If grief were a color, it would be slate. Not an angry obsidian black, or a peaceful dove grey, but that shapeshifting silver somewhere between black and white, a stormy sea that some days seems blue, others almost brackish, depthless and impossible to truly describe.
If it were a shape, it would be a spiral, a shape you ride on in a neverending loop of centrifugal force splattering you against the wall whether you will it or not, bringing you back again and again to the same spot, from a slightly different vantage point.
I imagine that grief counselors are well versed in this, which is why every bad day seems to be preceded by a call from the chaplain, who senses it like a dog knows an earthquake is coming. The last one had come just before Christmas.
“It’s Chaplain Gary. How are you?”
“Fine.” And I am fine, until I remember that I’m supposed to be upset, and then I am.
The most recent call came on the one year anniversary, if you can call it that, of the date my mother became ill. The season has returned to set the backdrop for the nightmare month of May: lengthening days, long afternoons, and the scent of blooming jasmine wafting over the chairs in the backyard that I’ve rarely gone to sit in since the night my mother died. When I sat blankly until 2 am, staring at a candle and wishing for her parents to come and spirit her away from this earth as her breath rattled slowly away.
We went to the beach for Mother’s Day last year, spending a night in an oceanfront bungalow that would normally be way too indulgent for an innocuous holiday, but I had a rare and terrible gift: knowing that this was my last one.
I had only this one day into which I must pour every future Mother’s Day of which we were being robbed. And because I had to continually remind myself to be there in that moment, instead of thinking ahead to the years her chair would be empty, I could notice things I would probably not normally observe in my hypervigilant state: my mother’s hair, so different from mine, her dainty nose which I did not inherit, the way her hands would gently enfold the kids whenever they came into her line of vision. She was beautiful inside and out.
And Here We Are
One year later, I’ve come full circle to that spot I knew I must return to, and dread. It’s been there all along, these memories, receding into the shadows of the changing season and coming out again this spring to say hello. I see my friends post stories and pictures with their mothers, having recently entered into that comfortable spot in life where they can be totally honest and laugh about anything, and I feel an almost painful sense of longing remembering the small moments with my own mother I had come to treasure.
We met for lunch often, once the kids were older and in school. Our lunches were something my husband would always dread, because they were always followed by wandering into a store where she never, ever, ever talked me out of impractical things. Because of her, I own a snazzy chain link belt and a pair of Frye boots that I would never have bought on my own. It’s a silly thing, boots, but I love them. They suit me, as she said they would. They are happy boots. They are sad boots.
I know, because people have been tremendously generous with sharing their own stories, that this longing for more time will never go away. You never entirely forgive the universe for taking a treasure from you, even when you know anger is useless. It sucks and it will always suck, even when I’m an ancient crone cruising around on a walker.
But I cannot be anything but grateful that I had a mother whose love was so encompassing that to lose her has left me devastated. How many of us worry that if we were gone, no one would care? She never did.
Every year was a gift and a marvel. While her physical form is gone, Mom surrounds me in a thousand little ways, from the whistle of a teakettle to the smell of a cookie, the joy in a beautiful sunset, the strength to do what needs to be done. She’s here. In some form or another, love remains.
To those celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend, my love goes to you. Take a deep breath and really experience it, be you the recipient or the giver. And if you are hurting and dreading the day, don’t be afraid to run away from the brunches and the flower shops, the rituals and the intact families, the resentment and the sorrow. Find a place that brings you peace. Buy some sad boots. Go to the beach. Sit in a forest. Sadness means you loved deeply, and that has its own kind of beauty.
And wherever you go, don’t forget to take your dog. 🙂
Yay, big news I finally get to announce-
I’m a Season 3 Expert on Nat Geo’s Animals Gone Wild!
I shot the episodes over several days at the end of last year, giving commentary on a bunch of wild animal videos. (None, by the way, showing people harming or doing irresponsible things, which was a condition of accepting the gig.)
It airs Fridays at 9/8 C on NatGeo Wild starting this week- please tune in!! I hope you enjoy it! And for those of you who are in on the bandwagon of the Instagram celeb vet who used to be a model, he’s one of the other experts too, so there’s something for everyone.
But if you tell the channel how much you love the experts, do me a solid and add in “especially the lady vet.” 😀
In April 2015, Kristen Lindsey, DVM, shot a cat through the head with an arrow and then posted a picture on Facebook with the following caption:
“My first bow kill … lol. The only good feral tomcat is one with an arrow through it’s [sic] head! Vet of the year award … gladly accepted.”
These facts are not in dispute. Why she did it, however, is. This is why she is currently testifying in an administrative hearing in order to try and keep her veterinary license. At its heart is the question, “Is there any justifiable reason for her to have done that?”
The answer is no. It is an unequivocal no.
I have avoided commenting on the topic because once the image went viral, the reaction was swift and potent. She has received death threats and her family has been harassed. What she did was horrific and wrong, and sending death threats is also horrific and wrong, and I didn’t want to embolden the sentiment that might encourage one more person to do so.
I have yet to read a single sentiment from the veterinary community that attempts to defend Lindsey. What I have read, and it reflects my own views, is that her actions are utterly condemnable and she needs to be removed from the profession. Physically attacked or threatened? No.
But Please, Please Go Away
The reason I am speaking on this now is to clarify the position that just because many of us have not clamored to do the same to Lindsey as she did to (what most presume to be) Tiger, this does not mean we want anything to do with her in the profession.
This was a career-ending action. There is no place in this field for a colleague who thinks it is 1. appropriate to do this in the first place and 2. post it on social media. There just isn’t.
Had she simply disappeared under the radar and gone on to find a job in a non animal-related field, I would never have even written about the case. But she didn’t. She is fighting to keep her license. The VIN News Service is sharing the testimony on Facebook and it is alternatively sad and horrible and infuriating.
She is continuing to try and justify her actions based on what she thought the cat was (feral, intact, rabid, it keeps morphing.) There are no justifying conditions.
She is arguing that if she loses her Texas license, she will not be able to get licensed anywhere else, that she is unemployable. That is a consequence she brought upon herself. The only remorse she has expressed is for herself.
She has forced a hearing at which the presumptive owners of Tiger have to come in with lawyers, be cross-examined, and again view what happened to the cat. She is continuing to cause distress to these people by forcing them to participate in this hearing.
I will continue to state forcefully and with great passion that I do not think violence, or even threats of violence, are an appropriate response to a violent act. But I will also state forcefully and with great passion that Dr. Lindsey, we do not want you in our profession representing what we work so hard to do every day to better the lives of people and animals.
It doesn’t really matter what the board decides in terms of your license, I highly doubt you will ever practice again. So please, for the sake of everyone involved, please- stop this fight to stay within the field. You’ve already shown yourself out.
What do you get when you cross a Dr V with an Apple pencil? (Aside from bad art, but that goes without saying.) A new set of cartoons, that’s what!
When I was in vet school, I was (rightfully) proud of my fledgling career choice. I shouted it from the rooftops: I’m about to be a vet! It’s so cool! Check it out! Tell me everything about your guinea pig!
But of course, with age comes both wisdom and boundaries, as well as an understanding that many people lack both. So without further ado, here are but three of the many reasons that I avoid telling people what I do unless absolutely necessary.
And before you ask, yes, all three have happened to me. 🙂
When I was in college, I decided to conquer my fear of drowning by getting certified in scuba diving. In retrospect, I really had no business being there, but I guess that’s what your twenties is for.
At one point during the training, you have to take your mask entirely off and then get it back on. No biggie, right? I was not a water person and had no idea what was going to happen. When I removed it from my face, my nose filled with water and I found I couldn’t inhale through my regulator. My throat was just closed up.
Of course, I panicked. My instinct was to leap up to the top of the pool as quickly as possible and grab a breath of air, but I forced myself to take a moment, realize the problem, and plug my nose so I could get the mask back on and pass the test. But I never forgot the sheer terror of that first moment when your body is screaming at you, “You’re DROWNING you fool! Fly!”
Lots of diving safety training is about how to get safely to the surface when the poop hits the fan, and one of the most important tenets is to work your way slowly and methodically through your problem so you can surface slowly. Running out of oxygen at depth is a big one. If you come up from the depths too quickly, you risk the bends- when dissolved gases turn into bubbles inside your body as the pressure changes. It’s Not A Good Thing. Remaining calm in a trying moment a good skill to have not just in diving, but in life.
Of all the scary things I have been through since then, the near-misses in the car or the dropped pedicles on a fat dog spay, none hit me with that same physical sense of drowning until one year ago, when I got the news out of the blue that my mother had a brain tumor. I was more than scared. I was terrified. I felt like someone had dropped a weight directly on my lap and plunged me down to the bottom of the ocean.
I get why people tend to freeze, or run in circles when things go haywire. The adrenaline does weird things to your body, and it takes real conscious effort to talk yourself off the ledge. I get now why people flip tables and throw things and run off to the Yukon when it gets to be too much, but of course all that happens when the dust settles is you’re left with a new mess to deal with.
When my mother got sick, that temptation to rush to the surface took the form of the blind panic we get when a loved one is facing death: DO EVERYTHING! Biopsy it now! Chemo! Nuke it! GOGOGOGOGOGOGO. It would have been a mistake.
When she died, I held my breath and prayed my father wouldn’t sell the house immediately and disappear to the woods of Maine (he didn’t.) It would have been a mistake.
It’s been a year of slow surfacing, realizing that like many toxic substances in your body, some types of grief simply need to leach out with time. You really can’t come up before you’re ready.
Last year I gave a talk on mourning customs around the world, and I was struck by the fact that so many belief systems have a structure and framework for mourning, but Christianity, the predominant belief system many of us are most familiar with, has none. In Judaism, the mourning period is divided into the first seven days, the first 30, and the first year. The rules about what you should and should not do during each period serves to protect the grieving heart and also give permission to re-enter the new normal of their life. It’s like a decompression chart for death. Unintentionally I’ve been bobbing along on the same timeframe, getting guidance where I can.
In January, my sister surprised us with the happy news that she decided to get married earlier that day to her long-time partner and soulmate. My mom loved this guy and I knew two things: 1. She would be thrilled; and 2. She would find a way to give them a cake, because that is what my mom did.
My aunt was planning her yearly trip to my sister’s hometown of Vegas right around Easter, and sensing the same need as I did for some sort of event, managed to arrange a surprise get-together of the family this last weekend, complete with- of course- a wedding cake. You surprise us with a marriage, we surprise you with a reception. It’s what Mom would have done.
As we sat together in my cousin’s living room, laughing and sniffling, I looked around and realized this was the first time we had all gathered since my mother’s memorial service. And right then, as if an invisible hand swept by and grabbed me by the shoulders, I realized I had just popped to the surface.
There’s such a sense of relief to that first intake of air, and in that moment, as the tension you forgot was there leaches out of your muscles, nothing else matters. The sky looks different, time has passed, but you’re here, you’re still here, and sometimes, that alone is enough.
The phone rings, and I answer it with an admittedly impatient voice since someone sold my phone number to a marketer and I’ve been getting deluged with spam calls all week. I have the phone in one hand and Brody’s tail in the other, as he chewed up his bandage when I wasn’t looking and now I have to re-wrap the whole thing.
It’s Chaplain Gary this time, calling as he does, every few months, to see how I am doing.
I met him once, when he came to the house to talk to the kids when my mom was sick and give them a book. They sat looking at their hands, not sure what they were supposed to say to the stranger who was trying to get them to open up about their fears.
“We’re fine,” they say, because that is what they see me say. It is what all New Englanders learn to do from a young age, saying they’re fine even when their house is on fire, their leg has fallen off and one eyeball is hanging by a stalk. “Fine fine, under control, it’s fine.”
“I just was wondering how you guys were doing with the anniversary coming up,” he says. Ah yes, Easter, the last holiday we shared together as a family, the week before my mom’s seizure changed everything and brought our charmed existence to a screeching halt.
“Fine,” I say, “We’re hanging in.” Brody forgets his distress over his tail and puts his head in my lap, sensing the tension in my voice.
The chaplain calls because it is his job, and I am grateful he is there, but he’s not the one I want to talk to. He cares, but he doesn’t know me. When I see a butterfly zip by out of the corner of my eye and I’m hit with a wave of sadness, I want to talk to my sister. When I wake up from a dream where I’ve been out with my mom doing the little mundane things we always used to do- grabbing a Starbucks, pawing through the racks at Marshalls for a deal, I want my husband to hold me when I explain why I woke up crying. When I greet my Dad on Sundays and we both look at each other a little lost, I want Brody to come up and bully him into giving him treats, because that’s one of the few consistent ways to get a smile.
Grief is a family affair, and we’ve completely forgotten how to do that as a society.
Loss: The elephant in the room
When I started with Paws into Grace, I thought it was such a great boon to offer people a comprehensive list of pet loss support groups, counselors, social workers, psychiatrists. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing, but I was naively surprised when people almost universally declined to use their services. They are there to fill the void of a support system we no longer have and to help those in crisis, but it doesn’t replace our innate desire to turn inward during these times, to those close to us.
I gave a talk last year at a hospice conference about grief around the world, and one universal commonality was the ritual of community, surrounding families like a cocoon as they healed, giving structure and a safe place surrounded by friends to fall apart and, slowly, rebuild. Most important of all, the cocoon, the safe space, comes to the family- not the other way around. It takes a lot of energy to be sad, and who wants to do that in a strange place like a church basement, surrounded by other strangers, when you could be at home in a Snuggie close to the coffee pot and your dog.
I was at Western Vet Conference this week, and I ran into my friend Bill, who even in a rush to get to his upcoming afternoon of talks took a moment to say, “I’ve been thinking of you.” That meant more to me than 50 calls from the stranger chaplain. This is how it’s supposed to work, right?
When someone near to us loses a loved one, it seems these days that our instinct is to run away instead of to them. It is, I think, because we’re scared, we don’t know what to do, and no one has taught us how to scrape someone off the pavement. We don’t want them to know we’ve seen them upset.
We’ve made grief pathological, something ‘wrong’ that needs to be fixed by a professional, implying that we are somehow broken for having felt it. We’re so removed from this part of living that we can’t even manage the basics of grieving, needing booklets and chaplains and groups to manage even the simple things like, “am I normal to feel sad.”
As always, I keep trying to file these tidbits away into something useful for my own work, and in this case it’s dawned on me that it’s not the person who lost a pet who needs the guidance, but their family and friends. It’s a work in progress but it feels right, just as it’s a reminder to me how to be a better friend. I know 3 friends who lost a parent this year, and countless more who lost other beloved pets and family members. One little note from a friend, a Facebook message or a mailed card, means more than 50 calls from a stranger.
This is something we can all do well to remember.
That’s sarcasm, by the way. Cancer sucks, I hate cancer, cancer can go suck it.
When you have a dog, but especially when you have a dog who is a breed with a 50% occurrence of cancer in their lifetime, you learn to be vigilant. And by vigilant I mean you pick over your dog like a chimpanzee searching out ticks, and with good reason. So far, as you know, I’ve lost one dog to lymphoma, one to probable melanoma, and Brody’s had the following removed:
- low grade melanoma on his lip (so far, so good)
- medium grade mast cell tumor resulting in loss of ear
I’m a big fan of Sue Ettinger’s See Something Do Something initiative, and with good reason. Small masses are exponentially easier to deal with than large ones, for many reasons. It’s a gift to be able to catch things early.
So it was with a resigned trepidation that I noticed, buried in the vast recesses of Brody’s voluminous tail, yet another weird looking mass:
I don’t like masses. They make me scream like I’ve seen a spider over the bed.
We went and visited Highlands Ranch Animal Hospital to get it checked out yesterday, where Brody was his usual charming self. By the time we left he had the entire waiting area sitting on the floor petting him. Such a ham.
The great thing about aspirating little masses is that, while not totally diagnostic, can often give you a good feel for what you’re dealing with. In this case, no mast cells were noted. Why does this make me happy? Because he would probably have had to lose his tail and that would really really stink. The dog’s got to keep some of his parts, right?
The mass is coming off while it’s small enough to fully remove and still be able to close the skin over his tail. We are also going to send it in for pathology, which is essential for determining whether it’s something you need to follow up on. I’ll keep you posted.
I share all this in the hopes you too take a moment to go over your pet and check out the lumps and bumps while they’re teeny. It’s worth it! This is how we keep our pets around till they’re old and grey.
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