Thankful 2015

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

I’m out of town with family today getting the turkey ready, but I can get lab-results, and sometimes this forces me to make very painful phone calls.

The 30ish woman and her beautiful 12 year old daughter had come into my veterinary hospital yesterday with a kitten that was very sick.  She was so neurologically affected that she couldn’t stand, and had to be swaddled up like a newborn, or she’d arch backward and thrash around, completely out of control.

Kids seem to have a special bond with pets that only parents can understand.  Although I spoke in my best disguised code to her mommy, Madeline courageously held back hysterical tears, clearly having been prepared for the news that I might deliver.

When a pediatric patient presents with such profound symptoms, the diagnosis is often a congenital or genetic condition.  Neither can actually be “cured,” but sometimes successfully managed.  In veterinary medicine, quality of life is of paramount importance, and so, often these situations sometimes do not end well.

I stepped away from the sweet potatoes and Brussels sprout prep party to make the phone call neither if us wanted to make or receive.  The bile acids test had come back normal, so there was not a hepatic shunt, the often treatable liver anomaly we had both hoped and prayed for.

Next on the list of differential diagnoses were a couple of congenital problems, neither of which had a very good prognosis. My medically correct advice was a neurologist referral, but I knew the likelihood of a good outcome was miniscule.  Big words with no treatment like cerebellar hypoplasia and spongiform encephalopathy now ascend to the top of the list. And so when she asked what I would do if it was my own kitten, my hand was forced with the grim reality.  We are treating for one other parasitic possibility, but the odds are even more slim.

She explained, matter of factly, how this was the first cat that they’d ever had that seemed to love them back.  She exuded love and appreciated  their affection.  This stray kitten just seemed to wander into their house one day, and immediately bonded with her daughter Madeline.  Every other cat they’d ever had received their love, but only “Mo” really gave it back.

The crosses we bear are so heavy.

My heart hurts for her, and especially her daughter.  I told her how sorry I am.  “But,” I explained:

As a father, and as a Christian, I’d like to say a couple of things to you, and I apologize if you wouldn’t expect this from your doctor.

Our blessings come in many forms.  We look at such a short life with anguish and disappointment.  What a waste.  This all seems so cruel.

But, I reminded her.  This was a stray kitten that had never known human love and compassion until she found you.  In you, she found three months of love that she would otherwise never have known.  You gave “Mo” so much.  That is a not a waste.

You told me that Madeline had never felt such a returned love from a pet.  “Mo” gave her so much.  The obvious is the physical, the temporal return of affection.  Mo gave Madeline the opportunity to welcome the unloved and unwanted.  But think also of the ‘not so pretty’ pieces of this puzzle.  Perhaps the bigger lesson includes comforting the suffering, the dying, someone who could not really give back.  And so she learned empathy, sympathy, and compassion; how to love the suffering, the unappreciative, the unloveable.

So, although you have had Mo for such a short time, she gave so more than she received.  These are blessings.

Sometimes, it surprises me when I am emotionally moved by a client or an experience.  This one shouldn’t have been a surprise.

I hung up the phone, sat on the couch and put my face in my hands.

I know pain.  I know the cross.  I know the questions of the cross.

I am thankful today for so many things.  Most of all, I am thankful for  a God who is all good, and understands my frustrations and prayers.

Most people that have continued to read this post, understand me, or at least what I’m talking about.  Our God is good.  All the time.

And for this, I am thankful, on this “Thanksgiving.”  I am thankful that, although we carry different loads, and that our God is merciful.  I am better for my own load, and although I would not wish it on anyone, it is mine to bear.

As is everyone else’s load and cross.  The blessing is not in our destination, the blessing is in the journey itself.  Only through times of emptiness and desolation do we grow.

Today I am thankful for  my life and my cross.  We all carry our own buckets with our own loads.  This makes us human.  Knowing that we do not walk alone is such consolation.  We must be able to lay them at the cross.

 

I’m also thankful for unconditional love, and a career where I hope I make a difference.

Happy Thanksgiving, 2015

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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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All Dogs go to Heaven?

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The thud of bumper against flesh makes a nauseating sound that tears a family apart.  As we sat together enjoying dinner after a long day of work, school, swim practice and homework, going around the table with our “high point of the day,” we barely took note of the sound of impact outside.  We all heard it, but just didn’t realize that sound, was to be forever part of the horrible memory.

People often find a veterinarian’s compassion remarkable.  You have so much empathy, I’m told.  “You’d think after dealing with this time after time, it would make you numb to it all, but when we brought Callie in last week, you acted like she was your own!”

Whether a body is brought in from a passing at home the night before, a tragic accident, or a humane euthanasia in the office, I know a family will never be the same.  The sweet memories fade into forever ago when confronted with a sudden loss of a beloved pet.

Somehow people often just seem to know that I take my faith seriously.  The cross I wear is tucked under my shirt, and the Third Day silk screen is covered by my scrubs, but I find myself often responding to complicated questions;  Philosophy and theology discussions that my veterinary training ill-equipped me for.  “I know you’re a believer, but why?  There’s so much suffering in the world – if He’s actually up there, why doesn’t He care?”  Often I force myself simply to sigh and remark something about there being so many mysteries.  And all this is true, but I thoroughly enjoy sharing and discussing my evolving theologies with others who are curious, or want to spar with our respective apologetics.

But I simply can’t typically do this at enough length for justice in a 15 minute office visit, so I mainly just sigh, and smile, and agree that it’s a mystery.  But sometimes I’m asked, especially by children, what used to be considered a softball question with a reflex quickie answer.  But now lots of adults also ask me, and I know some of them well enough to realize they want an honest, scripture based answer.

“Dr. Bill, do our pets go to heaven?” or specifically, “Will I see my dear Killian in Heaven?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used to kneel down by the child and say with consoling confidence, “Of course!”  I’d never give it a second thought, but I find myself questioning the reason and logic for pretty much everything I do anymore.  And it began to bother me a little bit.

In simplest terms, Christians believe entrance to God’s kingdom is based on our choosing to accept Jesus as Savior and applying His message as the way to live our lives and interact.  As a pretty serious Christian, I do believe this.  Well then, how on earth could we possibly think animals could get to Heaven, since they have no ability to even make rational choice?  Besides, they don’t even have souls … do they?  So I’m supposed to look down and lie to a child so everyone is happy?  Or say callously with a pat on their head, “No Susie, cats don’t have souls!”  Or pretend that I believe the New-Age Gobbletygoop, “Susie, Heaven will be everything you want it to be, and if you love Callie, she will certainly be there.”  Because we’ll all have our own little heaven of anything we want it to be.  (Although this may indeed be true, for so many members of the “church of me,” where you get to pick and choose what you think should be right and wrong.)

Or maybe I should simply shrug with a smile, and say, “It’s all a mystery!”None of that really works for me.  However I do have two thoughts on the subject.

First of all, I’m certainly no theologian, I’m not even particularly intelligent.  So on a plethora of topics, I choose to yield to others in history who have devoted entire lives to research on philosophy, meaning, and of course theology.  I have many favorites, but at the top of the list is St. Augustine (also know as Augustine of Hippo).

Saint Augustine clearly wrote “that all the beautiful and enjoyable things of nature … including animals … and all the delights that image God and lead us to him in this life will do so even more perfectly in the next. (Sermon 242).

St. Francis of Assisi wrote in “Canticle to Brother Sun,” about what he had discovered in scripture , such as Psalm 148, and he added a personal touch, giving the title of “Brother” and “Sister” to the various creatures. Francis seems to emphasize all the more the viewpoint that all creatures make up one family of creation under one loving Creator in heaven. We are to form one community—one symphony of praise—with our brother and sister creatures.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a woman arriving in heaven surrounded by her pets, and he notes, “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love… And now the abundance of life she has in Christ… flows over into them.”

Lewis believes that animals receive a sense of self or personality from association with their human masters. We give our pets names and they answer to those names (hopefully), and perhaps recognize themselves by them. “If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so,” says Lewis. “And in this sense,” suggests Lewis, “it seems to me that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.”

Secondly, Scripture itself seems to support this premise.

Consider the story of Adam and Eve before their disobedience as well as the story of the animals, the birds, the trees and plants in the Garden of Eden. Not only Adam and Eve, but the other creatures as well seemed to find peace and happiness in that first paradise. Why then would God want to exclude them from the paradise that is yet to come? (Even if it has nothing to do with their merit, but simply for us.)  Thus, I would have no argument with Christians who believe that the animals and other creatures are with God in heaven, just as they were in the story of the original paradise.

In the New Testament we are told God sees every sparrow that falls, which means he takes notice of each little life. In the Old Testament, we read about a future kingdom where the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat.

And finally, in the Book of Revelation, John describes a heavenly vision of all creatures before the throne of God. In that glorious gathering, he sees more than saved humanity: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever ” (Rev. 5:11-14).

Claire was my 14-year-old daughter’s very best friend.  She came one year for Christmas to chew on the piano bench, and grab the roast from the table, and teach my daughter about unconditional love.  And that she could lean on her Heavenly Father when strength was no-where to be found.

This was the first of many horrific losses my family would face in 2012.  Another death to confront.  Another opportunity to ask, “Why?”  Another reminder to cherish every loved one, and welcome every opportunity to embrace as if it’s the last one.

We believe in a God who understands loss and grief, pain and anguish.  He’s been here, and walked in our shoes, and fills our hearts with hope and joy, confidence and consolation.

Of course dogs can go to heaven.  So many things to look forward to.

Blessings for this Holy Week 2014

Much Love

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Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

“I never really liked little dogs, but now that my wife is gone, ‘Sandy’ is all I have left of her.  My God, she loved this dog.  I don’t think I could go on if anything happened to her,” the old man told me as he clutched the Pomeranian. Sandy was getting on in years and had severe periodontal disease and now an abscessed tooth from years of having refused routine prophylaxis. Seventeen years or not, the old dog was suffering and we really needed to so some dental work, the risks of anesthesia were now irrelevant. But Sandy was not just this man’s pet, she was how he was gasping to keep alive this only remaining part of his spouse.

A Jack Russell Terrier named “Buddy” squirmed and bounced on the exam table, a complete lunatic. These little dogs (what we like to call Jack Russell Terrorists) are out of control on a good day, and this one was truly a “special needs” case. This dog hadn’t heard the word “no” in months, and was coddled and talked to in ways that defied logic, unless you know the story. Buddy had been best friends with the 16-year-old daughter of this couple – one of the teens killed last year in a horrific auto accident that made state headlines.

Cullen and his best friend Tim ran up the stairs with all the excitement and giddiness that would accompany a new puppy.  They had slipped out of Tallahassee after classes, passed us in Melbourne and spent the morning sitting on the ground in South Florida, with a litter of Siberian Husky puppies running, licking, and jumping all over them.  He would leave in Miami half of what he had saved that semester, from tutoring classmates in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and return with so much excitement he was ready to burst.  “Svedka” was an absolutely stunning pure white Husky with eerily transcendent crystal blue eyes that would pierce into me.  I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and had never seen a white husky before (although now they seem to be everywhere), and I was taken back at this beautiful creature.  She immediately squatted to urinate when he put her down, no surprise to me after a 4 hour car-ride, but Cullen was surprised and embarrassed, as he was so proud and thought everything about her was “perfect.”

Having had no prior knowledge of his stealthy plan, I was astonished and confused.  I do remember the YouTube video of the Husky howling “I love you” that Cullen had thought was so cool, playing it over and over in amazement and asserting that he was going to get one and teach it to talk too!  But my prodigy would be graduating at age 19, and leaving on a Chinese Master’s degree fellowship in just a few months.  “Have you lost your mind?  Why would you get a puppy right before you leave for two years in China?!!  Are you crazy or just irresponsible?” (One more thing I said over the years that I wish I could take back)

He just looked at me and smiled, telling me to calm down, that he had all the details worked out.  Tim would take care of Svedka while he was gone!  That seemed pretty logical to a 19-year-old.

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Amy Hollingsworth authored a book entitled, “Gifts of Passage,” where she describes “gifts our loved ones leave behind.”  She artfully weaves Where the Red Fern Grows, the “Myth of the Red Thread,” lots of C.S. Lewis, and experiences from hospice care nurses into this masterpiece that finds the reader constantly nodding their head in affirmation.  This had been one of a dozen or more books I had been given when I was in the depths of grief after my darkest day.  The baby boy that I had prayed for and been given on my (our) birthday, nineteen years ago, would leave for China, and be killed in the strangest of accidents.

One can not comprehend the anguish of losing a child, nor be of any consolation.  Witnessing the sobbing of several old men when they shared with me the loss of their own child makes it clear that the grief, like the love, endures decades, and forever.

I have, however, come a long way.  I can type these words without weeping, although a later re-reading, as I proofread, will tend to prove painful.  We’ve struggled with lots of things to make sense of, or at least accept our loss.  I went to one Compassionate Friends grief support group for parents.  It was so depressing with many parents still hysterical with that drunk driver, or that f’ing cancer, or simply at God, and ironic that now so many were now drunks and addicts themselves, climbing inside the bottle or vial of Zoloft to be numb.  But I did not want any of this stuff.  An open, bleeding wound where my heart used to be would probably remain forever, but surely there was some form of healing to be had.  And so we worked on it, and “working through” grief is truly work.

Sharing stories and feelings with the rest of the family, mentoring with friends and priests, lots of conversations with our Lord, and my infamous 500 mile Camino de Santiago have all helped immensely.  I have become an avid reader, having read more in the last year than my preceding 50 years combined.  My days always start with a page or two of scripture to think about during the day, and usually end with a few chapters of my “book of the week.”

I’ve now read this Hollingsworth book three times, and always tear and laugh at the same places.  There is a legend in Asian culture of “the read thread” that connects and pulls certain people destined to be together or to impact each other in some way, providing  love, a lesson, or support.  Wending its way, crossing time and culture, spanning age and death, this red thread connects me to those whose stories would matter to me, would teach me.  Each gift has unraveled like a mystery, so that I have learned not only about the gift, but about the process I am going through to discern my own.  With each of these stories, the red thread tightens, pulling me closer to the meaning of his “Gift of Passage.”

This may well be what we Christians call “God’s Providence.”  Our days, our very lives are directed by our free, often stupid, choices.  However, His hand presents us with continuous new choices and second chances to live righteously – despite, or perhaps especially because He knows well in advance the outcomes, and how our time here will end.  His loving hand guides us to opportunities and choices where we can overflow His love, or not.

Hollingsworth tells of these gifts left behind – the most obvious ones are the conscious, intentional gifts of those who know they are dying.  Sometimes in a will or a list of “worldly goods,” or may be simply a conversation or heartfelt confession.  They plan out thoughtful comfort, meant to convey a loving message, something they want to be remembered by.  But the surprising gifts are those where an acute or catastrophic accident occur, where no one has had warning.  Such times the gifts aren’t so obvious but they become evident as the journey continues.  The “seeds have been planted” to help us cope, or even understand.  Like The Red Fern, there’s no way to know where seeds are planted until the red fern begins to push its way out of the soil.

Cullen had left many such gifts: Stories from his friends of his acts of love and kindness, memories of the recent times spent with us, the loving compassionate things he had said to complete strangers, the fighting people he had brought together, the itinerary he had planned for us to visit him in China, and the most loving text message he had sent me that very morning.

Svedka was also my gift left behind.  I had been so adamant that his getting a dog was such a stupid, irresponsible decision.  So after moving him out of his apartment at FSU, we dropped Sved off with Tim’s grandmother, Joyce.  We already had three big dogs who had destroyed the yard and made the house impossible to keep clean.  Our house was too full of dogs already.

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Svedka on floorboard under sleeping Cullen, on the way home from FSU

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Cullen inscribed a classmate’s notebook, “Cullen was here.” They later added, “For a reason.”

But on May 18th 2012, our home suddenly was very empty.  Much like our hearts, this house was desolate and drained, devoid of happiness and life.  We tried desperately to force some normalcy to feign sanity, especially for Cullen’s siblings.  So we sat on the bleachers, watching Noah enter the dugout with his head down.  Without prompting, each of the South Beach Dodgers went up to my 11-year-old son and hugged him that day.  As he approached the plate for his first “at bat,” he crossed himself and pointed to the heavens.  It was more than I could handle; before I left, I leaned to Shar and said, “I want to get Sved.”  She smiled through her own tears, glad that I had suggested something so rational.

I don’t remember Kayla and I speaking as we left the game and made that long drive.  Nor do I remember Joyce and I speaking.  Not with words anyway.  We wept as we hugged in her driveway; Svedka had already jumped in and was on Kayla’s lap, kissing her.  Now she rides with my old boxer, Nieve and me every day to work, and never complains about the long commute.  Most of the drive she leans against the back of my seat, often leaning her head on my shoulder.

These gifts are not a “consolation prize” for my broken heart, but rather they set in motion an anguish through which the real gift is given.  Like Psyche‘s rage against Cupid in C.S. Lewis’ Until We Have Faces, my real gift is that I have learned how to love, really love the god who separated me from my son.  The real gift is the transformation of the beast into something beautiful, a true understanding of the love of God.

Much Love.

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