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.

Love and Loyalty From the Souls of Dogs

“Such sadness and endearing and abiding love…”  Fran

I am by nature a “right brain” person—despite my training in science and medicine, I prefer paintings and photographs to words and mathematical constructs.  Over the past two years of writing this blog, I have resisted on many occasions the urge to add pictures to this website, despite the fact that I possess wonderful photographs of the things that I write about—my family, my dogs, my horses and my patients.  I am constantly taking pictures—I have chronicled my entire life in photographs from my first Kodak Brownie and I will continue to do so.  But I started writing again, thirty eight years after graduating from college with an English degree, to see if I could “describe” rather than “illustrate” the events in my life which have had an impact.  I want to write stories that leave a little bit to the imagination, to my readers’ right brains—stories that can be read out loud.

For the past few months I have been following the saga of Roo on Facebook.  Roo is an Ibizan hound owned by the artist Nan Kilgore Little. Affectionately known by their owners as “beezers”, this breed’s history dates back 5,000 years to the times of the Egyptian pharaohs.  The erect ears and tall lean bodies of these hounds are depicted in hieroglyphs in the tombs of Ptolemy, Nefermat, Mereku and Tutankhamen.  Think of the god Anubis, Protector of the Dead, and you will have a good visual image of the head of this hound.  Brought to the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain by the Phoenicians in 800 B.C., these dogs have hunted to put food on the table of their masters for centuries.

Roo turned sixteen years old a few weeks ago, an extraordinary old age for a large sighthound. You can see it in the pictures—the eyes, once keen are now cloudy and the strongly muscled hindquarters have wasted.  The bone structure appears more prominent, and yet more delicate at the same time. The ears are nearly transparent, and beautifully veined.  Nan started to post pictures of him on his daily walks, interacting with the other dogs in the household, and resting on his favorite pillow—pictures which have inspired a legion of Facebook followers who clearly feel privileged to watch the “old man” in his waning days and to take that last journey with him and his loving family.

The last forty-eight hours have been tough. Old Roo, with his brightly colored bandanna and his watchful countenance has stopped eating and has taken to his bed, his head resting on his favorite pillow.  He is not in pain, but he is very tired.  No more walking in the Wild Yard and no more jumping over the Big Tree.  His best friend, an Australian cattle dog named Barkool, has taken up watch and rarely leaves his side.  Barkool is neither elegant, nor particularly beautiful and his squat body is a contrast to the lean and classical Ibizan.  He is Sancho Panza to Roo’s Don Quixote.  He is the friend we wish we all had.

My Facebook friends love dogs as do Nan’s and as a result, we frequently feel compelled to put up photographs of abused, starving and abandoned canines in need of rescue, or dogs beaten and bloodied in the service of man’s cruelest whims.  But rarely, in these hastily posted pictures, we see a glimpse of life as it can and should be.  Yesterday Nan posted a photograph of Roo and Barkool.  Roo is wearing his blue bandana and is wrapped the cocoon of his softest blanket, one covered by multicolored hearts.  Barkool’s head is tucked under Roo’s chin as a pillow and his stocky body is still as can be.  His eyes show apprehension, and resignation at the same time.  He is, above all, present for his buddy.

Sometimes friends and families of my patients are uncomfortable visiting their loved ones after a diagnosis of cancer, or even more so at the end of life.  They ask me, “What should I say?” or “What can I do?” The answer is revealed in Nan’s picture of Roo and Barkool:  without fanfare, without words, without tears, just be there.