Lessons on Love from a 20 Pound Dog

 

Just over fifteen years ago, Kira came into my life. I was in my last year of massage therapy school in New York, and just entering into what would become a long and difficult divorce. My ex-husband was allergic to dogs. And so my first declaration of independence was to get a puppy.

I had wanted to adopt a shelter dog, but when I applied to the shelter, I was told that adoptees who were getting divorced were not proven to be responsible pet owners and most dogs adopted by people in my position were eventually returned to the shelter.

I assured them I was not that person. I assured them this dog would have a wonderful life and be part of my family forever. I had a beautiful fenced yard. And I had references.

I was still denied.

I would not give in though, and with the help of friends, I made my way to a reputable breeder.  I visited his home and met the three puppies that were available. I was standing in the middle of the finished basement, holding a tiny and timid apricot cockerpoo, about to choose him as my new friend, when his larger buff colored sister gracelessly charged across the long room, crashed into my feet and gripped her paws around my right ankle. She would not let go.

The breeder said to me, “You might want this one, but that one wants you.”

And so I gently put the apricot pup down and picked up the buff colored pup. I fell in love with her boldness. She made me laugh. And for some reason, she seemed to have a great fascination with me.  She melted me.

I brought her home weeks later, after she was weaned. She howled like a beast into the night. As I tossed and turned, I marveled at how anything so tiny could make a sound so large. Within hours, she was sleeping in bed with me and settled right down. And that’s how it always went with Kira. When she dissented, you knew it.  And you learned to do it her way. And over the years, it’s worked out just fine.

She was headstrong.  We attended puppy kindergarten and failed miserably. The instructor told me the treat held no power over her because people intrigued her more than the reward.  What is a puppy parent to do, but embrace the uniqueness of their four legged child? We skipped the advanced training class. We’d figure it out on our own. And so we drove back home into the dark December night.

But Kira was quite smart. Brilliant, really.  So long as it was something she cared to learn. She understood commands in three languages. And then she took up learning hand commands. Within days she learned how to ring the bell I hung on the back door when she needed to go out.  She took to housebreaking like a champ. And she could howl out sounds that were clearly words to anyone who understood the soul of a dog. She loved to learn so long as the learning was fun. She loved to please. And she loved to hear me laugh. I didn’t have cable TV for nearly a year because Kira occupied my every leisure hour. Nothing on cable could compete with her. And on days when the drudgery of divorce litigation beat my spirit into the dirt, Kira was the reason I’d get up in the morning. Because if I didn’t take her out and feed her, no one else was going to. She gave me purpose. And confidence that if I could be responsible for the wellbeing of a 20 pound dog,  just maybe there was a chance I’d come out of this divorce okay too.

I can have something of a snarky sense of humor, and so when I would introduce Kira to people, I would tell them she was the four legged dog who replaced the two legged dog, but she was much smarter, more affectionate, and far more loyal.

But the truth was, despite my smart mouth, Kira came into my life to teach me about love.

As new relationships presented themselves, in hindsight, I realize now she was giving me her feedback on each of them. One would play with her and rile her up so she didn’t settle down to sleep for hours. Another would spoil her rotten and make it difficult to get her back to a routine for days.  At the time, I hadn’t realized she was trying to tell me they were lovely distractions, but none of them was “the one.”

Kira is fifteen now. Her body is frail and tired. But her spirit has been strong, despite her failing body. She has been in congestive heart failure for well over two years. Soon after that diagnosis, she lost her hearing.  In the past year, she’s lost almost half her weight. And she’s lost almost all her hair.  In recent months she developed a steady and hacking nighttime cough that is the telltale sign of fluids filling the lungs. But the hardest thing in recent days has been the dim look in her eyes from oxygen not reaching her brain. Even after she lost her hearing, we’d communicate through hand signals and she would demonstrate that she was still eager to learn. As hypoxia began to set in though, learning came harder. And it seemed to make her nervous. She seemed to know I wanted her to do certain things, but she couldn’t recall what they were. If I left the room, I would find her anxiously searching the house to find me. Her eyes took on a disturbingly vacant look this past Saturday morning. And I could see fear in her eyes for the first time. It killed me.
Anyone who knew Kira knew hands down that she was fearless.

When a dog comes into your life, they bring untold joy. But you know too that one day they will leave and they will rip your heart in two. And so when Kira came into my life, I knew the responsibility would one day fall to me to make that hard decision when she was having more bad days than good days. I have been watching her closely and waiting for her to tell me. In the last few days she has. This Thursday, on the eve of the new moon, which speaks to new beginnings, we will be visiting our holistic vet across town where Kira will begin her next journey and be freed of the body that limits her, along with the panic that consumes her. It is the heartache I must step into in exchange for all the love and caring she has given me over fifteen years.

Since early this year, I have had an awareness that Kira came into my life when love disappointed me. And that she was getting ready to say goodbye because she knew she had already taught me what to notice when it was time for a real and lasting love to enter my life. Here are some things I suspect she’d want me to remember when that love shows up:

  • Remember to always be yourself and find someone who thinks that’s an awesome idea.
  • Be bold. Be fearless. And don’t be shy about claiming the things you want in life.
  • Make sure you find someone who lights up your world and that you find them more interesting than the best treats.
  • Never quit learning, but remember to have fun while you’re doing it. (And never waste time learning silly useless things that you’re too smart for).
  • Find someone who is fun and interesting enough to make you not care if you own a TV.
  • Make sure he spoils you, but not so much that you become complacent. Remember to spoil him too.
  • Make sure you really like the sound of his laugh.
  • And make sure something about your crazy heart makes him laugh often.
  • Never get tired of seeing his smile.
  • Remember that being timid and easy going are overrated and the good stuff happens to people who know they deserve it.
  • Love him no matter what. And make sure he loves you no matter what.
  • Sometimes howling like a beast is a good idea when no one is listening to what you know you need.   
  • Be patient with each other when you grow old.
  • And when it’s time to say goodbye, know you have loved each other with all your heart and that that kind of love will never end.

Blessings and peace on your journey, my sweet Kira.  You have been an awesome girl. And an outstanding teacher. I love you!

©Maria Grace Mandarino

October 16, 2017

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Blog Post: Honoring your Boundaries and Your Sacred Place in Creation

This past weekend was not an easy one. My fourteen year old little dog, Kira, had a serious cardiac episode. She’s been a cardiac patient for nearly two years now and we’ve had some episodes of syncope from which she’s always recovered quickly. This time she came into the house from a brief walk, coughed a few times, walked to her bed, sat and looked at me with a slightly dazed expression, and then her nose crashed into the bed and she didn’t move again. I picked her up. Her body was eerily light. Her head flopped lifelessly against my shoulder. I wasn’t scared so much as I was in disbelief. I held her against my heart, stunned that a vibrant life could extinguish so fast and without struggle. There’s a great sadness and also a blessing in being able to depart like that. I held her this way for what felt like a good minute, but probably was less.

Then, slowly and miraculously, her rib cage began to expand and she was breathing again. She still couldn’t lift her head. And so I kept holding her, not sure if she was making a momentary return, only to leave for good.

She surprised me. She lifted her head and looked around. I checked her gums. They were a mix of grey and lavender — hypoxia — and the first sign I’ve seen of it since her cardiac disease began. I looked into her eyes and they seemed to register. She gave me a look that I swear said, “If you can do this, I can.” She was straining to breathe, but she was in there and seemed to have an interest in staying. So I grabbed a blanket, wrapped her in it, and kept holding her.

I called a friend who is a hospice nurse and we decided that it was wise to give her a homeopathic for anxiety and her cardiac herbs, all of which she happily chewed (you have to love a dog who has a palate for Chinese herbs). A timid shade of pink was returning to her gums. I felt her energy sink deeper into her body and she had more of a substantial feel to her. In Chinese Medicine, we would say the Shen (the Spirit) was rooting back into the body. Slowly but surely (over a period of about 90 minutes), she returned to her old self, walked around, stood in front of her empty dish, looked at me with an expression that said “Are you gonna do something about this?” And I fed her, sitting on the floor next to her, never so grateful to watch that little creature eat.

She went on to play with her toys and look out the front door and bark at the dogs that walked by. Today she was even better and her energy levels seemed to be improved beyond what I’ve seen in her in weeks. She spent the day soaking up the sun as it streamed through the house, my job being to move her bed around so she could continue to sunbathe. (I am quite certain she was Cleopatra in a past life).

I am waiting on some labs this week and will then review options with my holistic vet, who is the only vet who has ever really understood Kira (or me, for that matter). And we will talk about maybe introducing a cardiac medication along with her herbs. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that.

There is an energetic component here too (isn’t there always?) and Kira is a sensitive dog. Less has always been more with her and pharmaceuticals have always held a price. So I’m not necessarily convinced that integrating meds will be right. But I am open. For now she is doing well, she is happy and playful, demanding as ever, and there is some seriously good Shen in those soulful brown eyes. She amazes me.

Kira has been my teacher since that early November day in 2002 when she ran across a basement room, crashed into me, wrapped her paws around my ankle and chose me. We have journeyed through so much together: divorce, three interstate moves, three businesses, the magic of holistic medicine, new loves, lost loves, two academic degrees, friends we’ve met (human and canine), friends we’ve lost far too soon. When I was scared and alone and had no one to count on, she forced me to get up each morning to take care of her. And in doing so, she made me believe in myself. God had entrusted me with this tiny life that was reliant upon me. What was God thinking? Through my panic and fears of inadequacy, Kira made me laugh and forget the terror. She astounded me at how smart such a tiny creature could be (she understands three human languages, plus sign language). She inspired me to give up cable because she was such an incredible puppy, all I wanted to do was play with her, watch her grow, and study for exams with her sleeping on my lap.

Two years ago, when she became old overnight with no clinical explanation and lost her hearing completely, she taught me how to be present to the unexpected. She also taught me about the grace of aging. Her muscular body was now thin and frail, her once thick and shiny coat had thinned and had become dull, but her spirit never wavered. She even barked louder, just like an old person who was hard of hearing. Her body might have gotten old, but she still knew how to get her point across.

Perhaps this past weekend was the best lesson Kira ever taught me though: sometimes it’s not only okay, but it’s absolutely necessary to put yourself and your own needs first in order to take care of those you love and who are truly are dependent upon you. She woke me up to the fact that living like this is part of honoring the sacred in yourself. I urge you to live this way, if you don’t already. As one whose vocation renders me a caregiver (and on-call most days), it’s a requirement to know when I am dangerously low on reserves. If I have nothing to give, I am not much use to others. Still I tend to give more than I wisely should. I don’t believe our Creator desires us to give everything.  What creator who loves her creation would? Honoring your boundaries is not selfish. It is a way to honor your sacred place in Creation and in the end, serve others better.

This honoring of boundaries in my life will be a new normal for a lot of people around me. But it’s healthy behavior and it’s what I need to do — for myself and for those I love. A lesson well-delivered by a 13.5 pound little dog with one great big spirit and a very determined heart.

Blessings and peace,
Maria Grace Mandarino

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Poetry Post: ‘Cenzo and Bupe, A Love Story

This following is another Luxation Poem.

‘Cenzo and Bupe, A Love Story

How I loved to visit your house,

the small white ranch surrounded

by rose bushes

taller than I ever believed

I might grow.

I loved you, of course,

but I loved your dogs

most,

and the way I knew

they would do anything for you.

You understood the wisdom

of the wolf,

so you named your first Doberman

Lupa, for the great pack animal.

I remember your barrel-chested pride

when Lupa finally caught

and you kept her largest pup

and named her Bupida, the thorn

in Rosa’s side.

Her ink-black hair tightly tied in a bun,

your wife would stir the pot of sauce and scowl.

                               “Bupida si chiame il cane.

                                 Io, solo Rosa.”

                                “Sweetheart he calls the dog.

Me, only Rosa.”

I dreamed of you

years after I grew

beyond your rose bushes,

when my world first began

to cleave open.

You sat on the altar

of an empty candle-lit church,

wrapped in a hooded brown flannel cloak,

like a Capuchin monk.

At your flanks were two Dobermans,

sentinels at your side.

“Don’t worry,” you had said,

“I’m going on vacation.”

Then, my dead grandmother

and some old lady in a white Cadillac

burned rubber outside the church

and I woke up.

The next morning my mother telephoned

and told me you had died that night

while playing cards at your kitchen table.

I wondered if Bupe had been there;

I couldn’t imagine

she would have let you die.

I recalled how she had saved your life

years before

when a man with fear in his eyes

and a gun in his hand

tried to hold up your fish store

during Holy Week.

You had told us the story

as you sipped your demitasse and anisette

after Sunday dinner,

Bupe, a statue at your side,

eyeing you like a young girl

in love.

To be looked at that way –

how must it feel?

© 2003 Maria Mandarino