The Vigil

People always say, “You’ll know when it is time.”  Sometimes that is true.  But sometimes it’s hard to tell.  This has been one of those times.  Having lived through the horrendous experience of our old deerhound Magic fracturing his leg due to a previously undiagnosed osteosarcoma, I want very badly to spare Queen that awful demise.  But when is it time, actually?

With a horse, I think it’s easier.  Those that are spared the usual disasters which befall horses—the broken leg due to a fall, the perforated intestine due to colic—they simply get old.  When their arthritis can no longer be managed, when the tendons finally give way and the hooves can no longer bear the weight of their bodies, they lie down and cannot rise.  Or they stop eating and stand quietly in a corner of a green pasture.  And then you know its time.

Dogs are different.  They want to be with you.  They are willing to put up with pain and suffering beyond what a human thinks is possible, as long as you will lie down with them, pat their heads, give them a special treat while looking into their eyes on a sunny day.   Leaving must seem to them, after a life of protecting you, a betrayal.  They want to stay for as long as they can.

The vigil started this morning.  The dogs are smarter than I am.  I let the puppies in the house while the lawn was being mowed—the mower frightens them.  When Pibb was ten weeks old, he made the mistake of stepping on Queen who was asleep at the time.  She made sure that never again will he forget the maxim to “let sleeping dogs lie”.  When the kerfuffle ended, I was shocked to see that not a hair on his head had been harmed.

When Pibb came in today, he immediately lay down with Queen, head to head.  An hour later, I noticed her position had shifted.  Her front leg was touching his, paw to paw.  I think she was reassuring him.  This afternoon, she felt well enough to go out and bask in the sunshine.  Yoda, my little mixed breed rescue, has always been an empathetic little dog.  He cries when the girls have their nails trimmed.  Today he plopped down right beside her face.  And there he stayed, his little body shielding her eyes from the sun.

Saying goodbye has never been easy for me.  But I know that it’s time.  And if there is a heaven for dogs, Magic and Izzy and little Jack will be waiting for her.  We will be okay down here, knowing she is no longer in pain.

Rest in peace, GCh. Jaraluv Queen.  Forever our Queen of Hearts.

Another Dog, Same Breed, As Soon as Possible

“Hark to Beaumont. Softly, Beaumont, mon amy. Oyez à Beaumont the valiant. Swef, le douce Beaumont, swef, swef.” Beaumont licked his hand but could not wag his tail.”  T.H. White, “The Once and Future King”.
               For the past couple of years, my life has been pretty easy.  I spent last summer putting in a vegetable garden, and making improvements in the landscaping around my home.  In September I went back to work after a somewhat abbreviated bout of retirement, but just part time covering other radiation oncologists’ practices.  My two Scottish Deerhound sisters, Queen and Quicksilver were then approaching 7 years old, and were long past the destructive behavior so characteristic of the giant breeds in their youth. My little mixed breed rescue Yoda had never been a problem.
             On December 19, 2015 I upended my quiet comfortable life by getting a new puppy, a ten week old borzoi named Pibb.  Two weeks later, I compounded the chaos by acquiring a “brother” for him to play with, an eighteen week old Scottish deerhound puppy named Cole.  Despite a few misgivings and knowing full well what I was getting myself into, I went ahead with what I knew deep in my heart was a preemptive strike. Queen had been limping off and on, and despite my denial I knew that the proverbial “other shoe” had dropped.  Her chronic lameness worsened suddenly a few weeks ago and like her dam before her, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer common in her breed.
                  As a radiation oncologist for adults with cancer, my day to day ethical challenges are few. I do my very best to be sure that my patients understand their diseases, and the side effects, risks and benefits of treatment. As a devastated dog owner, the decision making process is not so simple. The tell tale X-rays resulted in a consultation with a board certified veterinary oncologist, where my husband and I sat and listened to our options. Amputation and chemotherapy, the standard of care, would give Queen a median survival of 9 months.  Untreated the disease progresses rapidly, often times resulting in a pathologic fracture. Pain control is also a problem, and pain can often be ameliorated by radiation therapy–my own specialty. Except in the rarest of cases, the disease is incurable because metastases are present, whether they can be detected or not.  All treatment is palliative.
               As we sat with the veterinary oncologist two weeks ago, contemplating our options, I remembered my friend and vet oncologist Dr. Greg Ogilvie saying, “The dog doesn’t look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, I only have three legs.’ The dog only knows that the pain is gone.”  And we were told that dogs tolerate chemotherapy exceptionally well, much better than human beings.  So we sat and nodded and thought that perhaps our initial instinct, which was to provide comfort care only, might be wrong.  Who knows better than a cancer doctor how important it is to provide and maintain hope?  And so we wavered.
                 In her incomparable essay “Oyez a Beaumont”, Vicki Hearne describes what it was like to lose her Airedale Gunner when he fractured his pelvis from prostate cancer.  As a dog trainer, her advice to clients has never wavered:  ”Another dog, same breed, as soon as possible.”  And then she admits to us, that it was ten years between the death of Gunner and the purchase of a new Airedale pup.  She says, with feigned indifference as our hearts break, “That was as soon as I could get to it,what with one thing or another.”  I got to it a little sooner.
               Deerhounds are homebodies, and our Queen particularly so.  Carsick since puppyhood, trips are stressful for her, and the risk of fracture even getting such a large dog in and out of the car is significant. Outside the veterinary specialty hospital, in the cold light of day, we lifted her into the car and she fell immediately into a sound sleep because she knew she was going home-home to her sister, her humans, and even those pesky puppies. We knew then that home is where she will be for what remains of her life.  We love her and this, more than anything, is what we owe her.

Gone With The Wind

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Ernest Dowson

Having no artistic talent whatsoever myself, nonetheless I am fascinated by art, and especially by artists themselves.  My father has been both an artist and an avid collector since the ship he served on as a Navy dentist docked in Sicily, and the local artists were allowed to come aboard to sell their wares.  He still has paintings he bought in 1945 hanging on his walls.  As a teenager in Depression era Chicago, he took classes on Saturdays at the Chicago Art Institute and wanted to become a portrait artist when he grew up.   His father, my grandfather, told him to get real and learn a trade.  He chose dentistry, and only later, after going to medical school, discovered that as a plastic surgeon, he could both be a portrait artist and earn a living.

Many of my artist friends do not take commissions.  When asked why, they say that it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile their own interpretation of a subject with that of the person commissioning the work.  Fortunately for me however, some do, and I have been the appreciative beneficiary of portrait work by artists such as Stephanie Snell, Paul Doyle and Marilyn Terry.  What do these artists paint?  They paint my dogs of course.  My children and I would never be able to focus and sit still for our own portraits to be painted and besides, despite this age of “selfies”, we are far too self conscious.

A few years ago, a young man’s wife developed breast cancer at age 25.  He is a well-known video artist known as Daarken and he and his wife needed money to meet their medical expenses.  An on-line fund raising auction was conceived, with the theme stated as “Beautiful Grim.”  Beautiful, because despite his young wife’s diagnosis and treatment, she was and always will be beautiful– yet for some young women with breast cancer, the prognosis can be grim indeed.  His friends and fellow artists rallied to the cause, and many contributed original works to the auction.  I am a friend of Daarken’s sister, and I followed the auction with interest.  In particular there was one painting that I kept coming back to, that no one was bidding on.  It was a portrait of an African American woman, beautiful and naked, except for her long stockings which were peppermint striped, red and white. Her hair was a tangled wild mass of curls against her beautiful skin. When no one else bid, the portrait was mine.

Over the years I have become very friendly with the artist and his wife, who shall be unnamed because of the personal nature of this anecdote.   They visited our home this past summer, and we commissioned a work of art.  The assignment was intentionally vague—“just paint something you see in New Mexico that inspires you.”  A few weeks ago the painting arrived, a full 4’ X 4’ landscape entitled “Sombrillo Vista.”  It is as beautiful as I had hoped, and emblematic of the New Mexico I have come to love.

When I called to offer my sincere gratitude, the artist’s wife said, “You know, just after he finished your painting he received another commission—a most unusual one!  A man called and said he wanted a portrait painted of his ex-wife. He is still in love with her and wants an oil painting to remember her by.”  Apparently he had sent a few snapshots of his ex along with his request.  Always a romantic at heart, this struck me as both somewhat insane, but also a true romantic gesture.   I said, “Send me a phone pic of the work in progress.  I want to see the woman who inspired this act of unrequited love.”  She did.  The woman was indeed beautiful, and playful, and mysterious all at the same time.  I said, “Well if the ex-husband doesn’t like the portrait, let me know because I will buy it.”

Shortly after our conversation, a photo of the unfinished work was sent to the hopeful ex-husband.  He liked it a lot, but he felt that it was not quite there yet.  He had some advice for the artist– he said, “Just think—complex and Mona Lisa eyes with a dash of mischief and you’ll nail it!”  I laughed and said, “Now that should be simple.  You know, just be Leonardo da Vinci.” The finished portrait was unveiled to the good patron last week who promptly proclaimed, “It gave me goosebumps!”   The man likely needs a good therapist instead of a portrait of his ex.   But let us be clear:  he has been faithful to her, in his fashion.  And my artist friend, well—clearly, he NAILED it!

An Extraordinary Life

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”—John Donne

On a Sunday in January, 2014, I opened the New York Times Opinion section and stumbled upon one of the most unusual essays I had ever read.  It was written by Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who at the time was a 36 year old neurosurgery resident at Stanford who had been battling metastatic lung cancer for eight months.  Here is a link to the essay, entitled “How Long Have I Got Left?”– http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/25/opinion/sunday/how-long-have-i-got-left.html?_r=0    The author’s point was one well understood by cancer patients everywhere—if the doctors could not tell him whether he had a month, or a year, or ten years, how could he possibly determine what his priorities should be and how best to live his life?  Should he finish his residency?  Should he write a book?  Should he have a child?  In his worst moments he wrote that he fell back on his first love—literature.  In the last sentence of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, Kalanithi found a mantra to live by: “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”

As it turned out, he did not have long.  Despite the optimistic and sometimes humorous tone of the essay, Dr. Paul Kalanithi died of his lung cancer 14 months later.  But not without first doing ALL of the things he mentioned in the essay.  He finished his neurosurgery residency as chief resident. He repaired a fractured marriage.  He had a child.  And to our great benefit, he wrote a book called “When Breath Becomes Air” published posthumously in January of this year—a book which despite my oft stated incredible reluctance to read anything I know will make me cry, I grabbed off the shelf the minute I spotted it in a local bookstore.   I was not disappointed, and yes, I cried.

The courage of cancer patients, and of all patients facing life threatening disease astounds and inspires me.  Many go through grueling and exhausting treatments and manage to put one foot in front of the other—they “can’t go on…they go on.”   Paul Kalanithi not only went on…he wrote about his experience in a book that will stand not only as a cancer memoir, but as a profound piece of writing.  When faced with dying, he chose life by completing his training, by having a child, by believing every day that he still had much to offer.  In an essay for Stanford Medicine he wrote words for his infant daughter which were included in his book: “When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

I hope you get a chance to read his book.  Even if it makes you cry.

Eddie, A Horse Story

In the horse rescue business, there is a euphemism for when a horse at auction is sold to a kill buyer, who gets dollars for pounds for transporting horses to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.  We call it “getting on the wrong trailer.” In the United States last year alone, over 100,000 horses climbed on that trailer, many of them after successful careers as racehorses, ranch horses, dressage horses, jumpers or just plain family pets.  The old and the infirm are particularly at risk, since a horse who cannot be ridden is an expense many owners cannot afford.  Often these horses are transported over long distances without food or water, to be further injured en route to meet a terrifying end.

On Saturday night, one such old horse showed up at Mike’s Auction in Mira Loma, California.  He didn’t have a name, just a number—hip #245.  He was blind in one eye due to an old injury, and his other eye was cloudy.  The buzz floating around was that he had been a trained dressage horse, but no one knew for sure.  All of the familiar Southern California rescues were there, as they are the second Saturday night of every month, steeling themselves for that inevitable point in the auction where they run out of money or space, and the elderly, the lame, the unbroken and unwanted run out of time.

The morning after the auction, Forgotten Horses Rescue posted on Facebook that it had been able to save five equines from slaughter, one of which sold for the astoundingly low price of $40.  A supporter wrote in, “What happened to hip #245?  A quiet retirement home or the wrong trailer?”  Trish Geltner, who runs Forgotten Horses replied, “Sadly we were out of funds by the time his number came up.”  Denise Tracy, who owns Tracy Acres, a sanctuary for retired and otherwise unadoptable horses up in Vacaville, had worried about him all night after seeing his picture on the auction list.  When she learned what happened, she wrote, “On my way to church, tears streaming down my face.” Denise has had some trauma in her own life, and has a soft spot for blind old horses.  She offered him a permanent forever home at her sanctuary, if he could be found and retrieved.

Trish sprang into action.   She located the horse, frightened and already bloodied and bruised from being thrown into a pen with younger stronger horses.  She put out a call to Forgotten Horses’ Facebook supporters and within minutes funds had been raised to pay his “bail,” to transport him to a temporary foster and obtain veterinary care, and to pay his way to Vacaville and Denise’s welcoming arms.  At the time that I am writing this, he is on his way north.

It turns out, this horse’s name is Eddie.  He is 24 years old, an Irish thoroughbred, and was indeed a dressage horse.  The woman who brought him to auction cried when she left him, saying that he was a good horse and that she had tried in vain to find him a retirement home when she could no longer keep him.  A kind hearted person is always an optimist—surely she hoped that someone, someone with means, would step up and save him from certain death in a Mexican slaughterhouse.  In the end, just in the nick of time, a small village of horse lovers reached into their pockets while Denise Tracy reached into her heart.

At Tracy Acres, one of Denise’s horses has a sign hanging outside her stall.  The sign says, “A True Love Story Never Ends.”  Eddie is going home, and the rest of us are the better for having made it happen.

Love Letters

Another guest post tonight, from my friend Jackie Widen:

I miss letters.  Rather, I miss sending AND receiving letters in the mail, real letters on stationery.  Our cultural communication has been reduced to tweets, posts, texts, emails and Facebook messages. Another part of growing older is remembering and cherishing this simpler method of communication. I guess I am old.

I have always been a letter writer.  I remember as a child writing to both of my grandmothers who lived in California.  Both were widowed and led quiet lives, and at the time I just thought it normal to correspond regularly with them.  Now I realize how much they must have enjoyed receiving my crudely crafted letters.  The news to share was probably silly in hindsight; what grades I got on my spelling test (yes they actually tested for spelling back in the day) or what our pets were doing or how pretty was the dress my mother had recently sewn for me.   The postal rates were regular mail and air mail, and of course air mail was preferred. There were “air mail” stickers to plaster across the envelopes and to keep postage down we wrote on flimsy air mail stationery so that long letters were lightweight and could pass under a single unit of postage. Of course we used fountain pens.  Oh and don’t forget the sealing wax.  For my 8th birthday I received a set of stamps and sealing wax candles.  I can still smell the wax as it dripped onto the point of the envelope seal, and then I would select (quickly) the stamp of choice and stamp firmly, leaving a distinct initial or fleur de lis.

My father dutifully wrote each week to his mother, as did my mother to hers, but somehow I remember my father’s efforts more.  Phoning long distance to California was a luxury – forget unlimited talk or cell phone freedom – and so perhaps I observed his habit and incorporated it into my own routine.  When I left for college in 1970 my father wrote to me every week, and I loved opening my mail box in the Student Center and seeing his distinctive script scrawled across an envelope.  The letters were short, scratched out on tablet paper that I recognized from his work, and he always enclosed a few dollars for a treat. Usually our correspondence revolved around how the Dallas Cowboys had fared recently, or how his golf game was or just stuff about the family.  I saved every one of his letters and gathered them with ribbon.  Thank heavens in all the purging my parents did during retirement they didn’t throw out my special box of college mementos.  While cleaning out my mother’s house last spring I found all of MY letters that I had written to him.  He had saved them all too.

Preparing my 90 year old mothers’ house for sale was a tough project.  But there were treats along the way.  Packed carefully away in an old trunk were three sets of letters, bound up in aged ribbon and yellowed with time.  The first set were letters written to my grandmother from her then fiancée, the grandfather I never knew as he died when my mother was 12.  The paper was filmy onion skin, the script exquisite in its fluid loops and dips.  Why did we stop teaching penmanship in schools?  His cursive was amazingly beautiful, from a different era – I was dropped back in time into 1918.   I felt almost guilty reading about the anticipation about their upcoming nuptials.  The letters were sweet and innocent and filled with fervent passion about their future together.  The next set were the letters my grandfather had written to his daughter (my mother) while she was at camp – the summer she was 12.  A smaller stack, but the poignant part of that keepsake was the final letter written just before he was scheduled for surgery from which he did not survive.  The letter arrived after he passed away.  My mother put that final letter on top and bundled them up.  I am pretty sure she never revisited that correspondence.  She confided years ago that her childhood ended that day; that she felt old and heavy at the young age of 12 as she was an only child and felt enormous responsibility to care for her mother, a 42 year old widow who had never worked a day in her life or finished high school.  She was her mother’s caregiver until my grandmother passed away at age 98.

The final set were letters my father wrote to my mother during their courtship.  I recognized my father’s scrawl immediately.  It was more legible back then; hard to believe he had already served during World War II, gone to college on the GI bill and was just starting out at Shell Oil at the ripe old age of 30. He and my mother were engaged and he had been transferred out of town; so writing letters was the way they kept in touch.  Again I felt like a voyeur, but it was a wonderful piece of our family history that was indescribably beautiful.

As I ponder the New Year, I think about the ways I would like to make my life more meaningful.  I can lose a few pounds and exercise more, play more and worry less – but it occurred to me that I would like to write more and spend more time with pen to paper.  My calligraphy lessons have infused me with a new passion for the beauty of the printed word, but I know also the simple act of writing a letter to someone will give them more pleasure than it gives me.  So for my lovely mother-in-law and the elderly lady in California who we enjoy helping out – there is a fresh stack of note cards ready to be filled.  All I need is the sealing wax.  Amazon Prime is taking care of that.

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.

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.