You Have One Year…


If you had one year to accomplish your goals, what would you do?

We recently moved to Missouri, and we are only here for about a year (long story).  The plan was that I’d get a part time job, something to help with car payments, or for extra spending money on the weekends.  As soon as the last box of odds and ends was unpacked, I started applying for jobs in the area.  I was feeling motivated and ready to be an employee. Days, then weeks went by with zero responses.  I’d applied for nearly a dozen jobs, and eventually heard back from two, letting me know that “we regret to inform you that at this time we do not have a position available“.  The only people interested in “hiring” me were the scam artists trolling SitterCity, which was incidentally my last resort for respectable work.  It didn’t take long to start feeling demoralized.

I expressed these frustrations to my husband.  It’s not as though I’m uneducated and inexperienced, I lamented.   I have the potential to be good at many different jobs, and doesn’t frickin’ life experience count as something?  I wondered if my husband expected me to “be successful” by earning of money.  Would he suspect that I was just sitting around the house drinking vodka, watching Netflix and writing (which I admittedly do quite religiously) and be disappointed in his unsuccessful wife who couldn’t even land a job as a cashier?

Everything happens for a reason. We are only here for one year.” my husband told me. “Time is already passing.  What do you want to do while we are here?  Decide what you want to do and then do it.  I will support your decision.”

I’d already considered what I really want to accomplish during the next year.  It didn’t really make sense to spend several months searching for a job, only to begin my exit strategy immediately after securing said job.  And, to be honest, I don’t feel as enthusiastic about working part time as I do about writing full time.  I have been looking for the opportunity to focus on my writing.  Funny how life works.  Here we are in a quiet neighborhood.  My kids go to school and give me a long day to write and think.  We have only about nine months left here, and none of my accomplishments have been work-related.  I am happy all the same.

What would you do if given a full year for anything you want?  If you had the time and resources to pursue any interest, goal, relationship, or challenge, would you do it, or would you squander the opportunity?  Take a moment and consider your options.  What about that new hobby you’ve been mulling over; or perhaps you want to revisit a skill from your younger days? Will you find a new friend to accompany you on adventures, or rekindle an old romance?  Will you make time for an exotic trip, or will you turn your home into a lush stay-cation spot?  What about learning a new language or picking up an ethnic cookbook?  Think of all the possibilities. The clock is ticking.



P.S. Besides focusing on writing for the next year, I’ve decided to try to learn German and Italian using the free online program known as Duolingo.  This is either a great idea or completely insane (I will be updating you on it, down’t worry).



Something to Think/Write About

2015-09-10 09.27.32Last night when it was time to read stories before bed, my daughter found a book long hidden in our collection.  I had gone downstairs to tuck her in and when I saw it at the top of her stack, I said “Oh, you found ‘The Librarian of Basra’.  Did you like it?”

She answered, “I loved it!  I am feeling so many emotions from this book right now!”  Wow.  I had never seen her respond to a book like this before. She asked many questions about it, so I promised to find out as much as possible for her about the librarian of Basra.

I hadn’t looked at this book in a long time.  It was discovered in the most unexpected of places, a scratch and dent store in Independence, Missouri.  I was cruising the book section, not really looking for anything at all, and then I found this book.  I stood in the store and read it, not quite believing the great fortune I’d stumbled upon.  Reading the story made me feel connected once again to people I had known and lost — friends on the other side of the world who I never would have met had it not been for a war.  People who did nothing to deserve the wrath that had been raining down on them.

The story is written and illustrated by American author Jeanette Winter, known for creating vibrant true tales about real life heroes in a way that is palatable for younger audiences. This story is about Alia Muhammad Baqer, the chief librarian in Basra, forced to give up her building and livelihood when the governor decides to use it as his new headquarters. Baqer’s courage and tenacity saves around 30,000 rare and valuable books from destruction when the library burns to the ground during the early days of the Iraq war.  Although she cannot save every book, Baqer’s efforts prevent the entire collection from being lost and she becomes a local hero.  At great risk of her own safety, Baqer chooses to rescue knowledge, because as a librarian, she knows how intrinsic books are to the survival of her culture.

American cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty, also depicts Baqer’s story in a graphic black and white comic book format, also child-friendly.  In the reviews section of Stamaty’s book, a reviewer by the name of Judy K Polhemus had this to say:  “As a girl, Alia had read about the Mongol invasion of Iraq and the burning of the Baghdad Library. She equates the burning of a library and its books with the destruction of the culture of her country. Burn a library and you burn a collective recorded memory.  Alia singlehandedly assumes the responsibility… She stuffs her purse and loads her arms under her shawl and walks out, loads her car, returns for another load.  City and military officials who now occupy the library, daring the enemy to bomb their library, pay her no heed.  She fills her car.

Night after night she comes home with a car full of books.  Her husband, bless him, unloads them into a closet, then guest room, then into other rooms.  (I’m a librarian and understand her distress and need to save the books!).  Then neighbors and friends, and those who hear about the effort, and then many other people help rescue the books.  The only books intentionally ignored are those about Saddam Hussein.”

Further research cemented my respect for Baqer, her courage, her passion for books, her legitimate concern that the destruction of the library would mean severe damage to civilization itself.  In Pam McAllister’s blog post Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage, Alia is the featured heroine who rescues a critical piece of her culture in the face of “the war against books”.  Not too difficult to imagine Baqer’s source of courage.  She is a book lover after all, and to her, books are the most important tools for building society.  Knowledge is power.

On women’s history site A Mighty Girl, Winter was asked in an interview how she made her stories, often about heroes in nearly impossible circumstances, accessible to young readers, and whether these stories are even historically valid to these readers.  Winter asserts that her works, especially ‘The Librarian of Basra’ depict stories in an “even-handed” manner, through strong, colorful graphics and easy to understand language, allowing young people to find meaning that they can comprehend.  Winter also states that despite the academic argument that children care little for history, it is possible to cultivate love of learning through “good, accurate story-telling”.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter's 'The Librarian of Basra'.

Illustration of Alia Baqer dreaming of peace and a new library, from Jeanette Winter’s ‘The Librarian of Basra’.

This morning I was well equipped with several sources to back up the story of the Librarian of Basra and give my daughter the information she wanted.  I know that she is a book lover like myself, and she also cares deeply for others, so she would find what my discoveries quite valuable.  We had a nice talk before school.  I showed her a photograph I found of Alia Baqer in 2013, on the tenth anniversary of her mission to save the books.  She is now an old woman, sitting at a desk, working with a large hard cover book.  She looks like she is happy and at peace.  This photograph made my daughter very happy.  It made me happy and sad.  It’s difficult to explain how books and stories can create common bonds from across the globe, but I hope that somehow, Alia Baqer can know that her story inspired a little girl in the United States to be a courageous person.

My daughter asked me about my experience in Iraq.  I showed her my collection of photographs — friends and places once visited and long since left behind.  I told her some of the stories of heroes I met there.  I told her why people were scared of Saddam Hussein, and why the bombs were falling on Basra when the librarian was trying to save all the books.  I explained to her why it is important to save knowledge and tell stories.  She gave me a hug and said “I love you Mom” when she left for school.  I looked at all my books and smiled.



I wrote this post because I was so touched by my daughter’s interest in the story of Alia Baqer.  I have noticed that, as Ms. Winter asserts, children really are fascinated by history.  Effective tools, such as children’s books like ‘The Librarian of Basra’ and Mr. Stamaty’s true life comics, can help us teach important history lessons to younger generations.  More importantly, we as parents and educators also need to have conversations with children and answer their questions so that our history as people is not swept under the heavy, musty rugs of time.  


Links for more information about the librarian of Basra:

Iraqi Librarian Saved 30,000 Books During Invasion

Photo of the Librarian of Basra

Lawbreaking Librarians: A Legacy of Courage

Too Soon or Censorship?

Harcourt Books Interview with Jeanette Winter


One Year After Mirena

I’ve noticed this summer that when I log onto my WordPress site, previous posts about my experience with the Mirena IUD receive more traffic than most of my other posts.  Actually, to be honest, there doesn’t seem to be any other interest in my other topics, but people are concerned about the Mirena, and some readers have reached out to me.  It occurred to me that I haven’t written a follow-up describing how my health has changed in the year since having my Mirena removed.  I’ve put it off long enough, and now it’s time to share.

This sculpture reminds me of the struggle I've overcome. Sometimes we just have pick up the pieces.

This sculpture reminds me of the struggle I’ve overcome. Sometimes we just have to pick up the pieces.

Last March I had my IUD removed after using it the full five years prescribed. By that time, I had all the symptoms of what is referred to as the ‘Mirena Crash’: persistent fatigue, bloating, abdominal cramps, headaches, confusion, irritability, limb numbness, back pain, and more, all to the extreme.  At that time, I didn’t know anything about Mirena’s side effects, but suspected it was the culprit.  When I reached out to my doctor at the VA, I did not receive the kind of help that I expected or believed that I deserved.  Instead of being supported by the medical community, I was left to my own devices, and I became very scared and angry.  I had to figure out how to heal on my own, and it has taken me the at least a year to heal not only physically but mentally as well.  The trauma caused by getting “sick” from the Mirena left me feeling isolated, crazy, untrustworthy, and unable to trust medical professionals.

My emotions, however justified, were part of the myriad of symptoms from my reaction to the IUD.  Even after the device’s removal, toxins from the Mirena continued to circulate through my system, and my hormones could be best described as defunct.  I was a mess!  I felt as though I had been poisoned, and in a sense, I had. It was extremely difficult to drudge through the day pretending to be a “normal” person while my body purged the bad hormones and toxic build up.  I felt like I was on a bad drug trip for months, yet I was in for a much longer ride.

It has now been about eighteen months since my Mirena was removed, since I was very ill, and I am so happy to say that I am not the same person.  I am in extraordinary physical shape (comparatively), I feel confident about how I look, I have boundless energy, and I don’t suffer from as many aches and pains.  I love to wake up in the morning and be active all day, because I know I will not become exhausted like before.  I don’t feel emotionally sabotaged and my hormones are finally in balance for the first time since I started using the Mirena.  Best of all, I never have to go back to IUDs, because better options are at my disposal.

But you are probably wondering what exactly I did to take care of myself and conquer the nightmare that left me so miserable, right?  First, remember that there is no magical equation to follow in order to become well after the Mirena Crash.  Your personal definition of well is not going to be identical to mine, and your biology, cultural and familial background, lifestyle, preferences, and external influences are not the same as mine either.  So you must determine which plan is best on your road to recovery.

This is how I did it.

I. First I made a commitment — to myself.  I committed to follow a strict diet and exercise plan to get my health back on track.  I carefully considered how to reach my goals.  This commitment was important because it was an investment in myself.

2.  I took up an exercise routine (kickboxing) that helped me develop confidence as well as muscle tone.  My routine became a catalyst in ridding my body of toxins and excess body fat, both of which had accumulated while I was using the Mirena.  Bonus:  I made new friends at the kickboxing studio!

3.  I tweaked my diet as needed.  For example, when I realized I was not eating enough protein to support my newly active lifestyle, I changed the diet to reflect my needs.  This was critical in healing because the body has to be able to flush out toxins and regenerate new, healthy cells!

*I used the Standard Process products recommended by Dr. J (see the link to his site below) but only as long as I felt that I needed them.  I used an extremely healthy diet to clean out my system because I believe that food is medicine, not the other way around.

4. I made time for myself every day to pursue a hobby, something just for me, and I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt.   Sometimes I just took ten minutes to read a magazine and drink tea; other days I painted or caught up with a friend over coffee.  Very beneficial to my soul!

5. I talked to my friends and family about my struggle and listened to the wisdom that they had to share.  Their love and support helped me feel strong enough to move past my anger and frustration over the situation.

6. I let go.  I acknowledged that there was really no one to blame in this situation — not me, not any of the doctors, and no one else.  But I especially stopped blaming myself in hindsight.  It’s a waste of energy.

I like to think that the last year and a half is a chapter in my life that I can close, and now it is time to look forward, move forward, and anticipate what lies in the future.  I sometimes think that my Mirena robbed me of five years of good living, but that is not true.  It was a minor setback, and if anything, I learned to take better care of myself, to be more kind, and to forgive the faults that we all cannot help but possess.

Best of luck to those fighting their battles.




The link to Dr. J’s site, where you can find his take on the Mirena Crash:


The Good Summer

My son enjoying a quick climb on the Badlands this summer.

My son enjoying a quick climb on the Badlands this summer.

I almost titled this ‘The Good Enough Summer’, but changed my mind before typing one word.  When you hear good enough, regardless of the context, doesn’t your mind bend slightly to thoughts of something mediocre, like whatever turned out to be ‘good enough’ was still not quite satisfactory, and the party reaching said state did so under protest?  When my husband and I were discussing this year’s summer plans, our conversation ended with the blanket statement: “Well, it’s just going to have to be good enough.”  Everything was going to have to be good enough, each family member would have to pull their weight, and expectations would be lowered to get through the summer.   I didn’t know if it would work, but I wanted to be optimistic.

I wanted summer to be good because we were under stress.  We sold our house in Kansas and bought another home in Missouri.  The mortgage application process became a prolonged nightmare, but in the beginning we were oblivious to what lay ahead.  Our focus was on the six weeks of summer during which we would technically be homeless.  Although this was not a problem since we had family and friends to visit during our vacation time — very convenient for gypsies who like to travel — no amount of obsessive planning can totally prepare a person for the creeping feeling of general terror when facing the truth of simply being unable to go HOME.

We had to be ultra conservative to get through summer without going into debt.  I counted my daughters’ shoes and made a pile of nearly two dozen pairs between them.  After playing in mud puddles, running up and down dirt roads, cruising zoos and water parks, the pile would diminish to one or two usable pairs by the end of summer.  I expected most of their clothing to become outgrown or worn out, too.  My plan was that the kids would wear things out as we traveled so I could squirrel money away for back to school shopping in August.  I wanted them to learn that consumerism is not a hobby, that money does not appear on a whim, that we should use what we own, like old tennis shoes, reuse what we can, like ripped blue jeans, and replace things when the time comes.  This summer would be a perfect time for such lessons.

Our new puppy Teddy enjoying the beach on Lake Kampeska this summer.

Our new puppy Teddy enjoying the beach on Lake Kampeska this summer.

I have to constantly keep my children sane, happy, fed, entertained, and alive!  Are my treasured art investments actually in storage or on the Black Market? Did I remember to pack my jewelry?  There are 500 pairs of shoes in this car and it smells like there are 500 pairs of shoes in this car.  I have to schlep 1,200 pounds of the Most. Important. Things. Everyone. Owns. around for the next month. WHY do my kinds think they each need five stuffed animals, 18 books they won’t read, and 600 loose Crayons, which are presently melting all over my car?  These thoughts filled my head as we hit the road.  Two adults, three children, and one yellow Labrador puppy growing at a rate of 2.5 pounds per week crammed into my SUV to drive thousands of miles and live like nomads for the next several weeks.

My daughters looking at the geese at a botanical garden in Missouri.

My daughters looking at the geese at a botanical garden in Missouri.

Packing light was a goal, not necessarily a realistic concept.   Anticipating our temporary homelessness and wanting to be practical, two week’s worth of clothing for each person, all the shampoo that we currently owned, and a couple bars of soap. By the time we reached South Dakota, we had to ship an enormous foot locker and a large cardboard U-Haul box back to Missouri.  We were already overloaded before our trip had officially begun!  We had decided to travel in one car, which began having ‘technical difficulties’ in New Mexico.  So much for the money for my back to school shopping spree.  I kept telling my husband that we could get rid of an extra set of bedding we used at the Carlsbad KOA cabin, but ever the Boy Scout, he wanted to hold onto it in case we needed it later on.  That turned out to be a fantastic idea, since several strange things happened requiring ingenuity as well as sheets, blankets, and so many garbage bags.

Regardless of our agreement that this summer would have to be good enough (in other words, we would all have to tough it out), I spent much of the time worrying. I missed my friends and had no outlet to work through my emotions about being uprooted.  Everything that could go wrong seemed to.  The underwriters harassed us nonstop for proof to further prove our proof of various documentation (and I know how ridiculous that sounds, but it is exactly what they requested).  My car was in the shop during our entire visit to Texas, and it started to malfunction from new problems during our trip from Texas back to Missouri. Our dog almost drowned, our oldest child turned into a moody teenager, and we were always at the mercy of the family members who took us in.  Every day was a new mini drama.

A quiet moment of reflection at the Oklahoma City Bombing Museum.

A quiet moment of reflection at the Oklahoma City Bombing Museum.

All I wanted was something better for my family, because we deserved a really great summer.  Hell, I deserved a really great summer!  My husband and I argued a lot and fought a little.  There were days when I wanted to run away from my family and establish a life as a fabulous hermit/diva somewhere in Europe.  I stress ate, when I actually remembered to eat.  When we limped the broken SUV into our new town in Missouri, we were met with empty promises from the bank, so we ended up in a horrid little motel. Our room had a mysterious, overpowering odor later identified as the mold and mildew that spawns after extensive water damage.

We arrived at our house for the walk-through feeling dirty and dejected, smelling of mildew, sleep deprived and slightly malnourished (having eaten nothing but ham on white bread for what seemed like years).  The seller, who happened to be a realtor with nothing to lose, took pity on us because we had essentially become the delightfully comical Griswold family from the National Lampoons Vacation movies, and she agreed to a temporary rental until the underwriters were finally satisfied with their scrutiny of just about every aspect of our lives.

Food for thought at my favorite sculpture park in South Dakota.

Food for thought at my favorite sculpture park in South Dakota.

Everything worked out in the end, but more work and a lot of introspection was required to get to this point.  ISummer is winding down, and as I go through photos of the family, I realize that maybe we actually did have a good summer.  Maybe our expectations were exceeded, and we didn’t have a merely mediocre time.  Sure, on some days there was crying, swearing, and fighting, and sometimes we were quite miserable, even pathetically so.  Looking back, at more happy memories than sad, I have realized that I am an ignorant woman. It took me the entire summer to figure out that when it comes to family relationships, there is no such thing as ‘good enough’.  There is just love, and try, and care, and time.


Lasts and Firsts

During our last trip to the park this week.

Ross during our last trip to the park.

It has been two weeks since our family lost Ross The Dog to kidney failure.  We were a bit naive to how painful the grieving process would actually be when the time came to say goodbye, and many of the realizations took us by surprise.  After spending seven good years with Ross, it wasn’t just the last moments that broke our hearts, it was all the firsts.

The first time I had to come home to an empty house, I stood in the garage, terrified to open the door leading inside.  I knew who wouldn’t be on the other side, and so I stood for nearly ten minutes, sobbing and willing myself to have the courage to open the door.  When I did, it felt as though a knife had been expertly and cruelly pushed directly into my heart.  This was the first of many firsts without Ross.  The next day, my husband would encounter this same heartbreak, equally painful, as he realized Ross would never again be there at the door to greet him when he came home from work.

On our first  morning without a thumping tail and slobbery kisses to emphasize the alarm, no walk to the back door for a morning constitutional, no dog food and water bowl routine, we didn’t want to even get out of bed.  Without a dog to summon the morning, what was the point?  I found the house much too lonely after Van went to work and the girls went to school, and would wait to hear the tinkling of Ross’s dog tag on the tile floor.  I caught myself looking for him, thinking that a pair of blue jeans thrown on the floor was him just lying down for a nap, then crying when I realized that my brain was playing mean tricks on me.  I kept walking to the back door, opening it, and standing there stupidly, waiting for a dog who would never come in or go out.

Ross as a puppy.

Ross as a puppy.

My husband calls Ross his conscience, says that he must have been mine too; a creature who reflected back to us our very thoughts, hopes, potential, goodness, and joy in simple pleasures.  He could just look at us and communicate exactly what we needed to be told in the moment.  We didn’t realize how much of a routine we had developed around Ross; he may have trained us better than we trained him!  Van’s first time mowing the yard after Ross passed was very emotional for Van because Ross loved to roll in the fresh mowed grass.  We had to constantly remind each other that the firsts would be the hardest to overcome, and we leaned on one another more than usual.  About two days after Ross died, I felt a presence in our bedroom after we had laid down for the night.  The room was dark and quiet, and there was a heaviness near the foot of the bed.  It seemed to lean against my legs and warm me with a sensation of peace.  I had never given any thought to the idea of a loved one’s energy dispersing from a place after death, but for the first time since Ross passed, I experienced his energy around me, and it was a great comfort.

Teddy, being adorable during a nap.

Teddy, being adorable during a nap.

Van couldn’t wait long before we got a new puppy.  I wasn’t sure that it was wise to just get another dog immediately after Ross, but Van made a wonderful choice in Teddy.  Theodore Baker, named after Theodore Roosevelt and a bottle of Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, came to us from South Dakota, and stole our hearts.  The first time I saw him peering through our front window quizzically, asking to be let into his new home, I knew he was the right dog for us, and it wasn’t too early.  He isn’t intended to replace Ross, but to bring joy to our lives and be the new companion that we need.  As Van said about Ross, “He was the right dog that we needed at the time, and he did more for us than we can ever repay.”  Teddy is the right dog to start a new chapter in our life as a family, and he is in just the right place to continue the legacy begun by Ross the Dog.  We are looking forward to all the firsts with Teddy.


The Final Days of Ross The Dog

Ross having a good day and preparing for his final hunt.

Ross having a good day and preparing for his final hunt.

Today I woke up to the sound of a gentle rain,  and it reminded me of the lyrics to that old song, If Ever I Would Leave You.  I went out to the back deck, with “If ever I would leave you, how could it be in springtime?” running absently through my head. The pristine morning with softly falling rain and cheerful birdsong completed a long, sad week of saying goodbye to our beloved, fun loving spirit known as Ross The Dog.  Ross was special in many ways, but perhaps what differentiated him from other dogs is that when people got to know Ross, they would say, “I want a dog like that.  I want a Ross.”  On Thursday, while Ross was out hunting for one last pheasant, I bought a bottle of whiskey aged seven years, same as Ross, so that my husband and I could make a toast to our first family dog.  After Van returned with the pheasants and told the story of Ross’s glorious final hunt, we clinked glasses and choked back tears.  “To the best pet.”  I said.  “A good dog.”  Van added.  It wasn’t necessary to say anything more.  Ross was a dog that broke the mold on canine companions, a dog that set impossible pet standards.

Ross taking a nap with his person, Alexis, this spring.

Ross taking a nap with his person, Alexis, this spring.

I wasn’t on board when it came to getting a dog.  Basically Van wanted a puppy but I didn’t think it was a good idea at that time, so he picked out Ross, without my permission, and I had to hold the enemy in my lap during a very long drive home.  Ross peed all over me.  I was quite angry.  I never admitted this to anyone in seven years, but even as angry as I was about Van buying a dog — without my permission — that then peed on me –my heart totally melted while I held him during that long ride home.  Ross learned that Van was the Master, and I was Mommy.  Sometimes this caused problems when Mommy didn’t want Ross doing something, but the Master overruled.  Ross always knew that Mommy somehow trumped the Master (wink).  But possibly the greatest compliment Van has ever given me in reference to my dedication to Ross, was when he said recently, “If there is such thing as reincarnation, I would like to come back as one of Georgeann’s dogs.  It doesn’t matter which, because I know that if I am her dog, I will be cared for better than any other dog.”

Ross learned that there were little companions to play with and protect.  Our children became his new friends, and our youngest became his Person, his life long soul mate.  Alexis would sneak food to Ross during dinner, stick her fingers up his nose and in his mouth during inspections, and use him as a pillow or footstool.  He was very patient and gentle with her and her siblings.  Alexis was the only one who Ross listened to all the time.  Listening to me was optional, and he listened to Van most of the time, but he always listened to Alexis.  And she could get him to do anything.  I didn’t like to take Ross on walks because he pulled on the leash and acted belligerent.  With Alexis, he heeled perfectly and stayed on pace with her, and she never had to say a word.

Alexis proudly showing off her picture of Ross.

Alexis proudly showing off her picture of Ross.

During our last trip to the park this week.

During our last trip to the park this week.

We always knew our time with Ross would be limited.  I still vividly remember how sick he became one day many years ago.  We had only recently moved to South Dakota, Ross was just a few months old, but growing fast, and we had become very attached to him.  We rushed him to the veterinary clinic down the road from our house.  The news was depressing.  Ross was in kidney failure and the doctor didn’t believe that he would live to be one year old.  One kidney was tiny and deformed, and the other wasn’t detectable on an x-ray.  We decided that the best way to care for Ross was to treat him with as much love as we could, for however long he had left.  We started him on a special diet and gave him extra TLC every day.  And we never, ever took him for granted.  He celebrated his seventh birthday this January, a pretty long and successful life for a dog not meant to live more than twelve months!

Resting on the deck after returning from his visit to K State earlier this week.

Resting on the deck after returning from his visit to K State earlier this week.

Last week he became sick again, and I saw the same signs as the first time.  Van took him to the K State animal hospital in the Veterinary Sciences Department.  He was kept there for three days under the incredible care of the students and staff, but the prognosis was not optimistic.  His renal levels were fourteen times what should have killed a dog his size, the veterinarian was mystified, and the one explanation that Van and I could give for Ross living so long was that he was the dog that was meant to be with us at this point in our lives.  The student on his case told me that Ross was responding to the medications, and that he wanted to come home, but there was no guarantee how much longer he might live. “We may have only bought you two days, maybe two weeks, optimistically a few months, but it’s just difficult to know.” she said.  I felt in my heart the answer.

Ross playing in the snow, South Dakota.

Ross playing in the snow, South Dakota.

The night that we got Ross back from K State, I had a dream about him.  He was loping to me, all tail wags and happy panting.  He was wet and shiny like a bright penny under water.  He was young, maybe only three years old, with the best muscle tone I’d ever seen, and his eyes were clear with intent.  I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me.  The next two nights, I was up with him.  He was very restless and had to be let out often.  He was vomiting and couldn’t control his bowels, wouldn’t eat or even drink water.  It was gut wrenching to see him like this, but I was his Mommy, and I was there to clean him up and take care of him.  He seemed to be fighting sleep, as though he suspected that sleep might try to sneak in a more final condition without his approval.  Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I looked up dream interpretations about wet dogs.  Nothing.  Then I came across a Web sight for Native American dreams and visions.  My bright, shiny, wet dog, according to this site, was a reflection of my own personality and my response with the world around me.  It would be a few days before I understood the significance of the dream.

Ross getting brushed out by his favorite girls.

Ross getting brushed out by his favorite girls.

I think that I had started to notice small changes in Ross over the past year.  He began to slow down, take longer naps, and refuse his food more often.  As time went on, there were more days when he seemed to feel ill, and his hair began to turn white around the muzzle.  He still looked amazingly healthy for a dog with non-functioning kidneys, and to look at him you wouldn’t know that he really wasn’t a dog in his prime.  In just a few short weeks, I began to notice that instead of greeting me at the door with an energetic bark and wagging tail, he first stopped barking and just stood at the door, tail wagging gleefully, then he laid at the top of the stairs, no bark, but with tail thumping.  After a while, he was too tired to even wag his tail, but he would lie at the top of the stairs and turn over for me to scratch his belly.  Days near the end, I had to go find him.  This was very difficult, because I knew it was his way of telling me that he was too tired and weak to keep a routine.  He could tell me that he didn’t feel well, but he saved all his energy for Van and the girls, springing to greet them at the door like a fresh puppy, and he spent up the last of it playing with them.   He let me lay down next to him on the carpet in the bedroom when he was exhausted.  There had been many days when he patiently let me bury my head in his soft fur and have a good cry.  Now it was his turn to push his head against me for some hugs and comforting.  He needed someone to be there and tell him that it was okay, and so even though it terrified me, I put my face next to his, rubbed his shoulders, and said, “It’s okay, Buddy.  I know, it will be time soon.  You’re a good boy.  You can go when you’re ready.”

Watching and waiting.

Watching and waiting.

For me, the Mommy of the family, well, I like to think that he did something special, not that I could ever repay the favor.  Ross and I didn’t have that Master/Loyal Companion bond since he was officially Van’s dog.  But Ross knew his job was to protect the family and be a friend.  He spent more time with me than anyone else.  When Van was deployed or on a training mission, Ross never shirked his duties as the guardian of the home.  And when everyone left the house for work and school, Ross followed me around, got in my way, stole my place on the couch, took naps with me, rode with me in the car, played with me in the yard.  Most importantly, he listened to every word I said.  I told him all my problems, all my dreams, all my secrets.  He probably knew me better than any person! I could look at him and get an idea of what he might be thinking, and when the time came, I knew that Ross needed me to have strength that he no longer possessed, to encourage the family to let go.  He might have gone on living for another week or longer out of sheer willpower, but what kind of a life would it have been?   I told my husband that Ross seemed happy but that he also seemed to be waiting for permission to depart.  Van just needed a little time to prepare a final pheasant hunt.  I found Ross sitting in the bedroom and hugged him.  “Just hang in there for a couple more days, okay?”.  He seemed to give a nod of agreement.

Our family taking Ross for his last walk around the neighborhood.

Our family taking Ross for his last walk around the neighborhood.

There was no way to really repay Ross for a lifetime of loyalty and friendship but I decided to give him the best last day possible.  The things that a dog likes are so simple in nature that they should be a lesson to us all: a ride in a car on a sunny day, rolling in the grass, a nap on an old bed, a crust of good bread, and being with our favorite people.  What better way to pass a last day?  He was too weak to jump easily into my car  so I had to boost him in, but he got to ride shotgun once more time as I made my way to a park near Milford Lake.  It was a chilly, windy morning, and the park was completely empty, so Ross had the place to himself.  I let him run as long as he wanted.  The view was quite pretty, although not as beautiful as South Dakota, where we had hoped that he could spend his final day.  I wondered if God granted dogs the ability to see in color in their final hours, and I hoped that Ross could see everything for how truly beautiful if was on that morning.  Tears started to stream down my face, but great sheets of wind quickly blew them away.  Ross paused from sniffing the grass to look at me quizzically, so I wiped my face and we walked through the park together, hot on the trail of a rabbit that was long gone.

Road DogHe tired quickly, so I helped him back into the car.  At home Ross seemed content just laying in the backyard.  I had been saving half a bundle of sage for a special occasion, so I lit it and let it smolder slowly, ceremonial incense from me to Ross.  I laid down on the grass beside him and smelled the sage and looked at the sky.  It was a gorgeous day.  I opened up the guest room and helped Ross onto the bed, his favorite place to nap, and he sprawled out in the afternoon sun.  I peeked in on him and chuckled to see how content he was dozing on his back with his legs flayed and sagging balls flopping out in the afternoon sun — just the way he liked to nap.  I’d bought frozen pizzas for supper because the one treat Ross was allowed on his special diet was pizza crust.  Van called to tell me that he had found a place for Ross to go on his last pheasant hunt, then he would take him back to K State.  He would go to sleep next to Van, with a freshly killed trophy pheasant to dream about as he began to doze.

Ross and his favorite toy, a stuffed sheep named Moss.

Ross and his favorite toy, a stuffed sheep named Moss.

After school we had to break the news to the girls.  I don’t want to ever have to go through that again, but after the initial shock, the girls agreed to take Ross for a walk around the block, brush him out, play with him in the yard, and feed him pizza crust.  He refused the pizza crusts, but did everything else, and more.  He even posed for some very touching pictures.  We explained to the girls that now was the time for them to tell him what they felt in their hearts and give him all their love so he would be ready for his journey.  As much as it hurt to say goodbye, our good memories of Ross are a reminder of the incredible relationship that we, as a family, had with him. When I think about Ross and the impact he had on our family and friends, I have to wonder if it’s possible for angels to appear in animal form.

A bonfire tribute for Ross.

A bonfire tribute for Ross.

Ross always hated it when Van built bonfires, probably because of his propensity to go overboard and inevitably blow up something.  Ross had a way of giving Van a disapproving look whenever Van was doing something stupid.  On Thursday afternoon, after showing me Ross’s beautiful pheasants, Van told me that on the drive back from the hunt, he was able to do one last stupid thing, just for Ross, and Ross gave him one last disapproving look, as if to say “I get it, dumbass!”  Last night, Van built a fire in my old chimenea that was meant to put all other bonfires to shame — and it did.  He blew up spray paint cans in it three times, which is how many times it took to completely destroy the chimenea.  The third explosion was so glorious that the blast scrambled the video I was taking on my phone (much to my dismay), scattered shards of pottery and burned out paint cans as far as twelve feet from the blast zone, and splattered yellow paint on the deck chairs.  Yellow paint for a yellow dog — very appropriate!

Fire and rain are re-energizing, recharging forces of nature necessary for healing and renewal.  This morning, waking to the sound of rain, my wet dog dream finally made sense.  Ross was not wet from a smelly pond or from bathwater, but from fresh pure rain, he smelled of sweetgrass, looked beautiful, and shone like new a penny.  He was healthy, happy, and strong.  Call me a batty sentimentalist, but I choose to believe in things that make me feel good.  Van’s bonfire was one last tribute to Ross from a bunch of silly, awkward, lost humans, and my dream was a message from Ross to wait for rain.  Then  tonight around dinner time, the sky opened up with the most beautiful and gentle rainstorm we had ever seen in Kansas, sending cool blankets of the rain billowing down to drench us.  We watched the girls play in it for hours, laughing and talking about Ross’s brilliant gift to us for taking care of him.  It was just his way of telling us that he saw it, and that he loves us even though we are all dumbasses.



The Art of Conversation


The dynamics of talking (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this year my husband had surgery to correct quite possibly the worst documented sleep apnea in history.  He snored so loud I am certain that our closest neighbors also went without sleep. The Army gave him two weeks of convalescent, and by Day Eight of Recovery, I wanted to check myself into the psychiatric ward of the hospital.

Van’s surgery turned out to be prolonged torment; afterward we both agreed that if we had done any serious research, we wouldn’t have committed to such a sadistic idea. It was actually five procedures in one.  A uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (go ahead, sound it out), or U-triple P in medical jargon, is a procedure that trims away all or part of the uvula, some of the soft palate, and part of the back of the throat.  Since my husband still had his tonsils and adenoids, they were removed, so he also underwent a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy.  The doctor expanded his sinuses using tiny balloons and fixed his deviated septum, adding sinoplasty and septoplasty.  All five procedures took less than two hours to complete, and in that time I was able to leave the hospital for an unhurried if not totally relaxed sit-down lunch, but I sped back to the hospital to be present when Van was wheeled out of recovery.

The waiting room was mostly empty and very quiet.  A middle aged black man kept looking between his cell phone and the television blaring in the corner, a firestorm erupting over the events in Ferguson, Missouri.   After a while, the man and I tried to ignore the repetitive tickers flashing across the screen.  I took ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ from the loan shelf and skimmed enough to figure out that Dorian met a gruesome demise.  A neat old lady walked in carrying a Hy Vee bag, sat down across from me and popped the tab from a soda.  She smiled at me and asked if I knew how to turn off Airplane Mode on a Trac Phone.  I scooted next to her and proved to be useless, but then a conversation began.  She was a whip smart Marine’s wife.  Her husband had been in Vietnam; when he came back his miserable job was to knock on the doors of the wives whose Marines had been KIA.

“Then one day two of our friends came home in body bags at the same time, and he had to go knock on the doors of their wives.  These were people we knew quite well.  After that he didn’t see any point to any of it anymore, so he got out as soon as he could.”  She smiled and met my eyes steadily and we exchanged a knowing look.  We understand so much more than we ought to.

A nurse peered into the waiting room, and I recognized my husband on the gurney in the hallway.  Van looked fragile and frantic, but I smiled brightly into his face, and he clutched my hand tight.  The nurse said, “He won’t be able to talk for quite a while.”

“Then he can listen to me,” I winked and smiled back down into his face again and he squeezed my hand harder.  Before the procedure Van told me that there was no sense in my sticking around, I should go have lunch and get some air.  I had joked “Well that’s not very clingy of you!”  He responded “Oh, that will come after the surgery.”  I could see how much he needed me now.

It’s amazing what we take for granted.  We had recently decided to work on our communication skills and be better mates to each other; now suddenly communication had become quite nearly impossible!   Van had to learn to communicate without speaking; I had to learn how to really listen and interpret his nods, gestures, frowns, and sometimes angry emphatic flailing, and then try to give him whatever would make him more comfortable  — or in his case, less miserable.  Everything slowed down to a crawl, and every minute for us was filled with trying to communicate better.

I had to remind myself to speak much less.  As much as I wanted to talk, as lonely as I felt without banter from my favorite conversationalist, I knew Van was exhausted and didn’t have the capacity for long talks.  I kept a lot to myself, and it wasn’t easy.  For example, the college student daughter of the middle aged black man in the waiting room…was so upset because her mother was also at the hospital undergoing surgery that she hit his truck in the hospital parking lot while we were waiting to be discharged.  Yeah, I kept that to myself for a couple of days until Van was lucid enough to process the information.  Instead of making sentences longer and full of detail — one of my habits — I tried to keep things short and to to the point so that he could get the important information and make a decision quickly or tell me what he needed without having to exert too much energy.  I’m telling you, it was exhausting, and it didn’t always work.  Sometimes I wasn’t intuitive.  Sometimes Van wasn’t patient.  And there were evil forces at work.

We had to live on New Baby new schedule.  Van required round the clock pain medications, so neither of us was getting eight full hours of sleep.  I was lucky if I got three hours of sleep at one stretch, and Van claimed he never slept for more than 30 minutes, but he was really whacked out on the pain medication.  Around Day 3 of Recovery, I woke up to a bloodcurdling scream around midnight.  I figured my daughter was having a nightmare, but I was shockingly incorrect.  She had covered her entire bed in vomit.  Being already somewhat sleep deprived, I could hardly process this new horror, and I had a hell of a time cleaning it up.  The mystery virus swept through the household, causing stomachaches, fevers, and headaches, but no one else vomited.  I was terrified that Van would catch it, but luckily he was the only one who didn’t.

I had to drive across town to pick up Pedialyte and crackers at Wal-Mart, but I didn’t have the energy to change out of my pajamas.  I “dressed” them up with a pair of jaunty red moccasins and an over-sized vintage bleached Levi’s anorak.  My youngest daughter was appalled to see me leave the house in pajamas because my primary rule of fashion is to NEVER, EVER, under ANY circumstances, leave the house in pajamas!  I couldn’t give a shit.  When I looked in the restroom mirror at Wal-Mart, I nearly jumped back at the reflection, much like Dorian Gray must have when he began to see his transformation.  Oh no, could it be?  Was it me staring back?   My eyes were glassy and red, and when I had applied my lipstick, I had put it around my lips, not on them!

On Day 5 of Recovery my husband became a food critic.  The mashed potatoes were too salty, the Jell-O too acidic, the Cream of Wheat too sandy, the soup too hot, the water too cold, the ice too hard.  I started to lose my shit in the kitchen.  I knew it was just because his throat was very sensitive, but when someone tells you that they cannot handle water, that water possesses qualities making it too harsh for consumption, it becomes hard not to just give up.  I smiled at my husband, said “Okay, I will try to find something that works for you,” and went into the kitchen to weep silently while Van watched old Chris Farley movies on television.

On Day 7 I took Van to the hospital for his follow-up appointment.  I was soooo over the hospital.  I’d already been there twice to refill Van’s pain medicine, each visit making me more resentful of free medical care.  I had tolerated the overly complicated customer service ticket kiosk, suspicious pharmacy techs interrogating my intents with the pain meds, and a protracted fire alarm malfunction.  The last thing I wanted was to visit the hospital again, but here we were.  Van leaned on me slightly as we walked into the hospital, and I got a premonition of what old age might be like for us.  The doctor said Van should start do feel much better after getting the stints out, and then I made the mistake of watching the stints being removed.  It was like an alien extraction scene in a sci-fi movie!

Van had taken a turn for the worse the night before, so the doctor sent us to the ER for an IV.  This would add another 2-3 hours to our visit, but it would make a world of difference in his recovery.  There was a young soldier in the waiting room with a huge bloody gash across his forehead.  He had wrecked his truck his wife left him in the same week, but this was still the best day he’d had in a while, so he said.

We sat in a large room for a long time after triage, Van getting an IV and sleeping.  I was so tired that I wanted to cry, but I just sat against the wall and closed my eyes.  Van still couldn’t talk, but I sensed when he needed me.  I opened my eyes, and he motioned for me to come near so he could whisper into my ear.  “I’m ready to get outta here.”  I was ready too.  But it would not happen before we overheard the ER doctor give an overly detailed description to the patient  on the other side of the privacy curtain of all the things that could go wrong during his spinal tap.  I now knew too much.

Day 8 I left the house in my pajamas again, but this time it was much worse.  I didn’t even bother to put on a bra or shoes.  Fortunately, I was just driving a few blocks to pick up my youngest daughter from a sleepover.  I think I cried during the drive.  My friend took one look at me and said “Whoa, you want some coffee?”  I really wanted to stay home and sleep but I had to get out and pick up meds again, so after my daughter and I cleaned up our act, we headed out.  I was hoping to just pick up everything at the Post Exchange, or PX, common on Army bases.  Unfortunately, one of the prescriptions — in fact, the most important one that Van absolutely needed — could only be filled at the hospital, so we would have to go there too.

While we were at the PX waiting for our ticket to be called for the other medications, someone puked all over the floor, creating a veritable minefield of vomit.  I couldn’t believe it. I had dealt with more bizarre things in the days since Van’s surgery — rude Kansas drivers, suspicious pharmacists, sleep deprivation, crazy ER doctors, and so much vomit — and all I wanted was to be able to have a real conversation with my husband, then sleep for an entire week.  Maybe in reverse order.  But those things seemed so far out of reach.

It was a long time before we started communicating again.  Once Van began to talk, he also began to formulate plans.  There were things that he really wanted to accomplish, and I just wanted to catch up — on conversation and sleep! I began to feel a bit resentful.  Was I nothing more than a supplement, a convenient presence during Van’s recovery?  After all, I had been there, serving his every need, never giving myself the luxury of wasted time or leisure. I literally burned myself out just trying to keep him alive and well, and all I really craved was a simple conversation with him, to know that at the very heart of the nightmare that we were going through, we still had our humanity.

Looking back on the whole affair one evening several weeks post-op, Van told me something that made me realize that despite his impatience and anger over being exhausted, uncomfortable, and in constant pain, he saw me as the only source of hope and contentment in his situation.  He told me that when he came out of surgery he kept asking for me.  The nurse wouldn’t let me come into the first phase of recovery, but Van continued to demand that she bring me back.

“I never stopped talking about you; I kept asking for you.”  he said.  “I kept telling that nurse, “bring my wife here.  She can feed me ice chips.”  I don’t know why the nurse didn’t just let you come back there and take care of me.”  What he said made me think of the moment we arrived home from the hospital.  I had to somehow get him up the stairs and onto the couch.  He is taller and bigger than me, but I somehow managed to help him walk slowly, with him leaning heavily on me for support, up the driveway, up the front porch stairs, and up the entry stairs into the living room, where he could rest on the couch.  He leaned so completely on me.

Since the surgery, we have been communicating better, occasionally worse, but we are talking more than ever.  We’ve had a few arguments, a fight or two, and we have opened up and started communicate in ways that we have neglected for years.  Having the form of conversation to which we were accustomed taken away suddenly showed us what we had been taking for granted and pointed out what we needed to repair in our relationship.   We both started leaning on each other more, and now I feel more valued and appreciated by my husband since this incident, and I have stopped taking for granted the simple act of having a conversation with him.  For the first time in weeks, we sat down this morning to have a cup of coffee, argue about the leadership attributes of the ridiculous number of Presidential candidates, discuss lawn care techniques, and exchange banter about the fun that we could encounter throughout the day.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.