Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Memorial Day Observed

Monday, my husband and I took the children and my mother (in town for a visit) out to the Dallas—Ft. Worth National Cemetery to attend the annual Memorial Day ceremony. It became obvious very quickly that we were first-timers ... the car line stretched about a half-mile outside the gates, then another half-mile down the main road to a makeshift parking lot. (Note to self: next year, wake up early, bring chairs and snacks...)

We joined hundreds of others gathered to hear Texas Attorney General (and candidate for governor) Greg Abbott give the keynote speech, listen to the impressive bagpiper play Amazing Grace, watch the Knights of Columbus lay a large wreath, and be jolted by the 21-gun salute brought to us by a Marine division on three Howitzer guns.
Surrounding us were hundreds of perfectly lined grave markers bearing the name, rank, dates, awards and faith symbols of the military veterans who had died. Some died at a nice old age, but on many we read "KIA." The saddest, to me, were those with a blank spot where the faith symbol was usually placed. 

Did you know?

  • Burial in a national cemetery is open to all members of the armed forces and Veterans who have met minimum active duty service requirements and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. 
  • Eligible spouses, widows or widowers may also be eligible for burial, even if they predecease the Veteran. Their names are engraved on the back side of the marker. When the veteran dies, the stone is turned around so that the veteran's information faces frontward.
  • Reservists who die while on active duty or while performing training duty, or were eligible for retired pay, may also be eligible for burial.
  • A veteran's placement within the cemetery is based on date of death (not service or rank). So sections can be measured by the years on the death date, but the veterans may have served in any of the conflicts.
  • On each stone is engraved the deceased's name, rank, birth and death dates, faith symbol, one chosen award if applicable, conflict arena (Korea, Iraq, Vietnam, WWII, etc),  possibly their division, and a brief epitaph.
  • Memorial Day pays tribute to those who lost their lives in combat, whereas Veteran's Day honors all veterans, living or dead.
  • Memorial Day started a couple of years after the Civil War as "Decoration Day" when officials and family members would decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. 
  • The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. 

My husband and I reflected that, amazingly, we have not been personally touched by the death of an active-duty serviceman. We know and love many veterans—active, reserve, former, and retired—but none killed in action.

But many at the ceremony were there for very personal reasons. As the ceremony concluded and we all trudged back up the hill to our cars, then waited in the slow-but-friendly line that snaked out of the many makeshift parking lots, we noticed small clusters of people gathered here and there among the gravesites. Each stone had received a small American flag, but some sported patriotic red, white, and blue flower arrangements. Families and friends hugged, cried, tended to the mementos placed by their loved one's name, told stories. 

We spent the majority of our day off driving to/from and observing the respectful remembrance of our ultimate servants. Time well spent.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Words That Changed My World—a Guest Post

So, are you shocked to see another post so soon? Me, too. But this is just a tease. My writing friend Bronwyn Lea, who humors me when I ask to hear her lovely South African accent, invited me to guest post for her series, Words That Changed My World. I had been mulling over two options for several weeks, until recent events made clear which one to write about. Here's a sneak peek— be sure to click through for the full post.

Last week

Last week my family was touched by three significant events, all involving death of some kind. First, our elderly dog passed away in his sleep. (Do not discount the copious tears that I, more than any other in the family, shed. I had no idea I would be so heartbroken. See here for that story.)

A few days later, in his role as a chaplain for the Texas State Guard, my husband performed the funeral for the son of one of his guardsmen. The 13-year-old had accidentally overdosed himself.

The next evening, my Facebook feed blew up with the news that Christy, one of my childhood friends, had passed away in her sleep the night before. Our age. Unexplained. 

To read the rest, visit Bronwyn's Corner.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An "Ode to Frisco"

Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really. ~Agnes Sligh Turnbull

Earlier this week, our 15-year-old shepherd/doberman mix "puppy," Frisco, did not wake up. He had regularly been whining during the nights for weeks now, his poor kidneys demanding frequent relief. So when he did not cry out for 2 nights in a row I wasn't sure if I should rejoice or be concerned. The morning after the 2nd night of complete quiet, I opened his door hesitantly, turned on his light, and could immediately tell he was gone.

This week was his 15th birthday. We adopted him shortly after his first birthday, when I was 5 months pregnant with my first child. So that makes him, like, my first kid.

We have as many Frisco stories as we do children and friend stories. And we have as many "Isn't he cute?" stories as we do "THAT $^*?&?!! DOG!" stories. You know what I mean...


Isn't He Cute?

He was a big guy, as you can see from the photos. But he often thought he was still truly a puppy, trying to jump up on our bed or in our laps. He learned to settle for shoving his snout under our arms and demanding a hug or scratch behind the ears. He was a leaner ... you know, when enjoying a good rub his whole body would start leaning toward me til sometimes he'd either lose his balance or I would be supporting his weight. We called them Frisco hugs.

He loved being with his people. So much so that he would not eat without us. Early on, he would take a mouthful of his food, trot out to the living room or kitchen where we were, drop the kibbles on the floor, then proceed to crunch. Two more mouthfuls he transported like that before he would stay in his room to consume the rest. It became predictable.

If we were outside, he needed to be there too. During the years our TV was upstairs, we would often hear him creeping (read: pounding his 85 lb frame) up the stairs. We waited to see his head peer around the chair. If we didn't acknowledge him, or shoo him away, he would quietly curl up at our feet as if thinking, "They'll never notice." And if there was a storm, he was glued to my side no matter where in the house I was.

Frisco had a ferocious growl and an intimidating bark. When we lived in a home with a chain link fence surrounding our back yard, he wore a path along the alley fence line as he protected his people from dangerous neighbors, children and occasional strangers cutting through the neighborhood. We knew that we could leave our toddlers playing in the backyard safely because Frisco would protect "his people." No sane person got near our fence, much less attempted to enter the yard.

At the same time, Frisco allowed the children to do almost anything they wanted to him. Toddlers aren't gentle creatures: they pull tails, poke eyes, sit on bellies, pretend to be cowboys with a horse, hug you til you choke, use you as a pillow. We often marveled at Frisco's unending patience with the little people we brought home to him. If they got a little too aggressive, he would simply sit up and walk away a short distance to settle down again. Sometimes he just endured, looking up at us with a helpless expression as if to say, "Really? Can you help?"

And if you dared sit down in the middle of the floor to play a board game, or tie your shoe, or just watch TV—it didn't matter—he assumed you were there to play with him. He lived to wrestle with us, though if he ever actually captured an arm or hand in his mouth he would stop, let it go and lick it. The gentle giant.


That Blankety-Blank Dog!

Of course, he could drive us insane. Stay home and eat his own food? Whatev. One time I caught him climbing (not jumping—climbing) that chain link fence. He was tall enough to put his front paws on the top bar and strong enough to pull himself up. But he didn't count on getting his back foot caught in a link on his way down the other side. I was inside, with a 8-month-old, when I heard horrible yelping outside. Afraid he was dying, I ran out to see his predicament. I freed his foot, but that meant he was also free to run off and cavort around the neighborhood. I had to corral the baby, then chase the dog home.

Another time, he truly ran off, earning jail time in the pound for 3 days. We told him it was his only "get out of jail" card (because it wasn't free!). I also remember a day, when I was 7 or 8 months pregnant, chasing him around the living room because he did not want to go to his room (I was trying to leave for work). Jumping couches to tackle him in my condition did not make for a happy mama.

Frisco's height gave him the perfect leverage to find and steal food from the table and counters. An abandoned lunch was fair game. In recent years, he lost all sense of decorum and pretty much shadowed the kids around the kitchen, hoping they would just turn their backs for a second. He was known to have snatched food right out of the toddler's hand. Hey, it's right there on my level, so he must be offering it to me, right? I'm strangely proud of the fact that he stole his last sandwich the day before he died. True to self, til the end.

Frisco and I shared a weakness for pizza in particular. He begged, shook hands, sat, "talked" or lay down on command for a scrap of crust. Or he would just steal half a pie off the counter. Whatever he could get away with.

The Aftermath

The worst part of the first day was not discovering him in his room, nor carrying him out to the truck, nor watching my husband break the news to the kids, nor taking his body to the vet. Yes, I cried through most of those events, but something else was harder to take: returning home to an empty house.

It's not like he was a bundle of energy these past few months. But he was there. He still came to see me, still needed to be let out, still scratched or sighed. He was a companion til the end, and I miss that, especially now that I work from home most days.

I found myself ruminating over several themes the last few days:
Grief is exhausting. I know, it's just a dog. Right? No. I cried longer and more often the first day than I can remember in years. I am in fact impressed at my typing ability because the screen is blurry even now. My eyes were puffy for a couple of days. I understood in a new way why my mother kept so busy after the loss of my stepfather—activity distracts you from the pain, gives you something else to focus on. That's not such a bad thing sometimes. A good night's sleep helps too. 
Mercy: The loss is more bearable because we saw him decline over the last few months. The kids aren't traumatized—they can actually feel sad for themselves but glad for him. We all started sharing memories of his quirks and funny experiences, evoking smiles and laughs at times. But then someone would get teary-eyed. (One even created a Minecraft cemetery...a creative processing technique!). So it comes in waves and know it will get better, maybe enough to get a new dog within the year. But Frisco is remembered well.   
Friends: In times of loss, friends who understand and give us space to grieve are a gift from God, evidence of his grace. The ones I initially contacted all responded with compassion, allowing me to weep over a pet who has been part of our family longer than our children have. No matter what or who you lose, don't underestimate the power of compassion and empathy. Allow the grieving one to talk or not talk, acknowledge the loss, and be there.  
Answered prayers: I'd been asking the Lord for months to spare me the decision of when or if to take him to the vet to be euthanized, and to spare him unnecessary pain. I found him in his room—where he felt safest—early that morning, while my husband was home to help transfer him to our SUV (we made the swift decision not to make the kids have to see his body) and to break the news to the kids (he knew I would have choked and sobbed my way through that). So no hard decision to make, and an uncomplicated goodbye. Pretty much what I had begged for. Thank you, Lord.
Perspective:  While we love and will miss our pizza-thieving, playful pal, we realize that his loss is but a hint of what it is like to lose a child or mother or other loved one. Just this past weekend, a colleague's teenaged son died unexpectedly and tragically. My husband will be performing that memorial service later in the week. What will he say? There are not enough words in the English language that can bring that boy back and restore that family. We grieve with them, and I think experiencing our pet loss has made me more sensitive to the emptiness they are feeling. It pales in comparison, I know. But between the two events, I hug my kids a little tighter now.
Have you lost a beloved pet? What did you learn after that process?