A Soldier’s Angel – Part 2

(If you missed Part 1, here’s the link: Part 1)

Twenty eight year old William Patrick Cosgrove had been one of six handpicked for sniper training in the 4th brigade combat team, then qualified into the elite hundred for the entire 82nd Airborne Division. He had been twice decorated for heroism before that fateful September day in 2012. He was leading the team as they patrolled an area known to be heavily rigged with IEDs. With them was a beagle that never left his side.

“She ran into camp from over the hill, and made a bee-line directly to Will, and jumped up and down, barking and whining, as if she’d been looking for him and was so happy to find him. It was the damnedest thing,” recalled a friend of Cosgrove. “Then she’d never leave his side, and he named her ‘Angel’ – we assumed because he thought she was his guardian angel. In fact, Will placed the angel medallion from his necklace on her collar.  Only later did we learn the real reason, or at least the ‘rest’ of the story.”

Angel had clearly been trained in explosives detection. She’d warned them countless times of traps, and would literally go berserk at the hint of acetone peroxide. She was drawn to him and they bonded immediately, likely saving him and many team-members, dozens of times.

But that day there was no acetone peroxide , and no one suspected the cart full of sticks had so much dynamite underneath.  But they recognized the words shouted as the teenager pulling the cart waved to the approaching soldiers.

*****

Specialist Cosgrove’s wife Katie had just returned from T-ball practice with her sons Billy and Brian, and she scrambled to get the big dinner fixed before people started arriving. Her daughter Lindsey turned 6 today and the in-laws would join them after they picked her up from gymnastics. It had been such a hectic week.

Katie had grown so close to Will’s parents who had been such a big help, with him off on his second tour. They ran errands, helped cook, watched the kids, and had even taken their dog to the vet last year for a check-up and shots.

That had been such a horrible day for everyone.  Since William Sr. had also been military, his base privileges included vet services, so he had taken Angel over to Ft. Bragg.  Katie was so well trained, she was almost never on leash.  After the exam, William Sr. opened the door, and as he fumbled with his cane, she bolted out as if she had seen a ghost.  The dog took off running and never even looked back.  They all assumed she had seen a uniform in the distance and ran off towards who she thought was Will.

Katie knew William would be devastated to find his dog gone, but after 6 months, they’d just about given up hope.  Angel looked like every other pitbull and although nobody said it, everyone knew she’d been euthanized in some shelter between Goldston and Ft. Bragg.  As bad as they all felt, William Sr. was simply devastated.

God, how she missed that dog – Katie used to talk to her as if she was Will. Something about her was Will, the way she looked up at her, the way she was always there when Katie or one of the kids needed a hug, she just seemed to sense their emotions.

As Katie looked down at the empty corner where she always lay, she smiled and said wistfully, “You’re the worst dog ever!” But then she felt guilty, even though he used to always say that. Because she wasn’t, she was the best dog ever. Maternal misgivings about having a pit-bull around the kids were quickly forgotten, and everyone in the family considered her their best friend. William was going to be be so upset. As she turned the frying chicken, Katie drifted off to the day they adopted her.

Their oldest child had just turned 9 when William decided a dog would fit into their family. He had always had dogs as a child and so wanted the kids to grow up with them. Katie hated the thought – jumping up and scratching everyone’s legs, shedding on the floor, and demanding to be walked, and so she resisted as long as she could. The family had planned a wonderful weekend at the beach, and drove the two hours from Goldston to the Outer Banks the Friday before his first tour to Afghanistan. William had the whole thing planned, they were staying at a condo his high school friend offered, and he knew exactly where the Humane Society was, just outside Raleigh. She rolled her eyes as he pulled into the parking lot, with really no objection. She had been expecting it for such a long time.

But Katie had been expecting a Beagle puppy, not an adult Pit Bull. As the gate to the kennel run opened, the dog actually jumped into Lindsey’s tiny lap, whining and crying as if they were long-lost friends. The boys agreed, the decision had been made. No-one  was surprised when William announced her name, ‘Angel.’ ”  He pulled out his necklace and kissed the two medallions, a crucifix and an angel.  I’ll be gone a while, its just perfect; She’ll be your ‘guardian,’ your protector.”

*****

The knock at the door startled her. Katie assumed it was the in-laws and Lindsey. Suddenly she realized that she hadn’t wrapped Lindsey’s present.

“Come on in!” she shouted from the kitchen, stashing the unwrapped gift under the counter, but not wanting to leave the frying pan on the stove. At the second knock, she dashed towards the door, but froze at the sight through the living room window. Katie fell to her knees at the sight of the two dress uniforms standing on her front porch.

“No! No!” she screamed on the floor of the foyer.

As the chaplain heard this, he considered opening the door, and then saw Groves parents pull into the driveway. Tears trekked down the face of William Senior realizing immediately the news these men must bear. The woman in the passenger seat wept uncontrollably as the confused child in the back seat kept asking her what was wrong.

*****

I suppose we’ll never know how or why Angel made the 700 mile, 2 year journey from Ft. Bragg.  Or the pain surrounding her filed off canine teeth.  Or how or why His divine Providence directs so much of our lives.  But I’m quite certain that He does.  The bittersweet joy at their reunion would be surreal.  But these “gifts left behind” give us great comfort.  When I say, “Thank God” for something, I really mean it.

And some things we do know.  But we all know why William Patrick Cosgrove Sr. was in his car and drove all night to Orlando.  When my clients met us here early that morning with Angel, we unraveled the whole story together.  When Will’s father shared the part about the medallion, two faces drained of color as the boy reached from his pocket.  “This was around her neck when we picked her up off the street,” he said as he opened his hand.

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ed. note:  The names in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.  Also, when Angel and William Sr. arrived back in NC, although Katie was stunned by the co-incidences and symbolism, she said the medallion Angel wears (still) is not the same one her husband wore around his neck.

Perhaps they looked different, but I’m not convinced.

Much Love.

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A Soldier’s Angel – Part 1

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The poor dog should have weighed about 55 or 60 pounds, but was just shy of 40 and looked pitifully up at me with a hesitant tail-tap against the exam table. I could see her ribs, her backbone, and the large mass on her breast. The only thing missing was Sara MacLaughlin singing in the background.

My client and her son had been driving through a “rough” part of Orlando, just off OBT where the “social workers” regularly walk in the evenings. They had just cleaned an office-building and were on the way home when they saw her dodging the early morning traffic.

“Be careful!” she shouted to her son as he darted out the car door to see if she wanted a ride, or if she would run away, or even try to bite when he approached. Apparently he didn’t even need to catch her – when she saw his door open, she swaggered over to him and just paused, too weak to even jump into the car. She sat in his lap as they drove off, incessantly whining and licking his face.

I typically don’t charge for these office calls, I do a cursory exam and relieve suffering, whatever I can do that doesn’t cost me too much. So the exam and check for worms was pro bono – if they could be such Good Samaritans, it was the least I could do. They paid for the heartworm test (negative result was shocking), and the deworming, when I determined she was full of roundworms and hookworms (not shocking).

The son was explaining to his mom that based on the condition and number of scars on this poor dog, she had undoubtedly  been used as a “baiting” dog.  In the lovely parts of our culture where dogfights are popular, dogs such as this are used as “bait” dogs.  She was very sweet, and as such, certainly wouldn’t be a fighter.  Dogs like this would be thrown into the practice ring to be destroyed by the others, developing their bloodlust.  I was horrified when I parted her gums to discover that, indeed, her canine teeth had been filed off flat, to render her unable to defend herself or injure one of the valued champion fighters.  He was probably right – she had indeed been a bait dog, and somehow escaped to the streets.

We always run the microchip scanner on new adult and found pets, and (this is a surprise) – She HAS a microchip!

You can imagine my mixed emotions when the the reader displayed an identification number.  This pet was brought in by someone willing to step up and take care of this poor, abused, suffering creature, but historically, I’ve always done my best to contact the registered owner.

But sometimes there is no registered owner, or current address.  When someone has me chip their pet, I am EMPHATIC that they immediately call the chip registry and do this.  A chip is just a number, and is completely worthless if it doesn’t point back to the owner.

And such was the case.  We called the chip registry who could only inform us that this numbers was one of a lot provided to the Veterinary Clinic at Ft. Bragg, in North Carolina.  This dog had belonged to one of our soldiers!

As our nation’s birthday celebration neared, this story was beginning to take on an air that nobody could have imagined.  My finger trembled a bit as I called the army base clinic number I had found on the internet.  The rollercoaster paused as the staff-sergeant explained that this soldier had only come in once, in 2010, and they didn’t even know if he was active duty anymore.  They only showed vaccinations, a microchip ID, and that her name was, “Angel.”

There were so many possibilities.  Had the dog been lost or stolen, and used in fighting, while he was stationed somewhere else?  Is he in Afghanistan or Iraq?  Had he been injured or killed?

Or was she lost and roaming the streets at all?  Could she have just been on the street next to the house she thinks is home?  All soldiers aren’t heroes.  Did he even lose this dog?  Worse yet, is he involved in dog fighting?  How could we even know?  Michael Vick seemed respectable enough before that evidence came out.

I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.  Besides, her name was “Angel,” and it would make a beautiful reunion if he had lost her.  As horrified and nauseous as I was at the alternative possibility, I pursued some connections.  I had filled in for a year as a civilian Air Force Veterinarian at Patrick AFB and knew a few people, so I called to see if someone there could locate him and reach out.

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Angel and her foster family left me that day so anxious and curious, I was a bit disappointed that we wouldn’t be working on the 4th, and so had to wait.

On the fifth of July, my friends on the base called back with the news.  I could never have anticipated what I would discover over the next few weeks.

Please continue with PART TWO

 

A Good Day, Profiles in Virtue #1

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I never thought I’d see Dean again, or at least for quite a while.  I’d diagnosed osteosarcoma bone cancer in his beloved bloodhound’s leg about a month ago, and after we said goodbye to her, he floated off in a sea of tears.  I’m always touched by a man who feels comfortable sharing emotion while dealing with life’s difficult decisions.  Dean had carried some of his own medical issues, and had lost an eye on that journey.  So I was so very happy to see his face when I entered the exam room last Tuesday, embracing a new dog.  He shared his story.

“Doc, you know I was pretty tore up about ol’ Dolly.  I swore I could never get another dog again.  It just hurts so  much when you have to say goodbye.”

I nodded because I know that feeling well.  Clearly I didn’t need to share my wisdom about love and loss.

“Dolly had been such a good friend to me, through such tough times, the surgery and everything.  She just seemed to know when I needed someone to hug.”

“The good years we shared, and the unconditional love she showed me, that was so much bigger than my pain when I had to put her down.”

“I woke up one morning with a big ol’ smile on my face, and I went down to the shelter.  I told them I wanted to adopt an old dog, one that was sweet, but would probably never get adopted, because they weren’t cute.”

“When she saw me, she ran over to the front of the cage, jumped up and down, turned around and around, and whined and barked, like the army guy returning home from deployment, and his dog sees him and does all this; it was like it was Dolly, so glad to see me again.”

“The family who walked into the shelter when I did, saw all the commotion,  and changed their mind.  They didn’t want a puppy anymore.  They asked to see an older dog too”

My “brother” Dean had adopted this dog on what was to be her last day.  She was to be euthanized at 5:00.  This dog appeared to be “nothing special.”  She was 8 years old, Dolly’s age, and just a plain, regular, old dog.  She was not a cute puppy.  This dog would never have been adopted.

Indeed, she had been saved.  Likely a mutual arrangement.

I could see my technician looking at me, knowing how I loved stories like this.  I realized that I hadn’t said anything in minutes, and was smiling from ear to ear.  I reached out my hand.  “Dean, you’re my hero today.  Thanks for ending my day like this.  Thanks for being you.”  I left the room doing the Snoopy “happy dance.”

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People don’t suck.  I am truly humbled by people on days like these.  People are awesome, and this is just another example of why we were put here.

So what makes a good day anyway?  The bank teller or bagger at the grocery story says, “Have a good day.”

What, exactly, does that mean?

I’ve always told my children that a day is completely wasted if we haven’t learned something, positively influenced someone, or been positively influenced by someone.  These things truly change the world.

Think of this.  Such a simple action.  Such an act of love.  We have no idea how many people we touch every day.  Clearly, this dog’s life was impacted, but what about us?  What about the family next to Dean who decided to get a different, likely un-adoptable, older dog.  What about the shelter girl, who cried as she wrote up the paperwork?  How did she know this dog likes to chase tennis balls? IMG_8563[1]

What about my employees, and the ten other clients in my waiting room.  What about those reading this blog post?  When we think no one else is looking, the entire world probably is.

What about the man looking at Dean in the mirror at the end of the day?  What about someone else, looking down and smiling.  Our actions always matter.

Yes, this was a good day.

Much Love.

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Rude (Part 2) – Why even try?

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People like me can not even fathom Betty’s kind of poverty, or what leads someone there.  Culture? Role models? Lack of them? Financial ruin? Death? Mental Illness? Addiction?  Our modern-day lepers – It’s just so easy for us to look the other way as they stand amid the traffic, cross to the other side of the street as they approach, and flip someone a buck when we’re feeling generous.  Haven’t they made their own choices?  And if they’re an addict, it’s their own doing!  Why would I feel sorry for someone who poked holes in the crumpled can to burn a rock, put the lighter under the spoon, or climbs inside a bottle with my dollar?

It’s not so simple.  Seriously, do you honestly think that kid sitting next to you in your high school memory really chose to end up penniless and begging?  Many do have substance abuse issues.  I’ve learned so much about addiction lately from Ryan Robertson’s story as well as a blog I read about Phillip Seymor Hoffman.  What an epiphany!  I had no idea.

Maybe it’s because I’m a lot older now, or perhaps life’s cruel lessons have made me better, more adept at saying what I really believe.  Or maybe I just believe different stuff now, because of those lessons.

“Doctor Klein, that woman with last week’s pyometra is on line 2,” declared the intercom, and I quickly finished the call I was on to grab the other line because I hadn’t heard a thing from her in almost a week.  My heart sank when Betty (not her real name) told me “Baby Girl” didn’t like the antibiotics, so she didn’t give them.  The dog “hadn’t really moved much” for the first two days after I had done the surgery.  My heart sank as I prepared for the grim follow-up sentence – the poor little dog had been so very sick from the infection that I knew, even with our surgery, without the antibiotics, there really wasn’t much hope for survival.  It just didn’t make sense.  Why hadn’t she…  This was all a big …  Hadn’t I impressed upon her enough how important this was?  Besides, Amoxicillin suspension tastes really good – I had taken it myself dozens of times as a child!

My worst thoughts were interrupted, “But then, all of a sudden, she jus’ started drinkin’ water again.  So I tried again, and then she drank it ‘real good.’  Nex thang ya no, she’s jus’ a runnin’ and jumpin’ and beggin’ at her food bowl.”  I thanked her for calling, scheduled a recheck, smiled from ear to ear, and did the “happy dance” in a circle around the medical treatment room.

My staff had heard the entire conversation, and although they were glad also, I think it was more because I really suck when I’m in a bad mood, and when I’m in a good mood, I’m basically a pretty big dork.  They prefer the latter.

Surgery is often time for interesting conversation in an animal hospital.  We typically discuss really important stuff like Jack Bauer’s return, last night’s American Idol performances, and the latest Netflix we’d watched.  My CVT’s (kind-of like nurses), assistants, kennel staff, and sometimes some of the receptionists and managers all participate in these important meetings, mainly because they end the morning, and run into the lunch period.  Sometimes we actually do talk about important things, like why the hell is it so hard to keep the controlled drug log exact, why personalities seem to clash, and medical ethics; often this morphs into real world morals and ethics – life lessons, if you like.

So today, after deciding last nights American Idol girls were mostly disappointing, I told them how funny it was that my blog about last week’s pyo had gone viral.  Admittedly, I’ve only blogged for a very short time, so most regular readers have been family, friends, clients, and a few other followers from last year, when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, and amateurishly began to learn to write.  Anyway, I explained that I normally get about 150 or 200 hits a day, and during the Camino there were a few days when I topped 700 views.

Well, the day I posted about our donating our time for Betty and her dog, I got 300 hits.  “Wow,” I thought, “People much prefer a veterinary feel good story (or maybe just a gross picture) than the embarrassing , personal, cathartic stuff I usually blog about.”  The second day 1000, the third day 3000, then 10,000 views. (Then a surge to 650,000 and as of today, views of 1.42 million)

Like me, my staff was amazed, but they weren’t unanimous about the merits of how it had played out.

Only then did I learn about the scene, in our front reception area, when Betty came in that afternoon with an intoxicated friend.  While she was rushing around, shouting, concerned that her dog had died, he was also up there, to a full waiting room, talking “crap,” certain that even if the dog was alive, we wouldn’t give her back to them; it was all a trick, that’s how “places like this operated!”  Even after she had her dog in her arms, she was still “rude and disrespectful.” When she was given the bottle of Amoxidrops, she didn’t even say ‘thank you,’ only a remark that she wasn’t gonna pay any more for it, that she’d already “paid in full.”  You can imagine how well this went over with the front staff, but they never shared this part, knowing for sure it would change how I looked back and viewed the whole case.

I could only laugh at these new details.  And I (who knew?) got back on the ol’ soapbox.  “Should I be indignant, that the ‘Supersavior vet’  and his wonderful clinic hadn’t been properly worshipped?  Come on guys, what do you need?  You are missing the entire point.  You don’t help someone because you want them to love you, or even thank you.  Think about it – why do you do nice things for people? Or give someone a gift?”  Before he could answer, I reminded him that this had been rhetorical.  “You don’t do nice things because you want the other person to reciprocate!  That’s not even a gift, that’s an exchange, and you’re always disappointed with what you get back.”

“Here’s the deal.  You’ll be so much happier in life if you always do the right thing, because it’s the right thing, not because you expect someone to do the right thing in return.”  Expect for them not to.  Then it would be a nice surprise.  What’s the point of even walking on this earth if we can’t make it better for our having been here.  Who cares if someone says, “Thank you.”

“I think you are naïve,” my tech said to me, “Why even try? You can’t rescue the world!”  “Daddy mode” kicked in, so I shared a paraphrased  Starfish Poem:

One day an old man was walking down the beach just before dawn.  In the distance he saw a young man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea.  As the old man approached the young man, he asked, “Why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?”  The young man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.  The old man exclaimed, “But there must be thousands of starfish.  How can your efforts make any difference?”  The young man looked down at the starfish in his hand and as he threw it to safety in the sea, he said,” It makes a difference to this one!”

Someone else then thought they were agreeing when they said we had done it to help the dog anyway, not the woman.  My “daddy mode” was in full throttle now, and I’m sure the churlish cynics will also consider this all to be sanctimonious, holier than thou drivel, but I’m just sayin’…

“No, no, no!  It’s not an “either/or, it’s a both/and!  Although we obviously treated Betty’s dog, that’s not where it ends, or certainly not the “why?”  Remember why people even have pets!”  We had had this discourse plenty of other times, and all were in agreement about the importance of that loving bond.

Of course this story involves a pet, but only because that’s what we do.  It really involves another human being.  I did encourage them to be proud of what they do, and what they did, and where they work, but not smug.  “Because every one of us is an accident, a medical diagnosis, a fire, or a divorce away from living in that cardboard box under the bridge.”  (There, but by the Grace of God, walk I.)  Looking back over 50 years forces me to remember so many dumb things I’ve done, and wonder why not me?  “Besides,” just joining us from her kennel duties, Amy added perhaps the most wisdom, “Even if they have become addicts, I don’t think they drink or do drugs to get high.  It’s to numb the pain and loneliness.”

I remember a colleague at a convention shared with me that he had become a vet because he liked animals more than people, that he “hated” people.  I was stunned.  How do you “hate people” in this profession?  Perhaps it was his whiskey bravado talking to me, but his words still ring in my ears years later.  I do hope he found other work.  I shared this story with a classmate and best friend Jim, who practices not far from me.  We were enjoying a beer (seems to be a theme), watching our beloved Mizzou Tigers, and solving the world’s problems with our wisdom.  He also helps out our church’s philanthropies, such as St. Vincent de Paul and the Brevard Sharing Center (a soup kitchen), so I enjoy sharing our stories together.  Jimmy shook his head and agreed that, maybe he’s naïve, but all the vets he knows, the successful ones anyway, in order to really care about their patients, care about their people first.

And so it is a both/and.  I firmly believe we’ve placed here not only as stewards of our animals but to love and support each other.  At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, when we “que up in front of St. Peter,” which line would you prefer? – the naïve, giving, loving line or the “it’s all about me” line.  That’s the choice.

Betty’s calling us that day was no co-incidence.  Much Love.

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She wasn’t being rude

My receptionist Ericka was in tears. The caller had said some pretty mean things, and she’s sensitive to what people say to her. She thrust the phone towards me, and pleaded for me to deal with it, “She doesn’t understand we don’t have any appointments available and, anyway, we’ll be closed in 45 minutes.” Some lady’s dog hadn’t “eated” in 4 days, and so she thinks she’s really pretty sick, and what was I gonna do about it? On such a hectic afternoon, I was glad to take the load off the front desk, and proceeded with the best defense being a good offense. “So he hasn’t eaten in 4 days? Wow, you rushed right in! What makes you think it’s serious now” The colloquialism of her words and accents made it difficult to understand, even for a small town Missoura hick like myself, but I did make out something about not having much money, something about only having a hunnert dollas. Knowing it sounded like a major medical workup, our lab equipment had an hour back log of tests waiting, and it had been a really long day already, I told her that I could see her at 9:15 the next day. My technician Jenny cringed, knowing full well that I had no openings, even for something minor, at 9:15 tomorrow, or anytime, all day. She also thought the front staff might not be very happy when I had allowed someone so rude and disrespectful, accusing them of not caring, to come in when they had been telling good, regular, polite clients that we were booked until next week. I had a funny feeling about this one. I knew this woman’s dog was pretty sick, and a “hunnert dollas” wouldn’t even get her in the front door of the emergency clinic tonight. I hoped it would wait. And that it wasn’t too serious to throw my schedule into seizures tomorrow.

Frankly, I forgot about her until the next morning, when I walked into the exam room. My flippant attitude about her apparent lack of concern for “Baby Girl” quickly dissipated. The “homeless person” stench was overpowering and was immediately telling as to why the visit had been postponed. This poor 12 year old dog couldn’t even lift her head. Indeed, she had not eaten in 5 days now, but was drinking lots of water. “She’s not spayed,” Jenny whispered to me, in case I missed the obvious. We both knew what it was from the history. A pyometra is an infected uterus, life threatening, and one of the important reasons why a female dog or cat should be spayed if she won’t be used for breeding. I’ll spare you the details, but it is typically fatal before five days, from internal rupture, much like a child’s appendix can rupture, spreading bacterial poison and toxins throughout the body.

The pre-surgical workup of confirmatory lab tests and X-Rays alone is about $300, and if it was a pyometra, could easily exceed $1200-1500. And the patient could die, regardless of our best efforts, especially if the uterus had already ruptured. She hadn’t come in because she had been scraping together, begging, and borrowing to get some money together to get her dog fixed.

Nor could I promise her that her little dog would live through the surgery. “So what are you telling me?” the woman shouted at me, with tears in her eyes. Deep down, I knew she had been rejected before, a lifetime of it. I knew she expected me to say to go away, that if she had no money she wasn’t welcome here.

I told her I wanted to run some tests, and that it would cost her “a hunnert dollas.” That wouldn’t fix anything, but we needed to know what was wrong.

Jenny was correct. The test confirmed a high white blood cell count (indicating infection), and the radiographs (X-Rays) confirmed a huge swelling in the area where the uterus would be.

As I delivered the news and the grave prognosis, her eyes reddened and became teary.

Having pets is a commitment. And an obligation. And owning pets is a choice that involves responsibilities and expenses. Therefore, keeping a pet is not a right, nor is it the grocery store’s obligation to feed the dog for free, nor the veterinarian’s obligation to care for it for free. Pets, like people, should have a basic minimum of care: annual examinations, inoculations, and other preventative health care, and the planning for the possibility/likelihood that something may go wrong – an accident or an illness.

So, are people living in poverty allowed to have pets? If she can share what she finds in the dumpster with her only friend in the world, or if she and her cat split a can of food, is that “good enough?”

As I spoke with my staff, receptionists, as well as technicians, I told them that this woman was not rude. The astonished looks of disagreement on their faces faded as I explained. “You can’t be rude if you don’t know what rude is. She doesn’t fit our picture of how we should behave or talk, but she’s not intending to be disrespectful or unappreciative. She just doesn’t know any better. She’s never had anyone give her the benefit of the doubt. How many times had she been excluded as a child, or looked down upon as an adult? How do you expect her to behave?”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how high a value I place on the “human-animal bond.” That unconditional love thing is impossible to put a price tag on. Of course this dog is suffering now, but what about the past decade of loving relationship? Do you honestly think this dog’s life didn’t live a happier, worthier life for having met this woman instead of starvation on the street, or the animal shelter’s needle? As Pope Francis said in different circumstances, “Who am I to judge?”

“I can only promise you two things,” I told her solemnly. “I’ll do my very best to save your dog, and she most definitely will die without the surgery.” I was emphatic, because she needed to really understand how sick her little friend was. “Baby Girl” couldn’t lift her head, but her eyes followed my every move and she wagged her tail when I scratched behind her ears.

I told her that we had all discussed it and that we were willing to do surgery during our lunch break, and that it would only cost her the “hunnert dollas.” I’ve learned over the years that even if you work pro-bono that the client must contribute something, to take ownership, and to feel the value – something about pride, that they had contributed also.

I don’t take any credit. And I honestly do not write this story to look like some kind of a hero. My staff clocked out over the lunch hour and also donated their time. We’re all confronted with choices in life where we can make others’ journey’s better, or at least less miserable. I know pain, and anguish. We all do. We have a choice to be angry at God or whomever for allowing/causing crap to happen, or we can rise up from the ashes and be better for our losses. Is it to better to be bitter and angry, or realize what suffering feels like, and gain empathy?

“Really? No one’s ever done anything nice for me before,” this smelly woman wailed and wanted to hug me, so I embraced the leper. If you’re skeptical, of course this may seem disingenuous, and I do get it, I’m from Missouri (this is the origin of “show-me”). We are constantly barraged with cardboard signs on the off-ramps. Are any of them really willing to work for food? At the end of the day, does it make any difference? “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”

It’s easy to puff your chest out when you do something difficult. But this wasn’t difficult. If I’m not there that day to fix the torn ACL knee ligament, the liver shunt, the heart defect, the broken hip … someone else would have. I’m truly not particularly intelligent or even very talented. But I sleep well tonight, knowing that no-one would have done this simple surgery for this indigent woman. This was truly no big deal, a very simple surgery that took just a few minutes. But after so many years, these opportunities to make a difference, make it all worth while.

I usually ask for comments, but not on this one. Please don’t leave any comments. Like it if you want, and share it. If you like this story, pay it forward. You think your life sucks? Look around. Make a difference. This isn’t even a story worth telling if you don’t use it yourself and think about it tomorrow as you look around. This story would have remained untold if I hadn’t had a couple of beers and like to write. Your life is charmed and blessed BECAUSE you are reading this, are capable of thinking about the big picture, and can make a difference. It’s not the big things we do that are heroic.

At the end of the day, this woman ran in, frantic about her dog. She didn’t have a phone so had no idea if her dog made it through surgery. Certainly, she thought the worst when she was escorted into the room, and told the doctor would be with her shortly … she stomped and shouted and cried for some answer, “How is my dog?!! PLEASE dear God, please somebody just tell me, did ‘Baby Girl’ die?!!” I ran from the appointment I was with when I heard the commotion, but Jenny beat me there. All I heard was, “She’s alive?!!! She’s alive?!! Oh dear God, praise dear God! My Baby Girl’s ALIVE!!!”

I’m sure they heard the shouting and crying next door.

Pay it forward. Much Love.

Please Continue with PART TWO

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I Should Be Standing Up

“I really doubt I’ll have a job soon,” replied the man sitting next to me at the GCN convention in Chicago.  Like me, Rev. Danny Cortez wasn’t really sure why he was there, but felt quite confident that he needed to be.

Cortez has been a traditional, conservative Southern Baptist minister in Southern California; happily married, four kids, a big congregation that loves him, and today he has a problem.  About five years ago, one of his flock, a 20 something girl “came-out” to him, and challenged everything he had taught and had been taught about homosexuality.  Sara had been one of his “shining stars,” a youth leader who genuinely witnessed for Jesus; the Pastor considered her a Christian to be admired and emulated.  So when she admitted to him, in confidence, that she had a same-sex attraction (SSA), nothing fit.  Although she, and they, tried desperately to  “pray away the gay” striving for a closer, more faith filled relationship with our Lord that would “fix” her, she continued with her SSA..  She had done this for years, and would continue to plead that this burden be lifted, and reparative therapy was also tried, even though it sounded absurd:  The idea of “repairing” a disordered sexuality was based on the premise that children formed a SSA when they had a faulty or dysfunctional relationship with their parents.  But her’s were model parents, who love each other and their children, and both have a healthy relationship with her.  Sara eventually switched to a more “affirming” church, but continues her sharing and mentoring, pastoral relationship with Reverend Cortez.

However the Pastor wasn’t really sure who had done the mentoring.  She had showed him that his ideas about homosexuality were built on a crumbling foundation.  He had been misinformed about SSA, and he was now very challenged, and very troubled.  Had some of his sermons wrongly condemned?  Had he caused self-hatred in adolescents (and adults)?  Had his messages split families?  Was he to blame for bullying, or worse yet – suicides?  The next five years were filled with research and discovery, anxiety and guilt.  Finally he simply came to the conclusion, “I can no longer do this.”  His wife knew the torment he was enduring, and supported his decision to tell his church elders at its next meeting.  He was quite confident that this would lead to him being out of a job, and he would need to tell the kids to prepare for some belt-tightening.

The next morning he was taking his kids to school when the infamous “gay equality” Macklemore song came on the radio; he turned up the volume.  This would be a segue for the conversation he needed to have with his children.  When the song was over, as he struggled to put his pending unemployment into words they could understand, his son asked why he had turned up the song.  “I really like the lyrics,” he explained.  “Really, dad?” asked his son in astonishment, “but do you understand what the lyrics say?”  “Yeah, son, actually I do.”  There was a five-minute pause, before his son said…

“I’m gay,” his son sobbed, having dreaded this conversation for years.  (Just this week, his son Drew posted this)

Suddenly all the angst and theological gymnastics precipitated by Sara’s coming out to him all made sense.  This certainly did not feel like any kind of coincidence.  Even though the sequence of events now was starting to feel like the hand of Providence to Pastor Cortez, this was all still very foreign, nothing really made any sense at all. At least he had a better acceptance, if not understanding, of the journey.  How many of his colleagues had asked members of their own congregations to worship and seek counsel elsewhere? They would only be welcome back when they were “normal.”  So there he sat at the Gay Christian Conference, worried about his career, and his family.

So why was I sitting there, next to Danny and his wife?

On the Camino de Santiago, I had made a decision to make a difference with my own life.  Before his accident, my son had such a strong and loving connection with God that it overflowed onto every one he knew.  Surely he had confusion and anxiety about his SSA.  This was a challenge, adding some stumbles to his rocky road, but we all have some.  So how did he work it out with God?  Why did he enjoy such a healthy relationship and so many others, straight as well as gay do not?  I honestly don’t know, and I certainly don’t take any credit.

I can say that my son Cullen never heard the hateful sermons that I have read about.  They are “always our children,” and my minister has only pounded the lectern with messages of God’s love manifest through Jesus, who seemed most angry with those who sat in self-righteous judgment as hypocrites.  Our Church is a “hospital for sinners, not a sanctuary for saints.”  As a father, I embraced every conversation with him to use as a “parenting, even pastoral moment.”  Faith without journey is blind and shallow.  Our God invites our questions and doubts as we stumble through.  If there’s proof for everything and it all makes perfect sense, it’s not “faith” at all!

For my readers well versed in the Bible, we’re all aware of the seven famous “gotcha” verses in scripture which “seem” to condemn all aspects of homosexuality.  I’m not a scholar, but I am well enough read to know how the many versions, translations, and commentaries differ for a myriad of reasons, including cultural context.  I honestly only know one thing: I am sure of much less than I was a thousand bible hours ago.  I’ll not go into any more details here, it’s so easy to Google search until you find something you want to believe.  If you’re curious, and have no idea where to start, look at these people:  Rachel Held-Evans, Justin Lee, Andrew Marin, Alan Chambers, Susan Cottrell, Matthew Vines, Daniel Mattson, Kathy Baldock and Julie Rodgers.  These are really incredible people and really thought-provoking links, and many vehemently disagree with each other; All challenge the way we think, so come back and look at each one thoughtfully…

If reading and research sound like too much work, start by watching this video of the Robertsons, who lost their son Ryan to a drug overdose, with their initial evangelical rejection of his orientation playing a huge part of the story.  A shorter slide-show version here and also an animated one (bring tissues when you watch Ryan’s story).

I’m most devastated when I hear so many stories of rejection by their own families.  If we fail to provide unconditional love to our children, what message are we sending?  Are we the hypocrites so often condemned by so many of Jesus’ parables?  How can we possibly expect forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love from our heavenly Father when we refuse to forgive, accept, and love our own children? (Mt 18:33)

These are statistics that most certainly must make Jesus very sad:

When gay youth are unaccepted by their family, they are:

  • eight times more apt to attempt suicide than those who are accepted
  • (The Trevor Project was formed specifically as a gay child suicide prevention website & hotline)
  • six times more susceptible to depression than those who are accepted
  • three times more likely to get involved in drug and alcohol abuse than gay youth that are accepted
  • three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and STD”D than gay youth that are accepted?

So I sat in my chair in the back of the room next to my new friends.  I looked around and I was honestly in awe.  I was in the room with over 700 people – many were parents there supporting their child and some were pastors learning how they could possibly change their approaches, but most were people with same-sex orientation there to worship Jesus Christ.  Yes, we were “in church” for much of the four-day conference.  I would look out at the crowd, and pretend that I was there with my own child and these were his friends.  They held their hands up high in worship, with every voice singing with such volume!  Every denomination was represented and standing together with the most ecumenical thing I have ever witnessed. This was, without doubt, one of several times in my life when I was sure the Holy Spirit was present and truly directing an experience.    (These are people that have been told not to return to their congregations until they had been repaired?)

Churches should be safe havens filled with a loving message of support.  The fact that many are not makes me confused.  Even if you think homosexual relationships are sinful, ESPECIALLY IF you think this, shouldn’t you be the one MOST welcoming to those seeking the love, forgiveness, and counsel of Jesus Christ?  As you sit in the pews and look around, you do realize you’re looking at the spouse cheat, the tax liar, the work thief, the hateful bigot, the one living in adultery, the porn addict, substance abuse cripple, and the jealous covet.  If you’re honest, you may see them in the mirror.  Who are we to exclude an entire group of others from standing next to us?

As you lament the fact that your own children have “lost their faith,” look closely.  This one piece of the puzzle may be a metaphor.  Our new generation has more empathy and is much more accepting of homosexuality today.  They see the loving “Christian” community that rejects and vilifies their gay friends as not very loving at all.  Clearly we don’t get much positive secular media coverage, but perhaps the biggest enemy of our faith is not outside the walls of our churches at all.

Before beginning the keynote address, the speaker specifically recognized the parents who were there supporting their children.  They stood to thunderous applause.  Pastor Cortez reached down and pulled me up.  “You’re son is here, and you should be standing up.”

I’m no theologian, and am an expert about nothing.  I have opinions that have been formed by my upbringing, my culture, my immediate environment, and my conscience.  If Pope Francis, who I believe is the Vicar of Christ on Earth can honestly say, “Who am I to judge?” then my slamming Leviticus over someone’s head would seem wrong.  If my boy could converse and embrace with our Lord the way he did, I feel I it a worthy enterprise to foster that kind of relationship in folks of all kinds, as best I’m able.  So, I’ve read dozens of books, attended this conference, as well as at The Marin Foundation.

In previous posts, I’ve described lots of my mistakes and failures and a few of the many times I’ve fallen far short; I’ve shared them for a reason.  Exposing your true self, warts and all, shows you’re vulnerable, approachable and able to relate.  It’s an invitation to others in my Church, my Community, and anyone who I might encounter who doesn’t know where to turn to approach me if they need resources. I’m not really sure what it will look like just yet, but I am forming a support mechanism, a ministry of sorts.  The perception seems to be that my Roman Catholic Church has no where to turn.  In fact, we have quite a few support mechanisms if you know where to find them; the most helpful support ministries are the folks themselves.

I have been there, walked in a parent’s shoes.  I’ve shouted at God, pleading for help, begging for answers. I’ve read dozens of books, spoken with mentors.  I’ve cried the tears of panic and anguish with concern for my son’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.  Because of the unique texture of my life Camino, I can be quite a resource.  There’s much comfort and consolation in knowing you are not alone when you face something so frightening.  I can direct concerned parents and their scared, confused children, as well as frustrated adults with many struggles associated with this journey.

Please feel free to contact me or pass this post on to someone who may need to hear this.

And, as always, I’d love to hear your comments.

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

I Love My Teacher

Whatever we think of the state of our public education system today, there is no denying that being a teacher is one of God’s holy callings.  Being a parent is difficult enough, requiring patience and restraint, smarts and courage.  But they are, after all, your own flesh and blood, and we seem to feel obligated to do our best to see that our own turn out well.  (Most of us anyway.)

However, can you imagine what it requires to do this for someone else’s children?  Some schools are for children resembling spoiled pets, who have never heard a reprimand or had any rules or criticism, resulting in a child feeling quite entitled.  Many children from many cultures have never felt that love and compassion that we take for granted.  Too many “me-first” parents who dump the kids off the first chance for someone else to “deal-with;” There’s just not enough time to spend with their spouse (if there is one), and certainly not for these inconvenient creatures.  Funny how some parents only have 24 hours in a day.

I come from a family of educators.  Mom taught and was a guidance counselor for forty years, my two sisters are teachers: Tina for years in Mobile, and Maureen still does in St. Louis.  I think I’m pretty objective, but yeah, some of this is personal.

My wife Sharon has taught exceptional needs and disabled (ESE) children for over a decade, lately in a Title 1 school, where 90% of children can’t afford lunch.  Almost exclusively minorities, most are from neighborhoods my friends don’t even know exist:  The projects.  A trailer behind a warehouse.  A neighborhood that rots with the stench of crack, weed, old beer and urine.  Most don’t know their father.  Many don’t know either parent.  These children are the least of our brothers, and although most do not endure the poverty I witnessed in Haiti, they may well have more despair and frustration, and certainly less love and hope.  School is the highlight of their day.  Many find their only food there, and some stay as late and return as early as they are allowed, because there is no electricity at home for lights to study by.

Their teachers smile and encourage, love and encourage.  They aren’t allowed to hug them, but do so regularly.  These are role models for these kids.  They know their names and treat them with respect and dignity.  They share stories about siblings, and piece together familial stories.  Based upon this, home visits with a teacher and her principal, along with a social worker or the law sometimes is required to check a story out.  Sometimes without merit, but these “leads” often put an end to unfortunate abuse when scars and bruises are noted at school.

Shar has bought as many shoes and socks for her students as she has her own children.  Sometimes there is a need for a change in clothes, because of an embarrassing body or urine odor.  You think children lack self-esteem from not having a new cell phone, or new $200 Nike’s?  Try walking with your head held high when there’s no electricity or running water at home to bathe with.   Children at these schools can be cruel too, and disparaging comments cut deepest when they are true.  Teachers notice drooping heads, eyes on the floor, and little to feel good about.

My wife is one of the most incredible people I know.  The strength, compassion, love and empathy she exudes is contagious.  I find it almost impossible to pass someone with a cardboard sign now without rolling the window down.

Two weeks ago I went to (another) Matt Maher / Audrey Assad concert with my daughter Emily, and (of course) they were begging for Compassion International sponsors.  For $38 a month you get a picture for your refrigerator of a third world child, and knowledge that you have fed, clothed, and educated them.  Sharon, was quick to explain that we had “sort of” already done this.

I’ll omit the names for obvious reasons, but Sharon teaches two children of a family with six.  Both of these kids are behind their peers developmentally and intellectually.  One is what we used to call “retarded,” and may well never be able to function independently in society.  None of these six children have ever had what “we” would consider a “typical” Christmas.  Their father works hard as a gardener (field hand?) and handyman, and provides as best as he can.  They do have water and electricity, and usually ample rice and beans on the table.

This year, the teachers and the PTA took the initiative and approached many of these families to ask what a nice Christmas would look like.  Without hesitation, Shar found their family name on the tree in the teacher’s lounge.  Each of the children named something that seemed reasonable, certainly not the frivolous “must-haves” for most of America.  At 40 or 50 bucks apiece, it was a bit of a stretch for us, but well beyond the reach of a family like this that struggles to provide food and clothes after the rent and utilities.  One wanted towels for her mom and tools for his dad.

The day before Christmas break, the students were allowed to go to the “School Store,” to purchase items for family and friends at a nominal cost.  Sharon gave $3 to each of the six to buy something for themselves or a friend.  The children pooled their money and bought their Papa a flashlight, and their Mama a necklace and brooch.  Our “disadvantaged” family had children that had never been able to give their parents a present.  This year was different.

Sharon described them walking from class to the bus as if walking on a cloud.  Heads held high, and smiling from ear to ear.  They were so anxious to see their parents reactions on Christmas morning! The parents won’t have the only happy faces on Christmas morning.

Like Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, Sharon and her principal delivered the packages to the baby Jesus on Friday.

Merry Christmas.

Please know that although Sharon is an exceptional teacher and an exceptional person, she is not alone.  Teachers are a special people.  Please remember financially our unfortunate families and children, but also remember those who feel called to this profession in your prayers.  The work they do with our children, the time spent into the wee hours grading papers and planning, and the money they take out of their own pockets for their classroom supplies is unknown to the general public.  Pray for our teachers, and if you know one, tell them how much you appreciate them.

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