Monday, November 16, 2015

Maggie's Story

Maggie "Mags" came to me on a crisp but sunny Fall day, her frail frame tenuously held together by her slight brindle skin.  She walked with her back end curled nearly underside her body, her long lanky tail tucked between her front and rear legs. She was terrified. I was terrified too.

Emaciated and unable to retain food or water

My sweater. She liked the color!

Exhausted from stress

I was going to help her, try to save her, from the horrors that other humans had foisted on her. For 14 days, day and night, I cleared my calendar and stayed with her, caring for her - taxiing her back and forth to emergency clinics after hours and to the vet at more civilized hours- more times that I can count. Cleaning up vomit. Staying up to comfort her fears all through many nights. Cooking five different meals for her until she would accept a mere bite or two of nourishment. Mags even had her own fort, though it took some convincing...

Doggie fort and coercion!


We endured test after test after test. Finally, a barium study would reveal that Mags had been so starved by her previous owners that she ate a corn cob which lodged in her small intestines.  It would have to be removed in order to save her life. She was so incredibly fragile. But... well, Mags was clearly a very special girl and she was so worth saving. No matter what uncomfortableness she endured, she would sit next to me, trusted me, and already loved me. Oh, to earn the trust and the love of an animal...what a gift.

Mako very interested in Mags... maybe he saw his pain in hers

I took her on four short walks every day. She and Chemakoh liked each other. Very much. She even trotted, ever so slightly, at their first glimpse of each other, mesmerized. "Big dog," Mags likely thought. "Little horse," Mako may have surmised. Mags, a brindle English Mastiff, should have weighed 160-180 lbs. She weighed in at only 65 or so. 

Mags endured surgery on the same kind of crisp sunny day on which she arrived in my care. The vet removed a large corn cob from her small intestines. 

IV fluids for a dehydrated girl

Purple for our royal queen, post surgery

The evil cob

Our poor baby

We took Mags home the day following surgery. She was doing great. She came in and immediately began to eat and drink. We were so happy! She loved her red velvet KONG bed and she wore her princess tiger striped blanket beautifully!

Sweet beauty

In her queen bed

Visits from aunties 

Mags was obsessed with the reflection of herself in the mirror and spent hours that day and the next barking at herself. She was truly the sweetest dog I've ever known. 

And I thought she'd be mine. It looked like we'd been able to save her.

But on the third day after the surgery, she became very sick. Her breathing, labored and rattled, concerned me. I was on a writing deadline but could not focus on anything but Maggie.  We would return her to the vet that day where an X-ray would confirm that her lung had collapsed. She would likely not survive. I wept. Mags sat on the X-ray table draped in her queen's blanket. We would continue to try- oxygen, fluids, IV antibiotics... but her veins would not sustain the IV. We brought her home and tried all we could to get her through to the next morning. 

Mags died early Wednesday morning at home, in her bed, her frail bones held together only by skin.  My heart was shattered. It was her death and more that unhinged me... both my parents died in November. Too many new families. My own grief over the death of my daughter, Cheyenne. It was all mixed up in that single decisive moment of losing Mags. I was wrecked.

I spent most of Wednesday and Thursday weeping. That sweet dog worked her way into our hearts in a very big way. And I was saddened and angry at the humans who failed her. And the humans who, every day all around the world, fail the children and animals and elderly and other vulnerable who are in need of compassion and kindness but who do not receive such love.

Friday morning began much like the preceding two days. But I had an appointment so I very reluctantly put on my 'big girl' face and drove there, down the same road that took me to her vet, I'd driven many times with Mags. I cried. I had feelings of panic and distress. I cried more. I asked, in my head, the usual existential questions: What happens when we die? Does animal energy survive this realm? Did Mags feel my love? Did I do enough?  Is Mags with Cheyenne? 

Is Mags with Cheyenne?  "I don't know what I believe!" I protested!

Then, a car pulled in front of me as I was driving. It was a white Lexus but I hadn't really noticed as I was unperturbed by anything at this point.  Then, a very large object was moving back and forth in the back seat. Suddenly, a head popped out the back seat window. I squinted my eyes to see more clearly. I thought I was seeing Mags. "Crazy," I thought. "I've gone mad."  Then, the head popped further out the other window. "What in the heck?" I said to myself through my tears.

Now first, the English Mastiff is not a commonly owned breed. A brindle Mastiff even more rare.

I pulled closer to the car with skeptical curiosity. 

I began to photograph the car. I was pretty sure my eyes were deceiving me.

Snapped five pictures of the car

"Could this dog be a brindle Mastiff? No way. Not here, not now," I shook my head in disbelief a few times, but kept snapping photos.

So, when the car ahead of me turned into a nearby neighborhood, I followed it. Yes, I'm officially an impulsive pup-stalker. But I had to see this dog. I had to...

Turns and curves led us to a driveway. I parked on the street and waited. The driver exited his vehicle as I stood on the street in front of his house.

"I'm so sorry to follow you, and I'm not crazy, but, but... is that an English Mastiff?" I stuttered trying to mute the weirdness of that moment.

"Yes," he said rather carefully.

"Brindle?" I furthered.

"Yes, she's a brindle," he replied.

"Oh my gosh, a girl too?!" I exclaimed.

I think at this point he was getting frightened, or at least considered the possibility that I was, um, not okay.

"Um, well, you see, my dog just died. I tried to save her. And she just died, and I'm so sad, and I was just asking about heaven or the afterlife or souls and dogs," I babbled and stumbled. "Please, can I just see your dog?"

"Of course," he said.

A serendipitous meeting


She jumped out of the car playfully. She looked just like Mags, her face, coloring and even her disposition. But she was, obviously, healthy and hadn't been abused.  I bent over and stroked her. My heart hurt and I was so overjoyed to meet his dog, Cleopatra. 

I explained more of the story to the kind and generous gentleman.  I showed him Mags' photos and he was shocked by her condition. I told him how much I wanted Mags and how much she and Cleopatra resembled each other. I told him about the sleepless nights and vomit and medications and force feedings and cuddles. I told him how very happy I was that I got to meet his Cleopatra in this moment, how very much I needed this, how very much I needed to know that Mags was mine after all. 

He listened sympathetically and then said, "I really admire you for trying to save her. Not everyone would have done what you did for her. Thank you."

Then he reached out his hand and said, "What's your name?"

"I'm Joanne, but my friends call me Jojo," I answered with grateful tears in my eyes.

"Jojo, its nice to meet you," he replied. "My name is Cheyenne."

And I just stood in the driveway, stunned, and grateful.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

To overcome, struggle, grapple, beat, heal, and resolve...

Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer. The secret to redemption lies in remembrance.

-Richard von Weizsaecker







All words we would use to describe an enemy or an unwanted 'thing' in our lives. Yet, all words I've seen used repeatedly on the Internet in the context of grieving the death of a child, spouse, sibling, or parent.

Some cultures so desperately promote the idea of being rid of grief, of vanquishing it, causing it to evaporate as if it never was. Then, as the myth goes, once we've done that, we will acquire the long-sought happiness that rightly belongs to us.  The preponderance of the time, our own culture is this way.  We are obsessed with happiness and comfort and instant gratification. We advocate ways to 'beat' grief (overcome, recover, resolve, move on, etc) at the expense of fully inhabiting our authentic and rightful emotions associated with loss, sometimes at the behest of those who seek to profit from such 'interventions' or 'therapies' or coaching. But is this really the best approach for us in our quest to become fully human? The great philosopher Rollo May said:

One does not become fully human painlessly.

For two decades, I've been working to teach the traumatically bereaved how to accommodate, befriend, and even respect their own grief, how to make room for grief in their hearts, minds, and souls. I've been teaching students and providers how to be with their own grief in order to truly be present with the grief of another.  It's working.  I'm seeing a cultural shift in the attitudes toward grief, albeit slowly (and sometimes with a little help from a little boy who died and one of my beautiful grieving mamas along with a celebrity named Taylor Swift).

To try to overcome, beat, struggle with, grapple with, resolve or recover from grief feels like an extraordinarily exhausting feat, particularly when that grief is incited by the death of child. There is something perennial about child death in a family system.  I can imagine, for me, if I'd spent all my time wrestling with grief, by now, 21 years later, I would be a mere fragment of who I am today. I would not be able to feel the depth of joy or meaning or compassion I experience now. I know this. And happiness? As Victor Frankl said, we cannot pursue it. It must ensue. It is an outcome, not a goal to meet or a quality to acquire. And it can be experienced only as a result of life, love, and grief well-lived.

Simply put, I love my grief because it is a connection to my love. I never want to recover, be rid of, resolve, wrestle with, or "move on" from grief. Does this mean I can still be joyful? Productive? Have a life of meaning? Of course. The same horizon that holds the sun also holds the moon.

What would happen if, as a culture, we could spend our energy learning to integrate our grief instead of beating, resolving, struggling with, or overcoming it? What would happen if, as a culture, we could share our pain with one another? Remember our dead together? Listen to expressions of sorrow everywhere we go without needing to run or change the feelings of the Other? Open our hearts to the suffering of other people, animals, and the earth? Truly connect as one with everything in all the beauty and all the pain?

My guess is that our hearts would expand, making room for more authentic friendships, deeper joys, more meaning and purpose in our lives, and most importantly deep and enduring compassion for others, for self, for all beings, and for the earth.

And, that is the kind of world we'd all want.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Thing About Compassion: An Aristotelian vista

This is the entire story of a girl and her horse. 

Some of you have read parts of it, not many know all of it. 

I'm sharing, through photographs, the full story of Chemakoh's rescue from the first day of his rescue to a recent and important ceremony to recognize so many people whose 
love and compassion played a role in his rescue and his physical recovery.

Compassion, to me, has always felt like empathy in action.
 So while this is the story of a girl and her horse, it's also the story of one of the most profound demonstrations of collective compassion I've ever personally witnessed.

I want to thank all of those involved, even in the periphery. 
This was a collective effort that took more than a hundred phone calls, sleepless nights, early mornings, days off work, rescheduled clients, medical bills, medication bills, and time and energy from so many who saw more deeply into the experience of Chemakoh's rescue.

This is the story of a girl and her horse, indeed.
More than that, it's the story of humanity at its best, the vulnerability of us all, and the capacity to heal from trauma given love, compassion, time, and space. 

Deep bows to everyone pictured here and many not pictured. My heart is a wellspring of gratitude.
(To read the history of this rescue, see this link here)

Chemakoh on the day of his rescue

His bones came through his skin, as he was so badly emaciated

When he walked, he hung his head and slowly took his steps

Both sides of his girth were open revealing flesh

He was not only badly malnourished and abused, but his wounds had not been tended

The only care we could provide for his wounds was a mud pack to protect them, initially, from flies and fly larvae

The other side of the girth

Over time, the skin grew back over his hip bones. This took a few weeks of constant wound care.

He had lots of love and attention, and friends from all over visited him. During an early Spring thunderstorm, I stood over him so he didn't get cold and wait. He appreciated the gesture.
His veterinarian Jim Bleak said that Chemakoh would have been dead in less than a week had we not rescued him. He didn't come to tend to him until a week after the rescue because we weren't sure Mako would survive.

Chemakoh had access to hay 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We also slowly introduced ground, organic flax seed and coconut flakes so help him start to gain much-needed weight and strength. 

A week later, we began the task of building a corral. Steve, one of Mako's initial rescuers, brought in 15 tons of dirt for the task.
All these little rocks had to be picked out of an area of about 1200 square feet before we could move the 15 tons of good dirt to the corral.

This was laborious work to say the least.

Meanwhile, we are measuring corral panels

And Mary's dad, Larry, is helping dig out scrub oak and cutting low limbs from trees.

Cam, Wyatt, and Dawson are helping relocate boulders.

Man vs. Boulder
8 tons of dirt now relocated, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow

Birds eye view of the progress.
And the corral is done! And Chemakoh gets to come home two weeks to the day after his rescue.
Walking him home, to the place he's always belonged.
He lays for the first time ever. He is home, he is safe and loved.

Josh, self-appointed "favorite brother" watches Mako eat.

He is happy. This day, he trots for the very first time, watching me to make sure I'm looking. I wept.

Don't I look fine in red? 

More visitors, Michael & Anthony's mom. Mako is now a therapy horse.

Every day, he is getting stronger and stronger, his (physical and emotional) wounds slowly healing.

Javelina visitors

Some Mbug mama love for Mako

New skin!

Hips are almost healed, week 5
The look of gratitude for all the love and compassion in his eyes.
Seven weeks after his rescue and I get to meet the officer who helped me rescue him. We held a private ceremony to honor him and all of those who played a role in his rescue and recover, those who embodied compassion.

Rick of High Mountain Trail Rides, JJ's dad, who along with his partner Eddie provided the driver, truck and trailer.

Reception guests meeting one another

Helpers meeting each other

Auntie Adele's care was crucial in the early days, and Samantha's support and guidance so helpful!

Lisa's mom and little girl - because we know Lisa helped with the rescue from where she is!

Rick and Lisa, and some Charlotte, in spirit, too

The very important people in Chemakoh's life

Children represented on the memorial wall

A reminder to us all: Love + empathy=compassion

Thank you Rick, thank you Auntie Lisa!

I presented an award, first, to Officer Parnell, but as you can see, I was having difficulty with the words.

Recalling that day, on the trail, when I looked into Mako's eyes and promised him,
"I'm going to get you out of here, baby."

Giving him his award, representing Mako and all the other horses who need our help.

Officer Parnell's boss from Washington D.C. giving him the Director's Award for his compassion.

Explaining the meaning of the award, and that its an award he's never previously given.

Emotional for us all.

Standing gratitude for his commitment to helping me.

The Director's Award

Adele gifted me with the most beautiful silver horse pendant I'd ever seen.

I am very grateful for all her help!


Steve, Coya Renee's dad and Mako's original rescuer, saying a few words. I'm still crying.

Office Parnell and his cousin with Mako

Two willful people who wanted to save a horse!

Rick with Mako, their first meeting.

Steve and Nanci

Jacob's mom, Nowch, visiting with Mako

Rick gets a kiss

What a loved version of Chemakoh looks like.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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