Posted in Big Questions

Write Your Friends’ Eulogies While They Are Still Alive

A Single Rose

A few days ago I had lunch with a friend. Because we are both pretty deep thinkers (and maybe a little morbid), we started talking about death. We both knew, we said, what we didn’t want at our funeral, something we’d seen too many times at the funerals of friends and relatives: a minister of a religion the deceased belonged to only nominally, someone that didn’t know the person or only barely knew the person, giving a sermon that was more proselytizing than celebration of an individual’s life. We talked about friends doing readings, no sermon, just a swirl of memories capturing what we had been and what we meant to those dear to us.

You’ve thought about this, right? I’m not sure why our society thinks it’s strange and morbid to think about death, but I think planning for your death is as important as planning for your life. You’ll be dead a lot longer. You’ll leave an onerous financial burden on your family if you don’t think about it and plan for it. They’ll argue about what belongings you leave behind. Seriously, think about it. Think about end of life decisions too. If you need a guide in this process I highly recommend you check out Five Wishes and that you purchase their workbook for end-of-life-decisions. Don’t leave them guessing what you would have wanted at a time that is very stressful anyway.

The friend I was having lunch with said, “I’d like for you to say a few words at my funeral.” Obviously we can’t both speak at each other’s funeral, but that got me thinking about what I would say. There’s as lot to say: she’s as unselfish a person as I know, deeply involved with and caring about her family, and when you speak with her you know you have her full attention and she is interested in who you are and what you think, where you have been and what you know. She is easy to talk to and easy to be with, and I think it would be difficult for me (introvert me, even) to spend too much time in her company.

You hear, sometimes, “make sure people know you love them while they are still alive.” But really, it’s one thing to tell your friends they are loved and appreciated, and another to tell them all the things that you love and appreciate about them. And I thought, it might be awkward to hear that, and anyway, I could do a much better job of it in writing. I imagined myself at a funeral, saying “I wrote Heather’s eulogy in 2019, and handed it to her the following week.”

In a eulogy, you celebrate memories of a person, bits of ephemera like snapshots in a photo album gathered as commentary on the wonderfulness of the life they lived and the energy they brought to your life. “He was always doing things for others. There was the time my car broke down and…” It’s the essence of a person, or at least the essence of the ways their beingness intersected with yours, distilled into an essay.

Tell me, would you not want to hear your own eulogy? Wouldn’t you love to hear the way you’ve made the lives of your friends and families better? I’m suggesting you tell the people whose lives have impacted yours, before it’s too late for them to hear it. If it’ll embarrass them or you for you to say it out loud, write it. At the same time, let it be an exercise in mindfulness for you. When you’re with them, really listen to them,really hear them. Be hearing their dreams and motivations. Don’t just enjoy their company, really think about why their company is so enjoyable.

And then tell them.

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Posted in mindfulness

Now Is a Gift; That’s Why It’s Called the Present

Different geese, prettier day.

My eyes snapped open at 6:18 this morning. I’d considered, last night, maybe I’ll get up early and try for some sunrise photography. Then I thought, nah, it’s after 11 and I probably won’t get up. But I got up. I glanced at the slate blue light coming in my predawn window, then checked my phone, when is sunrise? 6:52.

If I thought that was photographic destiny, I was wrong. Bandit and I packed up in the van and I headed up Spencer mountain, hoping for a vantage point to overlook the pretty farmland below, lit by a sky-blue-pink sunrise. Instead, it rained a little, and the sky was an undulating grey, and three minutes to sunrise there was no hint that I was even going to see the sun. My confused dog was looking at me with deep concern.

We ducked down a road or two marked “Dead End”, hoping for a view off the mountain anyway, for future reference and more attractive mornings, but mostly what we saw was a lot of trailers and some country that would’ve done Deliverance proud, and teaser glimpses of distant registers of mountains (there wasn’t even a decent mist this morning!) through trees silent, gray, and shorn of leaves. Bandit put his paw on my arm. “Fine,” I said, “we’ll go home. I want to look at one more thing.”

I’d seen a blip on my kayaking app that said you could put in at Spencer City Lake, a place I hadn’t known existed before that. I thought I’d check that out for more future reference and as a potential place to put the kayak in, before we headed home. The road was in fairly poor repair, ending in gravel-mud that looked like the denizens of Spencer had used it for mudding (driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle through wet mud). The put-in for the lake was gravel, not a bad spot to put a kayak in, but it didn’t look like there was much to see on a paddle. I may try it for a quiet drift some time anyway.

There was a gaggle of Canada geese not far from my van as I grabbed my camera and hopped out. Maybe, I thought, I can at least get a few wildlife shots. My wildlife lens, a 75-300 mm for you photography geeks, is okay but really woefully inadequate for wildlife photography. At least, it’s not the $9000 camera-dwarfing zoom that I’d really love to try out some day. I don’t expect to ever actually buy one unless I somehow strike it rich on a picture I take with this one. The geese were uncooperative, paddling to the other side of the lake with honky geese-chuckles. They’re awfully shy, I thought, remembering the noisy, gregarious flocks that shat all over my elementary school playground with little to no regard for the small, equally noisy humans who coinnhabited it twice a day, sliding on goose guano while trying to play hopscotch.

Bandit bee lined out of the van for a pile of leaves and promptly did his business. Ohhh, I thought. That explained his look of concern. Poor dude, I rushed him out of the house in the dark and into the van before he’d even had a chance to let his bowels wake up.

Once that was taken care of, since there was no one around, I unhooked his leash and let him explore. I must say, it is a glorious thing to have a dog who will come when he is called, that I can trust him to enjoy himself in the woods. He zigzagged from smell to smell, and I wondered if he was searching for other dogs or small, interesting, furry thing smells. There was a trail up the bank and around the lake, and I thought, what the heck, let’s stretch our legs. Maybe I’ll even get a critter to take a picture of.

Sometimes, when you are looking for The Photo (or, really, anything else), you forget to just be present. I found nothing photo-worthy at 6:53 a.m. today, but there will be snapshots in my mind. Bandit, still not really awake but joyfully exploring the smells in the woods. I heard a noise and stopped in my tracks, looking up. The tall cedars above me nodded their heads at one another, discussing the gray dawn, perhaps, making delightful creaking noises that called to mind other forests, other evergreens. I stood dwarfed by them, admiring them, for several minutes. No photo could hold them, or their voices. I walked on to a different edge of the lake and stood, listening to the lap of waves against a reed-forested shore. A kingfisher called in the distance, teasing: I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory shot of a kingfisher. I never saw him, but by now, I had come back to the present and it didn’t matter. Bandit gazed over the water with me, and eventually, we made our way back along the little trail to the canoe ramp. The geese called excitedly to one another and I knew they were going to take off, but my camera settings weren’t ready for flight speed and I missed that, too. I have’t looked at the pictures yet but I think the only photo I’ll probably bother with is an abstract one of the reed patterns in the water, distorted reflections dancing on the surface. I don’t mind. There are other mornings and this one reminded me how exquisite quiet mornings can be, in full living color or in grayscale.

Posted in Creatures

The Limits of Love

Rascal as I will always think of him, enjoying and glowing in the golden hour

Spoiler alert: there aren’t any. Love has no limits.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved y our beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

— W.B. Yeats

Rascal is not my dog. When my son Brandon was four, he saved up his money and bought a puppy. “Get a shih tzu,” my mom said. “I love collies,” I said. We opened up the newspaper and found shih tzu/sheltie mix puppies for sale. That felt like destiny calling. We got the pup.

That was almost 19 years ago. He has always been Brandon’s dog, a dude’s dog. I’m the one who messes with him, trimming nails, brushing (he requires a lot of brushing, but I have let it go except for what is necessary for his health), cleaning up his messes. Brandon loved him, snuggled with him, trained him, adored him.

And then went to college. When he was six months old we bought another pup to ease his separation anxiety, his half brother, and it wouldn’t have been fair to Rascal to go with Brandon and spend a lot of time alone. So he stayed home with me, wriggling with joy when His Boy came to visit him, covering him with kisses. If I get a kiss I count it a rare treasure.

Still, he is an old soul, and he had a lot to teach me. I think he still does. That’s a story for a longer blog post probably, the one I will sob over when he leaves us. It’s not time for that now.

Right now it’s time to cherish every moment he is still in joy. He still loves that golden hour, lying in the yard. He wags for snow. He wags for His Boy. He wags for Christmas presents. He wags.

He has had degenerative hip disease since he was two years old, so I am astonished that he is still plugging along. His brother Dink left us late in 2017. We lost bladder control last year, and he can’t hear too well or read the newspaper anymore. I have to pick him up to take him outside, and snatch him up when he’s done peeing to make sure he doesn’t fall over in it while he’s trying to walk when he’s done. He needs diapers. He gets diaper rash. His appetite isn’t the best and most of the time I have to fight with him to get pills down him. But the vet is astonished that his bloodwork looks so good for a geezer his age, and, well, he still wags.

He was always a Rascal. If he wasn’t tied, he’d run away, daring someone to catch him. Unbelievably, he still tries to run away. If I put him outside and don’t put him on a leash — this crotchety old man who sleeps with his face practically in his water dish so that he doesn’t have to get up and walk to it if he gets thirsty in the middle of the night — he will “run” away, by which I mean he hobbles 2 feet, looks around to see if I am watching, and if he is lucky, he makes it to the edge of the neighbor’s yard, feeling supremely pleased with himself for outfoxing me. If I’m not careful he will make it to the garden and get stuck.

He loves Christmas. He finds his present (he always knows because it’s the soft one that’s not in a box), and he pokes it with his nose excitedly while Bran helps him open it. Bran sleeps over on Christmas Eve. We had to wake him up this year, but he was still excited about his present, which was a bed and not a dog toy for the first time ever. The last three Christmases I thought would be his last with us, and he keeps surprising me.

He’s a lot of work. Loving an old geezer is a lot of work. I fight with the pills, I change his diaper, I carry him outside, I have to watch because often the only indication that he needs to go is that he tries to get up and move. I try not to diaper him all the time because he gets rashes, so he has accidents in the house sometimes, not getting up too fast, and we head to the bathtub to clean him up, one hand under his belly because he has a hard time standing for very long. I have to hand feed him sometimes when he is being picky. One of the hardest things about this past very difficult year was when I had surgery and couldn’t take care of him the way he needed me to, couldn’t pick him up.

But as long as he is still wagging, I do not mind. I find so much joy in his enjoyment. He likes his new bed. He loves the big glass door, lying on his bed looking outside, hanging out with Russ, and especially when The Boy comes. He does not love nail trims or brushing or me fidgeting with him. I do not doubt that he will let me know when the joy is gone and it’s time to let him go, when he has one last lesson for me. But we are not there yet.

So I want to tell you this: when love is a lot of work, that’s when you should hold on to it most dearly and with the most joy, but with a gentle grip, because it is fragile, and because when it is time to let go, you should not hold any more. That is the paradox and challenge of love. Can you cherish without clutching, do the work without resentment, be present without demanding?

Lessons in love so often come with paws and fur.