Friday, October 18, 2013

Unique

I made an unexpected visit into Tok two weeks ago with Parke, who had a foreign object lodged in his eye and needed urgent medical care.  An hour drive and forgotten camera later I found myself sitting in the medical clinic waiting room, waiting for Parke.  

The waiting room was typical, blue-grey walls - calm, quiet, unassuming.  A large assortment of magazines presented itself, ranging from Business Week and Time, to Highlights, Cooking Light, and then I came across a copy of Spirituality & Health magazine that jumped out at me.  Thumbing through the pages I found an article on creativity and the importance of finding creative elements that inspire us in our day-to-day lives. The author encouraged readers to find ways to incorporate creativity into our day-to-day, as a means of living a more fulfilled and aligned life (Live Life - Inspired).  This was like receiving a letter confirming I am on the right track about cultivating my inner creativity and encouraging others to do so, as well.  I live for little moments like that, random affirmations.  Confirmation that I am on the right track.  

When I returned home I bookmarked the magazines website and when I had a free moment I took to exploring it.  I came across an article that interested me: Keeping It More Real in the Labyrinth of Life by: Eve Hogan.  In it, she offers up a story on an activity she did with older elementary school students.  She encouraged meditation and personal reflection through simple and effective questioning.  The questions she asked them to ponder were:
  1. Who they really are, or their Spirit essence, 
  2. Who they think they are, or their beliefs, and, 
  3.  Who they want everyone else to think they are, or their façade. 
“We talked about the difference and about a pilgrimage as a spiritually focused journey. Finally, I sent them into the Chartres Cathedral-style labyrinth with the instructions of seeing if they could mindfully walk as their authentic “spirit-selves.” 

Despite its hippy-dippy tone, which may be overkill for most readers, I found it to be an interesting article and it gave me a few things to ponder as I walk along on my journey to achieving my personal destiny, way out here, living life, wild.  
 I'd like to think my spirit-animal is the energy of the breed of dog I love best, a Labrador.  The breed that has been by my side over the past 18 years.  Three lifetime dogs in a row: Crayonie, my first labrador a golden yellow girl full of spunk and sass, then Unique, my ultimate lifetime dog, my companion, my four-legged soul mate, a beautiful big black dog whose spiritual and physical energy was linked to mine.  Energy I can still feel six months after her death. She was smart, well-behaved, and always ready to go for a ride in our Subaru, “The Roo”.  
Unique, age 5.

And now, my Honey Bearskins Rug, three months and one week into our life together and I already know I have found my next four-legged lifetime dog.  
My trail running Mentasta Mountain Honey Bearskins Rug 

Labradors are my life.  The life I strive to live.  The happy-go-lucky, tail wagging, creek romping, snuggling, snacking, blissed out creature who approaches life with overwhelming joy and inextinguishable exuberance. 
Honey

Honey is the most interesting dog to simply observe because of her mix of labrador, german shepherd, and hound.  Her coat is a blend of black and golden, a blend of my two labradors Crayonie and Unique, brought into one magnificent creature.  Honey's unique expressions and her personality, a force of nature.  I am in awe of her being and am thankful to be her human companion.  The thing I love most about Honey is she is Honey, she is not Unique or Crayonie, or any other creature I have known.  She is someone new to me, someone I am learning and watching grow and flourish out here on the homestead, in her element.  She knows this place, The Moose Lodge.  We joke that she must be the reincarnation of Hank, the original homesteader, who has found his way back home in the form of a river-romping, caribou bone gnawing, barn digging hound who scours the property and unearths mysterious jars.  She runs this place.  
Honey

One of these days we expect her to deliver up some secret savings account buried long ago in the woods, by Hank.  Wishful thinking perhaps, but this dog knows this place and shows us secret pathways, parts unknown, parts only she could know, because this is where she belongs. On the homestead, at The Moose Lodge. Channeling her inner Hank, guided by an invisible force to fulfill the mission of her spirit-self.  And we are lucky enough to be her human companions.  
Honey voraciously gnawing on a caribou bone she found at the creek. 

Unique was my intuitive companion.  When I started suffering from chronic sinusitis she was there for me.  Snuggling, wet nose kisses and maintaining the invisible line in bed, her side and mine.  
Unique, March 2013 

When I would feel really sick, she would throw up.  As if the idea of me being sick, made her feel my sickness.  Then I would be sick, with a sick dog to take care of, but she was my baby. Unique was the reason I knew I could parent human children.  I was later diagnosed with pet allergies, which to me now seems funny that I was obvlious to the fact that I had allergies.  My face was puffy, tomato red cheeks and I suffered sinus cold after sinus cold.  A positive allergy test and a sinus surgery later my best friend had to sleep in another room, down the hall.  No longer by my side.  

The allergist I saw (once, and never again) was not pleased when I told him I had a dog and was going to keep her.  To him a dog was something like an accessory. Something you can sell when it goes out of fashion, or when the seasons change.  He was one of those people I cannot understand.  A person who lives without the companionship and without the love of an animal.  
Unique, 7 weeks old.  
Honey, reminding me of 7 week old Unique, with Petzl trotting along steadily behind her.

Unique held my life together with her four perfect paws, when I was dealing with the delayed sensation of unexpected heart break.  A relationship that ended amicably a few months before. On good terms. Friends even.  It was fine.  I was fine. Then it wasn’t.  It really wasn’t. It was hard. Confusing. I cried.  A lot. More than felt necessary.  It was ridiculious.  It wasn’t even the relationship ending, so much as it was the realization that the life I saw unfolding in front of me, of us, one way.  Then I had to figure out what that meant now that I was a free agent. Who was I? What did I want out of life? What was I all about.  It was a time of great personal discovery, filled with revelation, insight, exploration, and adventure.  Every step of that journey was taken with Unique. Dog is my co-pilot.  

It was me and Unique.  Everywhere I went she was with me.   

At work, I would take her out on a short mid-morning break to the lake for a few throws of fetch in the cool water, then bring her back to The Roo, windows down, in the shade in a spot where I could see her from my office.  Somehow I managed to take my daughter to work every day.  Sure she wasn’t allowed in the building, but it was kind of the same thing.  

Unique and Jade Cat, who is now my half-sister's cat. 


On the other side of heartbreak there was a different person waiting for me.  It took me a while to figure her out, then I slipped into these grown-up dancin’ shoes and sashayed my way on hikes, car camping adventures, and one very memorable trail run we shared together at Lost Lake in Seward. 
My favorite coffee house, Resurrect Art, in Seward and The Ravens down the street.

Seward, the place where I’d met my ex-boyfriend.  It was just about four years from the day we met when I was out on the Lost Lake Trail running with Unique. The trail my ex and I had hiked together, now I ran it with my dog.  Redefining myself, one step at a time.  
Pounding the dirt, feeling the burn in my legs and oxygen debt in my lungs I felt alive.  Running gave me wings, without the redbull hangover.  Going up the trail it’s a steady and slow incline, nothing too crazy steep, but long straight stretches of loose dirt shaded by the thick tree canopy.  I was the only woman on the trail and the only person out there without a human companion.  I didn’t need the company of other people, I had Unique, and we had bear spray. That was all we needed.  

By the time we turned around and rocketed down the trail, I felt like a changed person.  I went up the trail in search of something, I needed to face that place, to reclaim it as mine.  To archive the memories spent hiking the trail as a couple, and then to begin again.

Me and Unique enjoyed the hard-work paying off on the downhill slide back to Seward.  Feeling renewed and alive.  We camped out on the beach that night. Me in my olive and mustard colored mummy bag.  Unique curled up under my arm, at my side in the back of The Roo.  We ate breakfast together on the beach.  We walked. I thought.  She sniffed.  

I still wasn’t where I wanted to be in life, with me, my thoughts and ideas. The places I thought I wanted to go, things I wanted to do.  It was a slow process of elimination, figuring out the pieces, the next few pieces.  The pieces that would finally make me feel like I could try to love someone again, maybe.  If it wasn’t too scary, it might be something better. Something better than just me and my dog.  Perhaps that is not giving Unique enough credit, she was the best I could have ever had, but let’s face it, every kid needs a dad.  Unique needed her dad.

Unique showed me a path. A path that led me to a dear friend, and roommate who shared her life with her faithful canine companion.  A sisterly bond was formed over the love of dogs.  Our landlord and upstairs neighbor once commented after we had a another giggle-fest, that he thought it was so great that two people could be so happy as room mates. Having so much fun, just sitting at home knitting and crocheting, and studying.  Cooking up masterful meals.  Thinking out our respective futures.    Laughing with our dogs and going for car rides.  

Unique turned out to be all I needed as a dating tool.  I could read her varying levels of approval or disapproval.  One night stands out in particular, Unique jumped on the couch between me and my date (not Parke), we were just sitting there watching TV, and Unique turned to him and made an unmistakable command. Unique said in one look and the slight curl of her upper lip:  “Leave, now, please or I will bite you and it will hurt, okay.  Alright, thank you.  Have a good night and don’t come back”.  

He never came back and I was damn thankful for my dog, the dating wonder. I trusted Unique’s instincts and her intuition as she trusted mine.  Now I look back and think about Unique as my spiritual seeing eye dog bringing me to the light, helping me find my way, and providing assistance in choosing the right path. 

On our first date Parke told me he just bought this place in Eklutna, a shack he called it.  Shack.  

I said “Cabin?”, and he said “No, it’s a Shack on birch stumps in the woods.”.  Personally, I call that a cabin, but we are all entitled to our own opinions.  I thought “Shack” sort of had a nice ring to it.  
The Shack

Then I said “You just bought a cabin in Eklutna yesterday, why are you here?”. I actually said that.  Here he was on our first date, and I was questioning his sanity for choosing the company of a young woman over the silent company of a shack in the woods.  

It was one of those early moments in our relationship, looking back it was a road map.  A moment of affirmation.  He had met the kind of person that valued quiet isolation, a shack in the woods, over the company of others.  

Sometime after the date I was filling in one of my best guy friends (who also happened to be an ex-boyfriend) on the date and he said “I hear wedding bells”.  I thought that was ridiculous and argued we were just getting to know each other, and wedding bells were no where on my mind.  But I had to give the guy credit for knowing me, knowing this might really be something.  

One my third or fourth date with Parke he invited me out to a “Shack Warming Party” at the then newly acquired Shack.  I baked arguably one of the best apple pies to ever come out of the greater Anchorage Bowl and knitted some funky pot holders.  I went for something sort of masculine, and felt good about that decision. The cautionary tale of knitting something for a boyfriend, thrown out the window.  I reasoned that probably only applies to sweaters, of which I have yet to knit, period.  Then I gave the pot holders to Parke and felt like such a dork.  A knitter.  I had to out myself sometime, so that was it. He thanked me and they stayed proudly displayed at The Shack.  Unique attended the Shack Warming Party with me, eagerly greeting Parke’s friends, introducing me to everyone before I could introduce myself.  A girl and her dog.  Unique always went out into the world, before me, announcing my entrance, greeting people warmly, with smiles, and happy tail wags.  Taking the pressure off me, the focus removed.  Unique could greet people warmly, showing an entunisaism, a joy for people, in a way that I was often too reserved, too held back to express.  We were one, each an extension of the other.  
Surprisingly, after a year or so of living together, I think Unique decided she liked Parke just a little more than she liked me.  I said “Like” not “Love”.  She loved me more than anything.  Anything except a juicy steak and turkey liver open faced sandwich with extra gravy.  In that case it would definitely be the sandwich and not her mom, me.  Dog Mama.  But she liked Parke more than anyone. She liked to be with him, around him, doing stuff with him.  She just said “See you later, Mama.” and there went my dog, with her dad.  Off to Lowe’s likely with a swing by Wendy’s for some french fries to share on the ride back up the hill.  Two for him, three for her.  When Parke would come home she would make a series of high pitched squeals and the stub of her tail (amputated because of cancer, in her tail, I said she was Unique), would go “on vibrate” as we called it. Moving back and forth so fast it appeared to vibrate.  She would hold a stuffed animal clenched tightly in her teeth and squeal happy sounds and vibrate her little stub tail when Parke came home.  
There was nothing to compare with the displays of affection and excitement she brought to a room when my mom was present.  Grandma.  Unique loved her people.  

George is stubborn like his parents, he has been that way since he was in the womb.  As a baby he showed little interest in crawling, the more I encouraged it, the more he resisted.  Until one day he decided there was something worth crawling for:  Unique.  
Unique had an effect on people.  After she died family and friends shared memories of her, of us, our life together.  Reminding me that the bond we shared wasn’t just a dog-human relationship, but it was something bigger, something other people could sense between us.  People really knew Unique, because she was that kind of dog.  
Unique lost her eyesight just before she turned eight years old.  Then it was the “once I was blind but now I can see” leading the now blind barometer of my former dating life.  She could go blind then, I think she decided. It was okay with her.  She missed fetch and sometimes when she ran into a tree or a fence, she had a brief moment of disbelief, then she’d carry on.  She didn’t let her get her down.  She had dignity. Persistence. I think we could all learn a lot about shaking things off and carrying on.  
Petzl, Parke, Unique and two-day old Baby George. 4/18/09 - four years to the day (pretty much to the hour) before she departed this earth, leaving behind her love and her legacy of wet labrador kisses in the wake of her passing.

By the time Unique lost her eyesight, it was okay, she and I both accepted it, because she no longer needed her keen eyesight to snuff out potential dates, because we found our man.  Parke.  With his Shack and Shining Armor.  My GMC driving Prince of an Engineer. My now husband of 5 1/2 years.  

I think Unique knew when it was time to die too.  She knew she could let me go, that she had brought me just to the point she was called upon to, and she trusted I could let go and carry on without her by my side.  She taught me all the lessons she needed to and lived out her days happily by my side.  It was time to say goodbye.  
My last photo of Unique, taken a week before she died. Shortly after we brought Robbie Cat home from the animal shelter.  Both of them sleeping, basking in the golden sunlight.  One at the beginning of their journey, the other at the end of the road.

Standing in the kitchen in the Labrador House, Parke came home for lunch and greeted Unique.  He said something wasn’t right with her, she didn’t seem okay.  I brushed it off and said she seemed fine, mostly.  We ate lunch, she paced.  She wasn’t fine.  I couldn’t see that.  I was blind for the love of a labrador.  Then Parke showed me the light, held my hand as I faced the hardest thing I was going to have to do.  I took some deep breaths, calmly stroked Unique’s slick black coat.  Recognized she was in mild distress, with an increasing intensity as time ticked by. Then I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I turned the fan on, the faucet, and then I bawled my eyes out.  I didn’t want Unique to hear, I knew if she knew I was upset, she would be more upset. I didn’t want her to worry about me, to experience anxiety and stress because I couldn’t hold my shit together.  

I stood there in the bathroom and felt my heart breaking.  I took deep breaths, thought about being a grown-up for a few minutes, being “The Mom”.  The decision maker.  I had lost pets before, three of them, basically as an only child my pets were my siblings. When they died it was heart breaking, but my parents had to make those decisions.  They said when it was time. I was a kid and therefore exempt from the decision making process.  This time I had to put on a brave face.  
Unique, September 2012.  Putting on a brave face.  
She was the bravest, most trusting, loving creature I have ever known.

I came out of the bathroom and said to Parke with more confidence than I could have possibly had “If today is the day, I can do this, okay.”.  Then I told the kids, knowing they would really have no idea what was happening.  Walking them through the process, walking myself through it as well.  Preparing.  It was clear Unique was getting more agitated, she was not able to get comfortable.  My always happy, up for booty scratches puppy didn’t want a booty scratch, and hesitantly took yummy chummies from Parke’s outstretched hand.  

We loaded her and Petzl up into The Roo, and I kept thinking about that Subaru commercial. The one with the guy and his dog.  They drive through life together, and suddenly the camera shows the guy driving his wagon, a kid in the car seat in the back, then his faithful companion pops up in the back.  The first time I saw that commercial, I thought two things: 1. That 32 second commercial just summed up my life with my dog.  2. They don’t show you that last Subaru ride, the final drive.  The drive to the vets office.  Then I bawled my eyes out. 
In the days following Unique’s death I lived in fear of that commercial.  I was already crying all the time, but that commercial would have thrown me into a deep, dark pit of despair.  How are you supposed to go anywhere or do anything without your best friend by your side?  How do you carry on?   
Unique died when we lived in The Labrador House, named as such because we lived on Labrador Circle.  The Labrador House for The Labrador Dog.  It was our final home together.  When she died I swore I could see her out of the corner of my eye. Shadows across the golden paint and cherry floors.  Remnants of her life here, with us.  It was time to leave.  I couldn’t bear the sadness of that house, and live with the feeling that the path we’d chosen wasn’t the right one.  

Unique’s death showed me that the show must go on, even if that means major life altering changes.  They say you shouldn’t move for a year after a loved one you’ve shared a home with dies. One year.  Less than 2 months after Unique died that house was on the market. Listed. Moose Lodge offer accepted.  
The Labrador House
The Moose Lodge 

We left our Labrador House, where we lost our Labrador dog and packed up and carried her love and memory out here to The Moose Lodge. I am here, because she left me when she did.  Because I knew this life out here would be too much for her, because I couldn’t handle the thought of moving her one more time, another move for a brave and blind dog. It seemed too much to ask of her.  When we she was gone, she set me free to go on my path. My next journey. The next decade of my life. Two months and three days before I turned 30 she died.  On my birthday the offer we put in for The Moose Lodge was accepted.  

I had a lot of anxiety about turning thirty, the reality of getting older.  Now a reality I had to face without my dog.  My dog died and someday I will die.  Someday my children would lose me, or worse, I could lose them. The fragility of life. In the weeks following Unique’s I cried millions of tears.  Millions. I cried for every person who ever lost their best friend, their fur-legged baby.  I would cry myself to sleep, then wake up in the middle of the night and remember she was gone, and I would cry myself back to sleep again. In the morning, the light would creep into the bedroom, and I would wake up and she was still dead.  Then I would cry.  This went on for about 10 days straight. 
Unique, December, 22, 2012.


One morning I laid in bed, another tear-filled night under my belt, when I felt wet kisses on the end of my nose.  I opened my eyes and the room was filled with golden light, and Unique was there at the edge of the bed, with her head on the edge of the mattress, kissing my nose, eyes bright and full of life.  She could see me.  I reached out to pet her, then woke up, this time for real, and she was gone.  I wailed.  When I did manage to fall asleep, I would dream of her, good dreams.  In our dreams we would be on a trail run together, or we’d be playing fetch at the lake.  Just the two of us.  Then I would wake up.  I would always wake up and she would be gone. Dead.  
Then the dreams stopped.  She left me.  
She was gone.  I felt worse for a while, 
then I felt better.  

In the days following Unique's death Petzl, 
our blues heeler (australian cattle dog - blue heeler) 
was my primary source of comfort. I wore Unique's 
favorite bandana and held Petzl's mournful face in my 
hands and took deep, allergy filled breaths and tried to
 feel something other than sad.
Wearing my "Unique" necklace I designed with Elise of Koi Creek Beadworks.  Elise took time to sit with me, look at my photo scrapbook of Unique, hear some stories, provide some kleenex.  Then she took a small baggie of Unique's ashes back to her studio and incorporated those into three beautiful beads, and deconstructed one of my favorite necklaces that my friend Amy made, and merged the parts of my sad and broken life together, fusing it into something I could carry with me, something beautiful, something positively Unique.
I really believe that animals are what makes life worth living.  Which is why despite dog and cat allergies, I feel I must live with animals, take allergy a host of allergy medicine, and do my best to minimize the dander exposure, while loving my four-legged friends with every ounce of my being. If my life is shorter, or the quality is compromised in any way because I love animals, I am willing to accept that, because a life without animals is not a life for me.  


The short lives animals live in contrast to our own is really something to meditate on and I have thought a lot about it since Unique died.  We watch them grow, care for them, love them, we witness their lives cradle to grave.  The cycle of life.  We do the unnatural as human parents, we watch our children grow, then die.  It goes against "the human way".  

When we bring an animal into our lives and promise to be their forever guardians, we take a vow to have our hearts broken, lives forever changed.  Simply because we love them and they love us.  Being with animals gives us a better understanding of our own mortality.  The process of aging.  The reality that it all ends, witnessing time 
marching on, without our best four-legged friends to
 be here with us.  It makes us cherish the moments.  

Watching Honey, young and carefree, romping through the creek in hot pursuit of grey jays.  Experiencing flow.  In the moment.  Youth and the circle of life.  Acceptance. Moving on.  The Unique Quilt I made, my first and only quilt, cobbled together with 20 of Unique's bandanas, stuffed with the blanket she slipped from this world while I held her in my arms, and backed with a flannel sheet from my bed, a sheet that dates back to when Unique and I snuggled every night and fell asleep, constant companions.  

Now that Unique has died, she is free. Free from the cancer that ravaged her body, the cancer she had fought off since she was 5, when I faced her likely untimely mortality.  Then was blessed enough to celebrate her long, full, natural live.  A life that spanned nearly eleven years.  A life that was extinguished shortly before my 30th birthday. A decade of Unique Love changed the woman I became.  

My dog, made me who I am.  My heart is still broken in bits and pieces, and the animal love that Petzl, Honey and Robbie Cat bring into my life is priceless, a sacred gift. Secret vows made, to be their life-long guardians, permission to allow my heart to be broken again, shattered into a million tiny pieces, when they die. 
Unique's tiny puppy footprint made back in 2002.  

It's a promise I am willing to make, because no matter how sad I still feel about losing my girl, a sadder thing would be to never love another animal again.  Unique taught me how to love and selflessly care for another being.  She showed me that I could be a mother, when I thought I never wanted to have children.  When Parke and I began discussing having a family, ultimately I decided that if I could love a human child half as much as I loved Unique, then my kids would probably be okay. So far, so good. 

Can you imagine living your life without this kind of love in it?
George, squealing and celebrating his success of crawling to his big sister. 
Thank you "Sneeker" (Unique) for turning me into a mother, and a suitable human companion.  You changed my life and I will forever be in your debt, and I will continue to love you - every hair on your slick black labrador coat, every speck of dander that ignites my pet allergy reactive body, and accept that there are some things I cannot change.  Pet allergies and death.  

I move forward with the courage and strength to love again, because I have the heart of a labrador.  A happy-go-lucky, look at the bright side kind of attitude that allows for the continual thanksgiving for the simple things like a warm place to sleep and the companionship of family.  

Love.  

All you need is love.  Love is all you need.