Maris! I mean… Lucas!

a transition period for the humans

Maybe we should have chosen a name that had three syllables. Or choose a name that didn’t end with an “s.” Or select one that had different accent patterns. Or maybe all of the above! We now associate the little furry munchkin with the name “Lucas,” so it’s too late, but we are constantly correcting ourselves because we either want to say “Maris,” or we catch ourselves after the fact. Even eight weeks after Lucas came home with us.

I guess it’s difficult to erase 11 years of habit. My lips come together to form the “M” of “Maris” before I realize what it is that I am saying. In my moments of affection (“Oh, little Maris”), in times of frustration (“Maris!”), or in search of the dog (“Ma—-ris!” usually in major third, for you musicians out there), the hum of the letter “M” buzzes even before I realize what is happening. Once in a while, I will catch myself wanting to say her name, but I can’t quite think of “Lucas” in time, so I’ll just say “Puppy” or “Hey Hey!” Or sometimes, just stay silent and the dog gets away with whatever he is doing.

Maybe it’s not just my habit. Maybe it’s Maris herself… she is forever etched into our lives. As are traces of her in the house. I know that I did my best to clean out Maris’s things and put them into a bin a few months ago, but I had forgotten about a large wicker basket full of her toys under the piano. Of course, it took another dog to find dog toys. One day, I found Lucas running around the house with a giant centipede toy stuffed with squeakers. I panicked because I knew they were Maris’s… I guess I’m still not ready to be surprised by Maris’s memory. My initial reaction was to take it from him and put all of her toys away in the basement. But then he was so cute, this little puppy dragging a toy that was twice as long as he is, that I actually had to laugh. “Okay, Lucas. You can play with it. Grow into it.” The next day, he found Maris’s Nylabones, and her raccoon, and her Kong Wubbas. They are all too big for him, but he is enjoying his hand-me-downs.

I did not expect to find healing from this incident. I didn’t think I could see another one of Maris’s toys. But now they are strewn about the living room, and I find Lucas playing with them from time to time. He is probably enjoying her scent, and getting to know his older sister. It’s so strange to me now that just a few months ago, I thought I had to put away all of Maris’s stuff, enshrine it in the basement, and start new with Lucas. Life is not, and should not be that clean cut. Although I have pangs of sadness upon seeing Maris’s things, Lucas is breathing new life into them, and their lives are intersecting in ways that I had not anticipated. And it feels like my lips will form an “M” instead of an “L” for some time to come. My grand plan for starting fresh with a new puppy while shoving my sorrow of losing Maris into my past was utterly destroyed. And a good thing that is!

Lucas is tired from playing with Maris’s toys, and I’m pooped trying to remember his name…

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!


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

At thirty-thousand feet

life becomes clear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loss has a long tail

little good-bye’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To my little one

dear maris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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