The Best of the Best

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When I was a child we had exactly one dog. His name was Buddy and he was one of the finest pets ever.  Buddy was a beautiful collie that we rescued from the local animal shelter. He was still rather young when we decided to make him a member of our family. He already had his name and we decided not to change it lest he be confused. We saw that he was already a bit nervous about coming home with us and we wanted to let him know that he was going to be safe.

Buddy was smart and always gentle. Even though he was a very big dog we sensed that we did not need to be afraid that he might harm us. Back in those days most animals lived outside all of the time and so it was with Buddy. We let him inside the house for short visits but mostly his domain was inside the fence that marked the extent of our property behind the house. Because he was an energetic dog from a breed known for herding sheep he enjoyed running around the perimeter as though he was a sentinel watching over us. Before long he had created a grassless pathway marking his exercise track.

We always felt quite safe with Buddy acting as our security system. While we understood that he was as mild    as a lamb, outsiders were afraid of his ferocious bark and his tenacious insistence that nobody that he did not know should get past him or dare to enter the yard. We never worried about marauders intruding into our home when Buddy was on guard.

It did not take Buddy long to learn how to climb the chain link fence so that he might explore the neighborhood. In the beginning we worried that he might never return when he wandered away but he always found his way back home before dark, waiting patiently at the gate until we let him back inside his province. After a time Buddy became a celebrity of sorts in the neighborhood. Everyone seemed to know and love him. They watched over him when he took his strolls and guided him back in our direction when he appeared to be a bit confused about how to get back to his little empire.

Our garage was attached to the house but we had to cross under a little covered porch to actually get to an entry door that went directly into the kitchen. Our mom kept Buddy’s food and water under the roof of the porch and always left the side door to the garage ajar so that Buddy would be able to find shelter from rain or cold weather conditions. Mama kept a quilt in there for Buddy to use when he was sleeping but he generally slumbered right in front of the back door to the house as though he was our protector.

My brothers taught Buddy a few tricks but mostly he was just a good fellow who loved us with every fiber of his being. When our friends came around he was as sweet to them as he was to us. I recall a time when I found a little neighbor boy of no more than about three years old hitting Buddy with a thin board that had a nail on the end. Amazingly Buddy endured the pain that the boy was inflicting on him as though he realized that the child was too young to understand what he was doing. Buddy was always like that. He loved all of the kids in our neighborhood.

In the summers my mother had Buddy’s hair cut so that he would not be too hot. He always looked a bit like a lion because the groomer left his mane intact and kept a little ball of hair on the end of his tail. Years later I would learn that he was probably better off with his coat intact but so much was different then and people didn’t possess as much knowledge about how best to care for dogs. They thought that dogs were simply animals who belonged in the great outdoors. I don’t think I knew a single person who kept a pet inside the house unless it was a hamster, a fish or a snake.

Eventually my brothers and I grew older and so too did Buddy. His coat that had once gleamed with a healthy sheen became mostly gray and white, especially around his muzzle. He walked rather than ran and his fence climbing adventures ceased. He spent most of his time sleeping under a big fig tree. He ate less and less and had to make more and more visits to see the veterinarian for little problems. Still he defied the odds of having an exceptionally long life by easing into his twelfth year of faithful service to our family and fourteenth year of life. One day when I was about nineteen I noticed that he had not touched his morning meal. I found him panting under the fig tree and he was unable to even lift his head to acknowledge my presence. It looked dire for him and I knew he needed medical attention quickly. Since nobody else was home and I did not drive I called on help from a friend who quickly came to the rescue.

We drove Buddy to see the vet who had always cared for him with a sense of deep sorrow and foreboding. His breathing was shallow and he seemed unable to move. An aide had to carry him inside for us and the face of the doctor was grim as he surveyed Buddy’s condition. I suppose I knew all along that Buddy was dying but I kept hoping that some miracle might cure his condition. Sadly it was not meant to be. I stood in a state of shock as the kindly veterinarian announced that the only compassionate thing to do would be to put Buddy to sleep.

That was the first time that I had to let go of a beloved pet. Even knowing that it was the most humane thing to do it tore at my heart. Buddy was so good, so faithful, so innocent and I could not imagine our family without him. He was our animal brother who loved more deeply and loyally than any human is capable of doing. I hated being the one who had to end his beautiful life.

My brothers and I would have other dogs over the years. They were wonderful in their own right but somehow they never quite gained the status that we reserved for Buddy. He was our childhood pet at a time when our family needed stability and love, two qualities that Buddy gave us without reservation. He was the best of the best, our most beloved and beautiful pet ever. 

The Ultimate Reward

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My doctors always ask for an updated family medical history. Mine demonstrates a rather promising line of longevity. The youngest age at which any of my ancestors died of natural causes is eighty two, my paternal grandmother who had colon cancer. She used to always say that everyone in her family died from gut trouble so I suppose that to some extent her fate was almost inevitable. She ignored her own symptoms when they first arose. She was too busy working on her farm to worry about what she saw as trivialities. By the time things got worse she had waited too long to be saved. The doctors tried a few things but ultimately sent her home to die. There was no Medicare back then so her end wiped out my grandfather financially but his only complaint about that was that he had lost his “buddy.”

My mom lasted until the age of eighty four. She had lung cancer no doubt brought on by smoking which she unwittingly did until she was forty. Everyone enjoyed the habit when she was young. It would be decades before smoking was linked to so many diseases. By then the damage to her lungs was already done. Like my grandmother, Mama mostly ignored her symptoms until they became pronounced. Early detection and treatment might have allowed her to reach her mid nineties like her sisters but she had an aversion to doctors and tended to avoid them as much as possible.

My maternal grandmother lived until she was eighty eight years old. She never left her home aside from an occasion when her appendix burst and she had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance. She recovered from that scare with no problem and lived quietly and happily without ever stepping a foot from her property. Without regular medical care it was inevitable that something would overtake her as she aged otherwise I suspect that she may have lived as long as the three of her daughters who made it past ninety.

My paternal grandfather made it well past one hundred before things began to fall apart. We became so accustomed to his constant presence that it was shocking when he actually died. He had seemed to be somehow immortal as each year passed leaving him as spry as he had always been.

Since I’ve had problems with my gastric system for many years I suspect that my paternal grandmother’s prediction that gut trouble will one day take me down is fairly accurate. I’ve regularly visited a gastroenterologist since I was in my forties so I’ve managed to control any problems and keep them rather minor. Barring accidents or the unexpected I may actually follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and my mother’s three sisters. That means that I have a good shot at being around for another twenty five or thirty years.

It boggles my mind to think in those terms. I realize that my grandchildren will be middle aged if I make it that long and my daughters will be numbered among the elderly. I worry a bit about my potential for being a burden on them. They are quite loving and would be appalled to think that I have such concerns but I know full well how difficult it can be to care for an aging parent who can no longer live independently. It becomes a tremendously demanding task financially, physically and emotionally.

I am in awe of individuals who care for an elderly parent. I’ve watched friends and cousins devote untold hours to the task. They rarely complain but I witness how tired and stressful the job is for them. A lingering illness in a loved one takes its toll on everyone. I find that nobody wants to do that to their children but sometimes they outlast even their sons and daughters just as my grandfather did. Extreme old age can be lonely.

Life is uncertain. None of us know when our time here will end. I’d like to think that when I finally reach those final days that I will be as courageous and undemanding as my mother and grandmothers were. All three of them made us feel that they were comfortable with the thought of leaving this earth just as God had planned it for them. They gave us a beautiful gift of calm and certainty that they were ready. Somehow their deaths became celebrations of their lives.

I have been a somewhat competitive person for most of my life. I must admit that I do like to win and be noticed and honored. I’ve received a few awards here and there. I find that the joy in receiving them is somewhat fleeting. Life is a series of challenges and if the focus is always on excelling beyond others, it can become tiresome and meaningless. In the end the great joy of living is found in fulfilling a purpose, no matter how humble that may be. It is about loving and doing for others and using the talents that each of us have to one extent or another.

In spite of what Yoda advises there is greatness in trying. If every person tried to be the best versions of themselves our world would be even more wonderful than it already is. We make a mark on this earth not through fame or fortune or achievement but by the manner in which we treat the people who come our way. Each of us will be remembered by individuals whose hearts we have touched. There is no better reward than that.

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

The Three

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I was challenged to create three doable goals, things that I might actually be able to achieve in my lifetime. Since I am already in my seventies the odds are rather good that I won’t be doing anything that requires many years to accomplish or athleticism that I am unlikely to develop at this late stage of the game of life. Instead my three goals are rather modest because I have already done the big things that I hoped to do. My life is slower and more peaceful since retirement and so too will be my goals.

The book that I have written hangs over me like a nagging tyrant. I only need to get someone to create a cover for it and format it for printing and I can instantly put it on the market.  Heretofore I have allowed outside circumstances to distract me from that task. I suppose that I have also unconsciously worried that the response to my writing efforts will be ignored, or even worse, criticized. It’s time for me to screw up my courage and get the job done. I will be quite disappointed with myself if this year ends and I have not yet made that one important task come to fruition. It’s been eight years since I composed the final chapter of my memoir. Now it’s well past time to bring it into the light of day for all to hopefully read.

I also want to travel as much as possible while my health allows me to do so. There are so many places that I still want to explore. Vacations to different parts of the world comprise many of my fondest memories and I’m still healthy and energetic enough to enjoy the excitement of a good trek. I want to see Italy and perhaps go to the homeland of my immigrant grandparents in Slovakia. Scotland is calling me as is Paris. I have longed to take an Alaskan junket and I still haven’t seen states like Oregon and Idaho. I’d like to go back to New York City and London for a deeper dive into the wonder of those glorious cities. I long to keep going until I no longer am able. There will be time enough to languish around the house when my old bones grow weary. Until then I will keep going and seeing and doing.

My third goal is to keep myself healthy and alert. That means developing a routine of diet and exercise that will make the most of my aging body. It will require a willingness to continue to learn and change with the times. I want to stay fit and woke, surrounding myself with positive people and experiences. I want to go into my twilight years with few regrets which means that I have to aggressively keep in mind that a failing body or mind will limit my ability to accomplish other things. I’ve ordered The Blue Zones Kitchen cookbook and plan to follow recipes that have proven to help with longevity. I also intend to head back to the gym with a vengeance that was sorely lacking last year.

I have no idea what actually lies ahead for me or for the rest of the world. I’ve seen things change on a dime in my lifetime and read about cataclysms in history that upended lives in unexpected and dramatic ways. Nonetheless I’m not yet ready or willing to retire to the comfort of my home living a quiet existence as I wait for the final chapters of my life. I long to write them instead by controlling as much as I can and reacting to challenges as they arise.

I do not plan to go gently into that good night, at least for now, unless I truly believe that it is God’s will for me to hang up my spurs. The beginning of this year was punctuated with the deaths of two dear people who fought valiantly against the dying of the light. My cousin extended her time here on earth beyond the predictions of her doctor. She willed herself to squeeze every waking minute out of her waning days. My aunt was told many years ago that she would not walk again but she defied the odds through sheer determination. She refused to surrender to other people’s beliefs about what she might accomplish. It was only in the last couple of years as she approached her ninety fifth birthday that she began to noticeably slow down bodily, but her mind was still as strong as ever. Only a day or so before she died she beat the younger members of her family in a game of intellectual skill. She went to her grave the winner that she always was.

My idols are the people who refuse to allow the specter of old age to daunt them. They operate as though they are still young at heart, making the most of every single day for as long as they can. My grandfather read and quoted a biography of Thomas Jefferson on his one hundred eighth birthday. He walked to the polls to vote in a presidential election when he was almost a hundred years old. He was still building things and doing repairs in his home deep into his nineties. I want to be like him and so my goals revolve around continuing to have a purpose. I intend to keep tutoring students in math, writing each day, taking care of business until my mind and body prevent me from doing so, My three goals reflect my determination.

If I were to take after my relations I might still have over thirty years to make a difference on this earth. I’m not done yet, so it’s time for me to get with the program and meet those three goals.

A New Revolution

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There are moments for almost everyone when it feels as though an entire lifetime of experiences occur in the space of only a few weeks. It is as though one is riding on the most exhilarating and frightening roller coaster ever invented. The ups and downs are so extreme and come so quickly that emotions have no time to adjust and instead leave the person feeling numb and exhausted.

I have a dear friend who recently endured one of those condensed versions of This Is Your Life, reeling from the rapidity at which her entire world was changing. Fortunately she is an amazingly wise woman who sought help and was willing to ride the wave until it left her on the shore of normalcy. By year’s end she was celebrating her survival with people who truly loved her and speaking of taking things slowly while she can.

I’m old enough to have experienced a number of instances when it felt as though I was living through a microcosm of human existence in a brief span of time. While such a thing is happening it always seems as though time truly is relative because in the moment it moves so painfully slowly but in the grand scheme of things it is in fact only a blip in the entirety of history.

My entire world was upended both mentally and physically when my father died. At the age of eight I had not yet even imagined the possibility of such a thing happening particularly since my family had been planning so many fun adventures like weekends at the beach, a whole summer of freedom from school, moving to a brand new home. Suddenly we had to adjust to a strange new reality for which none of us had prepared.

The feelings that I experienced as an eight year old child repeated themselves when my mom had her first mental breakdown during my early twenties. I had enjoyed a reprieve from tragedy for twelve years after my father died and I had foolishly imagined that I would never again face such sorrow and emotional distress. I literally dreamed of how grand it would be to simply ignore my responsibility to care for my mother by running away to some wonderful magical place where I would never again be plagued by horrors. Of course there is no such thing as freedom from tragedy as I would learn over the course of many years. I would also realize that we have to deal with the pain that comes with the terrible moments just as my friend has done even when doing that is a grueling process. It takes time and patience to heal.

This past holiday season was one of many contrasts for me. It began with the celebration for my friend who had emerged like a phoenix from the hellish fires that had seemed to consume her. It was with a sense of gratitude, happiness, and inspiration that I toasted her heroic steadfastness. I took my own life by the horns and enjoyed glorious times with friends and family. It felt as though I was gloriously blessed and perhaps even immune to sorrow, but that would have been too simple an analysis of my world because I knew that there were also hardships brewing for many of the people that I love, things that worried me in the still of night.

Somehow many of them came to a head just as the new year was dawning, reminding me that each of our lives are fragile and uncertain in spite of our efforts to control destiny. I had to say final goodbyes to two souls whose light had always made me smile and laugh. I had to watch their closest loved ones struggling to accept a future without them. My emotions and were challenged to the very core and yet in the midst of such sorrow there was a ray of hope. I saw what I had experienced so many times, the power of love. It was there in the people who went out of their way to share their stories and their feelings with one another.

We know for certain that our lives will be a series of repetitions that all of mankind has experienced. We will see births and we will watch deaths. We will come together in a state of happiness and joy as well as mournful sadness. It is a certainty that we must experience both the good and the bad. Hopefully as we do so we will be surrounded by fellow travelers on this earthly journey who will hold our hands and give us the courage to keep going, for there is always a light up ahead and we will find it given enough time and forbearance.

This holiday season has provided me with the precious gift of knowing that I am not alone and that none of us need be so. There will always be good and loving people who are willing to help us carry our burdens and share our joys. We need to be willing to let them into our lives but also to know when we are so weary that it might be best to quietly rest for a time. That gooey ball of feelings is the essence of who we are. We need to embrace both our tears and our laughter while opening our hearts and minds to understanding our own experiences.

We’ve begun a new revolution around the sun and each day there is a new rotation. We are a part of the marvel of that scientific fact. Change will happen. Loss will occur but as long as we still breathe we are not yet in our final act. More is coming our way and so much of it will indeed be very good.