Monday, July 25, 2016

Start Where You Are

I was speaking with a friend today and whining about how I didn’t expect my life to be where it is at this age and stage. “I need a new beginning," I lamented, "but I don’t even know where to start."

“Start where you are,” she said. 

Four simple words that pretty much sum it up. In a nutshell, this is where I am: I’m 54, I’m broke, and I’m broken. Okay, so I’m being somewhat hyperbolic. But that’s what it feels like on my bad days—like today, when both my body and soul ache in equal measure.

It wasn’t always this way. I once had a career that worked pretty well for me: traveled a lot on business, loved interacting with people, received regular promotions and accolades. I once had a body that worked pretty well for me: ran marathons, hiked mountains, ate and drank whatever the hell I wanted, still looked and felt good. My mistake was holding the false notion that things would always be on the upswing, that my star would continue rising because I would continue doing what I was doing.

I didn’t plan for the possibility that I might one day get sick. Sick enough that my body would never be the same again. Sick enough that my recovery would only go so far before early-onset menopause would halt all progress and serve up a heaping helping of autoimmunity and severe osteo-arthritis with a side of cancer just to drive the point home. I didn’t understand that the medical insurance policies I used to scoff at in my younger years every time I accepted a bigger better position at a new company and went through the process of selecting my benefits package would only go so far when I actually needed them. Didn’t understand how quickly the out-of-pocket costs for every attempt I made to improve my wellness both inside and outside the standard western medicine model would add up.

When I left my last position running an international nonprofit four years ago, I thought the debilitating pain that had become a part of my everyday experience was due to being burned out, that I simply needed a few months to sleep, play, and read all those novels I’d bought but hadn’t cracked. I figured I’d rest up and refuel before finding another position that didn’t require a commute halfway across the country. But as the months—then years—passed, I realized I was getting worse, not better. The doctor visits increased, medications and treatments and surgeries were doled out, new diets and physical therapy approaches were experimented with, and I experienced a constant two steps forward, one step back. On some days, it was one step forward, two steps back.

Over the years I’ve discovered some things that work for me: sleep—and lots of it, fresh whole foods and restrictions on alcohol and crap food (mmmm, pizza), massage and other forms of body work, gentle floor-based yoga, water jogging (yes, I’ve joined those middle-aged women I used to make fun of), pain meds as needed, laughter, friends. I now celebrate when I discover something else in my body that works a little better, or hurts a little less. I measure my physical successes in the small things, like being able to get my arms high enough to put my hair in a ponytail, no longer at the mercy of a stranger in the locker room to clip it up for me.

But the woman I was, that woman who traveled incessantly, ran through airports, gave multiple speeches and media interviews in the same day, who once flew to another city in the middle of a ten-day sales conference to run a marathon—that woman is gone. Forever. As much as I want her back, I know she is never coming back. I need to mourn the loss of her—and move on.

My body will never be where it once was. I’ll never regain the stamina and physicality to run an organization or undertake the kind of whirlwind speaking tours on which I once thrived. I will likely need to work far fewer hours than I used to, stopping to lie on the floor and put my legs up the wall or take a quick nap or meditate in the middle of the day. (I can’t even imagine how much the thought of this would’ve made my skin crawl with shame in my 30s, such was my level of smugness regarding my health and go-getterness.) 

Instead of cursing the fact that I have handicapped handrails on my toilets at home and a handicapped parking placard hanging from the rearview mirror of my car, I need to see them for what they are—a gift, that tiny bit of extra help when it feels like any one of my joints could snap with the mere flick of a finger. And some days, I know, I will awaken with more physical pain than usual and will need to simply stay in bed and read a book or, better yet, sleep. Because some days, that’s what my body—very clearly—tells me I need to do. I no longer have the luxury of pushing through and paying the price later. That bill came due years ago.

And so this is where I am. My mind and soul are still strong, but they’re now traveling through life in a vehicle that was in a near-fatal pile-up and will never perform the way it once could. I am reminded of my first literal automobile accident a month after receiving my driver’s license and how the frame of the family station wagon was bent, requiring my mom to replace the car less than two months later. Until full body transplants are available, I don’t have that luxury.

But hey, I’m still here. I still have brains and know-how and plenty of life experience from which to draw. And I’m now sufficiently bored with being “a patient in recovery.” I’m so ready to get back out there, in whatever form that takes. So ready to interact with others, to solve problems that have nothing to do with my health, to create and be creative. To begin anew, even with a body that isn’t so new.

And to do that I will start where I am.

Bye, Felicia.

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

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.”


“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: