Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

Missy enjoying the snow last winter (2011)
As 2012 comes to close I take a few moments this morning to reflect back ... it has been a year full of joy and also a year filled with some challenging news regarding Ahnung. But I am grateful for everything I have and for the wonderful people I have in my life, and for my precious four furkids: Ahnung, Legacy, Mister and Missy.

I am beyond grateful to still have my precious Ahnung with me. She is my best friend, my soul mate, my kindred spirit. As we walk this Final Walk, having accepted the end is approaching, we appreciate every day and every moment with so much more zest. I suspect that this will be my last New Year's eve with Ahnung. On January 3, 2013 we will celebrate 5 years from the day I officially adopted her from Pet Haven .... I knew she was special the day I laid eyes o her, but little did I know just how special she truly was ..... To read more about how it all began, you can check out Ahnung's blog:

But today, on New Year's eve, I wish for you all that makes your heart sing. I wish for you peace, happiness and joy. I wish for you friends and family who love you for who you are, and can sit with you and walk silently alongside of you, through your darkest moments, and to celebrate life with you. I wish for you an open heart, an open mind and many moments to notice the sacred in what we might otherwise call ordinary. I wish for you love and connection. And I wish for you your own special Ahnung, your own North Star, who will guide you, protect you, and walk with you.

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”.

Henri J.M. Nouwen

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Enjoying every moment!

Ahnung waiting to meet the Leech Lake Legacy transport
I realize that there will be many ups and downs as Ahnung and I walk this Final Walk ... there will many different terrains and landscapes as we move through this journey, with only one constant, our commitment for our hearts and souls to remain connected.

The decision to not move forward with chemotherapy was both a very difficult decision, but also one that came with a tremendous amount of relief. Accepting that Ahnung's cancer has metastasized to her lungs, and that her largest tumor has grown 30% in the past 4 weeks does not mean we are giving up. Choosing not to proceed with chemotherapy does not mean we are giving up. We gave low dose chemo a try for a month ... maybe it helped, maybe it didn't. We are still fighting, but our fight is not against Cancer ... our fight is to keep living, and more than anything to keep living with the highest quality of life and to live with grace, dignity and lots and lots of joy :)

So the past 24 hours have been a wonderful 24 hours ...

Yesterday afternoon Ahnung and her little brother Legacy accompanied me to meet a transport of dogs arriving from Leech Lake Reservation (via the Leech Lake Legacy program) ... in total 19 precious critters arrived on transport. All are safe and warm and are on their way to finding their own forever homes.

This morning Ahnung kicked off her day with her morning playtime with Legacy. Today, they decided to play in the house before taking their play out into the snow ...

Then next .... Ahnung and I were off to run some errands .. first we need to make a stop at the bank to make a deposit at the ATM. I place the checks on the passenger seat, let Ahnung in, and by the time I get around to the driver's seat Ahnung has plopped herself down on the passenger seat, making herself VERY comfortable on top of all the checks. There was no moving her, so mom had to work around a sleeping girl!

Ahnung sleeps on top of the checks!
Next stop, the car wash! We stop at Mister Car Wash. Ahnung comes inside and we hang out in the waiting room. She is busy greeting everyone and getting lots of compliments and belly rubs. We got a few, 'wow, she's so calm.' Of course, as soon as anyone walks by with popcorn she's gazes over in their direction, maintains that gaze with eagle precision, in hopes they will toss her a a kernel of two, and much to her dismay, no goodies come her way.

Ahnung - car wash waiting area.
Next stop, Woody's Pet Food Deli ... to place an order for 25 lbs of free range, organic whole chicken so that we have a fresh batch ready for her (and yes, all of her siblings) for when we head up north on Friday [Ahnung and Legacy will be heading back to Grand Marais, MN on Friday. We went last December when Legacy was still a puppy so now it's time for the best buds to head back up to Grand Marais!]. Ahnung loved visiting Woody's Pet Food Deli .... I can only imagine all the smells that made her nose twitch. When it was time to leave she had made herself very comfy and I think would've like to have become the resident greeter!

Ahnung anxiously waits for a treat at Woody's
Final stop: Whole Foods to pick up some greens (broccoli and spinach) ... we add steamed greens to their raw food diet. Unfortunately Ahnung had to wait for me in the car as I'm not so sure Whole Foods would've appreciate having my four-legged furry companion come shopping with me at Whole Foods!

Ahnung hopes I bring her surprise when i return from my shopping spree at Whole Foods!
And then we got home, mom fed us a very yummy dinner and she went through some old videos. She found this cute video of me playing with my baby brother Legacy when he was a puppy ... the little squirt taught me how to play but I needed to teach him that my tail is not a chew toy!!

So today was a great day!!! Looking forward to many more awesome days with my precious girl.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Final Walk

The 5K-9 Walk with my girl in 2010
Ahnung has spoken to me. As I was meditating this morning the same image kept popping up in my head. I was in a forest with Ahnung. It was night time. Instead of my usual meditative practice of telling myself, ‘acknowledge the thought, and let it go’ I decided to embrace the image and go with it where I needed to go.

It was night time but right above us was an opening to the night skies. And as I looked up in the night skies I could see the stars. I imagined how early explorers would look up in the skies for the north star. I place my hand on Ahnung and remember how my north star came to me in October, 2008 and the many lives and hearts she has healed and touched since then. I cannot shake the image of standing in the middle of a deep forest with Ahnung. Pitch black and alone with my girl. But I’m not afraid. She is my north star; she is my internal compass; she is always with me. And so we walk. I follow her into the deep, dark forest.  And we keep on walking. The sun begins to rise and I can no longer see the stars up above. Yet I know they are there. They are always there. I just can’t see them.

And as I am sitting quietly this morning I know what I must do. I am at a crossroad. Since July, 2011 after Ahnung’s first diagnosis with cancer (mammary cancer) we have, in many ways, been trying to beat cancer. We have been trying stay ahead of cancer, to stomp it, to kill it, to make it go away. Yet I know Ahnung doesn't view her 'disease' that way. It's not about stomping or defeating anything. Life just is.

I know my life’s journey is so intertwined with Ahnung’s. For several years now I have struggled with my own health issues: in less than 3 years I have had 5 surgical biopsies, 2 MRI guided  biopsies, a heart ablation, pancreatic issues which led to diagnosis of pancreatic insufficiency with unknown etiology, bleeding in my stool and microscopic blood in my urine. I have been told by doctors and surgeons I am a rare case. I have a leaky kidney (dx of microscopic hematuria of unknown cause); from the 5 surgical breast biospies I have doctors and pathologists saying it is definitely atypical ductal hyperplasia and some saying it’s already cancer but no full consensus. The only agreement is that cells in my body are changing and unfortunately current diagnostics of mammograms and ultrasounds don’t seem to catch it. Surgeries came after either my doctor or I noticed a lump, or when, crazy as it sounds, I just had a ‘knowing.’ And then there’s my heart. I have electrical problems that were fixable with an ablation a year and a half ago but I, like Ahnung, have a very rare disease. I have a rare heart disease called left ventricular non compaction. Only .01% of the population has this disease. It will lead to heart failure. How soon, no one really knows. And in April, 2012 when we learned of Ahnung's second bout with cancer we were told that her cancer, invasive adenosquamous carcinoma, was also a very rare cancer and unfortunately, not much information was known about it or how to treat it. Hmmm .. it was a deja vu of my conversation with my cardiologist when he told me I had a serious heart condition.

Both Ahnung and I have ‘things’ going on in our bodies. Within our bodies, at a microscopic level there are ‘things’ going on … anomalies that for us have led to rare disease diagnoses. Yet on the outside one would never know that the cells in our body are wreaking havoc. I have often wondered if Ahnung has been trying to take on some of what is going on with me …. I have asked her not to take any of my illnesses or diseases. But I know I can’t stop my sweet Ahnung from doing what she knows she must do, whatever that is.

What I know now is that I must walk this final walk with my precious angel. It is a final walk we will take together, through the darkness and into the light, and hopefully through many more seasons. We will walk this walk with grace and dignity and remind each other that every moment we have is to be cherished. The truth is, with how intertwined our lives and spirits are, I don’t know whose final walk it is. And in the end, does it really matter? Because the truth is, we are all on our Final Walk. We have One Walk on this precious planet; we have seasons and we have change; and when it is our time to leave this planet and our physical form of existence, we simply grow wings and we take on a new form of being. As I held Ahnung tightly last night, and all day yesterday, and again this morning, I feel her love, her spirit, her soul inside of me. I know that she will always be with me. Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even death will take my north star away from me. When the time comes for her heart to stop beating so she can be set free, then my heart will start beating for her. Maybe she knows my heart is weak and is failing, and so she is giving me her heart. I keep telling her that the greatest gift she can give me is to take care of herself, and not me, but we all know that Ahnung is Ahnung and she will do whatever Ahnung needs to do! 

So today, we are choosing to live life fully and to walk this final walk together … souls connected and intertwined.

I know so many of us have beloved companions and there are many others who share what Ahnung and I share. I will share with you our journey, and all the ups and downs that will come with our Final Walk together. If our journey helps you in any way, even just a tiny way, then I will know that Ahnung has once again, sprinkled her magic into your heart. She has, after all, cast her magic spell over me  :)

For however long we are blessed to share this Final Walk, we will fill our walk with play, curiosity, time to sniff and enjoy the wonderful scents around us every day … and today, my sweet girl is excited because we are going to get her lots of yummy food from Woody’s Pet Food Deli. Now that she will no longer be on chemo drugs we can shift her completely to a raw diet, and boy, that makes my girl happy.

So today, give your beloved fur companion an extra hug from us.

Ahnung and Legacy ... morning play :)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Ahnung update ....

Last night at 5:58 pm Ahnung’s oncologist calls. He tells me he has had a chance to compare Ahnung’s most recent chest x-rays with x-rays done a month ago using the software that allows precise measurements. Unfortunately what visually, to the naked eye, looked ‘stable’ wasn’t so stable. She continues to have multiple nodules in her lung and the largest of the nodules is now 2.7 cm at its widest dimension. Her x-rays from November 28th show that same nodule at 1.8 cm, a growth of 30% in 4 weeks. I hear the concern in his voice. I try to grasp everything he is telling me on the phone .. what are my options now? What are the next steps? Is there anything we can do? He mentions the more traditional intravenous chemotherapy treatment and another in-home oral chemo treatment … all this could be in conjunction with what she is on now.

I can’t think. I can’t make a decision. I need time … time to just be; time to listen to what feels right; time to listen to Ahnung and for her to guide me. Last night my gut tells me … No more. No more. No more chasing a cure that can only give me up to 50% chance of working. No more infusing my precious girl with drugs. My head is spinning and my heart is aching. How do I know what’s the right thing to do?

I couldn’t sleep last night. I finally fell asleep around 1 am and at 2:30 my sweet girl woke me up. She’s done this the past few nights where she wakes me up and wants out of the bedroom. I let her out of the bedroom and she just lays down outside the doorway. I have to come to learn that everything Ahnung does is with intention and purpose. There is no such thing as a coincidence with my sweet girl. She has also been choosing to lay by the river rocks from her Celebration of Life party. I’ve watched her intentionally lay in the living room where the basket of river rocks are .. she will lay there for a couple minutes, sometimes 5 or even 10 but then she gets up and returns to one of the dog beds in the dining area where she spends most of her time. So today I am going to spend time with my sweet girl ... I am going to enjoy watching her communicate with me in her various ways when she works hard to convince me she deserves a treat. And if i'm slow at dispensing her treat, knowing that she is happy to remind me with a smack on my hand :) I am going to enjoy watching her tear around the backyard in the snow with Legacy, darting in and out and back and forth in a way I never thought was possible. Yesterday morning, for the first time ever, she got up on her hind legs like a bear and came down on Legacy as if to say, "I can knock you over too!" [one would never know by looking at this angel that she has been through what she has been through .. from surviving heartworm, multiple gun shots and still having a couple pellets in her body, a luxating patella, and cancer]. I am mesmerized by the way Ahnung and Legacy play. One moment they are darting around the yard, and then the next they are 'dancing'. When Legacy comes at her, Ahnung will flop her body down in the snow before her brother even reaches her, and start rolling, like a master of the aikido martial arts. Then when they are done playing, I am going to watch her sleep and listen to her soothing, rhythmic, vibrating snore. I am going to cherish today and every remaining moment I am blessed to have with her.

I am going to take time to slow my mind and all the chatter that is rushing around and take time to meditate and pray. I pray for the strength, courage and the wisdom to know what steps to take. I pray for Ahnung to guide me. I pray I can be still and present enough to hear her.

I ask for the support of a community that has been so supportive of both Ahnung and me. I ask for your healing thoughts, love, prayers and positive intentions. I ask you to join me in surrounding Ahnung with healing light and to Celebrate her Life with me.

What Cancer Cannot Do

Cancer is so limited..
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the Spirit.

~~~~Author unknown

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Anticipatory Grief: Making friends

Grief walks up to your front door. It’s not time yet, you say. Yet she keeps on walking. She walks past the rose bushes in your front yard. She walks past the boulders you’ve carefully laid in her path. She walks past the detours you’ve planted to steer her around you and away from you. This time She is focused. And the rain is pouring and thunder is booming as the earth shakes and vibrates.

Please,” She says, “I need shelter. I need to come in -- if only for a moment. “

Reluctantly, I let Grief in. I offer her a cup of warm tea. We sit by the fireplace.

Why have you come?” I ask. “It’s not yet time.”

It’s time. I am by myself tonight. Tomorrow I may not be alone. I may bring thousands of Me and there will be nothing you can do. We will break down your door. We will drown you. “

She pauses for a moment.

She strokes my dog Ahnung.

Sit with Me now.”

We share stories. We cry. We laugh. Ahnung lays between us. A calm breeze permeates the room.

It’s time for me go,” Grief says.

But we have so much more to share,” I say.

She smiles. She rises, and Ahnung walks alongside her. Ahnung stops at the front door as Grief turns around to face me.

I will be return. I may come alone, or I may bring a friend. Now, be with Ahnung.”

We melt into the breeze coming through the open door.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The ever shifting ground

Ahnung - Dec. 26, 2012
Ahnung's follow-up appointment with her oncologist was at 9 am this morning. It's been exactly one month since we confirmed from her chest x-rays that her cancer has metastasized to her lungs. She has been on supplements and low-dose chemo and today we went in for a follow-up x-ray. Visually, her x-rays show her tumors have not grown, but nor have they shrunk. Her oncologist will take precise measurements by comparing today's x-rays with last month's x-rays by using some software and will call me tomorrow. Today, he said from visually comparing the x-rays, the one larger nodule that she had (about the size of a nickel which is right by her rib cage) a month ago appears to be holding steady at the same size. She has other nodules which are smaller and he will be able to tell me tomorrow whether they have changed at all. From what he is able to tell from comparing the x-rays today, we are in the 'stable' phase. He admits he was hoping they would shrink but the fact that they are holding steady is also great news. Her oncologist admits he can only give me averages ... so on average, once cancer has metastasized to the lungs, he says, the dog will have 3 months. With treatment we hope to double the amount of time. I fire off questions ... 'so how long can we remain at the 'stable' phase where the tumor doesn't grow? and once the tumors start to grow and multiply, how quickly do they grow and/or multiply?, .... in nutshell, I want to know, how much more time do I have? He can't give me any definite answers. The spectrum is huge. Cancer is unpredictable and can spread like wildfire or at a very slow pace. Part of me wants to celebrate the fact that they haven't grown. A part of me wants to cry because I want the cancer to just go away.

We go back in a month for a follow-up unless Ahnung starts to show symptoms. For now, she has been feeling great. She also gained a pound and has had no side effects from the chemo. Her oncologist said she looks great! So why is there this unsettling feeling in my stomach? This feeling of now knowing how I really feel, or how I'm 'supposed' to feel, or how I'm supposed to handle this not knowing ...
Ahnung, patiently waiting at the vet.

"As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground - something predictable and safe to stand on - seems to intensify ..." [Pema Chodron]. I've been watching my sweet girl romp around in the snow with her little brother Legacy for about 15 minutes now.She's happy. She's content. And unlike her mama, she doesn't have a care in the world. I know this journey of walking alongside Ahnung will be the most beautiful experience for me, but it will also be the most painful journey. I have promised my sweet Ahnung, and I have made that same promise to myself, that I will keep my heart as open to the full experience of what is yet to come. Through that promise, I acknowledge, the intensity of what I am choosing to embrace. All I know is that I am choosing to embrace Ahnung, and I will take whatever comes along with it. I realize this morning as i've had some time to reflect after returning home from the appointment with her oncologist, that there's a large part of me that is petrified, absolutely petrified of losing my soul companion, and that fear is desperately looking for solid ground to walk on. The fear is grasping for solid news .. yes, the certainty that the cancer has gone and I can resume my life with the carefree and comforting knowing of being able to watch and walk by Ahnung's side as she grows old, and to have at least 6 more years with her, and not to hear that we will be fortunate to have another 6 months. Selfish as it is, I do want certainty when it comes to Ahnung.

I can wish and I can hope and I can pray. Nothing in life is certain ... except for change. I wish I could say I'm ecstatic about the news today. I wish I wanted to celebrate the news her cancer is 'stable.' So why does my heart still ache? Why is all this uncertainty causing me so much distress? Was I expecting a miracle? Was I expecting to simply melt into miraculous news? Was I expecting this cloud of uncertainty to dissipate? Would I have been upset with any news other than the tumors have disappeared?

I will move past these feelings. I know I will. For now, I need to simply honor exactly where I am right now. Afraid. Faltering. And incredibly sad ... yet hopeful and grateful at the same time.

Dear sweet Ahnung ... you are loved, deeply, by so many.

If ever my soul felt intertwined with any being, it is your soul sweet girl that has become one with mine.

Ahnung, waiting for a treat after we get home!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Ahnung and Santa - Dec. 8, 2012
This morning I am blessed to wake up to all my beautiful four furkids: Ahnung, Legacy, Missy and Mister. I had to coerce Legacy to get up and come out of his kennel. He was snuggled up and sleeping soundly. A treat was all it took. He snarfed down his treat them stretched and came out of his kennel. Missy was there to greet him. Mister had already run up the stairs and was probably busy picking up a shoe or a towel so that he could greet me with a 'present' when I came up the stairs.

After Legacy makes his way past Missy (who tries to get him to play!), he finds his way to Ahnung who is sleeping in the dog bed in the hallway by the bedroom. As he always does he goes up to her and lowers his body so his face he smashed up against her face. He rubs his face against her face then lays for a moment next to her. Then he begins to mouth her back legs as if to say, 'Come on. Wake up .. it's time to go outside!' There is a special language and a bond between my two rez dogs ... Ahnung is the confident, calm and wise spirit and Legacy is the teenager being taught about life by his big sister who has been through so much. Yet Legacy has also been a teacher to Ahnung. He has taught her how to play and to tear around the yard and just let loose and be joyful. Ahnung does what Ahnung wants to do and she often chooses not to go outside first thing in the morning. So off Legacy goes to follow Missy and Mister. After they do their business they all come in. As I sit in my back room I hear tiny Legacy footsteps running down the steps. When he was a puppy I would follow him downstairs as he would be finding ways to get into trouble when unsupervised. For the the past 6 months or so I have learned that what he is doing is looking for Ahnung. When I have followed him downstairs I find the two of them quietly rolling around in gentle play. This morning I hear footsteps running back upstairs just minutes after Legacy had gone downstairs to check on Ahnung. I guess on Christmas morning, my sweet girl wants to sleep in a little longer :) What brings her upstairs is the smell of chicken being boiled and the realization that she, and all of her siblings, are going to have a special treat on Christmas morning!
Ahnung's Celebration of Life party - April, 2012

This morning I am truly grateful for the gift of having Ahnung with me. After her second diagnosis of cancer in April of this year I feared I wouldn't have her much longer. We had a Celebration of Life party for her on April 22nd ... so many of her friends came to see her and join us in a healing prayer circle for her. I believe in power of prayer and positive intention. Ahnung has been blessed in having so many of her friends praying for her. She has been doing great these past 8 - 9 months. And even when we learned that cancer had spread to her lungs on Nov. 28th it was only because we had chest x-rays done. She was acting her usual self and her blood work came back completely normal. Yet she had been losing weight and something in my gut just told me something wasn't right, so we went ahead with chest x-rays. We met with an oncologist and began treatment for her -- CurcuVet, Green tea extra, I'm Yunity and an oral low dose chemo (chlorambucil). Tomorrow we head back to see Ahnung's oncologist. We will have chest x-rays done again so we can see if the supplements and chemo are helping. I can't help but to wish and to pray for a certain outcome. Yet there is a part of me that has worked hard to not pray for a certain outcome ... I do my best to simply pray for the strength and the courage to be okay with whatever is; to be okay with life, on life's terms, not mine; to be okay and to believe that yes, everything happens for a reason. I admit that this one is a very hard for me. It's hard because I can't imagine my life without Ahnung; I can't imagine my heart continuing to beat without Ahnung; I can't imagine not having her by my side. I can't imagine not having her wise, comforting, calm presence as I walk through my own health challenges.

Our appointment is at 9 am tomorrow morning. I know my sweet girl would tell me not to worry. I look at her and I see a happy, peaceful girl who truly lives in the moment. And in my gut, I know that no matter what I am told tomorrow, and no matter what the x-rays show, it should not change what I know by simply looking into Ahnung's eyes and watching her enjoy life today and in this moment.

Dear sweet Ahnung .... whatever journey, whatever path lies in front of us, I promise to be by your side. I promise to do my best to live in the moment and to cherish what we share, right here and right now. Bear with me in moments when I falter and when I let fear and worry overcome me. We are forever bonded, and nothing, not even death can break that bond. Give me the strength to continue to listen to the messages and signs you give me, in your subtle and silent ways. You are my star, my north star.

Legacy and Ahnung - Rez soul buddies

"To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings."

~ Wendell Berry.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Slowing down to Notice the Sacred

  I have found refuge in the sanctuary of my home amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. And yesterday I started reading a wonderful book by Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.”  As another year comes to a close I find myself grateful for so many things … I am blessed to have the most amazing furkids; I am blessed to be surrounded by such loving, caring and compassionate people; I am blessed to continue having Ahnung in my life; I am blessed to have had my health hold up so I could visit my mom in the Philippines this year; I am blessed to be doing more than I could have even imagined possible in my volunteer work with Leech Lake Legacy and to have a life full of purpose and passion; and I am blessed to love my job (the one that enables me to pay my bills and our mortgage), finding joy, creativity and purpose in both my paying job and my volunteer work.

With my own health issues and Ahnung’s cancer we continue on a daily basis to practice living with uncertainty and change. There are challenging days when grief and sadness can overwhelm me. There are moments when I feel anger seep into my heart at the injustice of Ahnung, an amazing being, having cancer. And sometimes those moments lead to feelings of intense grief when I fast forward to when she will no longer be with me. I am blessed when I can catch myself and tell myself to pause and just take a deep breath. And then I look into her eyes and I am back in the moment. All I have is today. All I have is this moment. I have choice. Everyday I pray for the strength, wisdom and courage to make the choice of filling my heart with love, understanding and compassion.

I am blessed to have a wonderful studio space at my sanctuary at home. It is a place where every morning I am able to enter with my precious furkids, light some incense, feel the sun coming through the windows, take time to meditate and center, and then take time to write or read. 

So this morning I want to share with you a beautiful poem by Joseph Bruchac. With the hustle and bustle of the holiday time, it’s a gentle reminder to slow down. As we are rushing to get somewhere, or some place .. to get to the store to buy last minute gifts … remember to notice the sacred. The sacred can be in the shape and form of a toad, or a homeless man or woman, or a blue jay that lands on a tree branch.  The greatest gifts come from our hearts.

Wishing everyone a very Happy Holiday in whatever tradition you believe and celebrate, from Christmas to Hannukah to Kwanzaa.

May we all take time today, to slow down and notice the sacred.

Birdfoot’s Grandpa 
by Joseph Bruchac

The old man
must have stopped our car
two dozen times to climb out
and gather into his hands
the small toads blinded
by our light and leaping,
live drops of rain.
The rain was falling,
a mist about his white hair
and I kept saying
you can’t save them all,
accept it, get back in
we’ve got places to go.
But, leathery hands full
of wet brown life,
knee deep in the summer
roadside grass,
he just smiled and said
they have places to go, too.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Kindred spirits ... creating space for silence.

Last night was a hard one for me. Despite a strong appetite, it appears Ahnung is still losing weight. It’s been a little over 3 weeks since I came home from the Philippines. I arrived back home on Thanksgiving night and when I walked in my house was greeted by four very happy bouncy furkids  .. of course, Mister was in the front jumping all over me, Missy was right behind him and Legacy came around the back so he could get to me too. Then there was my sweet Ahnung, who as she always does, waits behind and on the perimeter of all the chaos with her tail wagging like crazy. She waits till her crazy siblings have had their chance to greet me and knows that I will come towards her. I let the 3 bouncy pups out into the backyard so I can greet my sweet girl without craziness around me. I see her ribs protruding and it’s obvious to me she has lost weight. I know in my gut something isn’t right.

I have an appointment already scheduled with Lake Harriet Veterinary for Monday and Wednesday. On Monday she goes in to get blood drawn so that on Wednesday when we meet with Dr. Cathy we will have the results of her blood profile. When I bring her in on Monday we weigh her and she is 58 lbs. She has lost 4 lbs. On Wednesday I return for our appointment with Dr. Cathy. She now weighs 57 lbs but everything else checks out great. Her blood profile came back great .. everything was in the normal range! Her physical check up also is great, yet I know in my gut there is something that is not right. She is losing weight and there is something going on. I absolutely love Lake Harriet Veterinary and the care I receive from their staff and their vets. I love that they practice both eastern and western veterinary medicine and that they listen to me … they listen to me and they recognize and respect that there is a bond I share with Ahnung and when I say I ‘just know’ something isn’t right they hear me. Dr. Cathy tells me she would recommend chest x-rays. Later that day that uneasiness in my gut about what is going on is confirmed when I hear the words come out of Dr. Cathy’s mouth telling me Ahnung’s cancer has metastasized to her lungs. Interestingly, that day my surgeon also called me out of the blue to check on me and to make sure that I had on my calendar to have a breast MRI done in April. The diagnostic mammogram I had done in October didn’t show anything, but neither one of us expected it would as what is going on in my body appears to not show up with current diagnostic tools (mammograms or ultrasounds). I’ve had four excisional biopsies in the past couple of years and only when they cut out pieces of me and send it to the laboratory are they able to confirm that the cells in my body are going awry … some say it’s DCIS, most say it’s atypical ductal hyperplasia, and they all agree that there is something going on but they can’t quite figure out what it is. There is no simple answer to treat what is going on so the path I have chosen for now is ‘close surveillance.’ My surgeon asks me if I notice any new lumps in my breast. I am honest with her and tell her that it is now much harder for me to tell with all of the scar tissue. I also tell her I have decided to not think about it anymore. I will return every 6 months for my tests and procedures but part of me has stopped listening to what’s going on with my on body.  It’s now also been a year and a half since I learned I have a rare heart condition – left ventricular non compaction …  a heart condition that will lead to heart failure. Because it’s so rare there are so many unknowns .. it could be a year, two years, 10 years before the symptoms of heart failure begin to manifest. Due to a much higher risk of sudden cardiac arrest I have also had to adjust my life style and there’s an increased awareness on a daily basis of the fragileness of life and of how one’s life and most definitely one’s perspective on life can change in a single moment.

I admit I have consciously worked to put my health issues on the back burner. I don’t want to think about it. I am tired of seeing so many doctors and undergoing so many procedures, tests and surgeries. I also know that Ahnung and I are so connected and our health journeys are parallel and interconnected. In 2010 I was diagnosed with atypical ductal hyperplasia and since then have been walking that line of breast pre-cancer and cancer. In 2011 Ahnung was diagnosed with mammary cancer and had surgery to remove the tumor. In 2011 I was diagnosed with a very rare and serious heart condition. In 2012 Ahnung was diagnosed with a very rare, aggressive cancer. For both of us we are have what most would consider, terminal illnesses. Yet on the outside, we appear healthy. Ahnung continues to live and cherish every moment. And for the most part, I am able to share that same perspective of living in the moment and cherishing what I have right now, right here.

But then there are moments, sometimes hours and even days when I cave to the reality of what lies in front of me … last night was one of those times. As I noticed Ahnung’s protruding ribs again I realized I don’t know how much longer I will have my sweet girl with me. As I watched Legacy and Ahnung roll around in play I realize that Ahnung chose Legacy last summer … did she bring him into our lives knowing that her time may be limited and that when she moves on that Legacy will continue her work? Is she also trying to tell me to pause and notice my own health issues and to not put them on the back burner? I have witnessed the incredible bond grow between Ahnung and Legacy over the past 20 months, and when I look into Legacy’s eyes I see pieces of Ahnung. Last night and this morning, I feel something I can’t explain. My heart has been hurting and I ‘just know’ once again as my gut is speaking to me, that something is going on. I don’t know if it’s my precious Ahnung, or if it’s me, or maybe it’s both of us.

So this morning I needed to just take time to be silent and to reflect. I need to create space for whatever messages are trying to make their way to me through an angel (my precious Ahnung) who has blessed me with her presence since October, 2008. And as I make time this morning for quiet time, Ahnung lays by my side. It’s like I can hear her say, ‘Breathe. Listen.’ We are not fighting or battling cancer. We are not fighting my heart condition. We are not fighting anything.

Harmony. Community. Compassion. Love. Acceptance.

One Beat. One Heart. All will be okay.

Legacy brings out the puppy in Ahnung

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ahnung: Cancer update

Ahnung getting ready to head to hospice to visit her friend 'R'
We met with Ahnung's oncologist yesterday at the Blaine Bluepearl Veterinary. I am so grateful for the incredible care Ahnung is getting from her health care team both at Lake Harriet Veterinary and Bluepearl Veterinary. Her x-rays and records were sent over to Bluepearl and Dr. Husbands had reviewed her records before we even arrived. He spent an hour with us going over all of our options and giving Ahnung a thorough check :)

Without a biopsy or surgery and actually getting to the nodules in her lungs there is no way to know 100% if it is cancer. With her history, however, he said he is 90% certain that it is cancer. I opted not to go down the path of any additional invasive procedures for my sweet girl. My gut tells me it is cancer and I don't need to have her go through any additional procedures to confirm that ... after going through all the various options, and after consulting with my vet and just sitting with what feels right to give Ahnung the best chances while honoring her quality of life I decided to take a combo approach, combining eastern and western. Ahnung has started on 2 supplements: CurcuVet and a Green Tea extract. She will be starting I'm-Yunity early next week (this is a compound derived from a mushroom and has been shown to lengthen survival time in dogs with cancer: She will also be starting a low-dose chemotherapy treatment early next week where I have been told most dogs do not have any side effects from the treatment. It is a low dose continuous oral at home chemotherapy treatment geared towards blocking blood vessel growth of cancer cells.
Waiting to get on the elevator at hospice

Dr. Husbands was honest and upfront that there is no cure. Our goal is to shrink the tumors, or at minimum to slow the progression/growth. He indicated that a reasonable expectation for how much time a dog may have who comes in with metastasis to their lungs is 2-3 months. He went on to say, however, that there are exceptions. I know that if there is going to be an exception it will be my precious Ahnung. Unfortunately she lost another pound and now weighs 56 lbs. She has been getting even more treats and I am hoping we can stop the weight loss. Fortunately her appetite is as voracious as ever. And tonight after dinner I took my juicer out and she was ready for her dose of raw cabbage juice -- tonight I decided to add celery and a sprinkle of apple :)

Today Ahnung was her usual happy, tail-wagging, spunky self. She ran around the back yard like a crazy dog with Legacy and rolled around in the dirt :) And then we decided to visit our friend in hospice. We had a wonderful visit with our friend who was excited to see Ahnung. When he arrived he was napping so we had to knock on his door. I apologized for waking him up and he said 'I can nap anytime, but it's not every day I get a cute dog coming to visit me!" :) We sat and chatted for almost an hour while Ahnung helped lick the crumbs off of his floor and then walking over to his bedside to rest her head on his leg. I asked how he was feeling and he said he has good days and not so good days. His wife is also at the same facility and is also in hospice. He tells me, "I feel better when my wife feels better; when she doesn't feel good then I don't feel good." He goes on to tell how they met in highschool  .. how they've been married for 68 years and how she has been his only girl :) He smiles when he tells me how she would write him letters every day when he was in the military serving in Asia and then goes on to say, "My country has been good to me. They have taken good care of me." He knows I just returned from the Philippines and asks me lots of questions. And then he shares more about what he did after he left the army, his kids and how he will soon be turning 91!! ;-) As I sit and listen to him with Ahnung laying quietly by our side I feel blessed to be sharing time with him. His gratitude and positive attitude for the life he has lived and for those who are helping him today reminds me of our dear friend 'M' who told me many times, "I've had a good life."
Waiting for her friend 'R' to let her in!! :)

Today, as I spent time with our friend in hospice it touched me on an even deeper level. The time we share is not just about walking the final stage of our friend's life ... my volunteer work in hospice is now as much about walking the final stage of Ahnung's life and all of us sharing, collectively, i  learning to embrace what is to come and most importantly to live life to the fullest in the present moment ... because the present moment is all we have.

I would be lying if I said my heart doesn't hurt and feel like it's being ripped to shreds when I fast forward and think about when Ahnung won't be here with me. The truth is, I can't imagine my life without her. I am constantly telling myself to focus on the moment and to be here, to simply be here in the moment with Ahnung. She is happy today. She is full of life today. She is full of love.

I believe in the power of prayer and positive/healing energy, so please continue to keep Ahnung in your thoughts and prayers.

With heartfelt gratitude,
Marilou & Ahnung
... and her siblings Legacy, Missy and Mister too :)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ahnung's cancer has spread ...

I returned from the Philippines on Thanksgiving night. It was a whirlwind trip and I was exhausted  after traveling for over 24 hours. Legacy greeted me in the car as he came along for the ride to the airport with Jenny. When I got home I was greeted by my other pups: Mister, Missy and Ahnung. I noticed right away how Ahnung looked like she had lost weight. As it turned out, we had an appointment this week for her 3 month cancer check up at Lake Harriet Vet. On Monday we were to go in so they could draw blood for her full blood workup. Then on Wednesday we had an appointment with Dr. Cathy. We went in on Monday and we checked her weight ... she had lost 4 lbs since her last visit to the vet a few months ago. Other than her weight loss Ahnung was not showing any symptoms. She was full of life, had a strong appetite, and enjoying her morning ritual of perusing the big back yard and rough housing with Legacy. I've been checking her regularly as well for any new lumps or bumps. Over the summer she had an ultrasound done as well and we confirmed she had no tumors in her spleen or lower organs. I've been able to catch the first two cancers because she had lumps. I noticed the lump by her nipple in July, 2011 and had surgery immediately to remove the lump and had clear margins. I noticed the lump on her neck/back and the lump was aggressively removed in April of this year and the reports also indicated a clear margin. But this past surgery was very hard on her and took a long time for her incision to heal. In April was had a Celebration of Life party for her ... what a gift to have had so many friends come together to honor her and to have a healing prayer circle led by my friend Merry Sawdey.

Since April I have been doing everything I possibly can for my girl ... we've been going in for 3 month cancer check ups and full blood work. Our plan is to have chest x-rays every 6 months and after the ultrasound was done over the summer I decided to also add ultrasounds to her plan. I have thanked Ahnung for giving me the signs .... the lumps on her mammary chain and her neck/back have allowed me to physically see the tumor .. to catch the cancer early. Since April I have struggled with the knowing that there is probably cancer in her body and I just can't see it. It's at a cellular level and my way to combat it is to do everything I can to build up her immune system and to create an environment in her body that is not conducive for cancer cells to thrive. We are so grateful to the staff at Lake Harriet Veterinary for the incredible love, compassion and care they have given to Ahnung. She has been on chinese herbs, fish oil and mushroom supplements since April along with following an anti-cancer diet. She also gets to enjoy raw cabbage juice with me :)

Ahnung after her surgery in April to remove the tumor in her neck/back
So yesterday Ahnung and I met with Dr. Cathy. We weighed her again and she had lost almost a pound since her visit on Monday. Dr. Cathy was happy to tell me her blood work came back great! Everything was in the normal range. She checked her out and nothing indicated any issues or problems. I shared my concern about her weight loss. Dr. Cathy agreed. Knowing her history with cancer she recommended chest x-rays. I asked if metastasis of cancer to her lungs could be happening even if she has no symptoms (other than unexplained weight loss) and her blood work is normal. 'Yes' was the answer I got. So off she went to the back to get 3 radiograph views. Of course, she got lots of hugs and treats from the awesome staff while she was there :)

Yesterday late afternoon I got a call from Dr. Cathy. They had sent the chest x-rays out for a second opinion from a radiologist and the results had come back. My heart just sank when the words metastasis to her lungs came out. My entire world came crashing down. So much of the conversation is a blur as much as I tried to listen. We are meeting with Ahnung's oncologist at 2 pm today to go over options. As much as I knew in my gut that this was coming, I am not ready for this. I am not ready to say goodbye to Ahnung. I am not ready to lose a part of me, a part of my soul. Today we are scheduled to visit her friend 'R' in hospice. We have been volunteering as a team in hospice and we have walked the final journey with so many. Today when we go and visit our friend I now know that we are actively begin to walk the final journey, not only with 'R' but also with my sweet Ahnung.
Ahnung and Legacy ... best friends and soul mates :)

I pray this morning for the strength to be at peace with wherever my path with Ahnung needs to go. I pray for courage to stand by her and to allow her to walk her final journey with life, joy and playfulness. And I thank my precious girl for bringing Legacy into our lives and for showing me that playful puppy side of her. There is nothing more joyful for me than to watch Ahnung and Legacy play chase and roll around in dirt every morning.

I don't know how much more time I have with Ahnung. What I do know is that I will cherish every moment I have with her. I will hold her and I will love her with every fiber of my being.

Here's a video I created back in April after her Celebration of Life party ...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Keep my sweet Ahnung safe ....

Sweet Ahnung ....
Tomorrow I leave for the Philippines. I will be visiting my mom and will also be attending the funeral of one of my aunt's who died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack (rest in peace Auntie Norma -- you will be missed by many) ... It's been a while since i've been to the Philippines; it's been a while since i've traveled as my own health has held me back from traveling, as well as the health of Ahnung. But I knew I had to make a trip back home before the end of the year to see my mother. Little did I know that it would also end up being a trip for my auntie's funeral.

I must confess I am worried about being out of the country even though it's only for a week. I worry of being so far away from my sweet Ahnung. I worry her cancer will come back with a vengeance when I am gone. I'm also hoping that my health holds out and that I don't have any issues while I am out of the country. My doctors have given me the okay to travel.

I am extremely grateful to my friend Jenny for taking care of my babies while I am gone ... well, at least 3 of them (Ahnung, Missy and Legacy). Mister will get to go and hang out with auntie Laura :)

Dear sweet Ahnung .... continue to keep those cancer cells at bay and know that your mom will be with you in spirit even though she will be on the other side of the globe :) I'll see you in a week sweet girl ... take good care of your crazy brother Legacy and your sister Missy :)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My heart speaks again

I was fortunate enough to catch this image in northern Minnesota of an eagle perched on a branch a few years ago. I was mesmerized for the 15 minutes or so where I was blessed to be in the presence of such an amazing spirit. I return today to this image, as I am reminded, to slow down and pay attention to my heart which has been calling out to me to listen ...

I haven't written much about my health. It's been intentional. For several years I feel like my life has been filled with doctor visits, surgeries, medical procedures and tests and an onslaught of health challenges. Even though I haven't written or talked much about my health lately, the reality of my health challenges remains an undercurrent in my life. Similarly, I walk this delicate balance with Ahnung with her two bouts with aggressive cancer, and learning to find some semblance of peace in the midst of an incredible amount of uncertainty. I can't change what life has placed in my path, but what I can change and control is what I choose to focus on ... and for me, it's been to focus on what makes me feel alive and all of the work I am doing in animal welfare here in Minnesota and the hospice volunteer work that Ahnung and I do as a team.

Unfortunately these past few days my heart is speaking out to me again. I saw my electrophysiologist/cardiologist in April of this year. It's been 16 months since my heart procedure and when he told me it could be a year, 2 years or 10 years before the symptoms from my left ventricular noncompaction (a heart condition that will most likely lead to heart failure) would surface. For the past month or so i've had occasional bouts of heart palpitations and waking up in the middle of the night from my heart feeling like it's going to hop out of my chest. But they've been sporadic and infrequent enough that I figured it's just a blip :) I've also had increased fatigue but i've been telling myself it's probably from stress, and I just accommodate by going to bed early and getting more sleep. But now with increased palpitations, which are always worse at night, it makes it hard to get sleep. For the past three nights it's been persistent and consistent. I'm waking up every couple hours at night like I used to back in 2011 before my heart procedure (although last night I got a streak of 5 straight hours of sleep for which I am extremely grateful for!). I've also had this feeling of heart burn ... so yesterday I caved and I called my doctor's office. On Friday I go in to have a holter monitor put on me so they can check the rhythm of my heart and to see if i'm having significant PVCs again (pre ventricular contractions ... essentially when your heart starts beating from the wrong place in your heart and it feels like a skipped beat). I will then be meeting with my cardiologist on the 24th.

These past few days as my heart has been speaking out I am reminded of the fragileness of life; i am reminded of all the uncertainty that flows in the undercurrent of my life's journey; i am reminded of how I must embrace uncertainty with as much zest, life, wisdom and passion as my sweet Ahnung.

Summer is coming to an end, and leaves will be changing colors soon. Seasons. There is a time and a place for everything. 

Before actress Gildna Radner died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42, she said, "I wanted a perfect ending ... Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity."

As my heart continues to speak to me, may I approach whatever is in store for me, with curiosity and acceptance of a life filled with 'Delicious Ambiguity.'

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The ebbs and flows of life and emotions

I took time yesterday to simply Be .. my list of 'To Dos' went by the wayside. I needed time to Be with my grief, to Be with Ahnung (aka 'Star -- Good Girl'), to Be with 'M' in spirit, to Be with all the emotions that arise from the loss of someone who has touched your heart, to Be with my tears and to Be with feelings, of which so many of my emotions I found myself wanting to label and to judge, and then I heard a wiser voice say ... 'Just Be, with all of it.'

I regretted not having the chance to bring my ipod to M's room and play for her classical guitar and harp music. I wanted to share with her the music of Roberto Aussel, an incredible Argentinian classical guitarist I had the chance to watch perform in concert many, many years ago when I lived in St. Louis, Missouri. I wanted to share with 'M' music that had touched my soul decades ago. I was sure, it too would touch her soul. Simply watching her talk about classical music, about how that was one regret she had, that she could play the harp or the guitar ... but then she would quickly turn her regret around, "But that's okay, I can listen to it and I can appreciate it." And she would smile. I miss her smile; i miss her optimism; i miss her positive outlook and attitude; i miss the incredible kindness she showed to her roommate; i miss her gratitude of everything; i miss how she lit up when Ahnung would walk in the room; i miss how she would smile every time she said 'Star .. Good Girl' and how proud she was to have Ahnung's calendar hanging on her wall. I miss her stories of her family; i miss telling her all about the many animals rescued from Leech Lake Reservation week after week; i miss her energy, her presence, her wisdom. I miss how she would always tell me how much Star loved to come visit her and how happy she was and how much she loves seeing her tail wag.
Taking a short break on our walk

Yesterday, I needed to give room in my heart to remember 'M'. When the reminder in my calendar popped up for us to visit 'M' I realized we were going to visit 'M' but it would just be in a different form. Ahnung and I headed off to the Hyland Reserve nature trails by my house and went for a slow, leisurely walk ... I listened to Roberto Aussel (classical guitar baroque music) on my ipod and I asked 'M' to come join us for our walk .... The three of us had the most beautiful nature walk and I had the chance to thank 'M' for the gift of her friendship.  It was a quiet day for me ... lots of tears, lots of reflection, and yes, lots of gratitude. I know that by volunteering in hospice that I am choosing to walk the final journey with a friend. It's an honor, a gift and a privilege. And yes, it's hard when we have to say goodbye. I also know that I must make room for the sadness and the grief, and I must let it come out in whatever shape or form it needs to ... yesterday it gushed out and now the pain comes in waves. I think the pain of losing 'M' also brought up a lot of another emotions from other losses ... funny, isn't it, how everything in our lives our interconnected.

Ahnung has a been a precious gift to me. She is a gift to so many others in the work she does as a therapy dog and an ambassador for homeless dogs.

Ahnung and I are called to do this work .... and we are grateful for the gift of new friends and for the privilege to walk alongside our friends as they journey into a new way of being.

I created the following short video in memory and in honor of our friend 'M'. As I watch the video and listen to the beautiful classical guitar music of Roberto Aussel, I feel M's presence with me ... with the nature photographs I have taken over the years I remind myself that when someone dies, they haven't really left us ... they are forever in our hearts ... sprinkled everywhere throughout this magnificent world ....