Pet Lessons

One of the hardest things for a pet owner to do is to say goodbye. This is something I know intimately. I’ve had to say the final farewell a few times over the years. It’s heartbreaking. Gut wrenching. Agonizing. But also, it is inevitable. And it’s the inevitability that’s the hardest part. It’s the looming specter that haunts our relationship. From adorable new arrival to grey-muzzled senior.

Impossible to let go.

But I do. I must. It’s part of our life together. The closing of the circle. This final honoring of the brief time we shared here on earth, during a particular season in the history of my life, and an integral part of the telling of our full family story. The different stages are marked by the pets that occupied our home, and most importantly, our hearts. For the large part dogs, but there have been a menagerie over the years. Cats, birds, gerbils, fish, hamsters, and all the wild creatures that I’ve loved from afar.

But dogs are my spirit animals. I relate best to them.

Dogs have taught me so much over the years. Unconditional love being the predominant theme but there are all the other virtues as well. Loyalty, faithfulness, devotion, dependability, trustworthiness, dedication, good humor, playfulness, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, perseverance, appreciation, gratitude, being of service, and doggone doggedness.

The most important lesson I learned from a lifetime of loving dogs has been to live in the moment. It’s been a hard lesson and I’m still not entirely certain that I have mastered it. If you’re going to love a creature with a life expectancy between ten and twenty years it’s best to come to terms with the fleeting nature of the relationship. One minute you’re cradling a playful pup with enormous soulful eyes and the next your resting your head beside a tired elder who is on the cusp of drifting away into the great hereafter. It’s that fast. A blink of your eye. A wag of his tail.

Every time I’ve brought a new puppy home I effortlessly slip into those rosy early stages of falling helplessly and hopelessly, head over heels in love. Denial is my default state of mind in the blissful beginning. It’s so easy to tell myself that it will always be like this. Forever best friends. We’ll spend our entire lives together. It’s easy because in the beginning, the end seems so far away.

But even then, deep down I know the truth. We won’t. It won’t last. In some ways, it’s the absolute worst kind of love affair. But it’s also the best. The purest. That’s why I continue to pursue it.

Somewhere in the middle years of your dog’s life you start to see the signs. The little “tells” that their puppy years are long gone. So are their hyper teens and the energetic robust years. Their pace is slowing a bit on your daily walks, their jump is a little closer to the ground, they don’t retrieve the ball as quickly, their back may even take on an arthritic sway. There are lots of little signs that things are starting to change. That’s when I’m sucker-punched with my first dose of reality. My puppy is on his way to being a senior. There is no time to squander. No more basking in the sea of denial. Every second with them must be savored. Cherished. Breathed in and held.

I must live in the moment.

This is the big life lesson each and every dog has whispered in my ear. Be here in “the now.” Appreciate this time. Stay focused. Remain in the present. This is all that truly matters. All we have. All any of us have, truthfully.

Don’t wander off. Don’t head on down the road of sadness before it’s time. Stay put. Stay, girl. Stay.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Ode to the Single Mom.

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Oh sweet single mom

At the end of the day

When you flop exhausted

And road weary

Into your bed

The pillow beside you

Empty

Whether by choice

Or by chance

Intended or unforeseen

It matters not

You keep your reasons

Close to your heart

Along with all

The other artifacts

That brought you to this place.

The darkness settles in

And the mind races

Relentlessly

Out of control

It babbles and rebukes

Bluffs and bitches

These noisy

Disrespectful

Unkind thoughts

That drip

Persistently

Into the wells

Of tired

Spent eyes

Sockets full.

Your body aches

And cries out

For comfort

Relief

Reassurance

A gentle caress

Tenderness

Human contact

Anything will do

At times like this

When you are

Depleted

Drained

Consumed

By the demands

The needs of others

Your children

Always come first

That’s the deal.

These cherished offspring

The loves of your life

Their birth

The ultimate creative act

Nothing compares

And you know it

You became a Goddess

In the moment

Of their conception

And they are yours

Eternally.

They are the source

Of your greatest pride

Deepest devotion

Unwavering adoration

Biggest fears

Grandest hopes

They inspire you

To soar with the angels

They provoke you

To grovel in the mud

With the devil himself

They have the capacity

To bring out the divine

Reveal the retched

Make you feel

Larger than life

Insignificant as a mite

They give you

Super powers

When you feel helpless.

They bring meaning

To your life

They bring purpose

To your days.

You are unfailingly present

To make their daily life

Extraordinary

The task is both

Daunting and endless

You are there

In the trenches

The bleachers

And hard benches

On the sidelines

Leading the charge

And the loudest cheer.

You are the one there

For homework

For practice

For sports events

For dance lessons

For music recitals

For teacher night

For beach days

For dog walks

For stray cats

For bike rides

For Sunday dinner

For Monday mornings.

You take temperatures

And wipe runny noses

You dry tears

And supply tickles

You’re a chauffeur

And a chef

Entertainer

And educator

You are the

Tooth Fairy

The Easter Bunny

And Santa Claus

Your arms are always

Ready for a hug

Your lips prepared

To smile

Your voice trained

To sing

Your heart eager

To laugh

Your hand fixed

To hold

Your storytelling skills

Are epic

And your goodnight kisses

Are unforgettable.

You are a single mom

But you are not alone

Know that

You are loved

And cherished

Admired

Needed

Respected.

You may not hear it

When your head rests

So heavy on your

Singular pillow

But the applause is loud

The honor immense

And the gratitude mighty.

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Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Hang Out With Animals.

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Girl Warrior.  Hang out with animals. It’s next to impossible to be in a foul mood when you do. They have an infinite capacity to lift the spirits of their human friends. You’ll be happier and healthier in their furry or feathery company. Your beaming joyous face is proof positive.

Pet a dog when you’re anxious and within minutes you’ll be relaxed. Watch a cat chase a light beam around the room and you’ll find yourself giggling hysterically. Cuddle a bunny and you’ll know instantly why good things come in small packages. Sit in front of a fish tank for ten minutes and without effort you’ll be meditating. Listen to the birds sing and you’ll know what real communication is all about. Get on the back of a horse and you’ll understand the true meaning of balance and strength.

If you’re feeling blue, they’ll brighten your day. If you’re lonely, they’ll be there. They’ll teach you things about loyalty, faithfulness, dedication, steadfastness, resilience, trust, courage and bravery.

And most importantly, about unconditional love.

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Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Depression.

Face of DepressionThis morning I woke up.  Thank God.  As I was making the bed I thought about my plans for the day. Making a cup of cinnamon coffee. Writing my blog. Banking with E.  Shoe shopping with M. The first two items on the list made me happy.  The third, not so much.  The fourth delighted me.

Then I had this thought.  My two daughters are my best friends.  Then I had this thought.  I wonder if they’d find that pathetic.  I know I’m not theirs.  Nor should I be at their ages.  Then I had this thought.  My mother was my best friend.  Then I had this thought.  When she died I not only lost my mother, I lost my best friend.  Then I had this thought.  That blows.

Then I started to cry.  Bawled my fucking brains out as I was making the bed. The whole nine yards. Messy tears and snot all over my face, the pillows, sheets and my new shabby chic comforter.  Which by the way, was incapable of providing neither the degree, nor the depth, of comfort required to stop this sorrowful eruption of muck and mournfulness.

Then I had this thought.  I’m sad.  Probably even depressed.

I come by this melancholy honestly.  Not that he talked about it.  Not ever.  But I think The Old Man was depressed, most of his adult life.  Maybe it was because he was Finnish.  Their suicide rates are high, especially in the winter, which is long, cold and dark.  Much like Northwestern Ontario, where he lived his entire life.  I got out when I was twenty-four.  It was too dreary for me.  On so many levels I can’t even begin to describe.

What caused his depression?  Who knows. I can only speculate.  One part environment.  One part DNA.  One party magical mystery tour. The Hammond Organ

The Old Man sought refuge and relief from his misery in alcohol, watching sports on TV, buying new shoes, eating anything laced with sugar, swearing at inanimate objects, going to church on Sundays, shoveling snow in the winter and digging in his garden in the summer, umpiring little league games, taking long Sunday drives, scratching our dog’s belly, and sleeping. The older he got the more he slept. He was often antisocial, spending long hours alone in the spare room, behind closed doors watching TV or reading the daily newspaper.  There was a Hammond Organ in that room that he tinkered with but never really learned to play.  (However, he was an accomplished spoon percussionist.)  The memory of that room, and his self-imposed exile and isolation, makes me sad.

People didn’t talk about their feelings back then.  Men especially, kept things under wraps. Stiff upper lips and pulled up boot straps. The Old Man stuffed his sadness inside a profusion of plaid flannel shirts, only to unleash it every three months like clockwork, after a long night at the neighborhood saloon. The Crest on Red River Road.  Instead of manifesting in tears, his hurt took a far darker, menacing form.  He’d come home seething with anger.  Uncontrollable rage.  He never hit anyone because he was like a small yapping dog.  All bark and no bite.  But he ranted relentlessly and bullied the shit out of Ma and her kids. He was an unholy terror. It was one hell of a time.

During those dark nights of the soul, I hated him.  Wished him dead.  Prayed to God to strike him down with a bolt of lightening.  A precise and explicit message from heaven.  But that didn’t happen.  Thankfully.  Because the truth is, The Old Man was a good man when he wasn’t drinking. He had a kind, tender and sensitive heart, and he loved his family fiercely.

And he was ill.

An alcoholic.  But the alcohol was merely self-medication.  The deeper illness was depression.  It makes me sad now to think that we didn’t know that.  I mean, we knew intimately the subject matter of his rum and coke induced rages.  The things that angered and tormented him.  But we never understood why. Our family knew very little about the pathology of alcoholism as a disease.  And even less about depression.  Back then depressed people were crazy.  Plain and simple.  It was far better to be a self-pitying miserable alcoholic.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered if while I was praying to God to strike him dead, if he was doing the same thing. He went to church every Sunday.  What were his prayers?  Did he pray for help?  Beg for healing?  Did he seek forgiveness?  Did he find comfort there? Did it any of it help?  I hope so.

So here I sit.  Years and miles away from Northwestern Ontario.  Daylight is breaking.  How do I deal with my sadness?  This depression?  The tears that stain my cheeks and cover my shabby chic comforter? I do this.  I write.  I run.  I do yoga. I take long walks along quiet country roads.  I take photographs.  I play with my dogs.  I love my family fiercely. I eat well. I take vitamins. I talk to my wise girlfriends about deep dark feelings.  I pour my heart out to my husband.  I listen to my children and look for clues on how to live a joyful life. I laugh my guts out.  I pray.  I meditate.  I write letters to God. I count my blessings. I get up, go to work and give it my very best shot.  I play my guitar and my clarinet. I read books. Listen to music. I dream. I hang out. I waste time. I watch TV. The Old Man Hipster

But I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t do drugs, except for the occasional ibuprofen. I do my best to stay away from sugar, especially white. I don’t give myself pep talks. They don’t work. I also don’t scold. Engage in self-pity, self-loathing or self-flagellation. I watch my inner dialogue. I try not to spend too much time alone in this room.  Although that’s challenging because one of the things I love to do most requires that I spend long stretches of time in isolation.

Over the years I have found solace in motivational books and tapes, teachers, preachers, the wise and the enlightened. I’ve learned acceptance. Of what was.  And what is.

Will I ever be completely free from depression and sadness?  No. The truth is, I don’t want to be fully extricated. It’s part of who I am.  Like my hazel eyes and crooked smile.  It’s the fuel that fires some of my richest writing. The fountainhead of a few of my best ideas.  My literary wellspring. It’s what allows me to feel things deeply. Not just my suffering.  But yours.  And yours.  And yours. I shed tears for all living creatures. Even the dead rats I come across on the country road I walk.  I like that about me.

Depression reminds me of my humanness.  My weaknesses and strengths.  It dictates that, in order to stay healthy, I must stay connected.  It opens the eyes of my heart. And unleashes love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, hope.  And above all.  Empathy.

I get it Dad.  I get your pain.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Zen of Running.

IMG_3016I have a love-hate relationship with running. Going right back to that first time over 30 years ago.

Back then, I would have scoffed at the notion of running every day.  Killed myself laughing at the idea of rising in the wee hours of the morning, while my family snoozed in their warm cozy beds. Chuckled at the thought of running alone through the eery dark streets of the big city.  Looking back, it seems like the craziest decision I ever made.  And also the best.

I’ve never been horribly athletic but have always loved to walk.  Especially with Ma, my babies and my dogs.  Running was always far too vigorous and strenuous for my tastes.  During track and field season, I was one of the laggers in gym class.  I was in the group that faltered to the finish line.  There was no cheering from the sidelines.

You could say I went on that first run unintentionally.  Certainly without expectations. Or perhaps there was one. If I survived, I would never do it again.  My first, last, and only run with my ex-husband was that night.  It was his idea.  I just followed him out the door.  The things we do for love.

Flash forward a few decades and I’m still running. I use that term loosely.  I’m not sure what to call it these days. Jogging. Slow motion running.  I sometimes shuffle and drag my feet.  Many people could walk faster than I run.  Hell, on a good day I could walk faster than I run.  I’m a laggard once more.

Running is painful. Exhausting. Tiring. Grueling. Hot. Sweaty. Cold.  Achy. Smelly. Frustrating. Frightening. Punishing. And enslaving.

So why do I do it?

Because running is also satisfying. Energizing. Empowering. Relaxing. Meditative. Quiet. Solitary. Spiritual. Peaceful. Calming. Rewarding. And freeing.

Running is also a metaphor my marvelously messy life.

Seven years ago I stopped running. I didn’t want to. I had to.  Just after the Labor Day weekend I woke up to discover that my right knee was swollen.  Because it didn’t hurt, just looked fat, I carried on with my regular morning routine.  Donned my running shorts, stinky T-shirt, my Nike Frees and hit the streets.  At the time, I was experimenting with barefoot running. It was magnificent. There was a new spring in my step. I felt ten pounds lighter. Twenty years younger.  And swifter than a Cheetah.

I was a fool.

I have no idea if it was the new shoes, the misguided confidence, the delusions of renewed youth, or the dime-store vanity that was the cause of my swollen knee.  I just know that I didn’t get much past the first block before I was hobbling.  Groaning.  And limping all the way home.  The next day both of my knees were swollen.  That was it.  Over. Done like last night’s dinner. Finito Bandito Dorito.

Close to three decades of daily running. Stopped. Cold.

For the next seven years I walked my run route with a feisty Terrier in tow. Hopped on an elliptical machine every day for two years, and bored myself crazy with all the effort and movement, that essentially took me nowhere. Amped up my yoga practice, focusing on the muscles – I also use this term loosely – around my knees.  I prayed for healing and kept a watchful eye for signs of improvement.  The swelling eventually receded but my right knee is permanently pudgy. It would be cute if it were the knee of a ten-month old baby.

Occasionally I tested the waters.  Ran a block to see how the old knees were performing.  If they felt okay I’d go for a second. Sometimes a third.  Once and awhile I managed to jog the entire route.  This would go on for a few days, a few weeks even.  But eventually the stabbing pain would return and literally bring me to my knees.  It was a drag.  A drag made worse, by my weakening cardiovascular system. My lungs couldn’t hack it anymore.  I was running out of air.  (Some people may have considered this a good thing.) First knee rebellion.  Then lung unrest.  I feared a full-on body assault.  A revolution like no other.  Body parts crashing and burning.  Leaving behind a wake of rotting emotions and a decaying runner’s spirit.

After these little running forays I would return to the safety of walking the dog. One of us also had their tail between their legs.  I abandoned the elliptical with not so much as a backward glance. I practiced yoga faithfully, and continue to do so. I tried Zumba twice.  And sometimes I skipped to my Lou, my darlin’.

This has been my daily workout routine – and again I use this term loosely – for the past few years.  Until this spring.

Around the time that E was having his surgery I had an epiphany.  An awakening of sorts.  It was a regular morning.  Same old same old.  I was walking up the road with the dog and everything was copacetic.  Until I had this thought. A quivering notion. Flight of fancy. The quiet small voice inside my head whispered, run.  Run like the wind.

One of the things that my 40-year practice of yoga has taught me is to listen to that quiet small voice.  It is the voice of wisdom.  My inner knowing.  Higher self speaking.  So I listened and started to run.  Not like the wind.  More like a lazy summer breeze.  But it didn’t matter.  I heeded the call.  Summoned my runner’s soul. And took off.

The remarkable thing was.  Nothing hurt.  My lumpy bumpy old saggy knees felt fine.  They hung in there.  Rock steady.  Solid.  Reliable.

And continue do so. Even up the steep hill at the end of the run.

Read this part carefully because this is the really good stuff.  The point of this moving story.  The big metaphor I mentioned earlier.

You can’t get to my house without climbing a hill.  The neighborhood is aptly name Rock Heights.  And believe me, you have to climb to get here.  When I first starting running in this neck of the woods, even long before my knees blew out, I would walk up the last hill just before home. I called it my cool-down; thus justifying the leisurely end to the run.  But not any more.

For the past two months I have been challenging myself to run up the hill.  At first it was impossible. Then I gave myself small daily challenges that I was confident I could achieve.  Today, just make it to the red fire hydrant, for example.  Once that became easy, it was, make it to the telephone pole past the hydrant.  Then a few days later, it was the next pole, then after that, the bus stop, then the mustard colored house at the corner, then up past the entrance to the park, and then finally make it to our driveway.  Within weeks I was running up the hill nonstop.

Now I run up the hill without even thinking, without the markers, the little goals to achieve.  I no longer notice them.  Instead I keep my head down and focused on the small piece of sidewalk directly in front of me. No further. It’s a steep hill. Part of the Big Picture, I know. Yet I don’t look up.  I focus only on what I need to do.  The small task at hand.  Nothing more. That little square of cement is all that matters.  It’s manageable.  It doesn’t daunt. Deter. Dismay. Nor dishearten.  This much I can do.

I haven’t ever counted the number of squares in the sidewalk, from the bottom of the hill to our driveway, but let’s just say there are many.  Too numerous to count.  Besides it isn’t about that.

It’s about getting to the top of the hill.  Bit by bit.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: 23 Days

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On Friday, April 26 E had surgery to remove cancer from his mouth just below the tongue. It was radical. It was a miracle. It was the longest 23 days of our life.

We held vigil. We prayed. We held hands. We circled the wagons. We kept the fear at bay. For this is what love does. There were evening cross-town drives. Desolate cement parking garages. Elevator rides. And endless corridor walks. The TV amused and kept him company. There was a lot of hockey. He discovered Duck Dynasty. A clipboard filled with lined paper was his only means of communication the first week. He said a lot with his eyes and hands.

Family, friends, and colleagues visited daily. There were puppy dog visits in the sunny tranquil courtyard. Our daughters danced and entertained. Our grand daughter brought sweet little girl kisses. There was a quiet Sunday morning visit with our son.
Strawberry plants grew on the windowsill. Happy-face daisies sprouted from the end of his bed. Photos blossomed on the cork board. Magazines and books grew in little stacks. Coffee from the outside was brought in. There was a glorious view from his seventh floor room. It was heavenly.

And this is what those 23 days looked like.

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Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Today.

E relaxing by the pond with Coco and Rusty.

E relaxing by the pond with Coco and Rusty.

I usually like to keep a bit of time and distance between me and the stories I tell.  Sometimes years like I have with the Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter.  With others, it’s weeks or months like this blog about me and E and the Big C. This is the psychological and emotional space I need to tell a good story.  It’s the way I work.

Time allows me to separate myself from the story so that it doesn’t erode into sentimental sop.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love a good tear jerker.  I just don’t intentionally write one.  I’m not here to emotionally manipulate.  It is my desire to share what I know, what I’ve learned on this journey.  At best, it may only be an enjoyable read.  At worst, a waste of time.  But if it informs and illuminates, touches a heartstring, resonates with some truth you hold dear, then I’ve accomplished more than I could have hoped for.

My story is your story.  We’re all in this together after all.  You may not have cancer, nor be married to someone with it.  You may be lucky and this disease hasn’t touched your life in any way.  But I doubt it.   That’s not the point.  This isn’t about the disease, you see.  It’s about two people and their family and friends and community.  It’s about you and me.  All of us.

Oh yes it is my dear ones.

Because we’re all human and this is a very human story.  Not a tragedy.  Although sometimes it is heartbreaking.  It is often fraught with folly.  And great big belly laughs.  Tears are shed.  Curse words are spat like mouldy grapes.  But there’s a whole lot of loving going on too.

So today, Saturday, April 6, exactly four months after my world was rocked I am going to do something I typically don’t do with my storytelling.  I’m telling you how it is now.  On this day.  No time.  No distance.  No space between me and the story.

This morning E and I were in the kitchen making coffee and chatting idly about the things we had to do today.  For reasons I’m not even certain of – maybe I was born with it or maybe it’s Maybelline – I turned to him and said the following:

“I know nothing can compare to the way you feel.  Part of me can’t even imagine.  But I just want you to know that for the people closest to you.  It feels horrible.  Awful.  Everyone expects you to feel like crap. You’ve got cancer for Christ sakes. But I feel like crap too.  I’m worried and exhausted.  I’m so depressed.”

E slumped in the chair and said, “I’m worried too.  I wake up at three in the morning and I can’t sleep.”

“Neither can I,” I snapped.

But what I wanted to say and couldn’t because he’s the one with cancer and that trumps everything: “You just don’t get it. Yes, you have the disease, but you don’t have a monopoly on feeling bad.”

“I’m depressed,” he sighed.

“Some days I feel like I’m hanging on by my fingernails.”

And that was the end of the conversation.  Maybe hanging on by your fingernails trumps everything.

There you have it.  Four months in and the truth is, we both feel like crap.  Not all the time.  The mornings are the worst.  Fortunately life distracts us.  We carry on.  Get on with it.  Try not to wallow.  Nor allow this thing to swallow us whole like a snake eating a rabbit.  Take the best part of us. We ‘do not go gentle into that good night.’

This afternoon we took our dogs for a walk around the lake.  It was good.  As we walked the trail, I breathed in the beauty of the world surrounding us.  The trees were green with newness.  Life was exerting itself everywhere. Hope filled the clouds above.  The breeze whispered sweet nothings in our ears.   You have today, it said.

There wasn’t a trace of cancer anywhere.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Search for Meaning.

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

I’m a seeker.  Especially at Christmas time.  I search for perfect gifts for everyone on my list. Ones filled with wow and wonder.  I comb second hand stores for delicate vintage glass ornaments like the ones we hung on our tree at 204.  I inherited all of Ma’s and have been growing her precious collection every year for the past decade.  It’s my magnificent holiday decorating obsession.

I scour cookbooks, online cooking blogs and recipe websites looking for something new and delicious to bake or cook over the holidays.  In the end, nothing compares with the treasure trove found in Ma’s sacred and magical Gurney Recipe Box.

I flip through fashion magazines for inspiration on what to wear for all those festive occasions.  This is a silly pastime because E and I don’t attend those kinds of affairs.  Yet I do it anyway.  It pleases me.

I’m also bedazzled by sparkly festive shop windows.  I hunt for the perfect holiday outfit.  I daydream about a beautiful more glamorous version of myself that will somehow magically appear like Cinderella at the ball. I wonder what it would be like to knock ‘em dead at our office party.  I fantasize about a transformation from drab nondescript woman in the corner cube to glamor girl in the shimmery dress with legs that never quit.  That never happens.  Even the younger me couldn’t have pulled that look off.  Truth is, that’s not me. Never was. Never will be.  But it is fun to play that movie in my head once a year.

Pursuit of the perfect gift, recipe, or dress aside, what I really seek at Christmas time is meaning. What’s it all about?  This search trumps everything.

With E’s cancer diagnosis hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, the desire to find something deeper, more profound, more significant was intensified.  It served to remind us of the fragile nature of this life we live.  Teach us to grab onto every precious moment like it was your last.  Embrace the ones we love.

We were given a reprieve from the fear and anxiety that brought us to our knees the week E was in the hospital.  The Friday that he was released from the RJH was glorious.  A heaven-sent day.

The first thing E did when we got home was take the dogs for a walk in the crisp clean December air.  It was as though he was breathing for the first time.  He could walk unencumbered by the inescapable steel dance partner he had been hooked up to all week.  Free from all the medical machinery that monitored his every heartbeat and breath.  Free from the antiseptic smell that clung to every cell and fibre of his being.  Free to walk upright. Stride. Strut. Swagger. Flounce his new found freedom up the rocky hills that surround our home.

Simply be alive.

For as long as I have known E, he’s been a real crank about Christmas.   He would happily take a page from Rip Van Winkle’s book and sleep right through the entire month of December.  It was the same old thing every year.  Come the day before Christmas, the spirit would finally move him and off he’d go in search of my Christmas present.  Some years this was found at the local Shoppers Drug Mart down the road.  When M got old enough he solicited her help. This put a stop to the drugstore gifts.

“I’ll make sure he gets you something really good Ma,” she’d say.

And she does.

Of course, it’s not about the quality of the gift.  Or even that there are gifts at all. But in our family, we do enjoy this tradition. We like to acknowledge each other in this manner.  It’s sounds cliche but it isn’t so much the gift as the giving.  As a family we like this and we’re good at.  One look at our living room Christmas morning says it all.

This year, the curmudgeon grouchy bah humbug E left the building.  Like Elvis on August 16, 1977.  Replaced by the new and improved version.  Enthusiastic and joyful.  Happy to celebrate. Cheerful and charitable. Without complaint nor criticism. No protests. Gripes or grumbling.  Beefs or bellyaching.  And above all else, the new E, that emerged from the chrysalis on Friday, December 14, was grateful.

Deeply.  Profoundly.  Beyond words.

Recently, I read a quote by Cicero that really resonated with my spirit.  It expressed so beautifully the meaning I sought and found over the Christmas season.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

E and I are consumed with gratitude these days.  There is so much to cherish and give thanks for.  Starting with our love for each other.  For our family, our beautiful children, our granddaughter, our extended family and friends, our good neighbors, our understanding colleagues, the compassionate caregivers and spiritual teachers. Everyone who has touched our tender hearts so sweetly.

Kindness and compassion.  Generosity and magnanimity.  Big-heartedness and goodness.  It’s everywhere.  Dressed in the same attire.  Cloaked in the fabric of love.

Jesus and John Lennon were right. Love is all you need.

I’m grateful for that.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: This is The Man we all Love.

Sitting in the window of an abandoned farmhouse.

I have written a lot posts for all the magnificent Girl Warriors in my life.  My strong, fierce and beautiful daughters, grand daughter, daughter-in-law and the original warrior, Ma. Plus all the others, near and dear to me.  All glorious inspirational women.

I also have a son.  He is equally magnificent in my eyes.  Yet in many ways he’s a mystery to me.  A charming and perplexing enigma.  Perhaps it’s because he’s a boy and at the end of the day I must admit that I don’t fully understand the male species.

I was young when he came into the world.  So was he.  In truth, we grew up together.  He has taught me much since that wondrous day when I looked into his dark raisin eyes for the very first time.  I am eternally grateful for all the learning through the years. Even the difficult stuff.  I’ve probably learned more through those experiences than from the easy breezy butterfly days.

So many rights of passage we shared.  The holding close.  And the letting go.  All those milestones.  From the first step.  To the walk across the stage to receive his degree.  Everything in between.  Proud mother moments.  Heartbreaks and heroics.  Flights of fancy and family ties.  Unbreakable bonds.  Love is born.  And grows eternal in this mother-son relationship.

He stands shoulder to shoulder with the three other good men who I love dearly.  My strong and gentle big brother, my solid husband and my complicated father.  Each seemingly different.  At least on the exterior.  At once complex and full of mystifying layers.  Yet also sublimely straightforward and uncomplicated.  Always sincere.  Forthright.  Honest.  Kind.  They are the faces of strength, courage and tenderness in my often anxious world.

The 10 Steps to Becoming the Man We All Love:

The Old Man was so delighted with his grandson.

1. Be your own man. Authentic. Genuine. 100% bona fide you. The real thing.  Don’t be an impostor.  Nor live a vicarious life.  Grab a hold of what matters to you.  Put on your own jersey.  Strap on your own skates.   Play the game you love.  Not someone else’s.  Be an original.  A maverick.  The natural.  Always be the guileless boy who looks at the world with wide-eyed wonder.  Forever rub your hands together with glee and pure joy.  Be the spontaneous boy. And the solid man.  Work with your full range of emotions.  Express yourself completely.  Thoroughly.  Freely.  And if a tear falls. Let it.

2. Be brave-hearted.  Stand tall.  Stare down your fears.  Look them straight in the eyes.  Laugh at them.  Call their bluff.  Walk right through them.  Don’t go around.  Don’t avoid.  Face them head-on. Know that all courageous men have fears. Life is scary sometimes. For all of us.  Don’t be a victim.  Instead be valorous.  Do no shrink.   Roar.  Hoot and howl.  Feel the fear and get on with it.  There are no boogeymen under the bed.  No monsters hiding in the closet. Myths.  False emotions appearing real.  That’s all.  And always remember that you are far bigger than your fears.

My big brother with my nephew and my son sharing a cuddle.

3. Get a real kick out of life.  Have fun.  Find things that amuse and delight you.  Not just once and awhile.  But every day.  Don’t put it off for the weekend.  For vacation.  Or another time.   Play right now.  Cause a ruckus.  Bang on your drum all day.  Shake your tambourine.  Laugh your guts out.  Make a fool of yourself. Embrace happiness.  Enjoy the people you’re with right this very second.  Surround yourself with the lighthearted ones who put a smile on your face.  Take delight in every minute of this life you are given.

4. Be a loving man. And you will be loved.  Guaranteed.  More than you could ever imagine or dream. Open your heart wide and let in the love.  Don’t run from it.  Strong men have the guts to be tender.  Kind.  Compassionate.  Be a Gentle Ben.  Tom, Dick or Harry.  And remember, love isn’t always perfect.  Accept that sometimes it will hurt.  That’s okay.  Don’t let this frighten you. Don’t push it away.  Or turn your back.  Don’t give up on it. Love refines your heart and grows your compassion muscle.  Most importantly, learn to recognize love when it comes your way.  It doesn’t always come gift wrapped.  It may be completely different from what you had in mind.  Better even. In fact, the best thing that ever happened to you.

The proud uncle with his lookalike niece.

5. Find your tribe.  Your band of sisters and brothers. The ones where you fit in.  Belong. Feel at home with.  For these will be your family.  Some related by blood.  Others by the heart.  Surround yourself with people you trust, respect and enjoy.  You don’t have to always agree. You don’t even have to always get along.  But these are the faithful ones. Loyal. Steadfast. And true.  The ones who will be there for you.  With you.  By your side.  Through thick and thin. The ones who have your back.  Who pick you up when you fall. Help you find your way home in the dark.  They’re with you no matter what. No questions asked.  No doubt about it.

6. Follow your passions and the things that make you want to get up in the morning.  Jazzed and ready to go.  Have big dreams.  They don’t cost any more than the small ones. Your life will be so much richer for it.  Do the things that you love to do first.  And everything else will fall into place. Be enthusiastic.  Get psyched.  Pumped.   Gung-ho.  Embrace new ideas and ways of doing the things you already know. Be creative.  Imaginative. Take the magical mystery tour of discovery.  Go on an adventure.  Expand. Grow. Cultivate. Hone. Take risks. Embrace the failures on the way to your successes.  Learn and move on.

My son with “his lady” in Scotland on the adventure of their lives.

7. Be generous and magnanimous of spirit. With everything and everybody.  Don’t be stingy.  Don’t withhold. Don’t hang onto things.  Never covet. Give of what you have.  What you know.  Give a little. Or a lot.  But give. This isn’t necessarily about money.  Nor material things. It can be. Nothing wrong with that. If you’ve got it.  Give it.  But it’s also about giving of yourself.  Your time.  Your energy.  The natural gifts you came into the world with.  Take every opportunity to share these with others.  The more you do, the bigger you will be.  This will make you happier than anything you ever imagined.  For the more you give, the more you receive.

8. Be honest.  A man of your word.  Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  Nor intend to.  Be a man of integrity.  Honorable. Upstanding. Someone you can rely on.  Depend on.  Be the good guy who shows up.  Even in the stickiest of situations.  Know that when you shake on something that you are doing more than pressing flesh.  You are giving your word.  Your bond.  Don’t violate this sacred trust.  Respect others and you will be respected in turn.

My two lovely men standing tall at our wedding.

9. Defend and stand up for something.  Be righteous. Not self-righteous.  Find causes close to your heart.  Help those in need.  Shelter the weak.  The young.  The very old. Once you accept the challenge, don’t put conditions on who you’ll help and who you won’t.  Raise the bar on compassion.  Kindness.  Tolerance.  Embrace your fellow travelers.  Meet them eye to eye.  Carry the placard.  Wear the colors.  Pin on the badge.  But don’t force your beliefs down the throats of others. This is not a persuasive approach.  Don’t cloud the issues with misplaced anger.  This just creates mindless noise.  Be humble. Not sanctimonious.  Charitable.  Not complacent.  Be a leader when called upon.  And a follower when the time is right.  But most importantly, be a man that everyone wants in their corner.

10. Take care of yourself.  Do whatever it takes.  All the days of your life.  Not just physically.  But mentally.  And spiritually.  Do it for yourself.  And for all the people who love you.  Be active in every arena of your life.  Find your sport. Get out there and move.  Join a team.  Or go it alone.  Play hockey.  Or a round of golf.  Walk the dog.  Or chase the kids.  It’s all good.  Learn to cook and eat well. Spend time looking inwards.  Take a moment for introspection.  Meditate.  Pray.  Go for walks alone with your thoughts.  Get to know yourself.  And “to thine own self be true.”  Do these things and you will be the man we all love.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: My Dog Sugar was a Good Judge of Boyfriends.

My dog Sugar.

I love dogs.  I love cats and other animals too.  But dogs in particular hold a noteworthy place in my heart. Long before there was Andy and Coco and Rusty there was Sugar and Tootsie and a few others I only know by old black and white photographs.  It’s true dogs are our best friends. And sometimes a lonely girl’s little sister.

Little back story.  When I was around five years old The Old Man brought a new puppy home to 204. There had been a few dogs before her but none like Sugar.  When I look back on my childhood I have no memory that doesn’t include Sugar.  It’s as if my life began with a sweet little ball of white fur and heart-melting chocolate eyes.

Ma and The Old Man posing with Sugar.

Sugar was completely white except for a tinge of black in her ears when The Old Man first brought her home. He was a huge animal lover but like me, dogs were his favorites. And Sugar was like another child to him.  Ma’s heart was large and compassionate for all living creatures.  She wasn’t one for rough and tumble play like me and The Old Man.  But she loved Sugar dearly and considered her part of our family.  Sugar was never discouraged from languishing on the couch or snuggling on the bed.  Ma would often sit in quiet meditation, petting Sugar while she rested her head on her lap.  They had a kinship.  A rare affinity and understanding that seemed to surpass the human-animal connection.

Me and Sugar standing tall together.

Back then, a spade was called a spade. Naming a dog was simple. Rex, Lassie, Buddy, Sparky or Skip were all common no-nonsense monikers of the era. Color also influenced the name given to a dog.  If it was black, then Blacky was an obvious choice. White dogs, on the other hand, were often named after white things. Like sugar.  Our dog Sugar was full of surprises right from the start though. They say a leopard never changes his spots but sometimes a white dog grows some. By the time she was six months, Sugar was covered in them and her ears were jet black.  But by then, it was too late to call her Spotty.

I’m not sure what breed Sugar was.  We didn’t go much for pedigree back then.  We just had pets.  She was a mutt from a long line of mutts.  But canine rumor has it that somewhere along her ancestral lineage a Cocker Spaniel and a Dalmatian got involved.  That was good enough for us.  Regardless, she was gorgeous, smart, funny, loving, affectionate, sweet tempered and an extremely good judge of boyfriends. Ma always said, if Sugar doesn’t like him, there’s something wrong with him.  I should have listened to Ma.  And Sugar.

A welcome visit from Sugar at bath time.

Sugar terrorized the Mailman.  She wasn’t fond of anyone in a uniform but the Mailman in particular was a favorite target.  Five days a week.  The irony of this is that The Old Man wore a uniform to work every day, a fact that Sugar appeared to overlook.  But the Mailman didn’t get off the hook so easily.  Even Uncle Bud, Ma’s brother-in-law, wasn’t immune to her snarling, snapping and gnashing of teeth. Needless-to-say, his tenure as our Mailman was short-lived. We all knew why.

My lovely sister-in-law hanging out with Sugar.

Back then dogs ran free and roamed the streets like four-legged hoodlums with nothing but mischief and shenanigans on their minds.  They were harmless and everyone knew their names.  Ma would let Sugar out in the morning for her daily doggy-do, which also included scouting the neighborhood for feline riffraff and other nefarious varmints.  She never went far and mostly stayed in our yard, which she protected like a Palace guard.  Every passerby, whether friend or foe, was subject to her relentless barking. She held her ground.  Literally.  The entire length of our front yard.  Doggedly determined to defend her turf no matter what.  The truth was, the girl was all bark and no bite.  The entire neighborhood knew this.  This didn’t make it any less irksome.  Not everyone appreciated her doggone single-minded attitude like I did.  Sugar found herself in the dog house on more than one occasion.  Relegated to the back yard where her inner beast was contained by a twenty foot tether.

Sugar photo bombs my son on the front steps.

Sugar was also a good sport and a very accommodating creature.  She was a willing participant in my fun and games, including “dress-up.”  I decked her out in old baby clothes, propped her up in my doll carriage and proudly strolled the neighborhood with my dog-baby.  It was both comical and sad.  Sugar became the little sister I never had but desperately longed for.  I wanted to be like the C kids who lived across the street.  Three kids all two years apart plus a fourth surprise bonus one to boot, a few years later.  They were the lucky ones.  I was envious of their sibling rivalry and fights over the toilet.  Even my older siblings had each other.  So Sugar became my surrogate sibling.  My baby sister.  She seemed to accept this role with patience, tolerance and an abundance of equanimity.  Or perhaps it was mere self-preservation and acquiescence.  Regardless of her motivation, she never struggled to free herself from the fancy frocks.  Floppy sun bonnets.  Nor the little pink socks.  I like to think she understood my loneliness and aching need.

Sugar goes for a ride in my son’s wagon.

We shared a bed for almost twenty years.  Unlike many dogs, who preferred the foot of the bed, Sugar spent her nights all nestled and tucked under the covers right next to me.  We even shared a pillow.  I loved to snuggle her little body next to mine.  She was a living teddy bear.  My Linus blanket.  My comforter.  My sweet furry lullaby.

In summer, Sugar had a house of her own.  The Old Man built it for her and kept it in the backyard.  Nothing fancy.  A simple one room abode.  But it did the trick when Sugar needed a place to rest and take shelter from the summer heat.  In the winter she hunkered down indoors with the rest of us.  Northwestern Ontario winters were brutal.  A dog’s pee could freeze before it hit the snow.  Sugar didn’t linger long outdoors between December and the end of March. She was a wise girl.

When Sugar was about a year old she had a litter of pups.  We gave them away to the neighborhood families.  It was a win-win situation.  Everyone was happy.  After experiencing motherhood she was spayed.  She gained some weight so we had more of her to love.  She was still gorgeous in my eyes.

The summer I turned 25 I was living in a small northern town in British Columbia with my first husband and young son. It was during that time that I got a call from Ma.  It was the call I dreaded.  It had been six months since I last saw Sugar.  Christmas vacation.  She was ancient and dog-tired by then.  Arthritic and slow walking. Her velvety muzzle as white as her name.  But her eyes were the same.  She was still my Sugar girl.  Sweet as that first day she became my little sister.

Sugar enjoys a pet on the head from my son.

I am grateful that I wasn’t there when Sugar died.  I’m not sure I had the courage and inner strength to witness her last breath.  But I do know intimately how painful it was for Ma and The Old Man to have her put down.  What an odd expression.  It was impossible for them to let her go.  But let her go they did.  She was twenty.  Her hind end was paralyzed.  She was no longer a threat to the Mailman. Her bark was gone.

I have never fully let Sugar go.

I searched in vain for years.  I stared into the eyes of every white dog I came across seeking some spark of recognition.  It was never there.  Until I met Andy.  Sweet.  Gentle.  With Sugar girl eyes.  It was love at first sight.  I knew him.  It was a double blessing too.  For in those eyes I also saw Ma’s.  And when he barked I heard The Old Man’s voice.

Now there’s my Sugar girl.