About this time last year, I learned that my sweet Mini Australian Shepherd, Tippy, had osteosarcoma in her left knee. This sent me on a journey in which hope, grief, change, and love have intermingled, and ended with the soon-to-be publication of A Good Community.
Now, I’m sure some of you might be thinking, “Your dog died. Big deal. It’s only a dog.” Those who have pets know otherwise. When you share a home with an animal you and the animal bond. You have a relationship with them, and when something bad happens to them, you feel bad. It’s as simple as that.
Let me also add that I’m no stranger to that intermingling of grief, hope, change, and love on the human level, too. It would be weird if I weren’t. After all, I’m cruising into my elder years. But I had a particularly big dose of grief during from 2004 through 2006. My dad died in January of 2004, my mom followed him in August 2005, and finally, I lost my first dog, a blond terrier mix named Gremlin, in April of 2006.
That big wave of loss moved me to seek emotional shelter. I left the position I had in a local congregation. Working in ministry is emotionally and spiritually demanding and I just couldn’t balance that with all that loss. I did, though, keep my other job as Media Coordinator at the Greater NJ Annual Conference and returned to Fairleigh Dickinson University as an adjunct professor in the Core Studies Department. Both of those position demanded less emotional and spiritual energy of me, something I badly needed at that time.
Six months after Gremlin died, I made another change: I adopted Tippy. You see, a friend of a friend had agreed to adopt two puppies from a breeder who suddenly found that both of her females had become pregnant. The plan was only to breed one female. Obviously, the stud had gone above and beyond in his job description!
I had told my friend that I wanted to wait six months and then look for another dog. She saw the availability of these puppies as coming at the right time. And so, I became a dog mama once again.
But things continued to be topsy-turvy from 2006-2008. Raising a puppy involved house training and keeping Tippy from chewing up pencils, not to mention eating the skirt on my couch and anything else she could get her teeth on (she was a power-chewer) was a challenge. I took her for training at Pet Smart. Although labeled as the “ADHD Dog,” because she would start barking whenever she got bored, which was after about a minute, Tippy graduated from basic and intermediate training classes. I have the photos of her with her graduation mortar board hat to prove it.
Then, in 2008, I learned that the woman who owned the house in which I was living wanted to rent it for a more money to help boost her income. Boom! – I began looking for another position in a congregation, one that this time would put me closer to my guy, Dan.
And that is when I came to work at First United Methodist in Somerville, NJ, move into the parsonage they provide for the Assistant Minister, and live only a half-hour away from Dan. I’ve been at First UMC for the last eleven years.
Everything rolled along well until Tippy had her diagnosis. It was followed by an amputation of her left leg and, after a discussion with the oncological vet, we decided to give her chemotherapy because the cancer seemed contained to her knee. However, the vet warned me that if one or two cells managed to sneak through, we would see the cancer metastasize. Tippy had just turned twelve and was otherwise healthy, so we started the chemo treatment.
That dog rocked the chemo. Animals don’t have the same reaction as humans, probably because of the drug dosages, but also because they’re just not human. There was no hair loss, for example. But what really amazed me was that Tippy did not experience any nausea or lethargy. And this gave me a reason to hope.
But when her chemo ended this year in April, and when we had her three-week follow up and radiological exam, it showed otherwise. The cancer was in her ribs now. And, within a couple of weeks, I could see the disease was progressing, that Tippy was in pain, despite the medication, and so I made the tough decision with which all too many pet owners are familiar: I decided to euthanize her. Anyone who has done this will tell you that it is heart-wrenching. You know you’re doing it because there’s nothing else you can do and because the animal is in pain and does not understand why. On the other hand, you’re killing your beloved pet. It’s tough, even if it is “only a dog or a cat or a guinea pig.”
So what’s this got to do with my new book?
Not surprisingly, the emotional roller coaster ride had an effect on my writing, not to mention other aspects of my life. As far as A Good Community is involved, the past year slowed my writing process way down. It’s amazing I finished the book at all! But in a way, writing also gave me a chance to focus on something else. Holding the print proof in my hand yesterday gave me an honest to goodness sense of accomplishment.
The past year has been rough. For one, I totally neglected my health for ten months. For another, I often found myself sobbing helplessly when I was alone. And yeah, I still miss Tippy, even though I since have adopted a shelter dog: a two-year-old coonhound-beagle mix named Vida, who is an absolute joy. Here’s a weird side note. If Tippy was sweet, Vida is even sweeter. The shelter attendant who suggested that I take Vida for a walk knew what she was doing. She knew a good match when she saw one. Apparently, so did God.
The habit of writing, a homeless dog, great friends, a terrific family, a gradual return to routine, and faith that God walks with us through the difficult times (even though we may not be aware of it) has seen me through.
This latest life change has birthed a new book that continues Maggie’s story and connects the issues of the 1860s with those of today. For me, the new book also symbolizes this new chapter in my life. Interestingly, at the end of A Good Community, Maggie finds herself stepping into a life change, too.
Is art imitating life here? Maybe. But I think it more correctly might be a case of art reflecting life. As I move forward, so does Maggie.
Thanks for reading this little rumination, friends.
See you next week.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder