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

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

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.

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.

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