Stitches for Christmas

I hadn’t planned on the Christmas traffic and so I was a bit late for work.  “I’m not even on the highway yet,” I phoned my receptionist, “So you might want to call my first appointment and advise them to come in 15 minutes late.”

“Just be glad you’re not early!” she exclaimed.  “We had an emergency run in, and the poor thing was torn wide open from getting caught under a fence, and bleeding all over the place.”

“Are they waiting?” I asked as I sped up well past my comfortable speed.  “No, I sent them to Dr. Elsewhere.  Besides they’d never been here before, and said the dog wasn’t even theirs!”

I’d seen the schedule and knew we were slammed; it was good that they went down the road.  I had 18 appointments scheduled for the abbreviated 3 hour day, and that would be plenty.  Besides, it was Christmas Eve and everyone would be anxious to get home after just a half day.  I was glad I wouldn’t have to feel guilty.

I’ve  come to really enjoy my hour and a half commute.  I listen to lots of audiobooks and, now that I’m enrolled in University postgraduate classes again, I listen to my professor’s lectures a few times as well.  But it does make for a long 13 hour day, and there’s not much of me left when I get home.  My coping mechanism involves an hour of silence, contemplation, prayer early every morning.  And I find myself struggling, pleading, praying for peace and joy from each hectic day.

Some days it’s hard to find much joy.  I’m sometimes immersed and submerged in grief of lost life and love.  And so I plead with my Creator for consolation.  I want to know that it’s not all in vain.  That we’re here for a reason.  That I’m here for a reason.  Give me your eyes to recognize opportunities to love and serve as you would have me.  And that I am living my life as He would want – that the world is better for my having been here.  I’ve been having a bit of a dry spell, and feel like I’m just checking the box some days.

I realize I’ll never cure cancer.  And I’ll never make enough money to create a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to end a disease like rubella.  Or embrace the “humans discarded like garbage” as Mother Theresa did.  And so it would be easy to see my ordinary, everyday life as just that. But I strive to find Jesus with every encounter – every time I smile, touch, or open my mouth.  I pray for patience, and compassion, and the vision to realize who it is that is actually standing in front of me, and overlook their human faults.  I ask for wisdom to recognise those opportunities that I’m given where I can draw closer, but be indifferent to those which push me away.

Sometimes people aren’t very kind, or appreciative, or forgiving of my own faults – my forgetfulness, my schedule, my often sarcastic personality, my tardiness.

And so, I zipped into the driveway, with almost 20 cars already in it, knowing that the day would be another challenge.  My first two appointments were waiting, along with two unplanned emergencies; 6 pets had been dropped off for me to examine “in my spare time,” and over 40 charts were on my desk for me to evaluate lab results and to call to discuss treatment options.

After years of this script, my employees know I have a routine, and to only jump on me if someone is bleeding.  Since they didn’t, I made a dash for the baño and returned the three mugs of coffee I’d inhaled almost two hours ago.  I grabbed my stethoscope, and slid into the first exam room.

Soon I had dispersed, delegated, prescribed, and advised everyone waiting to see me, and was shocked to see no charts in front of me.  I looked at the clock and was confused that I had a little down time in the middle of a busy, busy morning.

As I turned to tackle my stack of charts, one of my receptionists spun me around and said, “Dr. K., the person that came in so early this morning, the one I referred to Dr. Elsewhere is back, and begging for you to look at the dog.  I know what you’re going to say, so I’m not sure why I’m even asking, but she wants your opinion. Remember, it’s not even her dog, and she has now told me three times that she doesn’t have any money.”  The other doctor had told her just to hose the dog’s wound off every day and it would probably heal fine.

I shook my head and smiled, “Tell them to bring the dog in, and I’ll have a look.”

“No,” she said, “They’re too embarrassed to come in with no money.  Can you go out to their car and just have a look to see if you agree with the other doctor.”

“Sure.”

The gash was deep, and blood was everywhere.  There was little chance this would heal on it’s own.  Not without antibiotics, and she really needed stitches.  I looked around and “for some reason” there were still no cars in the parking lot.  The little dog looked up at me and wagged her tail.  I looked at the wrinkled, worried forehead of the couple who had cared enough to bring in a dog that didn’t even belong to them.

Fence Gash

“Field stitches” are something that I learned from my boyhood mentor as I “helped” around the neighborhood vet clinic, a lifetime ago, working on cattle and horses, and most certainly aren’t taught in medical school.  They are fast, and require no general anesthesia.  I looked at the huge gash in the little dog, and realized that it most certainly wouldn’t be the best medical care, but one hell of a lot better than hosing it off every day.  Besides, I could shave and disinfect the wound, inject some lidocaine, place a drain, and “field stitch” the dog in about 20 minutes.  (To do it properly, with acceptable sterile technique would require anesthesia and over two hours of surgical time).

OK, so it actually took 30 minutes, and by then about 4 or 5 people were waiting. But, as I placed the final stitch in her neighbor’s dog who hadn’t even flinched, and gave her a shot of antibiotics, I knew it had been the right thing to do.

Her husband had looked at the floor most of the time we were in the exam room together, and finally, looking up, spoke with a cracking voice.

“I’m not sure why ya done this fer us, and I told you I didn’ haf any thing ta pay ya with. Would it be OK if we came back and paid you a little bit each week, when I get m’ check?”  He seemed to fear my response and was clearly embarrassed.

I was a bit moved by his offer.  I had known they couldn’t pay when I invited them in.

“No,” I said, “I only ask one thing.  Don’t go around and tell everyone that we work for free.  ‘Cause if I did this very often, (pointing to my nurse) she’d have to work for free, and then her family wouldn’t get to buy food.”

“What?” they were both clearly a mess now.  “You done all this fer nuthin?”

“Nope. We did it because we were supposed to.  Thanks for coming in today, and … Merry Christmas.”

I gave them each a hug, and high fived my nurse as I left the room.

She smiled bigger than I did.  She knew we hadn’t done it for them.  It was for me.  I’m selfish that way.

Clearly, a businessman can’t give things away on a regular basis, or he wouldn’t be able to pay his staff, and give raises, and pay for health care, or the mortgage.  But sometimes you can.  And it feels really good.

None of this is about “telling people about our good works so that others will know how good we are.”  It’s simply opening our eyes so we can see.

It’s not about doing good, or “giving back,” because others have been good to us.  No, that’s simply the “exchange” of Christmas gifts.  Tit for tat.  And as such, although trades are extrinsically good, they don’t really add good to the world.  The balance shifts when we do good where there is no possible way for the other to repay.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what Christmas is really about anyway?

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son …

JN 3:16

The original gift of Christmas was one given with full knowledge that it could never be repaid, and clearly there has never been that expectation.  We don’t do good because we owe God anything.  Or because we’re afraid of Hell.  We do good because God is good, and in our design we are programed to enjoy doing so.  There are no mistakes in our design.  He did this for a reason.  We are here for a reason.

Centuries ago, Blaise Pascal (consider also Pascal’s Wager) formulated a concept later described as a “God shaped hole” in our hearts.  We seek and try repeatedly to fill this longing with things of this world, trying to satisfy the craving, and fill the void ourselves. Sixteen centuries years ago Pascal observed power-lust and self-centeredness, with the resultant narcissism and addictions.

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

Only by recognising what “fits” in this hole do we “satisfy that longing.” Only through love and service for others are we truly happy.  What we did on Christmas eve was really no big deal.  Everyone can, and must reach out those around them.  Maybe you can’t stitch up a stray dog.  But you can help someone fix a flat tire, or unload their groceries, or shovel their snow, or give a blanket to someone who is wandering and cold.  Or just stop and, with a conversation or a smile, show a stranger that they matter.

ed. note:  I considered for a week before I wrote this. Last year a similar post about Betty and her dog Baby (Rude) resulted in a considerable number of folks being put off by what they saw as “attention seeking, and patting myself on the back for doing something we should all do anyway.” But that was the entire point of She Wasn’t being Rude, if the reader had actually read it and made it down to the end of the post.  Of course we should do good, and what I (and every other veterinarian I know) am able to do sometimes, is a blessing – to me.

After tragedy enters someone’s life, they see the world through a much different lens.  Everything takes on a new color, with depth and detail that was never before noticed.  When the bleeding stops, everything has purpose;  life becomes deeper and meaningful, and appreciated.

My vision is with other eyes now.  Mainly those of my father and my son.

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The Evil Eye

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I don’t know if Helene Friedman is alive anymore, but I do have fond memories.  About half of what she said was incomprehensibly Yiddish, but I found her antics generally entertaining.  She was quite old and feeble, and an infamous “cat-lady,” who always seemed to just “appear out of thin air” holding two cat carriers.  The few dollar bills she could produce were damp from inside her brassiere, and her glasses were literally taped together.  One thing that sticks with me, after 25 years, is her saying something about “Kinna Hurra,” which she said was so I would not get the evil eye.  It was all a bit of nonsense to me, reminiscent of the “stink eye” mentioned in the movie Juno, or that unpleasant leer Michelle Obama whips out sometimes.  But apparently that’s not at all what she was referring to.

My Rabbi client was in the other day and I mentioned this, and he smiled amusingly at me like my Spanish clients do when I make an attempt at saying something coherent in their language.

“You must mean, ‘Kein Ayin Hora,’ which is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew, ‘Bli Ayin Hara.'”

“Yes, of course that’s surely what I meant,” I smiled back, equally entertained at myself.

“What the heck does it mean?”

The good Rabbi gave me two explanations.

  1. The more traditional describes the “curse” placed on someone who succeeds or attains goals or wealth.  A less fortunate person would look with great jealousy (ayin hara) at his brother and pray to Almighty Gd, complaining of the inequity.  The “evil eye” has effectively placed a “hex.”  The would result in someone acting or showing less evidence of success to avoid such a curse.  Likewise, if complimented, he might say “Kinna Hurra,” or actually spit afterwards, to avoid the curse (apparently evil spirits don’t like spit).  And so when one observes something good happening, he then quickly follows up with this expression, so as not to “jinx” the apparent good outcome.  (I laughed out loud because I remembered Helene actually spitting after uttering her kinnahurra, and how taken back I was that she would do so in my exam room!)
  2. The explanation he said he liked better was deeper, and probably more meaningful to me, as a Christian.  “One of your ‘Catholic Books’ is called Tobit  (I nodded, because  I had recently read these 7 books tossed during the reformation, and remembered it pretty well).  Well Tobit, as well as Proverbs, refers to the concept of the ‘eye’ as a window, letting in light.”

But the ancients also thought of the eye another way, as lights shining interior light of the body.  Psalm 38 talks about ‘eyes as having lost their luster.’  Of course you are thinking in medical terms, Dr. Bill, but this isn’t scientific, or medical.  It’s the observation that someone’s eyes show their inner character.

I shared that Matthew and Luke both talk about the eyes showing light or darkness within.  The Rabbi smiled approvingly, and continued,

So, Matthew and Luke make more sense now – if the eye is generous, it is bright and the body is filled with interior light or goodness. But if the eye is set on cursing others, the body is full of darkness.

And so, my friend, the little old woman in your memory was not only wishing you well, but paying you the highest compliment.  She felt you were generous and had treated her kindly.

I thought of Helene recently, which is probably why this story was in my mind when the Rabbi came in.  I was on a bus at the North American Veterinary Conference, shuttling between the two meeting venues when I looked over to the other side of the road to see an elderly woman running with a hand-written cardboard sign.  In her other hand she held a pet carrier that she was swinging wildly.  This strange sight caught the attention of the bus-load full of veterinarians, until the cage door sprung open and her few clothes and possessions fell to the ground.  Many people in nearby cars seemed amused, smiling as they looked away, but my stomach fell to the floor, as I continued to watch.  She dropped the broken cage and started wiping her face, over and over again, as her tears continued to stream down her cheeks.  As she placed her glasses back on her face, I saw the tape holding them together.

As the light changed to green, my bus rolled away, and I smiled to see brake-lights of someone stopping to help her.

And so, the eyes are the window to the inner character, and perhaps the soul itself.

Do we look away with Ayin Hara, an evil eye of inner darkness, or do we look compassionately with Ken Ayin Hara, a generous eye shining with an inner light?

I’ll continue to fail miserably, I’m sure.  However, I am beginning to recognize Him along my own journey to Emmaus.  I’m reminded of a prayer shared with me by a Jesuit at Whitehouse Retreat in St. Louis:

Lord, keep me ever mindful, that we are always in your presence.

 

Image result for homeless woman with cat  Beautiful Eye

 

Christmas 2014, A Parable for Today

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A while back, I walked the Camino de Santiago as part of my grief healing process after losing my son.  I had been informed, and found it true, that the spirituality, the soul saving energy of the Holy Spirit was “so thick there that you could cut it with a knife.”  The love and fraternity penetrated every perigrino, the pilgrims there for so many reasons, with such affect and effect that even the social participants would be changed forever.  Especially during the evenings at the albergues, the Spanish hostels for pilgrims, where sharing, toasting and camaraderie were evident. It was truly one of the highlights of my life – so much so that I would return back to operate my own albergue along “the way.”

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And so, I saw myself working with such effort that I was exhausted each day.  We decided to operate our hostel for no set fee, the pilgrim would pay what they could afford, a tariff called “donitivo,” or simply, donation of what one feels is worthy.  At the beginning, it was like my first marathon – exhilarating at each day’s finish line, but so worth it that even my wife, who I pulled into this journey with me, felt this service fulfilling.  But this calling began to take its toll.  We certainly collected enough to pay our bills, as many donated much, much more than the 12 euro typical of most albergues with set fees.  But day after day, week after week, year after year we were worn down.

Much like the decades of veterinary medicine I practiced, I loved the calling, the connections I made, the love and brotherhood I shared.  I knew what I was doing was worthwhile, and made a difference in so many lives, but, still, after all the time, we were just weary.  Some days turned into most days that I wondered if people cared how much effort was involved in what I did for them.  And like the few that didn’t seem to appreciate my veterinary service, the traveler or two that didn’t express appreciation or even pay anything at all for the meal and bed that we provided began to hurt my feelings.

I grew indignant, such that I looked forward to the slow season, when fewer and fewer people would impose upon me.  I was just plain tired.  And so when November, and then December rolled around, I was so relieved.  Imagine my frustration when, at the end of December, more tour groups came through and kept me at capacity for day after day, and now weeks of exhaustion.  Every night, Sharon and I melted into our bed, only to be startled a few hours later to start it all over again.  Preparing their food, and changing the linens on the beds that the next nights refugees would so appreciate.

And so that night, ever so memorable, began just like every other.  It was cold, we were full, and the words came so easily – “sorry but we’re full – continue on to the next town,” where lodging might be available.  But this was different.  These travelers were so presumptuous, even inconsiderate.  It was well after ten, and they thought there were vacancies?  We had been full, and turning people away since 2 o’clock!  But what was most inconsiderate was not the hour, but the condition of these travelers.  He was old and clearly out of shape, and she was very pregnant.  What the heck were they thinking, doing the Camino at all, in their conditions, much less when it was so cold.  Their previous town had been well over 10 kilometers prior, how could he possibly expect her to make it here, and now … nothing for another 18 kilometers.  They could never continue on.

I reminisced back to that night, forever ago, when I trudged ahead on my own first Camino, so cold and tired, only to find the fee for lodging I so desperately needed to be “cash only,” and more than I had remaining in my pocket.  The tears were streaming down my cheeks as I was turned away, on to the next town, in the freezing driving rain.

This was precisely why I had no set fee – someone might need my help and not have whatever I wanted to charge.  A donation of the travelers’ choosing seemed so appropriate.  And this was, in fact, the tradition, a thousand years ago, when so many saints and sinners, including my favorite St Francis, had walked this Camino de Santiago.

It’s hard to put into words my appreciation, that first Camino, when just around the corner from where I had been turned away in that freezing rain, was a different albergue, one that wasn’t in the guidebook, that allowed me to stay for what I could afford.

Sharon startled me from those memories, when she whispered into my ear what I should have thought of myself as the weary couple turned and walked away in disappointment.  “We’ll make room somewhere, they can even stay in our room,  they’ll never make it to the next town.  Besides, they’re probably also full at this hour.”

“Wait!” I shouted as they disappeared in the dark, “If you want to, you can sleep in with the pups.”

To help pay the bills, we raised boxer dogs and had a litter almost ready to wean in what used to be the garage.  It was foul smelling of canine waste, and probably loud with whining and barking, but at least they would have a cover for the night.

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I was surprised that my wife wasn’t happy with me.  Apparently she was serious about giving up our own bed.  She was nuts, there was no way I was going to go without, because of someone else’s lack of planning. I was tired, and had worked hard.

My heart was full of chaos, I was exhausted, and I needed rest for tomorrow.  But there would never be another tomorrow.  My life would be demanded of me tonight.  And in my business, I had missed Him in our midst.  I’d prepared my entire life for this very night, and yet my own lamp was without oil.

I failed to recognize Joseph as my brother.

But I had given them shelter.  Wasn’t that good enough?  Was it?

I’d never killed anyone or robbed, or cheated, or told any big lies.  Wasn’t that good enough?

I had allowed the mother of my Lord to sleep with my dogs.  How could I possibly know she would have the child that night?  I hadn’t turned them away, had I?

Would you have?

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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

claire1a

 

 

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.

Cullen Sved Puppy Sved Puppy Crop

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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