Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dear Deja: A Sad Farewell

A sweet memory: Deja at the beach

As I get ready to have a multi-day, out-of-office experience (read: a working vacation), I find I must sign off on a sad note today.

Four years ago, my sister and I took off for some bonding time alone, away from our families, to grieve the loss of our mom. We visited a beautiful, wonderful private retreat now called Villa La Bella. It's an American-owned bed & breakfast on Isla Mujeres, just off the tip of the Yucatan, a 20-minute ferry ride off of Cancun, Mexico.

Ashley and Curtis, our hosts, were the most gracious and kind people ever, taking always into account our rather fragile states of mind at the time. Though the circumstances were truly awful, I can't imagine another place that would have been such a balm on my psyche, and that place will forever be ingrained on my heart as a place of healing and restoration.

It so happened that a couple from a New Orleans 'burb, Jeanmarie and Dan Cozzi, were occupying the honeymoon suite at that same time. As VLB is not a large resort-type place, we couldn't help but meet them at breakfast and see them from time to time throughout our stay. As the week wore on, my sister and I came to look forward to seeing the Cozzis. They were such affable, funny and genuine people, and we so desperately needed such an influence to take some of the sting out of our deep sorrow.

By the end of our stay, we had all become friends, learning that we had much in common, including a deep love of our pets and animals in general. We swapped email addresses and have since kept in touch over the years. We maintained a cyber-vigil when the Cozzis had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina, and were so relieved when we got our first email from Jeanmarie when they regained electrical power.

It happened again last year, when they took no chance with the approach of Hurricane Ike. This time, Jeanmarie kept in touch through her hotel's wireless connection. We were glad to be able to have more immediate news, and one of the highlights of that time was the photos she sent showing their two beloved Boxers, Bruno and Deja.

The pictures showed the handsome pair sprawled across the bed like they owned the joint, clearly avoiding any kind of deprived refugee life. Jeanmarie described a situation most of us are familiar with who just can't say no to our pets: the dogs taking over the bed at night, to the point where she and Dan sometimes had a hard time finding a place for themselves. I could only smile, so glad that this was one family whose beloved critters weren't left behind to fend for themselves, as had so often happened during the hell of Katrina.

Deja uses her beloved Bruno for a pillow in their last photo together.

Today, though, I got a different kind of post from Jeanmarie, and it just stopped me in my tracks.

"It is with much sadness that I write this note," her post began. "Our beautiful boxer girl, Deja, passed away last night."

My heart skipped a beat and I felt a lump rise to my throat. It's been just a month since my cousin lost her dear little Jack Russell, Nip, and I immediately recalled the wrenching sadness of that day.

"Many of you knew that she has been struggling with a demyelinating disease that has been slowly weakening her hind legs," Jeanmarie continued. "We knew it would eventually rob her of the use of her legs completely, but never wanted to think about that day. That day turned out to be yesterday."

Oh, it comes, I thought.

"Through the day she struggled and gave such a valiant effort, but ultimately could not walk. She kept falling and stumbling and it was just heartbreaking to watch. She was so frustrated and nervous because she didn't understand why her legs would not work. She could not even get comfortable on the couch. We could not let her go on like this."

Yes...yes, I know, I thought. Oh, how can we bear these desolate moments, these wrenching decisions that we can't take back?

"We took her to the vet last night and along with the vet, Dan, me and Bruno surrounded her on a soft blanket and spoke softly to her as she slipped away peacefully. She gave us a look that let us know she was ready to go and to be free to run and play again. It completely broke our hearts and needless to say Bruno, who was her constant companion and best buddy, is completely lost without her."

By this time, the tears were coming. What do you say? What can you do? If you've been through the loss of a pet before, you know all you can do is listen and offer gentle thoughts.

"It is very sad," Jeanmarie said, understatement of the year. "Those of you who knew Deja, knew how special she was. She was just a pleasure. Sweet, loving, loyal, frisky and fun. We will miss her 'flying nun' ears and her 'singing' to us when it was time to eat. We will miss her prancing like a pony on the beach and her wiggle-butt when we she was happy or excited to see us."

I pictured that happy, wriggling boxer, with those big, brown eyes and those expressive "eyebrows" they all have, and my heart ached for the Cozzis' loss.

"Especially when Dan came home from work, that is when she was happiest," the post went on. "She was our girl, but she was especially close to Dan. He is just heartbroken. We all are."

I never had the pleasure of meeting Deja in person, but I feel I knew her through the loving portrait her mom painted for us. And so I'm posting this here for the world to see; an image of sweet Deja, as my way of sharing with her grieving parents the pain of losing her -- as they shared with us the loss of our mom. Grief is grief and loss is loss. It hurts, I don't care who or what it was you loved. And perhaps in this way, with this little memorial, I can say a small "thank you" to Dan and Jeanmarie for having reached out to people they didn't even know when those people so needed a kind word, a friendly smile.

It's said that grief shared is a burden halved, and so this is my way to try to take on some of what I know must feel overwhelming to Jeanmarie and Dan right now. I know all who read this understand that loss, and that we all, collectively, send our wishes for soft-edged memories and a reminder that those dear critters who pass over the Rainbow Bridge wait—always—for us, on the other side.

Run fast again in the glorious sunlight, Deja, and jump high without pain now. Your family will always remember, and they'll return for you one day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Saturday Smile - Pets, Creativity and Healing

Disability can come in many forms -- not just physical -- for animals and humans. Sometimes psychic trauma leaves greater disability than any physical malfunction can cause. It's much more difficult to tell if an animal is emotionally damaged than it is with people, since people can verbalize what they're feeling. But if you pay attention, you can certainly tell when a critter has been traumatized, as well.

Regardless the species, emotional trauma can result in physical illness. We've all experienced the milder forms of this: a headache brought on by extreme emotional tension, a stomach ache or nausea caused by stress or anxiety. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of documented cases of what used to be called "psychosomatic" illness, now studied as psychophysiologic disorder.

Trauma can be passive as well as active. I think neglect is one of those passive trauma-causers. All you have to do to see what it can do is walk through a shelter for homeless animals -- or people. And neglect of the innate urge to create, which I believe we're all born with, is one of the worst of those passive damagers.

I've long believed that there's a strong connection between expressing one's creative self and remaining healthy. I believe that refusal to honor the creative urge is a major contributor to horrible diseases such as cancer and auto-immune afflictions. Not the only cause, but a big one. Why do I believe this? Because it makes sense:

Creative expression in any form -- visual or performing art, science experiments, cooking -- is a way for us to explore the deeper parts of our brain that, for whatever reason, gets neglected in the rest of our lives. As with dreaming, it's a way to give rein to our subconscious mind, which is often far more creative than our beaten-into-conforming-submission conscious mind. It is also a way for us to have a voice in a world that may otherwise make us feel silenced, impotent, unimportant...unheard.

If we don't give in to the urge to create, I believe the energy that initiates that urge gets forced down into some yet-undiscovered recess in our psyche and somehow begins to change form from a positive force to a negative one, such as anger or resentment. And there, it begins to fester, manifesting as one of those diseases that makes our bodies begin to turn on themselves.

There is plenty of science going on right now that connects mental illness to physical ailments. Though my description here is crude, I believe it will one day be borne out by empirical scientific research that proves we can and often do manifest psychic wounds physically, at a cellular level.

So, what does this all have to do with disabled pets? Two things, actually.

One is that I believe choosing to invite an animal of any kind into our lives as a pet is a form of creative expression in itself -- much as I believe childbirth is the ultimate form of creation in which humans can engage. Either way, we're taking on the responsibility to guide and help form the child or the creature as it will exist in this lifetime. The second is that I believe sharing our lives with animals can help -- even encourage -- us to honor our creative urge.

After all, I would never have had the idea for Almost Perfect had I not invited Idgie into my life. And now she daily oversees my writing activities!

So, I'd like to share with you a blog I discovered this morning by a woman named Lisa Taron. Lisa expresses her creative urge at her blog, The Pet Book Lady.

Lisa is the founding director of Heritage Makers, an online storybooking and digital scrapbooking company. She says she's "a kid-at-heart businesswoman who helps other people celebrate their lives through Story." She also honors her creative urge through a career as an illustrator. She illustrated a children's book, Three Grin Salad, a finalist in the 2007 Indie Book Excellence Awards. It's a book about encouraging kids to lead happy, healthy lives.

I was delighted to find a page on Lisa's blog that not only tells, but SHOWS how animals can encourage our creative expressions, and just had to share it with you. Take a look for yourself!

Crayola for Kids™ markers are water-based and non-toxic.
No pets were harmed in the making of this photo. :)