Doggy lullaby

O Sleep, thou dost NOT leave me…

Jeff and I are classical musicians. We met because Jeff was looking for a soprano to sing a piece he wrote for his former teacher and colleague, John Mack who had passed away in 2006. So in April of 2007, as he was planning this tribute to John Mack, he cold-called me after having received my number from another musician friend. The rest is history, and maybe I will tell it in more detail since our 13th wedding anniversary is coming up in 2023.

Being musicians means there is a good amount of practicing going on at the house. And so anyone living with us, mainly dogs, will get the full experience of the musical process. This means hearing a lot of mistakes, sometimes swear words or laughter to accompany them, repeated phrases that start out as rough but finish with a shine, experimenting with different expressions, etc. etc. The amount of thought and work that goes into a world-class performance of the final product is something that perhaps only musicians know and can commiserate with. And the dogs that live with us and have to hear it all.

When Maris was just a few months old, I was still a full-time musician and a professor. She grew up listening to me practice at home with all the strange exercises that classical singers do to train our muscles. I remember practicing one particular piece called “Alice in Wonderland: Child Alice part 1, In Memory of a Summer Day” which was an extremely difficult piece for a soprano and orchestra. I must have killed a number of brain cells practicing notes that hovered just beyond the stratosphere. Poor Maris was at the house with me as I practiced, trying to get this monster 60-minute piece under my belt. Poor Maris, I thought. She happily and peacefully slept through all my practice sessions, repeated high-C’s be damned.

And it was so for all her life. Every time I started my warm ups, basically easy lip trills and step-wise 5 to 1 scale, she would know to get into her day bed. And then she would promptly fall asleep. Now that she has left this world and has crossed the Rainbow Bridge, I like to think that she can still hear my voice and the musical phrases I spin out as she had in her dreams when she was with me.

Today, we have Little Lucas. I have not yet practiced in front of him in the month that we have had him. But Jeff has! No, not singing, but on the oboe. Whenever he practices downstairs in his studio, Lucas falls asleep. It’s as if on cue. There must be something to this… beautiful sound is indeed nourishment for the soul. And I think these dogs must somehow be enriched and soothed, enough to be lulled into sleep. OR, we are just a big snore! For two musicians living in the same house, this is a really interesting experiment!

Snore…

Lucas to Maris, the peanut butter debate

confessions of a picky palate

Dear Maris,

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. That was a really nice nap, and I really enjoyed your visit in my dreams. When I was at the farm, you used to visit me more often… I understand that you want me to create my own experience with the Rathbuns, but it would be really nice to see you in every dream.

I think it is so interesting that you don’t need to protect the sheep in heaven. Wolves and lions are friendly? I am so happy for you that you are playing in such an amazing place. What else can you tell me about heaven? Whenever you get a chance, I’d love to know more. If anything, maybe I can tell everyone here how happy and pain-free you are.

Mommy and daddy miss you so much. I can hear them talking about it, and it shows in their eyes. You know, your ashes are inside this beautiful box on their bookshelf, and your collar and paw print are on top of it. Sometimes they say that I am so opposite of you, and sometimes they say that we are so alike. And I think they are on to us, by the way. Remember the sock hoarding you taught me? Well, maybe I was following your directions too well because I heard mommy say “maybe Maris taught him about the socks!” I think I need to vary my methods a bit in order not to make it so obvious.

Okay, so I have to set the record straight on peanut butter. That stuff is gross! Mommy keeps trying to lure me to like it because apparently, you couldn’t get enough of it. Honestly, Maris, I just don’t see the appeal. It’s sticky, greasy, and did you know that it’s not even a nut? It’s a legume! You won’t find me eating a bean for fun in this lifetime. I am sticking to cheddar cheese. Because mommy is training me every day, I get to have so much cheese. It’s delicious, and I would never swap it for anything else.

Speaking of training, mommy has taught me about sit, down, touch, heel, spin, through, and leave it. The last one is the hardest… because I frankly never want to leave anything I grab… especially when I am trying to herd her. You said that I am supposed to herd her, so I am trying to do my best. But every time I grab her heel or her pant leg, she tells me to leave it. Or she makes me heel. I am soooo confused. Why did you tell me that I’m supposed to herd her? How am I supposed to herd her if she doesn’t want to be herded? You can lead the horse to water, but you cannot make it drink, I guess.

And thank you for correcting me on “smow” versus “snow.” Frankly, I like my version better, but I guess we will go with yours. I am starting to understand the appeal of playing in it, but I still like eating it better. And I love that mommy lets me out just so that I can eat the snow. I make myself comfortable by sitting or lying down and just eat the white stuff. There was so much of it last weekend, but a huge chunk of it has disappeared, and now the grass is back at the front of the house. Even though there is no more snow to eat, for some reason, mommy keeps taking me outside. What’s the point?

Lastly, you asked about daddy’s health. He seems to be very healthy and energetic! He is so fun and funny, and he loves cuddling with me. I don’t think you need to worry about him, but I am sure that he appreciates you thinking of him. And one question: do our parents make funny noises? I am still learning human English, so sometimes I can’t tell if they are teaching me a word or just being weirdos.

Well, I think it’s time for these humans to get ready for bed. They are making something called “popcorn” tonight. They keep saying that you used to be a part of their popcorn making routine, and that you used to love eating it with them. Since I have realized that our taste in food and treats is very different, I will have to judge “popcorn” myself. Maybe it will be gross, like peanut butter.

Come visit soon. I miss you.

Love, Lucas

I’m totally owning this house
I’m not going to “leave it” mommy!

A reply from Maris

dear baby brother Lucas

I am so glad that you started your nap right after sending me your update because I can respond to you in your dreams while my thoughts are fresh. Things are great with me here beyond the Rainbow Bridge. I was so afraid to cross it, but there were several dogs that already knew who I was… Joy, Bokdori, and Sonia have been here for a few years already, and they all knew your mommy from different parts of her life. They were so kind and welcoming. Joy and I run around together every day while Bokdori and Sonia hang out in the shade under a tree. I guess since they were lap dogs on earth, they don’t have a taste for running around. And yes, you are correct that the sheep in heaven are just as clueless as the sheep on earth. But they have also kept their sweetness and innocence. What is different is that I don’t have to protect them here because the wolves and lions are actually very nice. All the animals get along so well!

I miss my human parents so much, but I am glad that you are there with them and can tell me how they are doing. Just a few months before I left them, daddy had a huge surgery, and mommy was really worried about him. I know that she was so busy taking care of him, and I felt really bad that she had to take care of me, too. How are they? I saw daddy making a full recovery before I left for heaven, and I just want to make sure that he is doing well.

Okay, so I have to address a few things from your letter. It’s called, snow, not smow. And the main purpose of it is not for eating. It’s for playing. I suppose it could taste refreshing – while I played, some would make it into my mouth. It was nice and cold, but there was no flavor. So make sure that you play in it next time. And when they say “do your business,” it doesn’t mean your business of playing… even though that is totally our business, humans don’t get that. They think doing your business means relieving yourself. And by the way, that’s why they put you in your “room.” It’s a part of training to go outside. I know it’s not ideal to be inside your room, and being away from mommy can feel like an eternity, but as you have observed, she always comes back for you. Because she is your mommy now, and you are hers.

I didn’t realize that you were such a treat snob. I don’t care what you say, those treats were amazing. Mommy has good taste, so she never bought anything that wasn’t gourmet or healthy. You just have not yet developed a sophisticated palate that I was fortunate enough to be born with. But don’t worry – your taste can expand beyond cheddar cheese and ham in due time. And just wait until she introduces you to peanut butter. It will change your life. I loved that stuff, that is, until I couldn’t taste it anymore due to my illness. I knew something was wrong when I didn’t want peanut butter anymore.

When you are ready, fully vaccinated and old enough, they will send you to day school a few times a week. At school, you will meet a lot of other dogs, and you’ll be able to play with them. It’s interesting to see the various cliques that develop among the dogs. The doggy school I went to for most of my life separated the students into two groups: small vs. large dogs. I was medium sized so I could belong in either. So I was able to have friends in different cliques… and it was inevitable, but I also had a boyfriend in each group. They didn’t know about each other so no one got hurt, but you might also be able to game the system since you’ll be about my size when you’re fully grown.

You’ve only been there for three weeks, so you still have a lot to learn about these humans. They are very special to me, and I miss them every day. Even though life here is pretty great in heaven, I miss the Metropark System, which mommy and I explored together for 11 years. Whenever the weather allowed it, mommy took me on a trail for an adventure. Sometimes, I just knew that it was time for a trail when I could feel that she was anxious or sad. She liked to get lost in the woods because then her sadness would not feel so overwhelming. So I had to be her compass and bring her home each time. Soon, you will become her compass, too. And that’s the main reason I chose you, Lucas. Because you are a herding dog, and she needs a herder.

I think you are just about to wake up from your nap, so I will end my letter here. You are doing great. Just don’t be so picky about treats, and stop trying to eat all the snow. It’s impossible – in northeast Ohio, that stuff comes down from heaven incessantly. Write to me again when you feel like it or if you have questions. I have to go now – the sheep are bleating so loud that I can’t concentrate anymore.

Love, Maris

A letter from Lucas to Maris

a progress report

Dear Maris,

I hope you’re running around all you want and finding plenty of sheep to herd on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. I have been hearing that the sheep in heaven are not any smarter than the ones on earth. So apparently, they still need all the help you can give them so they don’t go astray. If that’s the case, I know that you’re having a good time!

As for me, things are going pretty well. It has been three weeks since I arrived at the Rathbun home, and everything is as you said – they really love our kind! Right now, it is something called “Christmas Time,” and while it’s nice and cool outside, it is toasty inside. I get to take naps on pretty cushy beds, and a few times a day, I go outside to enjoy the wind and sniff the grass. Although… a few days ago, the grass disappeared! It is now covered by really yummy white stuff – I think you told me about this white stuff… is it called… smow? I think they get frustrated when I sit down to eat smow. They keep saying “do your business” over and over again, and I keep thinking “I AM doing my business… the business of exploring this scrumptious white manna from heaven.” Isn’t this what I’m supposed to do with smow? Anyway, they stand around shivering and saying how cold it is, while repeating “do your business!” And I’m like, “what do you think I’m doing? This smow is delicious! And honestly, it is nice and cool out here!”

The one called “mommy” kept offering me small morsels of stuff to see if I would eat it. I know you said that they are generous with treats, but I think you and I have different taste. I was looking forward to them, but they smell pretty bad! I can’t believe you ate whatever she gave you. Anyway, she finally offered this orange stuff that she calls “cheddar cheese,” which is totally worth eating. And the Christmas ham was to die for. So I guess not everything is bad – I’m sure you also had your share of cheese and ham. Even at the doctor’s office, they offered me something called “Pepperoni.” Why do humans keep putting these things in front of our noses and expect us to eat it? I know you liked it, but I think it’s weird. Mommy has finally learned that I like cheddar cheese, so she keeps it with her all the time… seriously, she even takes it to bed. She asks me to do various things, and when I comply, she offers me a bite. I like this “cheese” enough to do her bidding. Then she gives me a belly rub, which is actually my favorite.

The one thing I really don’t care for is this box they call my “room.” They put me in there the second night I was at their house, and I thought that my life was over. I squealed for hours, and mommy finally took me out and slept in my playpen with me. You told me about this “room,” but even you couldn’t remember it well because you hadn’t been in one since you were 1.5 years old, right? You said that you eventually ended up liking your room, but I don’t know how you were able to deal with not being next to mommy. Maybe you were more independent than I am. I don’t know. Will it get better? Well, you were right about one thing so far about the “room…” I’m only in there for a little bit, and mommy always comes back for me. She takes me out, picks me up, and kisses me all over… and I’m overcome with such relief and love. I guess I just have to learn to enjoy the bully stick and the snuggle puppy she put inside my room.

There has been a lot to get used to, but I think you prepared me really well for my arrival here. I am starting to enjoy being a Rathbun… I can’t compare it to anything else, but life seems to be really good here. And you were totally right about these socks! The bigger ones belonging to “daddy” are especially pungent and delightful. I have already started putting them all over the house so that I am never more than just a few hops away from a stinky one. That was a really good piece of advice! And I am looking forward to putting all your advice into good use in the coming months! For now, I need to go take a nap. Maybe you can “write me back” in my dreams.

Love, Lucas

The First Encounter

Hmmm. So YOU’RE the puppy. Hmmm (try to hear in a snooty voice)

July 18th of 2011 was a Monday, and Jeff and I were driving down to the Double Gap Farm in North Carolina to pick up our 9 week old Entlebucher Mountain Dog puppy. Her litter name was “Pink Camo,” and I only had one little photo of her face to get me through the weeks leading up to our meeting date. That Monday, we planned to drive most of the way there from northeast Ohio, spend the night at a hotel, and then pick up the puppy on Tuesday. I remember that Monday vividly. I had just been diagnosed with shingles that very morning, and at my appointment, the doctor asked me, “are you particularly stressed at this time?” Oh boy, was I. I felt broken, defeated, and now I had a limp from the shingles pain down my left leg to show for it.

Jeff and I spent the night at Fairfield Inn that night, and I remember our conversation as we fell asleep. “Can you believe we’re getting a dog?” “This is the last night as just the two of us. Tomorrow, we will be three.” One of the things in my memory is Jeff practicing what he would say when he met Pink Camo for the first time: “Hmmm. So YOU’RE the puppy!” He said this in a dismissive way with such a snooty voice and his nose up in the air. Then he cracked up laughing at his own ridiculous scenario. I think I might even have a video of him saying that phrase in front of Maris on our drive back home from North Carolina.

When we got to the farm, the double gate opened, and we drove in. As I got out of the car, I saw Pink Camo playing with an older Labrador. In the back of my mind, I knew that the small puppy was our dog – she was the only one left in the litter because the others had been picked up. But I diverted my attention to the Labrador (?!) and started petting the older dog. Jeff said,”that’s our puppy. That’s her right there!” I sheepishly went over and acquainted myself with her… and picked her up from the ground into my arms. She never set foot on North Carolinian soil again because that was it – once she was in my arms, she was in it forever.

As we drove down to Danville, Ohio to pick up Lucas, I wondered about that moment eleven years ago. Why was I hesitant to pick up Maris instantly? Wasn’t I looking forward to the dog? Why did I go first to the Labrador? Thinking deeply about that moment and the anticipation, I think I was afraid to be too excited about Maris at the time. I was afraid of how much I would love her. So it was really my defensive mechanism that kept me from running to her upon first sight and sweeping her off of her paws. That bit of hesitation was my fear of rejection. Yes, friends… eleven years ago, I was afraid of being rejected by a puppy. It was a low point in my life, shingles and all.

When we arrived at the farm last Saturday, the farm dog “Angel” greeted us again. While I played with Angel, the breeder came out of the house holding Lucas in her arms. This time around, I didn’t hesitate. I marched over to Pam and reached out for Lucas. He was scared, but he looked at me, and I at him. It was love at first sight. He licked my face even though he had only known me for a few minutes. I held him tight while we spoke with the breeder, until I got into the back seat of my car (Jeff was driving back), and put Lucas in his car seat for the long drive home. I don’t think Lucas will be back in Danville… unless he wants to go herd Pam’s sheep.

I guess one thing that is different about me from 11 years ago is that I don’t feel the need to protect myself from loving something too much. Maris never rejected me (well, except for when she thought my kisses were too much), and I never had anything to fear. I think Lucas is the same. This time, I didn’t hold anything back. And perhaps that is something Maris taught me over the years. I learned to love her with all my heart while she was with us, even if she didn’t want that last kiss that I so wished to plant on her forehead.

Love at first sight

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.

The withdrawal stage

missing xoxoxo

At first, the grief was overwhelming. I never wanted another dog again. How could I love something so much for so long, only to have to say good bye? A friend at work told me that I will be able to love again. That I would get there in time. It seemed impossible, but I believed her because time can do anything, I suppose. But even if I believed that I could love another, it felt like a betrayal to imagine loving another dog. Maris was my world for 11 years. I could never replace her!

Even if time healed my wounds and another dog came into my life, I might always compare the new dog to Maris… because Maris really was the perfect dog. She never chewed on anything other than her own toys. She was so well-potty-trained. She understood English (and some German words I taught her), even though she didn’t want you to know just how much. I could walk her without a leash, if I really wanted to because her focus was always on me. And she knew how to protect me. If I get another dog and it chews up my shoes, how could I not compare it to Maris? Then a good friend of mine told me that she had all the confidence in the world that I would love the new dog for what it is. Okay, maybe she is right.

You might be thinking that I am writing this post because I got another dog. Not quite. After the various stages of grief, I am experiencing a real withdrawal. I don’t think that’s a technical stage of grief, but here you have it. A real desire to connect with a canine. I can’t watch commercials with dogs in them without feeling a real pang in my heart for a dog’s love. It is difficult to watch people walking their dogs without feeling a bit of envy… what is a daily routine to them feels like a dream to me now. I guess I am a dog person through and through.

I like to think that it is more than just my love for dogs – you might think I’m crazy, but I think that dogs sense a connection with me. Just ask Jeff. Dogs somehow flock to me, or stop and look at me as if to say, “wait, I know you… and I think I might love you.” or “I want to lick your face” is more like it! When we were in Prague, we met a man and his dog, a Leonberger. It is a very large dog, similar coloring to a German Shepherd. When he and I saw each other, we just knew. Within a blink of an eye, I was sitting on the floor of the elevator bank with the dog licking my face all over, having a moment with this dog as if we had known each other all our lives. I never wanted it to end. And then there is the Shorkie that belongs to a new family in our neighborhood. I met the dog once before my trip, and apparently, she sat on our driveway waiting for me to come out to greet her everyday while I was in Europe. And honestly, I say hello to every dog I see. I am telling you… I think I might be part-canine.

There is an undeniable yearning for a dog’s love. Maybe it is sort of a rebound need… perhaps. After losing Maris, a dog’s love that had partially defined my 11 years had suddenly been snatched away from me. Whatever the case, the withdrawal symptoms are real. Emptiness, heartache, longing… for those indescribable moments of connection that dogs gift to us when we let them love us… all of it. Now I know that I will be able to love again, and I will be able to love another dog as our next family member. Not now, but some day.

December 2021. Last Christmas with Maris.