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.

Life with Maris: Part 1

Grrr, woof woof, awoooooo!

Maris is an Entlebucher Mountain Dog, Entles for short. It is a very active breed – always moving around, extremely alert, lots of energy, simply joyful. Entles were bred to be cattle herders, like border collies, so Maris used to gently nip my heels whenever we were moving around the house. She stopped trying to physically herd me as she grew up, but she continued to herd my heart and mind for the next 11 years.

Dog owners know that their canine family members teach them many lessons while they are with us. Maris was no different for me. We got her during what is clear in hindsight to be a time of many changes in my life, and she saw me through all those years, making sure that I was trending toward self-improvement rather than spiraling into entropy :). Through our adventures together, Maris taught me many virtues, the least of which is love.

The first two weeks Maris spent with us were extremely stressful. Maris turned out to be a very headstrong, vocal, and stubborn puppy. I needed to crate-train her, but she broke down the crate we had bought for her – I had pictured a sweet puppy face instead of a real animal, haha, and I had mistakenly bought a crate made of plastic, canvas, and mesh… with a zipper opening. She tore the thing down in about 2 seconds. I got her a new large metal crate that she could grow into, but then she would cry and bark when she was in it. When she was out of the crate, and I played with her, she was so joyful and just happy to be around us. I had not had my own puppy before, so it was so fascinating just to watch her find joy in play.

I remember those first few week for something else. I knew I was now responsible for this animal, and she was such a life force that I mistook her for a child. To be specific, I saw the child that I was many years ago in this small animal. I wanted to give her the best “childhood,” perhaps one that I had always dreamed of. So the pressure was on… to do the impossible – to give this puppy the happy childhood that I didn’t have. I know… so silly. But at the end of the two weeks, my low self-esteem go the better of me and I said to Jeff, “I don’t think I can make her happy.”

Jeff asked me, “so, do you think we should take her back to the farm?” Wow, I had not considered giving her up. She had already etched a permanent place in my heart with her little paws. “No,” I replied… but I was depressed about my inability to make her happy because I was projecting my disappointments on this innocent little puppy and trying to change the course of my life by making her the happiest animal on earth. So this is how I ended up seeing Maris as an inevitable extension of me. I mean, after all, she was very headstrong, vocal, and stubborn… exactly like me! Even though she was a dog that would use the yard as her facilities and liked to eat goose poop, Maris was for me a second chance at a happy and innocent childhood… perhaps to right some of the wrongs.

Later, I happened to say the same thing to a good friend who was a dog expert/trainer: “I am worried that I’m not making her happy.” She looked at me curiously and said, “no, she’s supposed to make YOU happy.”

And that is exactly what happened. She made me happy just by being who/what she is. She showed me ways to get lost in the woods with wonder, the simple joys of togetherness, and the virtues of being a working dog. She taught me how to be in the moment instead of being haunted by the past or worrying about the future. Maris already embodied what innocence is – I didn’t have to give her the happy existence because she already owned it.

The last 11 years with Maris was a decade of many lessons. And to think that I was worried about being able to make her happy when it turned out that she was taking care of me this whole time. Oh, the irony!

Maris is soooo over everyone gushing over her
Such a rebel