This, too, shall pass

when?

Today, I had lunch with a friend. I will call him John in this post. About a year ago, he and his wife went through the unthinkable tragedy of losing their baby twins through an illness. It was one of those situations where there was truly nothing they could have done to change the outcome. And the probability of that outcome, that they would lose both babies, was so slim. It was a one-in-a-million event, and it happened to my friend.

When John and his wife lost their twins, I went to the wake and saw that many people had come to pay respects and to support them. Such a large family… and so many friends because the couple had been both born and raised in northeast Ohio. And it’s like that often – when tragedy strikes, your community rallies around you. But as time passes, all that energy and attention taper off, and you are left alone to deal with the grief.

I reached out to John a few month later around January to check in on him and invited him out to lunch. He was still the friendly guy I knew, but the events from last fall had changed him. I could see him trying to live out day to day, struggling, but what could I say to the person who lost his twins? We ate, caught up on a few community items, and then I went into listening mode for most of the conversation.

As you know, things have been topsy turvy in my life for the last few months, so I didn’t have a chance to really take care of anyone around me. Now that things are calming down a bit, I reached out to John again and asked him to lunch. We started out talking shop about investments and our jobs, but the topic of John’s grief hung over our heads. During an appropriate pause in the conversation, I asked him about how he has been doing. He wore the same expression as he did back in January… one of sorrow and resignation. “I have to live with it,” he said. And again, there was nothing I could say. Only listen.

He asked me what’s been going on in my life. I caught him up on what happened to Jeff, losing Jeff’s mother, and losing Maris. I told him the story of how unlikely Jeff’s survival was for a situation where the aorta had already started to rupture. All the things that had to be in the right place for him to be alive today. How it felt like a one-in-a-million event. And then for a moment there, we looked at each other and I felt the cruel irony of our lunch. Both of us had experienced a one-in-a-million event with completely different outcomes. Mine was happy, his was devastating. I couldn’t tell him that things will get better because I no longer felt like it was my place to. Being on the receiving end of an improbable blessing, what could I tell a person who was on the receiving end of an improbable tragedy? He knew what I was thinking the moment I thought it. He caught the irony of it, too. John is such a nice guy – he just smiled and looked down at his plate.

Through all the troughs of my life, I had told myself, “this, too, shall pass” and rode the waves. Up and down, up and down. Sometimes that trough could last a long time… a while back when I was younger, I thought maybe there was a streak of shadow that I could never get rid of, and that I would have to live with it for the rest of the my life. In those days, you can’t fathom that there would be an ‘up.’ And you wonder when shall this pass? John’s grief is so deep and the experience so tragic that he must not be able to fathom a day when he wouldn’t think of the twins. The grief must stretch as far as the eye can see at this point in time. I couldn’t really tell him that this, too, shall pass.

I wanted this blog to be about joy because that is what my marriage to Jeff has brought into my life. And joy is also Maris’s legacy. But for my friend, I dare not speak of joy because it is the furthest thing from his mind. The best I could say was “take your time. A year is not a long period of time. Take all the time you need. And in the meantime, I will be praying for you.”

At thirty-thousand feet

life becomes clear

There is something about flying in a plane that helps me to focus. I get some of the best work and reading done during travel. On my trip to Minneapolis and back last week, I read up on the news, research papers, and did uninterrupted thinking at thirty-thousand feet up in the air. But sometimes the loud hum of the airplane ride becomes a shield between my thoughts and the outside world, noises and conversations feel distant on the other side of that border, and I am trapped within my own existence. During the flight to Minneapolis, I let my mind wander inward, and I was confronted with unresolved dissonance that has been lingering now for a while.

Thinking about all the things that happened in the last 1-year period, there has been a message of life and death that has been staring at me in the face. It all began with a breast cancer scare in August of 2021, and while it turned out to be high-risk benign, it still meant that I had to spend about 5 days with the possibility that I was a cancer patient. I was in Dallas with my brother’s family who had just welcomed a tiny boy. I had flown to Dallas with this weight of cancer on my shoulders, and wondered while holding this new life whether or not I would see him grow up and fulfill the potential that was brewing inside his little body and mind. I was so thankful that it was not malignant, but the lumpectomy that was done out of precaution and the post surgical complications gave me a glimpse into the middle-aged life that I was now living.

After the turn of the year, there has been Jeff’s abdominal aortic aneurysm surgery, Maris’s cancer diagnosis, losing Jeff’s mother (and the sorrow of not being able to see her to say good bye due to Jeff’s inability to travel), and then of course, eventually saying good bye to Maris. It has been a year of existential emergencies, and we were so busy handling all of it that I do not believe we have processed them. It will take me a long time to understand and articulate the impact of these events holistically, but perhaps the first of these have come to me during the plane ride to Minneapolis.

The dissonance that has been ringing in my ears pertains to innocence. The loss of Maris has been a loss of my innocence, perhaps the type of growing up that most people learn much earlier in life. A piece of me departed to the Rainbow Bridge with Maris, and that change feels permanent to me. But then Jeff’s second chance at life through a series of miracles was an event that helped to reclaim a vintage of innocence that feels familiar to me from a distant past. Holding him in my arms everyday after an event that statistically would have taken him away from me breeds a sense of gratitude that is too grand for words… because this life is not ours to plan. Anything can happen at any moment, and if you are a religious person like me, it is really in God’s control. And when you can acknowledge that you’re not actually driving the overarching trajectory of your life, you can let go. And letting go means you can live fearlessly. And that’s where innocence comes in… the fearlessness of youth. It is the excitement that lies ahead for what God may have in store, it is the courage to do/say the right thing for its own moral sake, and the optimism that comes with knowing that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV).

Innocence lost, innocence regained… the dissonance has not yet quite resolved and I still feel that I need to explore these topics a bit more. What did I really lose? and how have I been restored? At this time, I feel a bit like a Picasso painting where I’ve been stitched back together but not in my previous form. Maybe I love Picasso so much because he paints how most of us feel – that life is a patchwork of events that alter us as time passes, and that the dissonance we live with can linger and resonate for a while. But my goal is to resolve that tension so that something good can come out of it. I do not intend to be a Picasso painting forever.

A print of a Picasso painting at the Rosengart Collection in Lucerne, Switzerland (I don’t remember the name, sorry).

Loss has a long tail

little good-bye’s

Yesterday, I bought a new car. I ordered the car back in June because of course, with all the post-pandemic issues there was no inventory at that time. After weeks of silence, they called me the day before to let me know that the car was arriving yesterday. Would I like to come in and pick it up?

My immediate internal reaction was ‘what’s the hurry?’ which is funny because I’ve wanted to swap in my current car (a plug-in hybrid Volvo) for the entire 4+ years I had it (sorry Jeff – the Volvo was his idea, haha). The reason behind my hesitation was simple… my Volvo had memories of Maris. She loved going through the car wash together, barked at all the attendants, usually young men who loved dogs, because she knew she was getting their attention! We had countless trips to the Metro Parks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park trails, pit stops at Starbucks for pup-cups filled with whip cream. There were numerous rides to doggy day care, where I would sing “Doggy School” in certain pitches, and she knew exactly where we were going. I would tell her what time I would pick her up (haha, like she understood!), and then when I returned in the evening, she would bound toward me for a sweet reunion. She knew to hop back into that car for a drive to the place we both called home.

Trading in this car, I felt like yet another piece of Maris was being torn away from me. I had very little time to get the car ready because the new car had arrived so suddenly. As I emptied the Volvo, I felt my throat tighten – there were little pieces of Maris all over that car because I actually couldn’t bring myself to clean it after letting her go. The blankets that had lined the back of the car during the last ride to the Richfield Animal Clinic were still lying there… I couldn’t get myself to take them out for the last month. The bag of treats I kept in the car just because she was such a good dog was still in the pocket of the driver’s side door. Her fur was still around the passenger side seat as evidence that she was my most frequent passenger. And I removed the doggy harness that I had installed on the passenger seat belt, the very item that I had fiercely negotiated to be thrown into the deal for free when we bought the Volvo (haha, yeah, I am a tough negotiator!). I had to say good bye to Maris all over again yesterday afternoon.

And it has been this way for the last month. There are so many little good byes after the big one. The first floor cleaning after her departure meant that my vacuum would suck up most of her fur for the last time. I had a difficult time emptying the bin full of her fur. But I had to do it and say good bye. The first mopping of the floors meant that I was erasing her little paw prints and drool, forever on our floors. Confession: there is a little spot of drool that I have not yet cleaned up… I see it when I go to that part of the house and think of Maris. Once in a while, I will find little dog food bits, and when I throw them out, I have to say good bye again. And there are the dog treats in our pantry that I have not yet been able to discard… and I know that that will be another moment of sorrow for me.

Slowly, due to passage of time and the regular routine of life, the hard evidence of Maris in our lives is disappearing. The more time passes, the more she will become a memory. Soon, the only thing I will have left in the house will be the beautiful cedar box with her name on it, her fur clippings in an envelop, and the paw print in a heart-shaped clay. No one warned me about the little good byes that come after the big loss, and they are devastating each time. But we have to move on and live happily because I know that that is what Maris would want us to do.

I will live joyfully as you taught me. And I will always love you and remember you, Little One.

Maris’s forever home with us
A pit stop at Starbucks for a treat after a long exploration session in the parks!
Maris loved Mr. Cheese and brought him to our rides in the car… yuck.
Maris had to ride in the back when Jeff was in the car. The poor puppy!
Car Wash!
She knew she was about to get a pup-cup!

To my little one

dear maris

I sit here in an empty house, eerily quiet, not a sound of breath or stirring other than my own. I think I hear the pitter-patter of the four white paws that I used to caress when you were asleep. Your steps always had a bounce to them, they always lifted my spirits, and now I think I am hearing them in the house. But I know better… because I let you go on a Tuesday.

I knew I was doing the right thing. You had stopped eating your food, and only ate Costco chicken sausages, SPAM, and deli meats in small amounts. I tried hiding your pain medication in these little bites, but your sense of smell remained superior to my little tricks… despite the fact that the cancerous tumor had taken over your face, and the swelling prohibited you from being able to pick anything up with your mouth from the floor. I fed you by hand so that you wouldn’t go hungry. Your breathing had also become labored. It pained me to hear the strain as you moved air into and out of your lungs. It was a Sunday when things had become so clear to me that I needed to let you go. But I asked you to hang on until Tuesday so that you could see Jeff one more time before your journey to the Rainbow Bridge. I loaded your sausages with prednisone to help with the swelling so you could breathe more easily until it was time to say good bye. And aren’t you glad you did? I know that you were the happiest when the three of us were together. And I am so glad that you got to say goodbye to Jeff, who was the best doggy daddy ever.

An unfamiliar weight pressed down on my heart as we did everything for the last time. Our last evening routine of “yummy” yogurt and getting ready for bed. That last night, I woke up at 3:30am to you scratching your sore in the master bathroom, and had to clean up the blood on our tiles for the last time. I slept on my closet floor in order to be closer to you as you slept on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor. I tried feeding you a proper meal in the morning, but you would only eat the chicken sausages. I let you out in our yard for the last time, you got into my car for the last time, and we drove to the Richfield Animal Clinic for the last time. That unfamiliar weight became heavier and heavier… and a week later, now it is so familiar to me.

You knew it was time. You plopped on the floor of the vet’s office when we arrived, struggling to breathe. You did not explore the office or wag your tail for a treat. You knew why we were there. You let us pet you and say goodbye, and left this world peacefully and fully dignified. I felt your last breath and kissed your forehead and body, caressed your tail before leaving the clinic. I will never forget those last moments when we were together.

Now I sit here in an empty house, and I think I hear your footsteps. When I do laundry, I feel like you are going to come lie down next to me as I watch the clothes spin in the washer. I wake up in the morning without your breath on my face, and I have no reason to hurry home after work. So much of my life revolved around you, and you were in every part of my life. What am I supposed to do without you this weekend? What about the weekend after?

As I let you go, I need to close one incredible chapter of my life. You saw me through a career change, you slept through all my high notes, you encouraged me through all the levels of the CFA and CAIA, various jobs, a kidney stone, a lumpectomy, and the general maturation of a very childlike homo sapien. I grew up with you without losing the child inside.

While it is sad to close the chapter with you in it, I am also trepidatious about opening a new one without you. But I think that over the last week, you have been telling me that I can do it. Because of you, I know how to be joyful, how to get lost in the moment, how to laugh. Because of you I know that family is the best thing in the world, and that as long as we are together in body and spirit, we are going to be okay. You are leaving a legacy of joy, a legacy of childlike wisdom, and a manual for getting through some of the toughest times in life. I love you so much, I will love you forever, and I will see you in heaven in a few decades.

Life with Maris: Part 6

Meeting Maris

I remember those months and weeks surrounding our first encounter with Maris. We met the parents in May of 2011 when we drove down to North Carolina to the farm where she would be born and put our name down for a girl. We were told that the next litter would probably not have our puppy and that we would be up for the next litter due in October. Thank you! We said and drove off to Duke University where I was scheduled to sing something… I cannot remember. I think it was Mahler 4.

We were in Ireland on our belated honeymoon in early June when we found out that indeed, there was no girl puppy for us in that litter. I remember reading the news in the hotel room in Dublin, wondering what those little munchkins were like… tiny little Entles with eyes closed wanting to be fed. Those little fur balls! It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Jeff got the call saying that a family who was supposed to take one of the puppies from that litter could no longer take her. The puppy is ours if we wanted and were ready. Absolutely yes! We could pick her up as soon as the week of July 12th, when she reached 8 weeks old. Darn! We were going to be in New York that week… so it would have to be the week after. I fretted a little about missing that one week in her life.

Jeff and I went to visit our friends in CT before the orchestra schedule began in NYC in mid-July. They were amazing people who loved and supported the arts in their community, but I am afraid that I went on and on too much about the predicament I was in at that time. I was unhappy as a musician, as a professor, and I was lost (see Life with Maris: Part 2). They listened with so much patience and offered much sought advice during a very stressful time in my career. But while I had supportive friends, I didn’t know how to control my stress level. While hanging out at the pool, I noticed bumps that looked like blisters going down the inside of my left leg. Hmmm, what are those, I wondered.

By the time Jeff and I made it to New York City, those blisters had gotten worse. They didn’t hurt at all, but you could definitely see more of them popping up along my leg. I was determined to have fun, and since I am an overachiever, I had loads of fun in the city. But in the back of my mind, I was really worried so I made an appointment with the doctor at the Cleveland Clinic before Jeff and I were scheduled to drive down to NC to pick up the puppy. By the morning of the appointment, I was limping. The pain wasn’t with the blisters but down my whole leg. The doctor was no nonsense, and after two nanoseconds of seeing my leg, she said, “Oh, you have shingles!” Shingles? Isn’t that what older people get? I am 33 years old! She asked me, “are you going through anything stressful in particular?” “like what?” I asked, since life is one giant stress ball to begin with. “Oh, you know like a big exam or a job interview.” I said, no, but the truth was that I knew I was under more stress than any exam or interview had ever given me. I had gotten lost in my life’s journey. I had lost my voice.

She sent me home with some antivirals, and the next thing I knew, Jeff and I drove south to meet the new puppy. I was excited about the dog, but also mixed with other emotions. How could I do this to my body? How could I let a career and the institutions surrounding it impact my health? What is this all for anyway? Jeff and I made it to NC on that Monday night, and we stayed at a hotel. I remember our excitement at the prospect of meeting the puppy the next day and driving back home. But deep inside, I was so torn and confused.

I remember driving to the farm where Maris was born. I remember the gates opening to let us in. The first thing I saw was a golden retriever playing with a small puppy. That was the first sighting of Maris… that little puppy playing with the older dog, becoming “socialized,” so joyful, so playful. I limped my way toward her, scooped her up, put her in my arms, and her paws never touched North Carolinian soil again. We drove back, Maris sitting on my lap for most of the way, gracing my shingles-laden leg with her tiny hiney. I think of that ride back 11 years later, and the significance of that moment is not lost on me. My mind, heart, and even my body felt so broken, and during that ride, I had no clue what healing was in store for me and that I was actually holding it right on my lap.

Love at first sight

Something happy

joyful tears

The Cleveland Orchestra opened its 2022 Blossom season with the Gulda Cello Concerto with Wind Orchestra. Because the concert was on July 2nd, it was only fitting that they would begin the season with something fun, whimsical, Sousa-esque. There were times I felt like I was at a rock concert, and the cello sounded like an electric guitar under the command of Mark Kosower. The final march definitely put us in the 4th of July mood, and everyone around me had a grand old time! It was also the first concert that Jeff would play after the ordeal he endured from his emergency vascular event. When the surgeon cleared Jeff to play the Blossom season, I imagined what it would like to hear him play live again… I knew it would be an emotional experience, and I wondered what piece I would hear him play. Never did it cross my mind that it would be this crazy and eccentric piece.

The thing about it, though, is that the selection of Gulda was a blessing in disguise. As rambunctious and fun and silly at time that piece was, I was in tears the whole time. I watched Jeff go through his stage routine, scraping on his reeds, visiting with his colleagues, and joyfully getting ready for his first concert back. And when I heard Jeff play, it was surreal. Is this really Jeff, playing? Am I so fortunate that I get to hear him play again? As the piece progressed, I thought about what it took for us to get here from that scary day on March 25th. From the shock upon hearing the news to relief and sheer giddiness of knowing that Jeff survived the surgery… and then the small steps we took in the ICU to the regular hospital floor, to the month-long brain fog from the anesthesia to the nosebleed episode in the middle of the night, etc. Somehow, it is 3 months later, and Jeff is playing a concert. The camera zoomed in on Jeff’s face during his solos, showing me the expression that I was so familiar with. It was something I didn’t know I would see again, and something I will never take for granted. I was in a joyous mood with everyone else at Blossom, but I was also probably the only one crying. And can you imagine what might have happened if the piece Jeff played was something sublime or transcendental? Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc.? I would have been an absolute mess! So I am thankful that I got to smile and chuckle through the tears because this Gulda was just so… fun.

I will say one last thing for this post, this time not as a wife but as a singer. We singers focus on the breath. It is everything. It is what sustains life, of course, and the thing that brings life to a musical phrase. What we sing becomes an extension of our existence. And so it must be with woodwinds… That evening, the sound of the oboe and the breath that gave it life was all Jeff, his life spared, and the breath of God that sustains him.

He’s back, folks!

Life with Maris: Part 5

My dog, my compass

When it comes to cars, I am a pretty easy person… I’ve gotten used to the cool technology over the years, but I could live without the seat warmers, the heads up display, even the hybrid technology (which I do love and have had since 2011)… but I can’t live without the navigation system. Yeah, you might say that I could use my phone, but I don’t like to rely on it when I drive. The need for having the car tell me where to go stems from the fact that I have no sense of direction. I cannot even imagine those days when we used to print out directions from “Mapquest” and drive with a piece of paper in hand. Yikes.

Jeff, on the other hand, is a human navigation system. If he has been to a location once, he’s got the whole map in his head permanently etched into his memory. Before navigation systems became more advanced, I used to struggle with unexpected road closures. The solution was simple: just call Jeff! He would talk me through the various routes I could take, but I would just make him stay on the phone while I drove to make sure I got to my destination.

It turned out that in the Rathbun household, Maris took after Jeff. If she had been somewhere once, she knew how to get back there and would have a clear memory of the place. That’s how she knew if she didn’t like a particular trail and would be stubborn about never going back! I don’t actually know how dogs do this – maybe through the nose? Maybe through their multiple other senses that are more advanced than humans?

There were so many examples where Maris was my compass and Google Maps. If a trail had a lot of windy turns, I would get all turned around, but not Maris. There were so many instances when I thought we needed to take one side of the fork in the road to get back to the car, but Maris would just stop cold and pull me toward the other. We would stand there in stalemate, me asking her “what is wrong with you? Aren’t you hot? Let’s go home,” and Maris asking me with her eyes “what is wrong with you? Aren’t you hot? Let’s go home.” Over the years, I knew to trust the dog and not my own sense of direction. And every time, she would be right. She would take us from the woods back to the car safely, so that we could crank up the air conditioner and go get our pup cup on our way home.

Not only was Maris good with finding our way back, she was also confident about where she wanted to go. When we took walks around the neighborhood, I usually let her make the decision on where we would go. You’re probably not supposed to do that as a dog owner, but I wanted her nose and her wonderful sense of spontaneity to guide us… because every walk was an adventure for us. She would get bored with one path, so then she would guide us to another path. And always, she would bring us back home.

When I think about Maris being my canine navigation system in the woods, I can’t help but to extend her role in other areas of my life. Maris was my compass, always bringing me back to the present when my mind wandered into the hazy past or into an anxious future. Or when I fell into unhealthy contemplation, she would help me appreciate the fleeting moments of joy. Somehow, this dog served as my compass, physically and spiritually through the last 11 years. God certainly has a great sense of humor. I can imagine God thinking, “well, since you gravitate toward heavy topics in your reading, your thinking, your singing, and in almost everything you do, I am going to teach you lessons about the joyous aspects of your faith through a little animal.” And she certainly fulfilled that role. The biggest take away for me is that “home” has come to mean not a place of heaviness and difficulty, but one of joy and gratitude where everyone can be a king and a queen. This is the home Maris brought me back to from our adventures, time and time again.

Maris loved park benches. Whenever she saw one, she would hop on it and sniff, and then pose…
Maris is about to give a speech. Please give her a round of applause!
“Mommy, you can do it. There are a lot of steps, but I believe in you!”

Life with Maris: Part 4

God in our midst, God among the trees

One of my favorite things in the world are trees. Yes, flowers are beautiful, and I love a creative arrangement of them as much as the next person (ahem, Jeff), but I love what trees represent. I love that they put down roots and grow, flourish, and age in the same place. In a healthy environment, they are a witness to everything that goes on around them, as seasons rotate from year to year. To me, they represent stability, resilience, beauty, renewal, and constancy through time. Trees are beautiful creatures.

When I was at Harvard, I would often stop in the middle of my walk through the Yard, look up, and close my eyes. The wind rustled through the leaves on those old trees, drowning out the noise of the traffic on Mass Ave and Harvard Square. Having been a swimmer in high school, the sound of thousands of rustling leaves took my mind to the water – with my eyes closed, I could pretend that the rustling leaves sounded like a moving river. I would feel the breeze and pretend that the trees had swallowed me whole to keep me safe under the turbulent white foam of the “water”‘s surface. Those trees that had been a part of the Yard for so many years, they also saw me walk to and from class, so lonely and a bit confused about where my life was headed. And even though my four years at the institution was short compared to the history they witnessed, those trees comforted me with what they represented. Stability, resilience, beauty, renewal and constancy through time.

There is something about being among trees, these majestic fortresses. Put a whole bunch of them together, and you have the woods. It seems that something happens in the woods for my mind and soul… or somethings become known in the woods… as if God speaks a little louder to us away from the busyness of modern life. One of the pleasures of living in Northeast Ohio is the “Emerald Necklace” or the string of the Metroparks system, which preserves the awe of natural landscape and wildlife. But I don’t like to walk these trails alone – the same awesomeness that makes these woods wondrous also makes them a bit scary for me. And for the last 11 years, I didn’t have to walk them alone because I had Maris. She and I made it our mission to explore every trail that was dog-friendly… or at least interesting to Maris. I would ask, “Maris, would you like to go on an adventure?” And she knew what that meant! We would put the harness on her and hop in the car. Some trails, Maris loved. Some, she didn’t really care for. I couldn’t really tell why, and it was really funny finding out. We would arrive at the parking lot of where the trail started, she would hop out, we would start hiking, and sometimes, she would walk about a quarter mile in, and then come to a full stop. “Come on, Maris, let’s go!” I would exclaim, trying to make the walk really exciting. She would look at me as if to say “Um, I’m not 5 years old” and just stand there not budging. And then finally when I ask “do you wanna go back to mommy’s car?” she would promptly turn around, wag her tail, and lead me all the way back to the parking lot, stopping right in front of the passenger door of my car. There are a few trails that she was determined not to walk. Who really knows why? I know this sounds silly, but in a magical sense, it’s almost as if she didn’t like the trees in some locations and what they were saying to her (haha). Or Maris is just a really intelligent dog, and some trails just bored her, and of course, she could tell just by using her nose.

One of our favorite places to go was the Brecksville Reservation. It was about an 8-minute drive from our house, and Maris would walk me for miles and miles in that park. Some of our favorite memories include hearing a chorus of frogs along the river, watching turtles sunbathe, Maris climbing my back to sit on my shoulders upon hearing a train (yes, there are train tracks that are still used for tourism), walking into the creek to cool Maris down on really hot days (and actually dropping my iPhone into the water once, ugh), and just having a conversation together. One time, I walked past this couple and overheard the guy say “that lady talks to her dog.” Damn straight, I do! We would also play games while we hiked – in one, Maris had to find the magical fairy dust using her nose, so that we could deliver it to the wizard before the bad guys got their hands on them. It was probably the urgency in my voice that got Maris to sniff, run, sniff, run, all along the trails at the Brecksville Reservation. Another game we played was “Guess Who,” where Maris had to sniff different parts of the park to find out who had been there. Maris would really get into her sniffing business, and I would ask her “Maris! Who was it? Who was there? Where did they go?” She would get a treat, and I would just laugh my head off. Who cares if there were people nearby? After the hike was over, we would head back to my car, and the whole time I would say, “Maris, where’s mommy’s car? Go find mommy’s car!” And she would find my car, stop at the door on the passenger side, and hop in like a queen.

During the pandemic, Maris and I hit the trails three, sometimes four times on the weekends. It got to a point where Maris just looked at me as if to say, “ma, you need to get a life.” But I don’t have a life because there is a pandemic, Maris! She got so used to me at home that when I came home after the first day back in the office, she pouted for a while (see photo below). Anyway, the hiking continued after we moved out of Richfield and to Mayfield Heights, this time, hitting the North and South Chagrin Reservations, and the Wilson Mills Trailhead. The last hike we went on was on the 12th anniversary of Jeff and my wedding on May 30th. We took Maris to the Punderson State Park, and took to the trail that went around the big lake. This was before her tumors started to interfere with her breathing.

Now when I think of the magnificent properties of trees, I cannot separate them from the magic that Maris and I shared in the woods. As I felt closer to God among the trees in my youth, God also showed me the joys of play among the trees with Maris. In the woods, I could forget about the things that felt so heavy… because the sound of the leaves became the ‘watery’ salve that washed away my tears, and Maris would lift my spirits with the bounce in her steps. Life felt lighter and worries wafted away with the breeze. At this time, I cannot imagine being in the woods without Maris – I am afraid that the magic just won’t be there. I am sure that one day I would be able to hit the trails again, but not for a very long time.

Maris mad at me after my first day at work post pandemic
Jeff and Maris at the Wilson Mills trail
Getting a pup cup after a hike together. Mommy gets iced tea.
Maris posing for me

Life with Maris: Part 3

A very gutsy story

Throughout the 11 years, Maris was a really healthy dog that gave us no issues. Basically, she went to the vet once a year for her shots, and there were maybe four or five extra vet visits for miscellaneous ailments… for example, getting a small splinter out of her gums. We were always protective of her, though, because she was born with a heart murmur. Jeff and I made sure that she played just enough to make her happy but that she would not overdo it and overheat. For so many years, we were able to control her activity levels, but we knew that her heart would give her trouble some day. We always thought that we would lose her to heart failure or some sort of pulmonary condition. Never in our minds did we consider that she would suffer from cancer and leave us completely heartbroken.

The truth is that I am not handling her illness too well. It is hard to see her body deteriorate. Her energy level is still very high (for an 11 year old dog!), but the cutaneous lymphoma expresses itself on the outside, so I can plainly see the progression of the disease. The biggest tumor on the skin is on the left side of her snout, and it is so big that it oozes and bleeds from time to time. This means that sometimes I have to chase her around to put pressure on the tumor until the bleeding can clot, and that I now own an industrial sized carpet cleaner. She wears a big inflated donut around her neck so that she cannot scratch this tumor, and she wears a cone at night when she sleeps so that we don’t wake up in the morning to a blood bath. This is really a cruel, cruel disease, and I cannot believe my beautiful Swiss mountain dog, my Little One has to suffer from it.

Taking care of her now takes me back to the first time I was worried about her physical wellbeing. One evening in August, when Maris was only about 12 weeks old, I took her to the animal emergency room in the middle of the night. Jeff wasn’t with me because he had gone to bed early – he had gotten his first colonoscopy that day, and needless to say, it was a traumatizing two days, starting with that prep drink, yuck. So I was watching Maris alone in the living room when I saw her make a funny motion with her neck while trying to swallow something. I panicked.

“Maris, what’s wrong? Talk to me!” She wouldn’t stop this funky swallowing motion. She was wagging her tail, but to my untrained eye, it looked like she was choking and couldn’t breathe. “What did I do? What did she eat? What did I leave out?” etc. etc. etc. In the back of my mind I thought, “see, I have only had her for a few weeks, and I’ve already messed up. I can’t take care of anything. She deserves a better mom.” Funny how the mind can go somewhere dark so quickly.

It was already 10:30pm, and Jeff was in the bedroom. I decided to take Maris to the pet ER. The small puppy sat on the passenger side and looked at me, still making that weird swallowing motion. I heard myself say, “no, no, please be okay little Maris. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I did.” We got to the ER and there was no one in the waiting room. We were taken in without much wait.

The veterinarian who examined Maris was a nice lady, whom Maris liked very much. She started to wag her tail and lick the vet’s ear, and was acting totally normally! The vet examined Maris and said that she didn’t feel anything lodged in her throat. The next thing to do is to get an x-ray. They took Maris to the back room where they took the pictures. When they got back, I saw two pictures: in the first one, Maris was spread eagle, and in the second one, it was a profile of her sitting down. The x-rays were actually quite funny (how do you get a puppy to do a spread eagle and to stay still?), and what was funnier was that Maris’s guts were completely filled with gas. “Gas? That’s what was wrong?” The vet said that over-the-counter Gas-X should do the job.

What a relief! Just gas. Six hundred dollars later (!!!), I came home late at night with the dog and a CD of the x-ray pictures. On the way home, Maris did a thing for the first time… sitting on my lap and falling asleep. I think she knew at that time that I would do anything to take care of her, that I love her, and that we are going to tackle life’s challenges together. When I got home, Jeff woke up and asked me what was going on. Boy, was he in for a story… I saved the longer version for the next day, and what I said was that it has been a day of gutsy drama in the Rathbun house, and that I expect an effervescent path toward a happy resolution.

I wish I could fix Maris’s cancer with pills as simple as Gas-X. Today, she is on steroids to help with her appetite and swelling, painkillers for comfort, blood pressure meds for her kidneys, and antibiotics to keep the tumors clean. She has sores inside her mouth, so eating is not as pleasant as it used to be, so I have been making her food to keep it soft for her mouth. I know that this cancer will take her at some point, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I can’t help thinking that maybe homemade food might help to beat the cancer. Stranger things have happened, right? Maybe there is something magical in the Costco ground beef… you never know. But I see the tumors spreading to other parts of her body; this is a very aggressive cancer with a high mitotic rate, and I can see it unfolding before my eyes. Other than the sores on her body, the lymph node on her right neck is now the size of a grapefruit. But she doesn’t yet know what is happening to her. Maris still wakes me up in the morning, more ready than I am to greet another new day, eating like a champion, and then sitting by my side because I am her best friend. We have our routine, which we keep doing because while I am neck-deep in grief, it is just another day for Maris. Maybe canine cutaneous lymphoma, this rare form of cancer, is in some way harder on the humans.

Everyone keeps telling me that she will let me know when it is time to let her go. I know that Maris will let me know anything that she is feeling. She has always been highly and clearly communicative (mostly bossing me around, haha), so I don’t doubt that she will let me know. But it is really the anticipation that is hard. I am at peace with the sacred process of knowing and accepting the moment, but the fact that I don’t know what that will look like makes me nervous. I keep imagining what her eyes will tell me, trapped inside her broken body. And then I get sad just picturing the moment in my head. So I keep looking at photos of her during her happy moments in the last 11 years because apparently, it helps to celebrate the good times that we had together. We shall see.

“What are you thinking, mommy?”
“Enough with the selfies, mom.”
“Let me teach you the proper downward facing dog.”

Life with Maris: Part 2

Living in the moment

I have been reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis for the past several weeks. It is a book that I read when I was a wee young thing, and while I was totally enamored with the humor and creativity of it, there was no way I could fully appreciate the book at that time. Because in youth so much of life is understood in broad brush strokes, the detailed nuance of human motivations and those small branches in a decision-making tree did not speak to me then as they do to me now. In one of the chapters, Uncle Screwtape talks about the folly of dwelling in the past and the future. Past… because we can’t change it and it is useless to hang on to it, and even worse, future since it “inflames hope and fear,” (Letter #15). But present, the present “is the point at which time touches eternity.” I’ve often thought that future represents eternity or infinity… because it is yet to come! But I think Lewis is right – with hope for the future also comes fear and anxiety, and ironically, it can imprison a person in a box full of “what if’s.” Not such an eternal feeling, huh? And also strangely, it was my dog that first taught me this lesson, the freedom of the present, and it was she who first really drove home the joys of being in the moment, and how that moment can expand to fill our existence and beyond. So much more powerful than wondering about the future!

There was an incident during the first few week’s of Maris’s life with us that launched this decade long lesson about appreciating the “now.” By this time, Maris was well adjusted to me and Jeff, and she really wanted to be with me all the time. One morning, I wanted to sleep in, and so Jeff left the puppy in the bedroom with me. I am a deep sleeper, so I didn’t hear the dog until a loud ripping sound pierced through the sheathe of slumber and banged on my eardrums. Riiiiipppppp~~~~~, riiiiipppp~~~ over and over again. I sat up, put on my glasses, and to my horror saw small bits of paper strewn about the floor, and my diary torn in half with its spine completely broken. Ack!!! My first response was one of shock and anger. I can’t believe she destroyed my diary!

That diary was heavy beyond its physical weight because it represented my headspace, which at the time was filled with a lot of anxiety. I was contemplating switching careers, potentially leaving a career in classical music I had built over 10 years’ time. It was a path that I had chosen when I was still in my twenties, leaving behind a career that promised wealth and stability, status in society, and what seemed logical to the world of a person with an economics degree from an Ivy League school. I did this thing that the world does not understand, but only musicians could. But nearly 10 years later, after multiple degrees, diplomas, competitions, concerts later… I felt the need to leave the industry and didn’t fully understand why. I was lost. So my diary at that time in 2011 contained so many unanswered questions. How did I get here? What happened? Where do I go from here?

It was this diary that Maris decided to eat. This little animal found such joy in ripping it up. Some pages became tiny bits of pulp. Some pages were spectacularly torn in large chunks. The words and letters that I had so carefully crafted to reflect how I felt were decimated in seconds, so innocently tossed about without any regard to the weight those words represented. It didn’t matter that I had put in hours into those pages. Maris’s lightheartedness obliterated them between her teeth. She was in her moment! Although I yelled at the dog as a part of my reflex, my heart was calm. I was struck by the symbolic significance of the paper carnage on the bedroom floor. Maris, in her innocent exuberance, completely destroyed the baggage I was carrying from my past. All the feelings I had about the past hurts and disappointments lay destroyed before my eyes. I felt freer, as if Maris had given me permission to move on.

The practice of being in the present didn’t come automatically after what turned out to be Maris’s only book-eating incident. I had many years of learning how not to worry about the future, how not to let the past haunt me. And I’m still learning! But after 11 years with Maris, I know what to picture when I find myself anywhere other than the present moment: her floppy ears on our walks, her impenetrable focus on the impending treat, the bliss of play, and the simple but profound happiness of being together. The present is eternity, indeed.

Maris being in the moment
All that matters in this present moment… is this yummy balanced on my nose.