Healing Wounded Spirits
I am standing in front of a classroom of 9th graders, comprised of at-risk EBD youth of the Rivereast day treatment program in St. Paul. Next to me is my dog Ahnung, a 4 year old, bully breed mix whom I recently adopted through Pet Haven, an all-volunteer foster-based animal rescue. I share with the students how my journey led me here; how grief, loss and pain led me to follow my heart and to find comfort in giving back by volunteering and helping abandoned, abused and neglected animals.
On September 15th, 2006 we lost our beloved collie-shepherd mix Shen to cancer of the spleen. It was a spring-like Friday afternoon when the vet at University of Minnesota called me at home. I had just arrived home after spending the entire morning and early afternoon at the animal hospital pacing the floors while Shen was in surgery: “There’s not much you can do. You only live 10 minutes from here. I will call you when you can come back and see Shen.”
I left not realizing it would be my last time to see her soulful eyes gazing up at me.
The caller ID on our phone says ‘Univ of MN”. My heart skips a beat as I pick up the receiver of the phone. On the other end, the calm voice of the doctor says, “I’m sorry. Shen’s cancer is far worse than we had suspected. It has spread throughout her body. She will need another blood transfusion.” Hours earlier, consumed with tears, I desperately tell the doctors to save Shen’s life at all cost. Letting go was simply not an option. Not then. But how many transfusions would I put her through? How far would I go to save her when the doctor had told me “anything we do is palliative. She is dying – it’s a question of how long.” As the doctor asked for my permission to allow for another blood transfusion, I felt Shen’s spirit take over me, and as I took a deep breath in, I could hear her say, “it’s time.”
I don’t know why and I don’t know how. Somehow I felt a calm acceptance permeate my body as I said to the vet, “No. No more transfusions. It’s time to let her go.”
I rushed back to the University of Minnesota. As the doctor gently administered the lethal dose of a drug that would stop Shen’s heart from beating, I held her paw. The doctor, with her right hand clasping the diaphragm of the stethoscope placed gently against Shen’s chest, made eye contact with me. Slowly and deliberately, she nodded. Shen was gone.
Anger and Denial
The floodgate of tears burst wide open as I felt Shen ripped from me. Calm acceptance – where did calm acceptance go? I was angry – angry at the injustice of it all. I was angry my beloved Shen was ripped from my life and from my heart so quickly. Anger and pain consumed me. I wanted to scream, I wanted to curse anything and everything, yet all I could do was bury my face in her now lifeless body. The cloud of anger was so thick I couldn’t feel Shen’s spirit hovering over her body, hovering over me.
I pause and look out at the kids in the classroom. “Have you ever felt so angry? Have you ever felt so much pain you didn’t know what to do with it? Have you ever felt like kicking and screaming because something horrible happened and you don’t understand why? And you don’t think it’s fair? Where do you turn? Where can you find comfort? That afternoon I felt so lost.
I continue my story. Eight days I am fostering a dog through Pet Haven – a 2 year old black/pit bull mix named Missy who had spent 8 months in a shelter in rural Iowa. Missy has since become a permanent member of our family. In less than a year, after the loss of our second dog Shadow, also to cancer, we welcomed into our family another big black dog, Mister, who was found in a ditch in rural Iowa with two of his littermates. Since September, 2006 I have immersed myself in volunteer work with Pet Haven. Giving back and helping abandoned, abused and neglected animals was what I needed to help me move through the grief of losing Shen. For the first time, I felt so alive. My life had purpose and meaning. I was making a difference. I was healing and finding comfort and learning from the loving, giving, forgiving and resilient natures of these furry beings.
Ahnung - our north star
“So is Ahnung your dog too?”, asks one of the kids.
“Yes. She wasn’t planned. I met her in October 2008 at Red Lake Rosie’s Rescue on the west boundary of Red Lake reservation. She was abandoned with her litter of eight puppies. I remember seeing her in her outdoor kennel, metal bars criss-crossed in front of her face as I pointed my camera towards her. She was nursing her puppies and her nipples were full and almost touching the ground. She looked worn down and haggard. She weighed almost 70 pounds – a solid black dog with unique white markings: one white front paw, patches of white on her face, a white chest and a black tail with a white tip, as if someone had dipped her tail in white paint. Her tail has a curl of a husky. Her face and body type are bull doggish and pit bull-like. Her wrinkles and heavy coat scream shar pei.
So why this one dog? There were many other dogs in the shelter – in their outdoor kennels and others running around. There was something about her eyes – was it sadness, was it wisdom, was it acceptance? There was something about the way she looked at me, something about the way her piercing eyes looked right through me. She has a story. She has a purpose. That “something” brought me back one month later to bring her into Pet Haven’s foster program. She arrived testing positive for heartworm, lymes disease and coccidia. We soon learn she has a pellet in one of her nipples, having survived a gunshot wound. She has no front teeth as she has ground it all down which, according to our vet, is probably her attempt to escape from a metal cage. Her rescuer, Karen Good of Red Lake Rosie’s Rescue says many of the pups she rescues have ground down teeth as they struggle to find food and eat dirt and gravel in search of food. Whatever the case, Ahnung’s first 4 years were hard and full of struggles. Her body holds the scars of her past. Her spirit only knows how to live in the present moment.
Ahnung’s rescuer Karen initially gave her a temporary name of “Mama”. Aware of the bond that had formed, she asked me to name her. I chose “Ahnung” because I wanted something to represent and honor her roots and the hope she embodies. Ahnung means “star” in ojibway, the language of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.
My partner and I officially adopted Ahnung on January 3rd, 2009. She is my north star. She is hope in the midst of darkness. Her calm, confident and wise presence provides guidance when life seems unbearable. She is reminder of how goodness prevails in the end.
As I look at a room of seven kids intent on hearing my story and Ahnung’s story I realize that the light shining from Ahnung’s star is so much brighter than I even imagined. These kids are deemed “at-risk”. Pet Haven (with Ahnung as the ambassador) is partnering with a program called The Lab of the St. Paul Public schools where youth are inspired, encouraged and empowered to discover, understand and share their voices and the truth of their lives. These kids, like Ahnung, have been tossed aside. I look out at the room and I see one of the kids on the floor next to Ahnung petting her and rubbing her belly. He smiles, “man … this dog is loved. I can tell this dog is loved.” I later learn that this young kid had not been engaged in class for the past week and for the first time came alive in class. I would never have known.
We need to build bridges to our youth. We need a kind, gentle and compassionate way to chisel away at walls built over years of abuse or neglect. I believe animals can be that bridge.
In mid October when I first laid eyes on Ahnung little did I know she would be instrumental in lighting up the night skies for urban at-risk youth with the brilliance of her star. Her work is just beginning as she heals wounded spirits and gives hope to so many. I tell these kids, when something bad happens and something hurts so badly, I want them to close their eyes and imagine Ahnung. She is the north star for all of us. I want them to hold onto her tightly and trust that she will guide them out of the darkness back into the light. I want them to feel Ahnung’s calm and loving presence. And I want them to know they are not alone.
The young boy grins again and says “man … this dog is loved. This dog is really loved.”