Stages of life

and the dogs that define them

Maris was the first dog that was truly mine. Before Maris, there were dogs in my life, but they belonged to my parents because they were responsible for adopting them. Nevertheless, these dogs are a part of my life’s journey in the roles they played, how I felt about them, and who I was at that time. Let’s just say that these dogs, pre-Maris, were background characters, and when I think of them, I am instantly taken back to the person I was at that moment in my life. Geez, get a load of these canine time machines!

First there was Joy, whom I have discussed in a previous blog post. She was a tragic character in my life – she endured neglect in a way no dog ever should, and in my memory, she represents a similar neglect that I experienced throughout my teenage years. As a human, I grew up to be an independent person with problem solving skills; as a canine, Joy was just simply neglected. As I have said before, the story of Joy makes me wince and cry. She and Maris had similar coloring, and I felt like I was making it up to Joy when I treated Maris the best I could. Then there were other dogs that joined Joy in our backyard. I won’t go into the details of how then a whole family of dogs ended up neglected on our property, but let’s just say that the dogs in that yard represent a difficult time for our family and the dark side of immigrant life. Perhaps that is a story for another time.

Then there was the mighty pug, Bokdori. His name meant “bundle of blessings” in Korean, and he was such a cutie pie lap dog who loved to cuddle all the time. My parents adopted him when I was in grad school for music, so I only really saw him once or twice a year. But boy did we bond when we were together! He would come sleep on the bed with me instead of his crate – what luxury for his snorting majesty! As long as I was in my parents’ house, he wanted to be by my side, and we were joined at the hip. True buddies! One year, after I went back to school, he clawed his way out of the pool house net cover and went out into the neighborhood in search of me. When I think of him, I remember the early years of my musical endeavors when I was getting used to the world of classical music (some good and some really catty) and trying to shed the geeky math student persona. To me, Bokdori represents a happy but confused part of my life – I was so happy to finally get to sing and dive into something I loved, but also very uncomfortable in a new world where I stuck out like a sore thumb.

The next dog in my life was Sonja. I am spelling her name that way but really, it was an anglicized version of when Koreans call out the name “Sunny.” So “Sunny-ya” became “Sonja.” She was a squeaky Maltese, who was very protective of me. Like Bokdori, Sonja was attached to me whenever I would visit home, and I loved to play with what I called her crazy conductor hair. You know, where orchestra conductors like to grow out their curly and frizzy hair and whip it around when they are passionately gesturing to the musicians… Either that, or Sonja’s hair made her look like the abominable snowman. But the important thing here is that she let me play with her hair and groom her because she trusted me so completely and truly loved my attention. One of my favorite memories of her is that she would sit in front of the guest room door, waiting for hours for me to come out on days I chose to sleep in. Another memory: one day, my mom got very angry with me and began to yell (this was a frequent occurrence… I probably deserved some of it, but not all of it). Sonja got in front of her and started barking at my mom. Funny because technically, Sonja was my mom’s dog, but she was protecting me. Sonja knew who would freely give her the sweetest love… a true dog lover. To me, Sonja represents the time in my life when things started to get really turbulent in my inner world. In my late twenties, I struggled to steady my rudder amidst the turbulence in my mother’s sea storms. The responsibility of finding my life’s purpose loomed large while navigating the tricky waters of my misguided mother who believed that she had the God-given right to the lifetime that was allotted to me. The internal struggle stemmed from my love and compassion for her, and nothing more. I knew I had to use my life wisely; it was just a matter of trying to keep my mom in it. Sonja’s protective barks from that time represent the very boundaries I would need to build in my family relationships to journey toward a fulfilling life.

Then came Maris, and you all know about my life with her. I think the reason why she is so precious to me is not only that she was a special dog. This amazing dog met me at a time when I needed her the most. I needed her more than she needed me. And she saw me through so many changes that would come into my life. Starting from the outside and moving inward: a head full of black hair to what I would consider a distinguished (ahem!) salt and pepper look; a career change and a mountain of heartache that went into it; hundreds of hours of studies for multiple designations; unlearning singing out of desperation and re-learning how to sing with joy; and discovering eternity by focusing on the present moment. Maris accompanied me through the most profound stretch of my life so far.

Starting on December 3, 2022, another phase of my life will begin which will be defined by Lucas. He finds me a little more mature than Maris did 11 years ago… hopefully. I need to be excited about what adventures may lie ahead of us, what Lucas will teach me, what we will experience together. We will play games, we will train hard, and we will explore the best that northeast Ohio has to offer. But I must admit that I am a little nervous. I lost my best friend who has all those memories of where I’ve been. And now I have to start all over again with this little wild-haired munchkin that doesn’t know anything about me. As much as I have been looking forward to dog-cuddles, sweet faces, and puppy laughs, there is some anxiety about how this relationship will pan out. I guess there is only one way to find out. Dive in!

I promise I will be a good boy and connect with you. Maris has been training me from the Rainbow Bridge. I already know so much about all your joys and sorrows.

Closure

I will be okay, Little One

The days and weeks leading up to Maris’s departure from this world were filled with traumatic memories for me. Pills, lots and lots of pills to manage Maris’s cancer symptoms, cleaning up after Maris’s blood and drool from the skin lesions that swelled and bled, managing her food as her appetite changed and eventually faded, and finally the strained breathing as the swelling traveled to her lungs… I was myself in such a mess after we set Maris free, and all we could do in the evening was to watch a corny Christmas movie to take our minds off of what we just lost. That was on July 12th, and I was scheduled to leave for Dallas on the 13th. I got on the plane with a heart so heavy that I wondered if the plane could even take off.

During the 5 days I was in Dallas, Jeff did something for me that was so kind. He cleaned the house. He did his best to wipe away all the evidence of Maris’s illness. He even went to Michael’s and bought silk flowers and arranged them himself for the dining room table. He threw away the pills, the pill bottles, and put away the bloody inflatable donuts/cones, her toys, towels, food and water bowls, treat boxes, collar and leashes… I came home to a clean house for two humans. I was so touched at Jeff’s kindness, and I also didn’t ask him where he put all of Maris’s stuff. I couldn’t bare to see them.

Since meeting Lucas for the first time on October 15th, I’ve been feeling the spirits of both dogs. I have written about how Maris must have been orchestrating this union from the Rainbow Bridge… the idea that there is continuity, passing of the baton between Maris and Lucas gives me so much comfort. And now, we are only 9 days before we pick up the new puppy.

Some time this fall, I was rummaging around the laundry room in the spirit of cleaning (well, more like just moving things around), and I accidentally found all of Maris’s stuff. Jeff had tucked them away inside our little cubby at the bottom of our “locker.” I wasn’t ready to see it, and my heart skipped a beat and then sank. I quickly shoved the stuff back inside the cubby, making a mental note of where Maris’s belongings were held, and quickly moved about with the laundry. And then I let weeks go by.

As I have been preparing for Lucas’s arrival (oh, lots of Amazon and Chewy shopping so far, as well as enrolling myself into the Aussi Academy for proper training of this breed), I have also been thinking about that little cubby in our laundry room. The very box I have not been able to face, I knew that I need to face in the next 9 days. So today, on Thanksgiving Day, I decided that it was time to properly lay to rest Maris’s belongings. Oh, the sweet memories! Her collars from different stages of her life… I could almost see the dog in them. The long black leash with a clicker and poop bag dispenser attached reminded me of the countless trails we traversed all throughout northeast Ohio. The orange Ruffwear harness is so hard to look at… I would ask her “would you like to go on an adventure?” whenever I put it on her. Maris’s little squirrel toy that she liked to just have in her mouth… I would ask her “where’s Anderson? Don’t eat Anderson!” to which she would tilt her head while looking at me quizzically. The beige slow feed bowl that she ate in for the last however many years… that would also be put away along with Maris’s things. I even found one of Jeff’s socks in there, one of Maris’s absolute treasures – even in death, Maris is squirreling away Jeff’s socks! I quietly put all these things inside a box, so that I could properly label it as a part of Maris’s memories. And with them also followed a piece of my heart to be with Maris forever.

The new dog will look nothing like Maris. He is a blue merle Australian Shepherd puppy. Maris was a very pretty, neatly groomed short-hair dog, but Lucas will probably always look like he just got out of bed. He is also not a she. So I will not be buying anything red, pink, or orange for him… his new leash is green, as is his first collar. His slow feed bowl will be blue, and he will also eat a different brand of food. The only thing I am keeping is the water bowl… because Maris didn’t have it for very long.

Nine days shy of bringing Lucas home, I needed to do this last bit of organizing for closure. To honor Maris’s memory (my memory with and of her) but also to be fair to the new dog. He gets to make his memory with me, to guide me and to herd me in his own style. I am sure he is taking instruction from Maris from the Rainbow Bridge, but he is probably also thinking of his own ways to continue making me a better person.

Okay, Lucas. Show me!

Little Lucas and his bed head. Still at the farm, waiting to come home.

Waiting

is a hard thing to do

I am in the middle of the longest 7 weeks I have endured in… oh, a very long time. When we met the little puppy we would later name Lucas, he was only 1 week old. After the serendipitous collision of fate between us and this little canine munchkin (aided and guided by the spirit of little Maris, I’m sure), I knew it would be a painful 7-week wait. I am keeping myself distracted with work, business trips, girlfriend time, cleaning, etc… and lots of preparation work for the arrival of our next Little One.

That prep work involves shopping, of course. I’ve already purchased a playpen for the dog, researching the best dog training fanny packs, reading The Forever Dog by Rodney Habib and Karen Shaw Becker, and watching a lot of YouTube videos on puppy training. Some guy named Nate Schoemer has been my instructor, and he is fantastic. I trained Maris 11 years ago, and she was a very compliant and studious dog: Maris learned how to sit, lay down, shake, rollover, stay, and was potty trained within 2 weeks of arriving at her new home. The rest of her puppy years, we developed a routine together that lasted until she left us due to cancer. With Lucas, I’m going to be even more disciplined and teach more commands. I’m a little nervous about training a puppy because I haven’t done it in 11 years… but Nate talks through the steps with me, and he makes me feel like I can do this!

I keep hearing that Australian Shepherds are wicked smart. Could they be smarter than Entlebucher Mountain Dogs? Would Lucas be smarter than Maris? That is really hard to believe because Maris was smarter than me and Jeff. I always had a feeling she was just watching us, just shaking her head in “tsk tsk tsk” manner, thinking “you silly humans… I guess I was sent here to guard and to herd you for a reason.” Thinking of these whip smart dogs, I said to Jeff one day, “I think Lucas might already be smarter than us.” (Jeff doesn’t think so, but oh, just wait.) I also can’t help thinking that there is some stuff going on behind the scenes. Maris, from the Rainbow Bridge, is probably training Lucas telepathically- “I think you’ll really enjoy being a Rathbun. They need all the help you can give them. The alpha dog is the larger of the two humans, and he is very ornery, but in a funny way. He always played games with me and tried to trick me – but I always let him know that I was on to him by howling my head off. The beta dog is the smaller human, and she will always just want to hug you, kiss you, and to cuddle. You’ll have to get used to selfies. She’s also the one who sucks all your fur with this long machine that makes so much noise – I hated it. But you have to be really nice to her because she’s the one that has the treats all the time. Most of the time, she is the one to feed you in the mornings. And she’s the one that goes hiking, so you’ll get to check out what they call the Metropark System. Within a few months, you’ll realize that your job is to be loved, to love them back, and to protect and to guide them. You have herding instincts – it will be natural.”

Honestly… the dog has probably already figured us out by now.

In the middle of the long 7-week wait, Jeff must have been getting an earful from me on the puppy front. At first, I would ask him, as each day progressed, “do you think the puppy is *this* much bigger today?” using my forefinger and thumb, and squinty eyes to indicate an infinitesimal amount. I would whine while looking at the latest puppy photos from the farm. Either Jeff got tired of my pining or he felt really bad… he tried to make the situation slightly better. One day, I came home from work, and he said, “go into the bedroom, you have a visitor.” I walked in gingerly because the last time he told me there was a visitor, it was the neighbor’s dog who wanted to see me on my driveway… (haha! I know, all the dogs of the neighborhood know me). When I went into the bedroom, there was a stuffed blue merle Australian Shepherd animal waiting for me on my side of the bed. It looked almost exactly like what Lucas would be. I named him Chopin. I don’t need jewelry or a fancy vacation… Jeff knows the way to my heart.

Waiting is hard. But it is giving me time to prepare. The last, and perhaps the most important aspect of waiting is the precious time I have alone with Maris in my heart. All my memories with my little one, all the walks, all the laughs, those precious eyes, the kisses… she was the fountainhead of daily joy. I miss her with all my heart, and there isn’t a day that passes by without a sharp twinge of sadness. But thinking of Maris hanging out on the Rainbow bridge, that wicked smart Entlebucher Mountain Dog orchestrating this Rathbun family formation, prepping Lucas with all the tips on how to be a Rathbun, and healing me with puppy preparation… I can see how in all of Maris’s wisdom, 7 weeks would be the perfect length of time.

Little Lucas at 5 weeks old… What a little munchkin!!

Little Chopin.

A second chance

when it calls you, finds you

Do I believe in fate? I’m not sure. I believe in providence, and I don’t know if the two are the same. Coming from a spiritual place, I believe that things happen for a reason, and that when things are meant to be in my life, things that are out of my control fall into place. Doors open. There is ease in the process. And when things are not meant to be… well, I have had doors shut on my face a few times in my life, so I know when certain things were not meant for me.

In a similar way, I felt that Maris was a gift to us, that she was meant to become a part of our family. She was God’s gift to us because we had so much to learn about life. Initially, she was supposed to go to another family, but they couldn’t take her at the last minute. So we received the call. Coincidence? I don’t think of life’s blessings as coincidences!

After Maris’s passing, my readers know that there has been a gigantic hole in my heart, in my routine, in my life. It has been so bad that I physically hurt… and have resorted to calling Jeff “my puppy.” One time, he came back from a concert and said, “the puppy’s home!” Clearly, I am discovering that I cannot live without a dog. Maris has changed the course of my life forever!

So it is no wonder that Jeff and I have been thinking about getting another dog. And honestly, after our European trip where I bonded with all the dogs of Europe, I realized that I needed one sooner than later. When we first started talking about adopting another dog, it was noncommittal. No real timeline, just thinking or dreaming about what our next dog will be, when might be the right time, etc. But one does not just casually talk about getting a dog. It becomes a real thing very quickly. The issue was that it wasn’t simple for me. This would be a dog that would take the place of Maris in our hearts… It would be sitting on a very special dog throne. It had to feel right.

I looked at rescue websites (that would be the quickest way to find the next dog love), discussed various breeds with Jeff, and asked our neighbors about their dogs. It was so confusing – nothing felt right. I probably had Maris on such a high pedestal. We discussed corgis, Bernedoodles, doodles and oodles, hypoallergenic, small dogs, etc. Do I want a small dog that I would be able to travel with? Or do I want a dog that will go to the Metropark trails with me? Maris’s legacy loomed large, my mind would change every other minute, and nothing would feel right to me.

Until this week. Just this Thursday, we found a good breeder for Australian Shepherds south of where we live. We thought that we would start the process of meeting the parents, the way we did when we adopted Maris. I had a good feeling about it, so Jeff and I took a short day trip on a beautiful October morning. There is nothing like an October sky in Ohio… We stopped in the Amish country at our favorite cafe (Salt Creek Cafe) and ate our favorite breakfast sandwich ever… honestly, we go back to the Amish country for this sandwich, haha! We walked around and bought a few mums. And then we drove to the farm where the dogs were. Two Australian Shepherds greeted us, Angel and Jake, and I just fell in love with the breed. As we conversed, the breeder learned more about us – and the fact that we love dogs more than words can say. She suddenly told us that she had a litter. Wait, what? She didn’t mention that when we called – we thought we were just meeting the adults to get to know the breed. The look on our faces must have been comical. She smiled and asked if we wanted to see the litter. Yes, yes, yes, of course, yes!

The puppies were born exactly a week ago on October 8th. They were so little!! The one girl was already spoken for, but a few of the boys were still available. I held several of them in my hands – they were soooo precious! Their eyes were closed, but you could already kind of tell that they were different (other than the fur colors). The very first one I held started talking to me so loudly! He was so vocal and so funny… I kept asking him, “do you want me to be your mommy?” Wah wah wah!! (Jeff later said, “maybe we should call him ‘Squeaky’!”) While I was in another universe with the puppies, Jeff asked the breeder when the puppies would be available to go to the new families. Early December… no way! That was exactly the ideal timeline I had in my mind because December is relatively quiet for my job. Really? are things really aligning? Perchance, fate?

After holding a few others, we decided to adopt the very first one that I held, the one that was singing to me. And the thing is that it feels right. I feel at peace. And I think it is also no coincidence that this new little one is also a cattle herder, just like Maris was. I am at peace that this little animal is the right one to continue Maris’s legacy of herding me through life.

Early morning drive to Salt Creek Cafe… not quite awake yet
A goofy photo, pretending to be surprised.