Beast

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve been following our preparations for relocation to Maui. Part of that adventure included getting Beast, our Alaskan Malamute, to the island as well. Sadly, those plans have now changed.

Beast had been having some throat issues for a while, and we thought we had it pretty much taken care of. Last week, the coughing became suddenly worse, and he started refusing food. Sarah took him in to the vet, and the X-ray revealed a huge tumor in his throat, distorting his trachea, and putting him at risk of asphyxiation, a horrible way to go. Sarah was with him in Newport with family while I was in Kula setting up the house. I turned off the saw, realized I had a text from Sarah, and called her. Her first words were “he’s gone, baby, I’m so sorry.” Sarah had been trying to reach me, and I either couldn’t hear the phone or wasn’t getting reception, so she had to make the hard call by herself, a hellish task. We can only be thankful that the choice was clear.

Change is hard for dogs, and the last month or so had been especially challenging for our boy, with strange people viewing the house, packing, things disappearing into boxes. We set his travel crate up in the living room with us and he really took to it, preferring to stay in there quite a bit, denning. Then out of the house and into a hotel for a week. Sarah was working, so Beast and I were on our own, together constantly, going for walks, exploring the pet store, finding the hotel room, learning about elevators. He was game, curious, playful and, a bit unusual for him, snuggly.

On the 30th, I gave him a hug and a belly rub, and departed for the airport for Maui. I didn’t know it was the last time I’d see the dog I’d adopted seven years before.

Since my departure, Sarah had him roaming the beaches in Oregon, playing with his new dog friend Odie on the ranch in Newport, and seemingly rediscovering some of the puppyhood he’d never had. His last weeks were filled with adventure, and he embraced it.

When I first brought Beast home with Belle, he was the troubled one, lacking any sort of confidence, glued to Belle’s side. Touching him anywhere back of his shoulder blades caused him to cower and cry in fear. Three years later, I could grab his tail and he’d understand it was play – but that was a long, gentle process to get him to realize he had a place in our home that was his. We watched him blossom, learning it was all right to play, to ask for attention, to demand dinner. When we lost Belle, he became our only child, the sole center of our dog-world. He moved out of her shadow and started expressing himself more than ever before. He watched more television than any dog I’ve ever known.

Beast was a gentle giant, curious but insecure, loving but only just beginning, really, to understand how to ask for love, fascinated by little children. I like to think he’s running with Belle now, free and happy. Our pack is smaller, and we miss him terribly.

Belle

Six and a half years ago, I adopted a couple of Alaskan Malamutes – Beast and Belle. Those were the names they came with, and I decided to let them stay that way. Two very different personalities, both somewhere between two and four years old, one black with white accents (Belle) one white with black and sable accents (Beast). 

Since that time, these two characters have made our life richer by far, and I love them both to pieces. But I have to admit I’ve had a favorite, as Belle, in her quiet, confident, pushy way, took up more room in my heart than any dog I’ve ever known. At over a hundred pounds, she still managed to convince me that she was, in fact, a lap dog. 

Mals frequently live to be somewhere between ten and fourteen years old, and both of these guys have been for the most part healthy and definitely happy.

But cancer doesn’t care about healthy and happy. On July 19th, we found lumps in Belle’s armpits, and took her in the next day for an exam. The diagnosis was multicentric lymphoma, pretty advanced, and the prognosis wasn’t good. We discussed the options with the vet, mainly no care, palliative care using prednisone, and full-on chemotherapy. Doing nothing simply wasn’t an option, but with her age and the fact that the vet found swollen lymph glands all over her little body, and after searching everywhere for every bit of information we could find, we decided that we’d go with prednisone, manage her pain and love her all the more until the end.

Belle tolerated the medications pretty well, but the tail rarely wagged any more, her frequent vocalizations were almost nonexistent, and the playfulness wasn’t there. She lasted a few weeks, and had some good days, including a few head-butts and even a couple of here-I-am-in-your-lap moments, and I held her all the more closely, knowing they’d be among the last. 

On August 13th, something was clearly different in her behavior, an extra amount of stillness. When we arrived home from work, we had a long talk, cried a bit, and decided it was time to put Belle down. The animal hospital was backed up a bit, which turned out to be a blessing as we sat out on a lovely lawn, Belle clearly enjoying lying in the cool grass. The staff was sensitive and kind, and Belle passed away quietly with her nose up against my leg and our hands holding her.  We were, and are, devastated.

On returning home, Beast clearly knew something was up, ranging around the house, stopping and staring, parking himself at the head of the stairs, waiting for Belle to appear, even barking, just once. When I realized that he was simply doing, physically, what Sarah and I were doing in our hearts, it broke my heart all over again. 

Run fast and far and free now, my lovely girl. 

 

 

The Battle for Spike

Spike is a stuffed animal. My mother used to nestle him in the crook of her arm for comfort when she slept. Because of this, Spike earned a place of honor in my mom’s coffin when she passed away a year ago, along with a photo of her family and a small bottle of Gilbey’s gin.
This is my first time dealing with formal death rituals like this. The family, being my sister and myself with our spouses, comprises the “family”: It was our job to approve of the way mom looked lying in state (“Her hair just isn’t right. Can you get her jacket to lie properly?”) and add what accoutrements we thought appropriate for her body’s next journey. I nestled Spike up against her arm (I couldn’t put it under her arm because her hands wouldn’t curl properly around him. The dead: go figure).

Enter The Housekeeper. Someone who’s been caring for mom off and on for 27 years, who’s taken to calling mom “mom”, much to mom’s offense. Who walked up to the coffin and started rearranging things to her liking while the actual family looked on incredulously. We’ll call her “Flo”.

At some point, I decided a line had been crossed, that Flo’s presumptuousness could not go unchecked, and that line was where Flo decided to rearrange Spike. Stepping in, I stated quietly “I prefer Spike nestled like this” and replaced him in his original position. Much to everyone’s amazement, Flo decided she couldn’t accept that, and a literal tug-of-war ensued, me keeping Spike in place and saying things like “Flo, I want things to stay this way” and Flo, with a monomaniac focus on that stuffed animal, determined to change things to suit herself. To my amazement, I had to stop Flo no less than three times. For a long moment, the husband and I locked eyes. Her husband started to pull her away from the coffin – even then, she remained focused on Spike, reaching for that dog, determined to have her way. For myself, I’d never felt such a powerful combination of a feeling of righteous, outright rage at what I perceived was a deeply inconsiderate behavior toward My Family and My Mom, and an irony that we would be, quite literally, in combat over a stuffed animal, over my mother’s body.

This conjures up all sorts of cultural imagery. The competing lovers jumping into a grave of a lost one; the Egyptian ritual of placing an entire entourage into the pyramid. We manipulate our dead to make ourselves, the living, feel more comfortable about their passing.

Spike ultimately stayed where I and my sister thought he should. I made sure of it.

So long, mom

Mom died yesterday afternoon, 11/2/2011. She was 87 years and one month and one day old, and I loved her very very much. It was a long battle, as she’d been ready to go for quite a while, fighting off the things that encroach on most people’s lives when they reach that age.

Mom was a softie with a steel core. A swede, she toughed it out when I was five and she discovered that her son had cancer, and that she was also about to become a divorced mother of two. We all survived that, and she saw my sister and me though our childhoods and out into the world as her own world contracted down around her condo. In the end, she was housebound, bored, and, as she put it, “over it.” The last days before her death, she was occasionally feisty, somewhat mobile, played her beloved piano a bit. She went quietly, in her own bed, just the way she wanted to.

She was my friend. I recall the exact conversation when that happened, when we evolved past mother and son to become friends who could speak their mind to each other, keep each other honest, support each other, and love each other.

Most of all things, I will miss you, my friend.

RIP, Steve

Whoa. I can’t say I was surprised at the announcement this week, but I was surprised by my reaction. First, the disclaimer: I’m not quite an Apple fanboy, but I’m pretty close. Still, while I appreciated the role Steve Jobs played in the Apple mystique, I feel I’ve always been pretty centered in the sense that I knew Apple was more than simply an outlet for Steve’s creative energy. There are lots of very smart people there, empowered to some extent by the single-minded attention to the experience that was promulgated by their CEO, granted, but there’s more than one voice contributing to that chorus. I continue to have faith.
But the announcement, and later contemplation, brought tears. For someone I’d never met, never dreamed of meeting. Someone about whom I’d heard both good and bad, about the creative genius and the autocratic despot. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series, the main character becomes a “Speaker for the Dead”, someone who speaks the truth about the departed, good and bad, without regard for politics or social subtleties. To accomplish that end, the Speaker had to become intimately familiar with who the deceased truly was, a sometimes awkward and even painful exercise. But the catharsis, the clarity, provided by this feat, simultaneously epic and humble, incorporated an intrinsic value: truth. I hope we have Speakers to remind us who this flawed and yet amazing person really was.

Steve and I share a birthday. There’s a year between us, but it’s still strange to see that date in print, to grasp that he’s gone, to mourn the loss and at the same time appreciate the life he led and the impact he had. Indulging in a bit of geeking out, I watched the original iPhone keynote, re-experiencing the feeling that the earth was moving, just a little bit, as he described those capabilities that are now considered table stakes.

I look forward to feeling the earth move again, to be surprised and inspired. I have a taste for it now.

Thanks Steve.