Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Days of Our Lives

I once read a story to my children that changed the way I think about my life. The story was about a boy who was bored with his task of keeping his father’s sheep. One day, he met a stranger who gave him a spool of magic string that, when pulled, would make time pass quickly and fast forward him into the future. The stranger cautioned him to use the string very wisely. At first, the boy pulled only a little string from the spool—enough to make the tedious workday pass. But as time went on, he used it more and more frequently to avoid anything unpleasant or dull. After some time, he realized he didn’t want to wait to grow up, so he pulled a longer piece of string and became an instant adult. Still not satisfied, he was impatient to marry, have children and—when they proved to be bothersome and fussy—wish them grown, too. Before he knew it, he was an old man, his life was over, and there was no way to wind the magic string back onto the spool.

One man who greatly impacted my view of life is my gynecologist. I was in to see him for a routine physical several years ago and, as he was winding down his peptalk on the virtues of exercise, he paused to ask how I was doing in general. He wanted to know how things were going with my eyes and I immediately began to cry. He handed me a Kleenex, accustomed to this sort of behavior in his presence, and suggested I seek a second opinion no matter where I had to go to get it. He said, “Sometimes, life just sucks. But this is the hand you were dealt and you need to figure out how you’re going to play it. You don’t get another chance.”

Just for a minute, let’s put all talk of heaven and eternity aside. Focus with me on this one life we’ve been given: This one trip, one ride, one journey. We might not be happy with what we see in our hand. We might say, “This is not what I signed up for! I don’t want chronic health problems! I didn’t ask for a disability/divorce/depression/abuse…“ (fill in the blank with anything and everything you think is wrong with your life.) But when all is said and done, you know what? It is yours. And it’s the only one you’re going to get.

A certain peace comes with this revelation. Because once you take an honest assessment of what you have, only then can you began to work with what is there. Now you are free from having to sit around and grumble about what is wrong and how everyone else got a better deal than you did. This one is yours—no one else’s. And you can’t switch places with your sister or your friend or anyone on American Idol. You’re stuck.

Okay. So, this is my life. Now what? Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is the thought, “If this is the only life I am going to get, I want to be sure to do all I can to make it the best it can be—and not waste any of it.”

That means sitting in the dentist chair waiting for a root canal: You know the dentist is in the next room sharpening (or dulling) his drill bits. His perky assistant has you trapped in a chair where your head is lower than your heart and you can feel it beating in your eyebrows. That can’t be good. Your mouth is as dry as cotton and you are so nervous your skin aches. You just wish this day were over. Or do you?

You are standing in line at the grocery store. There are 13 carts ahead of yours and all the checkouts are the same. You wait, reading tabloid headings about celebrities who give birth to aliens, and watch a toddlers have a complete and total meltdown when her mother extracts a soggy bag of M&Ms from her little hands. You watch the clock fearing you will be late to pick up your child from school and be labeled One of Those Moms. Finally, you are second in the queue at the register only to discover that, once again, you have managed to pick the worst register in the store. The woman ahead of you needs a price check on a vegetable the clerk didn’t know that God invented yet. To make matters worse, you recognize her as the crabby one who always yells at you for filling in your own check blanks, “I TOLD YOU THE MACHINE DOES IT FOR YOU,” which makes you even more determined to write it yourself. You glance frantically behind you but a dozen new shoppers block your escape. You wish you had a magic string to pull to get you out of this horrible line. Or do you?

You are sitting on the freeway in gridlock traffic. It is a sweltering day and your air conditioner is not working. You roll down the windows, but there is no air outside either. There are children in the backseat fighting and spitting at each other, repeatedly kicking your kidneys through the paper-thin seats. Someone spills a drink. Someone else has to go potty. NOW.

I can think of a million places I’d rather be than in a counselor’s office with my teenager, on a hospital gurney, a crowded elevator with people who smell like garlic and sweat, stuck at the top of a swinging Ferris wheel, in Target with a tantruming toddler, or driving alongside a motorist who is waving at me with hostile hand gestures. But these ARE the days of my life every bit as much as the days at the lake, having lunch with friends, or sipping coffee with my hubby on the back porch. And to wallow in self-pity whenever things are hard or to wish them away is to waste the life I’ve been given. And I won’t get another one.

Am I saying that God cannot/does not redeem us? Of course not. I truly believe that the best is yet to come when we surrender our lives to the One who holds Time in his hands! I am simply saying that whining and wishing things were different never got anyone anywhere. I am trying to teach myself to enjoy the journey—find something in each day and each situation to be thankful for or humor in. Let’s make it a personal challenge not to waste this day we have, the gift we call the Present.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Standard Measurements

Have you ever paid attention to how you categorize people? I tend to think of someone as a compulsive, neat freak if they clean more than I do. If they clean less, they are slobs. If they spend a lot of money on clothes or physical appearance—they’re shallow trendsetters; if they don’t, they might be dowdy. I inwardly rate others on everything from verbal skills, cooking ability, parenting style, the condition of their lawns, the behavior of their pets, and the length of their fingernails. I have recently scrutinizedwhat I am using as a measuring tool when I make these mental comparisons and was surprised to find they all have something in common: The common denominator is me. I have made myself the standard.

"For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise."
2 Corinthians 10:12

The problem with defining and categorizing others’ actions and behavior based on what I do, or would do, in any given situation is that nobody died and put me in charge. I never heard a voice from heaven say, “Dawn is perfect. Copy her. Think like she does.”

I once heard the story of two men describing an animal they had never seen before. The first said, “It is very big. It has thick legs, no eyes, and a tiny skinny nose.” The second disagreed; “No! It has large ears, pointy teeth, and a long nose.” They were both looking at the same elephant—describing it from two different angles.

One of my least favorite activities has always been assembling jigsaw puzzles. I get overwhelmed just dumping the box on the table with all the jumble of color and similar shapes. I rush to preserve the few pieces that come connected from the factory—a bit of a jumpstart—yay! As I sort pieces into color, I become discouraged how ALIKE they all appear and I get angry when one that seems like it ought to fit in a certain place won’t.

People who make puzzles do something smart. They put a picture of the finished puzzle on the front of the box so the assemblers know what the finished product is supposed to look like. It is there as a guide.

If we look at our community/church life as one big jigsaw puzzle, we each find we are really working on our own little area of a much larger puzzle. We gather pieces with colors that we think will complete our one section and focus on getting that right. I am working on a section with a fence, so I’m convinced we’re making a picture of a pasture. You’re working on some clouds so you insist we’re doing a picture of the sky. We don’t really see the parts that others are focusing on until the puzzle gets close to completion. Then the excitement builds as we begin to see it coming together: Only a few more pieces! Is this one of yours? Will it fit here and connect both our sections together? It will! It isn’t a picture of a pasture or a sky—it’s a beach scene!

Our limited perspective is what makes comparisons between people break down. If I measure you by what I see in my own life, I am not allowing you to be unique by design. I do not hold the cover of the box. I don’t have the blueprint. We don’t all have to be the same but we do have to fit together. And in the end, from a heavenly vantage point, we will see what the Creator has been planning all along—a beautiful mural of his Bride, without spot or wrinkle (or warped pieces that were forced by impatient hands into the wrong place.)

Oh, to look in the mirror every day and declare to myself, “You are not the standard!” How refreshing that would be for my own ears and to all those with whom I come in contact!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth

Long before the invention of Wii, Xbox, or PS3; before PCs and Blackberries, cell phones and iPods—even before plasma TVs and movies-on-demand, kids in my neighborhood knew how to have fun.

Life in the 60s was slower: Phones had rotary dials on them and if the number you were dialing had a lot of zeros, it took a while to call your friends. Then again, you might have shared a party line with your neighbors and had to wait for the phone to even be available. Music at our house was made on a portable stereo that played vinyl record albums. (Records look like CDs only bigger and black.) I sat for hours listening to my parents old LPs—Johnny Cash singing, “I Fell into a Burning Ring of Fire,” or Roger Miller’s uplifting lyrics: “Dang me, Dang me--I oughta take a rope and hang me...

Since summer lasted so long, kids looked for activities that took a while. One of my favorite things to do was read. I read every chance I got, beginning with the cereal boxes I corralled around me as I ate breakfast, to the back of the Kotex box (what was that?) in the bathroom, the Sunday Funnies, Dear Abby, and every publication I could get my hands on. If I couldn’t check out a library book (in the summer, the school library was closed) I’d reread the few I already owned such as Lad, a Dog, and Black Beauty. And, on the hottest days of summer, you could find any number of kids sprawled on the cool floor of Borg Drug, reading comic books from the magazine display for free.

When I wasn’t reading, I was writing. I wrote stories and screenplays in my head and sometimes on paper. I spent hours illustrating my own work with pencil and ink and watercolors. But as rich as my inner life was, nothing compared to seeing a dream come to life—and no summer was complete without at least one major theatrical production.

The summer I was 11, I wrote, directed, and starred in a murder mystery. (I forget the storyline but it was something about jewels and a bank robbery.) You might think this was a lot for one kid but, being the oldest in a neighborhood swarming with children, I became good at motivating and recruiting. I chose all my supporting cast and distributed their scripts, all hand-copied by yours truly. (I became understandably upset if they lost their scripts—oh, for a printing press of my own!) I convinced all the children in the neighborhood to clean out the Koefod’s garage so we could hold our play inside. We hung blankets for curtains and collected lawn chairs from surrounding yards so the audience would have somewhere to sit. I deployed some of the younger kids to downtown businesses to collect paper sacks we could fill with popcorn and sell. (Note: If you use an electric popcorn popper outside while standing barefoot on wet grass you WILL get a shock.) Others entreated their moms to make bars or lemonade—also to be sold as concessions. Then, a few of the kind parents who had donated all the goodies and accessories graciously came to our production, bought tickets and paid to eat the food they’d made. Our profits that day totaled nearly $12, which we donated to UNICEF.

Most summers, we tried to have a circus. I say “tried” because things never came out exactly as I pictured them in my mind. I envisioned our entire backyard outlined in rope and draped with blankets like a real circus tent (minus the roof.) But no matter how much I begged and borrowed, we couldn’t come up with enough blankets that adults were willing to permit outside. I imagined colorful costumes and organ music and, well….live elephants. And then the fighting and the complaining I had to contend with! I asked Vickie to be the Ringmaster because I knew I would be preoccupied with my Dog Act and my Juggling Performance, which I had yet to master with more than two objects. It seemed EVERYONE wanted to be the Ringmaster.

“But we need CLOWNS, people!” I reminded them. “What is a circus without CLOWNS!? Plus you get to wear real make-up!” I made a mental note to myself to see if I could borrow some rouge and eyeliner from my Gram. (I was still plagued with what to do about costumes since my sewing skills were limited to whatever could be secured with staples and scotch tape.)

I had Fritz up on the picnic table and was trying to teach him to dance on his hind legs. He was itchy in his costume and kept snatching treats from my hand when I was distracted. Renee and Brenda were pouting about having to be clowns. I told Vonnie she could be a man-eating tiger but she was sitting on the ground with her pillow, sucking her thumb—clearly succumbing to her afternoon nap—the antithesis of anything wild. Brian was feeling disagreeable about the whole affair and ran around pulling down the few blankets I had managed to secure, laughing maniacally. I couldn’t believe Barnum and Bailey had it this hard!

“Could somebody find me an extension cord,” I yelled, brushing sweaty bangs from my eyes. I had the record player all set up, ready to add some ambiance to our production, even if it had to be Country Western. The yard was in total chaos. Everyone was doing their own thing. Exasperated, I called the whole group together for an emergency meeting.

“What is it that you want to do?” I asked with weary resignation as I slumped down on the grass.

One by one, they told me. We ended up with several Ringmasters, some acrobats who performed semi-daring moves on the swingset, a costume-less dog act, a weak juggling act, and a few nearly believable clowns. It wasn’t exactly a three ring circus; more like a six ring free-for-all where everyone focused on their own act and forgot to watch everyone else’s. Plus we still had all the blankets and props to return. I discovered a life of Show Biz mostly felt a whole lot like work. Let’s just say I was one child who was never tempted to run away and join the circus.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Food, Glorious Food!

I come from a long line of finicky eaters. My Gram told me about how, when my dad was a baby, she worried herself sick because all he ate for a solid week was oatmeal. And when she was a little girl she was so fussy she would hold her bread up to the light hoping to find a speck in it so she could refuse to eat it. So why was anyone surprised when I balked at the dinner table?

I remember sitting for an eternity at a deserted table staring at a plate of stone cold liver and fried cabbage: Organ meat and a vegetable that smells like dirty socks. Sometimes I could slip little pieces of the liver to my dog under the table, but what do you do with a vegetable that the dog licks and walks away from? Feeding Fritz was risky at best. Then my parents came up with the brilliant idea of offering my sister and I a spoonful of Cod Liver Oil in place of our unfinished dinner. Cod Liver Oil, for the uneducated, is just what it sounds like; the oil from a codfish’s liver. It is fishy, and livery, and oily and you taste it for days. Having to choose between eating liver or drinking the oil from the liver of a fish is like being asked if you’d like to die by fire or drowning.

I got artistic with my food, cutting it into small pieces and rearranging it on the plate. I hoped it would look like some of it had been eaten. I also tried stuffing my mouth and then excusing myself to the bathroom to spit in the toilet. However, it is hard to excuse yourself with a stuffed mouth and not appear guilty.

Part of the problem was that I was never really hungry. I pictured myself as someone who could Live Off the Land and had numerous hidden resources. Endowed with a mere smattering of genuine Iroquois Indian blood, I knew how to provide for myself. I learned to whittle very sharp arrows from skinny branches and fashioned working bows to launch them from. The homemade arrows could travel an impressive distance, albeit inaccurately, but I practiced tirelessly in case I ever ran across any unsuspecting game. My stomach rarely complained as I was cunning enough to find sustenance from the bounty of Mother Nature, snacking all day long like a vagabond beggar.

I began first thing in the morning. Right after my own breakfast of Raisin Bran and orange juice, I’d head over to the Barry’s next door. Their clan of five always tumbled out of the house around 9 AM, still in their jammies, carrying the most tantalizing food of all—peanut butter toast. And not just any peanut butter toast either. This was undercooked toast, more like warmed bread; spread first with butter, then peanut butter. Drooling, I would watch them eat, lick the dripping peanut butter from their fingers and beg for just one bite. No toast at my house ever tasted like toast on the neighbor’s back step.

On the other side of our house lived an old widow, Mrs. Nelson. Early in the day we children would conspire what time was best to approach her door as we knew it would be impolite to go too often. All we had to do was knock and wait on her step, smiling. She was quite hard of hearing so we had to knock a few times, and loudly. Eventually she came to the door to greet us. I don’t remember that she spoke English. She’d say something in Norwegian, smile at us, and disappear only to return minutes later with a single lemon drop for each of us. We’d pop the candy in our mouths, wave, and be on our way. Every day was like Halloween with this nice lady next door.

My grandpa was always good for a handout, too. Mid-morning, my sister and I would pedal our bikes down to the Equity station where he worked, pumping gas and washing windshields. On a good day, he’d notice it was coffee time and would take us to the City Restaurant across the street. We’d shinny up the high stools at the lunch counter and watch him slurp his hot coffee from a saucer while we drank bottles of orange pop so fast we got fizzy mustaches and could belch impressively. Then we’d spin on the stools until we were dizzy and Grandpa said it was time for him to go back to work. Some days, he was too busy at the station to go to coffee. When we looked sad, he’d reach into his gray work pants and pull out an oblong rubbery coin holder with a slit that opened when you squeezed the ends. He’d hand us “two bits” and tell us, “Don’t spend it all in one place.” Grandpa was full of sayings like that which made no sense to a kid.

When the noon whistle blew, I knew enough to be home for lunch—which I also picked at half-heartedly before I’d rush back outside for an afternoon of foraging. I stuffed myself on green apples, unwashed carrots plucked straight from the garden, wild plums, and some kind of seedy green berries that must not have been poisonous because I’m still alive to tell you about it. Mid-afternoon, it was time for Renee and me to visit our Gram. If she was at home, she’d let us raid her copper cookie jar, “Have all you want!” And there was always the red glass candy dish that sat dead center on her oak coffee table. Year around it was filled with all our favorite candy and we could eat as much as we wanted. And we wanted a lot.

If it was a day that Gram was filling in at the Ashby Federal Credit Union, so much the better. First, we’d keep her company between customers by helping her type on the old manual typewriter. She gave us carbon paper so she could keep a copy of our work and we had one to take home. Before long, she’d pull out her purse and suggest we go get ourselves a treat. We’d act all surprised like the thought had never occurred to us then skip off to Buddy’s or Capper’s and debate what to get. Renee liked candy that lasted a long time.My favorite was a little box of pretzel sticks that cost a nickel—I wanted to get the most for my money. Sometimes, we put up our whole quarter for a paper sack of bing cherries. Then we’d sit on the Credit Union steps under the big cloth awning eating cherries and spitting the pits into the street.

Before we knew it, it was suppertime again [sigh]. My folks did all they could to coax me to eat. They tried calling ordinary beef stew “Daniel Boone Stew.” I’d picture myself sitting on a sparse wooden bench beside a fire eating from a tin plate. I’d even hum a few bars of “Daniel Boone was a man, was a b-i-i-i-g man…” But even my vivid imagination didn’t help when I got to the carrots. I would chew and chew and chew and the carrots would grow and grow and grow inside my mouth. Why did they taste better raw with a bit of dirt still on them?

As the years passed, I overcame my aversion to conventional meals. In fact, I grew extremely fond of food and there is very little that I will not eat—even without the imminent threat of Cod Liver Oil. I’ve spent much of the past three decades honing my cooking skills and feeding others. As I’ve gone along, I’ve noticed something: People like people who feed them. I have also come to realize that Food is my Love Language. If I was at your house five years ago, I could tell you what you fed me. If you were at my house five years ago, I could tell you what you took seconds on and what you passed up so I’d know what to make for you the next time you come over. I watch cooking shows and read cooking magazines. I view dining out as a Spy Mission. I analyze what I am eating to see if I can make the same thing at home. With all this interest in food and eating, it was only natural that I would seek a profession in which I could use my gifts. I am happy to report that, at the tender age of 45, I found my life’s calling: I became The School Lunch Lady.

These past three years I’ve been able to combine my love of kids with my love of feeding people and it’s truly a match made in heaven. Every day I get to feed dozens of kids and I never make them clean their plates. I don't threaten them or even make them try a bite of everything. (I figure that is what their parents are for.) I give them seconds on anything they like and applaud those who return for veggies. I cheer when they drink their milk. They hug me when they see me in the hallways.

I was recently reminded of the time when Jesus miraculously fed the 5,000 with two small fish and five loaves of barley bread. People flocked after him because he fed them. (What did I tell you?) But Jesus later said harder things to swallow like, “I am the bread of life,” and “Take, eat—this is my body which is broken for you.”

Jesus didn’t come just to fill people’s stomachs and make them feel good for a moment. He is able to make much out of what little we offer to him—multiplying it so it’s pressed down, shaken together, and running over when it comes back again. But better yet, he came to give HIMSELF to satisfy an appetite we didn’t know we had—a hunger for some meaning in life outside our own day-to-day scavenging for significance. He has prepared a table for us…no gimmicks, no bait and switch, no distasteful surprises. He’s promised Goodness and Mercy to follow us all the days of our lives. Where is my fork? Let's eat!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Good-Bye, Kitty

I've heard it said,“A grief shared is divided.” I have found that is not always the case.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been partial to Siamese cats. So when my friend, Cheri Balgaard told me that theirs had had kittens, and they wanted me to choose one, I was thrilled. These were not purebred cats with papers. They were pets—the mother a modest homebody who gave birth to her litter in the garage and the father, a carefree vagabond with who-knows-how-many illegitimate offspring populating the county. The kittens were mostly white, as all Siamese babies are, with the hint of colored points to come and brilliant sky-blue eyes.

These were growing years for our family when a pet was just expected to fit in without a lot of fanfare. Our two oldest were perched on the edge of adolescence, and only mildly interested in the new kitten. Our 7 year-old son was preoccupied with our two rambunctious German shepherd puppies who matched his own exuberance for life. But our youngest, just five, was completely smitten with the new docile infant. Stephanie toted Abbie around for hours like a living baby doll, dressing her in bonnets and bibs and cramming her into doll strollers and high chairs. I have never seen such a compliant cat, which not only submitted willingly, but actually sought out the doll crib for naps.

Abbie made several moves with us from the family farmhouse to the big city of Philadelphia and back again to the shores of Clear Lake in Minnesota. She took infrequent forays into the great outdoors, preferring the indoor climate, lying on the back of the couch, looking out the window. At night, she slept at the foot of our beds. She hardly ever talked except the one-syllable question, “Prrrrow?” when we would come upon her napping. But she communicated volumes with her eyes—quiet composure and dignity were her hallmarks.

When Abbie was four years old, we added a new member to our human family. Victoria learned to walk chasing after Abbie. One of her first words was “kitty.” Just at the time when Stephanie was getting busier with her life outside the family, Victoria was prepared to play all the same games with a cat that her sister was outgrowing. Out came the doll bonnets and newborn sleepers, and the dreaded doll stroller for another round of Playing House. She would carry Abbie around on her hip and Abbie would ride like a toddler, with her “arms” hanging onto this skinny little “mommy.” On several occasions, she was very nearly loved to death. Why this cat was so trusting was beyond me! My husband Ron often said, “If ever there was a cat worth it’s weight in gold, it’s Abbie.”

One day, when Victoria was about three I heard a crash and looked up from my computer to see my disheveled daughter run up the stairs yelling, “Did anyone see a wet cat run by here?” We found Abbie hiding under a bed, completely drenched in Soft Soap. That day, she got cleaned inside and out.

Abbie’s favorite treat was to lick the leftover milk at the bottom of cereal bowls. She always used her litter box, never climbed on the counters when anyone was looking, and felt embarrassed whenever she’d hock up the occasional hairball. She was affectionate without being demanding. She stared into space a lot, thinking deep thoughts, I’m sure. Even the arrival of a grandson three years ago did not ruffle her composure. A few times, Cohen dragged her off the couch by her tail, but she would always climb back up and rub her head against his chin in a loving and forgiving way. She didn’t run and hide, but seemed to welcome his attention, even when he got rough.

When Abbie started drinking a lot of water last summer, we brought her in for an exam. A simple blood test showed that Abbie had only 25% of her kidney function left—not uncommon for a cat of nearly 16 years. There is no treatment or cure for feline kidney disease. The vet told us what symptoms to watch for and gave us a prescription diet to feed our cat. We hoped for the best.

In September, we gave Victoria a new kitten for her 11th birthday. It was a Ragdoll she named Mimzy. The newcomer seemed to perk Abbie up a bit—if for no other reason than Abbie’s own self-preservation. Mimzy would attack Abbie’s tail, eat food that didn’t belong to her, stalk Abbie endlessly as the older cat tried to ignore her. But moments later we would see them snuggling together, cleaning each others' faces, both in full purr. It was a good decision.

Stephanie left for college in the fall but would come home weekends and look for her cat right away. Victoria burst in the door every afternoon from school and scooped Abbie up for a mutual hug. I, myself, was sick with a serious virus through much of the winter. I spent weeks at home, feverish on the couch, with Abbie for company. I noticed she slept a lot, sometimes in my lap, sometimes a companionable distance away on the back of the couch. Though she never got gray, she was looking old and moving slower.

Recently, Abbie began throwing up. She lost weight and seemed listless. I brought her in to the vet twice last week for IV treatments to regenerate the fluids she was losing through her poorly functioning kidneys. One night Ron saw her fall trying to jump to her place at the foot of our bed. He bent down and lifted her up himself. Yesterday, she fell trying to get into the litter box and I knew it was time. She was almost too weak to stand and had stopped eating.

I pulled Victoria out of school yesterday afternoon. She and I spent a couple of hours sitting on the couch, petting Abbie, talking and crying. Ron left work early and I picked out a soft fleece baby blanket to wrap Abbie in for her last car ride. She was quiet in the car, cradled in Victoria’s arms as the tears streamed down Victoria’s face on to her soft, dark head.

“Can cats cry?” Victoria asked me, her voice catching in her throat.

“I don’t think so, honey,” I replied. Then, tentatively, “Why?”

I turned and looked and it sure seemed as though a long wet tear was running down Abbie’s furry cheek. I took a Kleenex and wiped her face. We waited in the car while Ron went in to take care of the business side of our trip. He came to get us when the vet was ready. I carried the nearly weightless bundle in to the office, my throat all but closed with emotion. Victoria was openly weeping as the vet explained what she would do and asked if Victoria preferred to stay or go.

“I’ll go,” Victoria decided. She reached her arms out for Abbie and I gently transferred the cat to her. As I did, Abbie stretched out her “arms” and put one on either side of Victoria’s neck—the same way they’d hugged for years. Abbie looked right into Victoria’s eyes and rubbed her head against Victoria’s chin.

“Look how she loves you,” the vet said softly. Victoria showered Abbie with more kisses and tears before she handed her back to me and left the room with her Dad.

The kind veterinarian’s eyes were brimming with tears and her voice faltered as she spoke. “I know how hard this is for you. You don’t have just your own grief to deal with but your daughter’s too. I’m so sorry. Abbie’s had a long life—a good life. I can see how much she was loved.”

She helped me spread out Abbie’s blanket on the exam table and lay Abbie on her left side. Abbie was too weak to stand or even protest. The vet instructed me how to hold her and told me what she and her assistant would be doing and what to expect. I put my face right against Abbie’s, one hand wrapped in the plush fur along her neck, the other stroking her thin side. I didn’t watch as they inserted the needle into the vein. I talked to our kitty as soothingly as I could, adding my tears to Victoria’s on the already damp fur. In seconds, I felt Abbie totally relax. The vet took out her stethoscope and listened for a few moments. She looked at me and nodded. That’s when I fell apart. One moment, something is alive and breathing. The next—still and lifeless. I will never get over the sensation I feel when faced with that kind of finality. It is so other-worldly, so beyond my understanding.

Ron brought Victoria back in and the vet and her assistant left us to have a few moments with our friend. Abbie's body was warm and soft—so much like her still. I stroked her tiny ears and her tail that she no longer twitched away from me. We lifted her limp body up and swaddled it one last time in the baby blanket. Victoria and I kissed her soft head and we left. When the ground thaws, Ron will build a box and we’ll return for her body so we can bury her in the backyard by her favorite bush.

Grieving is such a personal experience. All of us feel and express sadness differently. Even though I felt much sadder because of my daughter’s grief yesterday, I am glad we shared it together. We spent a lot of time talking about life and death, about appreciating what we have in our lives while we have it and not taking anything for granted. I told Victoria I was proud of her for being willing to face her own sadness to bring comfort to her kitty. It is a lesson adults struggle with; not being too proud to cry, not being too afraid of emotion to express it. Victoria did the hard thing. She did the brave thing.
How we do our children a disservice to shelter them from the harsh realities of life! Our culture protects people—especially children—from suffering and death and then we somehow expect them to grow into empathetic, compassionate adults. It’s great if you want to get your child that new kitten or puppy! But let pet ownership be a lesson about life: Life is a package of happy and sad, pleasure and responsibility, laughter and tears. Life is not all about the Fun Hellos. It is also about the Sad Good-byes. And you can begin to learn this from something as simple as a cat.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Puppy Love

It wasn’t fair! Nine months of school and, the first week of vacation, what did they make kids do? Spend the whole day inside a church at more school—Vacation Bible School.

Every summer as I sat in the stuffy church classroom, I could hear the birds outside and see the green branches of trees beckoning to me through the window. There was so much I wanted to be doing out there. But I was stuck indoors, doing Organized Crafts (which are projects with specific instructions and precise outcomes that allow for zero imagination.) I hated craft time and showed it by my lack of effort or frugality with glue. There was also a Bible lesson, which I daydreamed through; Music, that was slightly more bearable than Sunday school because someone played a guitar; and Snack Time (bars and Kool-Aid)—the one thing that made the experience tolerable.

I slumped into VBS the summer after third grade, fully expecting a repeat of every year past. My teacher seemed nice enough—she was a grown-up college girl named Anita Albertson. She was pretty and smiled at each of us as we came in. I sat down and looked around at the other students—the same kids who had just finished third grade with me. And then I noticed him: A new boy. I sat up straighter in my chair.

The new boy had a shock of orange hair, a sprinkling of freckles, and long, strawberry blond eyelashes. I was immediately smitten. Anita introduced him to us as Rodney Gordon. I did nothing all morning but stare at Rodney Gordon—all through singing, crafts, Bible lesson and snack time. I had never, in all my nine years, seen anything as adorable as this red-haired boy.

At noon we took our sack lunches outside to eat on the lawn and long cement steps of Pelican Lake Lutheran Church. I managed to find a spot next to Rodney and began unpacking my lunch. Normally I would have tried to locate Judy Ness to try and swap my Bologna on Wonder Bread for her Cheez Whiz on Homemade Bread, but I was not interested in lunch today. I starting talking with Rodney and found him to be as charming as he was cute. We played together during recess, sat together for the afternoon session, and were inseparable the rest of the week.

All week, I was the model VBS student. I sang loudly, but not too loudly, at music time. I was conservative with glue and followed instructions at craft time. I raised my hand to answer questions during the Bible lesson. I didn’t shove to get to the head of the line for snacks. I wanted to impress Rodney. Apparently, it worked, because every morning when I arrived, Rodney was waiting for me. He saved me a seat in class and a spot beside him at lunch. Rodney was not my first crush, but he was the first boy who liked me back. The week flew by with lightning speed.

On Friday, I left the house with a heavy heart. I didn’t want the week to end. Rodney lived in the country and went to a different school and I knew I wouldn’t see him again. I dragged my feet along the curb and listened to the music and narration that I often made up in my head—a sort of movie script that commonly accompanied my moments of reflection:

Dawn trudged toward the tall-spired church and sighed. [Cue violin music] She knew she was in love with the Red-Haired Boy and today would be the last time they would be together. “Ah, love! How it made the heart ache,” she thought with deepest sadness.

I got to the church early and hung around outside with the others as we waited for the pastor to unlock the doors. I sat with some of the girls from my class and talk turned immediately to me and Rodney and our Relationship.

“You LIKE him, don’t you!” one of them giggled.

“Yeah? So?” I retorted, acting bolder than I felt.

“You know what we should do,” another added with mounting enthusiasm. “We should play ‘Wedding!’ You can be the bride and Rodney can be the groom!”

Before I could answer, Rodney’s car pulled alongside us and he got out and joined the group. The girls posed the same suggestion to him and he grinned.

“Okay,” he said, smiling shyly at me.

Okay? He wants to marry me? I was flattered beyond words. This beautiful boy liked ME and wanted to MARRY me. This was a dream come true!

I heard more violins in my head.

The morning passed in a blur. Even if I wanted to back out now it was too late. The Wedding Planners had set the wheels in motion and were running with the idea while keeping up the fa├žade that they were actually participating in VBS. Never was a wedding thrown together with such speed!

Right after lunch, we met in the white bandstand in the middle of the park across the street. The bandstand was a large gazebo with benches all around the inside and I had never seen a band play in it before. Kids used it to play in and teenagers had filled the inside walls with interesting (often puzzling) graffiti. Today, a wedding would take place here.

The groom wore a plaid, short-sleeved shirt tucked into Wrangler jeans. The bride wore a pink tank top, matching shorts, and flip-flops.

Someone provided me with a wilting bouquet of dandelions. They gave Rodney a plastic ring from a gumball machine. Rodney held my skinny hand in his bigger, sweaty one. I was aware of how sticky my fingers were, and brown from the flowers. Tracy, the tallest boy in our class, was chosen to be the minister. He did a clumsy, abbreviated version of wedding vows and we repeated after him, giggling nervously. Then he said, “You may kiss the bride.”

I blushed as Rodney leaned over and brushed his lips against my hot cheek. The congregation cheered. The wedding was over. Most of the kids dispersed then, to enjoy what was left of the noon hour. Rodney and I sat on the edge of the bandstand wall, feeling awkward after a whole week of comfortable friendship, wondering what to do next:

What do you do after you get married? Climb a tree? Swing? Play catch?

Just then some older girls—much older, maybe sixth graders—approached us having heard they missed a major event.

“Kiss her again,” they told Rodney. Rodney, the little Romeo, was all game, but I hesitated.

“Come on, we’ll give you a dime,” the girls coaxed. And so he did. I took my hand and wiped the kiss off, frowning suspiciously at the girls.

“Now, you kiss him,” they wheedled, promising ever increasing denominations of money.

I looked at Rodney’s bright blue eyes, smiling encouragingly at me, and hesitantly pecked his salty, freckled cheek. The onlookers were delighted and the crowd around the bandstand began to grow and get rowdier.

“Again, again!” the spectators shouted.

I felt dizzy. Rodney was beaming, clearly enjoying the attention from the audience and the affection of his bride. I looked at the gathering throng and felt a stab of self-consciousness:

They aren’t laughing with you…they’re laughing AT you!

Just then the church bells rang, signaling the end of recess. I pulled my hand out of Rodney’s and made a mad dash for the classroom, tossing the plastic ring in the grass as I went. I sat all afternoon with my head in my arms on the table in front of me. I avoided Rodney’s gaze and attempts to smile at me. I didn’t raise my hand during the lesson. I didn’t care if the Israelites ever made it to Canaan. I didn’t eat the afternoon snack. I felt like everyone in the class was mocking me, laughing at me, and I couldn’t bear to be made fun of. The air in the room was so thick I could barely breathe around the growing lump in my throat.

As soon as the bell rang at 3 o’clock, I was out the door and down the steps, sprinting for home. I did not stop for my finished crafts, neat and perfect with just the right amount of glue. I did not go into my house. I headed straight for my own backyard, behind the garage, into the row of elderly lilac bushes where I had previously carved out a cave-like fort for myself. Safely inside, away from prying eyes, I hugged my knees to my chest, buried my face in my arms and sobbed. How could a day start with so much promise…and end like this?

I heard a noise and looked up. It was my dog, Fritz, crawling toward me through the bushes on his belly. I drew him close and buried my face against his wire-haired head. He sat there, indulgently allowing himself to be drenched in snot and tears, turning only to lick the flowing stream off my sweaty face. I cried until there were no more tears, then crawled back out to face the real world.

I knew I’d never see the money those older girls had promised and I felt angry with them. I had to find Renee before she told Mom what had happened. Life with a broken heart was hard: It would be months before I liked another boy.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Doctor is IN

I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up. I wanted to fix broken animals. Some of them I rescued; others I broke myself.
Throughout my childhood, I maintained an impressive collection of captive creatures. I hoarded fruit jars, Miracle Whip jars, and peanut butter jars like a miser. I was recycling before the word was invented. All I needed was a screwdriver and a hammer to make breathing holes in the jar lids and I was ready to add to my zoo. I spent long hours wading through the tall grass of the field behind our house catching iridescent dragonflies, tobacco spitting grasshoppers, crickets, ants, caterpillars, and moths. Other makeshift containers held frogs, toads, salamanders, and the occasional baby turtle. My best discovery was a swarm of tiny bullheads I literally walked into one day while wading knee-deep in a stream that ran under a bridge just outside town. This school of undesirables lasted for weeks in a fishbowl next to my bed eating nothing but dead flies. I made it my business to learn all I could about my beloved pets—how they moved, what they ate, how they interacted with one another. And more often than not, they died in captivity—a great sorrow to me. It was no wonder I was drawn to the healing profession.
One of my earliest patients was a Monarch butterfly. I was fascinated by butterflies—especially this species—that came in my favorite color: Orange. I followed them from flower to flower, impressed with the tongues that they could curl up against their bodies and unfurl to drink nectar. I had examined plenty of dead butterflies that I had extracted from grills of cars or on the sidewalks, but they were disappointingly battered and lifeless. Not at all the fairy bits of vibrance that flitted about our yard all summer long. One day, after loitering by a lilac bush observing the pollination process, I couldn’t resist the urge to hold a living butterfly in my hands. I caught one by the wings between my thumb and forefinger and held it aloft as it waved its spindly legs helplessly in the air. Its velvety black body, speckled with white, was breathtaking. And those wings—thin as tissue paper and…why were my fingers orange? Stricken, I realized I had damaged the creature’s wings.
I later learned that butterfly wings are covered with fine scales that come off on your hands like powder. But in my young mind that day, powder was powder and I knew just where to find some to replace what I had accidentally removed. I carried the butterfly into the bathroom and set it on the edge of the sink. It was a little tipsy and listed to one side with a single misshapen leg—something I hadn’t noticed before. First things first: I got one of the tiniest pinkie Band-Aids out of the box in the medicine cabinet and carefully wrapped it around the butterfly’s broken leg as it kicked and struggled—unaware help was at hand. I took a container of baby powder from a shelf behind the toilet and shook some onto my hand before carefully rubbing it onto the butterfly’s wings.
My patient didn’t seem to perk up much as it teetered there dejectedly; white as a ghost and weighed down by a bandaged leg. I cast my eyes about, looking for some way to cheer the poor dear up. I caught sight of a bar of Dove soap, stationed next to the faucet. Inspired, I stopped the drain and filled the sink with cold water. Then I set the butterfly onto the soap and couldn’t help but smile at my own genius. What could be more fun than a soap boat ride? Too bad they don’t make life jackets for butterflies. My first patient, who had no sea legs apparently, drowned.
Another memorable patient was a victim of domestic violence. I was on my way to my Gram’s house when I spied one of her neighbors outside hacking something on the ground with a garden hoe. Never one to mind my own business, I threw my bike onto the grass by the curb and drew near to investigate. The old man was chopping a garter snake to bits.
“Stop that!” I yelled with all the courage witnessing such carnage could incite. The man looked annoyed with this little girl who was poking her nose into his affairs but he paused in his brutal attack.
“Don’t kill it! Garter snakes eat bugs! What’d he ever do to you? Give it to me,” I pleaded.
With a grunt, he flung the grisly reptile to one side and went back to his weeding. (It should be noted here that I do not have an innate fondness for snakes. Oh sure, I had been known to pick one up on the school playground just to scare the boys, but the truth be told, snakes did make my skin crawl.) As I moved toward it, I wondered if the snake was still alive. It flickered the end of its nearly severed tail and I felt hopeful. Gingerly, I gathered up the snake taking care not to leave behind any of its entrails. I left my bike where it was and went straight to my Gram’s house, trying very hard not to cry.
“Gram—there’s an emergency!!" I called as I marched into her living room with blood all over my hands. "I need Band-Aids, quick!” Relieved to find the blood was not my own, she gave me the entire tin of bandages and shuddered as I left the house. My Gram hated snakes.
Out in the yard, I yanked handfuls of grass from the lawn and used it to line a small cardboard box. Then I set to my grim task; carefully poking the snake’s innards back inside where they belonged, swaddling it in layers of bandages. I knew I was done when I ran out of Band-Aids. I tenderly placed the half-dead snake in the grass-lined recovery box and went in the house for a cold drink. I had done all that could be done. All that was left now was to wait.
When I returned a short time later, horror of horrors, my patient was MISSING! Where had that poor, broken animal gone? How had it managed to drag its vinyl-covered body over the edge of the box? I combed the whole yard on my hands and knees and never did find it. My confidence as a professional was shaken.
I decided what I really needed was my own clinic. Imagine my delight when, one day on a routine tour of the back alleys of the local businesses, I was lucky enough to discover a large cardboard box that had once held a refrigerator. I decided THIS would make a perfect clinic. I dragged it back to my Gram’s and set to work with a serrated knife, cutting windows with working shutters, and stating my intentions in indelible ink: The Doctor is IN.
I felt it was time for me to specialize and so I began with what I did best: removing wood ticks from dogs. Gram had replenished her supply of Band-Aids, (thankfully) and I supplied my cardboard clinic with the new, unopened can, some Q-Tips, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. My first patient of the day was our own miniature schnauzer, Fritz. He submitted willingly enough to an all-over body search for parasites. Whenever I found a fat tick, I’d pull it off—taking care to remove the head, and then clean the site with alcohol. Next!
Dogs in those days roamed freely about town, unhampered by a leash law that was never enforced. I managed to coax a few of the friendlier mongrels into my clinic for a free exam. The sun was high in the sky and business was beginning to wane when along came Mike Nelson, a Shepherd/Boxer mix, from across town. I lured him into my box clinic but he seemed to find the close quarters a bit claustrophobic. The first tick I pulled off made him back into the wall, tipping the clinic on end and causing me to spill rubbing alcohol all over both of us. Maybe a clinic was a bit ambitious after all…
One summer evening, just as the sun was setting, I was outside in the yard enjoying a cozy moment with my dad. I was perched on top of our redwood picnic table, which Dad had covered with newspaper, ready to assist with the cleaning of a stringer of sunfish--a procedure that seemed an awful lot like surgery to me. Dad took the first sunny from the pail and laid it flat on the newspaper, securing it with his free hand. I leaned in as he made an incision just above the tail and just below the gills, preparing to fillet the fish. I watched the fish struggle briefly, then stare blankly ahead, working its mouth, desperately trying to breath air.
“Um…Dad? Aren’t you hurting the fish?” I broached.
“Nope. Fish don’t have feelings,” he answered, matter-of-factly, trying to finish his job before dark.
I looked at Dad’s face to see if he was telling the truth. I smacked a mosquito on the back of my neck. Dad kept working. I looked back at the fish. It didn’t look at me. I wished that fish could close their eyes.
Dad removed the skin from each fillet and put them into a pan of cold water to soak, piling the fish heads and guts to one side of his work space. When he was finished, he went around to the side of the house to wash his hands with the garden hose. I drew a thinly encased sack of organs toward me with one tentative finger for closer inspection. I craned my neck to see where Dad was and then deftly took the fillet knife and sliced open the organ sack. A tiny red object smaller than a pea fell into view onto the bloodied paper. It was moving. I leaned closer. It was a beating heart. I dropped the knife, nauseated, and ran into the house. I had nightmares for a week.
Maybe I was not cut out for a life of medicine? Maybe I would buy a horse and become a jockey instead?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Here is a link to one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE blogs written by my daughter, Amy. Check it out:

She's just not that into you food.