Yesterday I was scolding Phin on the sidewalk because he got ahold of a chicken bone and wouldn’t let go. A mom walked by us with her two toddlers, and one of the two toddlers raised her arms up to the sky and said, “Phineas! Phineas! Phineas!” Her mom started laughing out loud and said, “That’s amazing! Phineas is my daughter’s sixth word.”
By then Phin had noshed on the chicken bone and swallowed it. He sat there like a little prince, quite proud of himself as the little girl cheered him on. As angry as I wanted to be, I just couldn’t find it in me. If someone was on the street chanting my name, I’d continue doing exactly what I was doing, too.
I’m a big believer in writing down my wildest dreams and hopes in my own handwriting. It worked for finding my dream job. And now it’s worked for Phin. Yesterday, I had to take Phin for an MRI. He was having intense pain, but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. While I waited for him, I wrote him a letter about how I wanted this situation to unfold. It was a hopeful wish against all odds. 15 minutes later the neurologist called me and delivered exactly the news I had written down moments before. She even used some of the exact same words I had written down. It was wild! It is a minor issue that we can fix with medication and rest for two weeks. Call it karma, the power of prayer, or magic. Whatever it is, I know it works. If you’ve got wishes, write them down.
Here’s the letter I wrote to Phin:
I really need you to be okay, buddy. You’ve been through so much in the last set of months, too much for a dog so sweet and loving. I know you are strong and brave, and that we have many more adventures ahead of us. We still have quite a way to travel together so I know you are going to pull through this latest blip like the champ that you are.
We’re going to look back and shake our heads at this. Once on the other side, we’re going to be very grateful that this wasn’t serious at all, only something minor and easily fixed in no time. You’re going to be happy, healthy, and whole. I just know it. You already are. These tests are just to be 100% certain of it, without a trace of doubt left.
From now, we’re going to take it easy. Just snuggles and walks and laughs together. Many more years of them. This reality already exists for us. I’m just pulling it out of the ether now. We have a house to buy (eventually), a beau for me (and a dad for you!) to find, and a city to explore. Hikes in Shenandoah. Roosevelt Island, the monuments around the Tidal Basin, Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal.
You have so much life and love and adventure still in you. So have faith and courage. We’ll face this together head on, as we always have, as we always will.
Summer is almost here. The warm air and the long, happy days filled with sunshine are just around the bend and I can’t wait to share them with you on our long walks together. All is well. All good things.
Phineas crossed a new threshold this weekend and taught me another big lesson in the healing process. It’s now been 2 months since his surgery. It was beautiful outside yesterday afternoon so we suited up and headed for Rock Creek Park. I wasn’t sure if or how Phin would navigate it. It’s been almost 6 months since we’ve been out on any trails and Rock Creek has some steep hills. I figured I would let him try it and if it was too much for him, then I could carry him.
I was skittish about approaching the hills, but Phin wasn’t phased by them one bit. He went after them with his usual gusto, bounding straight up without giving it a second thought. He’s not quite as agile as he used to be and he’s a little slower, but he did damn good. We arrived back home 2 and a half hours later. Phin was tired, though so was I.
I’ll be the first to admit that I still monitor Phin’s gait on a daily basis. There isn’t a moment that goes by when I’m not abundantly grateful that he’s with me. I remember all too well how close I came to losing him, and how close he came to losing his ability to walk.
The thing is that Phin doesn’t worry the way I do. He doesn’t get caught up in the psychology of injury, nor in the hard work of healing. To him, this is just life now and he’s happy. He knows he gets tired more easily and that he’s lost some flexibility in his spine. He knows he teeters over from time to time and that he can’t run quite as fast as he used to run. He loves and knows he is loved, and that’s his focus. To him, every walk, wonky or not, is a good walk. Every day is a good day. I’m not as zen as he is about all of it, but I’m trying and Phin is a patient and enthusiastic teacher.
“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” ~Anatole France
There is something so easy and natural about loving an animal. The first time I met Phin, I knew in an instant that he was the dog for me. People told me this would happen, but I didn’t believe them. I thought my ever-questioning mind would fully get in the way. It didn’t. I saw Phineas wiggle his little self into the waiting room and with that he wiggled his way right into my heart. I scooped him up without hesitation, and the rest is history. Loving an animal so much has been one of the greatest gift in my life, and I imagine it will be a gift that never ends.
Over the years, Phin and I have worked nearly every angle to help manage his separation anxiety—several trainers, numerous practice exercises, a serious amount of walking, toys to keep him occupied and busy, medications, aromatherapy, and even a few months with my mom in Florida. The one thing we never tried was a second dog. I was worried about taking on the expense and work of a second pup, and many people convinced me that a second dog wouldn’t help. “He’s just not a city dog,” they’d say. Or worse, “He was meant to be with a family that’s home all the time, not a single person who works.” I’ve shed a lot of tears and experienced a huge amount of anxiety because I was worried I just couldn’t help him.
It’s been two weeks since we moved to D.C., and my friends Matt and Alex whom we rent from have a sweet pup, Otis. Otis and Phin get along very well and they were immediate friends. We just open up the door between my apartment and their house, and Otis and Phin pal around together all day. It’s an incredible situation, and I’m so grateful for it. And Phin’s anxiety when I leave the house? Gone. Turns out what he needed all this time was a pal to be in the world with. And isn’t that what we all need? No matter how heavy life gets, as long as we’ve got a friend we’re okay. Another beautiful lesson from the world of canines.
“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ~Philip Pullman
My dog, Phin, is adjusting to our new apartment. Sometimes he gets some anxiety that manifests in barking as he’s adjusting to new circumstances so we have a whole routine we’ve used many times to help him adjusted as quickly as possible. (Luckily that’s the only way it manifests!) Brandon McMillan, the host of the show Lucky Dog, recently did an episode about a dog who had severe separation anxiety and he suggested a layering technique that included recording his voice and playing it back in a loop when he left the dog home alone. I decided to give it a try.
I recorded some stories to play for Phin as I left him in our new place for the first time yesterday. I recorded Anne Lamott essays, J.K. Rowling’s speech when she was the graduation speaker at Harvard a few years ago, and a few of my own pieces. When I turned on the loop, Phin curled up in a blanket in front of my laptop, put his head down, and went to sleep. Amazing!
Stories are always a comfort to me. To read them, to write them, to revisit them when I need their encouragement and inspiration the most is a privilege I never take for granted. I never realized that reading them out loud could be so comforting for Phin, too. Philip Pullman was absolutely right—we all need a good story. Dogs included.
As Phin became stronger this past week, I exercised the right (with his doctor’s permission) to put him on a blanket on the floor next to me to let him stretch out a bit more. The trouble is that now he’s getting so much better (though not totally back to normal) that he wants to take a stroll around the living room. He’s even slyly snuck away a few times to venture (slowly and wobbly) into the kitchen.
I understand his impatience—like mother, like dog. So now we’re back to strict crate rest despite his energy rebound. He’s not happy about this. He gives me his best Bette Davis eyes. One time, I think he actually winked at me. I can’t blame him the little guy for trying to turn on the charm in an attempt to secure a get-out-of-jail-free card. I’m not happy about it either and I’m not even the one stuck in the crate.
Healing, any kind of healing for anyone, takes time and rest and dedication. Healing is a lot of work. Let’s face it – the whole process of healing is a pain in the rear. And if we rush it, if we do too much too soon because we want so much to just get back to normal, then we risk robbing ourselves of all the potential that waits for us on the other side of healing.
I want Phin to make a full and complete recovery. I’m looking forward to the days when he and I can take our walks together again in the sunshine and fresh air. And they’ll happen; I know that. Come spring, we’ll take our spin around the Tidal Basin and he’ll roll around on that precious little healed back in the cherry blossoms. It’s just going to take some time and patience on both our parts – him in a crate and me sitting next to his crate as I write – marching toward our common goal to be well and whole.
Becoming a Jedi takes patience, puzzling, waiting, and a lot of slow learning. So does healing. What I hate most about the healing process is the waiting. I can’t do anything to speed it up, and I like to do things. I like to contribute. Healing is on its own watch, and I want it to be on mine. I’d like to snap my fingers, and have Phineas’s spinal column immediately knit itself back together so that he can walk again without a shred of difficulty or discomfort. Is that so much to ask?
I’ve been sleeping on an air mattress next to Phin’s crate since he came home on Friday. (Don’t feel bad for me—it’s a nice, comfy air mattress.) I spend a lot of time watching over him, and a lot of time waiting for the magic of healing which is taking its sweet time when I want it to use a magic wand. Healing, stop holding out on me. I’ve never been known for my patience. Quite the contrary. If something can be done today, right this minute, I’m doin’ it. Why can’t healing have that same work ethic? Why is it so damn lazy?
The body’s magic; life is magic. I get it. The surgeon drilled a hole into one of Phin’s vertebrae, cleaned out the ruptured disc area, and now the bone and disc are going to magically regenerate themselves in about 4-6 weeks. Okay, okay. We (humans and animals) are all tiny miracles of growth and progress and evolution. I know it’s a miracle that we have these soft squishy bodies that heal themselves through no effort on our part save for sleeping, eating, and, occasionally, taking some meds. Awesome. Now hurry up!
My pleas and prayers for an overnight recovery have thus far gone unanswered. The universe is making us sit, and wait, and watch, and learn. And I’ll do all those things because healing isn’t giving me a choice. It’s the boss, the teacher, the wise old sage, rocking in the corner, who’s earned the right to do things when it’s good and ready and satisfied that we’ve earned and learned everything it meant for us to earn and learn in the process. I’m thick-headed; I always have been. Lessons take a long time to seep into this skull of mine and make themselves at home in the deep recesses of my brain.
I’m inflating the air mattress. I’m giving Phin his meds wrapped in cheese (he’s crazy for Havarti), and tucking a soft blanket around him. He closes his eyes and drifts away into conversation with the sage, away from any pain, into a dream world where he walks and runs and is by all accounts perfectly healthy in every way. For him, for now, that’s enough. He’s content to give his body all the time it needs. I smile, and wait.
We are what we think, and what I wanted to think about were the blessings of life, large and small. I wanted to be wowed; I wanted to laugh; I wanted to stay positive and send that positive energy to my dog, Phineas, as I waited for the results of his tests by the neurologists.
So I meditated, helped my nieces get ready for school, and watched CBS This Morning. I wrote some articles about the trend of curation in education, jobs that won’t be lost to advancing technology, the wine industry in Northern California, and personal finance lessons learned by women in their 30s. I read about the restoration of wild Amur tigers in Russia, a 200-year-old mummy found meditating in lotus position, astronomers’ discovery of a planet that has a ring system 200 times the size of Saturn’s ring system, and Nerdgirl’s blog contest to celebrate her 39th birthday at Noma Tokyo with a blind date.
And you know what? It helped. It helped a lot. Of course I was still nervous for Phin. Back surgery, especially for a dachshund, is a very serious procedure. Phin isn’t like family to me; he is family. His rehabilitation could be long and tedious. With proper care, his recovery is highly likely but not guaranteed. So the best I can do now is keep my head up, my ears open, and my thoughts as optimistic and as realistic as possible. Writing, reading, and laughing helps.
My dachshund looked drunk. And for a dachshund, a breed prone to spinal issues, a collapsing of the back legs can be a death sentence. I rushed him to the ER, and he was immediately admitted to ICU. I got in my car, alone, and sobbed loud angry cries of “No! Not yet, not yet. I’m not ready yet.”
It really forces you to draw your own character into question when a 5-year-old 16-pound weiner dog who was abused and abandoned as a defenseless puppy is braver, stronger, and more courageous than you are. He was disoriented and uncomfortable, likely in deep pain that he refused to show anyone, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. He soldiered on. He believed. I would have been ashamed of myself upon realizing this, but I was too bogged down in my grief. Thankfully Phineas just smooched my face before the nurses took him back, and got down to the business of healing.
The sad and subconscious deal you make with the devil when you adopt a dog is that you are very likely to outlive him or her. At some point, they will cross over and your life will go on in this plane without them. I try never to think about this fact. When I do, it overwhelms me like a mammoth wave of brackish water. I feel sick, lonely, and afraid. I’m usually able to pull myself back from the ledge, but with Phineas facing a grim prognosis in ICU two days ago I was helpless against the wave. It batted me around good and hard until it coughed me up, face first on the scratchy sand. Just stab a knife through my heart and turn it. It hurt that badly.
I was preparing myself for the worst. And in his typical stubborn style, Phineas refused to follow my lead. He wasn’t going down that dark path I set for myself, and for him. No, he was going to carve his own path. He went his own way. Screw the odds. That little guy is fighting, to be well, to live, to be whole and happy, and to be with me. The thought of giving up never crossed his mind.
I woke up several times in the middle of the following night sobbing. I’m glad it was dark because I’m sure I looked hideous. I’ve never been a pretty crier. I don’t trust anyone who is. I’m quite certain my guts were on the outside of my body after each crying fit. I buried my face into one of Phineas’s blankets and somehow fell back into a shallow sleep. Around 7am I phoned the hospital to see how he did overnight. He’d done it; he had begun to respond, very slowly but steadily, to medication and rest and the prayers that friends and family have been saying nonstop since I took him to the hospital. He took all of that goodness in and used it to his advantage. I was shocked. The doctor was shocked. Phineas was not.
Throughout the following day, he continued to climb out of the abyss I had relegated him to. He walked a few feet, slowly and with some difficulty, but all on his own. He took oral pain medication without getting ill. The door to the kennel where he’s staying has a sign that says “will bolt”, meaning that if a nurse isn’t careful when he or she opens the kennel door Phin will dive right out of the kennel with the IV flapping behind him so that someone will play with him. Just call him The Unsinkable Phineas Brown. He’s not ready yet, either. That’s one thing we both agree on.