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My letter to Shayna

March 27, 2014 | By | Add a Comment
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The face that saved my life. The face I had to say goodbye to, yesterday.

Dog parents who know me in person know that until a few years ago, I was completely unable to talk about sick dogs, or console their parents, after their loss.  I did, however, dispense advice that seemed reasonable: to write a letter to their beloved, departed best friends, and express everything they meant to them. 

Now that Shayna has made her transition (background here), I thought it’s time to follow this advice, myself.   Here’s what came out, last night and this morning:

Dear Shayna Angele:

20June13 First swim hug - small

Do you remember this? We took this picture on June 20, 2013, three weeks after your heart surgery – and just after your first swim of the year. Something I never thought I’d see you do again, after you were given one day to four months to live, on October 30, 2012.

How does one say goodbye to his soulmate, to the precious spirit who saved his life?

With love. But also, with the hope and belief that this really isn’t goodbye, it’s just the first day of our separation – and one day closer to the day that we will be reunited.

Shayna, I did the best I could when circumstances forced me to say goodbye to you, in the moments leading up to the one in which your spirit left your Earthly body.

You weren’t just my dog. You were, and remain, the brightest, most wonderful soul I’ve ever encountered, and the best friend I’ve ever had. You also became “my little girl,” the child I never thought was in the cards for me, because I neither wanted to be a “dad,” nor did I think I was capable of being one, given what I endured as a child.

I was looking for a dog; I ended up receiving a soulmate

As I wrote in my book about you, you came into my life when I was just looking for my first dog, to become a companion, a hiking and camping buddy, and to perhaps brighten my spirits, from the many traumatic events that happened to me just before and just after 9/11 (not to mention how that day affected me, as well). What I never could have counted on, or hoped for, was that by waiting, and listening to that “little voice” that had been speaking to me, by being patient, by keeping my search going long after I became exasperated, I would end up finding – on the very day I planned to give up or pause my search – the spirit that would have the capacity to save my spirit, and my life.

I had no idea that such a spirit could exist within a dog. I wasn’t sure that such a redemption were even possible, were it not completely self-directed, by me.

I’d met lots of nice dogs in my three-month search. But after hearing how the front desk at the SPCA describe you and your twin sister, whom they’d rescued just the day before (March 24, 2002), I didn’t think you sounded, physically, anything like what I (thought I) was looking for. But that “little voice” admonished me to not be a jerk, and to go back and take a look.

25Apr02-AtATPaw-crop

April 2002

From the moment I turned the corner and looked at you, sitting in the middle of your cage, looking up at me, I could detect one thing more than anything else: the orb-like glow around your head, around that infectious smile of yours.

When I picked you up, in your little 10-week-old body, and held you before my face, and looked into your eyes, a sense overtook me that said, you may in fact be the one I’ve been waiting for. And you leaned in and kissed me, then smiled, and I began to cry.

After reading your intake form, and learning that just 24 hours earlier, you’d been rescued from having spent three days in a storm drain with your twin sister, without your parents, I was even more astonished by how big your glow was. Any dog, I figured, who could have that big of a smile and positive aura about them after such a harrowing, terrifying experience, is a dog that I could not help but respect, and want to be around.

In my book, I describe that there was only one other person (another female) in my life that caused the Earth to move under my feet, as you did, in that moment. A girl I met in 1990, who made me feel somewhat clean and pure, for the first time in my life. I messed that up really good, however, in part because I waited, and waited, and waited to tell her how I really felt about her. I let the chance of a miracle slip away. (And in a stroke of cosmic irony, her birthday was March 24 – the very day that you were liberated from that storm drain.)

JS-Shayna-picture-1-07Aprl0

The first picture taken of us after our adoption, April 7, 2002. The happiest day of my life.

Upon meeting you, I became determined to never make that mistake again. I put a deposit down on you right then and there, so they would hold you, until I could visit you a few more times in the coming days. Those visits only validated my impression, that you and I had some sort of instant, cosmic “connection.”

My book describes how, after 9/11, my life and my spirit were coming apart at the seams. The trauma of being introduced to more-complete memories of the horrific things I experienced as a child, of being catapulted backwards and forwards in time, and for the first time, connecting the dots between what happened to that little boy, and the man that he became, strained the limits of my ability to keep everything together. All I knew, or at least hoped, was that by moving to the only place I’ve ever felt at home – Charlottesville, VA – and trying to find the “right” first dog for me, would I have even the chance of healing, and of reaching my maximum potential – as a man, and as an activist for the principles at the root of the Declaration of Independence, written by the man who put Charlottesville on the map: Thomas Jefferson.

What I got, instead of “just” a dog, was a soulmate. A spirit with whom I meshed, like two puzzle pieces that fit perfectly together. As you said in the first life lesson you “wrote” in my book, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a great dog parent”:

Neither Daddy nor I are perfect; each of us has our share of defects.  But what we are is perfect together, and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?

Cover-final(1)My book pays tribute to all the gifts you gave me.

Here is early indication of just how profound my healing was occurring, thanks to you – captured on video commentary in July 2002 by a good friend, Randy, who’d seen me in the depths of my despair, in Ft. Lauderdale, in the previous years:

The lesson you taught me, on your last day

For now, I want to focus on one of these gifts: of your demonstrating an unending desire to enjoy life and make the world better for your having been in it. And this gift extended right up to the last few hours of your Earthly existence.

Given the harrowing night we spent on March 25, in which you could not get to sleep until the wee hours because your breathing became so difficult, due to all the fluid in your chest and abdomen, one would have reasonably expected that your last hours would be consumed by worry, and rest.

Instead, as the videos and pictures that we took between 8:00am and 3:00pm on March 26 show, your last day on Earth was filled with high activity, smiles, and a joy for life:

  • We had five play sessions, all of which had you smiling; you even pounced on the first of your toys as you identified and retrieved them. (And the night before, we resumed doing your flash-card training, which turned out positively amazing.)
  • We took a long walk around the University of Virginia lawn and Rotunda, where my odyssey in Charlottesville, and to find you, began.

  • We visited the Senior Center, where you put smiles on the faces of all those you encountered, as you always did.

    At the Senior Center, about 12:30pm, March 26.

    At the Senior Center, about 12:30pm, March 26.

  • We took a long walk around Barracks Road Shopping Center, where we’ve spent more time than anywhere else in our twelve years together, making people smile wherever you went.
  • And even when we entered the veterinarian’s, where your cardiologist, Dr. Paling, and her technician, Heather, were waiting for you, both sad in the knowledge of what we must do, you were still beaming.

This was also after you and I finally got onto the same page, over the last day, as to the fact that you were going to have to make the journey to Heaven.

Trying to convey that you were going to Heaven

Thanks to some last-minute inspiration, I decided to try to construct a sequence of words, hand gestures and motions that you either knew, and which I hoped you could learn, to put all the pieces together. And while I had no idea if your amazing mental skills could process all that, amidst your fatigue and anxiety, it took a little while, but it finally “clicked,” as I saw in your eyes. Me pointing to you, and me, and making a breaking motion with my hands, but then pointing at each of us again, and wrapping my arms around myself, to say we will always be together; me pointing to you and then making bird’s wings, fluttering up to the sky – the sky to which you observed me praying every night, fervently asking for another day with you, and to express gratitude for the one we just enjoyed.

25April13 looking up

Praying that you are in Heaven, and that I will be reunited with you there, someday.

And when I saw that you recognized what I was saying, the night before – March 25, twelve years to the day since we first laid eyes on each other – you did something you haven’t done in years: you reached out and gave me a kiss, without request.

Somewhere inside you, you decided that you have a choice as to how you want to spend this last day, and you conveyed this to me.

Another angel on my shoulder

Well, that’s not 100% true. I also had the benefit of another guardian angel on my shoulder, who’d been counseling me for several months by phone, on how to deal with your illness, and to prepare for your transition: Dr. Dani McVety, of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice. She told me, and I believe, that the death of the body is not something that dogs even understand, and is something that I should not fear. Most of all, she said that it is very important for me to let you know that it is okay for you to let go; that it’s time, when I know it is, indeed, time.

I told Dr. Dani that I could not go into this without establishing a standard, that I could not make this decision on whim, or to save myself future grief. The standard I came up with was that so long as I sense that you have the capacity and desire for one last intense play session, for one more of the long walks through the woods that you love to lead me on when you are able, I cannot do this. Dr. Dani said that this is a perfectly reasonable, loving standard, but that I also needed to understand, and accept, what I was risking by not facilitating your transition before a tragedy strikes. I accepted this, and the fact that if I gambled wrong, that there would be no way to atone for it.

Your will to live, and enjoy life, and put smiles on people’s faces

One example of how clearly you conveyed to me that you still had fun to enjoy, and smiles to put on people’s faces: On Wednesday, March 12, we had our two-week follow-up exam with Dr. Paling, after she extracted the fluid from your chest and abdomen.  You were doing great – no fluid, all clear.  But by Sunday, the fluid was clearly returning, and I knew I could not put you through all that again.  I was getting ready to facilitate your transition.

But then, after a dinner that night that included bits of steak and lots of watermelon for you, you indicated that it’s not what it appears – that you will be able to deal with this.  And day by day, your belly began to slowly, gradually reduce in size.  So much so that by Thursday, we were able to go ahead with our pre-scheduled first visit to the Charlottesville Rehabilitation Center, which cares for really sick people.  All one needs to do is look at this video of our visit, and read the description, to realize what a gift you gave to those people:

I will openly admit I didn’t do this all out of charity; I know you get a huge charge out of making people happy, and showing off your amazing brainpower, too.  A good time was had by all.

Applying what you and Dr. Dani taught me, on our last day together

So on March 26, recognizing the terrible night you’d just had, but going from your lead, we had a day that was filled with robust activity, smiles, and love, and of course, some tears. All in all, I cannot imagine a more wonderful, peaceful lead-up to the moment when one must leave their Earthly body.

26Mar14 Smiling while driving

March 26, about 1:30pm, on our way down to UVa. Your glow on my shoulder as I drive, as always, makes me feel heavenly.

Yes, I was the one driving my truck as we went from place to place, but it was your spirit guiding me, as it always does when I feel your glowing smile over my right shoulder, as I navigate. It was your spirit, and the lessons you taught me, that compelled me to want to give you every last chance to be who and what you are: a ball of light in the world, a creature who lives to enjoy life.  Even amidst the agonizing anxiety and confusion you were feeling mere hours earlier, because you couldn’t sleep, when the sun came up you realized it was a new day. And through your eyes, you told me, “Daddy, please, let’s go have fun!”

I asked for a dog, and got a teacher

Some people claim their best lessons come from school. Or from trial and error experience. Or from religious or spiritual guidance.

Many of the most important lessons I learned from, and because, of you. Not even because you wanted to teach them to me, but because I was smart enough to listen, and watch, and learn from you.

2011CarryFootball

How many dogs could memorize the names of 57 toys like you did? Stack their ring toys by name on a pole, and dunk their balls in a basket?  Invent a trick like “frisbee skiing”? “Count” one and two balls? Read flash cards?

Another lesson I learned from you (but also from my own experience) was that sometimes, the best things can be found in unlikely packages, in beings that, on paper, should never have the capacity to achieve greatness. You conveyed to me, early on, that you were far more than “just a dog.” That you had the desire and capacity to learn to memorize objects, and even count – and that it was my obligation, as your dad, to teach you to do these things.

I think I may have been receptive to this prospect, since I was, on paper, a “loser,” who has no formal education, and therefore should never have been able to accomplish what I have, with my design, writing and creative skills, for organizations large and small, throughout the U.S. and Southeast Asia. Combined with our traumatic childhoods, we were, in this sense, both “throwaways,” creatures that would be easy to dismiss as the ballast of society.

Ironically, one of the things that drew me to Charlottesville, was my self-education in American history, and how our nation is one that was born of, and dismissed as a society of cast-offs; of the refuse of other nations, that would never in a million years be capable of governing itself, without a ruler and an “elite” class. I cannot help but think that Thomas Jefferson, whose spirit lives on here in Charlottesville, and the other founders of America, would appreciate this story about you. For it was he that wrote, in describing why he was creating the University of Virginia, the world’s first secular institution of higher learning, largely for the purpose of advancing liberty:

“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it… (w)hich I contemplate as the future bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere.”

I only later learned that Mr. Jefferson also loved dogs – and that to the surprise of many, dogs are, or at least were, allowed to romp on the grounds of his beloved mountaintop estate, Monticello. But I’d like to think that were he able to access YouTube in Heaven, he would be amazed by the stunning array of tricks you were able to teach yourself, or learn.

Charlottesville-Virginia-peak-foliage

Monticello, surrounded by Charlottesville, the only place I’ve ever felt truly “at home.” Do you remember early in our life together, when we would play on Mr. Jefferson’s lawn in the sun, and bask in each other’s glow.

You gave me my life back

From a purely personal perspective, the most amazing “trick” you did, which I could have never anticipated, was that you gave me my life back.  When I moved here from far away and began my quest to heal, and to search for you, I was in such deep despair that as I describe in my book, I found myself breaking out in tears without warning, and for no particular reason, most disturbingly in public places. I didn’t know if or when I would ever feel anything close to “normal” again. And the fact is that my “normal” was largely a function of the denial in which I’d lived most of my life; of what happened to me as a child, of the betrayals, the exploitation, the abuse, the mental terror, and of how those experiences influenced every decision I ever made since then.

3months1

April 7, 2002: The first picture taken of us at home, on adoption day.

I moved here and began searching for you because I was tired of running, of living in denial. And you, through your example, and your zest for life, and learning, and love, gave me not just back my life, but a new, better, immeasurably richer life. A life in which, for the first time, I felt clean; like the scars I bear on my soul were no longer defining me.

To look into your eyes was to know that, for the first time in my life, I was “home.”

01Nov13-TY-card-cover

The cover of the card we made to thank your veterinary team for helping us to reach one year since you were given one day to four months to live, after you collapsed and were diagnosed with heart cancer. (Details here)

You made me feel like the luckiest man alive

To know that I will never again be able to look into your living, loving eyes, into your beautiful face, and to feel your incredible glow beside me, is torture.

But to know that amidst all my sins, and all that I endured to get here, that the cosmos handed me a winning lottery ticket when it put me in proximity of you, makes me feel like the luckiest person I’ve ever known.

Hug-2004-2

The amazing picture of us in 2004 that I decided had to be the one I use on the cover of the book I wrote about you: “Saved By Shayna: Life Lessons From A Miracle Dog.”

How can I possibly thank you enough, for all you gave me? I cannot.

How can I possibly express how much your love and inspiration helped to keep me positive and motivated when, after my 2002 accident, everything I’d saved and worked for had been taken away, and life became an economic struggle that endures to this day? I cannot.

How can I possibly atone for all the mistakes I made in your care? I cannot.

How can I possibly recover from the fact that I will never again see you in my physical world? I cannot.

My promise to honor you

All I can do, all that I have control over, going forward, is to do what you asked me to do, in your letter to me: to ensure that I work for the rest of my life to apply the lessons I learned from you, to my own life, and to help enrich the lives of other dogs, and the people who love them.  And, to ensure that your name, your spirit, and your legacy will always be associated with good things for both.

To this end, I will be developing several projects, in your name:

  • Shayna’s List (shaynaslist.com): A site in its infancy, that will be dedicated to celebrating quality veterinarians and makers of edible dog products, and exposing and holding to market account their opposites.
  • A mechanism, in your name, that will help make more efficient the process of connecting dog parents who otherwise cannot afford the care they need for their best friends, with donors who want to provide that help.
  • An Internet-based dog training resource, in your name, that will help dog parents to more fully recognize, tap into, and develop their best friends’ potential.

Shayna, you wrote in your letter to me, the following passage:

17Nov12 UVa glowing Shayna cropI know you wouldn’t want me to spend too much time, let alone the the prospect of eternity, grieving my loss of you (temporarily).

Because I will know that anytime I am missing you, or wanting to reach out to you, that I’ll be able to close my eyes and focus my thoughts (as you know I am really good at doing!), and I will be able to see your smiling eyes staring at me; I will hear your voice telling me countless times a day how much you love me, and how proud you are of me; I will feel your hugs and kisses; and I will sense your spirit with me, just as I can when I hear the door of your truck slam shut, telling me that you’ve returned home, and in just a moment, you’ll be walking through the door, with your enthusiastic, loving greeting, just for me.

I will let go of our Earthly life together, knowing that you will be with me, always, in my heart, where it really matters.

All I can do now is ask for one last favor of you: that you please help me to do this. Although I will never “let go” of you, as you said in your letter, I have many things to look forward to, to work on, for dogs, and in other realms.

One last favor, please

What would make it a lot easier on me is to know, somehow, that you are safe and warm and well cared-for, and are enjoying your new life as much as your old one. Please, if you can, let me know this. Please affirm what Dr. Eben Alexander said his book, “Proof of Heaven,” and to me, in person: that Heaven exists, and that you are there.

There aren’t enough words or time to fully express what you meant to me in our Earthly existence together, and how grateful I am to you, for giving me back my life.

But I swear to you that I will never let one day go by without trying to do something to honor your legacy, and the potential of all dogs to do far more than I thought, and many think they are capable of doing, and being.

I love you, Shayna Angele, and I always will.  Wait for me.  I will find you again.

Daddy

19June13-BarracksRd

June 19, 2013. Heaven.

 

Filed in: Shayna's medical condition

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