Coach Mike

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My daughter Emily called me from college, crying because she heard about Mike Snelgrove’s passing – apparently from a heart condition. We spoke for a while about what a real impact he had made on her life. Not just that he had been a strong influence for her to pursue a cheer scholarship to HPU, but what a good person he was. She was feeling the horrible guilt we all do when someone we care about leaves our world. We don’t stay in touch, tell them that we care about them, or even thank them. So the next day I found the funeral home online-obituary and posted my thoughts, hoping so much that Mike’s little girl would someday know how her daddy had positively impacted those he touched.

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By now, I’m thinking he’s well aware of my feelings:

Mike Snelgrove was a coach at Extreme All Star Cheerleading in Melbourne, Florida for years.  I hope he knows how many little people he touched, and what a positive influence he was at such a vulnerable age.  These adolescent years are probably the most important formative times of our lives. (Don’t we all remember them vividly, even decades later?) These are children, and they never feel good enough, never quite feel that they measure up to goals at home, at school, and especially with their peers.  Mike was the rock that God calls us all to be.  My Emily and later Cullen spent several hours a day, and often 5 days a week at the gym.  He was a constant source of affirmation.  Positive energy that was so authentic.  Mike was the genuine thing.  He loved these kids and they loved him.  He told them how talented they were, even when they really weren’t.  How he could tell how hard they had been working, and just how hard they were trying. “Good job!” “I’m so proud of you!” They formed their little fraternity, their club that only their squad could understand … the stress, excitement, sweat, blood, pain, failure, success, failure again, practice, keep trying, practice, competition, keep working, you’re awesome, I’m so proud, you can do this, wow that was awesome, wow I’m so proud of you.  None of their school friends got it – they didn’t need to.  They had their cheer friends who did “get it.”  They knew, so what others thought at school mattered a lot less.  They knew they were awesome. Cause Coach Mike said so.

Mike was a man’s man, a real guy, as I’m sure his military buddies know.  But he didn’t judge, he didn’t need to.  Not only did he keep little girls from feeling inadequate and weak and failures like we all do in adolescence; he was also an inspiration to the boys.  Constant “attaboys” and high fives and hugs.  They were working so hard, and Coach Mike appreciated it.  And some of these boys had a different kind of a struggle than any of us can even imagine.  As concerning as having a gay son is to many parents, we can’t imagine the inner angst and confusion, and lack of worth they often feel.  Coach Mike looked past this, and made them feel OK with who they were.  Their sexuality may or may not be a struggle, may or may not be real, may be painful, may be a source of torment and fear.  But Coach Mike made it irrelevant, because these were also great kids, hard workers that needed a hug and to be told it was gonna be OK.

I don’t think he really got it, how important he was to them, what a wonderful role model, how loved he has been by hundreds of little people over the years.

I explained to my crying daughter Emily not to be sad; she must be so thrilled that such a positive influence had come into her life at such a hard time for her.  Many of her friends were headed the wrong direction, and cheerleading had been a stress valve, the positive channel for her energy and daily frustrations.  She worked so very hard and is a much better person for it.  I reminded her to make a positive thing out of her friendship with Coach Mike.  Remember the ripple effect.  She wasn’t even in his inner circle of family and close friends, and yet he had still made such an impact almost ten years later: to remember how we influence every person we’re with every day of our lives, and to pay him forward with each and every person we lift with our words and deeds.  He lives in his legacy, that cup of loving enthusiasm that over flowed onto everyone he touched.  And I know my kids lives were made better for having known him.

I read the online comments – how his buddies in Iraq trusted him, what a great guy they found him to be.  I honestly don’t know about how his close friends and family feel, I don’t know them.  Surely some who knew him better are well aware of his human faults. I praise our God for being compassionate and forgiving.  I pray for Mike and that those who love him to know that his short life was not wasted because it was cut short.  Instead, that his life was a wonderful fulfilment of all that we’re sent here for.  My family is blessed for having known Mike Snelgrove.

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That was the backdrop of my acquaintance with Mike.  We were not friends, per se, but certainly friendly.  He would always shake my hand and smile, and tell me how much he thought of Emily, and later, of Cullen.  I was one of the always-present “cheer-parents” that he actually seemed to seek out to high five and hug when my kids had competed well, when Emily finally “stuck” her first “full,” or when Cullen did it on his first try!

Which segues into Cullen and Mike.  And Cheer.  Since Mike was always so friendly to me, I have to assume that Cullen never told him what a jerk of a father he had.  I realize how disingenuous “self-deprecating” sounds after you write it, but Dear God, how I wish I could have a “do-over.”  Inside I squirm when someone remarks about what a great father I am.  I’ve made more mistakes than anyone I know.

OK, unless you’re totally new to my blogs and never knew our dear Cullen it’s no secret at this point he had a gay orientation.  You also probably are aware that like many (most?) parents, I was not very happy about this kind of reality.  This is addressed at length in prior posts.  Suffice it to say, looking back, my attitude towards Cullen’s participation in cheer makes me hang my head even lower.

I remember his excitement when he told me that when Emily was on stage competing, it looked so fun.  He felt exhilarated just watching them; it seemed so exciting, and he really wanted to start.  Without hesitation, I replied that there was absolutely no way I could afford it.

Admittedly, cheer is an extremely expensive activity for kids.  His mother and I had just divorced, the finances were drained, and we just wouldn’t be able to afford it.  That was all true.

True, maybe, but we all know how it looks now.  The only boys that cheered were gay, and I couldn’t allow him to do something that was so gay, because maybe this was, you know, “just a phase.”  Right, just a phase, and all we needed to do was to go camping, and to more ball games, and spend more time teaching him to throw the ball, and maybe carelessly leave the Victoria’s Secret catalog in his bathroom.  Yeah, that should do the trick.

How much harm did all my efforts do to my dear Cullen?  Maybe it made me feel better; I was doing “everything I could,” so this problem certainly wasn’t my fault.”  But no, despite my attempts, Cullen HATED going to ball games, and he most definitely could not throw a baseball or a football worth a crap.  I couldn’t either, but at least I didn’t “throw like a girl.”  Wow, I really wish I could take those words back.  How must that have hurt to hear from your father, when you were doing your best to be “good enough” in his eyes, to make him proud.

And why would I care how about how he would wave his hand, or put it on his hip?  (Maybe if he stops doing that, nobody else will know, and I wouldn’t be so embarrassed and ashamed).

So, there it is.  So much to be proud of, and I chose that hill to fight on.  Claiming poverty, I did not pay for my son to do the sport that he wanted to participate in.  I had paid three years for Emily, and a for a decade of dance for their older sister.  But the rules were different now that his mother and I split up.  I’m sure it didn’t help any that there was money for his new step siblings to be in swim club.  Admittedly, those were funds that had long ago been set aside for them, but for 13 year old Cullen I’m quite sure it just didn’t feel fair..  He never said a mean word, or resented his new siblings; and was quick to correct any of his friends who might refer to them as his “step”- brother or sister, they were real siblings.  I know he saw right through me; Cullen saw it better than I did.  Sure, the monthly budget was a convenient excuse, but the bottom line was, I could have found the money, but I didn’t.  I did not support my son in the one sport where he could excel.  It will become apparent later why I’m sharing such ugly and painful admissions.

If you didn’t know Cullen, here’s a glimpse.  Did he get depressed and mope around and complain how unfair life was and hate me for how much I sucked?  Not a chance.  In a few days Cullen had gotten a job washing dishes at Rosati’s, the only restaurant within bicycle distance, so he could pay for cheer himself, and had arranged a carpool system to get to class.  Remember also that Cullen was dually enrolled in college classes, and despite the work and practice regime, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and tutored several of his classmates.

This enthusiasm and resourcefulness might have been news to his father, but not to Mike Snelgrove.  No, as I said above, Mike was nothing but affirming and supportive.  Quick with a compliment, constructive with the criticism, he fed Cullen’s talent and self esteem so that, within 6 months of joining the club, he was on the elite squad, the very best of the competitors.  Mike stayed late after practice, and gave Cullen lots of private lessons.  Mike was a young adult, with lots of his own bills to pay, but only charged for a fraction of the lessons for Cullen, knowing he was paying for the classes and privates himself.  Cullen knew this and really looked up to Mike for being such a “stand-up” and affirming person.  About the time Cullen left to attend Florida State University, Mike joined the army.  In 2010, he was home on leave, and died in his sleep of a “heart condition.”  Indeed.

We roll our eyes and laugh when a news story reports where someone says “God told me to do this,” or simply that God “spoke to me.” Maybe the way such stories are presented by the media is a reflection of our culture itself – that folks who hear what God is saying, and even religious folks in general are weak for needing some mythical god to lean on, or are uneducated morons, buffoons.

I don’t really care what people like Bill Maher say about anything.  I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and I know what I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve experienced.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, on May 4th, 2013, Mike Snelgrove walked past me on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  What you now know is that this was three years after he had left this world.

I had longed to see an apparition, or even a dream in which I got to see Cullen.  Other people were having them.  Lots of them.  (The subject of a later blog post).  But why not me?

My Map-My-Hike app showed that I was hiking at 4.2 miles per hour, a reasonably brisk trekking speed through the Spanish forest when I was passed by this person, who whispered something to me.  The log then shows me stopped there in my steps for over 10 minutes.  I honestly don’t remember this at all.  I do remember I was dumbfounded when it hit me who I thought I had just seen, and what it could possibly mean.

This was pretty big stuff.  Even if I just imagined the entire thing, why?  Why not something, or someone else?  I had lost touch of Mike when Cullen left Extreme Gym, and had no idea he had joined the army.  Why would I see someone that reminded me so much of him, with an army rucksack, on this particular day?

Was this the message I had so been pleading for God to give me?  Had God indeed spoken to me – in the earthquake, the fire, the wind, and now the whisper of a passing “stranger?”  And what did it all mean?

And what does it mean, going forward?

Anyone who knows me, know that the gears are always turning in my head.  I’m usually not paying attention because I’m so engrossed with hidden meanings, the metaphors and lessons presented by life.  I suppose I overthink everything, so this whole thing just kind-of makes me numb.  Clearly this was some kind of message.  Was I to take comfort that Mike was involved, and that somehow he had found Cullen and that they were safe?  Or was this something about where I was supposed to go.  As you can imagine, its a bit of a struggle charting a new course after such a loss.

I think it is all of those things, and probably lots more.

We had founded the William Cullen Klein Memorial Scholarship at FSU to help a student each year realize the dream that made our Cullen so very happy, studying in China.  I raised almost half of the money necessary to have the Scholarship endowed (permanently funded) from sponsorships of my walking the Camino last year.  A memorial scholarship certainly seemed (and still seems) appropriate, but where is the real “legacy?”  To me, a legacy would be something going forward, making a difference; doing perhaps what Cullen would have wanted done, a difference in the world, because he had been here.

The answer came to me in the airport in Chicago, on the layover.  I read a book called, “Love is My Orientation,” by Andrew Marin.  This set the backdrop for going forward, and for the first time in a long time, I sensed a smile looking down on me.  I’ll continue to share, and expound, as I do go forward.  Please share your comments.

Much Love.

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“I Hope It’s Everything You Need It To Be”

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When I left to hike the 540 mile Camino de Santiago last May (2013), people didn’t really know what to wish for me.  Most knew I was working through a major grieving journey after losing my 19-year-old son Cullen, but no one seemed to “get it.”  My associate at work honestly didn’t expect me to return (was I to stay in the Pyrenees to herd sheep?)  In retrospect, I’m not really sure what I was hoping for either.  I wrote my siblings a letter informing them that I was going, and that I literally hoped to have some profound conversations with my God and my son.  Saints Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Bernadette, Therese, and blessed Mother Theresa are among many who claimed they very clearly heard the voice of God throughout their lives.  I think my family were deeply disturbed by such an expectation; lacking faith that such communications could indeed transpire, were scared that I would spiral into deeper and deeper anguish and depression.  Several simply said, “I hope its everything you need it to be.”

Regardless of my expectations, it was something that I simply felt compelled to do.  Watching a movie called The Way, was the last thing Cullen and I had done together, and its eerie foreboding of a father who must confront the accidental death of his son pulled me forcefully.  Martin Sheen plays an American doctor who learns of his son’s accident, and when he travels to Spain to bring the body home, discovers the accident had occurred as his beloved son was hiking the 800km Pilgrimage called Camino de Santiago towards the Cathedral at Santiago, where St. James is buried.  We agreed to make the pilgrimage together when he returned from China, after he earned his master’s degree.  I decided to make that Camino and enter the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on the first anniversary.

On my 31 day Camino I did, in fact, have many such conversations.  Although I longed for the voice of Charlton Heston or James Earl Ray to come echoing through the woods or from the sky, those weren’t my expectations.  I learned from Elijah that the voice of God wasn’t in an earthquake, the wind, or fire, but instead in the “soft whisper of a voice.”  So I walked the weeks alone and most hours, there was only the silence.

On April 20, 2013 as I entered the tiny village of Utrega, Spain, the ground began to rumble, and as I wondered if there could be a train nearby, streams of people ran into the street and began to shout.

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May 5th, I began my trek across the Meseta.  I have no idea why I thought the Mesa would be dry and hot, but today it certainly was not.  The entire day was below freezing, and the steady wind varied between 20 and 40 MPH.  Fortunately it blew from behind me, but the sound of the wind was extremely loud and sometimes made it hard to carry on a conversation or even think.

Later in May, on the 9th, with the Meseta 4 days behind me, the weather was still chilly, and now included frequent showers, resulting in a bone chilling shiver that began to play tricks on me.  I struggled onward (as many pilgrims I had met liked to say, “Ultreya!” (an expression urging one to “go beyond,” or “onward with confidence!”).  sarcastically telling myself that these past few days had certainly fulfilled some of the requisite suffering to constitute a “pilgrimage!”  The rain had trickled off my waterproof pants, but the small drops that wicked onto my socks had taken a toll.  My toes were numb and my hands had tremored with shivers for hours.  The road forked and I committed to the albergue (similar to a hostel) 4 kilometers down this road.  As I neared, I realized I would have difficulty continuing, but the strengthening smell of wood in the fireplace kept my feet trudging forward.

My heart sank when I discovered the typical 8-12E cost 25E here, as I realized I only had about 20E until I got to the next town big enough to have a bank.  I shrugged as I continued on, realizing there were no other nearby accommodations listed in Brierly’s Guidebook.  But as I got further from the albergue, the intoxicating sweetness of the fireplace smoke seemed to get even closer.  Less than 100 meters later, just around a bend in the road, was something that made me start to sob.  Here was a farmhouse with “pilgrim accomodations,” including dinner that night and breakfast, for 12E.  Within 30 minutes, I had enjoyed a hot shower, a delicious home cooked meal, and sat with my feet by the soothing warmth of this fire, communicating something with its popping and crackling.IMG_5775

None of this clicked until the afternoon that I hiked for hours alone through the logging forest.  This was one of the emotional days, as I shouted out at God in frustration.  Why was he not speaking to me? I read scripture every morning to give me something to meditate on.  I said several rosaries every day as I walked.  I spoke aloud the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and “Speak, Oh Lord, your servant is listening” repeatedly.  “WHERE ARE YOU?” I finally shouted through the tears at the top of my lungs.  “I’ll do anything you want, but you gotta talk to me, show me something!

Later I would recall this day, as I read C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Revealed, where the devastating grief from losing his wife Joy to cancer made the author very human to me.  Here was the quintessential man of faith, that I had on such a pedestal for authoring such inspiring Christian literature (from the apologetics of Mere Christianity, humor of Screwtape Letters, thought provoking The Problem of Pain to his best known children’s books, so full of symbolism such as Chronicles of Narnia), having the very same emotions I was having.  Lewis didn’t doubt the existence of God, just “what sort of a God?”  “A loving God?  He wasn’t very loving to Joy!”

Lewis continues, I turn to God now that I really need Him, and what do I find?  A door slammed in my face.  The sound of bolting and double bolting.  After that, silence.  It’s like being in prison.”

That’s exactly how I had felt for months, and more specifically, at that moment.  No one around for probably miles, I hadn’t seen anyone for hours.  And silence was all there was up there in the Spanish mountains, except the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, which now was loud enough that I couldn’t have heard that “soft whisper of a voice” that I was trying so hard to hear.

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And then, out of no where, I was startled and jumped as the shadow of someone passed me, as if I was standing still.  He muttered something very softly, almost a whisper, that I couldn’t understand, maybe some other language, I assumed.  “Wow,” I thought, “that guy is really flying!”  And there was just something really strange about him, he looked so … familiar.  And he wasn’t carrying a backpack like everyone else, it was more like a rucksack.  That’s it, he had what looked like khaki or desert camo colored – rucksack.  And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  This guy didn’t just look familiar, I knew exactly who he was.  But Mike Snelgrove was gone now.  (Mike is the subject of my next blog post)

So, I stood there in utter astonishment.  I really gotta read more of that “Old Testament” stuff that’s not “actually relevant” anymore.

1 Kings 19:11-13

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

I had felt an earthquake, felt a toppling wind, and the warmth of the fire.  And finally, the passing whisper.  As I relived this day in my mind the other day as I was working around the house, trying to find the message, this song shuffled out of my playlist:

What Do I Know Of Holy(by Addison Road)

I made You promises a thousand times
I tried to hear from Heaven
But I talked the whole time
I think I made You too small
I never feared You at all No
If You touched my face would I know You?
Looked into my eyes could I behold You?
[CHORUS]
So What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
So What do I know? What do I know of Holy?
So, that’s it.  When we try too hard, when we talk too loud, when we make ultimatums and demands – we hear nothing.
“I tried to hear from Heaven, but I talked the whole time.”
C. S. Lewis also makes some progress in A Grief Observed:
     Imagine a man in total darkness.  He thinks because he can see nothing, that he is in a dungeon.  In the middle of that darkness, he hears a sound.  The sound is brief, and comes from far away.  Perhaps the sound of waves, or the wind in the trees; and for the first time, he senses that he is not in a dungeon, but in the open air.  Nothing in his situation has changed.  He still waits in darkness.  Only now he knows the unseen world is greater than anything he can imagine.
     It came in the same moment that I sensed that the door was neither shut, not bolted.  Was it ever shut?  Was it bolted from the inside by my own desperate need?  They say a drowning swimmer can’t be saved if he is too fearful, because he grabs and clutches his rescuers too tight.
Had I been doing that –  making demands, and ultimatums of God?  Was He talking to me, just as desperately as I was to Him, but I just couldn’t hear through all the shouting from my desperate need?
It sure looks that way as I write the words.
Much Love.
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MLK Day, Irony at Half Mast

halfmastI’ve always flown a flag over my home and my animal hospitals because I enjoy proudly expressing my patriotism and love of the freedom we have in this country.  I’ve been fortunate to travel many places where the freedoms weren’t quite so evident.  Guns have literally been inches from my family’s faces in Northern Ireland, Mexico City, and most recently China.  I often add a second flag beneath the Stars & Stripes to commemorate an occasion.  The Black & Gold of my beloved Missouri Tigers on game Saturdays, Miami Dolphin Aqua & Orange on game Sundays, and the Irish Tricolor on St. Paddy’s and Bloody Monday.  Less frequently you’ll see her flying at half mast to memorialize fallen heroes or tragedies.

Over the years, many clients and neighbors have commented on my lowering Old Glory the third week of January.  Most are pleasant surprises of my honoring Martin Luther King, and numerous black clients expressed their appreciation.  One elderly woman did so just today.

Jean Murray Klein was born in Southeast Missouri on October 4th, 1921 to a family involved in farming for generations.  He graduated from Mizzou, came home from WWII a decorated war hero, married my mom, and overcame the demons of alcoholism and cigarettes.  He always enjoyed game day in the man-cave with his best friends Lee Bowman, and Dick Tongate, and he treasured that football I had Dan Marino sign at our children’s shared pre-school.  But Daddy was a product of his environment and Jim Crow culture.  Let’s just say he didn’t have the tolerant world view his children have adopted.  I don’t think he even knew any black people, or if so he never spoke of them.  Mom had a “colored woman” (Dad’s words) help her around the house while I was young, and I became very close to Beulah.  My earliest childhood memories include her ironing while I was “rockin” next to her on my spring suspended horse, while “Charlie Brown,” by the Coasters played on the radio.  The old man really did the best he could – I later found out that every holiday he would bring her family a turkey or a ham.

Anyway, Dad certainly didn’t have any problem cheering for the black athletes who led the St. Louis Cardinals and the Missouri Tigers to success, but that was pretty much the extent of his comfort zone.  I belly-laugh when I remember my sister Maureen showing him a picture of her with a huge black man, whom she told him she had been dating.  It was actually a picture of  a football player she had taken for him, but the narrative changed, “Because it would be really funny.”  Daddy almost had a heart attack, then forced a laugh about it, pretending he had known all along that it was a joke.

Cancer took my daddy 7 years after he had laid down the non-filtered Camels, on January 16, 1998.

So you see the obvious irony.  Daddy was buried the third week of January, which “co-incidentally” turns out to be Martin Luther King day.

Yes ma’am, I do fly our flag today in memory of one of this country’s finest men, I’m as proud of him as you are.

SuperSavior Vet

ImageEverything about euthanizing a pet brings me down, and wears on my morale.  I’ve practiced veterinary medicine for 28 years, and you’d think it would be no big deal, but it always is.  I felt called to help animals when I was about 8 years old, and never really seriously considered anything else.  I have devoted my life to doing this the best I was able, and I take my Hippocratic oath seriously.  Advising on end of life decisions is a rather large part of my day.  And when it comes to giving the injections, I don’t do so lightly.  Down deep I really wonder whether or not I really have the right to snuff out life.  Poof.  Just like that.  One minute the little guy is looking at me, sometimes suffering pitifully, sometimes seemingly not in discomfort, wagging his tail.  The next moment, limp and without the spirit of life.  Especially after my own recent losses, I value life perhaps more than most.

Pets are not just “important” to my clients and their families, they often ARE the only family some folks have.  I think it’s hard for some to understand how deeply attached pet owners are to their beloved dogs and cats.  If you’ve never had one, or keep yours in the backyard, you may not understand.  But the vast majority of Americans consider their dogs and cats members of the family.  Certainly this goes a long way to explain why behavior problems and obesity are issues I deal with in the exam room every single day.  We overindulge ourselves, and our children, so why not our dogs and cats?

More often than not I’ve seen an older client quickly fade and die when they lose their pets.  A dog is sometimes the only reason our seniors even get out of bed.  They provide an incentive to get dressed, and get some exercise on that morning walk.  Often a spouse has passed away, as well as friends, and children are distant.  Seeing a bright eyed dog jumping around ecstatically, like you are the most important person in the world, makes life worth living.  That wagging tail, expressing the epitome of unconditional love and acceptance is indescribable.

Likewise, the meow, meow, meow, meow of a kitty means you are the only one that can satisfy.  You are the provider, the bread winner, the hero of their lives.  You keep them comfortable and fed, and protect them from that awful brute that barks and slides around the floor and in general behaves like a complete idiot.  You have the most comfortable lap and know just where to rub under the chin and behind the ears.  The incessant purring and “making bread,” the kneading of the alternating front feet on your arm or in your face screams, “WAKE UP and feed me!”

Although I hate it more than I can completely put into words, there is something about the pain of loss that is so loving.  The circle of life is played out in front of our eyes; the dynamics of living and the struggles surrounding death.

I remember back in school some of my classmates said they chose veterinary medicine over medical school because they preferred animals to people, one in fact “hated people.”  That made me raise my eyebrows in wonder.  (In fact, I spoke to the one who “hated” people at our 20 year reunion, and discovered that he was now in research.  Those he hated so much must have reciprocated, and so couldn’t keep a practice going.)  Which reminds me, I had also gotten that acceptance into medical school letter, and a rejection for vet school.  About a month later, I learned that I had been placed on a “waiting list,” when I got the letter – I was next in line to be called for the freshman class when someone discovered she was pregnant. Funny how the turns life takes so change our journeys.

Anyway, I love veterinary medicine because of the people, not in spite of them.  It’s an honor and a blessing to have a families trust when they bring in that new puppy and kitten.  I smile down at the children who come in to watch me examine and inoculate their new best friend.  I know they’ll sleep together, and sob over a boyfriend breakup and not making the basketball team.  They’ll knock over the birthday cake at the sweet sixteen party, and chew up the $200 baseball bat (as well as mommy’s Coach purse and pee on dad’s shoes).  They’ll look up and love unconditionally when a child is teased at school or isn’t asked to the dance.  With such sad eyes, she’ll sit by the bedroom door everyday until they come home from college or on military leave, and run in circles uncontrollably, jumping up and down and howl with screams of delight at the homecoming.

She’ll benefit from prayers when I need to do an emergency surgery to stop the relentless vomiting, and tears of relief when I call with the news that I had removed the obstruction caused by the rawhide or acorn that they ate, or that the tumor was successfully removed, and everything’s going to be “just fine.”

And she’ll just sit by your side as you weep over the cancer, the job loss, the divorce, and the death that are all part of your family.  Somehow she understands that you just need someone to sit with you.  And hug.  She does too.

And when the time comes when the heart or kidneys fail, her own cancer wins, or the arthritis is just too bad to even stand, she’ll trust you to make that loving decision. Your unthinkable anguish can not be described here.  She has helped you raise your family, been there through it all, and now all you can feel is raw emotion.  We’ll cry together, pray if you wish, say goodbye and hug.

So imagine my surprise, when I’m asked to do the unthinkable.

Everyone in my office knows my feelings regarding euthanasia.  We certainly assume the one presenting the pet is responsible, loving and caring, and has suffered to make that final decision.  So its clearly not my intent to make it any more difficult on such a horrible day.  But I do take my mission seriously, and as such, if I don’t have an existing relationship with the client and understand the condition of their pet, I need to do so.  If you have a dog that’s 20 years old, and obviously in sad shape, that’s one thing, but if your dog doesn’t fit into your new apartment size, or cat doesn’t match the new furniture (I kid you not), that’s entirely different.  Some guys don’t care, if you want a perfectly happy, healthy animal euthanized, and are willing to pay for it, no problem.  But I’m not “that guy.”

Some days we’re just plain busy, and everyone does their job so efficiently that corners get cut.  One day last week was that day.  I finished looking at a lab test, and as I raced through the procedures room to get to my next appointment, I noticed my nurses placing an IV catheter into a beautiful boxer’s arm.  Something caught my attention and I stopped in my tracks, and inquired as to what they were doing.  “Exam room 3 is your 4:15 appointment, apparently he has cancer.”  Hmmm, really?

I pulled the chart off the slot outside of room 3, and discovered we had never seen the pet before.  There was a note inserted from the receptionist that although she had requested they bring copies of previous medical record with them, they seemed to bristle when asked if they had brought them, and said they had “forgotten.”  I opened the door, shook the huge client’s hand and asked about ‘Rocky’s’ condition.  “Oh my wife took him to a vet in Titusville, and they said he has cancer.”  I feigned surprise, and said, “Really? Wow, he looks great!  What kind of cancer?  What kind of tests did they perform?”  The guy actually chuckled as he replied that he had no idea, his wife had taken the dog there.  “What was the vet in Titusville’s name?”  He said her name was Dr. Lorraine something.  I replied, “That shouldn’t be too difficult, there can’t be many veterinarians in Titusville named Lorraine, I’ll be right back,” and quickly departed to do some “Googling” to find a vet named Lorraine in Titusville and get a quick copy of her medical workup.  Less than two minutes later, just as I discovered there were no Dr. Lorraines in Titusville, or anywhere in central Florida, my nurse rushed into my office to tell me that the client “doesn’t need you to do that.”

“Doesn’t need me to do what?” I asked.  “Get the medical history.”  This was all becoming a little interesting.  “Well he may not need me to do it, but I, in fact do need to do it.”

As soon as I returned to the room, I was met by an angry man who entered well into my “personal space.”  He asked, “Is there a problem, doctor?” (emphasis because of sarcasm).  “I understand that this is a really hard day for you.  Trust me, I get it.  But I hope you’ll understand my situation.  We are an animal hospital; we work very hard to save lives, and although we do perform euthanasia, we maintain a policy that it needs to be medically justified.”  His body language took an ugly tone, and he actually stepped even closer to me, and raised his voice to an actual shout, “Are you telling me that I’m willing to pay you for a service, and you’re refusing to?”  His wife slipped quietly out the door, clearly demonstrating the submission this man was accustomed to with his show.  Quite certain that a little intimidation and the almighty buck would convince me, I think he was stunned that I actually took another step towards him, looked him directly in the eye, and said with a softer and gentler voice, “Sir, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.  You gotta believe me, I’m not trying to make this difficult for you, but you didn’t bring in any medical records, and my staff looks to me for leadership.  I have to maintain morale around here.  Taking a life is very difficult on us as medical professionals, and so, in order to sleep at night, I need to be able to justify it.”  He was absolutely furious, and I was quite certain that he was going to hit me.  “So what are you, super savior  vet? OOOH, I’m so impressed!”  He shook his hand in exaggerated fashion with pretend fear.  “So now I gotta ‘F’ing do this all over again somewhere else!”  The terrified dog was now cowering in the corner. Had he seen this temper before?   I remained as calm as I could, which just seemed to fuel his rage.  “Sir, I understand you’re upset, and if you can find your previous medical records, or if you’d like me to examine ‘Rocky,’ I’ll certainly do that.  “And you don’t need to use that kind of language.”

But it was much too late for logic.  He ripped the poor, scared dog by the attached leash and stormed out, threw fifty bucks at the receptionist, and shouted, “You can tell Jesus Christ back there, “Thanks for nothing!”

The funny thing is, no one thought it was funny.  This guy was clearly going to have his dog euthanized today.

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially lately.  Regardless of its happy, healthy appearance, it is quite possible that this poor pet had some serious problem.  Maybe in his sorrow, he simply forgot to bring the records, and was too embarrassed to admit it.  I do feel bad that things went the way they did, but I still don’t think I was out of line for requiring justification for ending a life.

Life is precious.  Please remember to remind everyone that you love, that you do.