Mother of the Year
It took me a good decade, but I can finally say I think I’m getting this motherhood thing figured out. It was not intuitive for me, not easy or instantly amazing the way it was when I brought home my first pet. With my animals, I knew no matter how challenging things were, we would figure it out and it would be ok. I don’t know why I lacked that confidence with the kiddos. Maybe I’m just part dog.
But no matter! We all have our strengths in life, but the one thing I wish I knew a lot earlier was the idea of resilience, that just because one thing comes naturally to us, it doesn’t mean we can’t take on other things and work our way up to competence. It’s too late for me now: I will never know if I could have been a decent volleyball player. All I know is I was horrrrrrrible at it in school, I dreaded volleyball days in PE, and as soon as I could give it up I did.
But parenthood isn’t like volleyball, a hobby you can dabble in and put away when your back hurts. It’s there, sink or swim, and even if all you do is hobble along, well, that’s all you need to do.
I found myself leaning on my veterinary experience quite a bit those first few years, actually. You draw on your own experiences, so it makes sense. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how many things I learned from the clinic that I could apply to parenthood:
1. Your brain can adapt to an obscene level of noise.
Barking dogs, screaming babies, howling cats, ringing phones, all can be intercepted before they hit your cerebrum by some amazing subconscious mom-filter that allows you to get your records completed or bills done. While others may think you oblivious, the truth is you are an amazing compartmentalizer.
2. Multitasking is an art.
Mrs. Jones is on line 3 and will only speak to you, and she insists she will hold. The cat in room 4 is having a seizure. The man in the lobby is yelling at the receptionist about his dog’s worms, something is bleeding in the treatment area but we don’t know who, and you’re still scrubbed into surgery. Getting used to this level of chaos is the only reason I was able to survive the first years of classroom volunteering, PTA politics, work, groceries, and remembering my husband’s name.
3. Blood and poop are things you can get used to.
I don’t think I even need to elaborate on this, do I?
4. The ones who scream the loudest are not the ones you worry about.
If you’re screaming, you’re breathing. It’s the quiet ones you need to check in on, because it usually means one of three things: they stopped breathing, they are getting in a large amount of trouble, or they are about to have a nuclear meltdown. This rule applies to both pets and their owners. And, I learned, to kids.
5. You don’t need to be the best at something. You just need to want it the most.
In a clinic full of creatures without opposable thumbs, it was astonishing to find out how good some of them could get at accomplishments they weren’t supposed to be capable of. Like, how some dogs could patiently sit in a cage for hours and work at a jiggly lever in order to release themselves and merrily run around the treatment area. Or how some cats could push a jar of treats, centimeter by centimeter, all the way across a table until it dumped its chicken-y contents on the floor. They do it because no one told them they couldn’t.
To me this last one is the most important lesson of all. I remind myself of this often, for myself and for my kids. I don’t want them to be the kid who stops trying to open the cage. I want them to be the one who takes the whole thing apart.
I learned, more than anything, to be this dog.
So by now you’ve all seen the videos, right? A person places a cucumber behind a cat who’s blissfully chomping away on some food. The cat turns around, spots the sinister gourd, and jumps about five feet in the air.
The first thing that happened was that a bunch of people thought it was funny and shared it all over the internet.
The second thing that happened was a bunch of experts chimed in warning about how this wasn’t a benign thing, that cats could be permanently scarred, and that people should not do this to their own cats. The Huffington Post called on a cat behaviorist for advice. The AVMA put out a position statement on the controversial topic.
The third thing that happened was another group of people shared the second group’s warnings and began fighting with the first group of people who thought it was funny, and now we have CucumberGate.
Now granted, while I don’t think intentionally scaring other people or animals is a particularly nice thing to do, is it really worth getting all that upset about? Does one startle cause permanent psychological damage?
I unintentionally scare the crap out of my dog every day. Whether it’s a belt on the floor or the vacuum, he worries. Then he gets over it. My kids have been traumatized by Santa Claus from birth until age at least age 5. The first couple of times it was unintentional, then I knew what was coming and did it anyway because #tradition. They still say Christmas is their favorite holiday.
I didn’t have any cucumbers in the house this morning, so I took out a zucchini. I felt comfortable doing this for a couple reasons- first, Penelope is a fearless cat. Second, she’s been watching me cut up zucchini for months now and I thought it was an acceptable risk. As you can see, she didn’t give two hoots, which is exactly what I assumed would happen. If she did get startled, well, I guess I would be a horrible person, but it wouldn’t be the first time I made the wrong call.
- People who don’t think it’s funny aren’t humorless doofs. It’s good to care.
- People who do think it’s funny aren’t sadistic psychopaths.
Unless you’re saying world famous animal advocate and voice of Dory herself is a psychopath, then we’re all screwed:
Yeah, it’s not the kindest way to conduct yourself, but life goes on, right? While I have no problem with people voicing a little, “hey, maybe this isn’t the nicest thing,” I worry when people call something like this animal abuse because we animal lovers have a hard time getting taken seriously sometimes as it is.
I struggle with “that’s not nice” getting conflated with “abuse”, because if that’s where we’re drawing the line I have a few Christmas photos I need to burn before CPS sees them. And so do about 9000 people on Awkward Family Photos.
I was certain when I had kids that my motherhood chip would finally kick in, that I would finally start to react to babies the way I reacted to dogs and cats. Because surely that maternal instinct in my heart had merely been misdirected all these years, and was simply in need of a little oxytocin and fine-tuning to point it to the appropriate species upon which I should lavish my affection.
Now my kids are 11 and 9 and I can say this with absolute certainty: not so much.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my kids, I love being their mom, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Well, I could, especially on certain days when the attitude is dialed to 11, but I much prefer it the way things are.
My daughter was helping clean up after Emmett when she was 5. I’d say this reflects brilliantly on my parenting but her desire to help lasted till she was about 6. :)
As in, I don’t want more kiddos and never have. When my friends go into Babies R Us to pick out a shower gift, they sigh and say, “Don’t you miss those days?”
And I, inspecting the newest Diaper Genie version and wondering if it would work for cat litter, reply honestly: “No.” I was exhausted and overwhelmed the entire time from 2004-2011 or so.
When I see a pregnant woman waddling by and others remark on her glow, I think about how sweaty she must be, or if her bladder hurts as much as mine did, or if she has complete strangers lift their hands up in shock and go “WHOA!” when she turns around in her ninth month of pregnancy with a 9 pound son and they get a glimpse of the battleship of an abdomen.
Motherhood has changed me in some ways: I look at people’s new babies and I smile. But I don’t need to hold them. I am so, so, SOOOOOO much more compassionate about people with babies on planes. I hold doors for parents with strollers trying to get through. That sort of thing. And I look upon it with nostalgia, but not a lick of longing. No pun intended.
When I was getting my hair done a while back, a woman came in with a duckling. I lost my head at the cuteness and almost lost my hair too because I kept jumping out of the chair to squee. I went home and tried to get my husband, once more, to agree to raising a couple chickens (he said no.)
A woman at my gym brings her chihuahua in on occasion. I never get anything done when she does. (My husband has also said no to a chihuahua.)
The point is less that he said no to more animals and more the fact that I want them, the way I imagine some mothers must see a baby sleeping in a stroller and say to herself, “Oh, I wish I just had one more.”
This morning as I was walking by a cafe, I spotted a family with a black lab sitting at a table about 50 feet away. The dog and I locked eyes, and before I knew it I was on the ground laughing getting dog kisses as the family grinned. I don’t remember how many people there were or what they looked like but the dog was a boy, black labrador, about 50 pounds, with a blocky head and the tiniest bit of grey peeking around his muzzle. He is 9, his name is Brock, and he likes to lay down with his legs splayed behind him.
As I lamented about my hopelessness to my friend Jen, she remarked, “You just have a fuzzy heart is all.” And I think she’s right.
I’m also pretty sure it’s genetic.
Tending to Brody on the day of his pinnectomy.
I have a theory. I think that when we get a pet, they grab a piece of our heart and give us a bit of theirs in return. It’s how we will find them on the other side. And the older I get, the more pieces get replaced; my heart is getting furrier and furrier, and it’s made not only of my own pets but the clients I adore, my friends’ animals I have loved, the strangers like Brock who know just where to find it.
Did you know tomorrow is National Donut Day? Donuts have always held a special place in my family’s heart. Mystical, you might even say.
I grew up in New England, where Dunkin Donuts are as ubiquitous as Starbucks and McDonalds. Driving through for a box of Munchkins was our way of celebrating, commiserating, or simply getting a sugar fix.
For my grandfather, the Dunk was also a neighborhood gathering place where he went to shoot the breeze, down a jelly donut with a coffee regular (it’s a Massachusetts thing), and read the newspaper. Always a neatly folded newspaper. At his memorial service, there was actually an entire Dunkin Donuts contingent who came to pay their respects, which made me feel better about sneaking a bag of Munchkins into his hand at the wake. It’s what he would have wanted.
When my parents moved to California in the mid-80s, we lost that donut connection, because Californians aren’t really that into donuts. They became a special occasion sort of thing, and with that excuse my mother made sure that when we got them, they weren’t just regular old donuts but those big chocolate slathered cream puff monstrosities. It was our homage to the past, comfort food for the sweets obsessed.
When Emmett was diagnosed with lymphoma, I bought him a doggie donut because, well, what else are you supposed to do. Enjoy your donuts while you can and party on. I took what to be a bit of an iconic photo that sort of defines this blog:
When life gives you lemons, throw them away and eat a donut because making lemonade is way too much work.
My son turned 9 yesterday, and as I was planning what treat he wanted to bring into school for his classmates, I asked him: “Cupcakes or popsicles?”
“Donuts,” he promptly replied. “OK,” I said, “you shall have birthday donuts.”
At 5 am on his birthday, he crawled into bed with me. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I’m just so excited about my birthday.”
At 5:30 on his birthday, my mother died.
And so we sat, dumbstruck, for a bit and attended to the things one must attend to, and then my dad and I sat on the bed side by side and said, “Now what are we supposed to do?”
So we went and got some !@#$!#@!#@!# donuts.
You can be sad and happy at the same time. That is the joy and pain of being human.
So when I say I’m happy tomorrow is National Donut Day, I mean it. It is a day to not only eat a literal donut, which I hope you do, but to put aside the petty crap of who bought the best end of the school year gift and whether or not your net carbs are coming in under 30 grams, but to say,
“I AM EATING A DONUT BECAUSE I CAN AND I AM GOING TO ENJOY IT, DAMMIT.” Because one day, you might wish you had.
And if you want to make me smile, I would love if you- or your dog, or you and your dog*- have a donut in Pat’s honor tomorrow (or today, who cares) and share a photo of you enjoying it with me. We would both love that. And for every photo here, on Twitter, or Instagram with the #brainfood I will donate a dollar up to, I don’t know, $500, to the National Brain Tumor Society because Mom still had a lot of donuts left in her to enjoy, dammit, and two months was not nearly enough time to let her know that.
Mother’s Day, 2015 at the beach. Each day is a gift and a chance to eat a donut.
*And by donut for your dog, I mean dog treats shaped like donuts, or other your-dog-appropriate ring shaped goods
Today marks five weeks since my mother’s diagnosis with aggressive Grade IV glioblastoma, five weeks since my family’s lackadaisical spring was hit by a grenade that launched us into the surreal world of watching someone next to you on the beach suddenly snatched away by a rogue wave and pulled, slowly but inexorably, off by a receding tide.
I thought I would be much more angry than I am, angry at the unfairness of a universe that takes her in such a cruel manner while it leaves behind the thieves and liars, the selfish and the cruel, but I learned a long time ago that as much as we think we’re all playing the same boardgame, we’re only playing against ourselves. So all I can do is look at the situation in front of me and ask myself, what do I want to do with this? And every moment I spend being angry is one moment of quiet and comfort I will miss, the small scraps of lucid time I can gather up more valuable than gold.
I will, I decided, be unguardedly, relentlessly, grateful. It is a conscious decision, and not without effort, but it’s getting easier every day. It is a mantra I wrap around myself like a shawl, holding onto it until the shivers stop and the chill leaves my bones:
Instead of being angry that my beloved mother has a brutal disease, I am grateful she decided to forego treatment she didn’t want. Grateful I can be here for her.
Instead of being angry when hospice is slow to return my call or suggest solutions, I am grateful I have the benefit of knowledge so I can be proactive and figure them out myself.
Instead of being angry that I can do more for a sick dog than I can for my mother if she winds up in terrible pain, I am grateful that for now, at least, she is not.
Instead of being angry at the people who would make things more difficult, I am grateful they number so few.
Instead of being angry that I need to read through books to counsel me on what amends we should be making and forgivenesses to seek, I am grateful that upon reflection, we have no need. We have always been at peace with each other.
It gets easier with practice. For now, we are at peace with what is happening, and content with the thought that when we look back, we can say with certainty that we have no regrets about how we handled it, and that is perhaps the best one can hope for.
As you can imagine I have been hanging around my mom quite a bit these days, filling the air with talk of the day and the children. She has made it clear she prefers the conversation light. However, when and if she has a moment where she decides she has something important to impart, I want to make sure I don’t miss it because I still feel like there is still so much more left to say.
This afternoon, when the visiting family departed and my dad headed off to the store, she took a deep breath and turned to me, her bright cornflower blue eyes swiveling into focus as they peered into mine.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course, Mom.”
“I don’t know if you know what this is, or even if you know how to get it…” she paused.
I took a deep breath, as this is a moment I have been simultaneously anticipating and dreading.
“What is it, Mom?” I took her hand.
“Do you know….what spotted dick is?”
Of all the things I had pictured her asking me about, that was about last on the list, somewhere between “Sam Kinison’s used socks” and “an 8 track of the Bay City Rollers.” I paused, letting that rattle around in my brain: spotteddickspotteddickspotteddick, then I started laughing.
“Yes Mom, I think it’s a gross British dessert. Where the heck did that come from?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed, running her hands through her hair. “I was just thinking about desserts, and that sounded disgusting.”
I took her hands. “I will never,” I said, “Make you eat a spotted dick.”
She looked at me, Miss Proper Victorian Lady, and burst into laughter. Me and my mom, reduced to 10 year olds by a canned pudding. Then I brought her a cookie. Chocolate chip, because raisins are gross.
Desserts have always been very important to this family.
I know you were all hoping I would have more wisdom to impart about these momentous last days, but so far this is all I got. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, really.
I know I’ve been remiss in posting, and I wish very much I could say it’s because I’ve been so busy creating amazing and exciting book campaigns and creating a plan to hit the NY Times Bestseller List in July. I still want to, don’t get me wrong, and I still plan to at least give it ago. But that’s not why I’ve been quiet.
I guess you could say I’ve been doing nothing. Nothing. Let me explain.
I’ve said to many people when I started working with Paws into Grace two years ago it was like my career and work finally made sense. I liked working in a clinic, I liked the day-to-day stuff, but only two jobs in life ever touched my soul and felt as close as one could come to a calling: writing, and veterinary hospice. Stepping into hospice work was like buying a new pair of leather shoes and finding them already perfectly worn in.
If you recall, I took it a step further when I began speaking on the topic at various Ignite talks, the first one being in January this year at NAVC:
Then later, in San Diego in February:
Putting those two talks together forced me to really dig into why I thought this work was so important- first, I realized, we can do a lot to help people understand the process of grieving a pet.
Then, I realized losing a pet is in itself a really important lesson in how to lose a person, or more importantly, how to help them gracefully experience the end-of-life process. I really, really wanted to share that message.
I remember a lot of things about that night at Ignite San Diego, namely about how I said that all people should hire me so their kids wouldn’t stick them in a nursing home later in life because they were too scared to deal with them. I pointed at my parents and said, “See? Aren’t you glad I made this promise to you guys in front of like, 200 people?” And they laughed, because we knew that was all a long time away.
It all happened very suddenly: the fall, the seizure, the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor. One day, my life was filled with the usual concerns, getting annoyed with pseudoscience on the net, figuring out Teacher Appreciation Week. The next day, I forgot everything except this: My mom, still young, beautiful, and full of life, looking at the same diagnosis that made Brittany Maynard a household name last November. It is perhaps one of my worst fears, this particular beast, and now it has invaded someone I love more than words can adequately express. The person who, in other circumstances, would be the one I called for support.
Now she was looking to me, and then it all made sense, this need to understand the importance of hospice and advocacy and learning to let go gracefully. I wasn’t meant to help other people understand the difference between living poorly and dying well. I was doing all of this preparation, whether I knew it or not at the time, for my own mother.
In the space of two weeks, I moved my parents into my house, earned frequent parking points at the hospital, and had to dig deep into everything I ever stood up for and ask myself if I really meant it when I said I thought people should change how they dealt with illness and end of life in their families:
- Would I help someone honor their own wishes to say no when everyone in an authority position was pushing for treatment? It seems like oftentimes it is easier to do all the treatment than to say no and risk upsetting loved ones who want you to try it.
- Would I be honest with my children in an age-appropriate way or just kind of try to avoid it for a while? Use the old la-la-la-everything’s-fine approach our family has relied on for generations?
- Could I bring this whole experience into my house, ask my husband and my children to take on this really intense experience, when it would be a lot easier on them- in the short term at least- to keep my parents at arm’s distance, in their own home, in skilled care?
The two weeks during the diagnosis phase was an unending slog up and down the linoelum floors of the hospital, trudging from one cramped waiting area to another: CT. Neurooncology. Neuroradiology. Neurosurgery. Each appointment took an emotional toll that far compounded the physical one, leaving mom too pooped by the end of the day to do more than go to sleep. Waiting rooms filled with other seriously ill people nervously picking at the fraying vinyl upholstery, doctors too aware of the gravity of the diagnosis to be able to offer a smile.
My mother was so upset at the prospect of poorly effective radiotherapy she didn’t want that she could barely speak after the appointment with the radiologist. He had recommended six weeks of daily radiation and chemo, tied to those halls and the stale air. Glioblastoma, a poorly researched and dreaded cancer- even in the world of oncology, it’s a bad one- has had few treatment advancements in 25 years. Treatment doesn’t cure the disease, just kind of kicks it down the line a little.
“And if we choose not to do the radiation?” I asked.
“You could do nothing,” he said, “But I don’t recommend it.” No one did, but nonetheless that was exactly what Mom wanted.
So we did it anyway, leaving through the doors of the hospital one last time into the cool evening breeze of the evening marine layer rolling over, before calling in the ‘Nothing’ that is hospice. So far, Nothing has included the following:
- Watching hot air balloons fly by in their sunset flights
- Getting through all the Harry Potter movies
- A comprehensive plan for managing every symptom, every discomfort
- Greeting the children every morning and tucking them in every night
- Trying every flavor of macaron at the local French bakery (lemon = best)
- Getting our nails done
- Going through old photo albums
- Driving to the beach
Brody, exhibiting that strange instinct most dogs seem to possess, hasn’t left my parents’ side. He’s been so protective, in fact, that he came barreling out of their room last night to bark at me when I got up at 2 am for some water.
My mother has chosen to die well instead of living poorly. But really, I can’t call what she’s doing right now dying. The walls of the hospital, filled with fear and extended wait times and the ever-looming spectre of illness, feels more about dying. She is living. Each moment, each breath of spring air, each hug, is imbued with a gratitude and a joy it wouldn’t have had in a different situation.
I don’t believe one person’s tragedy is any greater or less than anyone else’s, no story more worthy of being told. But I do hope that in sharing this one I might reach someone who is struggling with a similar situation or just looking to understand why a loved one may have made the same choice.
We’re terrified, but we’re ok. We’re devastated, but happy. I have an incredibly high tolerance for stress right now but Rubio’s running out of pico de gallo leaves me in tears. We are doing what we can and continuing what routines we are able to do. We are together, and that matters most.
We are doing nothing but living, and that is enough. It is, in fact, everything. And this Mother’s Day, we’re having a hell of a celebration.
I always assumed my experience as a veterinarian would serve me at some point when I needed to navigate the human healthcare system. The similarities between veterinary training and medical training, after all, lend themselves to a good number of similarities: how to read scientific articles critically. How to read an MRI. When to call the office and say, this prescription doesn’t seem quite right, is this what you wanted?
The similarities are all well and good, but I never understood, in the marrow of my bones, until recently that what would serve me best was our differences.
We MDs and DVMs are both given an ethical mandate to ‘do no harm’, which we as communities hold dear. Our duties to our patients are guided by this overarching principle; we look to it for direction in complicated cases, fall back on it when we feel conflicted about a request, and hold it like a flashlight when we shine a light into the cave of an uncertain future, looking for direction.
But oh, do those lights shine in very different spectrums.
Recently, a man in Russia volunteered to become the subject of the very first head transplant, an idea that leaves most of the world recoiling in horror. “There are some things worse than death,” said many of the neurosurgeons commenting on the piece.
As a veterinarian, I agree. We veterinarians occupy a strange place in the medical field in that most of us view it as not only an option but often a moral imperative to ease the pain of a traumatic death process through pharmacologic means. We are precise in our process, with the goal of minimizing stress and pain. We view it not as causing death, but as easing an uncurable pain. In this, we view our fulfillment to do no harm.
But in the human medical field, the prevailing attitude is by and large that hastening death is, indeed, harm, and anything we do to prolong a life is conversely fulfilling their requirement to do no harm, no matter what it does to a person or family in the process.
Even if it is multiple craniotomies.
Months of chemotherapy.
Daily radiation therapy with a bevy of ill effects. And you have to get screwed down to the table wearing one of these while they shoot brain shrivelling radiation beams at your head:
Not to cure a disease, but to make a patient breathe one more day, for better or for worse. It is the second most common utterance to me in my hospice work: we do better with our pets than we do our people when it comes to end-of-life decisions, and truly, friends, we really do.
I was recently-by invitation- listening to a doctor outline just such a series of events and possibilities to a patient who didn’t want to partake in them, who has been looking- without success- for someone to say, it’s ok to say no to months of hospital visits and yes to fewer days filled with this:
Plenty of people do want everything we have to throw at disease, and more power to them all. Thank God for modern medicine. But when did it become not only an unthinkable mistake, but an outright affront to the medical community to say, “thanks but no thanks”?
Searching for information on hospice and palliative care has been as challenging as getting bootleg rum during prohibition, furtive conversations in hallways and whispered hints at such necessary things as family support and respite care, secondary concerns far down the to-do list after scheduling yet another CT. I never knew how much of an afterthought the emotional wellbeing of the patient truly is in many medical decision making processes.
“So what if they don’t want to do this?” I asked.
“Well, this is the standard of care,” the resident responded.
“And if they choose not to do this?” I asked again.
“Why wouldn’t you?” he said, dumbfounded. He never did give me an answer.
Do no harm.
So, every year I attempt some form of creative teaching enterprise at the kids’ school, and some years go better than others. This year, in a school I really like, I think things went well. I was asked to do a “veterinary science station” for the annual Science Fair, and I thought back to what I was excited about when I was a kid:
Playing with guts! And I thought to myself, I bet I could create a dog version of this anatomical model. So I went to Joann’s, bought a bunch of random attachments and fabric bits, and commandeered one of my daughter’s stuffed animals to volunteer to be my surgical model.
Step one: preparing the abdominal cavity
I chose a mottled red fabric for the interior of the dog, and sewed a pouch to contain the abdominal organs. After cutting open a midline incision, I removed a bit of stuffing then sewed in a zipper. (Do this before sewing the pouch in, or you’ll end up with the zipper seam showing.) Then you can sew the top ends of the pouch to the edges of your incision and voila!
Step two: making organs
You can go kind of crazy with this stuff, but I tried to hold myself back to the main parts (no spleen, pancreas, etc). All of the organs were secured to the abdominal wall with Velcro so they would remain in the right place but they could be removed if the kids really wanted to see what was in there.
I tried to keep the organs moderately accurate, but I was limited by my own sewing experience and what I had on hand, which is how I wound up with lavender sparkly kidneys and a two-lobed liver. For the bladder we filled a white balloon with rice. The kids don’t care too much about accuracy.
The intestines were a long tube of velour that I sewed and then had to turn inside-out. I didn’t think that one through ahead of time. I debated leaving it a giant intussusception but I eventually got it figured out with actual surgical tools. Next time, forget it.
In the interest of simplicity, the loop represented both the large and small intestine. I had some nubby yarn that I really, really wanted to throw in there as omentum but I held myself back.
The stomach needed to be fairly correct as a gastrotomy was going to be one of the two surgeries the kids could do. It’s a fleecy material with the nubby side on the inside (rugae! yaay!). I ended up using ribbon “stitches” sewn into the sides of the incision, which was a smart choice once the fifth graders started yanking on them full-force.
For the uterus, I sewed two red socks together at the toe (worked like a charm!) and bought a handful of small puppy toys. The ovaries were little white yarn pom-poms.
I sewed a snap into the tip of both socks to keep the “uterus” closed. I also put in a piece of stretchy rubber ribbon on both sides of the abdomen that the uterus held to with velcro but that was overkill with these kids so I didn’t use it. Feel free to use it for the vet student in your life, though- they’ll have to get used to wrestling with that thing.
By the time everything got stuffed in there it was actually a shockingly decent approximation for the surgical experience- you look in and think, what the heck am I looking at? So I made a legend as well.
With all of that in hand, as well as a bunch of gloves and masks we didn’t end up using, we headed off to the science fair.
Step 3: The actual test
We had a lot of competition at the science fair. Computer programming, dry ice, slime, rockets, frogs. Since the kids didn’t know they were going to be doing surgery until they came up and asked what was going on, they all freaked out a little and then said, let’s do it!
I used some of the radiographs readers shared with me. The pregnancy one was a big hit!
A small cardboard tube served as a trachea and the kids intubated with a See’s candy stick.
An old pillowcase with a rectangle cutout in the middle served as a surgical drape.
For the case where the dog was vomiting, we used our legend to try and determine what we were looking for (something big and pink.)
The kids got to pull out the assortment of items our patient ingested: a ball, a sock, a rock, and to see how they would lodge in the pylorus as there was no way they’d fit into the intestines.
I could easily have had two dogs going, but as I had to re-stuff the dog after every surgery I had my assistant prepare the surgery table while the next group waited.
Unsurprisingly, the c-section was a big crowd pleaser. We had only one person run off in horror when they figured out what was going on, and it was a dad.
I wrapped the puppies in saran wrap “membranes”. For the little kids who weren’t quite up to delivering a puppy, the bigger kids could hand them a puppy to wrap in a towel, remove the membrane, and stimulate them to breathe (you see one in the lower left corner). Worked like a charm.
Even the moms learned something, as in, “dang, that’s a big uterus.” Yes, it is.
The kids were all very concerned after to make sure the dog was closed and “woken up” after surgery was completed, all except the older boys who wanted to pull all the organs out and play with them. There’s something for everyone here at the clinic.
And the best part of the night were the kids who realized there were two surgeries and came back for more. Mission Minion recruitment accomplished!
As you probably know, I have a bit of a complicated relationship with the PTA moms. Not moms in general, mind you, just the small subset of Pinterest loving, glue-gun wielding domestic lifestyle experts whose expectations I can never, despite my best efforts, seem to live up to. It doesn’t matter what school we’re at, it happens every time. First it was the art project/pooper scooper incident in kindergarten. Then it was the Have a Very Agro Valentine’s Day episode. And now it’s crudite, crudite that torments the soul.
It started simply enough: an email asking for volunteers to bring in food items for the teachers this conference week. I looked on the sign up sheet and put my name next to crudite: veggies and dip. Easy, I thought, a quick run to the grocery store for some carrot sticks and dip and done.
I forgot where I was.
(Not two weeks ago, I found myself in the midst of a malestrom for the fifth grade Halloween party when all the room moms got together and asked the parents to bring in food. I asked my class parents to bring in pretzels and fruit. The other moms showed up with cookies shaped like rotting fingers with almond nails and jelly blood, and eyeball eggs with veins hand-painted on with food dye. My pretzels were shoved under the table.)
So now, a few minutes after signing up for the veggie tray, I received an email instructing me to be creative! which is always concerning. To illustrate her point, the organizer included this helpful photo:
As to what our vegetables should aspire to be.
Now at this point a normal person would laugh and say, “OK, lady,” and bring in a tray from Costco, but unfortunately I still have the sin of pride to contend with on a regular basis, so I instead spent the afternoon standing in line at the grocery store watching YouTube videos of Martha Stewart blanching asparagus. Three hours of cursing later, with piles of peeled burnt chestnuts and carrot shavings dripping out of my hair like Jackson Pollock on a bender, I came up with this:
This is the dogged tenacity that makes people like me get through vet school even when all indicators point to the “why?” factor. We can’t explain it. We just have to.
I shared this with my friends, and they all got a good laugh out of how silly it was, and then later in the day my friend in Ohio sent me a link and said, “See? You’re not alone.” It was a photo of some artfully arranged food items a group of mothers had arranged for their teachers.
It was, upon further inspection, a photo from my very school from earlier in the day. It had already made the Pinterest rounds and ended up in Ohio, where my friend saw it and sent it to me as an example of Moms Gone Styled. I scrolled through it, looking for my contribution.
Notably lacking? The crudite. They were apparently so lackluster as to have not even rated a Facebook photo, and when I returned to pick up the dish I found they had been shoved in the corner in order to make way for some gluten free turkey wraps with hand-whisked dressings in, of course, Mason jars.
At this point, even a not quite normal person would just give up, which is theoretically what I should do, but it’s become clear to me I live in a parallel universe where I am destined to almost-quite get it, over and over and over, but not get it entirely. This is why I am a veterinarian, the almost-quites of the medical field.
So you know what? I’m embracing it. This afternoon I decided to go on a Pinterest binge and make a little Pinterest and dog-friendly crudite platter my way. Hope you enjoy it.
A bright autumn day, full of promise and gently whispered secrets amongst best of friends, calls for sustenance.
Lovingly hand-extruded kibble, with ingredients sourced from local artisans in an organic human-grade facility in Portland by men with bushy beards. In a Mason jar.
We end our afternoon in the garden of delights (it’s water friendly succulents! We’re eco friendly here in drought-parched SoCal) with hand-cut carrot bones from the local CSA, mint from the garden, words of wisdom from the dog sketched in canine-friendly peanut butter hand ground at Whole Foods. And of course, no pet garden of delights would be complete without the coup de grace:
nitrate free ham roses.
You saw it first here, folks. I’m waiting on sponsors for a YouTube tutorial but I think a ham bouquet is a lovely thing.
When I took my son in for his first routine eye exam, I had no idea he needed glasses. Neither did he. He seemed fine, wasn’t running into things, was reading fine in school, but nonetheless the optometrist suggested glasses. OK, I said, let’s give it a shot.
One week later, his glasses arrived and we went into the office to pick them up. He picked them up dubiously, slid them over the bridge of his nose, and stood there for a moment, blinking as the refracted light hit his retina in new and improved ways.
He spun, slowly, taking it all in. His lips twitched, burbling with something important. When he could no longer hold it in, he opened his mouth and shouted, “I CAN SEEEEEE!!!!”
Boy did I feel like a horrible mom as the assorted clients turned to see this blind boy get his sight back.
Later that week I was sharing this story with a friend. As we were talking, her daughter picked up my kid’s glasses and put them on just for fun to see how weird things looked.
She came over and tugged on her mom’s sleeves. “Hey mom. Things look pretty good with these things on. I think I can’t see too well.” Then I felt less bad. It happens to us all.
We thought things were fine, my kid thought things were fine, and then someone with tools I didn’t have access to and the ability to evaluate things said, “Actually, life can be even better.” And it was.
I think of this all the time when people say, “Oh, Buster’s doing fine, he doesn’t need an exam or meds or anything.” To a client’s eye, he is fine. His gait is the same it’s always been. But I can pick up things they don’t, that slight crunchy feeling in the knee, a stiffness when I extend the leg. It took some doing, but we convinced that lab’s owner to try some Rimadyl.
Or the dachshund who came in for a routine dental. “He’s fine,” the owner reported. “He eats kind of slow but he’s been that way since we adopted him two years ago.” When we opened his mouth, the fetid odor of eight rotting teeth hit my nostrils, teeth held in by tartar more than by tissue at that point. It took some doing, but we convinced the owner to let us remove them.
In both cases, we got a call about a week later to marvel about this new dog in the house. “He’s like a puppy again! I can’t believe his energy! Who IS this dog?” Like my son spinning around in the optometrist office, they had a problem they didn’t even realize existed lifted from their shoulders, and got to experience something better for the first time.
In the year since their last eye exam, both kids seem to be perfectly fine, but I took them in dutifully anyway. Both of them need new prescriptions. This time, I don’t feel so bad. Big things we notice- small ones? Not always.
It isn’t my job to evaluate such things in my kids, or to be able to recognize the more subtle signs of something needing help. All I need to do is get them to someone who can, on a regular basis. Next stop: orthodontist. Lord help us all.
Just a little reminder to everyone that there is a reason we recommend yearly (twice yearly, for older pets) checkups at the vet. We’ll probably find things you weren’t aware of, and that’s OK. That’s what we’re here for! Every pet deserves the revelation of improved health.
When I was six, my mother enrolled me in my first dance class. I enjoyed it, I had fun, I got to wear cute little sailor costumes and get up on stage and tunelessly tap my feet.
The teacher always arranged us in two rows, and this being the early 80s before everyone had to get equal play, she arranged us not by height but by talent. The precocious dancers with the big smiles and the good rhythm were front and center, and those who tripped on their shoelaces or danced with the angry pounding feet of someone trying to stomp out the last burning embers of an old campfire found themselves perpetually in the back.
My dad has a lot of pictures of half of my body hidden behind the other girls.
Had I been desperate to improve my lot in life as a dancer, I imagine my parents might have encouraged me to spend more time honing my craft. I have learned in life that training trumps talent almost every time. However, I didn’t mind the back row, and they didn’t mind, so they let me be in between dance classes to pursue what really floated my boat: palaeontology.
I read every book I could get my hands on, gaping in horrified intrigue at the artist’s rendition of a Tyrannosaurus gorging on a defeated looking hadrosaur. It was riveting. I spent my allowance in the craft store and would rush home every day to put together my little wooden skeleton models. I had them all.
It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be interested in science or that my time would be better spent improving my jazz technique than reconstructing extinct fossils. At night, we’d gather around the TV and watch Nova, or Cosmos- the original Carl Sagan version.
My mother, who is herself very Victorian and feminine, never made me or my sister feel like we weren’t girly enough, even when I was plastering the walls with Garbage Pail Kid stickers and cackling at the, ahem, crude humor. We were who we were, and in my case, that was a sci-fi loving anti-fashion science geek.
I worry sometimes, raising a daughter, that things are different now and there’s more pressure to conform along certain stereotypical lines. I don’t ever recall seeing shirts like this for sale when I was a kid:
I saw this shirt in Children’s Place, shortly before it got pulled, and promptly went next door to Peek where I found that amazing Jane Goodall children’s shirt I posted earlier this year. These messages we send to kids matter. They do.
Shortly before that T-shirt incident my daughter said to me, “I guess I’m just not good at math mom,” in response to a poor score on a math test she didn’t feel like studying for. Needless to say that didn’t fly; she may not care for it, it may not come naturally to her, but I wanted her to know she could overcome that. And with the help of a good tutor, she did. “I never,” I said, “ever, want you to think you’re not smart.”
She’s always been an artistic kid, and while I encouraged her to pursue those confidence building theater experiences I wanted her to know it didn’t have to be the only thing that defined her. You can be an actor and a writer and a mathematician and a dancer and an athlete. You can be in the front row of any show you want and are willing to work for.
I can only hope that in the face of many conflicting messages, she will remember this.
We’ve been watching Cosmos as a family the last month or so, because Neil deGrasse Tyson is amazing and the show just makes me happy. My son plopped down instantly to get his science fix, and a few moments later after realizing we weren’t going to be watching American Idol, my daughter sat beside him. A day later, they were discussing time travel in the car on the way to school and my nerdy heart soared. “When’s the next episode coming out?” they asked breathlessly.
That afternoon, my daughter took a break from recording and re-recording herself singing “Let It Go” over and over, sitting at the table earnestly scribbling away on a piece of paper. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Writing a fan letter,” she said. “Can you help me mail it?”
I paused. I wrote my first fan letter when I was eight. I remember it well. Ricky Schroeder. I even sent him a Polaroid selfie, 80s style. He never wrote back and I was devastated.
So who was it going to be for my daughter? Harry Styles? She and her friends were just getting into One Direction and I wondered if she was about to ask me to subscribe to TeenBop or Tiger Beat. Maybe I’d luck out and find out she was thanking Idina Menzel for belting out such a catchy power ballad. “It’s not to Justin Beiber, is it?” I asked nervously.
She scowled. “Eeew Mom. Come on.” She handed me to letter. It began, “Dear Doctor DeGrasse Tyson: I really love your show.”
The kid’s gonna be all right.
Before I get into the details of this weekend, it’s important to understand the massive pile of guilt from under which I was trying to emerge.
One year ago this month, the chaos began. The endless lines of people rifling through our home in an endless stream had already been going on for seven months, but one year ago was when we agreed, from exhaustion more than anything else, to sell the home. All for the promise of a better education for the kids, which necessitated a move out of the district. We set our sights north.
While we looked, we took on a stint in an apartment while we found a new home in the Powerful Terrific Superawesome District (PTSD), the best school district in the county, for the three months it took to find a home. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in a cramped apartment with no decorations, which are kind of a big deal when you are six and eight. The kids were troopers; “I promise it will be worth it,” I said, and they believed me.
Emperor Palpatine and the Powerful Terrific Superawesome District
When we moved into the PTSD, I dutifully went into the office at our local AmazingAwesome school and said I would like to enroll my children.
The secretary laughed.
“You’ll be eighth on the waitlist,” she said. “I wouldn’t hold your breath. You can go to whatever school in the region we can find space in, though.” Which sounded kind of not great, so I decided to drive the kids back and forth to their old school 45 minutes away for the duration of the school year, one of the reasons you found me posting less this year.
“Hang tight,” I said to the kids, “it will be worth it. I promise.” That was right before Kekoa died, which only soured the mood, really.
When May rolled around, I again returned to the office at AmazingAwesomeschool for fall open enrollment, a time where all the new people submit their paperwork to give the PTSD bigwigs time to plan for the new enrollees in the fall.
I got a call from the secretary two weeks later.
“The good news,” she said, “is that your son can enroll.” Pause. “Your daughter is on the waitlist and can go to School Down the Road.”
I waited all summer for this to change, for some kids to move away so I wouldn’t have to explain to my daughter why she was going to some random school where none of the other neighborhood kids were going. The week before school started, the phone rang. It was School Down the Road. I answered, excited to hear that they had found a spot for my daughter at my home school.
But what they told me instead was, “We are full as well, sorry. Your daughter will be enrolled at School Even Further Down the Road. Don’t worry, it’s great.”
No one seemed to get that this was not the point. Confused, I attended a meeting of the PTSD school board, a farce more fitting a Joseph Heller novel than an actual functioning governmental entity, attempting to figure out how this happened. The third highest paid superintendent in the state of California sat up there folding his fingers under his chin like Emperor Palpatine and told the gathered parents how silly our concerns were and that we should be grateful they found a spot for us anywhere at all. You, he intimated, have No Idea How We Important People Do Things.
Resistance is futile.
I am but a humble veterinarian, but even I knew this reeked of rotten anal glands. As we sat there openmouthed at the idea that a man with a PhD in education couldn’t figure out why we were upset at this arrangement, the president of the PTSD – Salacious Crumb, if you you must picture something- guffawed and shrugged his shoulders. We were dismissed.
This school year began with me trying to explain to my daughter that being bounced down the street like an unwanted kickball was no big deal, that it was for the best, and this move was really a good idea. She didn’t believe me, of course. I didn’t either.
Happy Birthday to You
September rolled around, with my daughter struggling to acclimate to fourth grade classroom sizes of 35 in a foreign neighborhood. “Your birthday is at the end of the month,” I told her. “What do you want?” I owed her, at the very least, a fantastic birthday. A weekend trip to Disneyland, perhaps. Or Universal Studios.
“No,” she said. “I want a party. At our house.”
Considering all the kids we knew resided a minimum of 5 miles away, I decided under no circumstances would I allow this event to be the latest disappointment in her life, so I committed in all my Type A splendor to Make This Party Awesome, a can’t miss event.
“Let’s do a mystery party,” I suggested, and she agreed. Mustaches! And mystery! I’ll photoshop a steampunk invitation! “Can we make it a sleepover?” she asked. “Sure!” I said, unable to say no to such a simple request.
I looked up pre-made mystery party themes, looking for something age appropriate. “A ha!” I exclaimed. “The Missing Kitty Kaper!” Most excellent. “How many kids can I invite?” my daughter asked, and I said, “However many you want,” because as you all know usually half of them have other plans anyway. 6 kids? No problem.
She invited 12 kids.
12 responded yes.
It was about this time that I started to mildly panic, but what are you going to do. If I can handle vet school, I reasoned, I can handle anything.
A couple of days later, while I was sobbing into my pillow about the loss of my beloved cat, a small but insistent voice barged in to remind me that the Missing Kitty Kaper was now short an Actual Kitty, and this was probably going to be a problem.
The Decapitated Brody Cake
There was time, not much, but enough, to get a different mystery party theme ready. This was survivable. With the big things out of the way, I asked my daughter what kind of cake she wanted for her birthday.
“A dog cake,” she said. Of course.
“OK,” I replied. “Let’s go to Baskin Robbins tomorrow and pick one out.”
“Oh, I was hoping you would make one,” she said. “One shaped like an actual dog. One you made with your own hands, Mommy.”
The only thing I was planning on making with my own hands at this point was my signature on a credit card receipt at a bakery, given that I was speaking at ACES International the two days leading up to the party and I had already spent the last three days driving around looking for glue on mustaches and making mustache lollipop molds and all of that stuff I don’t normally do. “I’m not sure I can find time for that, honey,” I said. “Can’t we buy something?”
My daughter looked at me with the same resigned expression she had when I told her about the apartment. And the fact that we weren’t getting new pets anytime soon. And that no one was able to get her a spot in the school we had moved here to be close to. “That’s OK, Mommy,” she said. “I understand.”
So this is why I was up at 1 am the night before the party cursing over a rubbery pile of fondant with an airbrush.
Brody sat patiently while I observed the curve of his haunches and attempted to recreate them with red velvet cake. Easier than a FHO, I’ll give you that. Cut the wrong thing off and you just stick it back on with frosting. All was done, except the head. That would not be made of cake.
I made the head out of styrofoam, but the dog had no snout. Taking a desperate gamble, I fashioned one out of clay, stuck some lollipop sticks in the neck, and plopped the head on. It looked, I had to admit, pretty good, albeit a tad off balance. Then I went to bed.
The next morning, the weight of the clay had dragged his front heavy head off the body, sadly, meekly, cradled in his arms like a post-guillotine Marie Antoinette. The hole in his neck was bleeding red velvet crumbs. It would be an unsurvivable injury, usually, but I had no option but to Frankenstein it back on. Nevermind that clay and fondant don’t mix (Why did Pinterest not teach me that, huh??) and his jowls were all too realistically dripping white goo down his chest, I had to go with it and do my best to patch his melting face back together before the twelve kids arrived.
Just keep pushing up, kid. Thanks.
The Secret Life of Bees
The head was settling down. We were going to make it, I thought, and because life isn’t a Stephen King novel I had no reason to believe there was going to be some sort of last minute climactic twist. There never is.
“I need ice,” I said to my mother, who had come over for moral support/backup. My husband had already spirited our son away for the evening. Time was running short, only two hours before the party, but I was feeling good. That feeling didn’t last. It was on the return from this grocery store run that I saw a strange motion out of the corner of my eyes, which as they focused like a magic eye puzzle resolved into a wriggling brown box. The green electrical box at the end of our driveway had been, this very morning, appropriated by a swarm of bees, a solid, swirling mass of stingers. Two hours before the party.
If there’s one thing swarms of bees like, so I’ve heard, it’s 12 screaming little girls. No one had mentioned that our new home was built on the ruins of an ancient cemetery, but I was beginning to harbor suspicions.
We came up with a contingency, a hastily scrawled BEES sign at the end of the driveway, the parents driving as far up as possible while I herded the kids directly inside. 1,5,7,12, all arrived without issue.
Then a thirteenth child appeared, apparated, really, on the doorstep. “Hi!” she chirped, this child I had never heard of through any of the multiple RSVP venues I had provided. “What’s my character for the mystery party?”
Thirteen children. This really was a Stephen King novel. The omens were everywhere.
The cake looks terrified, and rightly so. Every good horror show demands sacrifice.
My goal, at that moment, was survival. The next 12 hours were a bit of a blur, really. I remember it in impressions rather than paragraphs.
- did you know WETA recorded a nine year old’s slumber party to get the right sound for the Nazgul? There is no other explanation.
- When the lady at Claire’s tells you “Blindfold Makeover” is a great game for kids, don’t believe her.
- The amount of sticky sugar in a drink is directly proportional to its likelihood to be spilled.
- No matter how many options you provide for food, someone, somewhere is going to think it’s all gross.
- Even if they tell you they are fine watching you pop the head off a Golden Retriever cake and butcher the remnants into kid-sized bits, don’t believe them.
Want to know how crazy it was? Brody, a dog who never once misses the opportunity for love, asked to go outside- voluntarily- and refused to enter the house until midnight. He checked out of the Overlook Hotel, but as the caretaker I had no choice but to remain, listlessly scrawling REDRUM on the bathroom mirror while I waited for them to finally fall asleep. Which, by the way, they never did.
The kids went home the next morning, hungover on sugar, staggering out like a bunch of freshmen after their first frat party. I was incapable of movement. No one had died or required emergency services, which was about as much as I could have hoped for. Eventually it was just our family once again, surveying the wreckage littered across the savannah of my living room. I needed a nap, even more than I needed a drink.
Around 4 pm, when I was lying in bed starting blankly at the ceiling, I felt a nudge on my shoulder. I reached over, expecting Brody’s ever present head, but it was my daughter.
“Thank you,” she said, “for the best birthday party ever.”
I’ve been guilty of Pinvy, that slightly aggrieved feeling that comes over you when you see these insane events people with too much time on their hands put up on Pinterest. “Why,” I wondered, “must we insist on one upmanship all the time? Who cares? It’s a kid party.” And I believed that, until it was my kid who asked for this one special thing.
This was a party not for the world, but for one little girl. It was atonement, a sacrifice made of sleep and frosting. It was over the top. It was exhausting. It was, above all, worth it.