Rescued.

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I knew something wasn’t right when it was a struggle to get the door open. We were coming home from my wife’s first infusion treatment, which had been a disaster of epic proportions, and were looking forward to nothing more than collapsing in bed. For whatever reason, though, the rug in our entry was balled up and shoved under the door, the first obstacle in our quick-to-bed plan. Once we finally were able to get inside, we realized the extent of the destruction left by our normally well-behaved mutts who had been left alone far longer than intended when we said goodbye that morning. The two of them — Suki with her intense separation anxiety and Honey with her increasingly severe senior needs — left evidence of their displeasure, a mixture of shit and shredded paper towels, from one end of the house to the other. It was the final indignity at the end of an unbelievably stressful day, leaving us with the option to either laugh or cry. So we did both.

We’d been leaving Honey alone less and less, mostly because her health’s decline seemed to be picking up speed in recent months. What started as mere mobility issues — her hips and joints plagued by the sort of arthritis than one might expect in a dog of her age — was now more complicated by her increasing loss of vision (she’d lost her right eye to a cancerous tumor years earlier, but now the remaining eye was failing, too), a frequent inability to control her bodily functions, and a growing cognitive deterioration that often left her confused and very anxious. On this particular day, though, after getting my wife tucked in bed and the house returned to acceptable-if-not-spotless standards, I sat on the floor and had a heart-to-heart with our favorite fifteen year old dog. I explained that she was going to need to pull it together and hang on for a bit longer because as anyone could plainly see, we were already at our stress capacity. Then I kissed her nose and gave her a few treats. She seemed to understand.

Honey loved these heart-to-heart discussions of ours, mostly because she seemed to love any opportunity to monopolize my time and attention. For the last year or so, once it became increasingly difficult for her to get up and greet me at the end of a work day, I’d make sure to take a few minutes to lie down on the floor next to her and have a moment, just the two of us. It had become our new thing and I was just fine with it. After all, at her age, she’d certainly earned this shift in routine.

We had another of these great discussions a little over a week ago, when I came home early so Honey and I could sit by the pond and enjoy the sunshine. Her deteriorating health over those prior couple months had been building to this inevitable day and to this most important heart-to-heart. We used to walk the pond’s perimeter all the time, back when Honey was far more mobile and willing. Sometimes we’d use the opportunity to discuss the day or bitch about those infernal geese, but most of the time we wouldn’t need to talk at all. On that particular afternoon just a handful of days ago, though, I’d have to help her to the pond, as the short walk was more than she could manage on her own. I did it all selfishly, because what I needed was for her to do the talking this time, to turn to me like some cartoon dog and speak in perfect English. Maybe she would be able to tell me that she trusts us to do the right thing — the hardest thing — for her. Maybe she would tell me that she’s tired, ready. Or maybe she would be able to say the perfect thing to somehow make it all less sad. Of course, that’s not the way it happened. Honey had spent the better part of a decade bringing joy to our lives, but on that day, it was clear that the heavy lifting was going to be mine.

Honey coming into our lives wasn’t part of some grand master plan. My wife was at the vet’s office with our other dog at the time, an American Eskimo mix named Paige, where she learned that a local collie rescue group was in desperate need of foster homes for an unusually high number of dogs-in-crisis. It wasn’t a great time for us to take on any new responsibility, much less a dog, as we were still in the earliest stages of rebuilding our lives after my wife’s long battle out of addiction. In fact, if we’re being honest, the timing was terrible. We were still fractured from the whole experience in every conceivable way, but my wife also thought that fostering a dog for a short time might be a healthy distraction from her own internal chaos and a meaningful way to give of herself. So, without much additional thought or added fanfare, Honey, a six year old collie, came to live with us.

Make no mistake, Honey was what my mother-in-law would lovingly call a “hot mess.” A puppy mill rescue, Honey was malnourished, routinely abused, and in such poor physical health that she was missing both a lot of her hair and teeth. Confined to a small cage for the first years of her life, she was in a shattered emotional state, as well. She didn’t know how to walk in grass, much less on our wood floors, and she was scared of everything and everyone. So, yeah, we were broken, but she seemed broken, too.

In those first few weeks and months with Honey, her physical health began to slowly improve with the assistance of countless vet visits and a variety of medications. We spent that time working on her other issues a lot, too, such as trying to teach her to trust humans again, even though she’d suffered at their hands for so many years. That’s the truly amazing thing about dogs — specifically, rescue dogs — you see. They somehow have this seemingly undaunted ability to trust and to give of themselves, even when everything in their life experience might have taught them to withdraw instead. We were amazed at how quickly Honey did just that, how soon she was able to express love and trust that it would be returned. It was, as we would only later realize, the exact lesson our own shattered souls needed to learn…. trust, give, receive. In that way, she was a great teacher who saw that we were broken, then lovingly pushed us on a journey back to wholeness. In the process, we became unrepentant “foster failures” and she became an integral part of our family.

Nearly a decade later, we knew that having to say goodbye to our sweet one-eyed friend would not be easy. We’d been having versions of the “what we need to do” conversation with each other for weeks, probably months, in an effort to both come to terms with the reality of the situation, but also to make sure that we were on the same page. Eventually, we would make The Appointment with the vet, at the same office where my wife first saw the flier requesting foster homes. It was on that day of our appointment — just over a week ago now — that Honey and I would make that last trip to the pond.

It was important to us that we both be there with Honey when she took her last breath, to offer any comfort we could as she transitioned from this life to the next. Even though we knew it would be incredibly difficult, we did exactly that, huddled together on the floor of the vet’s office, my arms extended around both my wife and my dog. Those first moments after she peacefully took her last breath were almost unbearably sad, of course, but the experience also cracked the dam a bit on a lot of other nonsense we’d been keeping under lock and key in recent months. I think we’d been so focused on being “strong” and “positive” throughout my wife’s diagnosis and treatments, or maybe just so concentrated on the task at hand because it was all the energy we had in the moment, that we may have forgotten to allow a bit of our dreaded humanity to leak out, too. And so there we were, on the floor of the vet’s office, wallowing inconsolably in our pent-up humanity. Once again, it was Honey to the rescue, showing us the way out of our brokenness.

Twenty.

20I’d already known the woman who is now my wife for a couple of years — casually, a sort of friend-of-a-friend situation — when we ran into each other during my visit to Tulsa the summer before our junior year of college. When I returned home a couple days later, a good friend picked me up at the airport. He asked about the trip and all I could say was that I’d run into the woman that I would some day marry.

Had you known the twenty year old version of me, you would have known that almost any statement I could have possibly made — “I think I’m going to move to Ecuador and grow bananas” or “I think I’m going to shave off my eyebrows and take a vow of silence for a month” — would have been more probable than something positive about me and the dreaded institution of marriage. And yet, for reasons that still baffle me, I just knew.

I realize that a lot of twenty-somethings say they’re never going to get married. Maybe they say it because they think it’s cool or because they’re still focused on wild oat sowing. For me, though, I vocalized my disdain for marriage mostly because somewhere deep inside I feared that I didn’t have it in me. I feared that I’d grow bored, I feared feeling trapped, I feared losing the occasional isolation that the introverted part of my personality requires, but mostly… I feared failure. I just wasn’t sure that I’d be good at it.

I would say that this journey to our twentieth hasn’t been what I expected, but then, I don’t fully know what I anticipated when we stood at that altar. I had some overly idealistic ideas of how our lives might unfold, as kids who stand at altars usually do, but I also found myself okay with the great unknown before us, simply because I knew we’d face it together. I still wasn’t sure that I’d be good at it, but I hoped and suspected that we just might.

There have undoubtedly been struggle and heartbreak along the way, the sort of things that altar-approaching twenty-somethings rarely consider. For the longest time, those chapters of our life were sources of shame, whitewashed in an effort to present what we thought was the expected appearance of our relationship, rather than the truth of life’s hard fought battles. The wisdom of hindsight, though, has taught me that through those very struggles, our marriage was first formed, then tested, and now fortified.

I have no idea what the next twenty years may have in store for us and I’ve given up on guessing. Whatever it is, I know that I’ll be holding the hand of my best friend. And that is enough.

[Happy anniversary, honey. I love you.]

The constant.

In the midst of life’s inevitable ups and downs, through nearly two decades of our married life, we’ve had a canine constant. I will start by saying that when we first brought that fluffy, white puppy home almost nineteen years ago — an American Eskimo mix of some sort, we would later learn — and my wife declared that she would be named “Paige,” I was absolutely mortified. “But that’s a people name,” I would argue, only to discover that was exactly the point.

And so it began.

She was a nightmare of a puppy. In just a few short months, she managed to destroy our favorite oriental rug, a lamp cord or two, a pair of my glasses, the down comforter on the bed, and in one fit of what I can only assume was inexplicable rage, she chewed every belt loop off every pair of jeans she could find in the laundry. Only my jeans. Every belt loop, every pair. She would also lose her mind if either of us had the audacity to talk on the phone and, if we tried to take her somewhere with us in the car,  she’d throw up the second we’d take our foot off the brake. So, we sent her to puppy boot camp, hired an immensely odd dog whispering trainer, and worked together to calm the savage beast that would become our closest ally and confidant.

Like nobody else, she would have a front row seat to our marriage and each challenge we would face. She offered overwhelming doses of love, joy, and companionship when we needed it most, whether we were cognizant of the need or not. As dog’s somehow do, she sensed every sadness or sickness and offered herself up as a therapist and healer. In some of my darkest days, she was the one thing — the constant — that helped me push through.

When we brought our second dog home almost six years ago — a troubled six year-old collie rescue — it was Paige who would take on the role of trainer and mentor. The collie, timid and frightened of everything after years of abuse and neglect, wasn’t much of a quick study, but Paige persisted. Our collie, a sweet girl named Honey, is the wonderful dog she is today because of her time with Paige.

Over the years, Paige had many health issues. Her first bout of cancer, a large tumor on her leg that appeared out of nowhere, was nearly eight years ago. At the time, the veterinary oncologist warned us that the average life span of a dog her size and breed was probably only 11-13 years anyway, even in the best of health, so we should take that into consideration when deciding on a treatment plan. We went ahead with the available treatment, not just that time, but several times to follow, betting on beating the odds. Paige would continue to defy the odds for years, through several more cancer recurrences and surgeries. Sometimes I think she lived as long as she did just to thumb her nose at that vet’s ageist predictions.

The last year (or maybe even two) marked a slow decline for our once fluffy puppy. Much of her beautiful coat had fallen out or broken off, she’d developed weird asthma-like breathing problems, her hearing had become far more selective, and her bladder was unpredictable at best. She was on meds for this or that, a special diet, and required frequent trips to the vet. But she always still had the spirit of a pup, managing to run and play, antagonize the collie, or bark at her long-time foe, the evil UPS man.

I don’t know what the easiest way is to finally lose a much-loved dog, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t experience it. After a long night of trying to comfort her struggling, while cradling her in my arms, I felt her seize and then the life leave her body, as my wife frantically drove us to the clinic, the place where we would finally collapse in grief.

We used to joke that she was going to outlive us all at the rate she was going. Of course, we knew this wouldn’t truly be the case, but it was the reality we would have preferred. She was with us for almost nineteen of our twenty year marriage, so it’s hard to imagine our lives without her. Coming home to our now smaller family is difficult, as there are reminders of her absence everywhere we look, but mostly in the confused eyes of our collie, the “sister” she left behind.

Shortly after we lost her, a friend posted the following Twain quote on my Facebook page:

“Heaven goes by favor.
If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
— Mark Twain

The truth is, I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife, but I know that in this life, we were made into better people because of the time we had with that dog.

May she rest in peace, our sweet constant companion.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Graduation.

She was just one of several dozen to walk across that stage tonight, a path punctuated by hugs from proud instructors and then, at the end, a diploma in a pristine blue envelope. For each graduate, the night had a different meaning, I’m sure. Some, who still looked too young to drive, will now be out in the world looking for that first “real job.” Others, cheered on by gaggles of excited children in the audience, are undoubtedly looking for a better way forward for themselves and their families. For each one, a different story.

One graduate in particular, though, a 40ish blond woman who I happily call my beloved, didn’t walk that stage in the sole pursuit of a career path or as the next logical step in a predefined educational process. For her — for us, really — this was about something more.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about my wife being in recovery from a lifetime of addictions. But you see, conquering addiction isn’t a battle that one simply wins, only to put a checkmark in the victory column, then file the whole experience away like last year’s tax returns. It’s a fluid process… full of ups and downs, victories and defeats, crumblings and rebuildings. It’s a difficult reality to accept for someone — like me — without a personal frame of reference for the struggle, but I’m sure it’s an equally onerous truth for the recovering addict to adopt, as well.

So when my wife decided that she was going to go back to school in pursuit of something “new,” a complete 180 from her existing degree, part of me knew that it wasn’t just because a certain career opportunity had somehow piqued her interest. I knew it was going to be an attempt to bring definition to the progress she’d already made and would hopefully continue to make. It would be a process with a beginning, a middle, and a definable end. If successful, it would be more than just an educational feather in her cap. It would be a piece of paper to prove that those small daily victories have value.

Tonight, she graduated with high honors — Summa Cum Laude — which somehow seems incredibly appropriate.

Penmanship.

For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand — maybe it was just because I needed a summer job or maybe it was because she recognized the same perfectionist gene in me that had been her hallmark — my grandmother decided to teach me the ins and outs of accounting (she called it “bookkeeping”) when I was in high school. She had been in charge of the books for the family business since its inception, which was something she did with both pride and precision. Yet, by the time I could drive, she had already taught me to post sales transactions, balance the night’s receipts, handle deposits, balance the bank accounts, prepare customer statements, write payroll checks, and compile the related tax returns.

“To the penny,” she’d always say, because she believed that it wasn’t right until it was exactly right. She did everything by hand, all in the sort of pitch perfect cursive handwriting that they used to teach in elementary school. There was nothing flowery or eccentric about her handwriting. It was deliberate with no frills, precise, and consistent… much like her. I used to practice my own handwriting obsessively (which, it should be noted, now looks nothing like hers) because there was something about her penmanship that, for me, spoke to who she was as a person. Every so often, even now, I’ll be going through old papers at the office or helping my grandfather sort through something at the house and I’ll encounter a note that my grandmother had written — there’s no mistaking her handwriting for anyone else’s because nobody writes like that anymore — and it always makes me smile.

I think I was in middle school when I first remember my grandmother, who would have been in her early 50s at the time, talking about the fear of “losing her mind.” She didn’t call it “Alzheimer’s” (I’m not sure anyone really ever used that word in her presence, even years later when it was clear that it had consumed her) or even “dementia.” Her fear was that she would lose-her-mind. This was often said in hushed tones, as though it was something akin to insanity or, at the very least, something shameful. Every time she’d forget or misplace something, like we all do from time to time, she’d lament what she knew to be the beginning of the end. She wasn’t a fearful woman, but this — this — she feared. She would talk about her various family members (parents, siblings, etc.) who she’d witnessed lose their grasp, too, which was something she felt certain was a precursor to her own eventual fading. It was, she thought, an inevitability.

Some years later, she did lose her mind, although the process was far more gradual and insidious than I think even she feared. There was a span of years where she had “good days” and “bad days,” the former being those days where she recognized people and wasn’t generally confused by her surroundings. As the years passed, the threshold for what constituted a “good day” became a bit of a sliding scale. The in-between years, when her days of lucidity were sprinkled amidst days of complete mental disarray, were the worst because she spent those moments of clarity being upset about the other days, those muddled days that she was all too aware were happening on her crippled watch. There was a specific point when my single prayer became that she would lose her mind completely, simply because the fleeting lucid moments seemed to bring her more pain than joy. For each moment that we were heartened to have been recognized or called by name, she was experiencing a moment of fear and regret for the forgetting that she knew was lurking around the corner.

Amidst the incredible soul-crushing sadness of her decline — for anyone who has witnessed the gradual loss of a loved one to Alzheimer’s, you understand what I mean — there were also moments of curiosity, even moments of humor. For a while, she was convinced that my sister was her sister. My sister would leave the room, her own kids often in tow, only to have my grandmother immediately begin to tell me a story about when they were growing up together. Strange how the mind begins to play tricks when one loses a defined concept of time and place. Then there was the time at a family Christmas gathering, in a room full of grandkids and great-grandkids all taking turns greeting my grandmother, when she pulled my wife aside and quietly asked, “just who are all these people?”

Mostly, I learned a lot about commitment during my grandmother’s illness. Their “in good times and in bad” exchange was decades earlier and yet, in that moment, when times were far from good, their marriage remained. Granted, it looked nothing like it did when I was a kid (there’s no clearer example of this than when I learned that my grandfather decided to bake cookies on his own), but the core of their marriage was unshaken, even in what I imagined to be the worst of circumstances.

My grandfather would often come down to the office in the mornings, on a short break from his primary job as my grandmother’s provider-of-all-things, and share a funny story about something my grandmother had said or a frustration about something she’d done. Sometimes he’d come down to the office and say nothing at all. But he would always return to her, without any apparent bitterness or resentment, and continue on with his pledge. In sickness and in health, even when that sickness seemed to dawdle on for years.

As the spouse of a recovering addict, it’s easy to get lost in the notion that my wife’s disease may in fact be with us for the rest of our lives. It seems like an overwhelming thought, even in these times when the addiction is being held at bay. I want to be able to embody the commitment and resolve that I witnessed, without succumbing to the very real fear of what may lurk.

In a way, I’m still practicing my own handwriting, in the hope that it will say something about who I’ve become or who I may yet be.

Skin.

When you hear a story about someone dealing with a cancer diagnosis, there is often the inevitable (and somewhat cliché) mention of the importance of “catching it early.” I’m here to tell you that certain things become a cliché for a reason.

This past summer, my wife was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in a small area in the center of her chest. She’d long been obsessively vigilant about watching, tracking, and cataloging the perceived imperfections of her skin — a fair-skinned byproduct of freckles, moles, and a love for the sun — which would end up being the very thing that would save her.

It would have been easy for her to postpone the appointment to get a certain shape-shifting mole checked by a dermatologist. We’d been having a pretty medically-intensive summer already, as I was in the process of recovering from somewhat less-than-routine gall bladder surgery and a barrage of follow-up testing. I remember having the conversation about whether she should just call and reschedule her appointment. She could wait a few more weeks, maybe when things calm down, and then taking an afternoon to visit the dermatologist wouldn’t seem like such an incredible imposition. Thankfully, she didn’t do that.

When the pathology came back on the offending mole, it was determined that not only was it malignant melanoma, but a very fast-spreading sort. Just another couple weeks, according to the surgeon, could have made an unfathomable difference when it came to the prescribed course of treatment. As it stood, she caught it on the cusp of Stage One, so surgery to remove “clear margins” around the area was all that she would have to do for now, followed by what the surgeon jokingly described as “hopefully a long and boring relationship” between the two of them.

I’m happy to report that my wife is fine now. The cancer was removed and the four or five inch scar from her surgery has already faded considerably. As promised, she has embarked on this long and boring relationship with her surgeon, a process of six-month checkups and continued vigilance.

Many people, though, aren’t so lucky.

Around the time of my wife’s surgery, I came across the video below, sponsored by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund, a Canadian organization tasked with raising awareness of the disease. Please take a moment and watch it, share it with a few friends, and help spread the word to our tanning bed culture.

[I’ve posted the YouTube video below on my Facebook page a couple times over the last several months, but I thought it warranted a mention here, as well. It’s that important.]


For more information or tools for melanoma detection, visit here.

Nineteen.

There was a freak ice storm on the day of our wedding — in just a couple days, it will be nineteen years since — that practically paralyzed Tulsa, the city where we’d planned to carve out a life together. Although I was worried about people safely making it to the festivities (most notably, our family and friends who were traveling some distance), there was a feeling of stillneess in the weather-crippled city that was somehow perfect for the occasion, a calm marked by iced-over glistening trees and the subtle twinkling of a few errant snowflakes.

I felt that same calmness on the inside, too, as I had never been more sure of a step — leap — about to be taken. I was as surprised as anyone by my (now in retrospect, a little alarming) serenity, in part because my Type A personality didn’t often lend itself to placid moments, but more because of my fairly well-known pontifications detailing a complete disinterest in the institution of marriage. I didn’t have a problem with married people, you see, it was just that I couldn’t imagine being one. In truth, I wasn’t sure I had it in me. However, when the day came for our own vows to be exchanged, I couldn’t recall ever feeling so confident about anything.

In an effort to appease tradition (and perhaps, to please a certain rather traditional mother-of-the-bride), we hadn’t seen each other that day until the moment when the church doors opened and I caught a glimpse of my bride and her father, ready to walk the aisle to meet me. Although in my mind, I know that it didn’t happen exactly this way, my memory is that the church fell completely silent and, if only for a moment, time stopped. I’m not an overly sentimental person by nature, but that singular moment — filled with equal measures of joy, anticipation, love, and hope — would later become a memory that would preserve me in those times when I would find myself looking for sustenance.

As people do, we’ve learned a lot about each other, and maybe even more about ourselves, in the almost two decades that have passed since that day. I’m reminded of a passage from a love letter written by Rainer Maria Rilke for his wife, Clara Westhoff. It reads:

To love is good, too: love being difficult.

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it.

With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is solitude, intensified and deepened loneliness for him who loves.

Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate–?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.

As I’ve detailed on this very blog, our lives have unfolded in ways that I would have never imagined on that day when our greatest problem in the world was a few boxes of forgotten wedding programs. And yet, it’s been this journey — this living manifestation of “in good times and in bad” — that has allowed us to, as Rilke said, learn love.

This history we’ve shared is a commodity more precious to me than most anything and it has, indeed, been that high inducement to ripen and to become something in ourselves for the sake of another. I look forward — now with learned measures of joy, anticipation, love, and hope — to the vast things ahead.

[I love you, honey. Happy anniversary.]