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Topper & Blue

The Dance: Why the Pain of Losing a Pet Is Worth It

“Looking back on the memory of the dance we shared…”

Garth Brooks’ much-loved song “The Dance” reminds us that the best things in life sometimes lead to painful endings. The song is about a person who realizes what he would have had to miss in order to avoid pain that comes with the end of a relationship.

Today, the song was on my mind for other reasons. This morning, my s.o. Alan’s beloved Australian Shepherd/Border Collie cross, Topper, who’d worked his way into my heart to a degree I never imagined possible, crossed the rainbow bridge. He was 14, give or take.

“For a moment, all the world was right…”

Topper lived a good life. He spent many days working cattle with Alan. When the cattle work became less frequent as Alan’s attention became more focused on horses, Topper devoted himself to running around the outside of the round pen in the opposite direction of whatever horse was being worked. He’d run like the wind in his circles, determined to keep those horses in line.

In recent years, Topper ran less and trotted more, but still he circled. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw him walking very slowly in the opposite direction of the horse Alan was working in the round pen.

Topper had a fierce sense of duty. If a young horse got out of line with Alan on his back, Topper would march himself into the arena and just stand there, staring at that horse, as if to say, “Don’t make me come out there.”

Once, Alan had a wreck on a young horse in the round pen. The steel bar was dented where Alan’s head hit it. Somehow, he managed to roll under the fence and had the wherewithal to call me to come get him. I found Alan, bloody, dirty, and dazed, with Topper sitting right beside him.

“Holding you, I had everything…”

In recent days, Reese, my white lab, and Baxter, the boxer who thinks he is mine, but is not, took turns watching over Topper as he slept the deep sleep of the aged dog. Sometimes, I’d find them sleeping beside Topper on one of the dog beds. Reese would position herself either on the bed with him, or on a bed adjacent to his. Often, we saw her with her head on Topper’s bed, or sometimes just a paw. Baxter, typically a boisterous boxer dog, who loved to lick Topper’s face rigorously to get him to play, changed his approach. He still licked, but ever so gently. Dogs are amazing.

Reese & Topper

“If I’d only known…I might have changed it all…”

By last night, we knew for sure that it was time. Topper’s heart had been failing for awhile and we’d been managing it with medication. By last night, though, he hadn’t eaten in nearly a week. His coat was rough and ugly. He seemed disoriented. The many drugs he was on were no longer giving him any quality of life.

This morning we rose early to take Topper for one last ride. I’m sure he knew what was happening because he resisted a little as we led him toward the truck. Reese tried to stop us from leaving by getting underfoot. They knew. We all knew. It sucked.

The vet agreed with us that it was time. Alan and I kept our hands on Topper’s back as Dr. Alexander shaved his front leg and gently inserted the needle. Lauren, the vet tech, cradled Topper’s head. He leaned into her. He’s always loved having his head held and stroked. I watched for his breathing to stop as Dr. A. started the injection; Topper was gone before the injection was complete.

Lauren gently laid Topper’s head on his front paws. I kissed the top of his head and closed his eyes.

Dr. Alexander took out his stethoscope and made sure Topper’s heart had fully stopped. He positioned the scope in a number of places. “He’s breathing just fine now,” he said softly, “I bet he’s running and playing with all the other dogs.” “Maybe,” I offered, “there’s a blond-headed boy with a quirky cowlick, playing with him.” “And Roper too,” Alan added, referring to the also-beloved Australian shepherd who had been Topper’s predecessor.

australian shepherd

“I’m glad I didn’t know the way it all would end, the way it all would go…”

This was a year of loss for Alan. Greater loss than any parent should have to endure. Four months ago today, his youngest son, Coleson, turned 17. He died five days later after a valiant battle with cancer.

In June, Midnight, Alan’s older-than-dirt, black Welsh pony passed while we were at the World show. He went down one night, rallied for a couple of days, and then died.

Later, Alan learned that a family friend, who didn’t even know Midnight had existed, dreamed that Coleson was in heaven feeding a dark blue pony. Alan shared that story with Dr. Alexander and Lauren; we all wondered if anyone would dream about Coleson and a dog. “Let me know if they do” Dr. Alexander said as we gave Topper a last kiss and pat.

In a few weeks, we will get Topper back. I suggested we sprinkle his ashes around the round pen. Alan thinks maybe he will take Topper to Coleson’s resting place. That seems right, I think. Dogs and their boys belong together.

“Life is better left to chance…”

Whenever an animal dies I find myself thinking about my first American Paint horse, Special Trouble. I bought Trouble in the spring of 1999. Eight months later, he died. A necropsy revealed that he’d had a 6 inch ulcer in his stomach, which ruptured.

At a show a few months later, an older gentleman, Mr. Lawrence Kupka, approached me. He’d heard about Trouble’s passing. In his gruff voice, thick with a Ukrainian accent, Mr Kupka said only this, “I haven’t lost a chicken in 20 years. But I haven’t owned any for 30.” Then, he turned and walked away.

It took a minute for the meaning of his words to register, but I’ve never forgotten them. What Mr. Kupka meant, of course, was that the only way not to experience the pain of losing a horse, or a chicken as it were, is never to own one. We can miss the pain, he was telling me, but only if we are also willing to miss the dance.

 

As hard as it is losing our pets, I cannot imagine a life without them. I will miss Topper terribly. As hard and sad as was today, though, I’m so thankful to have had this lovely dog as a “dance partner.”

Rest in peace, sweet boy.

Topper Shaw c2004–2018

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

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The Color Purple

This may not be the most profound thing anyone has ever written, but it is on my mind.
Be on the lookout for purple–in other people, in the things they do, and in the world around you. It’s there.

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Why Being Not Okay, is Okay

It is okay not to be okay. This I have learned from two friends and my significant other who have lost children to terrible diseases in the recent past. I don’t know that anyone can truly “get” the enormity of the grief that comes with losing a child unless one has actually lost a child. However, I believe my friends and partner when they talk about how heavy that grief is at times. It sounds unbearable and yet it must be borne.

People say the most insensitive things to parents who’ve lost children. More often than you’d imagine, people (and I’m willing to bet I’ve been one of them) say things that they intend to be comforting, but which feel like daggers to the heart of a grieving parent. For example, someone told one of my friends that, although it is a terrible thing to lose a child, it would have been worse if she’d lost her husband because then her other daughters wouldn’t have a dad. Evidently, the loss of sister didn’t rank as high on the scale of bad things that happen in that person’s eyes. Attempting to rank the significance of another’s loss is always a bad idea.

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

My friends have taught me that time does not heal all wounds. In fact, when it comes to losing a child, the opposite may be true. That is, for many parents who’ve lost a child, grief actually intensifies over time. One friend shared that she’d expected her pain to be less acute once the first anniversary of the death of her daughter had passed. That was not the case. On the contrary, as the numbness that set in immediately after her daughter died wore off, the pain became more acute.

If that didn’t already suck enough, others sometimes assume that time has done its healing thing. They may expect the grieving parent to be ready to “move on.” It’s almost like there’s an unwritten statute of limitations about how long a grieving parent can take to settle into a new normal. Whether we like to admit it or not, many people secretly hope that the new normal will relieve others from having to tippy-toe around the discomfort of navigating another’s grief. Such hope, unspoken or not, conscious or not, risks making a grieving parent hide his or her grief, in the interest of others’ comfort. So begins an existence that may feel inauthentic to the person living it.

Sometimes asking how someone is doing is more about the asker than the askee. Maybe we ask because we want the other person to say “I’m okay.” After all, “I’m okay” signals that we don’t have to navigate an encounter with a grieving person. I’m not saying we don’t want our friends to be okay. Of course we do. Let’s be honest though. A friendship, or any relationship for that matter, is much easier when those pesky emotions like grief don’t get in the way of what is easy and comfortable.

My significant other just lost his son. I am seeing what that grief looks like up close. I want it to go away, but I know it is here to stay.

My goal is to resist any self-serving urge to try and move him into a “better” space where grief isn’t as visible and life is more fun. I know that a grieving person might not even be able to imagine such a space, let alone go there when invited. It’s important that I learn to be okay with his not-okayness.

This is new terrain for me. It’s hard to resist repeating the scripts that are supposed to make others feel better. They may work in some instances, but they have no impact on the pain of a grieving parent. When it comes to a parent’s grief over the loss of a child, nothing can or will fix what isn’t okay. Not now and not ever. That sucks.

I suspect there is a love language in which to communicate with grieving parents. I’m trying to learn what that language is and how to speak it. I know I’m going to fail often in my attempts. I’m going to try anyway. When you love someone, that’s just what you do.

Running Hills: Why We Should Do Things the Hard Way

Hill Training

Sometimes doing things the hard way is good. Any runner will tell you this. In junior high and high school, I ran on a city track club called the Edmonton Huskies–if you’re from Alberta, there is no connection to the football team, if you’re wondering. Hill training was a big part of our program. As I recall, we usually ran hills on Wednesdays or Fridays during outdoor season. Sometimes we did “30 X a hill” on a long, moderately steep grade. Other times we did “6 X a hill” on a very steep grade, usually made of grass or dirt. Stairs counted as hill training too. Edmonton runners know, and many love, the long flight of stairs from the river valley to the downtown area. I bet someone can tell me the exact number of stairs on that flight. That workout was one of my favorites, especially in the fall when the trees in the river valley showed out. Running hills was an important part of developing both strength and endurance. Thanks to Michael Cameron for sharing this picture of his running group on the stairs!

river valley stairs in Edmonton

 

Years later, I was living in Thornhill, Ontario–part of Toronto–while attending York University. The area where I lived was very hilly. My running routes ranged from 5k to 8 miles and each one of them included terrain full of rolling hills. Hills ceased to phase me after a certain point. They were just part of running.

Take Ten

One year, as part of my preparation for a fall half-marathon (my first), I signed up for a ten-miler. I chose one called “The Run Through Hell” at Hell Creek Ranch in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Who wouldn’t want to run a race with all of those names attached to it? It seemed like a good choice.

On race day, I showed up feeling nervous. It was my first crack at a ten miler and I’d not run further than nine miles in practice. As luck would have it, it was POURING rain. Registration was in a little barn and runners had to wade through mud to get inside. After collecting my number and a super cool t-shirt that said “I Ran Through Hell,” I returned to my vehicle to change my soaked socks. Trying to warm up in the elements seemed futile. All I could think was, “this isn’t going to be good.” I briefly considered backing out.

Thankfully, the rain stopped just before the scheduled start time. As we mingled around the starting line, I overheard people who’d run the race before talking about how hilly the course was. I was already nervous about the distance. The hill talk wasn’t helping.

The Run Through Hell

When the gun went off, I headed off with the pack. The race was on gravel roads and the course was quite pretty. Despite the lack of a warmup, I felt good. It was warm, but not too warm, and my legs felt ready to do what I needed them to do. My plan was to finish in 1:30 and it seemed that the stars were lining up in my favor. In the back of my mind, though, was the thought of the hills that everyone had buzzed about. I knew it was wise to play it a little safe until I saw what there was to see.

I don’t remember how far into the course we were when the hills met us on the road. Runners around me started to struggle on the inclines and I expected to struggle along with them. I took each hill, one at a time, with the words of Edmonton Huskies’ coach, Gerard Lemieux, in my head: “increase the effort up the hills; keep up the pace.” When there was a downslope, I let the hill do the work. (In a ten miler, that works; in a marathon, the downhills can hurt as much as the uphills, especially in the last miles, but I was not to learn that for a few years.)

I finished the Run Through Hell in 1:29:29. It was tough, to be sure. But here’s the thing. I’d done my homework. I’d put in the miles in the months leading up to the race. I followed the program Lou Hetke, a former Huskies’ teammate cum personal trainer, had made me. And I was lucky to live in a hilly area of the city so my body was not thrown by the hilly course because I ran on hills every day. Hills were my friend. They challenged me, but I’d prepared to meet the challenges they posed because of where I ran regularly.

Life’s Hills: Do things the hard way!

I can’t tell you how often I hear students complain about their university courses being hard. Some make a point of avoiding professors whose courses are known to be rigorous. I’m sure you also know people who seek the easy route no matter what. I’ve never understood this. What’s the point of taking the easy road as a matter of course? Where is the satisfaction in that? What parts of life’s journey does taking the easy road prepare us for?

I learned a lot of things from my years as a runner. Among the most important is that when we train on hills regularly in practice, we’re ready to tackle them when we find ourselves on a hilly race course. The work we put in ahead of time is what allows us to pass those who opted out of the hill workouts when they had a choice. The same is true in just about every other aspect of life, don’t you think?

When we push ourselves in any realm, we learn how to perform when we find ourselves facing a challenge of one type or another. Pushing ourselves regularly doesn’t guarantee that we won’t meet a challenge that kicks our butt. Hill training doesn’t guarantee we won’t see God at the end of a hard, hilly race. Pushing ourselves regularly does guarantee that when we face challenges we’re ready to rise to them.

Life is full of hills. At the end of the day, though, our lives will be fuller if we spend them climbing every hill we can find and not avoiding them in favor of an easy route. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that when my race is over I want to have left it all on the course. Don’t you?

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

 

Guest Blog: A Letter to a Friend by Michael Cameron

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This week my significant other lost his 17-year-old son–a cancer warrior. Grief is a suffocating, all encompassing emotion that I am just now realizing I know nothing about. My friend Michael, though, does know a thing or two about grief. His girlfriend, Colleen, who was also my junior high friend and track teammate, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 2015. Michael wrote the following blog entry sometime thereafter.

I have found and continue to find Michael’s post one of the best things I’ve ever read about grief. Only now, though, am I turning to it for my own purposes rather than just sharing it with others. Funny, how life has a way of dropping you to your knees in ways you don’t expect. When I’m able, I will share more about that.

For now, though, with Michael’s permission, I am posting his blog post called A Letter to a Friend. Thank you Michael Cameron for the use of your words.

A Letter to a Friend by Michael Cameron

Dear Friend,

I can only begin to imagine the pain you are feeling right now.  While I have known monumental loss, loss of a proportion previously unfathomable, only you can now know what personal hell you are going through.  I can try and offer you guidance and share with you what things helped me cope with the feeling of utter helplessness.  I can try and assuage the feeling of despair.  I can empathize with the lens of pointlessness that will likely shroud your world for a time.  I can try and do all of this though, ultimately, it is you that will have to make the choice to endure what you have to in order to become the man you are meant to be.

I am grateful to be able to call you a friend and can only hope that the lessons I learned through my loss can help you bear yours.  The ability for me to be here even in small measure today helps to add meaning to my lived experience.

Make no mistake you will have to bear the unbearable and I am sorry to say that this is not a burden that can be avoided.  I did at times find solace in sharing with others but at times found frustration with well meaning individuals who simply did not, and likely never would, fully ‘get it’  I don’t think it was a lack of understanding that frustrated me, more the lack of empathy.

My advice here is to surround yourself with those that ‘get it’ and find forgiveness for those that do not.  I recently did an interview where I was asked for my top values.  It was for the reasons above why Empathy was at the top of my list.  I believe that the quality of being able to feel what others feel gives you the greatest insight into who they are allowing you to find ways to make the greatest impact in their life.  Examining, absorbing, and enduring what you are feeling right now will allow you to grow substantially.  While this is of little comfort now it is the truth.

There is no easy road.

At least not one that I was able to find.  For me I swore that her story would not end with her life.  That I would continue to ensure her legacy lived on.  I carry her with me daily.  I resurrect her in my memory as often as I can.  A song, a smell, a view, a memory or a conscious tug on my ear lobe like she used to affectionately do, brings her to life even if just for a fleeting moment.  There is not a day that goes by that she is not still alive within me.  I don’t know if this helps or hinders but it is the choice I have made.  Everything you have ever experienced, everything that has made you the man you are today has prepared you for this.  You will survive and you will adapt and it will fucking suck.

You will learn more in these moments than ever in your life.  I encourage you to practice staying open to the lessons.  The line in Ram Dass’ letter to Rachel that spoke to me most was when he said “Who among us is strong enough to remain conscious through such teachings as you are receiving. Certainly very few”  I made a decision to remain conscious.

While this is not an opportunity you would wish upon your worst enemy it is an opportunity very few are afforded.  Even fewer courageuos enough to receive the lessons.  There will be times when you are not strong enough to stay conscious.  Don’t.  Retreat when you need to.  For me it was yoga.

Maybe for you it is a walk.

They will tell you to “Be Strong”. I love them for their intentions but curse them for their ignorance.  There can be no strength without weakness just as there can be no light without dark.  If ever there was a time to be weak, this is it.  Sometimes I would curl into a ball and weep softly, other times I would wail loudly cycling through grief and anger beating my hands violently on my steering wheel while driving.  I would let the emotions envelop me completely, simply observing them.  I think this allowed me to detach, so as to not become completely overwhelmed, while still letting the emotions flow.

There is no ‘right way’ to do this.  Only your way.  They will try and tell you the right way.  Nod and acknowledge them but find your own intuitive way.  Your heart will know.  There is no time frame for this.  I believe I moved through, and continue to move through, my emotions because I did not and do not fight them.  I feel.  Even the sadness has become a friend.  Sometimes I will weep alone, holding her in my mind.  They will ask “Don’t you find that painful?” To them I say no, it is more like having a coffee with an old friend.  A quiet comfort held close.

Finding something ‘spiritual’ to grab onto helped immensely.  The only way through is to have faith on what is on the other side of this.  I believe it was you who said “Just about everything awesome is on the other side of something shitty.”  I know this seems impossible today but have faith that tomorrow it will seem just the tiniest bit more possible.  Run this marathon one step at a time.  Keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Fuck I hate cliches.

You didn’t lose 100 pounds overnight, you lost it one pound at a time.  Narrow the lens of the world to as short a time frame as you need to survive.  Maybe you just need to get through the next 30 seconds.  Maybe you can picture making it through an entire day.

I do not have any of the answers my friend but know I love you.  I will never forget saying goodbye to you in the parking lot of the restaurant when we went for dinner just two days after Colleen was killed.  You hugged me goodbye and said “Keep it together” I replied “Nope, I’m going to go home and lose my shit”.  You looked at me, cocked your head and said “Don’t confuse the two. Sometimes in order to keep it together you need to lose your shit.”

I see you, I feel you and I am with you.

“For a good life
we just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go
Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow
Grow somewhere we’re needed”

Tragically Hip

Much Love,

Mike

 

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Don’t Pursue Happiness; Follow These Steps to Get Happy!

There is no point in pursuing happiness. That is, there’s no point in doing stuff that you think will one day lead to being happy. I can almost hear you thinking,  “wow, this one’s going to be a downer. No thanks!” Before you stop reading, stay with me for a minute or two. You’ll be, um, happy you did.

I am a huge fan of Shawn Achor, positivity psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage. His Ted Talk is among the most watched of all time too. Here is a link to it.

Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk

In both his book and Ted Talk, Achor draws on research in his field (who knew, by the way, that studying happiness was a thing?) to teach us that there are things we can do daily to increase our levels of happiness. Increasing our happiness, in turn, improves our relationships with others, our productivity at work, and so on. In other words, happiness isn’t a thing one acquires after achieving certain goals or reaching certain milestones. e.g. “I’ll be happy once I make enough to buy a house” or “I’ll be happy once I get that promotion.” Nope. Achor says we’ve got it wrong. It’s the other way around. We don’t become happy once we are successful. We become successful when we are happy.

So, how do we create happiness?

According to Achor, there are five concrete, simple steps that we can do to increase our levels of happiness. When we do these steps, we increase the likelihood that we’ll achieve our goals, which we once thought would make us happy. Instead, being happy helps us achieve our goals. We had it backwards! Those five things are so easy to do that it almost seems too simple, but the research is tried and true.

The Five Steps to Happiness

For 21 days, which is roughly the amount of time it takes to form a habit, doing the following things each day produces the effects Achor discusses.

  1. Identify three things for which you’re grateful. Again, write these down or tell them to someone.
  2. Exercise–just move. You don’t have to become an ironman triathlete.
  3. Meditate for a couple of minutes. You don’t have to be Deepak Chopra. Just get still and let your mind be. Prayer is fine too.
  4. Perform a random or conscious act of kindness or send a positive email or text to a colleague or friend.
  5. Journal about something positive that happened during the day.

Partner Up to Create Happiness!

In the past, my significant other and I have “worked the steps” for periods of time. Not only has the time we spend talking been good bonding time,  but we both agreed that following the steps changed our outlooks on life quickly and in very noticeable ways. Both of us, in other words, felt happier.
Each evening we checked in with each other by going through the five steps. We didn’t write anything down unless we weren’t together and were texting. We just talked. We listed our “gratefuls,” as we called them, talked about something positive that happened that day, and accounted for the other things. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves noticing things to be grateful for throughout the day. Sometimes, I was grateful for little things, like the barista making my specialty coffee just right, or  having a good ride on my horse. Lots of times our “gratefuls” were about each other. What is more affirming than having someone tell you why he or she is grateful for you?
 

Join the Facebook 21 Day Don’t Worry. Be Happy Challenge!

I’ve started a Facebook 21 Day Don’t Worry. Be Happy Challenge group. Anyone is welcome to join, so please visit my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lettersfromthecoffeeshop and join the event: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1932943440349972/?ref=bookmarks
It’s going to be a fun, no pressure, positive, 21 days. I hope you’ll check it out and join us!
Everyone is welcome. Let’s start a happiness revolution.
As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.
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