You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down

It’s been awhile since I got my readers up to speed on the adventures of Dad.  For those of you who are new to this blog, my father is a plastic surgeon who retired from full time practice about 15 years ago after a very successful academic career.  He turned 89 years old in July and the last couple of years have not been kind to him:  my mother passed away in January of 2013, and shortly after that Dad had an aortic valve replacement followed eight months later by a hip replacement.  These surgeries were in addition to coronary bypass surgery ten years ago, a splenectomy a few years later necessitated by his penchant for running red lights, and a badly fractured collarbone after taking an expert ski run a little too fast at age 85.  Despite all of this, I was not surprised when he told me a few months ago that he planned to go to Guatemala last week with Surgicorps International, a group that performs plastic and reconstructive surgery in developing countries.  What DID surprise me however was his announcement that he was taking his 84 year old girlfriend Evelyne with him.  He was positively gleeful—he proclaimed over dinner that he was going to teach her to clean instruments and prepare the OR between cases. I did not think this was a good idea, and my opinion was backed up by my sister who has never been a big fan of medicine in general, blood and guts in particular.

A week after the big “reveal”, I took Dad aside and told him that while I had no objections to Evelyne accompanying him on the trip, I thought it was a TERRIBLE idea for him to consider taking her into the operating room.  I said, “Dad, Evelyne was a piano teacher, not a nurse!  And don’t you remember what happened the first time you took ME into your operating room?”  He remembered.  I was seventeen years old, a high school student mildly interested in medicine, at least to the degree that I was volunteering at a local hospital as a candy striper (do they even have those anymore?). He invited me to watch a face lift, being performed under local anesthesia.  I was fine for the first 30 minutes or so—the slice of the scalpel, the smell of the Bovie, the careful undermining of tissue between the skin and the soft tissues of the face.  But when he then peeled back the loose skin to reveal those sinewy muscles below—well, the last thing I remember hearing was—“QUICK!!  Somebody catch her!”  I fainted dead away.  I could only imagine poor Evelyne doing the same, and cracking her head on the instrument cart.  Dad smiled and nodded.  A week later he announced that they had driven to San Marcos so that she could pick out scrubs.

Dad and Evelyne returned home from Guatemala on Saturday night.  On Sunday afternoon, I went over to their senior community to return their cat, whom I had been keeping during their trip.  Well, actually it’s my daughter’s cat, but that’s another story.  I loaded kitty into his carrier, and the litter box, the unused kitty litter, the big bag of food, the two stainless steel bowls, and numerous cat toys into the back of my car.  I called and gave Dad the 15 minute warning:  “Meet me downstairs because there is too much for me to carry.”  He dutifully met me in the parking lot, but there was still too much paraphernalia.  I said, “I’ll just run the cat up to Evelyne’s place.”  So I did.  I knocked on the door, cat in hand.  No answer.  I rang the doorbell.  No answer.  I knocked again, louder.  Still, no answer.  I dropped the cat carrier and ran back downstairs.  I said, fearing the worst, “Dad, when was the last time you SAW Evelyne??”  He said, “Last night—why?”  I said, “She’s not answering the door.”  He said, “Well, I think she’s been on the phone for a long time.  I keep calling her but the line is busy.”  At this point, I am completely unhinged.  I said, “DAD—SOMETHING COULD HAVE HAPPENED TO HER!!!!  WHAT IF SHE IS UNCONCIOUS AND DROPPED THE PHONE??”   At this point, even he is looking a little scared.

I ran back upstairs.  The cat is meowing in his carrier.  I knock, no, I BANG on the door shouting, “Evelyne, it’s me, come to the door!”  I ring the bell again and again.  And finally, I hear stirring and a small voice inside the apartment.  Evelyne appears at the door, a little bewildered that I have made such a fuss.  She says, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t hear the door.  I’ve been on the phone all day, telling EVERYONE about my adventure!”  As I sighed with relief, I said, “Oh, you enjoyed yourself?”  She said, “It was the greatest experience of my whole life.  I even got to see a gall bladder being removed.  And when they cut open the gall bladder, I got to see REAL gallstones!  I had to call everyone I know and tell them ALL about it.”  She looked exhausted, and utterly triumphant.

Needless to say, they are already planning to go with Surgicorps to Viet Nam in October.  At age 89, he has found a soul mate.  And at 84, she has found a new calling in life.  There’s hope for the rest of us, for sure.  We’re planning one heckuva ninetieth birthday party for him in July.  That is, if his schedule permits.

In Pursuit of Perfection

“Upon what instrument are we two spanned, and what musician holds us in his hands?”

Rainer Maria Rilke

This past week was a very busy yet very interesting time for me.  Early in the week, I had a visit from an old medical school classmate who is now one of our nation’s leading researchers in diabetes and other endocrine diseases.  Although most of his time is spent in the lab, he still prides himself on being an outstanding clinician, and I can attest to that.  I would choose him for my own personal physician any day, were he not based at Duke in Durham, NC.  He told me the following story:  a few months ago he was the attending physician on the endocrine consultation service.  The fellow on duty was called for a consult on a middle aged man who needed an amputation for vascular complications related to his diabetes, and the surgeon needed to make sure his blood sugars were under control before taking him for surgery.  The endocrinology fellow assessed the patient’s insulin requirements, and also mentioned that the man was complaining of some mild upper back pain, which seemed insignificant at the time. The case was presented to my friend, was assessed to be routine, and the patient went to surgery.  Shortly after the operation, the man suffered a cardiac arrest due to a myocardial infarction in the posterior circulation.  He did not survive.  My friend, whose job was NOT to assess the patient’s cardiac status, but rather his diabetic control, is still beating himself up about the patient’s death, many months later.  He insists that he should have asked the surgeon for a cardiac work up prior to the surgery.

On Thursday, I flew to Kalispell, MT to attend my nephew’s graduation from Montana Academy, a boarding school dedicated both to academic excellence, and the therapeutic mission of helping teenagers with problems learn to cope in positive ways. At the graduation ceremony, I was moved to tears several times, first by the headmaster’s recounting of the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops as an analogy for the importance of finding and declaring one’s true identity, and later by the speeches of some of the parents whose children had benefited from this school, set in the green pastures and foothills of Montana. Finally, and even more importantly, some of the students themselves spoke, hesitating at first and stumbling over their words, but gaining strength from the support of the gathered crowd as well as their teachers, counselors and the founders of the school sitting behind them.  The students spoke of the failures which led them to the academy, each small but increasingly significant success they met there, and their hopes and dreams for the future.  These students were articulate and impressively intelligent. The last student who spoke was particularly moving, when she said, “Here I discovered that I am worthy of love, and that I DESERVE to love and be loved in return.”

We all strive for perfection, and yet for most of us it is our failures which teach us the meaning of life and of being human.  Some of us are lucky enough to learn this at eighteen, but many of us are still learning these lessons at sixty.  Last night, as I prepared for bed a row of necklaces I have hanging from pegs in the bathroom caught my eye—fossil mammoth ivory turned blue from arctic hoarfrost, and set with a fire opal, lapis prayer beads from Bhutan, ancient carnelian beads from the mountains of Nepal, and an old Chinese quartz crystal set in silver with enameled symbols of yin and yang.  I wondered, for myself, for my nephew and for my old friend, what talismans are these which can keep us safe, which can protect us from our own demons?  And what great musician holds us in his hands?  We can only continue to do the very best we can.

Do Dogs Know They are Dying?

Labor Day, 2006, is a day I will never forget.  It was a gorgeous day here in San Diego—bright, sunny and nearly 90 degrees.  I decided it was a perfect day to give the dogs an outdoor bath.  At the time, we had Valentine, the matriarch at nearly twelve years old, Izzy who was four, and the two young  ones Magic and Angelina who were two years old.  We started with Valentine—at her age she’d had a little problem with urinary incontinence, and she needed her bath the most.  We knew that the coiled up hose sitting in the sun on that hot afternoon had enough warm water to bathe her in, so my daughter and I mixed shampoo in a bucket of hot water from the kitchen sink, and just outside the garage, we soaped her up.  She seemed to be enjoying herself, a nice soapy massage on a beautiful day, and then a quick rinse.  As I turned to get the towel to dry her, I heard my daughter say loudly and in a panic, “VAL, DON’T FALL DOWN!”  I turned back around and she was gone, down on the wet pavement, eyes blank.  She never felt a thing.   I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the driveway with my dead dog, brushing her hair until it dried and the crematorium people came to take her away.  Needless to say, no one else got a bath that day.

I once read an essay by an oncologist who said that she hoped that she would die of cancer.   I was baffled by this, because my personal preference would be to go suddenly, of a heart attack or a massive stroke, preferably while doing something I enjoy.  But her reasoning was quite clear:  she said that with cancer, when you know that your days on earth are numbered, you still have time—time to do the things you always wanted to do, time to say good bye, time to make amends.  This has actually been true for most of my patients—when they know that they are diagnosed with a life threatening illness, their priorities change.  If they have the means, they live the lives they always wanted to live, for as long as they are able.  They remember, they forgive and they forget.  The trivialities of daily life become unimportant, except insofar as they struggle to get through them.   Many become the person they always wanted to be, and I hope that if this is my fate, I have the grace to do the same.

Today we took old Magic to the veterinary cardiologist.  Magic is my eldest deerhound—a big male at 120 pounds, and nearly ten years old.  The last two weeks have been hard for him—we’ve had thunderstorms and he has always been afraid of thunder.  In desperation over his anxiety last week I called his vet for a prescription for a tranquilizer.  It worked temporarily, but on Tuesday we had strangers in the house and he was panting, salivating, and his heart was beating far too rapidly.  I laid a hand on his chest and I knew instantly that his big old heart was failing.  Today the diagnostic echocardiogram confirmed what I already knew—that my big guy has dilated cardiomyopathy, and that he is in congestive heart failure.  We started medication immediately, and I am hoping for a few more weeks, or a few more months with this grand old man who is, as my husband says, “the dog who never did anything wrong.”

Do dogs, like humans, know when they are dying?  I don’t think so.  And in fact, for their sake, I hope not.  Unlike us, they have nothing to apologize for, and perhaps their next meal, or a walk in the park, or in a dream a wild chase after a highland stag, followed by a soft bed and the touch of a human hand is all that they hope for and dream about.  As Magic slowly made his way out of the van today onto solid ground, he was greeted warmly by Queen, Quicksilver and little Yoda.  I can no longer promise him a life beyond his years, but I promised him today that every day from now on will be the best day I can give him—lots of treats, a comfortable place to rest, and with all certainty, no more baths.

Learning to Fly Without Wings

For Morgan

Two days ago, one of my daughter’s best friends from childhood lost her beloved horse Rumba.  This young woman is now a yoga instructor and for the past year she has been traveling and working in Australia.  The strange thing about this story is best said in her own words:

“I never sign up to go on trail rides when I travel because I know I will be disappointed when all we do is walk. But something drew me to this ride, it was for “advanced riders” with promises of cantering. I wanted to go a few days ago but it wasn’t available so I had to settle for yesterday morning. They gave me a horse named Big, I felt that was appropriate since I am used to riding my big mare. We rode for 3 hours through the streams, by the blue lake water and galloped across a field. Towards the end of the ride the horse started prancing back towards home exactly as Rumba would have done on a trail. In that moment I thought I was riding her and maybe I was. Maybe that was the moment she passed away. She was with me and I was with her.

I may not have wanted to buy her but we did anyways. I may not have liked her in the beginning but I rode her anyways. She taught me how to be strong and courageous. It seemed at times we had the same bitchy personality and in the end we knew each other better than anyone else.
I spent this last day with myself. Sometimes crying, meditating and just existing. I treated myself to some spa time, cupcakes and most importantly yoga. I’ve read all the loving comments and messages from near and far. And I am finally starting to feel better. Thank you all for the love and support. It literally means the world to me.”

With these words on Facebook she published several photos of herself riding her old horse.  In one of the photographs, they are mid-jump over a high double oxer– a difficult jump—together as one.  I can only imagine how she must have felt, airborne, in the split second it took the large bay mare to clear that jump.  It must have felt like she was flying.

I think that we all imagine ourselves flying as children. We dream about it and we try to live it.  From the first viewing of Peter Pan, to the teenage pursuits of riding racing bicycles, or motorcycles, or horses, or learning to sail or ski, we all grow our imaginary wings, and for the times that we are doing what we do, we feel pure joy:  we are limitless, unbound by gravity or sadness or sorrow.  We have wings.

For most of us, growing up is learning to fly without wings—to find satisfaction in our friends, our families, our pets, our careers, and our hobbies.  If we are lucky, we find solace in the daily small pleasures that surround us—the scent of a blooming rose, the wag of a tail, the taste of good food or fine wine.  My daughter’s friend is learning this now, traveling alone in a strange land far from the familiar neighborhood she grew up in.  The day after her horse died, she put another picture on Facebook, of a beautiful rainbow arching over the New Zealand road she was driving on.  I’ll never know for sure, but I think it was Rumba, telling her everything is going to be okay.

To Find, To Have and To Give Away

These days I have begun to separate my life into two separate eras which I call BE and AE, “before eBay” and “after eBay.”  How could there have been so many things in the world which I never knew that I wanted?  I think back to the early days of my marriage, when my husband and I lived in a 1400 sq ft Victorian “doll house” with wide board pine floors and a pitched roof and wonder how I managed to live without so many “accessories?”   It wasn’t until we moved to California, and bought a Spanish style home with very large rooms (“Honey, I shrunk the furniture!”) that the woman who owned the store where I bought my new furniture declared, “Now all you need to do is accessorize!”   And so I did.  Ebay became the source of my many so called “accessories,” previously known to the world of interior design by the Yiddish word “tchotchkes.”  Who knew that thistle themed items could be so attractive, and yet so ubiquitous?

The upside of eBay is that after a while you get to know who the best sellers are.  Everyone makes mistakes at first—I remember the alligator skin antique doctor’s bag which looked SO good in the pictures, but smelled SO bad when it arrived that it went straight into the outdoor dumpster by the barn, usually reserved for horse manure.  Sometimes antiques are charming and full of character.  But sometimes they are just plain old and smelly.  When I got my first deerhound many years ago, I became interested in all things Scottish, and discovered that Queen Victoria of England, was similarly enchanted with Scotland, where the royal family still maintains Balmoral Castle. In the mid to late 19th century, Scottish “pebble” jewelry became immensely popular, formed from polished agate typically surrounding a faceted cairngorm, a type of quartz mined in the Cairngorm mountains.  Brooches of this design, especially the larger ones, were commonly used on kilts, particularly to fasten the shawl or upper portion of the kilt known as the “plaid.”  In addition to beautiful rocks, Victoria also loved dogs and children, in that order– the phrase “children should be seen and not heard” is attributed to her reign. Portraits and etchings of the dog breeds she loved, including the deerhound, abound from that era.  And judging from the walls of my home, I seem to have located most of them!

For the past several years, I have put on an auction to help raise money for our West coast Scottish deerhound club.  The money raised helps us put on our annual regional show and allows us to subsidize our traditional after show dinner.  This year I did it for the National show as well.  I have discovered that my enthusiasm for Scottish and Victorian artifacts is transferable.  I mean, who DOESN’T want to picture themselves as a wild red haired Scottish lassie dancing around the May pole in the rain, or a strong handsome barrel chested kilted lad leaning against the standing stones of remote mountains?  And if you haven’t ever thought of it, tune in to the upcoming new Starz series “Outlander” and you too will be longing for a kilted man, pebble brooches, thistle emblazoned artifacts and an antique etching or two. I have begun to give away some of my collection so that others can share the romance of the Highlands.  Join us and share the fantasy—the best is yet to come.  And by the way, a deerhound puppy is a prerequisite, ye lairds and ladies!

My Days In Dermatology

I’ve always been good at pattern recognition and my visual/spatial orientation is excellent. Photography is my hobby, so it was only natural that as a medical student and internal medicine resident, I loved my dermatology electives.  Each day yielded up a new parade of interesting skin lesions and rashes, and by the end of my rotations I was confident in my diagnoses and recommendations—contact dermatitis?—steroids!  Eczema?—steroids!  Psoriasis—yep, you got it—steroids again!  Pimples?  Well that was a diagnosis that required antibiotics.  But sometimes, when it was really bad—yes, STEROIDS!  These were the days before Botox, and Restylane, and non-invasive mini-lifts, and lasers.  Occasionally there was the excitement of a skin cancer, or a truly serious life threatening dermatologic crisis, but as much as I enjoyed saying the words “pemphigus”, or even “bullous pemphigoid” (try it—they roll right off the tongue)—I didn’t want to spend my career looking at it.  I chose radiation oncology after my internal medicine residency, and never looked back.  I wanted to take care of sick people.

When I announced my retirement in February, the calls started coming in immediately.  Having moved several times since I graduated from medical school, I hold medical licenses in three states which makes me a prime candidate for companies who supply locum tenens or “hired hands”– doctors who cover practices while the regular doctor goes on vacation, takes maternity leave, or just needs a break.   I was vaguely interested, but not enough to commit to spending weeks away from home living in a hotel.  But then a call came in from my old group, a Los Angeles based practice that had just set up a skin cancer treatment unit in a San Diego dermatologist’s office.  The hours were reasonable, and the job was only two days a week, covering while the regular radiation oncologists took their summer vacations.  This type of radiation machine, called the Xoft, is fairly new and uses a miniaturized high dose rate X-ray source to apply radiation directly to the skin cancer, while minimizing the dose to surrounding tissues.  For basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, the results are extremely good, with excellent cosmetic results providing a great alternative to the Moh’s procedure which can leave patients with a significant “divot” in their faces, sometimes requiring skin grafts.  Dermatologists can buy these machines, however they are not legally allowed to operate them, having no training or background in radiation therapy.  That’s where I come in.

For the last two weeks, I’ve spent Mondays and Wednesdays in the dermatologist’s office.  It is a remarkably busy office with seven exam rooms going at all times, an operating suite and numerous medical assistants scurrying around with headsets on to communicate with Central Command.  The atmosphere is similar to what I would imagine the air traffic control room is like at JFK.  No one ever goes to the bathroom or takes a lunch break. There are flat screen TV sets in every exam room, to entertain the patients while they wait (try explaining skin cancer treatment with radiation to an 86 year old with bilateral hearing aids watching an episode of “24”—challenging to say the least!) As the physician in charge of radiation, I must set up each patient to make sure the applicator is placed correctly.  This involves a brisk walk down a long hallway from my makeshift office to the radiation room many times a day.

In the middle of that hallway, mounted on the ceiling, there is a television which runs a continuous infomercial about the joys of cosmetic dermatology.  It took me a few passes to notice it, but once I did, I was mesmerized.  The pulsatile blue light of the laser erasing wrinkles, the miniscule needles injecting the varicose veins, the tightening of the dewlap under the chin and the apparent dissolution of fatty deposits in the wrong places and their magical reappearance to plump the cheeks and add youth to the lips were hypnotic.  A head-setted medical assistant colliding with my ample in-need-of-liposuction derriere brought me back to reality and the skin cancer patient waiting.

I am beginning to see some advantages in my current part time job.  I smile brightly at the dermatologist in his scrubs.  He is an MD-PhD and very smart to have hired radiation oncologists to treat his skin cancer patients.  I have a new admiration for the tools of his trade.  I think that if I am really diligent, I might just get a free consultation and who knows—with a little buffing and polishing and injecting—a whole new face!

Stuart Scott’s Acceptance Speech

Sometimes I feel like what I have to say isn’t very important and after watching a video clip of Stuart Scott accepting the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance tonight on ESPN, I think you might prefer to hear from him.  Background:  Stuart Scott was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix in 2007 and has been battling the disease for seven years.  Jimmy V, or Jimmy Valvano was the head basketball coach at North Carolina State, who died in 1993 of cancer but was known both in sports and his personal life for his slogan “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”  According to Wikipedia, Jimmy V’s tombstone reads, “Take time every day to laugh, to think, to cry.”

If you have time, continue to watch this video to see the clip about Scott’s enrollment in a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins, and then just as amazing, Michael Sam’s emotional speech about tolerance, acceptance and growing up “different” as he accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  These two guys say it all, so please watch:  http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=11225895

More about my experiences in Dermatology tomorrow.

The Mating Game

When I was a kid, we lived in the Braeswood apartment complex in Houston, TX, right next to the A & P grocery store.  There were no leash laws back then, and everyone in the complex let their dogs run loose.  I have one distinct memory of dog breeding from “back in the day”—I went outside to play in the central courtyard and saw a beautifully groomed white standard poodle who appeared to be stuck to a large black and tan shepherd mix breed male.  They were back to back, and neither seemed to be able to get away.  All I could think of was the “pushmi—pullyu” in the Doctor Dolittle books.  I asked my mother, “Why are those dogs stuck together like that?”  I was eight and she did not care to elaborate.  The strange conjoined creature finally broke apart, and approximately two months later we heard the poodle owner crying pitifully as her beautiful girl gave birth to eight brown nondescript puppies down in the laundry room.  And that was all I knew for the next forty or so years.

Although I’ve had dogs since I was ten, in 1994 I got my first “show dog,” a Scottish deerhound bitch (yes folks, get used to it—that’s what dog people call them!)  I took handling classes, learned to “stack” and “gait” her, and with the help of some very patient friends, she attained her AKC championship by the time she was two years old, and I decided to become a “breeder”.  I followed advice, bred “the best to the best” by sending her all the way back to New York to breed to a proven sire of champions, and managed to get only four puppies, two of which had short tails which did not conform to the “standard.”  At that point I came to my senses and realized that it is much easier to BUY a well-bred, healthy, beautiful dog than it is to breed one.  I returned to my regular dual careers of raising three children and working as a full time radiation oncologist and was never again tempted to breed another litter until….recently.

Many of you have read stories on this blog of my two Q’s, Scottish deerhound sisters, now AKC Grand Champions Jaraluv Queen and Jaraluv Quicksilver. They are both characters—Queen for her trick of “going through”—when she is extremely happy she celebrates by dashing between my legs, first from the front, then from the back, laughing at me all the while.  Quicksilver has different tricks—she adores her food, and when she hears her dinner being prepared, she dashes into her crate where she is fed, then pops her head in and out until the meal appears.  Queen is probably best remembered for her interview with local news after the famous deerhound Hickory Wind won Best in Show at Westminster—as the newscaster interviewed me, Queen sat like a human being on my couch, calmly picking her toenails while her sister hid behind the stereo speakers.  As I said, they are characters.

Since there were no genetically or phenotypically compatible gentlemen callers within a thousand mile radius, we decided to go with frozen semen/artificial insemination. And I will give a shout out to Carol Bardwick at www.caninecryobank.com for trying her very best. A visit to her place deserves a separate blog all on its own—later, for sure.  We tested progesterone levels, we made sure the “stuff” was shipped in from out of state on time, we made sure to dim the lights and we did our best to create a romantic mood for the “installation.”  Our timing was perfect and once released from their cryogenically sealed containers, those little swimmers were SWIMMING!  I saw them under the microscope with my own eyes.

So convinced I was that the girls were pregnant, that I failed to recognize their typical signs of post season depression.  It was morning sickness—I knew it.  I fed them Wheat Thins with cream cheese to stimulate their appetites.  I made omelets with Havarti cheese and heavy cream.  I cooked filet mignon and wild salmon.   I gained seven pounds in four weeks.  Finally, the suspense was too much.  Favoring expense over stress, I arranged for a board certified veterinary radiologist to come to my home with her ultrasound machine (after nearly buying a used veterinary ultrasound unit myself, thinking that whether they were pregnant or not, I could always check myself for gallstones!)   I watched with dismay as we went from cervix, to body of uterus, to uterine horns, to ovaries—both sides, both girls.  And saw nothing.  Nada.  Not a single puppy.

If I ever try this again, I’ll go with what a fellow deerhounder called YPF, which stands for “young, proven and fertile.”  In other words, a dog that can do what that old shepherd mix did to that poodle back in 1963—climb on and get the job done.  In the meantime, I’ll open my home to another rescue, preferably an old dog that no one else wants, to keep my ten year old Magic and 2 year old tiny Chihuahua mix rescue Yoda company.  After all, a little good karma goes a long way, and who cares about that new white carpet anyway?

And Then There Was One

This is a guest blog, tonight from my friend Jackie, who has shared wedding stories, dogs stories, friendship stories and love stories here.  She wrote this piece a year ago, and wrote the postscript last week.  This is for anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a loved on in the most painful way possible.  It’s long, so bear with us.          From Jackie:

I think a part of me will always be angry with my sister, my only sibling.  The anger sometimes morphs into fury, but then I feel guilty.  And then the guilt makes me sad, and the sadness overwhelms me with a depth of despair that only a few might understand.  When I got the call last January that my sister had committed suicide a part of me died, too.  The part of me that always hoped and dreamed that the estrangement my sister and I had experienced over the past several years could be overcome and we could renew the wonderful sister bond that we’d had shared for over 50 years.  How did things go so terribly awry?

 

I would say our childhood was unremarkable except in hindsight it was very remarkable.  My dad worked hard as an accountant for a large oil company and my mom stayed home to be a wife and mother.   We had everything we needed but few luxuries and I guess there was so much love in our family that I never really thought we were missing anything.  We lived in a new freshly minted suburban home and could walk safely to our elementary school.    Our house was always clean and tidy, we sat down to dinner every night together, and watching Lassie on Sunday night was a ritual. To save money my mother sewed all of our clothes; not always our preferred styles, but now I appreciate how hard she worked and how many hours she devoted to keeping our home life running smoothly.   It seemed totally normal to get up, have breakfast with my family, go off to school, make good grades, come home to a clean and organized home, and know Dad would be home for dinner at 5:30.   We followed the rules, respected our parents, made good grades, and both of us completed college in less than 4 years.  Our college educations were paid for by my parents so we never worried about loans or working through school.  My sister and I were close; we played and argued and shared secrets ~ and a bedroom too since my grandmother frequently came to visit.  We were loved and we knew it.

 

My sister and I had unique differences in our personalities and talents.  I swam competitively after giving up hope of having a horse of my own – when I was little I took riding lessons and loved being around them.   My sister swam a bit too, but never gave up on that dream to have her own horse.  When I was in college and she was still in high school my parents gifted her with her first horse.  He wasn’t much to look at, but moved well and she was ecstatic.   My sister was a bit of a slob in life; messy, but her riding tack was immaculate.  She would spend hours cleaning bridles and saddles and organizing them in precision-like order. She avoided cleaning her room but would happily muck out a stall.  I was more organized and enjoyed keeping things  clean, and that was a sort of joke between us – she had no problem ignoring her domestic chores to spend endless hours with her horses.   She just didn’t care.  And I loved that about her.

 

In our adult years, when we were married, we lived about 1 mile away from each other in Houston. She was a fun Auntie to my kids, and I did my best to help her with her  boys, who each had some unique learning challenges.  Her motherhood days were not easy.  But we enjoyed those years and were together constantly.  We talked on the phone everyday – long before there were cell phones.  Caller ID had just come into vogue and I would see her number and just pick up the phone and say “hey” and we would start in.  We endured the tragic and sudden loss of our father in 1995 and helped our mom get through some very tough years.  Sometimes we would just sit together and drink wine and cry.  She and her husband decided to move out to the country so she would have more room for her horse passion and perhaps find other schools to better manage her boy’s learning issues, and I moved to the West Coast in 2001.  That is when our bond would start to crumble.

 

Around 2005 my phone calls were not returned; I left messages, and my mother who lived close to my sister would ask me if I had spoken with her as her calls were ignored too.  Finally the ugliness was revealed.  My sister had decided to leave her marriage and children and run off with a pseudo-psychologist who practiced polygamy and had a prison record and had promised her a life of ease and loveliness.  She was trancelike in her devotion to him.  Her children and (now) ex-husband would call me in disbelief over her behaviors.  She managed to chase away all of the “wives”, handed over ALL of her divorce settlement, and very quickly discovered that he was nothing more than a con-artist who abused and beat her into submission.  I had told her from the start I did not support this decision, from the research I had done I felt he was a dangerous man and her decision was ill-advised.   I begged her to reconsider.  She turned on me with a vengeance, cutting me out of her life and insisting I owed her an apology for “judging” her choices.  And so it went.  I would follow her discreetly from afar and learn that she would run away from the violence more times than I could count; she would marry him and then leave him immediately afterwards because of the abuse.  She divorced him and then remarried him.  Her ex-husband would help hide her but always, always, she would go back.  My attempts to contact her were refused.  Her only calls to our mother were for money.  Mother’s Day, Christmas, Birthdays were ignored.  The years went by and I kept hoping she would come home.  Meanwhile her ex-husband moved on with his life and remarried and moved away.  Her boys grew up. I came back to Texas in 2008 but still no connection.  I told her ex-husband to please ask her to call me, I was here with any help she needed – but her pride was too high and the rift too deep.  She would not ask for help.  The torment continued. She had trapped herself into the endless cycle of abuse.  A few more bizarre business ventures would keep her with him, and give her temporary hope,  but they would fail and the misery would continue.  Early on she ran away from him and he threatened to cut her horses’ throats from ear to ear if she did not return.  She returned.

 

In 2011 I attempted to contact her via text.  She was rude and abrasive and would have no part of a conversation until I apologized, again, for the “choices” she had made.  My last words to her were that I wanted to resolve our differences, that I loved her, and would not fight with her.  No response.  I later learned that he tracked her phone, emails and texts.  There was never really a chance for her to be honest with anyone.

 

So in January when I got “the” call, a part of me was not shocked.  Still the tragedy of the whole messy thing crashed down around us all.  She had driven 9 hours to an out-of-state locale, hidden from all.  She poured a glass of wine and poisoned herself with barbiturates.   She was discovered through her car’s GPS.  When the kind detective contacted me he was solemn and sad.  In a level voice he asked if I wanted to hear her Note.  I listened quietly as he read me her last words, how she was so very sorry to leave everyone but she could not take the physical and emotional abuse any longer.  The final straw was that he was having an affair with a woman she worked with.  The disgrace was complete.

 

When I especially missed her during our years apart, I would fantasize about coming together over a favorite bottle of wine – sitting together, face to face, and thrashing through everything so we could begin again.  I think about the glass of wine that she poured herself to wash down the pills, the glass that should have been our glass of wine ~ our fresh start, our new beginning.  When she left forever that cold day in January she destroyed all of the hope.  And that’s when the anger/guilt/sad cycle begins again.   Why could she have not called me one last time to ask for help?  Why didn’t she remember the goodness about us?  Why why why…

 

My sister would have been 58 on June 30, 2013.  She was fun and smart and beautiful, and I loved her very much.  I will miss her forever.

 

A Healing Postscript:

Dr. Miranda thought it might be a good idea to wait to post this piece about my sister’s death until I had spent more time grieving.  It was a good idea.    I originally wrote this almost a year ago.  She suggested I write a follow-up on how things are going, how the healing process has gone.  It’s taken me longer to write this postscript than it did to write the essay.   I have struggled with this all week.

 

The passage of time is an amazing thing; it softens the rugged edges of grief and lifts the darkness.  But when the death of a loved one is a result of suicide, there is always a cloud that hovers ever near.  It is a difficult process to experience and it has given me deeper compassion for others who have gone through this horror.  A few days after my sister died my mother still had not called her friends or Pastor.  I contacted him myself.  He was shocked to hear the news – he knew our family well – and wondered why no one had notified him.  I explained that she could not bring herself to tell anyone; she was ashamed.  He told me that was not unusual.  He went on to comfort me with his opinion that Suicide was the single most selfish act a human being can commit; that it leaves those left behind wrecked and ruined, the ripples run far and wide.  He was right about that.  Even now when I mention my sister passed away I am always asked “Oh that’s terrible.  Was it an illness?”  And then I have to figure out just how much of the story I need to tell.

 

I have such a wonderful family and amazing friends and a great life.  I just wish my sister was here to share it with.  When I packed up my mother’s house recently and went through all the “stuff” I would literally talk out loud to her “…here is that plate that we agreed would go to you….or……  hey look at these pictures of you in grade school, what a hoot…..or…..remember this horse trophy that you were so proud of….”  and on and on.  I have decided I will never completely come to terms with her death, so I choose to remember the happy times of her life.  It’s the best I can manage.

The Things We Save, The Things We Give Away

Since I just spent the last several months sorting through my own lifetime accumulation of “stuff” in order to get my house ready for sale, it was only fitting that I volunteered to chair the auction and raffle at the Scottish Deerhound Club of America’s annual National Specialty show, held in Richland, Washington last week. After my fall, winter, spring and summer cleaning, I had plenty that I myself could donate, so why not go on vacation just to have the opportunity to sort through someone else’s stuff?  After all, I’ve gotten good at it.  My intrepid road trip companion and auction co-chair Rachel and I rented an SUV a week ago Monday in order to haul the deerhound related treasures 1300 miles, set them beautifully arranged on a table, label and describe them enticingly just so they could, in short order, become part of another deerhounder’s collection of stuff.  George Carlin famously said, “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” This time I vowed that I was NOT getting more stuff.

But while we were there…well, the stuff just kept on coming.  Prior to the event, I had fretted because my email entreaties to bring donations for the auction and raffle went largely unanswered, but apparently not unheeded.  The knocks on our hotel room door started as we were unpacking our own suitcases, and the donors came indeed, bearing gifts of cardboard boxes filled to the brim.  By Wednesday evening we could have built a cardboard city, although a bonfire might have been more appropriate.  There were treasures there which were hard to resist—an 1883 edition of William Scrope’s Deerstalking in the Scottish Highlands—clearly a necessary reference book for my life in Southern California, and a handmade deerhound topped casserole dish, oven safe and dishwasher proof, for my imaginary culinary creations.  Some of the items were brand new—a brocade collar fit for the Royal Dog of Scotland, and some were a little more than gently used, with a fluffy patina of dog hair and dust.   We slowly worked our way to the bottom of each box, sorting as we went, until we got to the last one, where I found two old picture frames, face down, and picked them up.

The dog in the picture looks at me, head slightly cocked, ears askew.  His eyes are brown, and questioning. His coat is clean, and not matted, and his head is covered in the soft hair called for by our standard.  He is in a cheap frame, as is his companion, in a matching frame.  Why are they here, buried in the bottom of a cardboard box? I imagine they are dead, and that the photographs are now too painful to look at because they remind the owner of times past, happier times, and I burst into tears.  I hope that I am wrong, that the person who brought these to my room in a cardboard box was just tidying up—that he or she had scanned the photos into his computer as “wallpaper” and had no need for the actual photographs anymore.  But that is not what those pictures said to me.  I put them back in the box.

Bring me your old leashes, your dirty collars, your worn T shirts and sweatshirts.  We will recycle them for the next generation to carry on the “long grey line.” Bring me your antique bronzes lovingly crafted by the Animaliers of France and England in the 19th century, and your tales of stalking the red stag over the heather and the drink of Scotch from the quaich at the end of the hunt.  Bring me your handcrafted jewelry adorned with Celtic knots of silver and gold, and your art work and your crafts.  But please, don’t bring me pictures of your own dogs, buried and perhaps painfully remembered, perhaps forgotten.  Keep them, and the memories you have of them running through the fields, healthy and young again.

We turned in the SUV at the Portland airport, and flew home.  The auction was a huge success, and we came home to our families and dogs—the only things that really truly matter.