Mind Confusion: Good for you?

dance_school-1280x1024 (2)Body confusion sounds bad but is good. As my yoga coach explained, when your exercise routine becomes routine, your muscles get bored and slack off. You can schedule the same exercise routine every week, but after awhile it becomes old hat, and your body does not benefit from the workout. In other words, you have to challenge—shuffle things around; in essence, confuse the body to keep it at its best. Challenges and new moves keep you in healthy grooves!

In this same vein, if the body slacks off, wouldn’t the mind do this also? Not to minimize the impact of a life crisis, but one thing it does do is shake you up and orbit you to unfamiliar places that may feel foreign and scary at the beginning, but later as the journey unfolds, recharges the imagination and ignites the creative problem-solving juices.

For instance, before our family’s personal crisis in 2010, I could have continued to hide under some fifty extra pounds of weight and allow myself to fade into the buttermilk color walls of my house, vaporizing behind my then husband’s emotional tailspins.

Instead, nearly four years later, “mind confusion” has kicked me into over drive. Tons of new challenges undertaken…daunting jobs, grubby courtrooms, and a longtime friend who threw me under the bus just when I was about to get my bearings! With the challenges, new joys have also unfolded…dating again since 1989, the last time I had a date; neighborhood kids who come to the door with shovels during a blizzard and a late-life love who surprises me with a kiss that transplanted me back to feel sixteen again when my high school’s gym class cheered me on as I did a tap dance atop the trampoline.

Thanks to the element of surprise, total mind confusion, I not only shed the pounds, okay, some of them, but I have also had a love affair—with my femininity, my individuality, my sometimes tragic, miserable, highly interesting, amazing life, and I learned that courage doesn’t come to me naturally, but that I have to have faith and work at it…not face danger and freak out and bolt, but face danger, freak out and stare it down—a little bit longer at each new perilous zone.

In the end, I still have “the bad” confusion in my life and I struggle as a single mom. It remains an everyday challenge to be stable and balanced, especially when the mortgage due date draws closer, every month, and my mind becomes a 24-hour melee in which I must battle it out with beasts that can and will flex their muscles to frightening proportions. Then there are those days when my body joints tell me I have been squeezed out of so much youth.

Through it all, I have learned to get my shine on and dance through life as if my experience on this earth has been a skip through a meadow of wildflowers and not a plunge into an abominable pit of hot coals, employing grace and dignity at all times when tears mar the vision, but faith carries me forward through the downpour.

“Goodnight, sweet prince”

famous quotes about death, (1)“Goodnight, sweet prince.”

At 4 a.m., the last night that our ailing cat Cliff spent in our house, the feeble, lethargic cat, rallied and howled beneath my son Marshall’s bed. In his 16-plus years, he never did this before. My son knew it was his finale. Gently he lifted Cliff up next to him in bed and before their final slumber together, Marshall bid him farewell, whispering, “Goodnight, sweet prince.”

Cliff died later that day, and peace and contentment shrouded Marshall. This was nothing short of a miracle. Over these past years, more times than not, my son, wounded from his best friend’s premature death and his father’s abandonment, would echo things like “I can never live without Cliff.” “I’d kill myself if anything ever happened to Cliff.”

In awe of God’s grace, I recognized the poignancy of my son’s suffering; how the ultimate design, jagged, unraveling, wildly unpredictable, is so beautifully  executed, detailed to a fault, in the Weaver’s hands.

Stay tuned!…until next time…faith forward!

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Cliff Lytwyn Maxwell ~ July 4, 1997 ~ January 28, 2014

Stay tuned!…until next time….Faith forward!

Cliff: The Final Curtain

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“But without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a Rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” ~Hebrews 11:6

Five weeks ago, when my daughter Alexandra and I took that dreaded trip to the vet, I, thinking it was “the end” of our beloved Cliffy, felt too fragile to euthanize the cat.  Without overanalyzing, I was working arduously not to lose my grip on my insides that felt like a flyaway kite. Fortunately, we found out that it wasn’t quite time for our tough Maine Coon Cat to make his final bow.

The strain of each passing day was unmistakable. My daughter reached a good level of acceptance with the situation, but my son Marshall held hope; held on. Though I was upset about the cat, my restless nights were spent on obsessing about my children’s wellbeing.

Tears shed, the most difficult part of detaching and letting go of him was that in our many years of what amounted to a domino effect of crises, Cliffy was our stronghold. Whether I was dealing with divorce, death or finances run amuck, his face expectedly gawked at me from the other side of the kitchen’s sliding door, waiting, above all else, to nosh. Unlike the whirlpool of the world, we all knew what to expect from our pudgy, frolicking showman, who looked so pomp and cool in his fur of black and white, promenading with his head tall.

Nearly at the end of that awful five week period, my son finally realized Cliff ‘s increased frailness. He blurted out, “Do it tomorrow! I can’t take it anymore.”

With few words exchanged between us, the game plan was, I was doing it alone, and I somehow had to muster the courage, which I found in my taking tiny steps instead of projecting the big picture of Cliff’s demise.

“God is in the details.” My BF Pat reminded me that I used to tell her that all the time. So I made a resolution. No worries, just do the motions. Move forward. And so I did, as it happened, God orchestrated every little thing and the appointment was set for 4:30 that afternoon.

At 4:00, Cliff, cradled calmly in my arms, had one last grand tour of the house where he once had run and frolicked, slept, and eaten, always filling the quarters with love. Paramount to the both of us was the sweeping view from our back porch and the acres of land that once filled him with a safe sense of belonging.

“Cliff…Cliff!” I called over the sprawling grounds below, in a voice that I had used thousands of times before for more than 13 years while we resided at the house.

“Cliff!”

“Crouton!” Still outside, I found myself calling as if our beloved deceased poodle was frolicking in the springtime next to his Maine Coon cohort.

“Cliff! Crouton! It’s time to come home!”

A bit late, 4:40, and frazzled over the area’s traffic; God is in the details. The vet’s waiting room was empty. The staff, caring, accommodating, ultra sensitive to our privacy, guided us into the examining room.

“Cliff! Crouton!” I called quietly into Cliff’s ear.

Even before the anesthetic, Cliffy in his customary lounging-like manner, reclined on the doctor’s table; his characteristic lazy self, so peaceful. He briefly stirred prior to the sedative administered as I made the sign of the cross on him numerous times with holy oil from Greece. His ears felt so silky. His eyes open but dimmed now to the physical world. He lay still; placid without the slightest quiver and within seconds after the second injection, so content and serene.

I thanked him for the privilege of his company for more than 16 years; I thanked him for always being on the sidelines when our family was void of cheering sections. I thanked him for commanding the center stage when I thought for sure the show would not go on.

“Cliff! Crouton!” my voice rang in a final whisper as I applauded him, our perfect cat who always looked so dashingly handsome in what appeared to be a tuxedo. I rose and turned away. Upon my exit, I felt humbled and honored to take part in one last standing ovation of God’s signature showman as the final curtain descended.$_57

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Cliff Lytwyn Maxwell ~ July 4, 1997 ~ January 28, 2014

Until next time….Faith forward!

Farewell, sweet prince

In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind ~ JOB 12:10

silverliningPutting our cat “down”; euthanizing; whatever the word used, it’s an excruciatingly painful time for me and my kids today. Cliff, the brave cat who once saved me from a pack of angry raccoons, has only a few more hours of life before I have to, in essence, take what is left of his life and make that dreaded trip to our vet.

For most of my earlier life, avoiding pain at all costs, I never had to do this to any of my pets. Someone else always did the dirty work. Crouton, our beloved poodle, spared us the anguish by passing peacefully just a few months prior in October.

Now I sit here writing, looking at Cliff take his final breaths. I am nothing less than grateful for this long good-bye. My daughter who made the trip to the vet with me about five weeks ago during a false alarm when Cliff first took a turn for the worst is lucky in a way—being away at school.

My son, a true hero during Crouton’s passing, is working at the moment, and unless things change, I’m taking this on alone; sparing my son. Since 2010, loss has been a constant state of affairs at our house, and the main reason I started this blog. Both my children were abandoned by their father, largely due to his mental breakdown in 2010. Months later, in January of 2011, Rob, my son’s best friend and a good friend of my daughter’s, was tragically killed. Last year we lost Maureen, my dear friend’s sister and a special person in our lives. In the interim, Cliff has been a great comfort to us all, like a large, floppy pillow to sink our sobbing selves into. Now, he has melted down to an emaciated skeleton. A breathing ghost who has not eaten or gone to the bathroom in over a week.

“You’re my father now!”

I remember my son cooing those words repeatedly in a soothing manner as he spoke to Cliff in those awful months when the wound from his father’s act of abandonment was raw.

“You and Rob were my best friends!”

These are my son’s words to Cliff recently, echoing down the hallway as we have journeyed through these painful, tearful times that remind our family yet again that nothing lasts forever.

Last week, after I shared Cliff’s story, a colleague blurted, “Move on!” Her words were forceful. When she said them, I thought about a life drawn on a chalkboard and suddenly—erased—fast, clean, efficient until the next messy job I suppose. Sure, death is “messy” when it creeps into a life. It’s unplanned. Downright rude, really. Exhausting and way too emotional. Of course, as relatively sane people that we hope we are, we must move on. However, when death rears its messy head, the manner in which we move on is different.

In the ocean of life, death is like a surfboard of pain and grief that we receive at any given moment. We grip it while trying to steer gallantly forward through the tide of the days that loop our lives. Sure, we lose our balance. We fall off the board. But always somehow climb back on and try to maneuver the damn thing, because, come on, it is ours. We alone take claim to the surfboards of pain that we are dealt, and the ocean’s arms are gentlest when we do not resist her mightiness and, yes, go with the flow—forward, the best we can, as hard as it may be.stairway_heaven

I close my eyes, and imagine a vibrant, young Cliff running and bouncing through a springtime meadow. Underneath me, I anchor myself in the ocean of life; balance on my surfboard as I drift farther from him, and he disappears in the fresh grasses.

Faith is my strength, my solace, the wings beneath my surfboard, flying me forward, onward, in the direction of that great meadow where I will one day reunite with Cliff, Crouton and all those fellow surfers that have imprinted my heart, and we will ride heaven’s waves in an everlasting celebration.

Rest in peace, our most very perfect cat.

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Cliff Lytwyn Maxwell ~ July 4, 1997 ~ January 28, 2014

Crouton Lytwyn Maxwell ~ November 12, 2001 ~ October 17, 2013

Friends in paradise forever

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Until next time….Faith forward!

Cliff, the perfect cat

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  – Luke 12:6photo_2[2]

I didn’t want to adopt the first pet that came into our household 17 years ago. My daughter Alexandra was two at the time; my son Marshall, four. As a working mother running a household, I was already overcommitted.

On a deeper level, I didn’t want to get attached to a pet and someday have to say good-bye. I spent my life as a cat owner, and each time one of my kitty babies passed, I was beside myself. Instead of getting easier, the sorrow was never diluted.  Single and living alone, when my last cat died in the early eighties, I was so heartbroken that I swore off cats forever. Then in 1997, with my then husband and children by my side, I broke my pledge. When we met Cliff, a Maine Coon, he had an aloof character. Lots of street smarts. After all, he was raised and later discovered in an abandoned car in my Godmother’s yard. Her son Ted had adopted him and his sister Judy and took them to his house. Ted owned other cats and asked me if I would open our household to him.

“He’s a good cat. He has all his shots,” Ted said, trying to persuade me since the rest of the family was already sold on Cliff. “It would be nice if you could take Judy too,” he added.

Cliff’s eyes glowed and gazed into us like we were the only four people in the universe.

“Okay,” I finally agreed as the room filled with cheers and happy tears, but, I announced, “we’ll only take Cliff. We can’t take two cats.”

“You won’t regret it!” we heard Ted’s exclamation behind us as we left his home with Cliff.

The first week at home when Cliff burrowed himself behind the washing machine, I thought perhaps the choice had been wrong.

By the end of the week, while I was working in the kitchen, Marshall came up to me with Cliff in his arms.

“How did you ever get him out?” I asked stunned.

“He just came out for me,” my young son proclaimed.

From then on, Marsh had a special bond with Cliff and never once did we regret adopting Cliff into our household that would over the years transform into somewhat of an animal menagerie. In fact, it was Marshall who discovered that Cliff was a Main Coon Cat. A Mainer to a tee, he loved the cold. He loved to hunt. We called him the cool cat. No matter what new animal inhabitants were joining our home front, he never flinched.  When Blossom, whom we adopted a few years after Cliff, had kittens and, crazed mamma bear that she was, attacked me while I held Cliff in my arms, he looked at me as if saying sarcastically, ‘Ah, these new mothers and their hormones.’

Cool, never losing his aloofness, he knew about loyalty and love and once when I was surrounded by a pack of mean raccoons outside my backdoor, he stood his ground and chased them away. In essence, he risked his own life for his family.

Cliff had a sense of humor too and loved to be a showman and trickster and rolled over for us whenever we asked him; treats, of course, in our hands. Speaking of treats, he loved to eat just about anything, which included spaghetti that he would slurp up slowly and delectably, always asking for more.

Most memorable was the incident that made him a neighborhood star. My daughter and I had brought Cliff into her class for her kindergarten show-and-tell assignment. Seconds after I took him out of his carrier, he escaped outside through an open window. Despite numerous mad-search parties throughout the neighborhood, Cliff had disappeared. That is, until seven days later, when he showed up at five o’clock in the morning at our door, which was three miles away from the school! He was unstoppable and spread his cheer with every paw print forward.

Last year we marveled when Cliff turned 16.  We planned for him to live until 20, maybe even 21.  Though he grew tired of performing his tricks, he still loved to devour anything that came across his vision, never losing his a special affection for spaghetti.photo_1[1]

Last month, disconcerting it was when he started losing interest in food; suddenly hiding out in the corner of my closet. When we took him to the vet, he was not eating or drinking, throwing up bile and burrowing in my son’s bedroom.  Needless to say, tears overflow in our household, which, three months ago, saw the passing of our darling poodle Crouton.

Marsh fluctuates between being heroic(“Crouton will take him home”) to being in total denial (“I think he’ll live another year.”). A time like this is a call for faith. It is made easier as our family bonds tighter, realizing just how vulnerable we are and recognizing our powerlessness.

The days have been touch and go, and when my BF wondered why we did not put him down when I thought it “was time,” I think the text I shot him says it all: “…if he goes into pain, we will put him down. Not a moment sooner. Cliff is so happy to spend a little more time in the house he loved. Remembering all the voices from the people in the past who loved him.  He hears Crouty barking at him and enjoys every moment as deeply and fully as he enjoyed every other moment of his glorious life.”

So, powerless, heartbroken with paw prints imprinted forever on my heart, we are in the shadow of another good-bye.  And I’ll take no refund of pain and sorrow because in return I’d rather have our legacy of joyous Cliff memories that have enriched our lives so fully we can never ask for more.

 Thanks for blessing our house Cliff. Your moniker was “the perfect cat” and never once did you venture from your signature.photo_3[2]

Stay tuned!…until next time…faith forward!

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Thank you angels

In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.  Job 12:10

Okay it’s been over a month. We are in the middle of Thanksgiving weekend. I can talk about it now. Our beloved French poodle Crouton who has been my anchor through these crisis-filled years, my number one (ok, number three after my kids) cheerleader, my coach, my shadow, my angel passed away peacefully at home on October 17, 2013.

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Instead of dwelling on Crouton’s passing, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I have been thinking about a few of the people, angels, who soared into my life and lifted me up at the times I was at my most pancake position. For instance, about a week before his death, I had informed the staff at Waggies, Crouton’s grooming salon at the time, that my doggie had a cancerous tumor. I almost did not call the salon because of his bloody wound, but I wanted my dog to look his astute best during the critical period.

The salon’s owner Ellen told me to come right down with Crouton. The minute we walked throug the door, Ellen and Lisa, my doggie’s groomer, showered us with empathy and consolation. Despite his open bloody tumor, without hesitation, Lisa washed him and clipped him gently and speedily. Two hours later, his spruced up look was just the boost I needed. Like a rite of passage, on his way through the doorway of death, the groomer kissed him on the middle, then the tip of the nose. In a very odd way, the time we spent together was like celebrating sadness.

The week after, feeling glum about Crouton’s deteriorating condition, exiting the supermarket in the middle of a torrential downpour, a man about my age made the mad dash to get his groceries into his car. Following behind, I started to pile my bags into the way back of my SUV when the man’s kindly face came into full view. He positioned the remainder of my groceries into my car, and even took my shopping carriage back to the front of the store. I knew God had sent his messenger to let me know he had not abandoned me.

Meanwhile, through Crouton’s death process, my friends, including Pat, Camille and Michelle, partook in the journey; probably helped prevent a few major falls as I did trip. A couple of weeks after his death, my dear friend Michelle arrived at my door with a homemade meal. It has been one of those days when the house felt particularly empty and big. MsBread

“It’s so quiet without Crouty,” my son had said when he came home from work.MsChickenSoup

The emptiness in our living space was instantly filled with the aroma of the chicken soup and bread that Michelle had walked in with that night. Her entrance and exit was brisk, but her appearance had not only given us the faith we needed at the moment, but had a lifelong effect on us, like so many others that I had encountered through the trying time. In the emptiness of our hearts and our home, God filled the barrenness with His love, manifested through the human touch.

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Stay tuned!…until next time…faith forward!

And the seasons go round and round….

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.

February032012 012Last week in my mind I scheduled an appointment on Thursday for my beloved French poodle Crouton to be euthanized. His tumor bled. He did not eat. He threw up. I was distraught.  Loving him so deeply for the last 10 years of his life, Crouton’s eventual demise was a poisonous thought that I allowed into my mind on very limited occasions.

The week was full of lots of emotional unrest; I realized that this was a first for me. Thirteen years ago, my dad died in my arms after a long battle of emphysema at the hospital, then a couple of years later I lost my brother to a stroke, but I never had to deal with a pet’s death before. The last time I lost a pet was an old cat Rocky about 26 years ago. During my earlier years, I was spared by my father who had the task at hand to put down my cats.

‘I’d take it a second at a time. I’d take it as it unfolded,” I told myself while daunting images of Crouton’s sad eyes magnifying into my heart as if to ask ‘why mommy, why are you forsaking me?’ shot through my consciousness like inescapable darts.

Through thick and thin, through lots of comings and goings and lots of changes, over these last ten years, Crouton never changed. Not in appearance and not in companionship. At the end stretch of my marriage, on one of the last nights that my then husband and I would share the same house, my then husband brought Crouton into the bedroom, and handed him to me.

“Why don’t you take him to bed with you tonight?”

“I will,” I replied, knowing that the sad truth was, I preferred Crouton’s company above his; and, admittedly, Crouton was my preferred companion over many other people in my life and sometimes, yes, even over the kids on a few difficult occasions. Everyone did wrong; I would joke, but never Crouton. When my world rotated off the axis, Crouton symbolized my safety net.

He was my Velcro. Ever mindful of falling over him, he was like my third shoe. He knew me more intimately than any human. He never abandoned me the times I spent bawling behind closed doors in my office or bedroom. Through good and bad and the rainbow of life in between, he was my stronghold. I always thought, if I took him on a boat and threw myself overboard, he would wait until I reappeared…or die waiting. As far as I am concerned, a human can’t hold a candle to a dog’s loyalty.

On the other side of the dog bone, I mean coin, to Crouton, I represented his pork chop as I sometimes joked about his love towards me. He was totally dependent on me for his livelihood. Feeding, walking, trips to the vet and the salon, coordinating alternative travel arrangements when I hit the road, nuisances these responsibilities were sometimes, but the motivation behind these acts was one hundred percent unconditional love; and, in return, I got so much more.

Whether a long day or a short hour, whenever I came home, it was a bang of a celebration. Crouton maintained his usual welcome: jubilant, barking, and twisting around me. He puffed up my ego bigger than Alaska and California, bigger than outer space, because every day in Crouton’s eyes, I could do no wrong in his world either. I was his prized pork chop, and as far as he was concerned, that was the only Academy Award to achieve that mattered. To grieve so intensely last week made sense.

Oddly enough, right after my dearest friend Pat said, “He’s a tough dog,” while she was dog sitting Crouton last week, he rallied. He ate! He took a short walk! And, thankfully, in my mind I nixed the vet’s Thursday appointment. It was a miracle I announced to my friend Anne at church this past Sunday, a miracle! Crouton would live, and everything would be back to normal.

Here we are a week later; Crouton has again stopped eating. He throws up and has withered away so suddenly. His breathing is labored. He has given up, as if saying, “It’s time, mommy.  We can do this, peacefully.”

Somehow those miracle days of him rallying grounded me. I am able to exhale normally again. And between not accepting Crouton’s impending death, fighting and resisting, I am at the stage of acceptance. Earlier tonight with no one home, we had our alone time. I cradled him in my arms and just wept, begging, crying, “Please don’t go. Please don’t go.”

Then I realized, Crouton, while we forged ahead, the dog that we used to call the “dancing dog” had lost his bop, hop and boogie spirit very, very slowly. Since August 16, 2013 when the doctor diagnosed his tumor, he faded like summer’s end into fall.  I know in total faith his season has arrived.

My tears diminished. The dog that lay in my arms was just a coat, emptied, worn down of each beautiful fiber.  The moment marked a span of forty seasons that began when we rescued a poodle, and he rescued us by dancing into our lives, making each step worth the effort.

“It’s time, Crouton. We can do this, peacefully,” I whispered.

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Stay tuned!…until next time…faith forward!

Watching Crouton earn his new set of wings

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.

MOM 004[1] (2)Crouton&ME1“You understand, your family is the worst possible choice for Crouton to go home with, you understand, don’t you?”

The animal shelter’s volunteer conveyed to me in confidence after my two children and I had been shown an apricot toy poodle at PAWS, “Pet Animal Welfare Society,” a nonprofit “no-kill” organization in Norwalk, CT, following my 8-year-old daughter’s discovery of him the night before on petfinder.com.

The memory is so branded on my mind that I still remember the woman’s name, Noreen. While my daughter and her brother waited in a separate room, I had nodded, but inwardly was relieved. At the time, we had two cats at home, and my then husband did not have the slightest notion that we were spending our day at the local shelter just looking.

Yes, of course, I understood, I told Noreen. The other two families, also in line with high hopes to bring a new two-year-old poodle home, were much better suited. One had only a twosome, a mom and her young daughter, and no pets at home. The other five-member family looked responsible enough.

I alone, I reasoned, would make a terrible dog owner. I always had cats. The only dog I had was a dachshund for a day. My older brother Paul had brought him home when I was eight years old as a surprise. Unfortunately, we had to bring him back to the shelter because my parents did not want to shoulder the burden of the extra responsibilities of an animal. After the dachshund’s return, my brother and his girlfriend at the time had bought me a banana split. I ate the whole thing, but my sorrow persisted along with a belly ache too. From then on, I vowed I would have a dog of my own one day and keep it forever.

Keep dreaming, that was my motto! When the kids were toddlers, one of our weekly visits was to a local pet shop where we would spend the time as speculators to some pretty fancy poodle cuts on some impressive show dogs by a groomer who rented space in the store. She herself owned five poodle show dogs. There, we learned everything there ever was about a poodle, and once you learn the innermost workings of a poodle, there is no other recourse but to fall in love; and so I was, head over heels, or tails, in this case, however, at a distance. Who, after all, was I, a mom/freelance writer with limited funds to own the most perfect dog that cost upwards to thousands upon thousands of dollars?

So, fast-forward from this point, and there I was at Paws with Noreen telling me that we were not suitable dog owners and—presto—a blue leash hit the palm of my hand like a surprise snake.

“What?” I asked, shocked as she let go of the leash.

“And even though you seem like the least likely family to adopt Crouton, I am giving you the dog, because your children were the ones who interacted with the dog the best.”

By now, I knew if I hadn’t manipulated or initiated a situation’s outcome, God was at his handiwork. So who was I to argue with the big honcho?

In hindsight, I always say give a rescue dog a 90-day trial before you make a final decision. You see, even though my husband did not bat an eye when we brought Crouton home, and the cats realized after a day with their “new master” who was in charge, it wasn’t until the 91th day that Crouton stopped piddling all over the couch and soiling the rug! In fact, if my then husband did not have a snag at work, we had decided that morning that he would come home in the afternoon on that 90th day of owning Crouton to bring him back to PAWS!

So call it another God thing, but that darn messy dog turned into an angel during his third month with us and as my son pointed out, became a part of our pack of which I was the top wolf. Although he was supposed to be my daughter’s dog, Velcro he was to me, and I learned about loyalty and the kind of unconditional love where if I really did jump off a bridge, guess who would shadow me in an instant?

Soon after those initial 90 days, the common denominator in my life was that “everyone made mistakes, but not “Crouty,” because he was perfect, an angel, my angel dog. Life without him did not and could not enter my thoughts…not for many years…..

Until  that awful morning when our groomer uncovered a growth on Crouton’s hind leg. After the biopsy a few days later, I received the word on August 16, 2013; our little angel dog had a tumor, an aggressive tumor. Without recapping the horrific details, our vet felt it was a reasonable decision on my part that I decided against surgery.

Basically, for the last six weeks, I have watched Crouton die with the latest vet run this past Monday.

During this time, I realized it is not just about the person or pet you are losing. It’s about our own death on a different scale and how each passing day will sooner or later change the face of things forever. I look back about ten years ago when we first brought Crouty home, and out of the many vivid memories, I picture my son, in the middle of a snowy winter, sliding Crouton down our cul-de-sac buckled into a “dog sled,” his genius invention for a fourth-grade project. I see my daughter in her young innocence sprinting with Crouton on an early spring day, who in his dog days, could run miles; my daughter’s blonde hair reminiscent of his ears flopping in the wind. I see him too in his Cujo alter ego, as the kid’s so often referenced, with him playing attack with our dear departed Rob, my son’s best friend; head to head, nose to nose, to the secret delight of us all.

One of my best memories was on a Sunday morning eavesdropping on Crouton, my then husband and two young kids roughhousing on our queen-sized bed, wanting to pinch myself because no greater could the joy have been than at that time at those moments.

The face of any death reminds us of the sunset of our youth; our children growing and going; it is about how temporary life is and how even in its most tormented moments, if looked at closely enough, how beauty still resonates if we have the grace to dive deep below the surface.

In 2010, with the dissolution of our family, when our world, the one we knew, collapsed, I took a downward plunge and sat in the playroom alone, seriously considering the unthinkable…plotting…over thinking…while seeing images of the car’s exhaust in a closed off garage. Immobilized, not knowing what to do, or not do, in this case, a pair of indigo eyes came at me.

“Damn dog,” I said out loud to him. “Damn, angel dog.”

I called my dearest friend Pat, 24/7 savior in our family, and said crying, “I can’t do anything drastic. Crouton would die if I did anything rash.” She, as always, was at my side in human form.

So, I made a promise to Crouton, I would survive. Ironically, a few weeks later, Crouton was savagely attacked by our neighbor’s German Sheppard. Pat, who was with Crouton at the time of the incident, rushed the mangled poodle to the vet.

When I found out, I cried, traumatized. I begged God to save him. Miracles of miracles, the Lord heard my prayer and the vet’s staff called my little angel “Brave Boy” throughout the ordeal.

A lot has happened since those first few crisis-filled autumn months of 2010. For the first time in my life, I took up jogging with Crouton. He was my inspiration behind every single run. We ran in the same pack, and after all that we had been through, we felt invincible.

In the spring of 2010, me, hairspray queen, started to open up the sunroof and all the windows in my BMW, allowing for the first time my hair to run savage wild, and bolted down our little town’s rural roads with Crouton in the passenger seat, listening to Johnny Cash.stoplights 018 stoplights 0111

“I’m goin’ to Jackson, I’m gonna mess around,

Yeah, I’m going to Jackson,

Look out Jackson town.”stoplights 012

Soon thereafter, I took an outside job, and Crouton, momma’s boy that he was, was not amused. In fact, he was pretty darn angry at me in the morning and would stall doing his morning business, but by the time I got home, I knew I was totally forgiven, since he could not stop jumping for glee the moment I pulled into the driveway.

Now, going into our third year of our “new normal,” I am able to let him go, slowly, gently, lovingly. Three years ago, I was too broken to lose him. I was gifted three more years of having him; my strength always.

The vow I made to myself so long ago, to have my own dog one day and to keep forever, I accomplished. You see, I have faith that long after Crouton’s final rest, he, like my other memories, will live in me forever until I cruise down that final country road, wind messing up my hair, where my angel dog and all the other angels will await to celebrate a party that has no end time, only operates on dog time.stairway_heaven

We rescued Crouty and he rescued us!

Stay tuned!…until next time…faith forward!

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To Robert Smuniewski, heaven’s angel at 21

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. stairway-to-heaven-at-morning-time

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Unforgettable he was. He was my son’s best friend and like my own son. He didn’t do what was hip, cool, or mimic the latest media blitz. He didn’t do pop culture. He did “his” culture. He didn’t do what was appropriate; he did what was “Rob,” which meant he was filled with piss an’ vinegar. He possessed his own creative, unique style; a spontaneous jokester, who could impersonate most anyone or anything like, for example, our toy poodle. The minute Rob’s lanky figure, typically wearing well-worn sneakers crusty with mud, appeared at our door, both of them, dog and kid, were on all fours, lunging at each other in a barking match.

Sometimes he provoked me, but I couldn’t stay mad at him for long. He was so damn sincere. He had a quick wit, a mechanical, dare-devilish mind; a hellion on wheels. When Rob was around ten, for instance, after we had a new pedestal bowl-like sink installed in our remodeled bathroom, he persisted to turn the single-spout faucet on and off and kept fiddling underneath the contraption to try and comprehend how the pipes worked.

I’d hear the stream, or should I say geyser, of water coming from the bathroom. “Rob-bbbbb! Get out of there,” I’d shout.

“Awwwww. Ms. Max (that is what he called me), I’m just washing my hands….”

“Rob-bbbbb!”

One night, my now ex-husband and I went out for dinner. Upon returning home, I staggered when I heard what sounded like Niagara Falls on the other side of the bathroom door.

“Rob-bbbbb….”

After witnessing the scene of the crime, he swore to me again he was only washing his hands at the sink, which, laying on the floor, we could only shut off that night at the main water line. The next day, when the plumber came to repair the damage, we discovered that Rob wasn’t solely responsible for making the sink go pa-Boom. The bathroom floor did not lay straight and its uneven surface had contributed to the sink plunging on the floor…so we installed a more practical, Rob-proof sink.

Unblushing he was. If he came around, man, be prepared for 214 questions about a collector’s plate or funky light fixture or anything that was distinctive. While other kids were chatterboxes on a tailspin about the latest sneakers or video game crazes, Rob would be zeroing in on things like our antique toy tractor that we stored in our garage, asking a million and one questions like, ‘Is this the original blue color, man?’ Rob may not have been a book scholar, but he was a life scholar.

Unstoppable he was. And like a gassed up Chevy, he always took the highroad and never, ever stopped, no matter how jarring the bumps were, cruising through life. He innately knew life was for the living, and he was going to lap up every single iota. Wow, did he put those miles on the odometer! It made sense the kid loved cars—anything that moved—really. Without trying to schmooze anyone, he made the most skilled mechanic’s jaw drop at the fountain of his knowledge. Get him talking about a Ferrari, and his ecstasy was that of a natural kind variety!

Once, when the boys were shy of 15, I was driving home turning on our road with my son in the passenger seat, and spotted a familiar SUV in front of us.

“Isn’t that funny…looks like Mr. Smuniewski’s car…looks like…oh no, don’t tell me… Rob-bbbbbbbbbb. What are you doing driving your dad’s car? Do you know you can get arrested? Are you kidding me?”

There he was in my driveway, jumping out from behind the driver’s wheel of the SUV like a kid who just swallowed the natural happy pill.  He begged me not to tell his parents. Softy that I am, I died from worry, until I got the call that he had arrived home safely in the SUV.

Unblinking he was. Nothing would thwart his true, unique self and it shined no matter where he went or who he was with; whether he played golf with the high school golf club at the Redding (Connecticut) Country Club or was the only white kid in attendance at an all-black church service where he occasionally went with one of his best friends who was about 50 years older than he was or when he worked moving rocks for his employer/friend who owned a construction company. In other words, you couldn’t take him anywhere because he would never compromise his distinct voice, and you never knew what he would say or do, but, man, you wanted to take him everywhere because he had never lost his self-value. He had courage, spunk, a sense of humor that reached out infinitely to everyone, and I mean to everyone; compassion and an intuition too. In 2010, when things took a turn in my household, and I knew a divorce was imminent between myself and my husband, but dared not say too much, Rob phoned me out of the blue.

“Rob?” I asked a bit surprised since he did not ask to speak to my son.

“Yeah,” he answered, only for us to wait through a pregnant pause.

“What is it Rob?”

“Ms. Max…”

“Yeah…” totally bewildered, I probed.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, Rob, I am. Hey Rob…”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

“Okay, Ms. Max. Gotta go!”

Unbelievable he was. Random acts of kindness were just an everyday occurrence to Rob. I always told him, “I can’t wait to watch you grow up Rob.”

Today, I imagine he would be on his way to owning an excavation empire; but far more important than that, he would have been on his unwavering mission to mend hearts, spread hope and make everyone he met believe that life was so worth whatever fare you had to pay for the trip!

Unspeakably, during a blizzard on January 8, 2011, close to his home, while pushing his disabled all-terrain vehicle on one of our main roads in our small town, Rob was struck and killed around midnight by a car.10874016-paradise-road-stair-leads-to-the-sky

Over the years, I have lost a brother, a father, and lots of good friends, but I never hollered and wailed on my knees when I heard the news. I certainly know I was not alone in my grief. None of us will ever be the same; certainly not his mom or his twin sister, celebrating her 21st birthday today also, or his older sister or friends; not our community or teachers or bus drivers or the many people from all walks of life that he befriended and inspired to go forward gallantly and without regret. We will be looking for him until our own last days.

And, today, on September 25, 2013, the day that would have marked his 21st birthday, ironically enough, my own dad’s birthday who is also in heaven, I salute you Rob. I salute you Rob with a glass of courage you can’t bottle and sell; the kind to die for that so many of us want and dream about, but so few of us acquire, so deep and far into our comfy little zones to reach out and grasp for.

I think, though, with his passing, among his sky’s-the-limit quantity of inspiration, his legacy consists in our realizing that we have to have faith and believe that we are so much more than cool, so much more than conforming and, instead, just us, foibles and all, unabridged, unpolished, unabashed, unwilling to accept the mundane, every day rigmarole, and always take the effort to wear our best dress attire as Rob did, and step into the day like it is not a dress rehearsal, but our moment of glory, always conscientious that the curtain could close at any random moment.

thCAH47HPZ

Robert Smuniewski

September 25, 1992 – January 8, 2011

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Expressing sympathy to a pet lover

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“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4

I had some disconcerting news about my beloved apricot poodle Crouton a couple of weeks ago. Fast forward to last week, and I found out there is some hope in his stage 3 cancer diagnosis. The operation will tell all. I am not looking forward to the recovery period for my 12-year-old angel either…but one step at a time. At the moment, I am mulling over how I will obtain $1,200—if I go that route—with everything else going on.

Anyway, the first onset (24-48 hours) of news, I had a lot of reactions from people…in my mind, I started penning a letter with well-meaning friends in mind. And here is an open letter to anyone who cares….10217244-stack-old-book-and-candle-education

Dear Friend:

When you find out that your friend/acquaintance/neighbor or whoever is facing the passing of a pet, please do not compare the pet to a child or human being. This is a shocking comparison and one that should be avoided at all costs. It is tasteless to pit a child against a dog or other animal. I know your motives are pure and you are trying to ease the pain, but pain is pain. We are entitled to our own personal pain. Each type of pain is worthy to run its own course the way the griever sees fit. Please make room in your world for my pain. By telling me not to feel the pain, you are deleting something that is natural and normal. Please don’t strip me down because you can’t handle pain; by doing this you will multiply the pain…what you resist persists.

Even if you are not an animal lover, please do not, under any circumstances say, “It is just an animal.” My little “baby” is just that to me. Please don’t try and suffocate my love for something because you cannot empathize. I do not need empathy or even understanding, I just need “to be.” Please, in other words, let me grieve without having to stuff it, or minimize it or tweak it or fake it or…fill in the bank it. I am a mature gal. I have grieved my dad’s passing; my brother’s passing; my son’s best friend’s passing. I have grieved nine friends/people I’ve known who’ve committed suicide. I have grieved my friend Jane’s passing at 17 years old. I do not need a grieving coach. I just need someone who says something like “I hear you.” “You are entitled to your pain.”

Do not ask me if I need anything. I am a big girl. I know how to ask for help. But you can come for a friendly visit with some comfort food we can share. Maybe a phone call to set up a coffee date would be nice. A date where we can just sit and “be” and “be with” and “live” while we are alive, since living, I think, is plum important…living and grieving and feeling…feeling…feeling. I do not want to act like I do not feel. I am at my best when I feel my feelings. I’ve spent thousands of dollars sitting with therapists/coaches identifying my feelings and learning they are okay to have. If you are uncomfortable with that, please don’t come around, that is the best thing you can do for someone who is upset and grieving. In fact, it is far more than “just” grieving about a pet. It is about letting go. That’s a tough hurdle. We live working so hard to accumulate, but even if we never ever have a death to moan or possessions to forfeit, we will at some point have to let go of our last breaths. So, for Pete’s sakes, don’t rattle my journey. I keep the day-tripping adventure real because it is fueled by faith.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

Stacy

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Until next time…faith forward!