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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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Why We Should Talk to Strangers

As children, most of us were cautioned against talking to strangers. As adults, we need to unlearn that lesson. There is a lot to be gained from talking to people we don’t know. A few years ago, I had a life altering, 2.5 hour conversation with a stranger.  I’ve written about it elsewhere, but I want to share it here as well. 

A walk in a park

I was on a research trip and had stopped in Birmingham, Alabama to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights InstituteAcross the street from the Institute is Kelly Ingram Park. The park was once the site of some of the worst acts of civil rights violence and is now a site of memory. Its history is retold through sculptures and other art installations throughout.

It was July and so I decided to stroll through the park first thing in the morning before it got too hot. I was studying a sculpture depicting vicious, snarling dogs when I heard a voice behind me say, “nothing has changed you know.” I turned around to see who’d spoken and there was Willy.

A talk with a stranger

Willy was an African American man, probably in his sixties. We introduced ourselves and I learned that he had grown up in the area and was homeless. I asked him to elaborate on what he’d said about nothing having changed and he was happy to do so. We sat down on a bench and Willy told me stories about living in the segregated South and in the South as it is today. His stories revealed a life of pain and possibility, of humiliation and happy times, of terror and tenacity. Before I knew it, 2.5 hours had passed.

When Willy finished speaking, we sat silently for a time. Finally,  I asked Willy, “if you could have it any way you wanted, what would your life be like? What kind of life do you dream about?” His response was so quick and vehement that it scared me at first. He jumped to his feet and shook his fist in the air while shouting, “I would dominate. I would control everything. Men, women, children! I would be the one telling people what to do and when to do it and I would make them obey me! I would own everything and I would control all the money! I would be in control!”

When he finished, Willy glanced nervously in my direction. He returned to the bench and sat down. Shaking his head he said, “I’m sorry. I just said all of that because of everything I’ve been through.” He lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and exhaled slowly. “But that’s how I feel, you know?”

Willy stared off into space for a few minutes before speaking again. This time, his voice was soft.  “You know all that stuff I said? That’s not really what I want.” He glanced sideways at me. “Do you want to know what I really want?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “What I really want is to have people to love and to have people who love me.” Then, Willy turned his whole body so he was facing me. He looked straight into my eyes, and asked, “but isn’t that what we all want?”

Isn’t that what we all want?

In Willy’s rhetorical question was a powerful assertion of sameness about people–all people. He knew that love is buried among the differences that so many use as licenses to hate and exclude. He also knew that everyone, no matter how  much or how little he or she has, can both give and receive love. It costs nothing to do either. We are all equally rich in this regard. Why, then, is it so easy to be stingy with our love? What’s the payoff? I don’t know.

What I learned from Willy

Here’s the thing. What Willy knew and believed with all his heart, despite all he’d been through, was that everyone wants to have someone to love and to have someone who loves them back. We stand in the way of that happening in so many ways. For example, many of us are quick to judge ourselves on the basis of our intentions and others on the basis of their actions–I am SO guilty of this. And have you noticed how often conditions are attached to others’ “lovability” and  “value” in homes, in communities, and in society more broadly? How much of the crap that we create and navigate in our day-to-day lives would just fall away if we kept Willy’s very simple observation in mind? I wonder.

There’s merit in talking to strangers

I did not enter that park expecting to have a conversation with a stranger, let alone a life-altering one. But maybe I should have entered that park looking for an opportunity to have one. If Willy hadn’t spoken to me, a stranger, that day, I’d have missed out on an amazing encounter. I probably would have just walked by him with little more than a nod and a “good morning.”

It’s easy to walk by people like Willy. He didn’t look the way we generally expect wise people to look. Most of the time, therefore, he’s invisible. That’s tragic. There’s no telling what we miss out on when we don’t “see” and talk to people like Willy–strangers. Imagine what we might learn about ourselves and others simply by looking for opportunities to talk to people we don’t know. 

What do you think? Have you had encounters with strangers that have been meaningful in some way? How did they happen? Why were they valuable? And do you agree that there is merit in going out of our way to make them happen again? Share your thoughts below and please subscribe or follow my  blog.

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