Saturday, August 23, 2014

We Were Never Meant to Live Here Forever

"Aren't you afraid to die?"

Not too long ago I was out to dinner with two friends who have become close as a result of our grief journeys and they looked at my little Miata and posed that question.

I answered, "No," without a second thought. "If I were killed driving this thing, right up until the last few seconds, I'd be about as happy as I've ever been, so I don't worry about it."

Since losing Ethan, I look at death differently. It's not that I'm suicidal or don't enjoy living, but I look at death as a step, not an end. It's a change from this plane of existence to another where what we are is different, but who we are is much the same, although unhampered by the pangs of life, the bonds of our physical being, the ache of physical hardship and addiction.

I know as a Christian, I should have looked at death this way for a long time. In fact, it's a wonder Christians strong in their belief aren't ready to check out immediately and skip the whole bit of trying to live like Jesus. Life is hard. Living like Jesus, with an unwavering moral compass and a love for everyone we encounter, is even harder.

Yet we cling to life, even when we're hurting, and fear moving on to something unfamiliar. We're right to do so. It's a gift to be enjoyed as long as it's ours. We should get up each morning with a prayer of thanksgiving for the day, asking that we live it as we should -- although I'd be the first to admit that I generally don't do either of those things. Instead I wake wishing I'd slept a bit longer, that the alarm clock wasn't blaring at 5:15 a.m., or my carpal tunnel setting my hands on fire at whatever time shy of 7. Anything after 7, well then I wake up thankful for close to 8 hours of sleep!

I take the gift of life for granted, even though I know that physically it's not an endless gift. I've said goodbye to family, friends and pets whose time has run out. I've mourned their passing, even when I've been assured that they've gone to a better place. I've never been willing to think about joining them.

Then on Dec. 15 I got the call that my son was dead. Although his addiction had pulled him out of my life so thoroughly that even now I cannot miss him except in an abstract sense because he'd been gone in so many ways for so long, still there's a hole in my heart just from knowing that I won't see him again. I've been angry and sad for eight months now, and I still am.

But at the same time, I've learned something.

Ethan was afraid of life, although he'd never admit it. Every addict is. Even before addiction takes over, they need a buffer to face life, some way to separate themselves from dealing with something -- anything from physical pain to feeling like they don't fit in. They try drugs or alcohol or food or porn or a whole list of what we consider vices to cope, and then whatever fuels their addiction consumes their life.

Ethan couldn't live straight, taking the good, the bad and the ugly that life dishes out every day. But he could die. He could get high and feel a bit out of breath and stretch out and just slip away without a lot of drama or attention. When it came right down to it, it was as easy as letting go of all the things, good and bad, that had held him or driven him for 23 years.

If he could do it, then I darn sure can.

Many times "This Life" from The Afters has brought me to tears, while at the same time brought me peace. "We can't own it, we just get to hold it for a while. This life. We can't keep it or save it for another time. This life... We were never meant to stay. We don't have to be afraid of what is waiting on the other side...."

This week a woman at our church died after a long fight waiting for a liver transplant. The church had gathered to pray for her. She left behind a family not unlike my own -- a husband, grown children, and a church family who cared for her. She wasn't elderly. We didn't feel it was her time. Yet it was.

While she leaves mourners, people aching in her absence with their arms empty and their hearts broken, she's never felt better. The pain, the mental anguish, the struggle is over. Just as it was for Ethan.

Death isn't the enemy that we make it out to be.

Of course, I say that from a distance. I'm not fighting for my life. But I believe that the lesson I've learned from losing Ethan means that while I will fight to live, should the need arise, I won't fear death. While I won't rush into its darkness, or even its light if that's how the transition appears, I'll go without fear to the presence of my maker and those gone before.

I still mourn for the loss of my son, the seemingly untimely loss of others. But my perspective on this loss has changed. It's not they who have lost a life, it is us who have lost a presence.

The only way a life is lost is if we do not choose to go on living the life we're given to its fullest -- however long it lasts.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Happy Comes From All Around

Where did my happy happen this week?

Was it at Elkin park, where a little girl was equally thrilled with a princess dress and what might be termed a little boy's toy dinosaur that transformed into a truck?

Was it when I finally packed the last piece of chicken into a freezer bag and could acknowledge the accomplishment of moving my old layers from the backyard toward the pot?

Was it the dog that crunched my finger last week, coming up to jump on my leg just four short days after arriving for what we hope will be a step in rehabilitation?

All of the above.

Before acknowledging happy, however, I have to admit to one moment of stabbing pain at the much anticipated birthday party. For two weeks the date had haunted me -- the last time I saw my son, Ethan, alive -- at his niece's fourth birthday party was one year behind us when this year's party rolled around. I looked at my parents and had the mental thought that they were missing something, like something had been forgotten, and I realized it was my son who had rode with them for the last year of his life to family events, having lost his license and car (and very nearly his life) in a drugged driving crash. I took a few deep breaths, focused on what I do have, and went on.

I tried to avoid giving the date too much power, but after being blindsided by his absence a time or two in the past, I think I was wise to have done my worrying and mental preparation ahead of time. It was another family gathering and he wasn't there. I ate an extra hot dog, stripped to just ketchup, thinking of him.

So besides celebrating the dichotomy of my granddaughter's personality and my debatable dog whispering skills, where else did I find joy this week?

4. PiYo. After a four-day break that didn't really want to end, I forced myself back into my daily PiYo routine. Yes, it hurt, but I was glad to quickly feel the familiarity with the routine returning. I still hate that I cannot get to a live class, but I'm enjoying a fitness routine that fits in my small open space.

5. Realizing that I had survived the party, without a breakdown, without making my E1 feel like the ghost of her Uncle Ethan had made me sad. It wasn't hard beyond the moment, and I know that each one that comes will loom as a marker of the time we've been apart, then pass a bit easier than I expected. Only eight months into my grief journey, I recognize this as how my life will be. The dread of missing him at a time he should have been there, then the date passing without falling apart (I hope) and life going on.

6. Being the first adult to hit the pool at a birthday party and having fun with my little people and a middle school boy who broke my heart when he put on his glasses, because I saw my son in the misfit youngster. Yes, the water was cold and chlorinated, while my little pool is salt, but I was happy to have the energy to play with the children and race them to the restroom instead of huddling in a lounge chair.

7. Zumba class, even if it is just working out with a bunch of strangers. I did exchange a few words with one, who turned out to be my daughter's mail carrier. Plus I'm learning the routines and knowing where to step next always makes it more fun.

8. Getting back in my pool after chilly nights and lots of rain. The girls and I had a great time (and another workout).

Look for your happy. Whatever is going wrong, or right, don't miss the good times. You may need the memory for another day. I know sometimes I do.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Taking Chickens from Backyard to Freezer

I did it.

For weeks I've been proclaiming the need to put some of my old laying hens in the freezer and remove them from dining at the backyard buffet since they were no longer contributing to the household groceries. Somehow, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I'm sure no one who has known me long would be surprised.

I'd raised most of the birds from day-old chicks, shipped overnight from a hatchery in West Virginia. I've carried them corn and laying pellets. Fed them scraps. Laughed at their skill in stripping the Thanksgiving turkey's carcass.

Then there's the fact that I'm a known animal lover and despite my stated desire to hunt deer, I've never gone hunting as I didn't grow up in a hunting family.

My grandparents lived on a farm, but if there was anything to be killed I was protected from the front line. Heck, my parents kept meat rabbits when I was a child, but I never had any interaction with that process either, even in my own backyard. So when it comes to rendering an animal lifeless and converting it into something to eat, I was pretty much without a clue beyond reading and YouTube.

But after Saturday, when I purchased six more pullets and a pair of Guinea fowl to add to my flock, I no longer could delay the inevitable. There was not really enough room for eight more birds in my small hen house.

So Sunday night I closed the whole flock into the coop with the intention of eliminating the old gals who weren't contributing. I had narrowed it down to only four hens possibly laying off and on and even had looked at pictures of how to tell a laying hen's vent from a liar hen's vent (the area where the egg comes out, which is not technically their butt). I planned to remove eight hens from the flock, one 3-year-old Rhode Island Red, and seven 2-year-old birds none of whom have produced regular eggs since last fall.

I had a very elaborate plan for zip-ties on their feet, a bullet to the back of the brain, a hatchet for head removal, and then skinning them and saving only the choice cuts of meat. I spent my morning coffee time watching videos of chickens being slaughtered and dressed. I had read blogs, including an entertaining one that I found when I was trying to determine how long I would need to wait between death and dressing.

Even that one, however, didn't tell me how exhausting it was going to be to carry it out all on my own, how much blood a flopping chicken could fling on me from head to toe, or how hard the wet feathers would be to get off the meat before I put it in the freezer. Despite all my research, it still turned into a learning process.

My first problem came in the form of the zip ties. I only had seven. Having evaluated the oldest bird a week or so ago, I knew she had little to no meat and couldn't be eating much. I decided to give her a free pass, even though she's probably laid her last egg long ago. She was one of my first hens, but even at that is nameless as I never wanted to attach that much sentimentality to them.

Wading into a hen house full of unhappy birds is not an ideal way to start the day. The newest pullets were quickly ejected as I'd trimmed their flight feathers Saturday, while the older ones were trimmed before gaining freedom. My Bantam rooster had the tip cut from his two-inch spur and I would have cut the whole thing, but it was surprisingly tough. The older birds got a cursory inspection and the white and barred Rocks and surviving Brahma were released while the others were trussed up for slaughter.

Soon I had a pile of gold and black birds trying to figure out how to move without the ability to use their legs. I toted three of them to a stump behind the man cave and moved on to step two -- execution.

Having their legs tied didn't mean there was no movement after they were shot, even though the bullet through the brain stem meant their heads were flopping and not really engaged in their bodies' activities. I expected that, however, as I've had to kill a few that were diseased or injured. I had to shoot a rooster once who had been hit by a car and paralyzed for days and once he was shot, his body began jerking so that reaction from the birds wasn't too surprising. I was surprised at how long they flapped their wings, how much blood they could throw, and how tired I got holding them. Once they got still, I detached their heads with a hatched and put them bottom up in a bucket to drain.

About the time I managed to have all seven hens bottom up, rain, which I had not expected, began to fall. That necessitated my move to indoor butchering, which actually worked out better. Instead of using an outdoor table, I completed my task in the wash pit of my kennel after disinfecting the sink.

While skinning a chicken is undoubtedly easier than plucking one, and cutting away only the meat I'll use meant I never had to deal with pulling out the birds' insides, it was still tough work. Skin doesn't peel away as it seemed to in the videos. Feet had to be removed -- a pair of pruning shears works great. Feathers wind up everywhere, even if you aren't trying to pull them.

I finally got the birds done, washed and bagged shortly after noon. About 10 pounds of choice meat went into the freezer for dumplings and chicken stew this winter.

Afterwards, in addition to exhausted, I felt accomplished. I had taken on something I never previously imagined doing and carried it out without losing my breakfast -- although I did have a salad for lunch when I was done. I had raised them, they had been well cared for, and I killed them as humanely as I could so that they could fulfill their purpose. I know I can do it without depending on someone else to help me out. It was empowering.

Now I think I'm ready for meat rabbits and maybe I really can kill a deer after all.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Raining, Rabbits, Dogs and Cows

I had been crying just moments earlier.

It's something I often do when I'm in the car alone, especially after dark. Don't ask me why.

I think grief gets into the back seat when everyone else gets out. It hides in the floorboard like a carjacker, waiting for the perfect song on the radio, the random memory of another trip down roads I've traveled for so many years, and then it launches itself at me, grabbing me and shaking me and making me wish sometimes that I could go ahead and join my son on his journey beyond life instead of continuing to grapple with the pain of his death.

That depth of pain subsides quickly. There is too much to live for. Three little girls and right now too many dogs who need me. Life is good and I haven't done all I mean to do yet.

But I'm left with the tears.

Then I rounded a curve on my homeward journey and happy happened.

I wound up sitting in my unmoving car at 10:30 p.m. on a rain soaked night, laughing.

There was a little bunny in the DOT mowed grass at the side of the road enjoying a quiet evening snack and my SUV completely ruined his meal. He was like a Mexican jumping bean hopping wildly in every direction. He jumped two hops one way and froze, then jumped the other. I couldn't drive without risking that he'd choose to run under the car and I didn't really want to go on any way.

I sat and laughed at him until he disappeared into the taller grass, then thanked God for sending me a happy moment and finished my drive home, the tears banished for the rest of the night.

My happy this week has been in many ways much like that bunny, something that has appeared unexpectedly out of the dark and banished the blues for a period of time. Much of it has also involved animals, not a shock since my life is largely animals and little girls, but all the same....

2. New lion cubs at the NC Zoo. We were just there a few weeks ago and the two lions were the most visible they've ever been. The lioness, Mekita, was on her back in the sunshine, one leg kicking in some random dream. On July 30 she gave birth to four cubs. The birth announcement came a few days later and seeing the picture of mom and babies stretched in the straw made me smile.

3. Deer, slipping quietly across a dusky road before me. Because of my schedule and the heat, dog walking comes at the tail end of the day. One evening, just as we stopped to turn around, I watched a doe silhouetted against the sunset as she slipped across the road at the top of the hill beyond us. When we neared the house, more deer seemed to float across the road. Only Willie and I saw them, the bigger dogs oblivious until we were close enough to catch their scent, but they were long gone by then.

4. A frightened little dog coming around to trust. Last week I was tending my best friend's dogs as she was gone to the beach and she had just brought home a new one who, for some reason, was prone to barking and growling although not actually snapping. Even though she is a mini-dachshund, I didn't want to be bit and she did put on a really good show of ferocity each time I had to handle her the first two days. By the last two, she was greeting me with a wag of her tail and no more defensive posturing.

5. Salon pas. Seriously, my carpal tunnel has been killing me this summer and my good friend said she'd heard salon pas patches recommended for other sufferers. I stopped and bought a box of the house brand at Walgreens and after two days of grooming this weekend, found relief that ibuprofen had not delivered. Sunday night with one on my wrist at bedtime, I slept far longer than normal without waking early to that arm on fire sensation I've become accustomed to dealing with.

6. Little girls and cows. Little Moo was a big hit earlier in the summer, but the girls were also able to enjoy feeding hay to Moo's herd last week. Well, the big Es anyway. Despite her fascination with toy cows, photos of cows and cows at a distance, E3 wanted nothing to do with the real, noisy, moving thing.

7. Rain. I'm tired of it already, but it is forcing me to dial back some of my expectations for myself and I think I need the break. Plus it sounds wonderful on the metal roof and I know that this area has been needing it. That it has brought cooler temperatures so that cropped sweat pants and long sleeves feel good, well, there's a certain bonus to that as well. I hated not doing the things I planned to do yesterday, but I loved snuggling in cool weather clothes and taking it easy on myself instead. The fact that the morning's downpour had ceased before little people arrived today, meaning we made our troops shuttling them indoors without anyone getting drenched, was a bonus.

Emotionally, I'm a little more stable after a few days of restful living thanks to the rain. I'm more prepared for the weekend and looking forward to a "Frozen" birthday party for E1.

What brought you joy last week? Can you remember? Make a mental note so that you can find a smile when you need it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Just Let Me Get The Date Behind Me

This has been one of the toughest weeks in ages and I'm dreading next week, but at the same time hoping that birthday preparations keep me too busy for the wandering mind that has plagued me this week.

My daughter's work schedule means this is my week with the 3Es -- getting up far too early and still unable to go to bed before 11. Those 18-hour days pile up and much of the time I'm alone, or at least the only person awake within the four walls where I'm surrounded by people I love.

Mornings the girls arrive shortly after 5, take over my bed and the crib in the playroom, and go back to sleep sometimes for as much as two more hours. I spend a portion of that time working out and caring for dogs in the kennel, and I'm fairly good at keeping my mind occupied the rest of the time.

By the time I'm left alone again for an hour or so at 3 p.m. between the time they leave and the time my husband gets home, my defenses have slipped a bit. I can only work out so much. It's too hot for the dogs to want to be out, or for me to start some outdoors project after being sidelined all day with little people. I'm at loose ends and find myself debating the social acceptability of alcohol after noon versus the calories I would need to burn to justify it.

Once my husband gets home I've got company another three or four hours before he goes to bed to be ready to get up for his early shift. By 7 or 8 I'm alone again with the evening stretching ahead of me. Some evenings I take a Zumba class, but if I work out too much or too late, I cannot sleep, so I'm left to grapple with the long hours and whatever form of entertainment I can use to distract myself.

This week there's no question that I'll cry during those alone times. It's just a matter of how often, how desperately, and when.

I hate this. I know it's just a date hanging over me. August 17. Yet it's a battering ram of emotions, a realization that it will be year and that each year I will tack another year onto how long it has been since I saw my baby and talked to him, since I was crushed in one of his terrific hugs, since I saw his smile or his blue eyes or the lost expression that so often crept across his face.

For the rest of my life, when I should have been watching him get his life together and find a young woman and have those blue-eyed, blond-haired children he wanted, I'll be marking off another year since I've touched him.

I hate that it had to be on E1's birthday. That I have such a firm date in my mind for when I saw him last. That it has to taint what should be her day.

At the same time, if I have to remember the last time we were together so plainly, I'm glad it's a good memory of one of his favorite family times. I'm glad I can think of him as he was that night and smile at the memory of one more hotdog, or a corner piece of cake, at him slipping up to me as I played hostess to ask a question, grab a hug, be my little boy even as he towered over me.

I'm also glad that it's a day when I won't be tempted to sit around and wrestle with my memories all day. The day itself will belong to the birthday girl, it's just the time before that is haunted with a much loved ghost.

This week, odds are that something on television, on the radio, in an MP3 I thought was safe and downloaded, or even in a mystery novel will bring tears to my eyes. I cry over the fictional characters, the broken hearts, the happy endings that aren't my own, when what I'm really crying over is the life cut short last December by an overdose.

I think of Ethan alone slipping away from us. My mom has wondered if he needed us and why he didn't call. I think he found peace, a high -- what he thought was another NDE (near death experience) the users call it and they seek it as the ultimate high, even though they are sometimes smart enough to be frightened at the same time. I don't think he was frightened. I doubt he ever realized it was not a NDE, but the real thing, until he shook himself free of his pain wracked body and mind.

I wonder if that was what he had been chasing all the time, and I'm sorry that I'm angry and sad that he's free. But that's where I am this week and where I may stay until I mark the date from my calendar. The waves of grief are lapping at my ankles again and I hope it just means I've wandered too near the shore, not that the tide is coming in.

I'm running at a frantic pace, desperately seeking distraction, and a little ragged around the edges. I hope in 11 days I'll be breathing easier again and that the waves don't pull the ground from under my feet in the meantime.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Old Dogs Going Home, No More Fleas and Music

Facebook, frustrating and socially handicapping as it can be, can actually bring some good news sometimes.

Earlier this week, if you didn't see it, there was the story of Lady, the aging lab, who had been through two new families since her original owner died two years ago, and had bonded with a family that no longer wanted her. She had been adopted again, but ran away from the new home and walked 30 miles back to her former family.'

They didn't want her.

When I saw this story shared by some of my rescue friends one morning this week, it was a sad note. She was far away in Kansas and there was nothing I could do. Just a few hours later, there was a sequel.

She was rescued by an heiress who sent a private jet and an assistant to pick her up and relocate her to her estate and animal sanctuary in Florida.

Instead of a sad face that I had to try to forget, it was a happy ending and a bit of random joy. It was one of the bright spots in the week when I started trying to remember my bits of joy.

2. Seeing my poor Jack Russell finally sleeping comfortably today was a second doggy joy. The flea population exploded about two weeks ago when we finally got rain and with her allergies it only took one to send Abi into frenzied scratching and gnawing. It was so bad Saturday she was trembling. Yesterday I dropped a wad at the vet and put chemical weaponry to use. She took a Capstar and is wearing a Seresto collar (as are the other house dogs). The dogs who have been willing to take an adequate number of garlic pills are still flea free, but she had to have them forced on her. Organic was working slowly, but with her allergies I just couldn't prolong it.

3. Putting food in the freezer. Ray brought me a little box of sweet corn last week and I put four quarts in the freezer after we had some for dinner. I've also froze two quarts of tomatoes because my garden isn't producing enough to can and I refuse to let it go to waste. That has joined all the blackberries I saved from the earlier harvest.

4. Getting up at 5:15 a.m. to drive to a PiYo class. Yes, it was an awful time to get out of bed, but I do it for the girls the rest of the week so I may as well do it for me one day. It got my day off to a positive start with stretching and cardio.

5. iTunes radio. I've had my iPhone for months (upgraded for the camera) and only recently started using iTunes radio, which I've fallen in love with. Just a little better than the Amazon Prime Music playlist choices, which I first discovered. I love digital music and having tunes in my phone is too darn convenient.

6. An afternoon with a friend talking, sipping wine, and splitting our lunches.

7. Walking the dogs in the dark. They think I'm the absolute coolest human in the world for being out with them after 9 p.m. Sure, it would be nice to finish my day a little earlier, but strolling with a big white dog and a lot of others for company, the sky slowly darkening overhead, isn't a bad way to finish a day's tasks.

In fact, that's never a bad way to mark the ending of a day and recognizing the blessing that the day has been.