Friday, April 19, 2013

Please stop sweet girl ...

Last night my sweet Ahnung woke me up at 3 am. Unlike her siblings she likes to sleep in the hallway downstairs. I close my bedroom door to keep Mister from wandering around. At 3 am I hear a purposeful scratch on my door. I get out of bed thinking Ahnung needs to go potty. I open the door and she is intently looking at me. She lays down. "You need to go potty sweet girl?" She continues to look at me without moving. "What is it?" I get down on my knees and hold her. Her tail is slowly wagging and her eyes are locked on me. I ask her if she wants to come in the bedroom. She continues to gaze intently at me. I can feel her trying to tell me something. After a few minutes I decide to return to bed and leave the bedroom door open so she can come and go as she pleases. She continues to lay at the doorway.

And this morning she has been following me around the house and spending more time by the healing river rocks in the living room.

About a month ago I discovered a new lump in my breast. It was days before Ahnung ended up at the emergency vet and what prompted me to see my surgeon. I've been hovering on this line of cancer/pre-cancer since the end of 2009 and have gone through 5 surgeries. Pathologists can't come to agreement on what is going on with the cells in my body. I've even been down to Mayo. The changes in my body can't be detected with standard diagnostic tests, ... nothing ever shows up on mammograms or ultrasounds; and MRIs are the only test that show anything. Crazy as it sounds, it's from dreams i've had, listening to Ahnung, and noticing and sensing subtle changes in my body. I've had this sense for some time that Ahnung has been taking the illness in my body. In July, 2010 she was diagnosed with mammary cancer and had a lumpectomy. Earlier in 2009 I had pancreas issues. In 2009, Ahnung developed these growths on her ear which looked like cauliflowers. She had a biopsy to remove it and when the pathology report came back it was a mystery as to what it was ... the only thing the doctor could say was, "I've never seen anything like this. I can't tell you what it is. What I can tell you is that cells in her body are just dying." And just days prior I had shared with a holistic health practitioner I was seeing when asked how I would describe what was going on in my body, "I can't explain it, but I just feel like cells in my body are dying." In early 2010, the issues of my pancreas began to resolve itself to the point where I was able to stop taking digestive enzymes.

I know in my gut that Ahnung has been absorbing the illness and disease in my body. Maybe that's her purpose and why she came into my life, but I have been holding her tightly every night and asking her to please, please stop taking the illness in my body. Last Friday I had my breast MRI and later this afternoon I meet with my surgeon to go over the results of the MRI. I don't know even what I want anymore ... my heart hurts to think that my health comes at a very high cost; it comes at the cost of my most precious Ahnung carrying and absorbing what I feel is mine.

Last Friday I met an amazing native American elder from Leech Lake Reservation. He shared a powerful story of a man who had cancer who doctors said there was nothing more they could do. He went into the woods with his dog and he prayed. He remained in the woods in silent prayer and meditation with his dog. When he came back his cancer was gone. His dog however passed on. The man believes his dog took his cancer. The elder went on to share that when we pass on to spirit world, the first animal we see is a dog. And he went to share that the stories of the healing power of the dog must be told. Ahnung was with me when I met this wise elder .. I shared with him our story, our bond, and how I believe Ahnung is taking my illness and carrying it in her body. He nodded quietly. 'Yes she is."

I don't want Ahnung to carry my illness. But I don't know how to stop her. I don't know how to get her to listen to me that her body cannot take anymore illness; or maybe she knows more than I know. I know Ahnung will do what Ahnung feels she must do. But my heart aches knowing she is absorbing illness from my body. I want her to let me take her cancer; I want her to let me absorb all that is going on in her body.

In the end, I know there is no separation between the two of us .... where I end, she begins; where she ends, I begin; and our story, our shared story is yet to unfold.

So today, on a snowy, wintery spring day here in Minnesota, I continue to pray for my sweet girl, my  north star. I know she is doing the same for me. And later today, I'll learn more about the results of my MRI. As much as I want good news, my heart will ache because good news probably means my precious girl is continuing to wrap me in her healing blanket of love. And my heart will ache because I don't know how much more my precious girl can take ... I ask her to stop. Yet I know Ahnung will do what Ahnung will do. So all I can do is pray, and hold her tightly.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ahnung's 2nd Celebration of Life Party!

On Sunday, April 7th, 2013 I was blessed to once again be celebrating Ahnung, in community with so many friends. This amazing spirit had her first Celebration of Life party a year ago on April 22, 2012 after she underwent radical surgery to remove a large tumor on her neck/back which confirmed a diagnosis of a second cancer. We were told she had a rare and very aggressive cancer, invasive adenosquamous carcinoma. Not knowing how much time we had left we decided to have a Celebration of Life party for her! At the end of November (2012) we learned her cancer had metastasized to her lungs and we started low dose chemo. At the end of December we learned the largest tumor in her lungs had grown 30% despite the chemo and after some deep reflection, we opted to stop chemo and simply enjoy our final walk and whatever remaining time we have left. The largest tumor in her lungs continues to grow and as of March it is now 4 cm. Yet despite the numerous tumors in her lungs she continues to be filled with life, spunk and spirit and is displaying no symptoms. On occasion she will get a little short of breath but 95% of the time is wanting to tear around the house and the back yard with her younger brother Legacy. With two luxating patellas and arthritis in her back my sweet girl is often dismayed when I put a stop to her rowdy play with her little brother.

So on Sunday, we returned to the exact same place where we held her first Celebration of Life party. Since her first celebration, Ahnung has  continued to return and rest by the healing river rocks that we took home from party last year. The healing prayer circle and the blessings of the river rocks filled the room with incredible love and healing. We brought the basket of river rocks back this year and Merry Sawdey, our dear friend who led the healing prayer circle last year (and again this year), added more rocks to the basket. This year we also received an incredible gift from Karen Good from Red Lake Reservation, Ahnung's rescuer. Karen sent us the four sacred plants ... gift of the Four Manido (Spirits of the Four Directions) to be used in our Celebration of Life party. When we are born, life begins in the east. The teenage years are in the south. The mid-life is in the West. When we reach the north we are ready to go into the spirit world .. the journey does not end as we go into the Spirit World and the cycle continues. "Ceremony is an essential part of traditional Native healing. Because physical and spiritual health are intimately connected, body and spirit must heal together" (from Native Voices). 

Merry led us through an incredibly beautiful and moving healing prayer circle:

East: tobacco
From the east, we invite the creator to be with us, to bring the light of dawn, to illuminate the places in us that need freshening and new birth. May our hearts and minds be clear and loving. 

South: Cedar
From the south, may this time and place be blessed. May we have courage and stamina. May we be renewed. May we feel gratitude and joy as we go about our ordinary lives. May we offer our gifts wholeheartedly. 

West: Sage
From the west, may we find the help, resources, creativity, and energy we need. May we accept what needs to be accepted and let go of what needs to be let go. May we be in community, aware of our love for others and for their love for us.

North: Sweet grass
From the north, may our mind, body, and spirit find strength, love, and joy. May we see light in the darkness, joy in the sadness. May we be and may we find love, companionship, and light. May we be and may we find companions and helpers on the way. May we find rest and may we give rest. May we listen. May we listen. May we listen.

We were blessed to have a beautiful Sunday afternoon for Ahnung's 2nd Celebration of Life party. Around 50 people came to honor and celebrate Ahnung, including a couple of Ahnung's friends from facebook whom neither of us had ever met in person. One new friend drove 2 hours to meet us and he shared with us how much we had made a difference in his life from our writing and our sharing. And He also gave us a card and a letter. What a gift and what courage for our new friend to open up his heart and to share tears ... as we met for the first time, face-to-face, I realized at that moment how truly, truly powerful community is; I realized at that moment that why I wanted to have another Celebration party was because I believe with all my heart that what is keeping Ahnung going, and what is keeping me going, with our shared health issues, is the love we have from such an incredibly, loving and supportive community; I also realized that each and every one of us is connected, and we can touch each other in deep and meaningful ways through our words, our actions, our intentions ... and often we have no idea ...

I have to share with you the most beautiful paragraph from our friend's letter: "Each of you is a gift individually and together you are even more. Both of you, on so many times, have broken my heart open and always in the most holy way. You have given me the gift of your stories. You have given me the gift of grace. You have helped me to listen to my life. You have given me courage. You have helped me heal. Your words have made my heart sing. You have filled me with love. You have walked with me. You too are sputniks, fellow travelers, companions along life's journey. And it is all the more sweet for being so for so long without knowing, I think ...."

Thank you "C" for your honesty, your strength, your courage and your presence in our lives.

I have been asked many times what made me start my blog. I started my blog for myself ... to write and to help myself heal. In writing I find myself returning to center; i find myself being grounded and rooted; and often through writing I am able to touch the deepest parts of myself. As I walk this Final Walk with Ahnung I have been challenged on so many levels to find peace and acceptance in a diagnosis that has ripped my hearts to shred. It is also two years ago this month when I learned of my rare heart condition ... one that comes with so many unknowns, a lot of uncertainty and eventual heart failure ... how much time I have left, is unknown. The reality though, is we all don't know how much time we have left. What I do know is that I cherish every morning I wake up .. it is a gift to be alive and it is a gift to fall asleep to the snoring and rhythmic deep breathing of Ahnung. On Friday I go in for another MRI .. a new lump and more uncertainty. As I write this blog I hear my sweet Ahnung breathing deeply. Her breath, her presence, her being touches my soul and gives me comfort. We are okay. We are both okay.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring, but what I do know is that the life I live right now, in this moment, is the most blessed life .... and I will continue to hold on tightly to Ahnung, my north star, and we will walk this Final Walk, with a huge community around us ... and we will walk with grace, dignity and joy. As Merry shared at Sunday's Celebration ... we don't know how this story will end. And until it's time for our story to close and transition, we will live life as fully as we can.

I am so grateful for everyone who came to Ahnung's Celebration of Life party. And a huge thanks to my friend Dorothy of Three Dog Photography for taking photos at the celebration and to my dear friend Terri for planning the party and ordering the most amazing cake!!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reflecting back as we prepare for Ahnung's Celebration of Life party

As we prepare for Ahnung's Celebration of Life party today I find myself reflecting back on when she first arrived .... I reflect back on how she has touched the hearts of so many and how she had led me through some of the darkest moments in my life.

I was going through some of my old writing and I found a piece I wrote in 2009 shortly after I realized this amazing spirit was leading me down a path I had no idea was even there ....

I haven't been able to write much lately. I think there's a part of me that's afraid to be with the grief, the pain and the thought of some day waking up and not having Ahnung with me; of laying on the couch and wanting to fall asleep to the rhythmic and soothing snores of Ahnung ... to look for the tail wag, that constant tail wag that lifts my spirit in an instant. I have been focused on enjoying every day, every moment ... yet I know that writing for me will allow me to honor that part of me that hurts. I know I must celebrate both ... her amazing life and also the fear and pain that can sometimes immobilize me ... when I am ready, I will write again.

This morning I share with you a piece I wrote in 2009, "Healing Wounded Spirits"

Healing Wounded Spirits

I am standing in front of a classroom of 9th graders, comprised of at-risk youth of  a school in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Next to me is my dog Ahnung, a 3 year old, mixed breed rescue dog. 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 I lost my 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. 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 later I begin 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. And two and a half years later I have immersed myself in animal welfare volunteer work. 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. 

            “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. 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 3 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 .. wise old spirit in a 7 year old body :)
            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. 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”. 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.”