When Life Ends But Love Doesn’t

My grandmother, Anne Carter Webster, passed away at home on Tuesday December 15th. She’d been diagnosed with terminal leukemia a week prior to her death. She was 75 years old.

FullSizeRender(2)

Gammy in 1961

My mom asked if I’d write something to read for the funeral last Tuesday, the 22nd. The following is what I wrote, and subsequently read.

_______________________________________________________

A note before I begin: Anne Carter was our “Gammy,” so feel free to substitute “Gammy” with “Anne” throughout, if you’d like.

FullSizeRender(1)

From L to R, Gammy, Granddaddy (Bob Webster), my mom (Meredith), and Gizmo the 16-year-old miniature poodle

Mary Oliver writes a poem that goes: “To live in this world/ you must be able/ to do three things/ to love what is mortal;/to hold it/ against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;/ and, when the time comes to let it go,/ to let it go.” At some point in life, we all struggle with any of these: how to have the courage to love the transient things and beings we come to know in this world, and how to cope with loss, once death has taken away those we’ve loved. Not to mention how we struggle with our own mortality, our impending, inevitable, mysterious departure from this earth. Mary Oliver calls for us to let go when the time comes, a response that’s imbued with such trust– trust in God, in God’s plan for our lives, and the wisdom of knowing that, sometimes, fighting circumstance accomplishes no more than furthering suffering.

God guided Gammy through a beautiful life, and she knew God would guide her, through death, to a heaven of unimaginable beauty. So then, how do we tackle this paradox- to love Gammy, but to let her go? To cherish her life and memory while accepting her death? This is one of life’s great big beautiful mysteries, isn’t it?- to accept all truths- not just accept, but to let it all in; to let them “violently sweep your house/ empty of its furniture,” as the poet Rumi says– even when they tear at our understanding of justice, or love, or the fundamental laws of the universe.

The great writer Wendell Berry says, “Be joyful/ though you have considered all the facts.” So here are the facts: Gammy had terminal leukemia, and it ended her life. She also lived that life, 75 years of it, among and with us, and she loved us as she trusted God’s plan for her, and for her to be with and love each one of us.

IMG_7937

Gammy holding her two children, my Uncle Penn and my mom

I am reminded of the last conversation I had with Gammy. It was over the phone this past Thanksgiving. I’d just euthanized my dog, Abraham, after a month-long struggle with illness, and she said two things to me. The first, after expressing her sorrow, was, “Aren’t dogs just wonderful?” The second, “You need to get another one.”

What a terrific way to live- to get to say, “that was wonderful,” and, “let’s do it again.” So, if Gammy was your friend, bask in the beauty of that friendship. If she was family, continue to cherish your family now. Because, in the shadow of loss, and sadness, isn’t life still wonderful? Because, by now, I know you’ve considered all the facts- so let us now be joyful, and hold that joy against our bones as if our very lives depended on it because, in a way, they do.

IMG_7938

My mom and Gammy being joyful on my parents’ wedding day in 1985 (my dad is in the background on the left)

What Dogs Teach Us

In the morning I am careful not to step over any of the pawprints dotting the snow in our yard. In fact, I find one with particularly crisp edges, not yet touched by sunlight, and I squat down to touch the cold circles and corners. I do this because, once this snow is gone, no new pawprints of this same shape and size will ever grace our lawn again.

IMG_9101

Matt and I made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize Abe the afternoon of Monday, November 23rd. Abe’s health had been deteriorating for a month, to the point that he was no longer himself, physically or emotionally. Toward the end of this post I detail exactly what happened regarding Abe’s health, in case you are curious, but I’d like this post to be primarily about Abe’s well-lived life, not his death. So in this spirit I continue.

This past summer, at our family beach vacation in North Carolina, my aunt Morgan brought up the subject of pets. My little cousin Catalina, her daughter, had begun asking for a dog. As you can imagine, at the age of 4 she was starting to realize many of her friends had dogs at home. Morgan never grew up with dogs, and didn’t really understand the appeal. To her, it seemed like the only dog stories she ever heard from her friends were how their pets peed on the new carpet, chewed up articles of clothing, racked up vet bills, or ate food straight off the counter. So then, why have a dog?

Thank goodness there are many thousands of lifetimes’ worth of evidence in support of how awesome dogs are. I offer you just one.

I’ve already written about how I came to adopt Abe, my best friend. Matt and I are still in shock from loss but, as we continue to reflect on our time with Abe, we’ve realized how incredible a presence he was in our home and in our lives. Here are some of the lessons Abe taught us.

  1. Treasure the downtime.  During certain moments, we (people) have a tendency to take a step back and knowingly say to ourselves, “I’m adding this one to my highlight reel of memories.” These are often the big moments: college graduation, the first time I saw our house in Laramie, taking Abe from the shelter straight to PetSmart because I didn’t own anything a dog owner should. But small, subtle moments are added to this highlight reel too, and they often become more representative of our time together than the big ones. Abe loved to be in our backyard, after much hubbub about the doggy door. It was one of his favorite places, even though he allowed the rabbits to wreak havoc on my garden.
    IMG_9055I snapped this photo of him doing his typical rounds of the backyard, after which he’d lie down in the grass and fall asleep.
  2. Smell ALL the roses. Not just one, because not all roses are the same. And if you’re not going to smell them, then why the heck are you outside in the first place?!
  3. Patience is unconditional love in action. Dogs are basically the epitome of unconditional love, in case you haven’t heard, but they are also animals living in human homes. Accidents happen. Once, shortly after I got Abe and before we knew that he couldn’t handle rawhide, we gave him a rawhide bone and he subsequently had diarrhea all over my carpeted apartment. In the extra bedroom, he pooped right in the center of the room, then nosed a book from the bottom of the bookshelf over to cover up his mess. (Author’s note: I do not have a picture of this incident. You’re welcome.) I could tell he’d screwed something up because, when I came home from work, he was cowering in a corner and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Sure, it took me the better part of two hours to clean everything up- but it wasn’t Abe’s fault. If there was blame to be assigned, it fell with me for giving him a treat his system couldn’t handle. So, to look a gigantic, terrible mess in the face and sigh, then deal with it- knowing it’s useless to be angry- that’s one thing Abe taught me.
  4. Don’t hesitate to show your affection. Smile at the people you love when they enter the room. Greet them every time they come home. Give them hugs and kisses. Be happy and grateful that you have the opportunity to love them, even if they’re not paying as much attention to you as they should.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

    Abe in the backyard, taking himself very seriously

    Abe in the backyard, taking himself very seriously

    Stop thinking so hard about it. Take time to step away from the stressful situations in which you find yourself. We are fond of saying that Abe decompressed situations. Often Matt and I would be on opposite sides of the kitchen or living room, arguing about something we’d heard on the news, and Abe would saunter in, sit between us, and fart- loudly. We couldn’t take anything we’d been saying seriously after that. Though it’d be presumptuous of me to say that Abe took pride in his ability to dissolve our arguments, I don’t think it’s a very far-fetched assertion. When you find yourself in the midst of an intense or difficult situation, take a brief moment to step your mind out of that experience, and breathe.

  6. Take pleasure in the simple things & don’t be afraid to ask for more– mainly food and belly rubs, even if they are part of your routine. Just because you eat three times a day doesn’t mean it’s not still amazing. And don’t be ashamed of your passions and desires; embrace them. You have passion because you are alive, and because you want to be alive! Don’t rob yourself of that beauty.
  7. Life is short. Matt suggested I add this one. It’s true. I adopted Abe on Saturday, August 27, 2011; we were together for just over 4 years. Matt and I feel robbed. Four years were not enough, by any measure. It is a cliché now, but don’t take for granted the time you get to spend with those you love, especially during this holiday season. Say what you want to say. Make that time meaningful. Put away your phone or your new Christmas present so you can have a real conversation. Tell your loved ones that you love them, unabashedly, and without attachment to their potential response. Be honest, and loving.

We were so lucky to have Abe in our lives for these short four years. He converted every person he met into a dog-lover. We love you always, Abe.

IMG_9972


Here is what we know about Abe’s illness.

First, he stopped eating, and what he did eat, he threw up or regurgitated. Then, right after Halloween, he contracted pneumonia and was on IV antibiotics for several days at our local vet’s office. After blood tests, x-rays, and an ultrasound, they determined he had megaesophagus, a condition with many possible underlying causes that is characterized by failure of the muscles in the esophagus to propel food into the stomach. When food does not end up in the stomach, it is either regurgitated or aspirated into the lungs, causing pneumonia. There are special ways to feed dogs with megaesophagus, none of them quick or simple.

Abe contracted pneumonia a second time a couple weeks later, and was not recovering at our local vet, so we drove him down to the veterinary school and teaching hospital at Colorado State University. They admitted him as an emergency patient and put him on both oxygen and an IV in canine ICU. Abe continued to lose weight during this time since he was not eating. CSU is in Fort Collins, which is a little over an hour’s drive from our home in Laramie. We were able to visit Abe once during his stay, but it was hard on both him and us to be separated. After five days on oxygen, the vets at CSU determined Abe was stable enough to return home. All of our various tests for the common causes of megaesophagus (autoimmune diseases, lead poisoning, local tumors) came back negative, so there was no known underlying cause for us to treat. We left Fort Collins with an armful of medications and cautious hope. Normally 65-75 pounds, Abe’s weight was down to a sobering 51 pounds.

Saturday evening (11/21) Abe did well. On Sunday he endured considerable discomfort after eating breakfast, and Sunday night he was awake and in pain all night as he regurgitated food and had accidents throughout the house. Matt stayed up with him, and at about 6AM, with nothing left in his system, Abe was able to sleep again. On Monday morning, Abe’s weight was down to 49.8 pounds.

It is so hard to see a loved one suffer, but it is especially hard to watch him suffer and not be able to communicate. We couldn’t ask, “How are you feeling? Are you in pain? Do you understand that this isn’t your fault? That you are very sick?” Instead, we had to make the call on his life without consulting him. We believe it was the right thing to do but, of course, that doesn’t alleviate our sadness.

Love to all.