Friday, August 31, 2012

"M" .... A bright new star on a Blue Moon

At 5:54 this morning I received an email from my volunteer coordinator at Allina, "M' passed away peacefully at 1 am this morning. I could feel this pain in my heart. I was hoping I could see "M" today at Abbott. She was taken there yesterday after she fell and broke part of her right femur.

On Monday, Ahnung and I went to visit 'M'. We didn't bring any White Castle burgers on this trip because we had been told she was continuing to decline and to be honest, I felt like we were on the final stretch. The last visit we had I brought White Castle burgers, and yes, she ate all of it and loved it, but she was clearly not feeling well. On Monday, Ahnung and I were planning to simply be there with her while she slept. Instead, we were in for an amazing surprise ... I shared the following on my facebook wall after our visit on Monday:

"Miracles do happen! ... today, I was expecting a very different visit with 'M'. Instead, Ahnung and I had the most incredible visit .. here are my notes to the Allina volunteer coordinator from today's visit: ... When Ahnung and I got to the patient's room she was sleeping. We walked in and sat next to her for a little while. As we were moving around she woke up. She immediately said, "Star Good Girl." Much to my surprise the patient was doing very well on our visit. We had a very nice visit and chatted for about an hour (her roommate was there for a large portion of our visit and also participated in our conversation). The patient said she hasn't been feeling well (nausea and tingly pain across her chest). She said the meds have been helping her. She said she has trouble sleeping at night as her mind keeps going. I asked her what she is thinking about and she said she remembers so many things, like her kindergarten teacher. She said she's remembering a lot of things from a long time ago. We talked about her twin brothers, how she's the last of the her siblings to be alive, how she loves music and wishes she had learned how to play an instrument. She especially loves the harp, violin and guitar ... and classical music. We then shifted to food!! :) She once again started talking about White Castle burgers and was remembering how delicious the White Castle burger she had from when I brought some over last Friday. I learned that both the patient and her roommate prefer the White Castle burgers with cheese so I promised I would bring them cheeseburgers next time. She asked me if I would ever eat one of them and I said that Star would have my share ... she said, 'You don't know what you're missing!' and smiled. She said there's just no burger like White Castle burgers!! We had an absolutely wonderful visit and she was very happy to see us (especially Star!!) .. she said Star can come visit her every day! I told her that we would be coming more often to visit :)

She also asked about the animals up at Leech Lake Reservation. How many did we rescue last week? How she hopes they all find good homes ... I never imagined I would be given the gift of another visit with such wonderful conversations .... We engaged in great conversation with her roommate .... her roommate is a HUGE Twins fan, and I brought her a present (a Twins gnome) from Jenny and told her ... "from one Twins fan to another!" She was wearing her Twins outfit, put on her Twins cap and held onto the Twins gnome and posed for me so I could take a picture. She was smiling from ear to ear And the two happy roomies held hands and posed for me so that I would have a picture of the two of them :)"

 'M' gave me such an incredible gift. Her smile when we would walk in her room ... her soft, gentle voice saying 'My Star ... my Star Good Girl" makes me smile. How she would tell me "it's all about attitude. I've had a good life." She would've been 90 on December 22nd. I told her we would have a big birthday party for her. She said she couldn't leave her room. I told her not to worry, I would bring the party to her! On our last visit, she talked about how she loves music and how she wishes she had learned to play an instrument .. she loves the harp, classical/acoustic guitar and the violin. I was planning on bringing my ipod with me and playing music for her. On Monday when I told her Star and I would be coming back soon and that it's okay if she doesn't feel well and just wants to sleep ... that we would just hang out with her. She looked at me and said, "will you just come sit with me? You and Star can come as often as you want. In fact, you can stay here all the time ... Star is such a good girl. She's the best dog in the world. We need more big therapy dogs ..." My heart smiles every time I think of 'M.' I love how she would share stories of her family, of what makes her happy ... she was very proud of her nieces, nephews, grandkids. One of her grandaughters was a screen writer and actress and she was very proud of how she tackled a very difficult topic, domestic violence. "It's a sad ending," she tells me, "the woman doesn't leave and she dies in the end." She goes on, "But it's an important story and it will help other women." She tells me how much she loved to read and write. She tells me how much fun she had as a kid, and on our last visit shared many memories of early childhood. 

On Monday I never imagined I would have the gift of another visit with her where she seemed so full of life. After watching her steadily decline for the past couple of weeks I didn't think we would have the kind of conversations we had when we first started visit in July. Monday was truly a miracle. In some ways, my gut was saying ... is she giving us this precious gift before she leaves us? Ahnung always sleeps upstairs and never comes in my bedroom with me. Ahnung sleeps upstairs or wherever she chooses to sleep. Last night was different. She came into my bedroom and wanted to sleep with me. I think she knew 'M' was leaving ... and i'm not surprised my dear friend 'M' waited till 1:00 am so that the day she leaves this world is on a Blue Moon, a rare event when we have two full moons in a month. 

As my heart filled with pain and grief when I received the news of M's passing, I momentarily asked myself, "Why? Why do I do this? Why do I volunteer in hospice? Why do I set myself up to be hurt?" I've been crying this morning and my heart hurts. But I can hear M's voice telling me it's okay, she's had a good life. I can hear her asking me about the animals up at Leech Lake Reservation. I can hear her happy that Star is no longer having to fend for herself and that she's safe, and that we belong together. The pain in my heart is as great as the joy 'M' gave to both of us. This morning I knew what I needed to do was to honor 'M', to give myself time and space to grieve and feel the pain of her loss ... and yes, for me, I needed to write. I need for others to hear bits of her story. I need for the world to know that a beautiful, wise spirit has passed on. Thank you 'M' for all you have given to so many in this world. Thank you for the gift of allowing us to walk alongside of you in the final leg of your journey .. a journey you walked with such love, kindness, dignity and grace. And so the answer to why Ahnung and I volunteer in hospice returned after I allowed the tears to flow. Death is as much a part of the cycle of life ... it's not something to fear. It's as much a part of the cycle of life, and 'M' lived it all the way to the end. She also told me over and over again, what a gift it was for her to have Star come visit her. So I know in my heart that part of Ahnung's work is to give comfort and joy to those on their final stage of their journey.

Hold On

To what is good
even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to life
even when it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand
even when I have gone away from you.

~ Pueblo blessing

So tonight, on a Blue Moon, I will celebrate the life of an incredible woman ... a woman who touched my heart and a woman who called my Ahnung "Star Good Girl" ... because tonight, when I look up into the night skies, I will know the brightest star out there will be our friend. 

Rest well dear friend. You will forever be in our hearts.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Circle of Life

Ahnung visiting her friend 'M' in hospice
The past few days have been filled with ups and downs ... the rollercoaster of life came down with full force: new life, loss, uncertainty, fear, hope. This morning I decided I needed to make room in my heart, and to slow down and to honor all that has happened in 48 hours.

Ahnung at the vet (her BIG belly!)
Early Thursday morning I noticed Ahnung's belly was HUGE ... hard and distended. I lost my dog Shen to spleen cancer in September, 2006. By the time she showed any symptoms it was too late. I feared the worse with Ahnung with her history of two previous cancers in less than a year. Has the cancer spread to her spleen? I immediately took her to my vet (and that morning all my appointments for the day were cancelled including my own doctor's appointment). Fortunately she was acting her usual perky self. X-rays were done to check and see what was inside that huge distended belly. The doctor comes back to tell me it appears Ahnung found some food somewhere and ate LOTS of it!! I later discovered that she found the secret stash of food in a spare room. Yes, the nung-nung All You Can Eat Buffet! I sighed a huge sigh of relief. The vet went on to tell me they were sending the x-rays off for a radiologist to review and to ensure that they weren't missing anything. We had just been at the vet on Wednesday for them to draw blood from Ahnung. We are on our 3 month cancer check up. Two hours after I return home I get a call from the vet. The radiologist has reviewed her x-rays and concurs that there is massive amounts of food and gas, but also indicates Ahnung's spleen is enlarged and prominent. My heart sinks. We discuss options and I tell the vet I'm not willing to take any chances with my girl. "The only way we will know for sure what is going on and if there are any tumors or masses or abnormalities is with an abdominal ultrasound." Ahnung is scheduled for an ultrasound Friday morning. For the rest of the day I am worried ... she had a lumpectomy in July, 2011 after being diagnosed with mammary cancer; in April, 2012 she had major surgery on her neck/back to remove a tumor and was diagnosed with invasive adenosquamous carcinoma. Both cancers were removed with good margins but both were determined to be aggressive cancers. Ahnung has blessed me with the gift of allowing me to catch the cancer early. I've caught the tumors. I pray daily for Ahnung. I ask her to guide me and to help me stay ahead of the cancer. I pray for the cancer to leave her body. I ask her to give me signs ... but deep down I worry that if the cancer is in her spleen or liver how will I ever know. Did she eat a massive amount of food to guide me to her spleen? Is she trying to tell me something. I look into her eyes and I tell her, "I am listening sweet girl .. I am listening with every fiber of my being."

On Friday morning I take Ahnung in for her ultrasound. She's busy winning the hearts of the staff at Blue Pearle Veterinary and others in the waiting area. As soon as anyone comes over to her she rolls over to let them know, "belly rubs please!" They take her back and i'm waiting outside for an hour and a half. I flash back to September 14, 2006 when I'm sitting in the waiting area of the University of Minneosta with my dog Shen having an ultrasound done. The doctor comes to get me and has a very somber look on her face. I know it's not good. "I'm sorry, it's not good. It appears the cancer has spread." I'm not ready to let Shen go and even though the doctor tells me anything we do now is palliative. I opt for surgery and the very next day Shen goes through surgery. The cancer has spread everywhere and after two blood transfusions I make the decision to let her go. And I rush back to the U to be with her and hold her as she crosses over the bridge (to read Shen's story:

As I'm waiting for Ahnung in the waiting room I am filled with the anguish of previous losses and the potential of losing Ahnung. No matter how hard I try to stay in the moment I can't. The thought of not having Ahnung by my side is a pain I simply cannot fathom.
Ahnung napping under 'M's bed after eating her 2 burgers!

90 minutes later the doctor comes out. She has a relaxed look on her face. She smiles and tells me everything looks good. I can feel tears welling up in my eyes ... yes, tears of joy. The doctor goes on, "Ahnung has an enlarged spleen (and apparently some dogs just do) but she does not see any masses or tumors or abnormalities and the blood flow is good." She said she also checked out all her other organs in the area and they also all look good. She is aware of Ahnung's cancer history and I share with her my concern of cancer spreading to her spleen and not being able to catch it early enough. She tells me that adding ultrasounds to her cancer screening is an option. She would recommend having it done every 6 months. So Ahnung's cancer screening plan has been adjusted: every 3 months we go in for blood work and check ups with her vet; every 6 months she will have a chest x-ray and ultrasound done; and she will continue on her Chinese herbs, fish oil capsules, wild mushroom supplements and anti-cancer diet. So for this 3 month cancer check up, Ahnung got a clean bill of health. Her blood work came back normal, her lymph nodes all feel normal, the small lump near her incision is scar tissue.

Ahnung snarfs down her burgers
We normally visit our friend 'M' in hospice on Thursdays but we had to postpone our visit. I call 'M' on Thursday to let her know that Ahnung and I will be coming by to visit her on Friday and will be bringing White Castle burgers and a Coke for her as we promised. 'M' sounds weak on the phone but says she is looking forward to seeing us, and yes, especially Star Good Girl :)

On Friday lunch time I swing by White Castle's drive through to pick up 6 burgers and a Coke. I never would've imagined myself going through a White Castle drive through. I know 'M's roommate also loves White Castle burgers (she tells me she started eating them when she was 12 years old!). On the drive to see 'M' my car smells like burgers and onions. I had also promised Ahnung she would get to enjoy one or two after her ultrasound :) We walk into 'M's room and she is sound asleep. She looks tired and weak. She hears us come in, opens her eyes, smiles and softly says, 'Star Good Girl.' Ahnung goes to the side of 'M's bed as she always does and waits to get pets and strokes on her head. 'M' is noticeably weaker and tired. She can barely keep her eyes open. I tell her I have White Castle burgers and a coke for her, and ask her if she's hungry. She responds, 'Even if i'm not hungry i'm eating my burger!' I give her roommate a couple burgers and then help 'M' with her burger. It takes her a long time to eat her burger, and she periodically drifts off and closes her eyes. Ahnung is staring at me saying 'Don't forget about me and the burgers you promised me!!' So of course, I give Ahnung her burgers and she snarfs 2 of them .. no chewing just 2 big swallows for each burger!!
'M' finishes her burger!

For most of our visit we sit quietly next to M's bed. She opens her eyes at one point and says "I'm sorry i'm not very sociable today." I tell her, "It's okay. Just close your eyes and rest. Your body needs rest. Star and I are happy to just be here with you. In fact, Star likes to sleep a lot too and right now she's sleeping with half her body under your bed. I also get tired easily and need to sleep a lot ... we'll just come and hang out with you and take naps!" 'M' smiles and says, "You don't know how much that means to me .... maybe you and Star should just come for a sleepover." I smile and I let her know that we are happy to just be there with her. We stay by her side for a while and 'M' continues to drift off to sleep for most of our visit. She opens her eyes periodically and looks for Ahnung ... when Ahnung stands up to get her pats and strokes on her head, 'M' says, "Star, Good Girl ... the best dog in the world," and she drifts back off to sleep.

'M' has wiggled her way into my heart in the two months we have been visiting her. She has given us a priceless and precious gift of allowing us to walk by her side as she enters the final stage of her journey. I would be lying if I said my heart doesn't hurt to think of the day when Ahnung and I will no longer be able to visit her ... our visits have gone from ones of lots of conversation to visits of simply being there, and being present for her so when she opens her eyes she sees us there by her side. The grace, dignity, gratitude and love that fills her heart is a gift I will always hold in my heart.
Two of the pups from Red Lake Rez

And during this period, animal rescue work continues. On Friday, 1 mama dog and her six 1 week old pups and 3 other 8 week puppies make their way from Leech Lake Reservation up to Animal Allies in Duluth. They will be cared for and vetted and when they are ready, will be placed up for adoption. On Saturday, a huge transport makes it way to the cities from northern Minnesota (Red Lake Reservation and Leech Lake Reservation) -- in total 29 dogs make their way to rescues and shelters in the cities ... 22 puppies and 7 dogs. And on Saturday we also experience loss as we welcome two bright new stars into the night skies. In the palm of our hands, how is it possible that we can experience so many emotions at the same instance: love, grief/loss and ending of life, celebration of new life, uncertainty, hope, fear, anger? How can our hearts hold all the emotions that sometimes feel like they are ripping our hearts to shreds while at the same time filling our hearts with so much hope and love?
Petula's 3 day old pups ... Petula had her pups in the Leech Lake impound on Thursday (1 was still born and 5 survived)

So this morning as my heart is filled with so many emotions from the past 48 hours, I realize I must pause. I must honor all that I feel in my heart .. the joy, the pain, the fear and the hope.

"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

Friday, August 17, 2012

Hospice volunteering: "Star .. Good Girl"

Ahnung holding vigil next to M's bed
For seven weeks we have been visiting our friend 'M' in hospice every Thursday. Ahnung and I volunteer with Allina hospice as a pet therapy team. In the beginning of July we got a request to visit a patient in hospice who was diagnosed with heart failure. Ahnung and I made our first visit to see 'M' on Thursday, 7/5. When we walked into the facility we were greeted by Jimmy, the resident black lab mix rescued dog. Ahnung and Jimmy greeted each other and Ahnung, of course, had to check out Jimmy's empty food bowl to make sure he didn't leave any crumbs for her. We waited to hop on the elevator to head to the 3rd floor. There's a sign on the elevator to not let Jimmy hitch a ride on the elevator so when the elevator door opened and Ahnung walked on in I unfortunately had to tell Jimmy we'd be back down to see him on our way out.

We read this every time we ride the elevator
When we walked into M's room we were greeted by a big smile. It's amazing the joy the presence of an animal can bring. I had the chance to also meet the patient's son and daughter-in-law and the four of us shared stories ... yes, mainly dog stories. 'M' wanted to know more about Ahnung, her story, and what her name means. In the 7 weeks we have visited 'M' we have had wonderful conversations. She loves Ahnung. She calls her 'Star' (Ahnung means 'star' in ojibway) ... actually, she calls her Star, Good Girl! She tells me over and over again, how happy Star is to come visit her. I smile and I nod. She's right. She tells me how happy she is Star is no longer suffering, how we belong together. Again, I nod and I agree. On our second visit I shared with her the 2012 Rescued Dog to Therapy Dog calendar where Ahnung is the August model. The following week she asked if she could have a calendar of Ahnung so she could put it up in her room. When I brought the calendar she asked me to move everything on her board to the side .. she wanted to make sure Ahnung's calendar was displayed prominently so everyone could see it. She tells me over and over just how beautiful her eyes are, and yes, what a good girl she is. She tells me how Star is her favorite.

Every week Ahnung and I look forward to visiting 'M'. We've shared stories and experiences while Ahnung lays quietly by her bedside. Throughout our visit Ahnung stands up to get pets and strokes on her head. A couple weeks ago, 'M' had an infection. She told me the room was spinning. But no matter what she always sees the positive and is grateful and appreciative. I tell her I want to be like her when I get older. She tells me, "it's all about attitude," she smiles. "I've had a good life and I have a lot of people who love me."

This past Thursday I walked into her room. She was noticeably weaker. 'M' was now attached to an oxygen machine. We walk in and an Allina staff is by her bedside. The staff member looks up and sees us walk in, "She's been waiting for you." Our friend 'M' smiles, 'There's my Star ... my Star Good Girl." The Allina staff member leaves so we can visit and spend time together. She asks me if I've rescued any more dogs so I tell her all about our recent spay/neuter clinic up at Leech Lake Reservation and how we brought down 42 animals who were surrendered. She tells me about how she used to love playing basketball and especially hockey; we talk about her love of reading and writing. She then shares how she's been feeling weaker, more tired and how the oxygen helps her sleep at night. She tells me how she hasn't been hungry but the staff wants her to eat. I ask her if there's anything she loves to eat. She mentions blueberry yogurt, but then we soon get to her real love .. White Castle hamburgers!!! There's a big smile on her face when she talks about White Castle hamburgers. I tell her the next time Star and I come and visit we are coming with White Castle hamburgers ... "Just one", she tells me, "I can't eat more than one." I tell her okay. I will bring her one, a few for her roommate and a a couple for Ahnung. I tell her we'll have a burger party! I ask her if she wants fries with her White Castle burger -- she says 'No, but i'd like a Coke!"

As we end our visit Ahnung walks up to the side of her bed to get pets and strokes on her head. M is tired and needs to rest. She tells me how she never wants to miss our visits. I assure her she won't and if she does, we will come back. There's a heaviness in my heart when I leave M's room. I know the time is approaching when we will have to say our goodbyes .... over and over I hear her say to me, "I've had a good life. It's all about attitude." M lives in the moment. She appreciates those around her and all she has today. Ahnung and I are supposed to be giving our hospice friends a gift ... instead what has happened is that we have been given an even greater gift in return. I look forward to our visits, to our conversations, to hearing her stories, to sharing my stories and to watching her light up by simply having Ahnung in her room.

As I have had to deal with my own health issues and Ahnung's cancer, and so much uncertainty in our own lives, I have been blessed with the gift of walking with a beautiful, wise spirit who approaches the end with so much dignity and grace. Death isn't something to fear. It will hurt and there will be a huge void in my heart when 'M' leaves but she is forever etched in my heart, and I have assured her that Star and I will be with her every step of the way. For now, we will continue to enjoy and cherish every moment we have and I look forward to our next visit with White Castle burgers and Coke in hand! :)

"Every blade in the field,
Every leaf in the forest,
Lays down its life in its season,
As beautifully as it was taken up."

~ Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Celebrating Life

Today I am celebrating my 48th birthday! Today I decided to take the day off from work and to celebrate life! My own health issues in the past couple years have taught me to be grateful for every day I have in this magnificent world ... and Ahnung's most recent bout with cancer in April has taught me to cherish every day and every moment I have with her. I have received the greatest gift I could ever ask for ... the chance to spend my birthday with my precious girl Ahnung. I'll be honest ... after Ahnung's major surgery on April 13th and after the doctors told me she had a rare invasive aggressive cancer and there wasn't anything we could do beyond the surgery, I braced myself for the worse ... the strong possibility that I would only have weeks, maybe months with her. We had the most incredible Celebration of Life party for her on April 22nd. I am so grateful for all the support, for the healing prayer circle led by my friend Merry Sawdey and the incredible photos taken by {lmj} Originals. We have now passed 4 months since her surgery and her second cancer diagnosis. We go back in at the end of the month for her 3 month check up with her vet. She's on chinese herbs and mushroom supplements and an anti-cancer diet. She is full of life and spunk, and breaks into puppy play with Legacy on a daily basis. And then she has quiet, wise, soulful moments. We have been visiting her friend 'M' in hospice every week.

If there's one thing I have learned over the years, it's that life will throw twists and turns. I love how author Jeff Goin eloquently states in the title of his new book: Wrecked: when a broken world slams into your comfortable life. As I reflect back over the past years I never would imagine I would be where I am today in my life. I am grateful for my life today. I am beyond grateful for the gift of Ahnung. I would be lying if I said I didn't worry about her. She has touched the lives and hearts of so many ... and my heart and her heart are forever bonded.

I love you Ahnung .... having you here by my side on my birthday is the best gift I could have ever asked for!!