Billy


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Billy with Boo

My beautiful dog Billy has had skin cancer for the last 14 months.   An oncologist has treated him with chemo and cryosurgery.  Billy has survived because of this treatment but in the last month he has been failing.  On Tuesday  I took him to his regular vet to see what she thought of Billy’s condition.

In addition to cancer Billy also had a collapsing trachea.  It seemed to me that in the last few weeks Billy has begun to cough more and have difficulty breathing when he lay down so I thought the trachea was worse.  The doctor told me that the cancer had spread to Billy’s lungs.  I asked if was time to put Billy down.  She said yes.

The vet came to the house at 1:00 to put Billy down.  I was  incredibly sad but at peace with the loss of Billy  I think Billy knew he was dying  He would lie for hours with his eyes open while not moving.  He was still able to take his daily hike however since his breathing was fairly normal when he was standing.

Since the decision to put him down was made three days ago I have taken Billy hiking every day.  I’ve cooked him steak and chicken and turkey for dinner.  We even went to the dog park which wasn’t too successful since Billy just clung to my side.

During Billy’s illness faith had been very difficult for me.  Billy was my mainstay after my husband’s suicide.  While I understand intellectually that God’s ways aren’t often understood by man emotionally I felt devastated.  Believing had become almost impossible.

Once I decided to put Billy down and devote those precious 3 days to my best friend I found myself spontaneously thanking God for having given me this precious dog who has loved me no matter what.  I realized that while I am losing him I have been so blessed by him for all these years.  Oddly after all the struggle to believe faith returned in a rush of gratitude just as I was about to lose him.

After I took Billy for our last hike this morning I stopped with him and Boo to pick up a plastic sheet to put on the couch where he would be euthanized.  As I was walking through Home Depot people would stop and pet the dogs.  One man stopped and said “Oh what a nice whippet.”  He stooped and Billy crawled onto the lap his legs made.  For some reason I told him Billy was going being put down today.  This lovely man cuddled Billy and petted him for at least 10 minutes.  Somehow I knew God sent him to reassure me and bless me in my loss.  How grateful I am for God’s generosity.

When the vet and her assistant arrived to put Billy down I was ready.  I sat with Billy on my lap and fed him pieces of turkey while the doctor inserted the needle.  Billy was gulping down the turkey, as much as he wanted, a rare treat.  Suddenly he stopped, gave a sigh and that was the end.

Billy is gone but not forgotten.  He blessed me with his life and now he has blessed me with his death.  Go with God Billy.

Homelessness And The Loss of Roots


homelessnessVolunteering at a St. Martin’s Hospitality Center which is a day shelter for homeless people has given me a new perspective on rootedness.  No matter what happens to me I always know I can go home and how much this contibutes to my sense of who I am. If I had no place to go I think I would feel less a person.  Somehow my sense of myself is partly rooted in where I live.  The people who are homeless have lost this piece of their identity.  I think that a large part of our mission at St. Martin’s is to help them hang on to the whatever part of their identity they still retain

The shower station is my spot when I volunteer.  I help people sign up for a shower giving them towels and soap and shampoo.  When a shower is free I page them and they get to take a shower using the small bars of soap and little bottles of shampoo and conditioner which kind people carefully save for us when they travel and then donate to us.  They can use a hair dryer or a straightening iron if they want.  Most of all they seem to want scent to put on after their showers.  Especially the men.  I breathe a sigh of relief if when I arrive to volunteer if there is at least one bottle of fairly decent men’s cologne.  Often I buy some if I can find it on sale since I hate saying  sorry I don’t have any scent today.  The people are always kind about it but I can see the the disappointment on their faces.   Right now I can’t find any scent on sale because it is the Chistmas season.  I am planning on hitting Walmart before I go to the shelter early Monday morning and buying something decent even if I can’t find it on sale.  After all it will be Christmas Eve and a bottle of Ralph Lauren will bring big smiles to their faces.

As to rootedness,  homeless people have lost most of their  roots.  The Shelter tries to help.  It provides long term storage where with just an ID, someone can store one box with whatever is precious to them for whatever period they need.  Our clients can also receive mail at the shelter and people can leave phone messages which they can return on phones provided to them.  Since they can’t wash their clothes we give them up to 3 outfits of donated clothes a week.  I think that the hope is that these services provide a sense of belonging to people who are struggling to get from one day to the next without a disaster.

Many years ago in Los Angeles I volunteered at The Downtown Women’s Shelter on Skid Row.  It was a day shelter as well.  My job was to make lunch for the 30 or 40 women who came in each day.  There was one woman called Lydia who was obviously paranoid.  Probably schizophrenic.  She came in each day for lunch.  She took showers and got clothes.  After several month we pieced together the fact that she was sleeping in the parking lot at the Methodist Church.  Finally I talked with her one day and she told me that she was over 65 and had worked for many years before she became too mentally ill to work any longer.  She said when she went to the Social Security office they wouldn’t let her apply for social security 

The next day I came to the shelter wearing my best business suit.  Lydia and I walked to the Social Security Office and we were able to get her though the application process and within a few weeks she was receiving a check.  She didn’t want to leave Skid Row.  But we talked her into getting a room in one of the hotels there.  I will never forget the look on her face when she walked into the small dirty little room with a bed and a sink and a chair.  She felt rooted I am sure.

Lydia’s brother who had been trying to find her for over 10 years called us at the shelter.  Apparently the Social Security Office notified him as her next of kin.  He came to see her from Ohio.  He came to the shelter from the airport and Lydia would not speak to him.  We were able to tell him about her being off the streets and having enough money for a room and life’s necessities.  While he was saddened that she wouldn’t talk with him he was relieved to know where she was and that she had a base.  I think this was the most we could hope for for Lydia.  But she was satisfied in her own way.  This was probably all the rootedness she could handle.

God bless you all and I hope you have a Merry Chistmas.   Give a prayer for those on the streets on Chistmas that they too will find whatever rootedness they can handle.

Why I Am Not Suicidal Now (I’m Not Saying I Won’t Ever Be Again)


Right now I am not having suicidal ideation. Well hardly any. It is a great gift from God and I believe it is a result of some changes that he led me to make in my life. I know that many people who are dealing with suicidal ideation feel as I did that nothing less than a miracle would help. When my PTSD and the accompanying thoughts of suicide started to ramp up at the beginning of this year I couldn’t understand why since it was over a year since the precipitating cause of the PTSD, my husband’s suicide, had occurred.

Earlier this year while praying it occurred to me that I hated to go to my church. I felt that I had worn out my welcome, that people couldn’t understand why I didn’t just get over my husband’s suicide. Richard and I had originally started going to the Baptist Church several years earlier because a neighbor recommended the woman who was teaching the Sunday school class. Having stopped attending an Orthodox Church several years earlier and having become functional agnostics I knew we needed to return to our faith. I also knew that I needed to immerse myself in the Bible. This seemed more important than liturgy or the sacraments so we began to attend.

When Rich took his life the Baptist Church really helped me through the ordeal of the first few weeks. They helped me with the funeral and the practical issues following Rich’s death. God bless them, they were there for me. But my not getting over Rich’s death just became too much for them and as I prayed I felt that God was prompting me to leave so I am attending an Othodox Church. I am still going to a Bible study taught by Pat the Sunday school teacher from the Baptist church but it is being given at a retirement home and because they know nothing of my situation it is non-threatening.

Another change I made was to begin to seriously study the Bible on my own. I am spending at least an hour and often two studying and praying over the Bible with good commentaries. I returned to prayer with more discipline and while I can’t say that I always see great benefit I know that it does help over the long-term.

Finally, after no longer being able to work as a hospice caregiver because I injured my back I felt I was able to volunteer again. I had several unpleasant volunteer experiences early on after Richard’s death and was afraid that I wasn’t capable of doing it. But after I had a very positive experience as a hospice caregiver I decided to begin volunteering at a Christian homeless shelter and I feel God’s presence there. The clients are people who are at the bottom and every little thing we can do for them helps. None of the workers or volunteers is interested in me, we are simply focused on the people who so desperately need the basics of life. Food, a shower, clean clothes and a place to get mail. Some of them are able to get counseling and are transitioning out of homelessness but most are either too mentally ill or are too dependent on drugs and alcohol to find those services of benefit. But we treat each of them with kindness and respect. Volunteering there has helped me feel that my life makes a difference in other people’s lives and that is something that I badly needed.

God has blessed me. I think that the prayers of many good people have made me able to move on and make changes that have improved my life. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner but I think that it is all in God’s time. The PTSD remains. I expect to have relapses but I hope that I will remember how kindly God has dealt with me and know that he will do so again.

The subject of suicide and Christianity is very close to my heart so I will probably continue blogging about these issues. So many people visit the site seeking help with their own suicidal impulses or the loss to suicide of a loved one. If they can get any comfort from this site that would be a great blessing to me. Thank you all who follow this blog and write to encourage me. Please continue your prayers for me as I so desperately need them.

Learning To Live From The Dying: Part 2


My second hospice patient was Vera.  She was 94 when she had a stoke earlier this year.  Her family had decided that she was ready for hospice care.  I came in 3 weeks after her stroke.  Her primary caregiver is her husband Bill who is 96 and a WWII veteran.  While Bill is legally blind he still walks 2 miles a day by himself.   

When I arrived for my first shift as Vera’s caregiver she was obviously disoriented and afraid.  She had been a vigorous 94-year-old until her stoke three weeks earlier.  She and her husband were inveterate hikers even though they could no longer hike to the bottom of Grand Canyon which they did many times in their seventies and early eighties.  She obviously loves her home which she has filled with New Mexican and Native American art.

Vera had to use a wheelchair because she was unable to use her right arm or leg.  On my first visit I introduced myself and helped her move to a comfortable chair in the dining room for dinner.  She panicked when I helped her with a “lift” that brought her to her feet where she needed to support herself on her right leg while I rotated her to enable her to sit in the chair.  She froze and only with great effort was I able to rotate her.

My shift was from 4:30 to 8:30 in the evening and part of my job was to prepare dinner for Vera and Bill.  I quickly learned that eating a tasty meal was very important for them.  Vera really relaxed over a good meal.  Since I love to cook for others and have had little opportunity to cook since my husband’s death I learned what they enjoyed and started making corn bread and pies and creating dishes that they liked.  They spent the bulk of the evening at the dining room table drinking wine and eating.  At first Vera couldn’t talk very well but in a few weeks she was speaking distinctly and enjoying conversation.  The three of us would reminisce about hiking and foreign travels.  They would talk about their early life together.

After a few weeks it became clear that Vera had every intention to get over the stroke.  I and the other caregivers would encourage her to support herself when she stood and she began to walk with a walker,  just a few hesitant steps at first.  Vera continued to sleep most of the day but gradually gained strength.  Her decision to get well was clear in her determination to overcome her fears and relearn the motor skills she had lost due to the stroke.  I watched in amazement as she progressed.  Her mental and spiritual resilience were like nothing I had ever seen.  I suppose part of it was that she wasn’t worn down by a long illness like most hospice patients.  But I also think Vera’s faith, her family support and her love of her home played an enormous role in her determination to recover. 

While I gave Vera the support she needed to recover she gave me something much more precious.  She showed me how to value the life you have however severely modified by loss or suffering and embrace it.  I watched in awe as this valiant woman fought her way back when her doctors said she was ready to die.  She doesn’t know how long she has but she is going to make the best of whatever time is left.

One evening when I was helping her move from a chair to her wheelchair she was unable to support herself  and collapsed.  I was able to keep her from falling but I injured my back supporting her.  Since then I have spent my time recovering from a slipped disc and my doctor has told me that I can no longer do hospice work.  This saddens me because I got so much from my clients and miss them deeply.   I am honored, however, to known them. 

Vera’s example has encouraged me to think about how I can use the same courage she showed to move forward in my life.  Her spirit and her faith helped heal my soul.

Learning How To Live From The Dying: Part I


A few months ago I learned that my dog Billy has skin cancer.  To pay for the cost of his care I decided to go back to work.  Since I had long experience as a hospice volunteer in several states I decided take a job as an in-home hospice caregiver. 

My first assignment was to give care to and 89-year-old woman who I will call her Molly.  Her regular caregiver was on vacation for a couple of weeks so I was filling in.  She has  a rare form of  Parkinson’s disease that has attacked her  throat and her ability to speak.  Her husband Harry who is 82 is her primary caregiver.  He is a difficult man who is very critical but is attentive to his wife’s care.  Molly also has a daughter who lives in a distant state.  She is very angry at and suspicious of Harry and the two of them can’t get along. Neither the husband nor the daughter are able to express much affection to Molly.

Each day when I arrived Harry would have already given Molly her breakfast and I would try to get her up for the day.  She didn’t have much to look forward to since she would spend most of the day in front of the television watching reruns of Bonanza and Matlock.  So I looked for things that would make her the day more interesting.  First, after getting her dressed I would take her for a walk in the streets outside her home.  We would stop and look at flowers or an interesting bird or even a new car.  While I pushed her wheelchair I would recount tales of my life especially foreign travels and tell her about the people and funny or unusual experiences.  Sometimes she would try to talk with me but she could only manage a hissing sound.  At first I found it difficult to talk about myself but I realized that it was comforting for her to hear these stories and it built a connection between us.

One day I decided to take her out to a local restaurant that offers a free slice of pie on Wednesdays.  It was a difficult a project to get Molly into my car with her wheelchair but she was happy to get out of the house. Molly had a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee.  It took over an hour for her to eat it and she ate every bite. When she had finished and I started to get her ready to go to the car she looked at me and smiled and said the only word she ever spoke to me, she said “good.” 

An unfortunate incident occurred  her husband put her in her wheelchair in the yard to get some sun.  Somehow she fell over into a cactus plant. She went to the emergency room for treatment as she had reacted to the poison in the plant.  A few days later I was filling in for her regular care giver and took her to a new doctor to look at her throat.  While we were in the waiting room I asked her how she was and if the cactus wounds were painful.  She shook her head and held out her arm to show me the large bumps that were a reaction to the cactus.  Impulsively I kissed the spot and told her that it would make it well.  She laughed!  Never before had I seen her laugh or have any instinct to mirth so we laughed together.

What I learned while caring for Molly is how important it is to find moments of joy in the life of those who have lost so much.  Neither her husband nor her daughter were capable of giving her much affection so I would lavish hugs and kisses on her, telling her she looked pretty after I had combed her hair and she had put on lipstick.  How much she needed the affirmation and how good it felt to give it to her.

The funny thing is that being able to help her helped my soul heal.  Being old and without family means that I rarely find moments in the normal course of my life when I am able to help someone.  What a joy it is to do so.

Because Molly and Harry aren’t believers the most important thing I could do was to pray for them and I still do.  I ask you to pray for them as well.

Living In A World In Which I Am Invisible


In my fifties I started to notice that I was becoming invisible to most people.  What I mean is that most people no longer met my eye when we passed in the street or had an accidental coming together in a public place.  I first noticed it with men and young people.  Even if they had to go to great lengths to not see me they would do so.  Then as I aged and lost the status of a profession this general non-recognition spread to most people. 

You may know what I mean.  If you go to someones house and they have teenagers, they don’t see you if you are an adult.  The parents may force them into some recognition of you but they usually make it quite clear that they don’t want to recognize your existence.

As an older woman it seems to terrify any man I meet to acknowledge my existence.  I have a feeling that men feel that if they acknowledge me I will then think they find me attractive  Having blessedly reached a point in my life where I agree with Gloria Steinem’s dictum that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle I would still like the recognition of my humanity.

It amuses me that when I am going into a store or walking down the street the one person who will meet my eye is an older women.  We acknowledge each other with a wry smile that allows us to affirm our existence to one another in spite of the world’s judgement.  I treasure these moments. 

So what is the point of this reverie?  It has made me more sensitive to others that don’t exist.  Who are they? People who are unattractive or handicapped or have mental problems or are of low status or like me simply old.  I have learned to try to acknowledge these fellow non-beings when we encounter one another.  Often times they are so used to being ignored that they don’t even realize I am trying to meet their eye.  Sometimes the destitute when recognized ask me for money which is a grace from God if I can help them.  What I give them isn’t enough to really make a difference and may even be used for drugs or alcohol.  None-the-less I hope they felt recognized in a simple friendly human glance and a smile.

One of the benefits of being invisible is that it can result in humility.  After my husband died my invisibility made me feel desperate to prove that yes I exist.  When I wasn’t acknowledged by others I despaired of ever being significant to anyone.  This contributed to my suicidal desire.  I wonder if Job felt that way?  Especially since he was the richest and most important man in the land.  I wonder if the most difficult thing for him wasn’t the loss of health, property or even his children but simply the loss of his identity?   He no longer was who he had been.  He was a man sitting in a garbage dump scraping his skin as it peeled from his body.  He couldn’t give lavish gifts to his children even if they still existed.  He had nothing.  Maybe he thought his children wouldn’t have wanted to know him if they still lived since he had sunk so low. 

The turning point for me was that moment when I knew that I exist even though the world may not care.  I exist because I was created by God who loves me and sustains me.  At that point my prayer became like those wry smiles I exchange with other older women, God and I share the recognition that I exist because he loves me and that is simply reason enough.

The Incessant Chatter


It’s funny, I go about my life taking care of myself and my dogs.  I go to church and bible study and work in the kitchen to help prepare the communal meal every Sunday.  I have even taken a job looking after a 91-year-old woman a few hours a week and like doing it. 

My house is clean.  I have food of sorts in my house. I don’t owe anyone a debt and I pay my bills on time.  Most mornings I hike in the foothills with my dogs for over an hour to give us exercise and help my mental state.  My guess is that I would be called a highly functioning adult.

Yet I have this fairly constant whisper in the back of mind that I am going to kill myself.  It is something I think about many times a day.  Sometimes I shut the voice up with the promise, “OK, I’ll kill myself this fall.”  

While I care deeply about others I can’t get close to anyone. I guess that isn’t too hard to figure out since my husband killed himself two years ago.  My final arrangements have already been made and paid for. There are no funeral arrangements since I have no family or close friends.

My dogs are what really deter me emotionally.   Would my plans for their care happen as I planned or would they wind up in the pound, frightened and eventually put down?

Not desecrating the life God has given me with suicide deters me spiritually and intellectually.  I pray as deeply as I can and I study the Bible.  While I pray I feel close to God but the whispers sometimes continue even then.

It is my suspicion that the people who know me best never dream that I am thinking about suicide most of the time.  In fact sometimes the thoughts are so insistent that I can’t really focus on conversation.  But I put on an interested expression and let the other party talk and no one suspects.

Medication doesn’t work.  It makes it worse.  I frustrate the doctors and psychologists and they quickly lose interest since they really can’t seem to help.  How many times have I been to a therapist or shrink in the last year and a half?  Often their solution it to have the police pick me up and take me to the hospital for a psych evaluation and then I am released with a referral to see a shrink.  So now I don’t go to the doctor or the shrink.  

This post has been all about me.  I know there is a greater world out there and I hate the fact that I am so self absorbed.  I do care about the future of our nation, about the persecuted Christians throughout the world, about hunger and children dying.  In fact the hopelessness of these issues when I think of them keeps me from reading and listening to the news since it increases the chatter.

I don’t know what to do.