Monday, March 23, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

It’s been exactly one week since my husband and I had to make a decision that was equal parts obvious and heartbreaking—that of accelerating the process of our cherished Duke’s passing. While I’ve felt zero remorse about our choice, I’ve certainly had my share of moments since then ranging from somber to blubbering. Fewer as the week wore on, but still.

As my sadness subsided, I managed to jumpstart my writing routine and even returned to the gym for three days straight. (Since the new year I had begun to view my monthly membership dues as a donation to a not-so-nonprofit wellness organization, justifying my absence from the gym by virtue of my limited remaining time with Duke.)

But still. During a lively phone conversation with my father-in-law this morning, our poodle’s passing came up and once again I found myself wiping away tears I thought I'd exhausted.

All week I’d been trying to think of some way to commemorate Duke within the home because, let’s face it, it’d be kind of creepy to continue maintaining the makeshift shrine I erected on a table in the foyer. I mean, at a certain point a girl’s got to tuck away her dead dog’s ID tag and quit lighting candles for him, right?  But I had no idea how, what.

Until I emerged from my workout in the outdoor pool at the gym this afternoon and sat poolside checking email on my phone. There, in my Facebook “other” in-box, was a message from a friend of a friend, someone I’d never heard of or met, a complete stranger. I noticed immediately that her message contained one of my favorite photos of Duke, which I assumed she had downloaded from my Facebook status or the most recent story on my blog. But then I realized it wasn’t my photo at all, but rather a beautiful charcoal portrait, a replica of my photo of Duke, in which she’d managed to capture the soulful imploring eyes of my big furry son perfectly.

And the tears came again. This time, however, they weren’t for the loss of Duke, but rather the kindness of the artist, this woman I’ve never met, who had not only been moved to draw my beloved Duke Buddy but also offered to send me the portrait. No cost. No strings attached. Just one of those rare and wonderful connections made for no other purpose than that of expressing one’s humanity.

Ain’t life grand?


"Duke" by Eileen Potts Dawson

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P.s. I’ve since done more checking into the artist of my soon-to-be-hung portrait of Duke (ok, so maybe I’m a bit paranoid as a result of a past stalker experience triggered by the publication of my book) and would like to reciprocate her kindness by sharing her contact information for anyone wishing to have a companion animal portrait created. Eileen Potts Dawson can be reached at http://companionanimalportraits.com

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Duke Buddy

It’s a relief, really. To no longer see him laboring for each breath, no longer sensing his frustration at the inability to stand, to walk to and through the dog door for a proper tinkle outside, on grass, the sun on his back. No longer seeing his shame as he lies in his own puddle of urine, aware of it yet too weak to give it much thought beyond his confusion of why this happened. It’s a relief to no longer wonder if that empty look in his eyes is caused by the sedating effect of the pain medications or by their lack of efficacy. Or perhaps it's simply the look of a dog who understands that his body is shutting down, the imminence of death not the same trigger for personal angst so often felt in humans. Pure instinct. Acceptance. It’s time. I’m leaving.

The necessary cleanup after his body is taken away, the laundering of bedding made wet with the fluids of decay, the paperwork to receive his ashes in a week’s time, the relocation of dog bowl and dog bed and collar and leashes onto a storage shelf in the garage—these all serve to distract, as if movement and tasks, all practical, can somehow fill the void left in the wake of his passing.

A make-shift shrine is created on the table in the foyer: flowers, originally given to my daughter on the closing night of her school play; a small Buddha candle holder with tea lights replaced and lit as each burns out; the photo his human sister captured and framed for me as a gift; his bone-shaped tag with DUKE etched on the front in all caps and “My humans are…” on the back along with our names and contact information; the last marrow bone he took delight in, made all the more enjoyable by its being stolen from the blind elderly dachshund who also shares our home—an antic performed repeatedly during his life, no matter that he often had his own bigger, meatier bone, an antic I corrected more times than I can count, returning the dachshund’s bone while scolding him, secretly smiling at his audacity, this one chink in his well-deserved sweet-boy reputation. It was just two days ago that he performed this antic for the last time and I, sensing it would be the last time, welcomed it, allowed him to keep the spoils of his theft. Now that bone, chewed clean, serves as the strongest reminder that less than 48 hours ago, my big furry boy was still enjoying himself despite the cancer that continued to grow and spread throughout his body, had no idea of the stroke that would seize him hours later, slamming him to the floor, teeth bared, limbs twisting.

A notice is posted on Facebook with the requisite condolences following in the comments section. The muted ting of my iPhone’s bamboo sound ushers in each text of support from my siblings, honoring our unspoken rule to give one another time after the death of a canine family member before imposing a live phone call. Heartbreak was always a private matter in my family of origin, the loss of a pet being a surefire trigger for crumbling the walls that so often kept our emotions at bay.

That evening the lingering odors of urine and death are masked by the scents of a homemade dinner rich in hot spices and cream and served with good wine with which we make toast after toast to his endearing personality, each sip of alcohol an attempt to swallow the sorrow that has already taken root, sorrow heretofore trumped by the loving decision to end his suffering, his laboring to birth himself into whatever realm, if any, lay ahead. No doubt the right decision. But the absence of doubt does little to lessen the hurt.

“How’s your day going?” asks the woman behind the counter, as she rings up my items at the home d├ęcor store the next day. “Not good,” I say. “I’m grief shopping.” She cocks her head like a dog trying to make sense of an unusual sound before completing my transaction in silence and handing me the set of blue throw pillows that I’ll return three hours later.

The following day my daughter goes to school, having already taken a personal day to fully and openly mourn the loss of her fur-sibling. My husband dashes off to work after a brief kiss goodbye and a strong suggestion that I get outside, go to the coffee shop to write, do something—anything—to move past my tears. A friend calls to lure me out into the world with an invitation of lunch at my favorite restaurant. I accept, negotiating more time so I can shed my sweats and actually clean up a bit, personal hygiene having been abandoned in my heartache. Over lunch we talk about him and even laugh about how four days earlier he had repeatedly mounted her dog on our way to the teahouse, a behavior not typical during our regular walks together. We joke that he must’ve wanted to go out with a bang.

I return home, mood shifted, sadness in check—for now, and take up the rhythm of my days: fold a load of laundry, write a grocery list, settle into the couch with my laptop to write. The dachshund wanders from his bed by the fire, seems a bit lost. I scoop him up and nestle him into my side.

Yes, I tell him, he’s really gone. Our pack will never be the same again.

I think about all that I will miss in his absence. The way he tucked his muzzle over your shoulder and into your neck, his form of offering a hug. How he stood patiently at the foot of the bed each night in the dark until he heard my husband’s snoring, the signal that he could now hop up without repercussion, working his way up the bed throughout the night until by daybreak he’d be sharing a pillow with you. The way he smiled so broadly, eyes forward, concentrating on the road while riding shotgun during errands. (On more than one occasion, the driver to my right would comment on how human he looked while we both idled at a red light.) That time I glanced up from replenishing the hors d'oeuvres at one of our dance parties to see him on hind legs, his front paws on someone's shoulders, in the middle of a conga line as it snaked its way through the living room. His propensity to hop onto the seat of whichever dinner guest dared leave the table for a bathroom break, ignoring their food and sitting quietly in their place as if enjoying the conversation. How he never gave a rat’s ass about being the alpha, preferring peace to conflict, not once having ever snapped at another dog. The way he melted your insides with those eyes, a look of tenderness and empathy so strong you knew you were in the presence of pure love. 

Most of all, I will miss his gentle nature and the kindness he offered every being he encountered. He was, and will always be, my beloved Gandhi-poodle.

The Duke of Ellington
aka Duke Buddy
December 14, 2005 - March 15, 2015




Sunday, August 17, 2014

Louise Is Here

Bonnie’s cancer returned with a vengeance exactly one decade after it nearly claimed her life in 1995. As the months wore on, we both suspected that taming it a second time was unlikely, and so Bonnie began the legal process of setting up a trust for her two kids, her living will, and her estate executor paperwork, all of which I would manage upon her death. We candidly discussed her impending fate, laughed about all the crazy good times we’d had together, and spoke of her two kids, then 17 and 20.

She felt good about the stability her son, Chris, seemed to have created in the past year: he was dating a loving and grounded young woman, held a steady job at Boeing, and had removed his lip piercing and added long-sleeved shirts to his professional wardrobe to cover a plethora of tattoos. It was Christine on whom most of Bonnie’s trepidation centered. School wasn’t her thing, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life professionally, and Bonnie worried that her death would be much more difficult for her daughter to weather.

At the end of a visit with Bonnie in July of that year, I made her promise to hang in there until after I returned from a long-scheduled two-month family sabbatical in France. Her mood was lighthearted as she said, “Don’t worry; I’m not going anywhere yet.” Weeks later, at the Denver airport, I made one last phone call to her before boarding our flight to Paris. “Go!” she admonished. “I’ll be here when you get back. Promise.”

A month later I was lying on a massage table in Provence while the therapist—whom I’d been told was also somewhat psychic—worked on my body, which still suffered the residual effects of a near-fatal illness five years prior. She spoke very little English and my French was limited to the ability to order wine, ask where the restroom was, and say please and thank you. Needless to say, conversation was minimal.

Lulled into a state of complete relaxation, ­­­Colette broke the silence of my massage by saying, “Louise is here.”

“Excusez-moi?”

“Louise. She is here.”

“Pardon? Je ne comprends pas." 

“Louise. She is here, how you say, ‘her spirit’—it is here. She bring to you love. You must bring to her love aussi.”

“But I don’t know anyone named Louise,” I said, wondering why my relaxing massage was being interrupted by what felt like a woo-woo snipe hunt.

“I do not know why, but the spirits, they use the number two name.”

“The what? The number two…the middle name?”

“Oui oui. Yes, the middle name. They use it to speak with me.”

“Huh,” I said. “I don’t know anyone whose middle name is Louise.”

But the massage therapist was adamant. “Louise is here. She bring to you love. So much love. You must give her love.”

So what’s a girl to do? I sent this seemingly imaginary Louise love and enjoyed the rest of my massage, albeit with a little less relaxation.

I returned to our rental home in Mazan, went about my day and waited until it was morning in California so I could make my weekly call to Bonnie. It was only 7 am on the Pacific Coast, but Bonnie had always been an early riser, so I wasn’t concerned about waking her. Our mutual friend, Kelli, answered the phone, her voice weary.

“Bonnie passed away this morning, Lauren,” she said. “Her mom checked on her about an hour ago and she was already gone.” We spoke for a few more minutes before saying our good-byes.

An hour later, a thought popped into my mind: Bonita L. Young. How many times had I seen her formal name on the reams of legal documents I’d signed months earlier? Always Bonita L. Young. Never Bonnie. And never more than “L” for the middle name. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember if Bonnie had ever actually told me what her middle name was. I immediately dialed her number again, and this time, her mother, Iva, answered. I offered my condolences before asking, “What was Bonnie’s middle name?”

“Louise,” Iva said. “Why?”

One of Bonnie's favorite words was "believe." You could find it lurking throughout her home, spelled out with large metal letters on the mantel or woven into a throw pillow on her favorite reading chair. For Bonnie's memorial service, I decided to add it to an enlarged photo of her, which I knew was one of her personal favorites. Believe! it shouted in both word and image. 

If ever there was a situation that prompted me to believe, it was that moment lying on a French massage therapist's table as she told me Louise is here. 


Friday, February 21, 2014

Unlikely Friends

Fourteen years after a near-fatal illness, I find myself dealing with the long-term effects of my medical triumph: namely, really crappy joints. This morning, however, it’s not just my joints that ache. My heart aches too because, prohibited from air travel due to another recent surgery, I am unable to attend the memorial services for a man I respect deeply.

John Warner and I were unlikely friends. He, a soft-spoken mechanic and part-time farmer from rural Iowa who married at 24 and never moved from his home state. Me, a loud former corporate exec from New Jersey, who had no less than 22 different addresses in 3 different time zones before marrying at 35. To say we had disparate life experiences is an understatement. But we had common ground in one area, which was also the greatest challenge we both ever faced: the sudden onset of severe preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome.

For me, it meant my body shutting down following the birth of my first (and only) child: organ failure, blood transfusions, unresponsive. For John, it meant watching as his daughter Shelly’s body shut down following the birth of her first (and only) child: organ failure, blood transfusions, unresponsive. For me, it meant 6 weeks in the ICU. For John, it meant only one week in the ICU because on the seventh day after Shelly delivered her baby girl, she slipped away. In gaining his first grandchild, my friend John had lost his first child.

That experience alone would send most of us into a permanent state of despair, angry at life’s cruelty and unable to ever discuss pregnancy again given its potential for horrific outcomes. But this is where John proved himself to be more than “most of us.” He took all that grief and heartache and channeled it into helping others avoid the fate his daughter encountered.

He hosted his first local fundraiser for the Preeclampsia Foundation the same year Shelly passed away and then presented a check at the foundation’s inaugural gala benefit months later in Minneapolis. That was the night our paths crossed for the first—but not the last—time. That was where we learned one another’s stories and discovered how much in common a quiet Iowa farmer and a loud professional speaker could have by virtue of one insidious and elusive disease.

John and I swapped contact information and it wasn’t long before he was recruiting me to give talks in his home state at educational preeclampsia events he’d organized. There was something about his demeanor—quiet yet determined—that made “yes” seem like the only possible response to his requests. By way of tragedy, this man, whose paid work hadn’t involved interfacing much with others, transformed into a volunteer networker, hell-bent on raising the level of awareness and understanding of the pregnancy-related condition that robbed him of his daughter when she was 25-years-young.

He continued to chair an annual charity walk to support the cause. He joined the board of the Preeclampsia Foundation, hosting their most recent annual gala this past October. And in conjunction with the University of Iowa Hospitals, he and his wife, Brenda, recently launched the Shelly Bridgewater Dreams Foundation, with the hope of continuing their work to save the lives of new moms and their babies.

John allowed nothing to keep him from moving forward, not even lost luggage. In 2008, his suitcase failed to arrive in Washington D.C., so he borrowed clothes from my 6’5” husband and showed up at the gala that evening with shirtsleeves that hung three inches below his finger tips.

Despite the havoc and sorrow attached to our shared cause, John and I managed to share many laughs over the years. He was the epitome of transforming heartbreak into hope. But in the end, it was his heart that gave out. As someone who seeks meaning and interpretation in all of life’s significant turns, I can’t help but wonder if John’s heart didn’t take its biggest hit that day in 2005 when Shelly died. And all the fundraisers and awareness events in the world couldn’t heal his broken heart. But they could—and will continue to—help countless mothers, sisters, wives, and newborns.

Thank you, John. You spent your time here well. Now go celebrate your achievements with Shelly. 

You will be missed, sir.

John with Shelly's Daughter, Hailey, at a Preeclampsia Fundraiser

The Shelly Bridgewater Dreams Foundation was one of John’s proudest accomplishments. If you’d like to support John’s legacy, please donate to the foundation here: http://www.youcaring.com/nonprofits/shelly-bridgewater-dreams-foundation/140128


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Miracles Can Happen


While boarding a flight back to Michigan with her sister, 24-year-old Natalie Taylor had a tough time concealing her emotions. An elderly gentleman remarked, “You two look very upset.”

“My husband was in a bad accident,” Natalie replied.

“Well, just remember,” he said, “Miracles can happen.” Then he moved on to find his seat.

Five months pregnant with her first child, Natalie had planned this trip to Florida to visit her sister Sarah as a final hurrah before the realities and restrictions of motherhood set in. Her vacation was cut short, however, when a friend of her husband’s called from a hospital to tell her about the accident. 

“He mentioned bleeding and I kept asking him ‘Where was the blood? Where was he bleeding from?’” Natalie says. “The minute he told me, ‘the mouth,’ I knew it was bad.

Growing up, Josh Taylor was a very science-oriented kid. He loved chemistry and went on to major in it at college, where he met his future wife. “He was more scientific than spiritual,” says Natalie. “I never really saw him read anything religious in nature; he was always saying ‘let’s talk about what we know for sure.’” As a case in point, Natalie dug through a box of momentoes to find Josh’s college thesis for me. Its title? Oxidation of Trialkylboranes Derived from Terminal and Symmetrical Internal Alkenes Via Potassium Permanganate: Unexpected Coupling Reactions. Point taken.

Josh cycling across the country for charity.
After college, Josh went to work for a medical supply company, selling devices used in the procurement and preservation of human organs prior to transplantation. Having volunteered with an agency that worked with troubled kids, Josh had developed a strong humanitarian streak, and as such, he was excited that his professional work combined two of his passions: science and helping people.

Josh had been carveboarding (think: surfing on a downhill road) when the accident happened. “They told me the trauma to Josh’s head was so severe his entire brain stem was crushed,” Natalie recalls of her candid conversations with the doctor. “He said, ‘Everything from the neck up is destroyed and his brain is not working. From the neck down, however, everything is perfect.” 

Although Josh had not signed an organ donation card, Natalie knew exactly what her practical, caring, and fit husband would want: to not waste a set of healthy 27-year-old organs. And so she gave her consent, signed the paperwork, and even noted the irony in seeing the logo of Josh’s employer on various forms and equipment throughout the donation process.

At her husband’s funeral several days later, numerous friends tried to console Natalie. “People said all the typical things to me: he’s in a better place, he’s at peace, this was God’s plan. But Josh would’ve said, ‘Forget all these common niceties. Let’s talk about what we know for sure.’” And what we know for sure is this: six people’s lives were saved by the loving decision of a pregnant young widow. 

Though for different reasons, the man on the plane was right: miracles can happen.


Natalie and her son, Kai. 
Natalie Taylor is the author of the memoir, Signs of Life, which I highly recommend.


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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at  www.laurenwardlarsen.com. Happy reading!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Best. Pick-up Line. Ever.


 When asked how her first training session to be an English tutor went, my friend Cathi – then a college sophomore – told her mom it was fine, but added, “I have to work with this totally loud and obnoxious guy though.”

A week or so later, Cathi ran into Albro – Mr. Loud and Obnoxious – at a fraternity party and the two spoke briefly. While Cathi still felt he was rather loud, she was able to move past her initial assessment of him as obnoxious. Then Albro moved in for the kill: “Do you want to work on the UCLA Blood Drive Committee with me?” he asked, explaining that he was chairing it. 

Albro had donated blood regularly ever since one of his high school teachers, Mr. Poe, called it a “valiant act” and explained how it saved lives. Knowing that his father had died while on a search and rescue mission during the Vietnam War, Albro decided to follow his dad’s example of saving lives, and he chose blood donation as his vehicle.

Cathi and Albro, 1981
Cathi agreed to help Albro with the UCLA blood drive, which allowed him to secure her phone number, setting in motion a series of events that neither could fully appreciate at the time. 

But what Cathi neglected to share with Albro was how utterly terrified she was to give blood herself. A year earlier she had participated in her dorm’s blood drive, which had resulted in severe chills, vomiting, and two hours of post-donation oversight by the blood drive’s attending nurse. While lying on a stretcher off to the side, Cathi overheard another student ask, “Is she going to die?” After that experience, Cathi decided there was no way she would ever subject herself to another blood donation needle. 

Until 30 years later, that is, when Albro told his family – his daughter Neva, three sons Albro IV, Ian, and Alden, and wife Cathi – that the only gift he wanted for Christmas that year was for the family to go to the local blood center and donate together. And so they did. The three eligible children were not at all nervous, as they had each already taken the initiative to become blood donors on their own. Cathi, however, steeled herself for her second donation attempt ever, and after one failed try with her right arm, she was – fortunately – successful with the left.

As for Albro, with the exception of being deferred following a few surgeries and some international travel, he has donated blood consistently for 36 years – wherever he can and with whomever he can: the Red Cross, Torrance Memorial Medical Center, UCLA Blood and Platelet Center, and church blood drives. And while his loudness has been tempered (slightly) with age, he can still frequently be overheard promoting the merits of blood donation to others.

Soon, Cathi and Albro will celebrate 30 years of marriage thanks to the best pick-up line ever. At America’s Blood Centers, we like to say It’s About Life. But sometimes, it’s about love

The Lundy Family: Cathi, Neva, Albro IV, Albro III, Ian, Buddy Blood Drop, and Alden
(editor's note: Evidence suggests that Buddy is not actually part of the Lundy Family)




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Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the "Buy the Book" button.  Zuzu's Petals is also available on Kindle and Nook.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at  www.laurenwardlarsen.com. Happy reading!