The Winter that Was

It was a horrible winter. Everywhere, every person complained about the cold or the snow or the ice or combinations of the three. We have family in Atlanta who had water lines freeze between the road and their house, so they went without water until the city could make the repairs. Two of our daughters are teachers and both of them had more school days canceled this year because of snow or cold weather than they’ve had in all the last ten years combined. It was so cold that more than 90 percent of all of the Great Lakes were frozen over, something that no one can remember ever happening before.

Living in Minnesota, we’re used to cold weather and snow. But this winter was especially harsh. We had bitter cold weather in early December that just would not go away. We kept thinking it would change and we’d un-scrunch our shoulders, but no break came. We ended up with 37 days when we didn’t get above zero. At all. Not during the day, and certainly not overnight. We went more than three months with temperatures below freezing, not once going above 32 degrees. It was horrendous.

For us Northerners, we tend to take pride in surviving such extremes. We earn bragging rights by being able to say we can tell the difference between minus 10 degrees and minus 20. And having the unfathomable experience of brutal winter year after year, our hearts are filled with renewed spirit and hope when spring finally shows up. We do this every year. And we are stronger for it.

But this winter took a toll we weren’t yet ready to pay, and for that reason we will always remember it with great sadness. It was the winter that felled our black lab, Diva.

Aptly named, Diva was the center of her universe. We lived in her house, and the food we bought to feed ourselves she thought we bought for her. Our bed was her bed. My closet was her hideaway. She was the first in line for every meal or treat, the first at the door to go outside. She was the Queen of the House.

Despite such a prima donna attitude, Diva took her alpha dog responsibilities very seriously. She was on the clock 24/7, always the first to let us know when someone entered our cul-de-sac. And if that person dared to step foot in our yard or onto our driveway, Diva would sound the alarm in such a way that no one could ignore her. There was no reason for a doorbell. No reason for anyone to call and let us know they were almost here. Diva was on patrol.

We didn’t have any unwanted critters in our home or yard for Diva was always on guard. She had a keen sense of “good” people and we learned long ago to trust her instincts. If she didn’t like a person, we took another look ourselves. She had exceptional hearing and always knew when a storm was approaching.

In the end, it was a storm that felled her. In early March, we had a nasty ice storm followed by several inches of snow. Any other winter, we would have had signs of spring in March. We would have been near the end of the worst. But not this winter. It was March 13, a Thursday night, when we were eating supper, and Diva asked to go outside. For much of the winter she did her business on our deck and didn’t bother to go down the steps out to the yard. But this night, she choose to do just that. And she was out there longer than usual. And I wondered about that, so I went out and found her sitting at the bottom of the steps to the deck. Panting hard. Full of anxiety, and yet unable to move. She could not get herself up on her legs. I walked down the steps to talk to her, to check on her, and found a puddle of vomit. And I knew then, this was not going to be good. As I reached her, I slipped and fell on ice. And suddenly, I understood the “big picture” in its entirety.

I righted myself and ran back up the steps, grabbed a throw rug from the kitchen floor, and yelled for my husband to come help me. I threw the rug down on the ground, on top of the inch of ice, at the bottom of the steps. And carefully I lifted the rear end of this 110-pound black lab, and helped her get up on all fours. So far so good. But she could not put weight on one of her back legs. And she fought with all her might to get up those deck stairs, all four of them. But she made it, and she was driven to get inside the house. So she limped and struggled and got into the kitchen and collapsed on the floor.

She laid there for just a few minutes as I took inventory of her legs and couldn’t see anything obvious. Her panting was steady and fierce, and she was determined to get farther into the house. She stood and tried to walk, but fell. She tried again, and fell again. She propelled herself forward with each attempt and managed to move to a favorite rug at the bottom of the stairs going up to our bedrooms. And she stayed there a while.

My husband and I assessed the situation. We knew it was bad, but we didn’t want to believe it was THAT BAD. We figured she would rest, catch her breath, and she’d be fine. After all, this was Diva. This was the dog who at age three jumped out of a car that was going 70 mph, and survived with just a small scratch above one eye. This was the dog who had scared a few cats out of some of their nine lives. She was built like a horse. She had incredible strength. Combined with her determination, nothing could stop her, even if she was thirteen years old.

As she lay on that rug, in obvious pain, Diva was determined to make her way up the flight of stairs to our bedroom. We told her to lay, to “stay.” And she did. But only long enough for us to get distracted by other things. And with our backs turned, she managed, by will and determination, and with incredible strength of her chest and front legs, to make her way up to the second floor. None of us witnessed the struggle it must have been for her. And truth be told, we are all glad. We could not have handled the sight.

But she made it upstairs, to her favorite spot. She didn’t sleep the entire night. She didn’t move. She panted nonstop, and we brought her water. Lots of water. By morning, we knew she needed to get outside to empty her bladder, but we also realized she couldn’t do it on her own. She could not stand on her hind legs. And we could not carry her.

My husband called our vet and they sent out a “doggie ambulance” with a stretcher. Two men carried her down the stairs, struggling with each step from her weight and the unbalanced load. My husband rode with her and I followed behind. Arriving at the vet’s office was like a scene out of a TV hospital drama. Three people were standing outside waiting when we arrived. They each took hold of the stretcher and carried Diva in to the “emergency room.” She was surrounded by people on all sides, every person taking an assessment of some sort. And Diva smiled. She loved the attention.

It didn’t take long to get the news, she had torn her ACL. Four years earlier (and 25 pounds less in weight) Diva had torn the other ACL. At that time, she underwent surgery and three months of rehab. In the months that followed, she developed arthritis in both hips and it was difficult for her to get the right amount of exercise. Now, at thirteen and carrying much more weight than she could handle on three legs, the prognosis was not good. She had several tumors on her body, cataracts in both her eyes, as well as teeth and gum issues. The vet told us she likely would not survive the surgery, and he doubted he would find a surgeon who would agree to it. And if a surgeon did agree, and if she did survive, would we be able to provide the aftercare she needed? The vet told us it would not be three months of recovery this time, but much, much longer. And he wondered about the quality of life would she have. He asked some tough questions, but questions that needed to be asked just the same.

Diva was my husband’s “baby.” Diva was his “Superdog.” I don’t think my husband ever once believed she would die someday. Certainly, he never expected to find himself standing in a vet’s ER making the decision to end her life. He was devastated. One of the receptionists brought him a chair to sit on and I dug out some tissues from my purse. I asked the vet to give Diva some medicine to make her more comfortable so she could relax while we said our good-byes.

She settled down and quit panting, and relaxed in a way that made me realize she had not relaxed in more than four years. I grabbed my husband’s hand and forced him to pet her. I pointed out how relaxed she was. We talked about how much pain she must have been in for the last four years. He told the story to the room full of professionals of her jumping out the car window all those many years ago. He cried. He grieved. And then, he told the vet he was ready. And he said his final good-bye. In less than a minute, Diva was truly at peace.

It’s been more than a month since, and we still feel her loss every day. Even now it is a struggle to share this story, but I must. I need to let it go.

It is warmer now, and Diva would have loved to go walk in the sunshine, to prove to all the neighborhood dogs that she had earned more stripes from surviving another Minnesota winter. But sadly, she didn’t. And we will always remember the dreadful winter that was.

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Perspective

I had a not fun day at work this week and found myself on the pity pot on my drive home. I knew I didn’t want to throw a complete pity party, so I promised myself that I would adjust my attitude. And in the process of doing just that, I ended up contemplating the way we look at our lives.

 

After I got home from work that day, I went on Facebook to catch up with friends and family. I thought it would help me forget about my awful day and would put a smile on my face. In the last year I’ve reconnected with several classmates from high school. It’s been fun and interesting to find out where we’ve all ended up all these (dare I say thirty-five) years later. One of those friends is a single mom, struggling to make ends meet, trying to do the best for her children. This friend slipped and fell on ice this winter, suffering a nasty break to one of her legs. She’s been homebound for weeks and absolutely miserable. I can’t imagine what she’s going through. But seeing her comment about another boring, frustrating, insufferable day stuck in her apartment made my awful day at work seem not so bad.

 

Another of my high school friends published a collection of short stories a couple of years ago, stories taken from his life’s experiences. I recently re-read one of his stories about how for much of his life he yearned for affirmation from his mom. Just once he wanted her to tell him how proud she was of him or that he had done a great job at something. Instead she always had something negative to say. I wonder if my children feel that way. Re-reading the story reminded me of my own childhood, growing up the youngest of eight kids. We were always competing for attention and affirmation. One of my brothers, the fifth child, harbors such strong feelings about the lack of affirmation that he received as a child that when he comes across someone else from a big family he will say, “I’m sorry.”

 

A couple of weeks ago I lamented to a bible study group about how I’m always praying for a sign from God as to what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. For the last few years I’ve felt trapped and unsatisfied in many ways. Since I’m not happy, I presumed that I must not be doing what God intends for me. Just as God gave Noah detailed instructions of how and when to build an ark, and how He talked with Moses and showed Moses and his people how to find their way out of the desert, I’ve been praying for a clear sign for direction in my life. One of the people in the bible study group suggested that perhaps I’m doing exactly what God intends and that I need to accept it and love the life I have. At the time that I heard that comment, I was put off. I felt the person hadn’t understood the point I was trying to make. But after this long week at work, and a slight attitude adjustment, I have a better understanding of what that person was trying to say to me.

 

Acceptance. Like patience, acceptance is a virtue, a moral standard of excellence that some of us struggle our whole lives to achieve. One might argue that we are not fully mature until we’ve learned to accept God’s plan for our lives.

 

I wonder, will I ever reach that level of maturity?