One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

24 October 2012

Soul Dog

After the death of the remarkable little Italian Greyhound that followed my EVERY footstep for 18 years...I was thinking I would not have another dog for a LONG time (if ever).

When I faced cancer, though...I knew I needed a dog.

Ever since seeing "Down and Out in Beverly Hills", I have wanted a mostly white border collie with black spots...and, in particular, a black patch over one eye like "Matisse".

With the wonders of modern technology at my fingertips, I dove into the internet and started searching shelters in the region. I looked at photos and profiles of every "used" dog in Montana and the surrounding states. Nowhere could I find "the" dog that matched what I wanted.

Over and again though, I kept coming back to a little nondescript black border collie cross named "Newt".

Still stubbornly looking for my "dream dog", I visited the shelter here in town, then called a breeder ad in the paper...and finally went over to Bozeman to see Newt.
I cannot say what it was about him...he didn't do anything bad...but he didn't do anything particularly good either. He did not bound up to me like a long lost friend and lick my face as fireworks went off. He came over, quietly said "hi" and then explored the room like any old dog. Somehow I knew, though.

Before taking the plunge, I wanted Ray to meet him and he would be working until Friday...so I asked the shelter if they would hold Newt until then (it was Wednesday). They agreed.

Shortly after I arrived home in Livingston, the phone rang...it was the shelter and someone wanted to adopt Newt. They told me that they were not supposed to hold Newt without a deposit. I explained that no one mentioned deposit to me and I would have happily paid one if they did.  They said "sorry".   I argued...making the point that I was trying to do the right thing and have the other household member meet him first. It took a couple of desperate phone calls and pleading with different staff members before they finally (albeit grudgingly) agreed to hold him until fifteen minutes after they opened on Friday ("NO later than that"). We showed up fifteen minutes before they opened...

Curious to see what Newt did when left on his own, I insisted we sneak in and "spy" on him. I did not want a barker...or a dog who neurotically paced nonstop when left alone. As we came around the corner, there was Newt...quietly sitting in the far end of his kennel with his back to us.

When I called him he limped over (he'd hurt his foot running outside), snuggled against the wire and started whimpering.

Ray said "NOPE, I will NOT have a whiny dog".
Ray never had a chance...he lost that battle before it even began.

A few minutes later, we were headed to Petsmart with Newt in the back seat. Little did we know that the whimpering was just a hint of the singsong vocalization that would be Newt's signature...

Many of you know Newt...so you know that there is no possible way to describe this special little soul in a reasonable number of words.

Newt makes everyone smile. He seems to worm his way into the hearts of every person, every creature, he meets.

He isn't just "my" dog.

In my opinion,
Newt belongs to the whole world.

He needs to be shared so he can touch and heal the hearts of as many people as possible.

Maybe this story about him says it best:
A couple of years ago at the Natureworks Show in Tulsa, Newt was sleeping in my booth while I sat in a director's chair on the opposite side of the aisle. Two kids, a boy about six and a slightly older girl, came into the booth.  The girl instantly flopped down by Newt and, to his delight, started cooing over him. The boy carefully petted him then came over to lean on the arm of my chair...he looked very serious. So I asked: "Do you have something to say to me?"
The boy replied "Yes. I do."

He gestured toward Newt and continued: "THAT dog is not a REAL dog...that dog is a SOUL dog". His Mother and I asked simultaneously "What do you mean by that?" He rolled his eyes at our apparent lack of common sense and said "WELL...a real dog is JUST a dog on the outside...but a soul dog is special on the INSIDE". That about sums up Newt:  Soul Dog.
Finding Newt was another lesson in listening to my heart and looking beyond the surface. Newt was nothing like the "dream dog" I was determinedly looking for. There was no spark of recognition (on either part) when we met, no "Oh my God, he's perfect", nothing notable at all about our first meeting...there was just a quiet voice that whispered "this is the one". Thank goodness I listened...
Newt might not have been the dog I thought I wanted on the outside...but he was the soul dog I needed on the inside.

14 October 2012

Goodbye Girls

When I showed up at the clinic for my annual exam in October of 2008, in a fortuitous twist of fate, the doctor assigned to me was a friend.  During the exam she suggested a mammogram to check out an enlarged lymph node.  Had it been some random doc...I probably would have procrastinated...but, maybe because it was her, I called to set up the appointment as soon as I got to the car.  

On October 17, I had my digital mammogram.  The lymph node was just a lymph node...but there was something on the other side.   They did a biopsy the same day, and that didn't exactly go well as someone miscalculated the settings on the computer-operated biopsy machine and overshot the target with the needle (not fun).  At least I got some "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" cookies and a pink robe as a parting gift.

Thus began a crazy whirlwind.

With no insurance and no regular doctor, I found myself at the mercy of the hospital.  Biopsy results were delayed and the tension built…finally, on October 28, the doctor called to give me the news over the phone "you have cancer, come in tomorrow at 9".  

We were still in a state of shock when we showed up the next morning.  The doctor, who must have failed the kindness portion of his training, handed me a book called "Be a Survivor" before he even said "hello".  He then proceeded to try to convince me that we had to move fast and should try to do the surgery as soon as possible.  The problem was that I would be leaving in about a week for my Fall show trip...five weeks on the road.  He said that I would be fine doing that trip right after surgery...fortunately, his schedule could not fit me in.

The phone calls started.  What about a doctor in Tennessee or DC where I was heading?  I made an appointment with a woman doctor in Nashville, where my Mom and many other family members live...and we hit the road early.  The doc in Nashville greeted me with "Well, the good news is you'll be permanently perky".  I must have looked stunned (maybe more like "mildly irritated") because she went on to cheerfully explain that they begin the reconstruction during the surgery to remove the cancer.  Long story short...she wasn't going to work out either.  

At the Waterfowl Festival, my artist friends were my saving grace.  My way through things that are too hard to think about is to laugh...and laugh we did.  Ray was going to carve me balsa wood boobs, and a sculptor friend offered to make me a bronze set.  A dear friend who had had successful reconstruction shared her story and offered to let me feel hers if I wanted (words that came out right as Ray happened to walk by and brought on another round of giggles).  

Meanwhile I was wrestling with some big decisions.  There was no indication of cancer on the right side and the tumor was relatively small.  The doctors all said the best thing was to do a lumpectomy, followed by chemo and radiation.  Option two, a mastectomy and probably no radiation/chemo.  They offered assorted recommendations for reconstruction, most started the process during the initial surgery...but there would be more surgeries, either way.  The thought of chemo flat out terrified me...and there was still the problem of no insurance.  Reconstruction had no appeal either...nor did the idea of being "lopsided" or dealing with a prosthetic.  

In the end, I went against the advice of all the doctors and chose a bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction.  I made this decision for several reasons.  First, I have never seen myself as a fake boob kind of girl...and I could not imagine putting my body through more surgeries than necessary just to fill a bra (those things are annoying anyway).  Second, I was hoping to get through this without having to do chemo or radiation.  Third...with no insurance, and no chance that I would ever get insurance after this...it just seemed the logical thing to be done with it all and not have to worry in the future, if possible.  A friend recommended a surgeon in Helena and appointments were made.

On December 11, I said goodbye to the girls.  Just before surgery, the doctor asked "are you sure you want to go this route?"  Without hesitation, I said "Yes...and could you give me lightning bolt scars?"  (she didn't).  

More news came at the first follow-up visit:  The doctor said "You made the right decision.  There was a second tumor that had missed by all the mammograms, MRIs and doctors."  Fortunately, they happened to get it all clean in the surgery but, because the margins were a little close, I would have to do radiation.

"Buddha Bear"
(Inspired by one of the bears I watched
during radiation)
Radiation was not the monster I thought it would be.  The doctors said the effects would be cumulative and that I would get more and more exhausted over the ten to twelve weeks it would take.  Thing was...it was Spring and my favorite time to see bears in the Park.  So, for most of the last seven weeks of radiation, I would get up at 2:30-3 AM and drive a couple of hours to Yellowstone to watch and photograph bears, wolves, etc.  I would schedule my radiation appointment as late as possible every day and to make the daily 4-4:30 slot in Bozeman, I would have to be leaving YNP by 2 PM.  After radiation, it was another 40 minutes drive home to rest.  Then I would do it all again the next day.  Weekends were spent entirely in the Park.  Where other women in the waiting room would talk about how all they could do was go home afterward and sit around and cry...I would come bouncing into the hospital telling stories and showing photos of the bears and wolves I had seen.

The last day of radiation was the worst.  The doctor was taking a "ski day"and didn't show up.  Fortunately the rest of the radiation staff was and I went in as usual.  They lay you out on a lovely metal table and then elevate the whole contraption pretty high.  Over the previous three months, I had gotten used to the amount of time it took to "zap" me…but this time the machine didn't stop when it should have.  A little panic started to rise…had they forgotten?  Another miscalculation on the machine?  My heart was racing as it went on and on for what seemed an endless amount of time.  For some time I had been weighing the cost/benefit ratio of risking a broken limb jumping off the table when the machine finally shut off.  When I asked what happened, the tech said "Didn't the doctor tell you? The last treatment is longer, but not as strong a dose."  No, the doctor didn't tell me, that would have been nice to know!  

In the end...it was a combination of luck, pragmatism, common sense, trusting my gut and a tendency to be vanity-challenged that saved my ass, even if nothing could be done for the tits.  Even finding myself single again, I have no regrets about the decisions I made.  Being flat-chested really isn't so bad…in fact, I'd have to say it has some distinct advantages.  

What amazed me over the course of this process was how important saving the breast (or rebuilding it) was to the vast majority of the people I spoke with.  Someone told me of a friend who chose to try to save her breasts and wound up with another round of cancer that killed her…she left two small children behind.  It is a sad reflection on our society that so much import is put on something of, really, so little consequence.  How sad to think of all the women who have lost their lives to keep their breasts…or lost their partners because they didn't.    I remember reading over and again about so many women who would look at themselves in the mirror post-surgery (if they even COULD look) and cry because they felt "less" than a woman without breasts.  That never happened with me for some reason…from the first time I faced that mirror the day after surgery, what comes to my mind has always been "well, it is what it is".  I don't feel a sense of loss or like "less" of a woman…just very fortunate to be alive.

November 2012 ()

Ironically, in 2002-2003 I did a huge solo painting project (more about that soon) that benefitted breast cancer research, though I had no connection to breast cancer.  
Weirder still was this: when the doctor explained how long I had probably had the cancer based on the size of the tumor, it turned out that the cancer most likely started WHILE I was doing the "48x48" project.  

Guess you could say that no good deed goes unpunished...OR you could look at it like I do:  
In a way, cancer was a gift.  
Though I would NEVER choose that path (or wish it on anyone)...in so many ways my life is far better for having had cancer.  My life is far more valuable to me and far richer...and I will never have to buy or wear a bra again!!

(By the way, I am NOT single again because of my decision regarding my breasts.  Ray not only stuck through it all, he was my rock and incredibly supportive of every choice made..especially that one.
We were just different people on different paths...)

12 October 2012

Road Worrier

On October 18, 2001 I was driving through Harrisonburg, Virginia en route from Vermont to an art show in Alabama when the steering in my van went out. Hands locked on the wheel, I was trying to keep it between a speeding semi and an abandoned vehicle that intruded into the right lane. The steering wheel jerked out of my hands and the far corner of the front passenger side hit the parked van.

When my van stopped, I looked to my right and saw my little 16 year old dog crushed into the passenger seat...he was limp and unresponsive. I tried to open the door, it was stuck shut...so I brushed the airbag out of the way and climbed out the window, my heart breaking. Probably in shock, I wandered around for a minute then climbed back in, scooped Giggy into my arms and held him until an ambulance arrived. The other dog was miraculously unharmed.

The first ambulance was on a call and could not take me, but they put me in the back and kept me off the interstate. Telling them that Gig was, at best, in shock...I convinced them to give me a blanket for him. The firefighters asked if anyone else was in the van. I said "no" and requested that they get the other dog out, they tried to argue...and lost. When the next ambulance arrived, I insisted they take us to a vet…they knew better than to argue at this point. The EMTs looked at one another then called dispatch to get the number for the nearest vet. Later, Debbie (the vet's wife/office manager) would tell me that Gig was their first patient to arrive in an ambulance with sirens going.

Once the dogs were in good hands, the EMTs said I needed to go to the hospital...I refused to leave my dogs. The vet's wife/office manager, Debbie, chased them into the parking lot: "you can't leave her here!" The EMTs told her they had no choice if I refused to go.

It turned out Gig had a punctured lung and the vet gave long odds for his survival because of his age. In fact, they later told me, they thought he was as good as dead. They just didn't know the Gig. I parked myself on the floor beside his cage and waited.  My glasses had flown off in the wreck, so I was blind and everything, including my wallet, had been towed somewhere with the van.  Focused on Gig, I didn't even care.

A cop came, took my statement and offered to take me to the van to get my stuff (I had no ID, no money). Shortly after leaving the vet's office, the cop slowed as he approached an intersection.  Ahead, a car ran the stop sign and plowed into another vehicle. The cop stopped duty delaying my trip to the van.  A little bemused at the irony, I asked if I should walk back to the vet...he nodded. I started walking (nearly blind and probably still shocky), then suddenly realized I hadn't paid attention to where we had driven from.  Had there been a turn after we left the vet?  Fortunately it was straight up the road.

When I walked in to the clinic, the receptionist got a "deer in the headlights" look and ran to the office. (Later, Debbie would tell me that the receptionist came running into her office and said "SHE'S BACK!").  Later, Debbie took me to the van…and I solemnly faced the damage. It was an amazing twist of fate that I survived.  Aside from some bruises and probably a broken pinky finger, I walked away virtually unscathed. After we returned to the vet, I resumed my spot on the floor by Gig...tearfully happy that his tail had thumped weakly when I walked back into the room.

 The receptionist had kindly offered me a room in her home…then later, Debbie and Terry (the vet) said that I would be going home with them.  I wanted to stay with Gig, though.  They said that would mean taking him to an emergency facility that was open all night and would require a credit card. Stubbornly, I replied that it didn't matter, I wanted to stay with my dog. They looked at one another and then told me: okay, he can come home with us. Gig still could not stand, and through the night I had to gently flip him over every so often to take care of his lungs. In the morning Terry took him back to the office…and a little while later he called to say that Gig had taken a few steps, I tearfully laughed and told Debbie "guess we'll have to call him 'dead dog walking' from now on".

Terry and Debbie and their staff showed unbelievable kindness and generosity...they didn't know a thing about me, but they brought me into their home and took care of the dogs and I. Giggy, typically, was a little walking miracle…everyone but me thought he was a goner.  Throughout the ordeal, I had not allowed myself to think too much about the costs.  I knew it would be high, and well beyond what I could afford...it would go on my credit card and be dealt with later.  As I prepare to leave, Terry and Debbie stepped out to say goodbye...I asked about the damages.  They said "we spoke with the staff and everyone agreed that you and Gig would be our 'good samaritan' case for the year.  There would be no charge.

There were a couple of odd things that happened before this trip even started. Beginning many months before, I was worried about doing this drive alone.  I would be taking my paintings and those of my then-husband, but he did not want to go. Over the years I had driven solo hundreds of thousands of miles to and from shows all over the country (including this one several times). Not only did it not worry me...I LOVED it. This one had me inexplicably spooked, though. Finally, I convinced Rob to do a trade...I would shuttle him and his companion from Vermont to Northern Ontario for a canoe trip (it meant two major round-trip drives up there) and in exchange, he would help do the drive to Alabama. I did my part...but we were in a rough place at the time and two days before we were to leave for Alabama, he backed out. Still with a deep "bad feeling" about the trip but unwilling to back out of a commitment, I went solo.

For some reason before leaving, I INSISTED on finding two heavy metal grids, old display panels, to put behind the back seat and prevent paintings from flying forward. Trying to find them was putting me behind schedule, still I searched until they were found. That was weird because I never worried about those things, in fact, I'd never used them...yet was obsessed about having them this time. As it turned out, those grids probably saved me and the dogs. The weight of the paintings against the grids tacoed the back seat, but not a single painting flew forward of them.

Another thing that was odd: I packed my cameras in their bags and stored them under the back seat. Normally, I ALWAYS kept the cameras out and right between the front seats where I could reach them quickly. Had the cameras been in their usual spot…they would have been destroyed.

Lessons from this...trust your gut and listen to your heart. My gut told me over and again that something was amiss...months before I even left. My heart made sure I stayed beside the little dog who had always stayed beside me. Over all my years on the road alone, I had often wondered what would happen if I had a wreck...and here, hours in every direction from anyone I knew, it was the kindness and generosity of complete strangers that got me through.

A couple of other good things that came out of that wreck:  The abandoned van? Turns out it belonged to a migrant farm worker who could not afford to have it repaired or even towed…I imagine her insurance check was a pretty welcome surprise, as well.  My vehicle?  A year earlier, my 92 Toyota had failed (at 250,000 miles).  With an important show coming up, I sold my truck and borrowed money from Rob's parents to buy a used Dodge 15 passenger van from a local dealer. It seemed like a good idea at the time...but from day one, I hated that van, it handled badly and was scary to drive.  I wanted to sell it, but it wasn't worth anywhere near what was still owed on it. When it was totaled after the wreck...the check allowed me to pay the balance I owed Rob's folks and left some for a down-payment on my 2002 Tundra (which, by the way, has carried me safely for nearly 300,000 miles so far).

The photo of the totaled van is kept out where I can see it...every time I look at it I am amazed that we survived that. I am also reminded of the good things that can come out of terrible accidents and of the kind strangers who rallied around me and a tough little dog with a huge heart.

Giggy, in the copilot seat as always,
one year AFTER the accident...

10 October 2012

Orange You Happy You Found Me?

On October 10, 2011 I was supposed to go horseback riding with a friend but had decided to cancel because I was coming out of a rough couple of days and pondering a weighty life decision. My friend called to move the time earlier...and on impulse, instead of canceling, I went.

On the way to the barn we came around a corner and two tiny orange kittens were in the middle of the road. My friend stopped the car and I jumped out, grabbed the first one I came to and quickly rolled him into my sweater. We tried to catch the second one, but it had disappeared into the grass. After some searching, we gave up and went to on the barn. The kitten I had captured was a thin little bag of bones and so small I could zip him into a pocket. He made no sound, didn't fight....just looked at me with solemn blue eyes.

Neither of us could stop thinking about the other one, though...and we decided to bail on the riding and go look for kitten number two. He was sitting in the same spot in road when we came around the corner. My friend scooped him up and now we had to decide what we were going to do with two kittens.

Another cat was NOT part of my plan, but from the minute I picked him up, I could not let him go. Sometimes animals, like people, come into your life for a reason.

Taking care of "Starvin Marvin" was a distraction from things I did not know how to face at the time. Over the coming months, a lot of tears turned to laughter at the antics of a scrawny little ginger colored waif. A year later, life has changed in a huge way but Marvelous Marvin is still here. He is far from scrawny now.

In the end, it really is love that heals all things...and few things help heal a broken heart like giving more love (even if the object of your affection is sometimes a kitten).

The assorted animals that have been a part of my life over the years have given so much more than I seem to give them. For the small price of some food, shelter and whatever attention I have time to give...they make me laugh and listen without interrupting, they offer comfort and companionship.

Given the opportunity, the creatures that share our lives are not mere pets...if you are willing to listen, they are teachers, little Zen masters. They take everything in stride and don't get hung up on bulls***. Like people, they may reflect things about us that we are not always willing to see...but, unlike most people, they do so without criticism or judgement. They forgive our mistakes and offer boundless unconditional love...who can't use a little more of that in their life?

Over the years, my "rescues" have rescued me over and over again.  They bring laughter into every day...and every time I am carefully picking cat hair out of a wet painting, I try to remember that that too is Zen...

01 October 2012

Oh, October...

Maybe I haven't gotten much better at dodging the curves that life has thrown at me over the years...but I can say that I have grown to appreciate them more than I would ever have thought possible. October, my birth month, seems to be a catalyst for joyful, devastating and enlightening changes in my life. As I prepare to embark on yet another "little" project in a couple of weeks, it seems appropriate to take some time over the next few weeks to share a few of the switchbacks that October has brought to my path and some of the lessons I have gleaned from them.

Long ago on October 1, I was a Mom for part of a day. It was a 24 hour period filled with fear, confusion and ultimately grief. There are no words to express the feelings associated with the loss of a child. There was sweet sympathy expressed by friends and family afterwards over the death of our son. One friend touched our hearts, though, when he very insightfully said "you were parents even if only for a short time"...and thus shared with us a celebration of a life, even if it was a terribly short one. The years have eased the hurt and I occasionally wonder what my life would have been had things gone differently. It would be wonderful to have my son beside me...but I truly believe that our paths (his, mine, his father's) were as they should be.

Over time, I have come to believe that we are here to learn how to love one another unconditionally. That means loving...and losing. Trusting...and being betrayed. Holding back...and letting go. Giving your heart...and having it broken. Opening your soul...and having door after door slammed in your face. For how can one truly understand another's grief/pain/sorrow/loss if we have never experienced it for ourselves? How can one know love if they've never had it? How can you truly value love if you've never lost it? From these lessons come the empathy that ultimately, hopefully, gives us the potential to feel true compassion. From these experiences comes the strength to stand above and look beyond the trials that come our way and find the trails that lead to something better.

There are myriad experiences that shape who we are...but it is the choices we make about the path through those experiences that shapes who we become.  I am grateful for the loves AND the losses that have forged my life...they have given me the grace and grit to, hopefully, face anything.