Ambush

Sweet Old Con
Westmark’s No-Cut Contract January 22, 1988 – April 19, 2003

Sweet old Con. My big-headed puppy. She was the daughter of Buck and my first Lab together, the queen-like Amanda Blackvelvet. After Contract’s death in 2003 at fifteen, irreplaceable Maggie, (Maggie the Wonder Dog), joined us and shared adventures until her difficult struggle with hip dysplasia and arthritis of the spine ended in November of 2011. Trolling my computer hard drive looking for a photo having absolutely nothing to do with dogs becomes a pop-up arcade. Memories ambush my heart. Most of what I know of dignity, loyalty, and grace, I learned from them.

Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life, as a dog does his master’s chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth, and gnaw it still. — Henry David Thoreau

Romancing the Road Trip

 On the road again, goin’ places that I’ve never been. Seein’ things that I may never see again. And I just can’t wait to get on the road again.  Willie Nelson, from On the Road Again

Sometimes you just want to get the hell out of Dodge, skedaddle, vamoose and let the Devil take the hindmost. Other times there’s something way across country that you have a burning desire to see and experience. Sometimes the muse is bored and needs stimulation. And sometimes the spaces all over the house the beloved old dog occupied get too damn empty to bear. When Buck and I hit the road a few weeks ago, it was a big, messy gumbo pot sloshing over the sides with all of these reasons and more.

I woke up this morning smelling fried chicken. Only memory, but a potent thread in the cotton quilt of childhood family road trips. Those trips were “back home” to see the folks on the farm. Daddy’s people were in Dixonville, Alabama, a spot between the small towns of Brewton, Alabama and Jay, Florida . Mother’s clan plowed and preached from Newton, Mississippi and its environs, from Meridian to Kosciusko, Hattiesburg, and all sorts of burgs in between, including Morton, Pelahatchie, Brandon, Pearl and Barefoot Springs.

Those childhood road trips were a pilgrimage from the city, either Miami or Tampa, back to the farm; a touchstone. The night before these long car rides, Mother fried great batches of chicken, deviled dozens of eggs, baked biscuits and cornbread, and brewed sweet “is there any other kind” tea. She packed her ever-present can of Lysol for her “you kids stay in the car” motel inspections. And we headed out.

For children, it’s all about the destination. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? But for those of us who have more summer days behind us than we have ahead, the in-the-moment, make-it-last-as-long-as-it-can journey is the prize.

Heading out is the celebratory opening salvo for any road trip. Whatever happens next cannot be predicted, and that is part of the shivery, little-kid excitement of the adventure.

That day came for us on a pretty morning in late April: too early to worry about a hurricane hitting while we were gone, and early enough to miss caravans of families traveling with kids on summer vacation. The car was filled with liquid black gold, rain-washed and ready to load. Despite vows that we would not, we loaded it with too much; everything but the African Violet in the kitchen, it seemed.

We turned off the water, checked the thermostat, made sure all doors were locked, and then stood silently in separate rooms of the house mentally going over the details, pondering what we might be leaving undone, pondering our ambitious agenda, pondering. One more self-appraising glance in the foyer mirror and I was out the door, into the unknown. Of course, it’s all unknown, but travel tends to focus the mind.

The Pensacola Hotel for Dogs and Cats

I’d had my eye on the good folks  at the Pensacola Hotel for Dogs and Cats for a while, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take Maggie’s beds, mats, brushes and dishes to them to use for their furry charges. They are an adoption and rescue shelter for abandoned dogs and cats and run solely on donations, so money and supplies are always needed. They have an exceptional Facebook presence, and give a steady stream of updates like this one:

ADOPTION UPDATE: Juicy Fruit, our sweet little pug went to her forever home today. We thank the new family of Juicy Fruit for opening their heart and home to this most deserving little soul.

Or this:

HOTEL WISH LIST: Many people call and ask what is hotel in need of. The following is a wish list of needed items: Iams Mini Chunks DRY dog food(green package), inexpensive non-scoopable cat litter, plastic litter boxes, Friskies or Purina dry cat chow, paper towels, odaban or bleach, and any type of used linens, such as sheets, towels, blankets, bed pillows, dog beds, dog/cat toys. We, and our furry friends appreciate your donations. Thank You.

About ten days ago, I transferred all of Maggie’s things from the big closet where I had hidden them from sight into the trunk of our car and drove across town to the Pensacola Hotel for Dogs and Cats. It was a Wednesday, and they weren’t open, so I left everything on the porch and took a few pictures of this place that exudes such a sweet spirit. And then I cried all the way home.

comfort and joy

Christmas outfits for Chance, almost 11 months old.

Nothing like buying adorable clothes for an 11-month-old baby girl and her 4 year old sister to shape up a person’s attitude.

Yesterday was tough. I finally went back to Spanish Trail Veterinary Hospital to pick up Maggie’s ashes. I put it on my “to do” list to try to fool myself into making it emotion-neutral: 1. Spanish Trail 2. Christmas shopping 3. Publix grocery. Of course, the two days I spent before the “errand” preparing a small book for the hospital staff of funny/sweet Maggie stories and photos of Maggie mountain hiking with us, walking the woods, helping to host a dinner party, and playing around the pool didn’t exactly set the stage for an emotion-neutral errand to pick up the small, tasteful container in a very nice burlap and evergreen shopping bag containing the eternally condensed version of the Ambassadog of Goodwill.

All the kids at Spanish Trail converged on me with hugs. I call them kids. They’re 20-35 years old, probably. Terrific kids. We cried and we laughed. We celebrated Maggie. They had only known Maggie at the end of her life, when she was sick and in pain most of the time. It was important to me that they know this last part was not all of her life; that she was some kind of magnificent dog with a big, active life and a vibrant personality; a champion and the best friend two human beings could ever have.

Stuffed animals come out of hibernation every year.

It rained yesterday. We had a tornado warning until 5 p.m. I needed windshield wipers for my eyes while I tried to focus on shopping for the little girls, my great-grandchildren. Here I am, a 60-year-old woman with no children who hates shopping (and doesn’t know much about it), driving around with blurry eyes in a high wind and heavy rain, on a shopping expedition for children’s’ clothes. I think I would rather be on a quest for the Holy Grail. It would be easier.

Wrapped (or at least bagged) gifts for Jorja, the 4-year-old.

It was wonderful to get back home, damp and windblown, but safe. Buck arrived a few minutes after I did. He and his son Richard had shared lunch and a good, long visit. Richard lives in D.C. now and is thriving in his career and loving the urban life. Rides his bicycle everywhere. He’ll be over Christmas Eve, along with the rest of the gang, for our traditional lasagna supper.

The brass quail and their rosy crystal egg stay for a while each Christmas in a golden nest.

This morning the kitchen is bright and bubbling and so am I. Onions and garlic were chopped and sautéed in olive oil first thing. My fingers smell of them when I drink my first mug of coffee. And then, one by one, ingredients are added to the cauldron to make the lasagna meat sauce. My breakfast was a pink grapefruit and a couple of spoons full of the sauce. The sauce will stay in the refrigerator overnight and then warm up for assembly with the pasta and cheese layers tomorrow.

The rain has cleared out and taken with it the oppressive humidity. I even wore a light jacket over my gym shorts down to the gate this morning. I’ve communicated with my brothers and sisters, each of whom I deeply love. I think we’re all really just beginning to know how to love each other. Younger brother Steve is out of the hospital again and back home, hopefully facing a hospital-free new year and strength to work in his garden. Tomorrow night with Buck and my step-kids, grands and great-grands from 11-months to 53 years will be joyful, loving chaos. Lasagna, red wine, chocolate, singing and hugs. Lots of hugs. I found this marvelous quote at a lovely Scottish Episcopal blog, love blooms bright.

This is the irrational season  when love blooms bright and wild.  Had Mary been full of reason  there’d have been no room for the child.

— Madeline L’Engle

Merry Christmas all y’all, and best wishes for a happy, healthy new year full of grand adventures. I am listening to the classic Christmas channel on Pandora while I write. All of a sudden, Christmas has come into my heart, and it feels like miracles are possible.

Visitation

When an Io moth, whose short life won’t last beyond the next morning, flies straight to you when you’re standing in a forest clearing, stays on your tee-shirt for 5 minutes and then migrates to your wrist and won’t leave you, what’s a person to think?   I memorialized our encounter with a photograph. I said, “Do you have a message for me?”  The moth moved its feelers on my skin. I took that for a yes, and walked over to a leafy bush. Message delivered, the moth settled itself on a small branch. Call me crazy, but I’ll take my comfort where I find it, and I feel better.

Brine

Brine is a mixture of salt and various flavoring agents. It is used for tenderizing,  aging and mellowing, similar to the way salty tears work on a person’s heart. Without tears shed over the course of a lifetime, a person my age would have an obdurate rock in place of a tender heart.

I am well-seasoned, tender, and aged, full of the blessings of being loved by our wonderful dogs, each unique, each held in our memories: Southern Comfort’s Lady Maggie, Westmark’s No-Cut Contract, and Amanda Blackvelvet.

I am ready to accept and honor Maggie’s many loving lessons that have made me a better person, and walk in the sunshine once again. I’ve said many times that the only thing higher than the price of loving is the price of not loving.

Maggie with her ribbons auditions for adoption with us in 2003. She joined our family in May that year, when she retired from the Field Trial life in Alabama (where this photograph was made).
Maggie in her prime, in the black pick-up truck, waiting for Buck.

Southern Comfort’s Lady Maggie

August 3, 1999 – November 22, 2011

Epitaph to a Dog 

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown by Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,
Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one – and here he lies. — Lord Byron

I’m Back. Sort of.

It’s a warm, foggy morning on Monday, December 5. These are the first words I’ve written in a blog format for a while.  I miss the parallel world of blog friends.  I miss the way even a tiny neighborhood in the blogosphere forces me to engage with the world. I think when I stopped blogging publicly a few months ago, I realized that big losses were coming, and God knows I didn’t want to — couldn’t — preside over them in an interactive blog with readers, not even one with good, kind-hearted and sensitive ones such as yourselves.

When you’re in grief, you don’t want to talk.

We lost our Maggie on November 22,  two days before Thanksgiving.

I still can’t write about it. Today is the first time I’ve put her name on the screen and been forced to confront this particular iteration of loss.

Enough for today.

Mornings with Maggie

Every morning until daylight savings time ends on November 6 will be a little darker at the same minute. When I go to fetch Maggie from her bed in the garage, I turn on lights as I go, so the old dog will be able to see her way to the glass doors for pee time in the back yard. I’m afraid not to wake her at the same hour, because dogs have this internal clock, and now that we have established this routine, I don’t want her kidneys and bowels to wake up without me. Been there. Done that. Not a great way to start the morning.

And so I take Maggie’s Denimarin pill — supposedly chewable, but it smells yeasty and disgusting, like one of those old-style health food store vitamins. I break it in half, then wrap each half in a beef-flavored “pill pocket.” Then I go to the garage, turn on all the lights,greet Maggie and  hold out the pills in offering. She is awake, stretched out with her head up, and regards me as if to say, “I’m pretty comfortable. Do we really have to do this now?” But in that stoic way of dogs, where they let you know that they think what you want them to do is stupid, but because they love you they will do it anyway, she struggles to get her back legs underneath her, steadies herself, and follows me outside into the semi-darkness onto the concrete patio. We are immediately enveloped in a light mist.  Maggie loves water; hates rain. She turns around to go back in, but I have closed the glass door. I walk all the way out on the concrete past the swimming pool to encourage her. We are in this together, at least to the extent possible. She stands there, considers, then walks slowly out to where I am standing and then onto the grass and does her business. “Satisfied?”

By then, we’re both a little damp. She drinks some water from the bowl on the patio. This portion of the morning’s routine complete, we go back inside, where she carefully lowers herself to the soft mat in our work area, to wait for breakfast at 7:30.

Some good news here: Dr. Reynolds called me with Maggie’s first blood work results since the first one with those dangerously high liver enzyme numbers. Her ALT is way back down and is now within normal range. The AST is still slightly elevated, but is moving in the right direction. Maggie’s big problem right now is pain and lack of mobility. The docs feel like we can try an NSAID called Deramaxx. They are sending it directly to us from the veterinary supply house via UPS overnight. It should arrive today. We’re only getting a 7-day supply to start with. If there are no side effects (other than pain relief) then Li’l Brown Sugar should be in for some better days. We’re nervous, but a little hopeful.

One note on the cleverness of a smart dog like Maggie: she has become pill-wise and food-smart. I wrap her pills in a flavored “pill pocket.” They come in chicken, beef or salmon flavors. Maggie likes them. I noticed yesterday that she took a pill in her mouth, then spit it back out onto the patio, meticulously licked the pill clean of the flavored covering, and left the pill there. She looked at me. I looked at her. We had a stare-off. She finally picked up the pill and swallowed it. I won this battle, but she won the war on food. She apparently came to the conclusion that she wanted better-tasting food, something to make that dry, expensive stuff more palatable. So she went on a hunger strike for two days. I didn’t know if she just felt too poorly to eat, or if she was, well, playing me. Got my answer. I bought some little frou-frou dog meals in small containers that look and smell better than many of the meals I cook and mixed in a little bit with her dry food. Suddenly, tail up, nose sniffing, “Give me my dinner, hurry up, won’t you?”  Loves it, she does. Now, at dinner time, we’re both smiling. That was one war I was very happy to lose.

Maggie’s Fortune Cookie

Just before lights out every night, Buck takes Maggie for a walk outside. He jogs around the concrete pool deck while she ruffles up her fur and pretends to protect us from the deer just on the other side of the fence. That excitement usually stimulates her kidneys, producing the desired result.

They come back in the house. He stands at attention. She sits close by his left side. "Are you ready for your cookie?" he asks. Maggie sidles closer, presses against his leg. "Okay, then," he says.

"Heel!" And they're off, briskly walking from our bedroom through the hall, the bar, the living room, the old part of the house that we call "the lodge," with its office work area, den, bedroom, bathroom and what used to be a one-car garage and is now Maggie's bedroom and our treadmill and weights space. It's actually a pretty long walk.

Then, Buck gives Maggie her "cookie," which is a Milk Bone treat.

A few days ago, Buck came running back into the bedroom after taking Maggie to the garage. "There's been a disaster! Maggie's cookie jar is empty."

"Uhm," I thought, and who is it who has the best handle on the Milk Bone inventory?

"How about a cracker instead?" I said to the back of Buck's navy blue T-shirt as he disappeared out the door.

"I have an idea," he said.

He returned shortly and flipped a strip of paper with words printed on it onto the bed covers in front of me.  It was from a Fortune Cookie. I remembered I had accumulated several in a bowl in the pantry leftover from the occasional Chinese take-out supper.

Your bright outlook

avoids small worries.

Perfect.

IMG_4284_edited-1_edTMP-1
Maggie's bright outlook also makes her a hit at dinner parties. She enjoyed the attentions of Ivy (at the piano), and James and Jane at a gathering of our Christ Church Parish Supper Club last night. Not in the picture are Bob, Gail and John, Buck and that silly brunette photographer.

Diagnosis: Old and Severely Arthritic with Danger of Gastric Volvulus

Who would have thought Buck and I would be relieved to hear this diagnosis from our veteranarian and friend, Dr. Chere Ernest, at Scenic Hills Veteranary Clinic?

We dropped Maggie off at the clinic early yesterday morning for a fun day of no food, lots of xrays, poking, prodding and a barium milkshake. A staff person at the front desk told us we could pick Maggie up between 5 and 7. All day without Maggie. Not a happy thought.

Buck and I worked at our desks most of the day. We grimly battled a cut-throat stock market to a standstill, and then went outside to mow grass. He took the small push mower to cut around corners and sidewalks. I laid waste to grass in the back yard on the riding mower.

The phone had not rung all day, but I was sure that as soon as we went outside and were out of earshot, Chere would call. That's the way it usually happens. I put the little John Deere back under the shed and went inside, a confetti of cut grass sticking to my sweaty face.

No messages. I called. A nice-voiced young man said Maggie was fine and that we could come get her. "Fine?" I asked. "Do you know she is fine? Really?"

"Um, I meant to say she's fine. She's comfortable. And that Dr. Ernest will show you and your husband the xrays and talk with you when you get here."

"Oh."

Buck was just parking the little mower when I went out to get him. We jumped into the pool to rinse off the sweat, then threw on shorts and t-shirts and drove to see Chere and get the word.

Our fear, and her's too, was that Maggie had cancer. Her abdomen was so tight last Friday when Chere felt her, and the xrays showed her guts all pushed together strangely. There wasn't a tumor, but Chere showed us the xrays of Maggie's poor spine, which showed a remarkable degree of degenerative arthritis.

I kept waking up last night with imagined scenes of Maggie as a very young dog being trained by her first owner to become a field trial champion. How young did the training start? Was her immature skeletal system overworked and stressed by the impact of all that leaping and the competitive trials? I doubt it, and in any case, those thoughts are nothing more than fruitless, middle-of-the-night speculation. She came to us in April of 2003, when her owner knew he could not breed her due to a diagnosis of hip dysplasia. Maggie has been a lovely gift of light since her first day with us.

I don't know how to explain it very well, but it seems that the abnormalities in the vertebrae are causing problems with nerves in Maggie's belly, and creating motility problems. This can make her more susceptible to a highly dangerous condition called canine bloat (or gastric volvulus).

Chere recommended several approaches: first, to change Maggie's diet to more frequent, smaller meals. Next, to change her food to Hill's Science Diet for Active Seniors. There are other things, like making sure that she doesn't gulp lots of water, or exercise shortly before or after eating. Chere told us to stroke Maggie's belly and be sure it doesn't feel tight, and isn't tender or swollen.  We'll continue the glucosomine condroitin and fish-oil capsules to help with her arthritis.

Mostly, we'll continue to treat her like the privileged character and great friend she is, and celebrate her dearness every moment she is with us.

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"Don't you just hate waiting for the doctor to  open that door? Then again, maybe she'll have a cookie for me."

Maggie Ribbons
When Buck and I had lost our beloved black Lab, Westmark's No-Cut Contract, who died in March, 2003 at almost 16, we swore we would wait at least a year to get another dog. Then someone called us about Maggie. I insisted they email us a photograph. I didn't want to drive over to Alabama and feel pressured into taking home a dog that we didn't have a chemistry with, and risk the awful-ness of either keeping it or returning it.

Soon as this photo of Maggie came on the screen, I told Buck, "Get the truck keys. Let's go get our dog." I always thought Maggie looked like a bright orphan auditioning for a new home in this picture. She hopped in the club cab of our truck and never looked back.