The Big Five-Oh.

Next year, I’ll be 50.  Half a century – you know, Nifty Fifty – ripe fodder for jokes about ‘Old-Timer’s Disease’, gag party gifts like adult diapers and Geritol, and paybacks for all the ribbing I gave my sisters as they reached that golden age.  

Fifty isn’t old.

Fifty isn’t traumatic.

Fifty isn’t the end of the world or the end of my life.  At least, I hope it isn’t.

But fifty is the number of years my sister Missy was given on this earth, and as I approach that birthday, my head and heart are filled with a certain apprehension – what if my life stopped right here?  Am I ready?  Would I fight it, or would I accept it?  Would I be strong enough?  I confess that because my sister Wendy died just a week shy of her 43rd birthday, I could think of nothing else when I reached 42.

When my sisters died, I was an adult, and so were they.  I am sure it is much more difficult for people who lost their brothers or sisters as children – I cannot even imagine, and I cannot speak for them.  Children tend to blame themselves when things like abuse or divorce happen; I suspect that they would also blame themselves if they lost a sister or brother.  I did not have that guilt; as a grown up, I knew it wasn’t my fault.

Still, the sad regret is there – the what ifs…the if onlys… the second-guessing…the replaying of events in my head.  And it’s not just family whose passing makes me compare my lifespan to theirs.  My friend Jon was only 32 when he perished in a house fire.  My dear friend Shirley was 47 when she succumbed to a pulmonary embolism (blood clot).  At each of those ages, I looked in the mirror and asked the questions for which I had no real answer.  I suppose this is a normal part of grieving and moving on.

Life offers no guarantees.  Today I talked with a friend about people who overcome extreme personal adversity, such as the loss of limbs or a grave illness, to live their lives not defined by, but in spite of, those circumstances.  We talked about how attitudes toward death can determine how we live.  We agreed that even for people like us, who do not live under the cloud of a serious disease or catastrophic injury, life holds no promises.  We talked about how life can change – or end – in a moment.  Can we ever really be ready?

So, at 32, with young children, I was grateful, but still checked my smoke detectors.  

At 42, I looked at my own family and was thankful that my sister’s passing would leave no children motherless. 

At 47, I thought about Shirley and how much she had done for others all of her short life. 

And when 50 comes, I will think about Missy and what a terrific grandma she would have been, and I will cherish every moment with my family.

Because sometimes, it feels like borrowed time.

photo credit tawest64

Goodbye, Girl.

desi and sweets
Sweets and Desi

In the beginning there was a chocolate Lab, whose dalliance with an Australian Shepherd resulted in 11 pups; all but one survived.  So the ten that were left were perfect pairs: a pair of chocolates, a pair of Blue Merle Aussies, two pair of black Labs, and a pair of Red Merle Aussies.  The owner had promised Mr. Stuck a pup or two, so after the requisite waiting period, we went to choose.

The ten little pups were adorable, as pups tend to be.  We had first pick of the litter.  I was immediately drawn to the little fuzzball Aussies with their beautiful markings.  My better half was charmed by the little chocolates, a boy and a girl.  The girl was obviously the runt, quite a bit smaller than the others.

Mr. Stuck picked her up and held her, and she curled into his hand.  “Well, hello, Sweets,” he cooed softly, using the nickname he used when our daughter was young.  She fidgeted and gave a little whine.  Immediately, he found out why.  He put her back down and wiped her mess off his hand.  “I want that one,” he smiled.  “We’ve bonded.”  The other chocolate pup, the boy, trotted boldly over.  “That one, too.”  He wanted both chocolates.  Fine with me, as long as I could have the Blue girl with the different-colored eyes.  We couldn’t believe it, but we were going home with three of those puppies, and we were excited!

They grew up fast, the three of them, Desi, Porter, and Sweets.  I named Desi, which was kind of a variant of Dizzy, because she was a playful, goofy pup.  Porter’s name came from a brainstorming session with the kids in the car, trying to think of a good name for a brown dog.  The momma dog was named Tootsie Roll, so that was out.  We offered up Brownie, Chocolate, Hershey, and other names along the same line.  None fit.  Eventually, we ran out of ideas.  “Try to think of brown things,” I urged the boys.  They then made a potty-humored joke, so I knew we’d better think of something quickly or this session wasn’t going to improve.  Mr. Stuck and I noted a billboard advertising beer, which inspired us to rattle off all the different varieties we could think of.  ‘Porter,’ we realized, was perfect.  And after what she did in Mr. Stuck’s hand that first day, and their ‘bonding,’ ‘Sweets’ she was and would always be.

Because we live out where there are acres and acres of trees and underbrush and salt water nearby, there are lots of wild critters around.  The dogs gave chase to just about everything that showed up here.  We had installed an invisible fence, but Porter would still take off after a rabbit, running through the boundary without hesitation.  Problem was, he’d lose the rabbit, and then not want to come back to our side of the fence.  Desi and Sweets would sit facing him, about 10 feet away, with the buried fence in between.  Porter would sit and whine until we had to physically go over and bring him back.

We soon realized that even though Porter looked like his mom, he acted like his dad — he was active and loved to run and chase, and he never failed to engage with whatever animal came by.  This became a problem, so we had to find a better place for him.  Fortunately, a man Mr. Stuck worked with was looking for a companion dog for his own, and he wanted to train them together for hunting.  After hearing about Porter, he arranged to come out and pick him up.  He brought his dog along, and the two dogs hit it off well.  We knew it was the right thing, because the man had a large fenced ‘corral’ area for the dogs to run, and that’s what Porter needed.  We couldn’t have him escaping several times a day, as he had been.  Plus, he’d receive good training and a lot of love, so we were confident in our decision.

A sister moment.

It was sad to see Porter go, but it was best for everyone.  Desi and Sweets stuck close together, and they were far calmer than their brother.  Yes, Sweets would chase rabbits, but it was more as a distraction than anything else.  Desi just wanted attention; she’d drop to the ground on her back and with pleading eyes, beg for someone to rub her belly.  Sweets would hang back.  She always took backseat to her more gregarious sister, but they stayed close.

Years rolled on, and the girls mingled happily with the neighbor dogs, followed the boys to the bus stop, and wandered down to the oyster beds across the street.  Desi’s coat would be covered in whatever they found — puddles, blackberry vines, squirrel carcass, dirt — but she was always so happy, it never mattered.  But they got older and slower, and so did we; their coats showed gray, and so did our hair.

Recently, we noticed Sweets limping.  We felt along her legs and paws, with no reaction.  We thought maybe it was arthritis, because she was more than 10 years old now.  She still came when you called her, but it was tougher for her to get up and down.  She slept a lot, and she looked tired.  She was an old dog.

One day a couple of weeks ago, Number Young Son asked me if I’d seen Sweets lately.  I thought for a second and replied that I had seen her the day before when I pulled in the driveway.   He said he hadn’t seen her all day, and she didn’t come when he called her.  No big deal — we thought maybe she had gone off on an adventure and she’d be home when she got hungry.  I reassured him that she’d be back.  Nevertheless, he looked for her: under the porch, where she liked to sleep; in the woods, where she chased the critters, and on the neighbor’s property, where Sweets liked to socialize with the other dogs.  He went up and down the road and looked and called and whistled, but she never came.

We found out soon after that the dogs had gotten into the garbage can, where there were chicken bones.  The lid hadn’t been secured on the can, so they were able to knock it over and check out the contents with ease.  Now, we wondered if perhaps that was a factor in her disappearance.  I guess we would never know for sure.  Desi was fine, but you could tell she missed her sister.

So, tonight, it’s been two weeks since we’ve seen Sweets.  I have been hoping for a happy ending; a joyous reunion of family.  She is family, of course.  But that was not to be.  Tonight, I went out on the deck as Mr. Stuck heated the grill for dinner.  I made an offhand comment on the smell that I thought was coming from the bait-filled freezer.  I came back inside and sat down; the ribs were in the pressure cooker and the broccoli was on the grill.  I could take a break.

Pretty soon, Mr. Stuck came in, set down the  flashlight he carried and said, “I found Sweets.”
“Way back under the porch, curled up.  She probably died in her sleep.”

Aside from the emotion of the situation, the logistics of it are unpleasant, at best.  We will have to retrieve her somehow, wrap her in a tarp or something, and give her a decent burial.

I’m sad.  I’ve been feeling guilty about not canvassing the neighborhood and affixing ‘LOST DOG’ signs to anything that didn’t move.  I wanted to look for her, but I think we all just resigned ourselves to the idea that she had gone off to die.  We assume that she died of natural causes, because when he found her, she looked exactly as if she was sleeping.  Of course, we would never want her to suffer.

Goodbye, Sweets.  We will never forget you.