Dear Catherine

When I saw the peonies just poking their new shoots above the ground next to your house, it was almost too much to bear. I love peonies. In 1991 we bought the house on Strawberry Hill back in Dover Massachusetts. The perennial gardens were seventy years old then, and I had no idea what was planted there. That spring was a miracle—tulips and irises and daffodils and crocuses shot up in green tendrils through the last few mounds of old snow and blossomed into a riot of color. But the peonies were a surprise—crawling with ants they lifted their heavy heads and bloomed into unparalleled delicacy. I was in awe, and the peonies and the lilacs are two of the things I will always miss from my years in Boston. I wish I had taken more photographs. When I saw your peonies, I cried for both of us.

I have been to New Mexico many many times, and I agree with all of the tourist literature and hype: New Mexico is indeed the Land of Enchantment. Everyone knows and loves Georgia O’Keefe, but in my opinion Wilson Hurley did it best. He captured the big skies and sunsets that the Navajo saw before the white folks came and that keep people like me coming back. The sunsets, and the friends I have made there hold a special grip on me. Of all of my friends, you were unique. An Army “brat”, you had lived everywhere—Florida, Europe, Japan, New York City. You were educated, you spoke several languages, you rode horses and had collies and you loved the ballet. But in the end, you came back to Albuquerque, to a home you loved. We met because of the deerhounds—in a world of instant gratification, fast food and big screen violence and romance, we were anachronisms together.

I too came back to Albuquerque–on Wednesday to help Joan settle your estate. Your parents died in 2008 and 2009—you had no brothers or sisters or children. In the end, crippled by an old accident which had shattered your legs at nineteen and dampened your spirit, you succumbed to diabetes, heart disease, infection and time. I could have done, and should have done more for you. When I visited, I always stayed at the hotel you recommended. You said, “Stay with me NEXT time, after I get the house fixed up.” I did not want to inconvenience you, and besides, having so many dogs and cats and demands at home, staying in a quiet hotel, with the soothing sounds of an air conditioner and no midnight potty calls seemed like a luxury to me.

In August, when you got sick, Joan finally had the key and let us into your house. I was appalled at the conditions you were living in. I had no idea—Natalee was supposed to be taking care of you. She failed miserably at her duties, and she took advantage of you, and I was determined that you could not, and would not go home until we had remedied the situation. We spoke in the hospital of your expansive back yard, and of the charm that the little adobe home must have had in the past. You agreed that it was time, finally, to reclaim that charm, the sun filled living room, the warmth of those thick adobe walls, the cozy bedrooms, and the photographs of the greatest dancers the world has known. You knew that it was time, and you let Joan hire a contractor. All you ever wanted was to be home by Christmas.

The house is beautiful, Catherine. The living room walls are a pale turquoise, just as you picked out. Your bedroom is the same color and the guest rooms are a lovely yellow, the color of the New Mexico sunshine. There is an amazing tub in the bathroom, perfect for a person in a wheelchair such as yourself—you just grab the handrails and do the transfer and sit on the bench while the door seals itself shut and you soak in warm water up to your neck. I am so sad that you never got to enjoy it. Joan did a wonderful job.

I miss you Catherine—your wit, your humor, your love of pretty colored gemstones, and of course the calendars you sent me each year of the handsomest men in the world. I know you always favored Viggo, but you humored me with photos of Gerard Butler and Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom and Javier Bardem and Olivier Martinez. I will keep those calendars forever, to remind me that we, you and I, can always dream of handsome men and beautiful jewels. I hope that your deerhounds met you at the “bridge”, and that you are there as in your youth, dancing in your finest pearls.

For the rest of us, tell the people you love, that you love them every day. You never know when you won’t get a chance to anymore.

When Only a Dog Will Do

My husband used to be afraid to leave town.  He travelled a lot on business, and he never knew what he might come home to.  That is because when I get stressed, as is often the case, and if chocolate and a good glass of red wine fail to comfort me, I tend to look for something warm and fuzzy.  Most of the time, a new dog is just the thing.  Sometimes a horse, sometimes a cat, occasionally a guinea pig or two, and I daresay there were some fish—but mostly it was a new dog.  At some point, the husband put his foot down.   He decreed, “No animal shall set foot in this home unless another animal leaves!”  He knew that there was only ONE way an animal ever leaves my care—and that is if they die.  Have I mentioned that there are two horses in my backyard who are going to be twenty eight and twenty five respectively this May?  May they live forever—good old Norman and Dash!  Still, I am a good girl.  I try to play by the rules.  But it was time.

I have written my obituaries for my dogs on this blog.  If you are new here, read “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and “A Dog Story.”   I am sentimental.  My dogs, when they go, are irreplaceable.  But that does not mean one should not try.  When we put Jack down in December, I could not actually believe how much I missed my eleven pound Brussels Griffon—the one who made me a caricature of myself—a slightly pudgy middle aged woman with a toy dog who was never adequately housebroken and who yapped constantly to the point where I think he knew his name was “Shut the F-ck Up Jack!”.  I know, it’s horrible, but it was true.  When he went blind and deaf he finally stopped barking, and everyone who came to my house was saddened by the silence.

So I admit that I was vulnerable, when a veterinarian friend up in the Oakland area posted a photo on Facebook, of a little white dog with dark stains under his big brown eyes and oversized ears.  He had been found running in the middle of Fremont Avenue, starving, flea infested and loaded with tapeworm.  Someone had likely tossed him out of a car, and a client of my friend had halted traffic to pick him up.  He weighed five and a half pounds, and you could feel every rib.  My friend and her vet techs named him Yoda, and the name stuck.  I was in the Galapagos on vacation when I happened to sign onto Facebook and see his little face, with a sign hanging around his neck saying, “My name is Yoda.  I need a new home.”

Yoda lives here now.  He is a tiny mixed breed being, likely a terrier-Chihuahua mix. He is loving and kind and does not bark, except when we go out at night and he senses the coyotes lingering just beyond the fence line.  We are working on the housebreaking, and he’s smart enough to get it.  He’s put on a bit of weight, to the point where I’ll have to watch it. Like any creature starved for food and affection, he can’t get enough of either.  The deerhounds are tolerant—I think they missed their little dog too.  The cat is not amused.  Despite the stress of my job, and my concern over my father who will shortly be undergoing aortic valve replacement, this little dog makes me smile.  If you too are worried and stressed, here’s a bit of advice for you:  Get a dog.

A Dog Story

I am not in the habit of writing obituaries for dogs.  But some things you just can’t let go of.  Maybe it is because Thanksgiving is approaching, and Thanksgiving four years ago was the start of all this dog’s troubles, or maybe it’s just that the shorter days and longer nights give cause for contemplation, but today I am going to tell you a dog story.

In May of 2002, we lost our big male deerhound Timber quite suddenly.  He was found to have a rare cancer, a hemangiosarcoma, that arose from the left atrium of his heart, and his demise was swift and completely unexpected.  Although we had three other deerhounds at the time, I’ve never liked odd numbers and so I contacted a breeder/friend in Oregon and two months later we brought home Izzy, a four month old fuzzy gray puppy, who looked, with his proportionately small head, dark eyes, black nose and huge legs and feet, like nothing more than a gray lamb. The three adult deerhound females of the house, not to mention me and my teenaged daughter, doted on him.  Izzy grew up as the “man” of the dog yard and took his responsibilities seriously.  He kept everyone in line, and helped raise six puppies over the subsequent 10 years—two for his breeder back in Oregon when he went back there to be shown, and two more sibling pairs for me.  You don’t need to do a lot of obedience work when you’ve got a smart older dog showing the “young ‘uns” what to do.  He finished his championship easily at age two, got a beginning lure coursing title (although speed was not his forte) and then retired to do what he did best, guard the house, watch out for the kids, and keep the rest of us in line.  I’ll never forget how, one night on our “evening patrol”, he frightened a peeping Tom who was staring into my daughter’s bathroom window.  My screaming and his furious barking roused my teenaged son, who ran outside with his huge hunting knife ready to defend us.  He needn’t have bothered—one look at a giant hairy dog weighing well over 100 pounds was enough to ensure a quick flight over the fence for our unwanted guest.

Thanksgiving being what it is, we all overindulged four years ago and so when Izzy appeared to be having difficulty moving his bowels after the holiday, I chalked it up to dietary indiscretions until it became clear that something was dreadfully wrong.  Off he went to the vet, where sedation was administered and an enema was performed, revealing that the dog had developed perineal hernias which had weakened the pelvic floor to the extent that he could not perform his usual “duty.”  As the vet techs were getting him off the table, however, an accident occurred and they managed to dislocate this dog’s heretofore perfectly normal left hip.  Four anesthesias–a CT scan, two closed reductions and one open reduction/internal fixation which took six hours– later, I brought my big crippled dog home, still with the unsolved problem I brought him in with.  Twelve weeks after that, he had recovered from his hip repair sufficiently to undergo repairs of the perineal hernias, another complicated and painful surgery.  In between, I contemplated putting the big guy to sleep, but he was only six years old.  My veterinary surgeon came to the house and said, “This dog wants to LIVE.”

And live he did, quite happily, for another four and a half years, until we finally “did the deed” due to recurrent hernias.  Although he never fully regained his mobility, he loved to play with the new puppies I bought three months after his surgery, bounding after them with his awkward gait and lying belly up in the horse pasture while the puppies “attacked” him.  He never showed us how much pain he felt and he never met a stranger he didn’t like (as long as they came through the door, and not over the fence!) On the day we killed him he greeted his veterinarian with a wagging tail, to the point where my husband nearly backed out of the planned euthanasia.  This dog enjoyed life to the fullest, despite his significant and many disabilities.  This dog wanted to live.

I think often about my friends and colleagues who will not allow their children to have a dog—I’ve heard all the excuses—allergies, too much work, not enough space, too limiting in terms of travel.  I think they are wrong, and I am obnoxiously vocal in my judgment of them.  I think that our dogs teach us so much about cheerfulness, stoicism, willingness to play–even as adults, acceptance, love, loyalty and compassion.  I hope that when I am old and infirm I will bear the burdens of age and disability with as much dignity as my Izzy did.  But I sincerely doubt that it is “humanly” possible. We love all our animals, but some take a giant piece of our heart when they go.  Happy Thanksgiving Izzy.  We miss you.

For Lu

I am good at many things, but I have never been particularly good at training dogs.  Never saw much point in it really, since I love the laid back nature of hounds, deerhounds in particular.  Apart from occasionally eating all of the seatbelts and the bumpers off my Suburban, and removing saplings from the yard (we call this “landscraping”), they mostly lie around the house, preferably on the newly upholstered couch. No retrievers or terriers for me—they require intense supervision and effort.  Any dog that requires me to toss a stick or a ball endlessly is going to be very disappointed because I was always the last to be chosen for the softball team. I have no hand-eye coordination whatsoever.

Despite this, I believe strongly in the training of children, and so when in 1995 we acquired two new deerhound puppies, Timber and Valentine, I decided that it was time for my ten year old daughter Alex to learn to train a dog. I inquired at the veterinarian’s office and the local feed store as to who the best dog trainer was, and I was directed to Lu Meyer’s Obedience Academy.  Since there were two puppies and only one child old enough to handle a dog, I enrolled us both in our first obedience class.

To say that Lu was one “tough cookie” was to make a serious understatement.  She was extremely fit, had ramrod straight posture and a demeanor worth of a Marine Corps drill sergeant.  Fairly early in life she discovered two things– that she did not want to be married to a jerk, and that she was very good at training dogs.  She divorced her husband, raised her son by herself (and did a fine job of it), and started her obedience academy. By the time she got hold of me, my daughter and the deerhound pups, she had 30 years of experience and by golly she was going to show us how it was done.   And show us she did.

I don’t remember anymore which of us had Timber and which of us had Valentine.  I do remember that we worked hard in class, and we worked hard at home.  We did not want to fail in front of Lu, who would dismiss us with a characteristic “sniff” of her nose.  I later learned that this was related to a sinus condition, but at the time that haughty sniff was the penultimate sign of disapproval, sending us head down and home in shame. It seemed we could do nothing right, however by 1996, Valentine had earned her AKC conformation championship, handled in the ring by Lu, the “lowly” obedience trainer who managed to beat several professional handlers and several of the top dogs of the time.  Timber was another story.  Born with a short kinked tail, he was never going to win a conformation title. Deerhounds are not known for their affinity for obedience, but he wanted to please Lu, at least for a while.  She put two legs of an obedience title on him, but the third leg proved elusive.  Timber was smart and bored and tired of the game.  On the third or fourth attempt at that final leg of the Companion Dog title, he calmly turned to her in the ring and lifted his leg on her skirt.  She exited the ring, handed me the leash, and commanded “Neuter this dog IMMEDIATELY!”  And so I did.

Lu was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in 2007.  It never occurred to her not to fight, and she fought hard.  When I was a medical student and resident, this diagnosis was a near immediate death sentence.  But the discovery of Taxol, a chemotherapy drug initially derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and later synthesized, changed all that.  Ovarian cancer became treatable, and Lu responded beautifully to treatment.  She would go to chemotherapy, and come home to hold back to back obedience and agility classes. Her upright posture and her characteristic sniff never changed—she was in command and dogs and humans alike knew it.  Even dog whisperer Cesar Milan would have yielded to her “calm assertive leadership.”  And so did her physicians, giving her second line chemotherapy when she failed Taxol, and third line therapy after that, and in the end, experimental drugs.  That is exactly what she wanted, and she got it.

Over the years, I became a decent hand with a dog in the show ring but decent does not equal grace or fluid movement.  By 2010, with Timber and Val long gone, I had my two Q’s, Queen and Quicksilver, and I did not want to embarrass myself or their breeder by stumbling around the ring.  I called Lu, who was still teaching despite being oxygen dependent.  She was eager to help me.  She had her oxygen in a backpack on her back.  Even though she was visibly short of breath, she was as strict and demanding as ever.  When I gaited a dog down and back, she got exasperated with my hackneyed knee action.  She grabbed the leash out of my hand and took off at a run down her lawn matching Queen stride for stride as she shouted, “THIS IS HOW IT IS DONE!!!”  The following weekend I did not win, but I did take reserve at the Western Regional specialty.  I know that Lu was smiling her approval from her hospital bed.

Today my daughter is a great hand with a dog, thanks to Lu.  As for Lu, she passed in August of 2010, a month after my last lesson, dedicated to the end to her son Victor, her clients and her dogs who were carefully placed with her closest friends. Her personal service dog Whisper, a beautiful Doberman, was by her side at the very end.  When Victor went to make arrangements at the funeral home, he took Whisper with him, since she had never been alone. It was warm that day, and the funeral directors, a young couple, asked Victor to bring the dog inside.  There was an immediate and surprising attraction between the bereft dog, and the couple whose job it was to comfort the bereft, and who were looking for a dog to help families through those most difficult times.  After careful consideration and time, Whisper became theirs.

Today Whisper continues her life as a service dog, doing what Lu trained her to do, but in a capacity that Lu never anticipated.  There could not have been a better outcome for this perfect dog if Lu had orchestrated it herself.  But then again, perhaps she did.