Or So It Seems

Kali makes Don feel good.  And that makes me feel good.  Good for Don and good for Kali who is able to make a small difference for someone.  Or so it seems.

Over the years there have been times I’ve felt guilty for having a so much when so many have so little.  I feel as though I should be doing something grandiose to make a difference in the world or at least my community.    It’s been many years since we’ve attended church regularly and even longer since I “went to confession”.   But years ago, when the kids were young and we were quite involved in our Catholic church, I mentioned during a face to face confession with Father Steve that I struggled with the idea that my life was so good and so many people were suffering.  I told him that it pained me to know there were people suffering all around the world and I was doing nothing to help them.  On one had this “confession” was a little random but it represented both my guilt for doing so little and also my hope to be able to somehow do more. Steve was a great guy.  A regular guy and a guy I admired and trusted.  Priests are people and not all priests are great people.  But Steve was and to this day I miss his homilies, the prayerful feeling he could invoke in me, and his practicality.

Father Steve told me to relax.  He knew I was sincere and reminded me that I couldn’t fix the whole world in one fell swoop.  Take small bites he said…  He was right of course.  He made me fell better and more importantly he helped me to understand that it’s the small things that can make a big difference.

There is a “farm house” along the trail Kali and I walk.  It’s not really a farm house but it looks like one and when my kids were little they named it the farm house.  Don lives in the farm house.

Don's

Don’s “Farmhouse” along our trail

Don is an older gentlemen who hangs out on the side of the house, sometimes smoking a cigarette but mostly just looking around and killing time.  Killing time that some older folks do when there is nothing much else going on for them.  Months ago on one of our walks Kali and I stopped to introduce ourselves and since then when we pass by, if Don is out, I say “hello” or “good morning Don” and he usually replies, “how ya’ doin’?”  To which I say, ‘Good Don.  How are you”.  “I’m ok” is his usual reply.  It’s become apparent over the months that Don lives in the farmhouse with one of his children and grand children.  It’s also become apparent that Don has early stages of alzheimer’s disease.  I recognize it because both my mom and my aunt are in the early stages as well.

On a recent walk as Kali and I passed by the farm house on our way home we saw Don and I called out hello.  He answered, “how ya’ doing?”   I said “good” and continued walking along.  As we passed by Don’s eyes followed us and I heard him say, “that’s it?”.  I realized that Don was looking for something more than a hello.  He was looking for a connection, a conversation.  Don wanted to make sure he wasn’t invisible; that he was alive.

Later when I reflected on that brief interaction – or lack of it – Don’s words stuck with me.  “That’s it?”

That’s it?  That’s all there is?  That’s all I get?

Since that day I’ve had several conversations with Don.   If he’s out Kali and I make a point to stop and chat.  I don’t know anything about Don’s life and I don’t ask him about it. Instead I make small talk about the weather or the trail and golf course he looks out on.  Don makes nonsensical talk about his house and who lives in it, about the planes that are flying overhead, and  asks where I live; how far down along the trail.  Kali sits patiently while we talk.  Don has always admired Kali. When Kali and I first started walking by Don would always comment about how pretty she was and what a good dog she was as we came to the street to cross as Kali sits and turns to me.  He’d say, “Now that’s a good dog.  That’s how a dog should behave”.

Today as we passed the Farmhouse Don was out doing his “thing”, which pretty much is doing nothing.  It strikes me now that Don is cognizant enough to feel as though he is a burden and he knows he is in the final stage of his life. I don’t know if this makes his sad or not.  He seems mostly content.  Content.  It’s a word my mom and aunt both use to describe how they feel.  Not happy, not excited or sad, just content.  I think Don goes outside to smell the fresh air and hope that someone on the trail will interact with him, say hello, and maybe – just maybe – stop for a minute to chat.

I was glad to see Don outside yesterday.  I haven’t seen him much lately and I was concerned about him.   It was about 7:30 am, a warm 70 degrees with clear skies and the smells of damp grass in the air from the creek and golf course. I love that smell.  Kali and I walked up to Don and he greeted us.  Don reached down to Kali and petted her, squeezed her neck with both arms while he put his face next to hers.  Kali greeted Don with a major lick all around his face.  Don, standing up and wiping his face says, “That’s ok, I’m ok with that”.  He was beaming.  Don felt alive.  So alive he bent down again and Kali repeated the process.

We chatted for a few minutes.  Don asked me where I lived.  I told him down the trail about a mile.  He looked surprised.  Then he looked over his shoulder towards the farm house and said, “I live there?”.  It was a question.  I said, “yep, that’s your house”.

As Kali and I turned to begin walking back home Don reached down one more time to give Kali a pat on the head.  He smiled broadly.

It’s great to know that on this beautiful morning in paradise that Kali made a difference in Don’s life.  Or so it seems.

It’s not about me!

When my oldest son was about three years old we enrolled him in a Gymboree play group.  This was before Gymboree was all about merchandise and more about creating enriching environments for toddlers and their Yuppie parents (guilty as charged…).  There was a giant parachute that would go up in the air and fall onto of the kids who would laugh and scream with joy.  Fun right?  Well not for my son.  He screamed out of fear when the parachute went up in the air and spent the rest of the session in my lap on the sidelines far back from the other kids and especially far away from the parachute.

I was heartbroken.  I so wanted Jonathan to be with all the other kids laughing and playing underneath the parachute.  And I have to admit I was a little embarrassed that my kid was scared and crying on the sidelines.  Thinking back on that event over the years I realize that I let the outcome be about me when the only thing I should have been concerned with was my son and what was best for him at the time.  But parents are people and people have egos and egos can get in the way sometimes. This can be bad especially when it gets in the way of your children.  Or your pets…

I want so badly for Kali to experience playtime with other dogs.  When we walk past the dog park and I see dogs running and playing together I long for Kali to be along side of them.  I want her to be underneath the parachute laughing and screaming with joy.   But she’s not ready yet. She still gets anxious around other dogs so instead we walk by or watch from a distance (albeit closer these days) and as we walk by I’ll keep my chin up and wave to the other owners as Kali and I head to the pond to look at the ducks and geese.  Each time it reminds me of my son sitting in my lap crying and scared to get back into the circle of other toddlers.

And I have to remind myself – it’s not about me!

For as much anxiety and aggression that Kali has shown when we encounter other dogs on our walks or visits to town I’m convinced that within a day or less Kali would adjust and be a great step-sibbling to any dog that we brought into the family.  Given the chance she would quickly realize that she’s safe and would then be able to experience the joy of canine companionship.  So why don’t I give her that chance?  How do I give her the chance without stressing her out too much or inconveniencing other dog owners?

When I step back and remember that it’s not about me I realize that Kali has come a long way in the past several months.  We now regularly pass  dogs on our walks without any lunging or barking. In fact we had a milestone moment earlier this week when a dog and owner approached us on the trail.  Kali has learned to focus on me when we encounter dogs and  more often than not we pass by and move along without incident.  This time as Kali and the other dog got to the same spot on the trail they stopped and looked at one another.  Before I knew it Kali was muzzle to muzzle with the other dog sniffing.  This was a first! I was slightly stunned and very encouraged.  I wanted to make sure that this interaction ended on a positive note so that I could mark the good behavior by lavishing Kali with treats and praise.  I was one second too late.  Just as I was about to tell Kali “let’s go” and walk away she let out a deep woof.  The other dog replied and Kali started pulling.  I moved her back, apologized to the dog’s owner and we walked away.  But I still think this was a big step forward.  I hope this was a big step forward.  More importantly I hope Kali realized that this was  a big step forward.

I realized months ago that it would take a very long time for Kali to overcome her anxiety with other dogs.  It’s interesting that Kali was in foster care with many other dogs while in Taiwan and the report on her that I received before she was sent over was that she got along great with other dogs.  I’ve watched the wonderful video showing Kali and all the of  the dogs and volunteers at the airport in Taiwan before the dogs were boarded onto the plane that brought them to America.  Kali is quiet and seemingly comfortable with the 23 other dogs in the terminal.  The catholic parent in me wonders if there was something I did wrong to create her anxiety once she got here.

In a couple of weeks the local rescue group will hold their annual picnic where families and their rescued Golden Retrievers get together for an informal reunion. Many of these dogs will be from Taiwan like Kali.  Some may be dogs that were is foster care with her.  How cool would it be to have Kali reunite with dogs she was with in Taiwan exactly one year ago?  Very cool to say the least!

Holly, Kali, and I plan on attending the picnic.  But I’m very apprehensive.  I’m apprehensive about Kali barking and being disruptive.  I’m apprehensive about potentially putting Kali in a situation that is too stressful for her.  Holly, in her infinite wisdom, tells me if it’s too hard on Kali we’ll leave.  She’s right of course.  But, I don’t want to be the parent on the sidelines far back from the other kids laughing and screaming with joy under the parachute while my kid sits in my lap scared to participate.  I don’t want to be embarrassed and have to struggle to keep my chin up.

But, it’s not about me, is it?  Or course not.  It’s all about Kali and her continued development and adjustment to her new life in America.

The morning after arriving from Taiwan in May, 2014.

The morning after arriving from Taiwan in May, 2014.