Life Lessons – Heart Connections

Last year, I entered Real Simple magazine’s fourth annual Life Lessons Essay Contest. The question was: “When did you first understand the meaning of love?” Just last night, I read the winning entry published in the April 2012 issue of the magazine. It was a great story, and it brought tears to my eyes.

It also reminded me that I had not yet shared my own story with anyone, besides a couple friends who provided feedback while I was writing it. So, today, I’m posting another special feature article rather than one of my “usual” posts. I hope it touches your heart, makes you think, and maybe even inspires you to reach out to someone in pain or re-connect with a family member.

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Heart Connections

I knelt on the bathroom floor, holding Gabrielle’s hair back as she sobbed and threw up; my body shook, but not from the cold tiles. My baby sister had just told me that she was tired of being sick, tired of hurting so much, tired of everything. She wanted to give up. But I couldn’t let that happen. She was only 22, and her 3-year-old daughter, Ashley, needed her.

I clutched my personal heartache close as I watched her suffer. She didn’t need to know about my pain. Not right now. Not when, more than anything else, I had to convince her that life was good and worth fighting for. I prayed a frantic but silent prayer—please God, help me help her.

In the prior year, after a divorce left her with a scarred heart, Gabrielle had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She underwent surgery and then attempted to move on with her life. As Gabrielle recovered and adjusted to her role as single mother, we all thought everything was on an upswing for her, and we were thankful.

Meanwhile, back at my house: after 11 years of marriage, my husband and I continued to drift apart; we were just so different; we loved each other, but were no longer “in love.” Pick your cliché;  the truth was, I felt trapped and unhappy. We rarely spent time together anymore, and neither of us really knew what we wanted in life, or how to communicate, be honest with ourselves, or take action. On top of that, the Lab we got as a puppy shortly after our wedding was not well. I struggled to keep my emotions in check and my life under control as I went to work every day, pretending like nothing was wrong.

But I wasn’t the only one pretending. Gabrielle had been keeping her own secrets. She finally admitted to Elizabeth, another sister, that the cancer was not gone; in fact, it had spread to her uterus and her liver. She had also started chemotherapy treatment without telling anyone.

Everything I researched seemed to emphasize the dangers of chemo. In fact, a lot of people get sicker faster when they are on chemo, and that was exactly what was happening to my sister. Her immune system was wiped out; she began losing weight and became very tired and run down. In her last conversation with her doctors, they had told Gabrielle there was nothing more they could do for her except try to make her “as comfortable as possible.” They gave her a year to live. That’s when she finally decided to share the news with the family, which led up to our bathroom moment.

I watched my sister go through another round of dry heaves. There was nothing left inside of her. Or me. Oh, I was physically healthy at the time, but with Gabrielle’s illness and the painful disconnect in my marriage, I was drained. At home, it felt like we had both checked out already. The only connection we shared at this point was grief over our dying dog.

But I couldn’t deal with my personal issues right now. I had to be strong. I had to come up with a plan to save Gabrielle’s life.

You know, up until that time, I don’t think I had ever appreciated my family quite so much. Growing up with five sisters and one brother was often challenging with limited space, limited funds, unlimited arguing. I used to wish I was an only child. But as my sister lay there beside me, curled up on the floor, I allowed the despair over my own personal loss to mingle with the anguish I felt for her, and I wept.

Then, just like in the Christmas story about the Grinch, I felt my heart swell several sizes with love—real love, not heightened feelings based on hormones and chemistry and starry-eyed dreams of a perfect future, but a true heart connection. Something that had been sadly lacking in my marriage. At that moment, I would have willingly given up my life to give Gabrielle a second chance. But that obviously wasn’t in God’s plan.

So, the first step in my plan was to temporarily get Gabrielle out of Florida, to a place where she could rest and receive special care. The obvious choice—Aunt Robin’s. Robin was living in California at the time, so she sent plane tickets for Gabrielle and my grandmother to come out for a visit. It was a good spot for a stress-free getaway. Plus our aunt is a natural nurturer, so it only made sense. Her main goal was to try to help Gabrielle see that she could still find joy in life if she didn’t give up.

While Gabrielle was out of town, and little Ashley spent time with other family members, I began researching treatment programs. I met with a doctor who focused on treating the whole body, not individual parts or symptoms. The way he explained it made sense: over several weeks, through nutritional changes as well some complementary therapies, the acidic atmosphere that cancer survives and thrives in is neutralized, and a more alkaline and healthy environment is created in the body. I was sold. But now to convince Gabrielle.

An update from Robin provided a glimmer of hope. Gabrielle had gone horseback riding, and her spirits had improved tremendously. She was eating fairly well and actually joking around a bit. Robin told me that Gabrielle was concerned about coming back and having everyone tell her what she should do. So, we agreed that I would be the family spokesperson.

I worked with the rest of the family to figure out a schedule. We made arrangements for who would take Gabrielle to the doctor’s office each day for treatment, who would watch Ashley, who could help financially, etc. Just making a plan gave me a more positive outlook, and it really pulled our already-close family even closer together. When Gabrielle came back, I was happy to find her receptive to our ideas.

Mondays were my days to take Gabrielle to the doctor. Thankfully, the company where I worked was flexible and understanding about my hours during that time. And I chose to ignore my personal heartache and focus on my sister’s health and happiness.

The first visit was fairly easy. We just sat and talked for a few hours while she got an IV drip. I think we developed an even closer bond during that time. The nurses said there were only a few potential side effects, but Gabrielle experienced them all—nausea, loose stool, and later trouble with her IV pic line, which had to be replaced.

Gradually, things got worse. On some days, Gabrielle felt so sick that she couldn’t get out of bed. I got a call one morning from my mom. Gabrielle wouldn’t get up. I left work and spent quite a bit of time convincing her that it was important for her to keep her appointment. She finally went with me.

The worst thing about talking Gabrielle into continuing with her treatments was my own doubts and fears that began to emerge. What if this wasn’t helping her? What if she got worse and it was my fault? Every time I thought of this, my breath caught in my throat and my heart pounded wildly as I blinked away the tears. That just can’t happen! I had to believe that she would get better; I had to believe in something at this point. I couldn’t give up.

Thankfully, despite my concerns, after the treatment plus some added nutritional support through supplements and natural juices, and special home care from our oldest sister, Theresa, Gabrielle began to slowly get better. I think several other factors helped in the healing process: Gabrielle realized that life still held moments of joy and possibility. And we both figured out that it’s important to learn to love yourself first and determine what you want out of life before you can really commit and communicate to building a lasting relationship with someone else.

I also discovered the importance of working in community, being there for one another, not trying to take on the world alone. You know, we’re all interconnected in some way — like pieces of a puzzle. And life just seems to make so much more sense when we look at the big picture and find our place in it.

The happy ending to this story? It has been 14 years since Gabrielle was given one year to live, plus she finally found her soul mate, and they were married just last month.

Me? My dog passed away and my divorce happened shortly after, as it needed to so we could both move on. I not only survived, but I’m now remarried … this time to my true heart connection.

The missing piece to my life puzzle has been put in place, and love is the glue that holds us together.

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Disclaimer: I don’t have the best of memories, so I may not have all of the details/facts of the events right, but the story and the emotions are true and real. 

When Is a Quiet House Not a Good Thing?

When the quiet is due to loss.

Have you ever rocked a sick child through the night or listened to your puppy cry in pain while you were powerless to help? How long the dark hours seem when you are physically and emotionally drained and all you can do is pray for daylight and a potential breaking of the “spell” of fear and fatigue. I had a night like that recently. I know this is a long post, but I felt like I needed to write the account of our last days with Lil’ Dawg and the sad, quiet house left behind.

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Some people think of dogs and cats as just pets; they enjoy having them and at the end of their lives, they are somewhat sad to see them go. But for others—like me and my husband, Bart—our dog was an important part of our family. We planned on spending several more good years with him; in fact, Bart thinks he got gypped.

Papillons are supposed to live longer than 13 years, and until very recently, Lil’ Dawg (Little) showed no obvious signs of any health issues. So, his troubles came as an unexpected (and unwelcome) surprise to us. The more I think of it though, there were some little clues: he seemed to lose his balance and slip a little more often on our tile floors, and he waited for me to pick him up and put him in the extra chair in my office rather than jumping up there himself. Just some signs of aging, I thought. But then came the first scary night.

I had come home from work and was on the computer, where you’ll often find me. Then Bart came home and joined Little and me in the office. Out of the blue, Little started holding up his back left leg and whimpering. We got down on the floor with him and he wandered back and forth between us. He’d let us hold him for a minute, but then he’d squirm to get free. He kept wanting to get under the desk, but he couldn’t seem to lie still for very long. I gave him a pain pill from an earlier prescription, but it didn’t seem to help. Bart went to bed and took Little with him, but Little wouldn’t stop whining. Finally, we decided I should take him to one of the emergency vets and see what was going on. Bart needed to stay and get some sleep as he had an early-morning meeting.

The vet told me it seemed to be a neurological issue as there were no signs of a break or fracture; the only thing he could do was take an x-ray, but I knew that it would cost more there and it wouldn’t do me any good until our regular vet was open, so I declined. I asked if there was anything they could give him for pain to help him get through the night. This way, I thought, we could both rest until the vet’s office opened. I did tell them I had already given him a pain pill, but they said that was fine.

On the drive home, in the back seat, Little cried louder than ever the whole way home. I kept trying to talk to him and soothe him, but it was heartbreaking to listen to him. At home, I discovered that his jaw seemed to be locked up and he had drooled all over himself and the blanket, poor baby. I stayed out in the living room with him so Bart could sleep. I wondered if I had done the right thing. I felt like the shot had made things worse for him not better; it never did help him get to sleep. I felt guilty for making Little suffer through the effects of the shot and guilty for praying for just one hour of quiet so I could sleep.

Exhausted, I got Little in to the vet the next morning. Dr. Tucker was wonderful with him. He said Little had no feeling at all in the one back leg. He believed that the problem was a herniated disc and advised that we could try steroids to help; the only other option was a very expensive surgery with a neurologist, which was not guaranteed to change things. He began to address the issue of quality of life and perhaps having to make a decision at some point, but when he saw me tear up, he hurried on to say that he didn’t believe we were at that stage yet and we should give steroids a try.

So we did. For the first two days, I couldn’t get Little to eat. I was able to get some water in him, and I had to put the pill in the back of his mouth to get it in him. Bart began to prepare himself for the worst. He said if Little wouldn’t eat and seemed to be getting worse, he’d have to make the decision to let him go; we couldn’t make him suffer because we didn’t want to lose him. I was proud of Bart for coming to that conclusion because I knew how much he didn’t want to make that choice, but I felt that we weren’t there yet.

Finally, on day three, I got Little to eat some of Sylvester’s cat food, and he started to make progress. Bart and I were thrilled that he was eating and beginning to walk normally again. But our joy didn’t last long. A week later, as we began to wean Little off the steroids (going from two pills a day to one), everything took a turn for the worse. I tried giving him a second pill to see if it would help. I figured we’d just keep him on steroids for a while if we needed to. He showed a slight improvement in the morning but by evening, he was not only dragging the one leg, but suddenly seemed to lose feeling in his whole back end. He couldn’t even stand up outside to go to the bathroom.

It’s so hard with dogs and kids, when they feel horrible and they don’t understand what’s going on, and you can’t fix things for them or make them feel better. It’s hard on them and hard on us. That night, Little started out wanting to be up on the bed with us; then he wanted down on the floor. I tried arranging sleep areas for him with a pillow and blanket, but he couldn’t seem to get comfortable enough to go to sleep. He’d try lying down; then he’d sit back up and lean up against the wall. His head kept tipping back and he would look up like he was staring at something. I wondered if he was seeing angels.

I tried several times to go to bed and get some sleep, but I kept hearing him scoot around the room, getting stuck in different corners, dragging his back end and crying. I cried myself. For his pain, for my inability to help him, for the loss I knew was coming. At one point, Little didn’t even seem to recognize me, and he snapped at me as I tried to help him move from one of the corners he’d gotten stuck in. Bart and I didn’t even have to voice the words; we knew what the morning would bring. I prayed that Little’s misery would be removed and that he’d be at peace; I prayed for rest; I prayed that morning would come more quickly … but it didn’t.

After a long, sleepless night, I called Dr. Tucker’s office as soon as they opened and chokingly told them that Little was suffering and we needed to bring him in. They told us to come in right away. During the night, Little had scooted himself into the bathroom closet. Bart gently scooped him up in a blanket and hugged him close. He held him in his lap as I drove. Luckily, the office is only 2 minutes from our house. The staff at Frisco West was sweet and caring. Dr. Tucker came and talked to us and explained the two shots that he would give Little, and he reassured us that we were making the right decision. (I am tearing up just writing about this now.) He said that some people try to prolong their dog’s or cat’s life past the point where it is humane to do so; he knew how much we loved Lil’ Dawg and could see that we had given him a great life, but now it was time to give him peace.

As hard as this next part was, we didn’t want Little to go through it alone. Bart held Little and I put one arm around Bart and a hand on Little to let him know I was there. The first shot was a dose of anesthesia to relax him and put him to sleep so he wouldn’t feel anything else. No pain, no fear, no exhaustion. Then came the final shot—Bart felt Little’s heartbeat slow, slow, slow, and then stop. I couldn’t feel it, but I knew when it happened. He was gone.

As Dr. Tucker took him from Bart, I tried not to look at the limp body that was no longer Little. We cried then—as I am crying now—and went home to a quiet house.

When your dog has been such a big part of your life and your schedule, it’s amazing all the things that you begin to realize he affected and all the moments where you feel the loss.

  • When I feed Sylvester in the morning, there is no one waiting to lick the spoon.
  • Now that I’m not taking Little out every morning and when I get home from work, I haven’t been out in the backyard in over a week.
  • When Bart and I go out for breakfast, there is no one to save a piece of bacon for.
  • I still sit far forward on my office chair even though there is no one lying on the chair behind me.
  • We keep a nightlight on in the bathroom, but I wear a sleep mask to block out the light. I just realized the other day that I was still leaving the bathroom door open, but I only did that originally so that Little had enough light to see to get up and down from the bed.
  • Every time I pull the car into the garage, rather than an excited welcome-home bark, I am greeted by the sound of silence.
  • Naps on the couch are just not the same.

Although we still have Sylvester, he doesn’t quite fill the same role that Little did. We will always be dog people. After figuring out many things—our schedules and time availability; whether we want a big dog or little dog; puppy or adolescent; breed; our needs and a dog’s needs—we will eventually invite another dog into our home and our lives. But we will always have a place in our hearts for Little.

We miss you Lil’ Dawg. But we will see you again. 

  •  The book of Isaiah (11:6-9) offers a stirring image of what Heaven will be like; it suggests there will be animals, all living in beautiful and peaceful coexistence:
    6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling  together; and a little child will lead them.
    7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
    8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
    9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
  • A man once asked Dr. Billy Graham whether his dog would go to heaven. The great evangelist answered: “God will prepare everything for our perfect happiness in heaven, and if it takes my dog being there, I believe he’ll be there.”
For more on pet loss and pets in heaven:

Do Pets Go to Heaven?

Will there be animals in heaven?

Do animals have souls?

Do animals go to heaven?

Pet loss – grief support center