Saturday, December 31, 2011

Meet Oliver

Yes, I know that I swore that I was done with pets.  The heartbreak of losing them is just too hard to bear. 

Even before Neiko died I kept saying that I was never going to have another pet.  Watching him suffer with his weakening hips and growing slowly more feeble was awful.  Why do we put ourselves through that?  Loving and caring for these animals and then having to let them go?  Who needs it?

The emptiness in this house after Neiko died was palpable.  Sure there was no more hair all over the furniture.  He was no longer waking me up in the middle of the night to let him outside.  I didn’t have to feed him or brush him or worry about getting his nails clipped.  I didn’t have to fret about where he was or what he was up to.  But neither was he there to greet me with his wagging tail when I came home from work.  He no longer snuggled with me on the couch while I watched TV.  I wasn’t being entertained by his tricks.  I didn’t have his soft, warm fur to pet.  The not having him was worse than the losing him. 

I’ve had lots of pets.  I’ve lost lots of pets.  But the having them was so much better.

I waffled about getting another one.  A dog would take lots of work.  There’s the house breaking, the training, the walking and the grooming.  They are so cool and so much fun, but they are a lot of work.  A cat would mean a litter box and cat sick and furniture clawing.  They too are cool, but they can be a pain in the butt.   Dogs and cats need to be fixed, an expense I could do without.
Yes.  No.  Maybe.  I don’t know. 

I decided to just wait and see.  If the right pet showed up, I’d accommodate it. 

Well, guess what?

A visit to the Northwest Animal Shelter web site one day – just out of curiosity – had a new pet ready for adoption.   A six-month old kitten named Christian was at the top of the list on the cat page.  Hmmm...  He’s litter trained, he’s had all his shots, and he’s already been fixed.  And he’s cute as a button! 

Oliver exploring his new home at Alegria.
My hands were filling out the on-line adoption application before my brain could fully process what I was doing.  I agreed to a home inspection and to allowing follow-up visits after the adoption.  I agreed to return him to the shelter if he didn’t work out for me and I promised to make sure he got proper vet care.  I submitted details about my life and my home.  I gave an exhaustive account of my pet-ownership background and the types, ages and frequency of the visitors I get.  I almost didn’t click Send.  I was expecting to have to jump through no end of hoops for this cat. 

On Thursday I got a call from Christian’s foster mom.  She invited me to come and get him.  It really was that easy.  My daughter and I drove to the foster mom’s home where I paid my adoption fee and placed him in a carrier for the ride back.  No fuss, no muss.  Just thank you for giving Christian a new forever home.

The first thing I did was change his name.  Christian is now Oliver.  I don’t know where the name came from, but it just seemed to fit.  It means olive tree and the branch of the olive tree is a symbol of peace.  I figured that a symbol of peace would be a good way to ring in the New Year! 
The poor little guy got car sick on the way home.  Suddenly the van was filled with a distinctly fishy odour with over-tones of bile.  It was not pleasant, but it was probably better than anything that might have come out the other end.   Thankfully we weren’t far from home.  We had to make a couple of stops – for cat supplies! – before I could get Oliver out of the carrier and clean up the mess. 

Oliver survived the ordeal quite well.  When I got him home and opened the door to the carrier, he, in true cat fashion, sauntered out like he owned the place and began exploring his new home.  While Oliver explored, I busied myself with setting up his litter box, putting out his food and water dishes, unwrapping his toys and his scratching pad and, of course, cleaning up the cat sick! 

Peeking through the banister.
After he had thoroughly gone over every square inch of available space (some doors were closed) Oliver hopped onto the couch and curled up beside me.  His loud purring told me that he approved and was grateful to be at Alegria with me.  He even gave my hand a few licks.  We watched an episode of Murder She Wrote and enjoyed some snuggle time.  Oliver settled in like he was meant to be here.  And I think that maybe he really is.

The house feels more complete again.  There’s a pet who needs me and seems to even like me once again.  Oliver may depend on me for food and shelter and a clean litter box, but I already depend on him for the companionship he so generously and lovingly has to offer.  It’s hard to believe, but I already love him with all my heart.  He hasn’t replaced Neiko, but he sure has filled that empty place in my heart where Neiko used to be. 

Oliver has staked his claim on the back of the couch.  

I’m sure we’ll have many happy years together.   And when I have to face that loss, I’m sure I will be devastated.  But I’ll get through it, knowing that I was able to give him a good home and lots of love.  

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Story of My Life - In 18 Volumes

A month ago my dog died.  It hit me pretty hard and the tears still swell up when I think about Neiko and what a great dog he was.  I miss him terribly. 

To distract myself from my grief, or maybe to help process it, I tackled one of the projects that has been on my list since I bought Alegria – to paint a mural on my living room wall in the space where the opening to the bar used to be when Alegria was the Legion Hall way back in the 70’s.  I spent a good deal of time staring at this weird space wondering what it should be.  Months of coming up and then rejecting potential ideas passed.  It was just a few days before Neiko died that I finally nailed down the basic premise of the mural.  A book shelf.

At first I was going to paint a life-sized book shelf, dividing the four-foot tall space into four shelves and then filling the nine-foot long shelves with old-fashioned, leather-bound books.  I estimated that the shelves would hold somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400 volumes (ish).  The concept was fabulous.  It was also exhausting just to think about.  The surface being so rough (it was stippled) would make painting the titles and details extremely tedious.  The idea of a book shelf was good and didn’t fade like all the other ideas did.  But I just couldn’t imagine actually tackling it. 

Then it hit me!  Why not paint giant books on one shelf? 

Before!   This 4' x 9' space was once the opening to a bar.
On December 3rd, I started drawing lines on the wall.  The design was loosely based on one of the book shelves on J.K. Rowling’s web site, a mix of vintage and modern books.  I had no idea what the titles should be, but soon the wall was filled with a series of 19 rectangles and I began filling them in with colour.   Painting the basic spines took several days and about 30 hours.  Filling in the spaces around the books took another six.  (Yes, I kept track!)

I was about half done painting the spines when it occurred to me that it would be fun to have books that represented some very special people in my life:  my kids, my best friend, my grandkids and my husbands.  There were 19 spines.  My list of special people was eight.  But what if more grandchildren came into my life?  What then?  My first problem.  And what about the girls’ spouses?  Should the current ones be given books?  What would happen if any of them split up?  (It’s happened before.)  My second problem.  Then I couldn’t figure out what books I should paint to represent Eric and Dave.  My third problem.

I made a list of books that I wanted on there for myself; books that represented my personal interests.  Knitting, yoga, mystery and fantasy fiction came easily to mind.  But which books?  How would I narrow it down?  There were just too many.  Another problem. 

I was chatting with my oldest daughter and I asked her what book would represent her Dad the best.  Her immediate answer was:  Archie comics.  I laughed out loud.   I was thinking of Les Miserable, because it was the only book he ever read as an adult.  But Archie made way more sense.  He loved Archie comics and literally hundreds and hundreds of them passed through our home.  Okay, an Archie comic it was.  There was a perfect, slim volume that would serve perfectly. 

After that the ideas really started to flow.  My best friend’s book would be The Medicine Wheel in honour of her Native heritage and the fact that we took the Medicine Wheel Facilitator’s Training together when we worked at the Friendship Centre.  I knew just which book it would be, too. 

For the grandchildren, present and future, one really special book would represent them all.  Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin.  If you haven’t read this book, go immediately to your local library and check it out.  It’s just the best children’s book ever.  (You can also hear the story on-line by Googling Pete the Cat and I apoligize in advance if the song gets stuck in your head.) 

Agatha Christie got me hooked on mysteries and I’ve read all of her books.  My favourite was Death on the Nile and so that title represents the mystery genre on the far right of the mural.  J.R.R. Tolkien  is, by far, my favourite fantasy author.  But I couldn’t include The Hobbit and the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, so, instead There and Back Again by Bilbo Baggins takes its place on the far left of the mural representing fantasy fiction. 

Ali and Tracy were easy.  A book about fairies for Ali and a book about Dogs for Tracy.  Bizz, however, stumped me.  Spiders?  (Eek.)  Weaving?  (Possibly)  Grooming?  (Maybe)  Best to ask her.  And the answer should have been obvious – eco-crafting and living green.  So she ended up with two books, smaller and not nearly as fancy as her sisters’ books, but definitely her.  For my own other interests, I came up with titles for knitting, herbalism, yoga and Celtic lore.  Some real titles and some made up.   

Dave’s book was still blank.  What on earth could I do that would honour him?  He’s a pretty weird and complicated person and, again, the answer should have been obvious.  But I was stuck on his fascination with aliens and alternative energy systems and such.  As soon as a topic presented itself, I rejected it.  I kept coming back to drumming.  Since he is a drummer, it seemed fitting.  But a title continued to elude me.  As did a graphic.  His book spine remained empty.

As I was working on the mural just a few days ago, I realized that I didn’t have room for a dictionary.  I did a mental head-slap for this oversight and stood back to review my progress.  The two remaining volumes were too small to be dictionaries.  I was deeply dismayed and actually experienced a moment when I considered painting over the whole thing and hanging photographs in the space like the previous owners did.  But I’d invested 80 hours into the mural at that point and giving up was not an option.

It’s only paint.  Right? 


So I painted over the two untitled volumes, making them into a single book and – voila! – an English dictionary was born.

In the end, three of the books do not have titles.  Instead they have symbols.  One is an Om, the seed sound of the universe according to Hindu and Yogic traditions.  One is a Treble Clef, which, in case you haven’t guessed, is for Dave.  And one is a Question Mark.  I have many, many questions about many, many things.  Maybe the answers are in this book on my wall.  Maybe not! 

I also dream of writing and publishing a book someday.  This book, the book with the large gold question mark, represents that dream. 

The mural took 90 hours to paint.  It fills a space 4’ X 9’ on my living room wall.  It tells a story about me and about my life.  And it definitely brightens up the room.  

After!  After 90 hours of painting this is what I ended up with.
One of the best things about living at Alegria is the simple fact that I can paint murals on my walls if I so choose.  Slowly I am creating the home I have dreamed of having virtually since I was a kid.  Little by little I am finding new ways to say to the world – or at least to visitors to my home – This is me!  Aren’t I fabulous? 

If that sounds vain, well, I could apologize.  But I won’t.  It’s not meant to be.  I’m just learning to like myself for who I am.  Hell, I’m just discovering who I am.  And so far, I’m not really that  bad.  I have a few faults and phobias and probably a personality disorder or two, but – hey! – I also have a pretty cool mural on my wall. 

Feel free to stop by and see it some time.  I’ll put the tea on. 


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Some Unexpected Joy

December 25, 2011.  One week until 2012 starts.  It’s been a fantastic year.  One of the best I can recall.

While most other people are celebrating Christmas, I am spending a quiet day at home with my paints, a puzzle, a book and blessed peace and quiet.  Yuletide, having started on the 22nd has me on holiday from work and thoroughly enjoying the change of pace and ability to relax. 

I spent last evening with Dave, Bizz and Dan.  We had dinner together and then opened presents.  Nothing fancy, just a few Yuletide gifts that warmed each of our hearts.  The days of spending stupid amounts of money on presents is well behind me, I think.  (Mind you I say that every year.  This has just been the first that the budget couldn’t be stretched to accommodate them.)  No problem.  It was fun without all the stress and hoopla! 

I did get a couple of unexpected gifts this year.  My staff gave me a great bottle of wine, some bubble bath, an adorable reindeer bottle cork, and some tea.  My assistant also made me a willow wreath and my programming coordinator made me a tiger’s eye bracelet.  On Friday, my niece showed up at my office with a gift for me.  I asked her if I should open it then or if I had to wait.  She instructed me to wait.  (It was tough!)  She gave me a set of six beautiful ornaments.  I was stunned when I opened the package and found these delicate and oh, so gorgeous ornaments nestled in a box.  Instead of putting them on the tree, I put them on the willow wreath.  They will hang where everyone can see them all year long. 

Gorgeous ornaments from my adorable niece now hang on the beautiful willow wreath made by Adele.
Bizz and Dan gave me some foot stuff – scrubs, and scrubbers and all the things one needs to make their feet feel special.  Ali and Dave gave me an gift certificate.  Dave gave me cash, with which I’m going to treat myself to a couple of Holy Clothing tops that I’ve had my eye on, but which my Visa has firmly refused to look at.  Or, it will go toward paint for the spare room.  Not entirely sure yet if my conscience will permit the Holy Clothing indulgence.  I think this is one of the most delightful Yuletides as far as gifts goes I’ve had in a long time.   Each present has been so thoughtful and so fun. 

I may have to invest in a wine rack!  Lovely gifts from friends and family !

The festivities were simple this year.  Simple and heart-felt beyond measure.  I feel like I couldn’t have asked for more if I’d bothered to ask.  Right now, in the glow of the Yule tree, I’m so at peace.  The solstice has given us the gift of the sun and the promise of spring to come. 

Brightest blessings, one and all!         

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ode To a Big Brown Dog

June 1, 2000.  My daughter Tracy was 15 years old and determined beyond measure to convince me to let her keep a gangly brown puppy that she had carried home from the trailer court.  I was determined not to let her.  It wasn’t that I didn’t think she would take care of it; I just didn’t want a big dog and I knew that I would inherit it when she eventually moved out.  She promised that would never happen. 

I argued that we didn’t have a proper yard for a large dog.  She said she would build a run.  I pointed out the high cost of vet bills and food.  She swore she’d work to support his every need.  I simply said no.  She simply waited until Dave came home from work.  When I told him that Tracy wanted to keep the puppy, he casually remarked that it was okay with him.  At that moment I knew I was doomed.

Doomed to spend the next 11 and a half years with one of the coolest dogs that ever was. 

Neiko was born on April 10th, 2000.  One of a litter of 14 Chocolate Lab/Akita cross puppies, he was the only one that was solid brown.  The only tell that he was more than just a lab was a thick line of wavy fur down his back.  And the fact that he grew into an 86 lb. monster of a lab.  For the most part, he had the sweet disposition of a Labrador retriever, but the 25% Akita in him was 100% dog aggressive.  This trait didn’t really present itself until he was a little older.  Had we known that cute little bundle would become such a terror, we might not have given in so easily. 

Tracy wanted to name him Bartleby after the angel in the movie Dogma.  There was no way I was going to stand on my deck and call a Bartleby into the house, so I protested vehemently.  Oddly enough, a woman named Pollyanna suggested Neiko and, thankfully, Tracy liked it.  With that settled, we did our best to put up with one of the dumbest, clumsiest puppies in the world.  He got hit be cars twice, but both times was fortunate enough to escape serious injury.  Tracy took him everywhere with her and so he assumed that the whole town was his playground.  One night he followed a friend of Tracy’s home and when her friend’s mother came home from work at the mill at midnight, refused to let her into her own house. 

The Schnoof - lounging in the kiddie pool on a hot day.
By the time he was approaching his second birthday, even Tracy was feeling like she just might have bitten off more than she could chew.   We were about to give up on him, but seemingly overnight, Neiko stopped being  dumb and clumsy and turned into an incredible dog.  His aggression toward his fellow species notwithstanding, Neiko was smart and full of personality.  His repertoire of tricks included the standard sit and lay down, but was enhanced by singing and playing dead when we pointed a finger at him and said, “Bang!”  He could roll over, sit pretty and crawl, too.  

Neiko loved people.  Someone once remarked to me that I must feel so safe at night when Dave was working with Neiko around.  I had visions of an intruder breaking in and Neiko thinking, “Hey, someone new to pet, pamper and play with me!”  Thankfully, his protective instincts were never put to the test. 

When he wasn’t happy with us, he let us know.  He would pout and refuse to acknowledge us if we had offended him in anyway.  Pretty much the only way to get him to forgive us was to say the word ‘treat’ – and, of course, follow through with the offer. 

He loved to go for rides.  Any opportunity to hop in the car or truck was met with joy and big, happy doggy smiles.  It didn’t matter where we were going or even if he never got to get out when we got there.  Neiko just wanted to be included in our activities. 

Our yard was constantly littered with bones that Neiko dragged home from God knows where.  Moose, deer, cow – and even  horse once – parts were a familiar part of the landscaping.  We never mowed the lawn without first “walking the grid” in search of blade bending bones.  One morning we woke up to the head of a four-point buck on the lawn.  Neiko and Simon (our dachshund) munched on that for weeks.  I prayed that no one would drive by and see their trophy in our yard.  Hooves were a particularly favourite treat.  Ever step on a piece of Lego in the dark?  Hoof bits have a similar effect!

True to her word, Tracy looked after The Schnoof, as he affectionately came to be called.  She fed him, brushed and bathed him, walked him and cleaned up his messes.  She worked to buy his food and pay for any vet bills.  She responsibly had him neutered when he was six months old.  And when she moved out, she took him with her.  Neiko, however, didn’t want to go.  He became even more aggressive and difficult to handle.  Tracy, in tears, thought she was going to have to put him down.  But Dave had other thoughts on the matter and told her to bring him home.  As much as I didn’t really want to have look after him, I was relieved that he wasn’t going to die and welcomed him back.   Tracy continued to support him by buying his food and tending to vet bills over the next several years. 

Geochaching with Mom and Bizz
As brave as Schnoofy could be in a dog fight, he was terrified of fireworks, backfiring cars and the sound of gunshots.  Thunder had him cowering next to – if not on top of – us on the couch.  He would visibly quake until the noise stopped. 

In spite of having fangs that were over an inch long, Neiko was incredibly gentle when being hand fed.  He was always nervous around young children, but very tolerant  and never, ever hurt anyone – on purpose.  When Tracy was raising rabbits and guinea pigs, Neiko protected them.  No other dog could get near his “babies.” 

As much as it broke my heart, I chose to leave Neiko and Simon both with Dave when I moved out last spring.  It was their home and after Tracy’s disastrous attempt at relocating him, I believed that Neiko would be content to stay with Dave for the rest of his life.  Then one day, Neiko discovered where I lived and began making increasingly frequent visits.  I would often come home from work to find him waiting for me on my deck.  I would take him home or Dave would come and get him, but he just kept coming back.  Sometimes circumstances would mean that he had to stay overnight with me.  I didn’t feed him, but he wouldn’t go home on his own when he got hungry either.  When he was home, Dave would have to physically drag him into the house to eat.  As soon as he was released, back he came to my place.  We finally decided that for his own safety Neiko would live with me.  Or rather, we finally agreed with Schnoofy on the matter. 

He settled in and was quite happy here.  He was the only pet and so got all the attention.  For a while he would go back to Dave’s for visits now and then, but eventually he stopped even doing that. 

He suffered from progressive hip dysplasia over the last couple of years.  Like most dogs with the condition, he had good days and bad days.  It was all I could do not to burst into tears when he stumbled and fell on the stairs.  But I tried to follow Cesar Milan’s advice and not show overt pity for his plight.  Neiko accepted it and so I tried to as well.  To help him, we ensured that he got top of the line dog food with glucosamine and had hoped that that would slow down the degeneration of his hips joints and ease his discomfort.  It seemed to be working.  He wasn’t as shaky and unstable for the last few weeks. 

Last night I came home from work to find Neiko waiting for me at the door.  As per our usual routine, I gave him a treat and a hug and let him outside for a pee.  He didn’t even go down the stairs and barked to be let in only a few moments later.  For the next two hours he was quite restless, moving from the couch to the floor to his bed and back to the couch again every few minutes.  I didn’t think much of it as he would do this every now and then.  I was expecting another bad spell with his hips. 

At about seven o’clock he wanted to go outside.  I opened the door and he walked out with his tail down.  He paused at the top of the stairs and looked back at me.  I gave him a pet and watched him go down the steps.  He walked into the back yard and laid down in the snow.  Again, I didn’t think much of it as he sometimes did this.  I figured he’d be back at the door in a few minutes.

An hour passed.  I decided to go and check on him.  When I opened the door and called his name there was no response.  He wasn’t on his chair on the deck and I thought that maybe he had gone for a walk-about.  When I turned to come back in, I saw him laying in the snow a few feet from the bottom of the stairs.  I called his name.  He didn’t move. 

Neiko had died. 

It looked like he was heading back inside and just collapsed on the way.  Perhaps his heart gave out.  I really don’t know.  I hope he didn’t suffer.  I feel so bad that I wasn’t there with him when it happened. 

He’s gone to rest at Dave’s Dad’s farm next to Muffy, Wiggles, Cleo and other McKilligan family pets.  Dave’s Dad kindly fired up his back hoe to dig a grave.  Being winter, the option of digging one any other way is nil. 

Before wrapping him in his old blanket, Dave removed his collar and gave it to me.  It now hangs on my headboard.  Eventually, I will put it away, but for now, that’s where it’s going to stay. 

Dogs are such amazing creatures.  Their love and loyalty, their natural empathy and compassion for their owners is a model more of us could emulate.  Dogs live in the moment.  They don’t regret.  They don’t hate.  They know how to forgive. 

At the Buck Flats Falls - Neiko loved hiking through the woods. 
Having Neiko in my life was a privilege.  I’m glad that we were able to give him a good life.  We spoiled him quite rotten.  I doubt Cesar Milan would have been proud of us, but we loved him.  So much!  He’s going to be very, very missed – by us and by a lot of people in this community who got to know him over the years.  

I’m sure I won’t miss the hair on the furniture.  Or the requests to go outside in the wee hours of the morning.  But I will miss the cuddles and the kisses, the tricks and the company.  Neiko was great company! 

Good bye, my big brown dog.  I hope that wherever you are there are no end to the bones and balls and squeaky toys that you loved so much.  Rest in peace, dear Schnoofy!