As I prepare for my third year at IAAHPC, the veterinary hospice conference, I’ve taken pause to reflect on this journey and how it affects the way I view veterinary medicine. Personally, I have only euthanized a personal pet in a clinic (versus at home) one time.
It was Nuke, my vet school coonhound, and he was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma just a month after I graduated and came back home. The veterinarian was lovely and did as great a job as one can do in that situation, but so many memories still stick in my head:
-They asked me to come in at the end of the day, ostensibly to make it easier for me. It meant I had to wait all day and then sit, sobbing, in rush hour traffic. It wasn’t what I preferred, but I was too tired and sad to realize I should have asked for what I needed.
-They took him in the back to place a catheter. I get it, I did the same thing throughout my entire clinic career. It’s definitely easier for the staff. I would have preferred to be with him the whole time. After doing it by myself in people’s homes with no backup- yes, it is perfectly possible.
-After I left, they took his body and placed it in a black garbage bag in the freezer until the aftercare place arrives on their weekly rounds. I know, because we all do this. Every clinic I have worked at does it this way. It is just the way it is done.
But does it have to be?
I know that the answer is no. I know that there are options out there that so many people want, so many ways we can better respect the dignity of our patients and clients before and after death, and we owe it to you all to let you know they are possible. Veterinarians have many reasons for not offering them, and they are not invalid concerns:
- They are more expensive
- They take more time to organize
- Most people do not want them
While many if not most clients are fine with the process the way it is, it hurts me to no end to know that so many people are still unaware of the myriad additional options out there to help your pet at end of life and to ease your pain as a family through the process. You may have to advocate for yourself, prepare, and find these options on your own- trust me, after having to advocate for my mother to get into hospice when it wasn’t offered as an option, this is kind of a universal problem.
To that end, I’d like to share with you my End of Life Bill of Rights- the things that you as an owner have a right to ask for and, after having worked with so many like minded colleagues now for several years- I can tell you that someone out there is equipped to provide you with:
The Right to Refuse Treatment. If your pet is suffering from a terminal disease, you have the right to say no to chemo, or surgery, or radiation. I believe in my heart that most veterinarians out there support clients in that, but there seems to be a lost-in-translation moment where so many owners feel pressured into heroic measures they were not prepared to take, emotionally or financially. This does not mean I am advocating to neglect an ill pet in suffering- quite the contrary, I am advocating for aggressive and patient focused comfort care.
The Right to Pursue Treatment. On the flip side, if you want to take your pet to the best of the best and do everything in the book possible to change things, it’s your call, not ours. We can offer you guidance and advice, but our job is to help you make an informed decision about realistic outcomes.
The Right to Have Your Family Involved. Unfortunately, some veterinarians still actively discourage families from having children present during euthanasia in the clinic. The emotion makes them uncomfortable and is disruptive. It is a clinic-focused way of thinking that is not focused on family needs. This is a once in a lifetime transition, and you need to do what you need to do. Many clients do not want their children present, which is fine- especially for kids under 5 who don’t understand what is happening- but it should be your choice. What your children see and hear- or don’t see- will live with them forever. If you don’t know how to approach the conversation- there are many, many professionals who do, and they have excellent resources to help.
The Right to Impeccably Respectful Aftercare. Most people don’t want to know what we do with a pet’s body afterwards. If they ask, I would tell them, and assure them we are as respectful as we can be. I believe in transparency. Nonetheless it is a disturbing image to many, myself included. If we can’t be honest without feeling like there’s a need to cushion the blow, why not change it? Especially when it’s such an easy thing to do?
More recently I have worked with a local business that doesn’t use bags or hold pets onsite; pets are wrapped in a clean white sheet and transported directly to the crematory facility, with the family knowing that the position their pet was last placed in is how they will remain. Yes, it costs more. And yes, many people are happy to pay it for that peace of mind. Some clients of mine transport their pet directly to an aftercare facility themselves, or have a trusted friend do it, because that chain of custody is important to them. These are all valid options.
The Right to Die at Home. The first time I went to a hospice conference, it changed everything for me. We can do so much better by our clients. In-home hospice and euthanasia veterinarians are changing the landscape of the profession, and providers exist all over the world. We are trained to offer not only medical support, but we are able to direct your family to the compassionate emotional support you may need, through chaplains, grief counselors, and support groups. We can offer palliative care options when medical treatment is discontinued- as in humans, we have a wide array of comfort care support that goes far beyond a pain pill here and there that can ease the discomfort of end of life.
And when the time comes, you will be at home, in a safe place, with those around you that you need. I bring blankets, candles, music- things that might not be practical in a busy clinic but, in a time of grief, provide small but vital bits of calm through all the senses. For those who experience euthanasia in a clinic, you also have the right to take the time you need, to make the environment what you need it to be for you. It matters. Your bond matters, too.
With love, Dr. V
Last night I got to rock out at the last North American stop of the Guns n Roses “Not in This Lifetime” tour. In a moment that made me realize just how old I’ve gotten, I realized the last time they played San Diego- in 1992- I was also there. I was in high school, high on life (and probably a few other things unintentionally, as tended to happen at those arena shows), idealistic about the future. Guns n Roses was the biggest name in rock at the time, at the height of their fame and the zenith of their success.
Things fell apart for them shortly thereafter.
Axl Rose spent the next two decades litigating with his former bandmates, holed up in a mansion somewhere getting plastic surgery and churning out less than awesome music. While his star faded, the rest of us went on with our lives, going to school and having careers and starting families. You know, growing up. Such is life.
I had low expectations for the show, to be honest. The band fell apart due to Axl’s temperamental nature and the shows often started three hours late and ended after one or two songs. When he was on, he was ON, and the rest of the time he was a disaster. He was the rock god equivalent of the vet who burns out in a flame of glory and leaves veterinary medicine forever to hole up on a lake somewhere to nurse their wounds in solitude. (Not that I know what that urge feels like, of course.)
I was not the only one who gave this reunion short shrift. The first time he walked out on stage at a warmup show, he broke his foot and everyone said, “Oh, here we go. This is going to be a disaster.” There’s a reason Spinal Tap was a cautionary tale, they said. Once you leave something great, you’re done. You can never go back. This is no longer going to happen:
The murmurings were nonstop: Axl’s had a ton of plastic surgery. He looks old (hint: he is, as are we all.) His voice isn’t the same. He can’t move his hips the way he did when he was 20. The band still all hates each other.
All of this is true.
But they went out there anyway, and played a monster three hour set despite the creaky joints and the lower octaves. They came out on time and nailed everything. It was like being back in 1992 except even better because I can legally drink! When’s the last time you sat in a packed stadium arena listening to a power ballad with fireworks onstage and a 10 minute guitar solo? It was before cell phones for sure. And it was awesome. Yes, things changed, but a lot of those changes were for the better.
There’s actually something super metal about getting old and refusing to let people stop you from all the stuff you’ve been told you can’t do any longer. About getting up in front of a PACKED stadium with your face looking exactly like what everyone said it would look like and singing about your serpentine with your hips moving exactly two inches in either direction and waiting for the cameras to zoom in on your before flipping everyone the bird- and hearing them all cheer. That takes some brass ones, my friends.
In 2012, a reporter asked him if Guns n Roses would ever get back together and he replied, “Not in this lifetime.”And yet here we are, a little older, a little wrinklier, a little wiser, and clutching our Zippo apps that won’t burn your fingers in lieu of the actual lighters.
You can change your mind. You can go back. You can embrace what time has changed and laugh about it and refuse to apologize for it and kind of love it. It’s the only way to live, really.
I never in a million years would have thought Axl Rose would be doling out inspirational life messages at 54 years of age but I guess I was wrong too. It’s never to late to burn down the house.
If you’re ever in need of an escape to reset your head and find a little bit of peace in the chaos that swirls around you, I highly recommend Thailand. I have lots of stories and photos to share about the elephants I met, but today I have a different story to tell.
Although not quite intentional, when I planned this trip I realized I was returning the day before my son’s tenth birthday, which is also the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. To spend the two weeks leading up to it in a dream fugue of green hills and silent Buddhas was a serendipitous gift that I really needed, because otherwise I would be at home, reliving those long painful days.
Partway through the trip, our group left the elephant sanctuary for the day and travelled to a small offshoot, where the park personnel were working with a large group of macaques. These monkeys, over a hundred of them, had been seized from the streets of Bangkok by the Thai government and were set to be sold to a laboratory before the park founder intervened and took them in to the sanctuary with little more than two weeks’ notice.
It is, to put it mildly, a large undertaking.
When we arrived, a small cadre of volunteers was upgrading the enclosures and getting a handle on one of the first orders of business: neutering the male monkeys. This is necessary for a variety of reasons; behavioral, and the fact that as adorable as all the babies were, they didn’t need to add more to the mix.
But needless to say, the monkeys themselves were not as thrilled with the idea. They are smart. They know what the little blowdarts mean: someone gets sleepy and goes away for a bit; and they were really, really good at evading them.
Two unsuccessful hours in, as we were still watching the goings-on and waiting for someone to neuter, a small motion caught my eye. It was a bright orange butterfly.
Butterflies have long been my mother’s favorite creature; it is impossible for me to see one and not think of her. They are, and always have been, her avatar. And I, who had been studiously avoiding getting into my head on the topic, had no choice but to sit and think about her.
The butterfly eventually flitted on further into the field, slowly and lazily as if to wait for me to get the hint, so I followed.
I vaguely heard people calling after me as I wandered off, but my attention was turned elsewhere: The field this butterfly had led me to was alive.
I had never seen so many different butterflies all in one place; the green ones that looked like leaves caught on the wind; the orange one that flew like scattered flower petals; the small grey ones on the ground that sat like pebbles until, unfurling their wings, they revealed themselves to be blue.
I didn’t even notice the one on the left at first; a camouflaged creature, hiding in plain sight, watching over the three remaining orange butterflies.
When I saw it, so hidden yet just as real as the remaining three, it hit me so suddenly that my breath caught. A whisper on the wind as clear as day: She is here. She is always here, all around you, and your dad, and your sister.
I hadn’t been expecting such an obvious revelation, and certainly not in what appeared to be an empty field, but I seem to require very deliberate signs from the universe in order to pay attention.
Eventually Teri came bushwhacking to scrape me off the riverbank and let me know a monkey was ready for a neuter. I had found a riverbed where the butterflies swirled, and in that silent contemplation, I was able to get up and go back to the insanity of our lives.
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.
There’s something happening in the animal world, something sticky and kind of ugly, and we need to talk about it.
You learn to spot patterns when you’ve been around long enough, trends that start in one area but quickly pick up steam in your own neck of the woods. And that, my friends, is what I’m bringing up today: the emerging trend of the Social Justice Warrior, and how that relates to people in pet care.
I think it’s pretty clear that I am a big proponent of animal advocacy, from the first blogathons to my work with hospice and this very site, which I’ve written for seven years now in an attempt to keep an open dialogue on important pet topics. I am a huge fan of people who work so very hard and selflessly to make a difference, and this is not who I am speaking of today.
I have also seen a less pleasant side of people, those who use their issue of choice as a shield to build up their own ego and bludgeon others, often at the expense of those very people who are trying to improve the world for others, while tarnishing their own cause by association.
What is an animal social justice warrior, exactly?
While the term “social justice warrior” started gaining momentum with the Gamergate brouhaha specifically in reference to progressive views and speech, the prevailing wisdom is that the term has evolved to encompass a wide array of armchair activists who care less about outcomes and more about dogpiles. No one has specifically defined what it means in our sphere, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it right here.
It matters to us, as animal welfare advocates, healthcare providers, and educators, because we’re often the ones being targeted. Here’s what I’ve observed, over and over:
- It starts from a good place.
Most of the time, people start on a course of advocacy for an issue they truly believe in: maybe it’s ear cropping, or vaccine safety, or feral cat rescue. Good topics that good people can get behind, which is why it is so hard to call them out. But then something goes sideways.
- Facts become less important than emotion as time goes on and the ‘army’ grows.
As momentum builds with a social justice warrior’s campaign, enemies are identified and the followers are called upon to ‘take them down’ on social media, which can be annoying for a large pharmaceutical company but devastating for a small business owner or individual. Sometimes it’s very hard to dispute the ugliness of the original offense (like the guy who killed Cecil the Lion), but other times the dogpile results in something far worse than the original problem: people losing jobs, people erroneously identified as child predators. By the time the error is identified, the damage has been done.
- Methods are as important as ideas.
When a social justice warrior really gets going, they often work to recruit others to the cause. Sometimes those people demur, not because they disagree with the original idea, but because the seek and destroy tactics make them uncomfortable. They become the enemy. There is no allowance to exist in parallel.
- There is no room for discussion.
This is when you know the game is over, so to speak. Are you allowed to point out an erroneous fact? No. Question a topic? No. At this point, the social justice warrior’s ego has become more important than the actual topic at hand, and no amount of reasoning will change their mind. In fact, it only makes them dig their heels in more. You’ve just given them one more ‘enemy’ to bounce off of.
What does this mean for you, the pet lovers of the world?
If you’re the owner of a small business, rescue, or work with an organization, you may find yourself in the crosshairs for some or other perceived wrong. I’ll talk about what does and doesn’t seem to help in another post, because it’s happening more and more.
How to Spot an Animal Social Justice Warrior
But even you, the general audience out there on the web, has a role to play in this. Before joining a cause or supporting an advocate, ask yourself this:
- How do they respond to constructive criticism? With acknowledgment, or anger?
- Do they have a revolving door of bullies who they claim are always trying to silence them? Do they ever talk to someone with an opposing view in a respectful dialogue?
- How do they encourage action? Do they link to legitimate organizations doing real world work, or is it limited to online petitions, reviews, and Facebook arguments?
- What emotions are they playing to? When you look at their page, do you feel empowered to make a positive difference, or just angry at the world?
If you think this is about one person, you’re wrong. I can’t even point to any one in particular because the truth is, there are too many to list. People like this don’t help the causes, they hurt them. They make animal advocates look bad, incapable of compromise, cooperation, and nuance. Be aware, and ask yourself what the real goals are before liking, sharing, or sending money. Real advocacy exists, but this isn’t it.
We still have lots of work to do, but this isn’t the way to do it.
My mother was not a great cook. I think she would happily cop to that. She made spaghetti, burnt steak, and stuck underseasoned chicken breasts in the oven until they turned rubbery. Her mother was not a great cook either. She was Irish, so I guess that was part of her legacy to boil everything until it fell apart and all the taste seeped out, or so she claimed.
However, her father was French, so she inherited a different type of culinary genius: boy could she bake. If I had to choose one of the two to excel in, it’s pastry chef every time. Banana bread. Cranberry muffins. Christmas sugar cookies with just the right frosting:cookie ratio. And her New England birthright, the whoopie pie.
Every Christmas, she would bake piles of these little crack blobs and send them to every corner of the States, where otherwise mild-mannered humans would turn into ravenous wolves and tear into them until nothing was left but a small pile of chocolate crumbs and the satisfied groans of bellies bloated with marshmallow creme. And when my kids were older, they took my place up at the counter to learn the great tradition of cookie decorating:
They weren’t bakery perfect, but that’s what made them fun.
Mom would also on occasion bake macaroons, those pasty, blobby coconut things that stick to your teeth and cling to the insides of your esophagus like phlegm. I was not a fan. But one fateful day I wandered into a French bakery and admired the little pastel rows of goodness and light known as French macarons, and everything changed. I picked up a rose flavored one and a lavender one, and I was hooked.
By MachineKeebler (talk).MachineKeebler at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
Before they became wildly popular a year or two ago, they were nearly impossible to find, and I decided that the easiest thing to do would be just to learn how to make them myself. Mom was on board too, ready to add a new treat to her repertoire.
Unfortunately, macarons are known as one of the granddaddies of pastry making, a confection as temperamental as an 80s hair band vocalist. Beat the meringue too long? Ruined. Not long enough? Ruined. Also able to ruin them: temperature too high, too low, overmixing, undermixing, high humidity, Mercury in retrograde, wrong rack in oven, playing country music while baking, etc, etc.
It only made me more determined to unlock their secrets, so last year I procured a cookbook, 5 bags of almond flour, and spent an afternoon in the kitchen with my mother ruining macarons.
After 3 or so batches, we were able to get a cookie sheet out of the oven with at least half of them edible, and we considered this a great success.
“Next year,” she said, “We’ll have this down.”
We never did get to practice together after that.
So a couple of weeks ago, with this echoing in my mind, I realized I needed to finish what we started and make some damn macarons. They are not like making a batch of chocolate chip cookies where you screw it up a little, meh, still fine.
Macarons are an event. You need to prepare. You need to think about things. You need to time everything just so, knowing the difference between firm meringue and soft, how many folds it takes before the stiff batter melts into pipable lava, make sure to bang the tray on the counter a few times, you need to rest the cookie before you bake it so you get those little crusty feet. Getting it right is like finding the keyhole into the Misty Mountain, a perfect meeting of all the right tiny details.
And even when you do all of this right, they still get messed up. Sometimes they slant to the left like a manhole askew, sometimes the foot sticks to the pan and all you get is the top half, or they’re overdone and crunchy all the way through. Piles wind up in the trash. And every once in a while you hit the jackpot and get a perfectly done shell, and then- then, it’s magic. Crunchy and chewy and delicate and unlike any other thing out there, and you think to yourself, I have reached nirvana.
Manic Pixie Baker
I went into manic baking mode this week. Between the 3 dozen macarons I took to a cookie exchange (and lost the contest to a BROWNIE, what the heck is that about?), the teacher gifts, the ones my husband wants to bring into work, I can’t keep them in the fridge before they get carted out. Biscoff gingerbread. Pistachio. Cherry cordial. Eggnog. Nutella. I was a macaron machine.
I could have just gone and bought them, I suppose, or picked one of any thousands of easier cookies to make. But there is something special about giving someone a perfectly tied teensy box of macarons that makes a recipient light up- even when the cookies are imperfect, which most of them are. Because you are basically presenting a box that says, “I wasted 40 hours of my life swearing at a bowl of egg whites in order to bring you this,” and when the person squees in delight, you realize it’s not a waste after all.
In the hours I spent in meditative contemplation over a tray of almond meal, it really started to sink in as to why I felt such a need to get it right, to fulfill this promise to my mom that I would nail this cookie in a manner befitting my birthright. Whether or not they came out perfectly was completely beside the point, an added bonus but not necessary.
They are, simply put, a confectionary metaphor for life itself. They’re never going to be perfect. There’s always going to be one more way you can make them better. It takes time and effort and patience to get to the end and it still may not be what you wanted, but oh, even then, it was worth it.
What you bring to the party, and what you give to others from your own heart and hands- it is worth it. Never stop giving.
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.
In 2014, a young, vibrant woman named Brittany Maynard moved from the home in California she had known all her life so that she could die on her own terms in Oregon. Diagnosed with glioblastoma, arguably one of the most monstrous forms of cancer in this world, Maynard was willing to uproot her life, put her face out into the world, and share a most intimate decision with a universe of strangers in order to help people understand why someone might make the decision to hasten their death.
With little fanfare and no more than a small sidebar in the local newspaper, California has just become the fifth state to legalize assisted death for terminally ill patients. When I read it, on a plane on my way to deliver a talk on how we deal with death in our culture, I cried. I cried for Maynard, and for my mother (seen here on the left at last year’s Fourth of July bash), and for me.
Like so many others, I was transfixed with Maynard’s bravery in opening herself up to scrutiny and criticism. I put myself in her place and wondered what I would have done in the same situation. As a veterinarian who routinely helps people gently end the lives of pets suffering from terminal disease, the idea is not as challenging to me as it is to many. Especially with brain cancer- something that can rob you of the essence of who you are, turn you into someone else, snaking its way without order or reason through your control panel until your body can no longer hang on.
It is, to me, one of the most petrifying propositions out there.
So when my own young and vibrant mother was diagnosed with the very same cancer not five months after Maynard’s death, I fell to my knees and cried with grief, with anger, and above all with terror. For we, too, live in California, and my mother’s delicate health by the time she was diagnosed did not allow us the luxury of moving anywhere. Three weeks before her diagnosis, she was hiking though Red Rock. Three weeks after, she was bedbound. It happened that quickly.
My entire family was focused on my dear Aunt Michele’s mobility, and no one knew what was brewing with my Mom.
I found myself preoccupied with fear for my mother, and worry about what I might do if her pain and suffering were unable to be controlled. Hospice and palliative care is excellent, but even that has its limits. People I thought were my friends sent me all sorts of horror stories they have heard about this cancer, expressing remorse at the news and the hope that my mother, ever so dignified, would not be one who would lose it all in the fugue of neoplasia.
I am really good at delivering an easy death. I have access to drugs no one else can get, and they are remarkable. We can give them to dogs and cats and rats and horses, but not to people. People have to ride it out on cocktails with middling degrees of efficacy. Our own perceptions make it worse: more than half of palliative care professionals have been accused of “euthanasia or murder” by providing adequate palliation to dying people, because euthanasia for a pet is mercy but for a human is dastardly. We have a long way to go in how we think of these things.
Fearing the Loss of Control
Instead of concentrating on my time with my mother, I spent most of it worrying- what would I do if the meds stopped working? How would I respond if she asked me to help her die? How could I refuse? How could I say yes? I had no reassurance that the necessary tools to control the situation were in my toolbox, and that took away from so many little moments I wish I could have back.
In the end, my mother’s cancer took mercy on her. She died quickly, as she wished, and never once complained of pain. She forgot things, felt sleepy, and drifted off oh so gently into that good night. It was a blessing, strange as it sounds. She willed herself to progress the way she wanted.
Had we been given access to life ending drugs, she would likely have filled the prescription.
Had she filled the prescription, secure in the knowledge that she had some control, she would not have taken them. There is no doubt in my mind. She didn’t need them. It doesn’t change my mind one bit as to their necessity, doesn’t make me any less inclined to cheer this new law and fight any who would seek its appeal. It would not have changed the medicine, but it would have changed the emotion, the fear, and the terror.
Because it’s not the inevitability of the outcome that matters in these situations, it’s the little bits of control we are given in times where so much of it has been taken away.
And that would have changed so much.
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