriminate eater, had an issue with prey drive, loved to chase cars… why was the dog allowed to be outside off leash and unmuzzled? You were courting disaster.” Because hindsight is 20/20, and if we can pinpoint the failing, identify the error, and accurately assign blame… we are safe.  We seek to identify the human failing and assign blame and maintain superiority: “I would never let that happen.” We can maintain the fiction that it won’t happen to us.

We, the dog community, don’t do tragedy well. We tend to either overdo the forgiveness or overdo the blame, without finding that sweet spot in the center, where responsibility, learning, and compassion intersect. I never wanted to take on this role, to be a member of the dog world who has experienced this extreme. But when Cinder died, I told the truth. I didn’t hide what happened from my community. My private message box exploded with responses. People who carry shame and guilt, who ache and suffer, who fear retribution and the obscene unkindness other humans feel justified to heap upon us… so many people simply said “thank you for sharing this. It happened to me too.”

Me too. It’s a club none of us wish to join. But here we are, so many of us, suffering in our shame and silence. Despite backlash, despite judgment, despite the retelling tearing open the wound barely healed over… I believe allowing the experience of losing a dog to a fight with a packmate must have a place in the dog world where we can talk about it, without shame or condemnation. We already punish ourselves enough. I cannot look at a photo of Cinder without feeling physically ill. I cannot allow myself to enjoy her memories, to feel happy at the life she had. The way she left this world will haunt me forever. It’s punishment enough.

Look at Hawkitt. He is majestic. He is breathtaking. He is an incredible dog, a dog you would simply fall in love with him. He is special, smarter than any dog I’ve ever owned, save Iske. He is a fantastic dog, and he has done the unspeakable. And I must somehow live with it.

To those of you who have lost a dog in a tragic way, an accident, a horrible moment, I know that whether or not you consciously feel responsible… you feel responsible. To those of you who have lost a dog, when the day started out like any other day and the dog was healthy and fate and forces that you’ll never understand created an accident so horrific that your dog, your beloved dog, lost its life… To all of you, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how responsible you feel – I absolve you. I can tell you that this is life with dogs. Yes, it is the extreme, the edge that no one talks about, but it is not your fault. It is not your failure. And you are not alone.

To those of you that have never experienced this, I pray you never do. I pray you never plumb these depths. I pray your life with dogs and your experience of the dog world is never ever tainted by what I have experienced. And I ask of you to have compassion for those of us who have been forced by fate to experience and accept our role in the dog world as cautionary tales. We didn’t choose it and we don’t deserve it.

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Peeka Mouse

In the Catskills region of upstate New York, there is a mountain called Peekamoose. When we adopted Peeka, I was on a kick to name my dogs after Catskills peaks. “She has to be Peeka MOUSE because she’s so small,” commented Cindy Garcia, a malinois rescue coordinator I’ve been friends with for years. Peeka Mouse. It stuck.

We thought she had ringworm when we brought her home from the shelter. Ringworm is extremely contagious. Both dogs and humans can contract it from an infected dog. We were told to keep her isolated until the ringworm treatment was completed. We set up a bedroom where she could stay, locked away from the whole pack which at that point was Hawk, Iske, Lily, and Cinder. That first night I thought no one would sleep well with a fussy puppy behind a flimsy hollowcore door. So I slept with her, ostensibly to help her settle and keep her quiet. I had to corner her and catch her like a wild animal, but when I scooped up all 27 pounds of her and laid her on the bed, she nestled into the curve of my belly and slept all night.

My intention was to foster her as briefly as possible and send her on her merry way. I didn’t want a puppy and was still mourning Mica’s passing. But Peeka’s first vet visit dashed all hopes of that. She was too sick to be spayed. She was too sick to be moved. And she had fallen head over paws in love with Hawkitt. Given her health status and her ridiculous “fit” with Hawk … I adopted her only a few weeks later.

That was February 2015.

Yesterday I chose to euthanize Peeka. She was not ill, not any more so than any other day. I ended her life because our life together had become unsafe.

I understand the impulse to ask “what happened?” I understand the need to hear a story, to wrap our brains around a narrative that explains how my dog, my beloved Peeka, could need to be killed. But for all of you that want to armchair quarterback this decision, the question I have for you is: Why do you need to know? Do you need to evaluate whether or not it’s the right decision? Do you want to critically evaluate my choice? Let’s call a spade a spade — Do you really want to backseat drive? Do you really want to decide whether or not I’m worthy of your compassion?

If so, I can make this easy for you: assume I made the wrong choice. Assume I acted out of selfishness, ignorance, or laziness or any other unacceptable motive. I’m not worthy. You have my permission and invitation to make that judgement – to call it that way. I am not worthy. But now, knowing that I’m not worthy – does that help you feel better? If you can be angry or hate me for what I did, does that help you feel better about it? Will it help you take better care of your dog or your loved ones, to know that you have judged me and found me wanting?

For 6 years I battled to keep the world safe from Peeka, and to keep Peeka safe from the world. On social media, I portrayed her as a winsome, klutzy, problem child of a dog with an obsession for porcupines. That made her seem adorably hapless and sweetly off kilter. I posted a photo series of “Peeka hiking” and in every shot she was lying down. It was one of my coping mechanisms, one of the ways I blew off steam after a particularly difficult day or episode, to reframe it all as so innocently quirky. But that was not the whole picture.

The whole picture was so hard to hold. Yes, she had medical issues, some of which likely caused pain. She was wracked with arthritis, head to tail. She had an autoimmune disorder with intermittent flare ups. She had swollen lymph nodes for years, and eosinophilia. She struggled mightily to learn the most basic commands, and reacted in the most aggressive ways to the oddest stimuli. She could be fine one moment and attacking a packmate literally at the drop of a hat – or the electronic beep of a cell phone’s notification. She lost her mind over and over again at the sight of a traffic cone holder Tom built. She exploded over threshold and attacked as a redirection of almost anything: noises, Hawkitt’s barking, and increasingly – my behavior. Each time something went wrong, I would say to myself “I’m lucky it wasn’t worse.”

The grind of hopelessness is ultimately poisonous. It has seeped into our very bones and made us as reactive as the dogs. The concept of “trigger stacking” is relevant for humans as well as dogs, and at this point Tom and I both are in an awful reactive mode where the slightest provocation sends us over threshold ourselves. We never meant to become a locked ward for mentally ill dogs. We never meant to be a sanctuary for aggressive dogs. As Peeka’s behavior unfolded and we came to understand how damaged she was, we stumbled into becoming exactly that – the mythical farm upstate where dogs that can’t make it in society go to live out their lives in safety and freedom.

We tried so hard to be that, but the “farm upstate” is truly mythical and elusive at best. We don’t – can’t – exist outside society. The pandemic meant that new neighbors moved in and the sounds of a baby crying, or children’s laughter meant we had a new worry – the proximity of children deepened my stress over Peeka. The normal neighborhood sounds of back-up beeps from the construction vehicles at the neighbor’s place, the kids laughing, screaming, crying, the adults just having conversations… all sent the pack over threshold. Peeka redirected onto the nearest dog. I spent all day every day praying for quiet, and telling the dogs to calm down… over and over again.

While we all tried to adjust to the new sounds and experiences, Tom worked 80 hour weeks for the local telephone company. While many people lost jobs because of the lockdowns, Tom’s work as a telecom technician exploded. People could not function without connectivity, but life in the country means service interruptions. Tom worked 7 days a week over and over again, and one by one his colleagues had to be quarantined. Tom never took risks, never tested positive, and never got a mandatory 2 week staycation.

I was alone with the dogs way more than usual. And I got sick. Not an acute, discrete illness that could be treated, but an insidious chronic condition that has so far proven to be untreatable and undiagnosable. I can’t swallow normally, and this has meant that I choke on my own saliva… pretty often. Peeka began charging me when I started coughing. In addition, she stopped being able to tolerate handling she used to enjoy – brushing and nail clips were an intimate and cozy way we bonded, but over the winter, she began to lunge and snap at me for attempting to groom her. Then she lunged at me for muzzling her, after weeks of muzzle conditioning – all of which went well, supervised by an experienced trainer. The last time she lunged at me was a couple of weeks ago when I was taking a photo of her.

Denial is a powerful force. Each time she showed aggression towards me, I blamed myself or discounted it as “nothing.” She didn’t feel well. I must have hurt her. She didn’t mean it. She was triggered by the other dog in the room. And so on. I denied, excused and apologized for everything she did. And continued to try to find ways to help her enjoy life, get her needs met, and be as fulfilled as possible. My vet expressed shock at my request to euthanize her, which made me realize how much I had hidden.

I feel like the unspoken question on everyone’s lips is “you’ve worked so long and hard with Peeka, why would you give up? Why give up on her? Why give up on yourself?” The answer is I have indeed worked so long and hard with so little success and such miniscule incremental and inconsistent success … so I turn the question around and ask of all of you: wouldn’t I know better than anyone else when I cannot do more?

To all of you who are angry at me, pained at this choice, and reject the notion that behavioral euthanasia is an ethical option, I say this: thank you. Thank you for holding my feet to the fire and ensuring that before I took this step I was truly certain I would be able to live with your criticism, knowing I could do no more for her. The unspoken words I imagine you saying have helped me take the time to think it through again, to question one more professional trainer, to wait one more day-week-month.

I often described Peeka as nasty and aggressive because I felt that if I used those words people would instantly form a mental image of her that would help keep everyone safe. The truth I didn’t and still don’t think Peeka was nasty or aggressive. I think she was incredibly sweet. I don’t think she was always fearful although I do think she was fearful sometimes. I think most often what ailed her was an idiosyncratic way of experiencing the world. She was so tangled up inside that her emotions and cognitions and sensory experiences were overwhelming to her and incomprehensible to me. The way she experienced sound, touch and even being looked at… she was so thoroughly not normal, I believe her daily existence was profoundly difficult for her. These emotions and the way she processed them led to behaviors that were downright dangerous.

I don’t understand it, even after 6 years, well enough to explain it with any confidence. What I did know was that she loved me and that she felt safe with me. She wanted connection with me. She also felt safe with Hawkitt, and adored him. The most successful relationship she had in her entire life was with him. If only I could have abandoned them on a deserted island… he would take care of her. And she would act normal for him. They brought out the best in each other.

I could play it off like it’s some great thing I did, a beautiful sacrifice  – that I’m placing the good of the dogs above my own selfish desire to keep her around simply because I love her. I could spin that so that it sounds viable. There is some truth to that… I am choosing the good of the whole over the good over any individual. But with Peeka from day one, there was no good option. This is a dog who should have been drowned at birth. That would have been the kindest thing of all… and that’s a horrible way to feel and a horrible truth to face. From day one, we had no good options.

The last fight left a mark. My hand is pretty badly injured. Willa’s leg has a nasty gash. I miss Peeka terribly. I struggle to move on, rehashing the decision and wallowing in self doubt and self pity. Willa is currently showing a decent amount of reactivity to Brody (who continues to randomly explode with or without identifiable triggers) and management continues to be critical. Tom lost his temper yesterday morning. I saw in his loss of control (which he promptly owned and apologized for) the depth of stress and exhaustion we both have been experiencing. We are truly running on fumes.

I am sad, angry, jealous, and overwhelmed by what used to give me such joy on social media: happy people with normal dogs. I see nice normal owners doing nice normal things with nice normal dogs and I just have to walk away.

Then yesterday, when Tom finally got home from work all day Sunday, we sat outside and had a beer. Bindi and Willa were loose outside with us. Bindi relaxed. Willa hunted for tiny frogs and chewed a frisbee, and poked Bindi, and asked for pets, and wandered off to step on plants in my garden… all normal malinois puppy stuff. I had a good 30 minutes of “brewery dog” experience at home. No diving to separate dogs that had become destabilized by radio frequencies we couldn’t hear. No hard stares because I cleared my throat. No hackles because the other dog sniffed a rock too close to your head-butt-paw-tail-aura. I had that glimpse of what’s possible, what we could find our way back to: a joyful life with dogs.

I choose to heal, and to honor Peeka by doing my best, every day, with every dog in front of me. I will remember Peeka, as painful as these memories are. I want to delete every photo and video, and not see her, not be reminded. But I will tough it out, look at her and remember. She was my dog, through and through. I could never love her enough but god knows I tried. And I will never stop wishing I could have exorcised her demons and healed her soul.

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When Everything isn’t Enough

“Some dogs can’t be fixed, and some dogs can’t be broken.” Trish McMillan

How do we set our dogs up for success? For most of us, a fairly straightforward recipe of meeting the dog’s holistic needs does the trick. My specifics for meeting these needs are summarized below: 

  • Food – quality and quantity. I watch each dog’s weight, and as they age and change, adjust both calories and nutrients to help keep them at a healthy weight and in the best shape possible. I add supplements as I learn about them and try hard to stay current on what’s necessary, versus what’s trendy. I have two big freezers dedicated to dog food, and buy as much as I can from local farmers. 
  • Shelter. I use crates and dog beds, and one couch is dog-friendly as a perch and comfy snuggle spot. If they wanted to, at any given moment all five dogs could sack out on a dog bed without sharing, with plenty of space for privacy and solo snoozing. My dogs are in the house with me or hiking or running errands with me. They aren’t kenneled ever. 
  • Grooming. I handle all the grooming. Everyone gets brushed regularly and nail trims as often as needed. Ok, I slack on the nail trims. 
  • Biological fulfillment. Every day, come what may, all the dogs get at least a solid hour of “enrichment” or “biological fulfillment” or whatever you call it. They have time outdoors in an enriching and interesting environment, with supervision but not necessarily interference. They are able to sniff, run, chase, and make decisions and choices without me micromanaging them.
  • Physical exercise. In addition to the sniffy walk, every day every dog receives time with me to do some physical exercise. What this looks like varies a lot from dog to dog, but all of them get some exercise later in the day, after the morning walk. Fetch, tug, frisbee, and swimming are some of the ways we’ve handled exercise.
  • Mental stimulation. All the dogs get asked to do things, or experience things, or explore things at least a couple of times a week. This might look like training, especially for Hawk and Bindi and Willa. For Brody and Peeka it may be exposure to new environments, or training, or tolerating something uncomfortable (with support). 
  • Hang out, affection, presence. Every day I try to spend quiet time with each dog, just being with them in a “hang out” way. Maybe I’m giving skritches, maybe I’m just sharing the couch and letting a dog sleep on my legs. It’s down time we share, a time to just be together.
  • Professional trainers and use of tools. I’ve used professional trainers 4 different times, and taken advantage of online consults countless times. I’ve used prong collars, e collars, long lines, crates, behavioral medication, food, treats, toys, tug, and play. Hawk has earned two titles, Bindi one, and Willa is almost ready for her first. I aim to master all the skills of the Canine Good Citizen title, whether or not I actually test the dogs for it. I’ve taken the dogs dock diving, and learned rally and trick training, and tracking is high on the list for upcoming efforts.
  • Continuing education. While it’s not exactly something the dogs experience, I try hard to continue to expand my knowledge and experience by reading, and watching trainers on social media.

Despite ensuring that all my dogs receive all of these types of attention, and I try to maintain and enhance my own knowledge, I still have problems. I have serious problems sometimes, dangerous and deeply distressing serious problems. 

Trish McMillan’s words strike such a deep chord with me. “Some dogs can’t be fixed, and some dogs can’t be broken.” I think of Iske, a dog who had as bad a first year as any, neglected and abused in a puppy mill. She was caged for 16 months and received no exposure to people or dogs, save the humans who cut off her tongue (it was a punishment for barking) and broke the cartilage in her ear by hitting her over the head. But you couldn’t break her friendly, happy spirit – she was an easy malinois, pleasant and sweet to humans and ridiculously tolerant of dogs. She was likely fed the cheapest of kibble that first year, but lived to be well over 15, and survived the one bout with cancer she had. 

Peeka and Brody are dogs that can’t be fixed. I have known this for years. I’ve lived with this knowledge, absorbed it and mourned it, railed against it, and then had it stare me down… again and again. Yes, I’ve tried e collars. Yes, I’ve tried trainers. Yes, I’ve had long hard talks with the husband about our quality of life and theirs. Yes, I’ve used behavioral medications in combination with training. Because why wouldn’t I? Occasionally on social media I come across such unkind suggestions, barely masked – “why don’t you try training?” It’s hurtful and exhausting but it’s part of the deal.

I step back and wonder at some of the accusations – both spoken and implied – when owners like me state what Trish put so eloquently. Some dogs cannot be fixed. No tool, no method, no technique can cure what ails these dogs. They have been peddling as hard as they can for years. And so have I. If you don’t believe that, you are blessed and lucky and I am jealous of you because it means that you have never experienced it. Your dog owning life has been full of Iskes, not Peekas.

All the doom and gloom aside, Peeka and Brody have both made wonderful gains. Despite these gains, Peeka still looks for a dog to attack when my husband’s cell phone dings, and Brody still cannot handle the sound of the toilet flushing. If Tom leaves the room, when he returns, he is a stranger and Brody is reactive. Every time. It’s been 4 years. Upticks in pack arousal are potentially deadly. The other night the sound of a dog barking on TV set the dogs off and despite Peeka’s being muzzled … we ended up with a vet visit and I also received a nasty bite.

I’m not inexperienced. I’m not an asshole. You can’t write me off as someone who doesn’t know dogs. This is the reality of one extreme in the dog owning world. Some dogs are not ok, and never will be. Blessedly, the percentage is small. Most dogs that live the kind of life I describe above do well. They thrive. They respond beautifully to training and decent care, and they are fabulous companions or competitors for a decade plus. 

My life has been touched by the unicorn magic of two dogs from the same litter that struggle and fail to be normal. They break my heart wide open. And they make me ask the hardest questions any sentient being ever has to ask – do I have the strength and grace to put an end to this?

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Dog Fights and Summer Musings

I loosened Willa’s collar. There is such a ritual in this simple act, the concrete acknowledgement of growth. Similarly when we had to finally retire Bindi’s baby collar, the adorable honeybee one her foster mama gave her, we marked it as a rite of passage and an important acknowledgement of physical growth. With our human children, we make pencil lines on the wall, we count how many words they know at age two – the stuff of measurement. What does your dog weigh, how many commands does she know? It’s all ways of quantifying and celebrating how a living being blossoms under our care. That’s why I wax poetic about the little things. The new collar. The marks on the wall. The quantification of care and love in flesh, blood, and bone.

The gift of last week’s family emergency is that all else was tossed aside – all trappings of “regular” life. Admittedly, I’ve had little by way of regular life for quite some time. It was years ago I told myself I would take no shit and give no fucks from now on. The gloves are off. Tom was with his daughter, handling the situation at her side, several hours away from home. Without Tom’s workaday schedule structuring my chaos, I’ve slipped ever deeper in a feral mindset. Meals and bedtimes are a construct for people who can swallow, people who do not have loved ones in the hospital.

Rushing to get to my own doctor’s appointment I consider telling the truth: I was late because I was taking photos of my dog. I was late because the light on his fur was compelling. I was late because I wasted time crying. And now I am late, and resentful that I am being forced to hurry the puppy through her sniffing. How do I explain that I am late because I am trying to savor this life?

*

So much happens each day, I struggle to absorb it all, writing in my head, but unable to carve out the time and mindset to write anything more complex than a To Do list. I was walking Hawkitt around the pond an hour ago and looked down to see blood on my camera. The morning walk was cut short this morning because Bindi and Willa had a fight. I need to write about it, so I put Peeka outside, Bindi upstairs, and let Willa chill on the couch. The peace and quiet needed to heal their trauma and allow me to write now has a fighting (do I really want to use this word?) chance.

I had trouble deescalating the situation. Resource guarding over a chunk of shelf fungus that both dogs have played with a few times, sharing and grabbing it from each other without so much as a curled lip, today became worth a knockdown, drag-out brawl. It lasted about a minute. I got a decent hold on one dog a few times, but had trouble convincing the other to back off each time I did. I fell, got my finger twisted in a collar, at some point injured my back.

The dogs are minimally injured. Both have small cuts on a front leg. Neither dog redirected onto me. It could have been much worse. Much worse.

Adrenaline is an interesting drug. I don’t remember what I said or did during the fight. I remember clearly what I thought and how I felt, but I’m not sure what came out of my mouth. I know I managed to wheelbarrow each dog once, and that doing so helped to distract the dog and slow down the intensity. The fight ended when I had one dog firmly in my grasp and the other chose to back down. I don’t know which. I wasn’t able to physically grab both at the same time.

My thoughts were simple: I will get them to stop hurting each other. That’s pretty much it. My feelings were of caring and compassion. I felt empathy. I know I didn’t get angry, and I didn’t bellow commands. I didn’t yell. I know this for sure; that much I do remember clearly. I didn’t think “I must stop this.” I thought “I will stop this.” I was confident despite feeling sad. I was calm. I never joined in the emotional escalation. I think I said things like “that’s all” and “eeeeeeasy.” I know I didn’t raise my voice.

I have no idea if this was the “right” way to handle the fight. It’s really hard to make choices about what to do in those adrenaline-filled moments. I’m not sure it’s possible to make choices about what to feel, despite knowing that feeling angry or scared creates hormonal secretions that are palpable to the dogs. I would prefer not to do that, not to freak out, not to feel panicked or enraged, but how much control does a person have in that moment? I’m not sure. I was lucky, perhaps, that I went to a place of calm and confident hope – my mantra was “I will help them.” I will be their rock. I will end this badness and help them get through it.

Why does my pack squabble and scuffle? I have theories and questions, not answers. Bindi and Willa have enjoyed healthy play consistently since Willa’s arrival, grabbing items (including this precise stupid piece of fungus) out of each other’s mouths many times before. I watch their play closely – it has been relaxed, full of reciprocity, rest breaks, and trading roles. It’s been healthy, wonderful play for both dogs. When I’ve seen even a hint of intensity I haven’t liked, I’ve just said “Eh! Eh!” and both dogs let go of each other. Today’s escalation is completely new.

Willa is 9 months old. Developmental issues, and hormones may play a role. Overall pack dynamics are chronically difficult, as Peeka and Brody are chronically difficult. This week has been one of emotional upheaval as Tom’s daughter recovers, and I take yet one more step into accepting my own health issues and the lifestyle limitations I face. Last week, the dogs and I were alone for 5 days straight. It was calm and peaceful. I was more attuned than usual, perhaps, because I didn’t have to divide my focus between human and canine family members. This week, Tom is home, and I have been at the clinic and on the phone with doctors. It’s been quiet as ever on the outside, but under the surface, the emotions have been shifting and changing.

And all dogs resolve conflicts through fighting to one degree or another. It is a natural and relatively normal canine conflict resolution tool. Some breeds are much less likely to escalate and get physical. Some breeds are more likely to do so. Having a collection of the latter, trash talk and scuffles are going to be more likely here than in a household full of different breeds.

Two nights ago, we had a three ring circus in here with Brody and Peeka becoming unglued. Tom helped and no dogs were injured at all, but harsh words were spoken by Peeka and Willa. I had been ready for that – primed for Willa to go there with Peeka. To see her go there with Bindi tells me something important about Willa. This is part of her repertoire. This is what she will do when her stress bucket is overflowing. I need to know this and believe it, not tell myself pretty little lies about how any of this is anyone else’s fault: not Bindi’s for starting it, not mine for failing to demonstrate adequate leadership. This isn’t an alpha thing or a training thing. It’s a Willa thing. I need to stare that reality in the face and accept it.

*

A feral honeybee swarm is cleaning out our uninhabited beehive. I hope they choose to stay and make it their home. I watch them every day, looking to see if workers are entering with full pollen baskets. Pollen going in means the queen is laying: it’s home. So far no pollen, but I keep watching. I looked up from the hive to see a bald eagle circling over the lower pond. Largemouth bass easily 18 inches long patrol the pond, and I swear they swim over to greet me when I walk past. Either that or they’re hungry. I’ve heard largemouth bass will eat anything. The snapping turtle is new this year, and drifts around like a nefarious pool float. The eagle hasn’t swooped down for a snack, but turkey vultures, a broad-winged hawk, and the ravens from next door visit regularly.

I dug up a perennial that got bulldozed during driveway construction and somehow managed to hang on and even bloom, despite being ingloriously shoved aside by heavy equipment. Digging that plant, I happened upon a huge garter snake – triple the thickness of a more typical sized member of that species. Right before the fight erupted, I was standing in a clearing listening to a baby barred owl whistle. I have taken to slipping outside to just stand in the driveway in the early morning. I just stand there, camera in hand. The wildlife comes out from every nook and cranny. I just have to be patient and pay attention.

*

This life. It isn’t a pleasant evening paddle on a mirror lake. It’s getting swamped upstream in a headwind and losing your gear in November. It’s class five rapids and your helmet doesn’t fit right. It’s zip lining, bungee jumping, sky diving for the acrophobic. Five dogs, an unfinished house, and a chronic, untreatable illness … it’s a lot.

The day after the fight, I’m sore in a collection of muscles and joints I didn’t know I’d used or abused. I feel like I was in a car accident. Maybe just a fender bender but I’m banged up and bruised nonetheless. I can only imagine how the dogs feel.

Today will bring choices and decisions, same as any other day. I’ll do my best to face those decisions head on and make the best choices I can. It would be easy to hand-wring and catastrophize. It would be equally easy to shrug off the fight as an outlying event – an anomaly. My goal is to walk the middle path, and respond to what is, instead of reacting to what I hope or fear. It’s a tall order and I’m a short person, but needs must.

 

Posted in Catskilliana, the woof pack, writer's life | 2 Comments