Monday, February 25, 2008

What makes you feel alive?

What makes you feel alive?

What makes you cry, makes you laugh, makes you angry?
Is there something you believe in,
feel passionately about, that if it is taken away from you
is like sucking the oxygen away from you?
Is there something you believe in,
you would be willing to give your life for?

What is that something, that lives and breathes
inside of you, and
outside of you?
That something that consumes your mind,
melts your heart, and energizes your body?
What is that invisible, yet transparent force?

Do you know?

Marilou Chanrasmi
March 13, 2006

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spirit of Shen: Finding Passion through Grief

It’s Friday afternoon, September 15th, 2006. Our 11 year old collie/shepherd mix, Shen, is in surgery at the University of Minnesota’s small animal hospital. An ultrasound confirms that Shen has a mass in her spleen. The doctors suspect cancer. I am thrown into the hellish vortex of cancer. The only way we can confirm cancer, and the extent of how far it has spread, is through surgery. No guarantees. In fact, I am told, “She’s dying. Any surgery would be palliative. You may get a couple more weeks with her, maybe three, if you’re lucky.” My head is spinning; my heart is burning. I am not ready to say goodbye. Just days ago she was acting like her usual self. Today, life has been drained from her like a tornado ripping through a town, demolishing and flattening what was once a living, breathing community. Today, there’s heaviness in my heart - an all-consuming tightness. It’s as if tentacles of an octopus have latched onto my heart, with their suction cups working tirelessly to drain the remaining life out of me.

I prepare to say goodbye to a family member, to a spiritual companion, to my best friend. I opt for surgery. The vet assures me she is not suffering. If we discover the cancer has spread, we can make the decision to humanely let her go while she is still “sleeping.”

I pace the hallways - waiting and hoping. Outside the hospital - it’s sunny and feels like spring. Is today the day? Is the sun shining brightly in preparation for welcoming Shen into heaven? I pray for strength, wisdom and courage to do what is best for Shen, not what’s easy or comforting to me.

The doctor comes out. She’s wearing blue scrubs; her face carrying a somber look. With empathy, she says, “The cancer has spread. Shen is losing a lot of blood. We have done one blood transfusion. She is stable now. We need to remove a large tumor that has formed in and around her liver.” Since it will be awhile, the vet recommends we go home. They will call when the surgery is over and we can come back to visit her.

It’s been a long day. We heed the vet’s advice and head home to wait for news with our other dog Shadow, an 11 year old 36 pound black lab mix, whom I rescued from the country roads of Owasso, Oklahoma nine years ago – a survivor of a gun shot wound to his head. By now, Shadow is most likely having a serious panic attack from being left alone. He has known Shen since the day he joined our family one hot summer day nine years ago. Together they have shared adventures, dog beds, car rides, and much to my dismay, an occasional escape from our fenced-in yard, via a dog-made underground tunnel, as they explored the backyards of neighbors’ homes before being “captured”; or, in Shadow’s case, he waits for me with his front paws on the back bumper of my orange Honda element, as I’m tearing around the corner, running down our alley, frantically searching and screaming out their names. I swear I see a smirk on his face as I hear the words, “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you to come home! Did you find Shen? She couldn’t keep up with me so I had to ditch her!” Fortunately, my partner who was driving around in her vehicle caught sight of Shen a few blocks away – as soon as she saw my partner, she came flying down the alley, like a gazelle, and went flying into the safety and warmth of the Honda CRV.

The phone rings. Our caller ID indicates it’s the University of Minnesota vet school. It’s way too soon for them to be calling. “Is this Marilou?” the voice on the other end asks. “Yes.” I’m afraid to ask any questions, to say anything more. “Shen’s condition is far worse than we anticipated. The cancer has spread. She’s losing blood. We need your permission to do another blood transfusion.” At that moment, in my head, someone hit the pause button on the DVD player. The frame freezes: “she’s losing blood; we need your permission…. She’s losing blood, we need your permission” plays over and over again. In the background, the rhythmic, powerful beats of bachi sticks on taiko drums, vibrate and beat the message, “It’s time Marilou. It’s time.”

I return to the phone conversation. With sadness and acceptance, I say, “No more transfusions. It’s time to let her go.”

I make it back to the University of Minnesota in time to hold her, as her spirit, wrapped in mine, is set free. There’s a deep sadness in my heart, yet a sense of relief for her. In the weeks that follow, I immerse myself in ways to relieve myself of the pain in my heart. I cry in the arms of my partner. I hold Shadow. I take walks with Shadow, feeling Shen’s presence in the wind that blows gently on my face. I write. I make home movies of Shen. I share my grief with friends. As days pass, the tentacles holding my heart hostage loosen their grip, one suction cup at a time, till one day I innocently search Petfinder. Shen’s spirit guides me to a dog rescued by Pet Haven, a foster-based animal rescue. Not quite ready to adopt, we offer to foster. In search of an outlet for the flood gates of grief, I throw myself into volunteering and helping the homeless, abused and abandoned dogs. I begin by fostering Missy, only to “fail” within hours. Next, as an intake phone volunteer, I return calls from people finding strays, or surrendering their own dogs for one reason or another. In a month I move into the role of Volunteer Director. Seven months later, with surprise and gratitude, I am asked to take on the role of President of a 55 year old animal rescue organization.

The pain of losing Shen pushed me forward to live my passion. I had always wanted to do something with animals. I guess I didn’t know how to “make it happen”, or maybe I was too afraid to follow my heart. What emerged from Shen’s ashes, was a new Marilou. Out of the ashes and tears came conviction and passion to be a voice for the animals. Out of the ashes came defiance for standing on the sidelines of life.

I found myself, and I found purpose by volunteering for a cause I believe in. As I held Shen in my arms, the afternoon of September 15th, 2006, unbeknownst to me, I was on stage – the prologue - for a play that was yet to unfold. Of the many possible roads leading from grief, she led me to the following:

“Spirit of Shen
Finding your voice,
Living your passion,
Transforming the world.”

With curiosity, I await the unfolding of Act II and Act III.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What I learned from a college student

It was a Saturday morning, spring of 2007, when I pulled into the Richfield Petco parking lot. I was part of a flurry of email exchanges the week prior as the Pet Haven dog division leadership team went back and forth about whether or not we should consider adopting one of our big black dogs, Rocky, to a young college student named Jess. Rocky was one of our “shelter transfers”. We took him from People for Pets, a shelter in rural Spencer, Iowa, just across the Minnesota border. Rural areas struggle to adopt their animals out with minimal access to adoptive families. Unwanted dogs and puppies are dumped in ditches, garbage dumpsters, and shot at. The harsh realities of overpopulation are magnified in rural areas.

Rocky was one of the lucky ones. Because we did not have an open foster home for him, Rocky was transported to one of our doggie daycare partners, Downtown Dogs, after the usual standard vetting. The applicant for Rocky, Jess, works at Downtown Dogs part-time, and goes to school full-time at the University of Minnesota studying animal science. Within days, Jess, a petite 5 ft tall soft-spoken young woman, fell in love with Rocky, a solid 70+ lb big black lab mix. She asked for permission to bring him home for a “sleepover.” A couple days later, her application came in, along with a request to bring him to our next adoption event and adopt him. On paper, Jess had many strikes against her as an applicant for a big, unruly dog – young college student with a part-time job, rents an apartment with a couple of roommates, and no fenced yard. Our screening questionnaire raised some flags on whether Jess could provide Rocky with a good home. Our questionnaire was designed based on the plethora of reasons people surrender companion animals, once considered “family.” The leadership team was divided on whether or not we should adopt Rocky to Jess: “Rocky won’t be happy in a small apartment”; “how can she afford to pay for his veterinary expenses with working part-time?”; “Rocky won’t get any exercise and will starting acting out and then he will just be returned.”

Saturday morning rolls around. I see Jess sitting quietly on the outer perimeter of the foster circle towards the back of the store. Sitting quietly by her side is Rocky with a brand new emerald green collar and a gentle leader. She’s gently stroking the back of his head. I approach her and ask her how she and Rocky are. “We’re great. He’s the greatest dog and I love him so much. I promise to take really good care of him.” Her voice quivers. Her eyes are watery. She pulls out her checkbook and tells me she’s ready to pay his adoption fee any time.

I walk away. On paper we should decline her application. I look back to see Jess and Rocky’s eyes locked on each other. My gut is screaming at me “Make an exception!”

I walk back over to Jess who continues to stroke Rocky’s head and back, periodically leaning over to kiss him on his face. She’s nervous as she sees me approaching. She’s waiting for the axe to fall. I lean over, and position myself to be at eye level with her. Softly I say, “Jess, we have decided to approve your application.” She leaps out of her chair, grabs Rocky, squeezes him with a big bear hug. “you’re going home Rocky! You’re going home!”, her voice quivering with excitement. Tears roll down her cheek as she grabs her checkbook, leash in hand and scurries over to the adoption table to make the adoption official. I think she’s afraid we’ll change our mind.

I learned an important lesson that morning. Truth is not in black letters on white paper. It’s not in words on our adoption application. That morning, I found truth by looking into the eyes of a young college student, by slowing down enough to listen, and in being witness to an incredible bond between a young woman and her dog. Truth speaks out, in the spaces between words on paper, and in what is often, not spoken or written.