Where a husband and wife blog to: continue the story told in a book called Dancing in Cornmeal: Life with Autism; enhance the conversation about autism; relieve a writer's need to write; inspire (when the stuff here is really good); network; and share - especially recipes that follow the SCD and Paleo diets. See "Welcome" under TOPICS for a better description, then just keep reading along...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Real Story of the last 10 years: Part I: I Prayed for a Dog

I prayed for a dog. That’s actually what happened over the past ten years. I prayed for a dog.

My last blog post told about our family’s last ten years, with Lauren’s health and healing at the center. It was a story that needed to be told, but it was a very limited perspective of the experiences of Lauren and our family over the past ten years.

Today I looked at our old dog, Trooper, and realized that he provided another quite valid perspective to the story. Because I began praying for that dog about the same time my prayers for Lauren became quite frantic. And then I thought about the many good and sweet things that have happened over the past ten years and what a shame that “Lauren’s story” couldn’t include those aspects. But it can. And it shall. Yes, it needs to be a whole new blog post, or maybe multiple posts, so our readers don’t unplug and throw their computers in fear of a long-term commitment each time a new post comes in from our site. So here’s another of many valid perspectives on “the rest of the story” of our family’s last 10 years with Lauren.

I prayed for a dog. And we hiked. The two actually go together.

Craig and I love the outdoors and virtually everything nature has to offer (sans mosquitoes and biting spiders). As a new homeschooling mom, I had intended to plan our school activities around the seasons and to be outside as often as possible. But it’s tough when you have one child who will attend to the chores of creating a garden, and one whom you can’t turn your back on or she may run down the street. When Craig and I first married, we spent a lot of time at stores like REI, dreaming about (and almost buying) a large tent and other camping supplies, certain that we would spend much time camping as a family over the years. Thankfully, we never bought a big, expensive tent, as Lauren may be able to one day understand the concept of “temporary sleeping quarters” when presented in hotel room fashion, but I doubt she will ever understand “temporary sleeping quarters” when presented as sleeping bags in a tent with nature noises very loud outside the fabric wall.

So maybe I should have been less surprised when my hero husband just upped and took Lauren hiking one day on a relatively unfamiliar trail, unafraid (or not blatantly afraid) of losing her. (Enough was enough—I think he just needed to try something, anything, to gain some sanity and some fresh air.) I don’t know the date of their first “troubled times” hike, but it has been a multi-weekly to daily event around here ever since.

In other words, over the past 10 years, we hiked a lot. Hiking was one thing we could do with Lauren successfully, and a way to get her out of the house and give her healthy air, sunshine and exercise. For a few years, hiking was virtually the ONLY thing we could do with Lauren because it entailed predictable ritual and very little social interaction—almost isolation, though not sedentary isolation, so . . . a huge step up from sitting at home isolated. We feel “successful” when hiking with Lauren, because it’s a normal family thing to do, and it’s a healthy thing to do. Even when Lauren had a fit on the trail (because she wasn’t well or something unusual and stressful happened), it was pretty easy to let her ride it out and for everyone to stay safe because there usually weren’t strangers nearby, yet there was space to keep our distance from her until she was calm again.

On our hikes, we got our nature fix! We’ve enjoyed frequent wildlife sightings. Deer, horses, bunnies, opossums, lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, fish, dogs, and birds galore—buzzards, egrets, geese, heron, hawks, and my sighting of a pterodactyl! (Okay, it was a pileated woodpecker, but he was pointy and HUGE!) Here’s some evidence of our sightings (only a few, as I rarely bring my camera):

A lizard from a hike in 2003

A jack rabbit (always referred to as “bunny”) from a hike in 2008:

Here’s a big honker turtle!
(Okay, we found him crossing our backyard in search of water, and we helped him to the closest source, but . . . isn’t he beautiful!? He made for a great homeschooling day!)

Here are large, sunbathing snapper turtles we did actually see on a hike:

And a blue heron:

I’ve mentioned that we first hiked with Lauren on a mountain trail not too far away, maybe an 8-mile journey to our favorite trail head (there were many trails around the mountain, so many access points from which to choose). Craig often stopped work at 5:00 or 6:00 and immediately packed up to take Lauren for a hike and the 2 of them (sometimes + Bryn) would go together. But when photos were taken, it was a family hike day. Here’s Lauren at 11 on a family hike day, wearing a grandma-made houdini, and touching a tree:

Lauren touched many trees. We referred to her by titles like “Tree Inspector #12” on hikes. She also liked the many rocks on these hikes and we loved mixing it up and climbing rocks when we came to the really big ones. Lauren was great at crossing a particular stream by jumping rocks over it. Daddy held her hand the whole way, but still, when she was crossing that stream, especially on days when the water was high, she looked as typical as any kid out there.

Here’s one of Lauren at 11 with her dad and sister on the same mountain trail:

When Craig first began hiking with Lauren, she required that he hold her hands at all times for security in this big crazy world with its confusing boundaries. Sometimes she even required that he be behind her, arms wrapped around her and holding hands in front of her. They developed an in sync walk, knee to knee, that wasn’t very comfortable, but Lauren’s daddy stuck with her mile after mile. (I did the “in sync walk” quite a few times, too, and I’ll attest that it’s painful to do it for long, or I was just at the wrong height to make it work.) It was a real commitment to walk this way for the length of the hike, but Craig did it for years. When Lauren became healthier in 2005, she also became more confident on the trail. Lauren’s healing on the SCD coincided with her trajectory to independent walking. She slowly began “releasing us” from the grip of in sync walking, sometimes moving away a bit and only holding a hand, or even detaching entirely for a bit. She went through a phase where she held our hand for the entire hike. Then she began to hold our hands for just parts of the hike. Today, Lauren walks behind Craig and me with an air of “I’m fine! Go on ahead!” (Sometimes she’ll hold our hands for a few minutes, or the entire hike, but she hasn’t gone back to that as a regular thing. When she does it, it’s almost like a reversal of where we’ve been, like she’s reassuring Craig or me that she’s still our little girl and still needs us—“I’ve got you, Mom and Dad”—even though she acts like Miss Independence most of the time.)

Occasionally, stress overtakes her and she’ll once again need a reassuring boundary (on the trail, or even in a store); she stops in front of Craig or me, wraps our arms around her, then walks in sync for awhile until she’s over the moment. It was trying when it was necessary all the time. Today, it’s a treasured moment of closeness when it happens. It’s even a wee honor to know that we are useful and capable in helping our child transition from upset to peace. (Wouldn’t it be nice if every human had another human or two who could do that for them—helping them to calm, relax and feel capable and confident once again when life is suddenly overwhelming.)

It was while hiking that Craig and I became inspired that we needed a dog. We saw many dogs on the trail—some running free, but most on leashes like they are supposed to be. Many friendly dogs ran past Lauren and a few stopped at her feet, begging to be petted. Lauren usually pulled her hands away from the dog, elbows up by her ears, and backed away when they came near. She seemed to be stressed by the rapid approach, vividly wagging tail, slobbering face poking at her begging to be touched. Then there were the jumping dogs. Though Lauren seemed legitimately afraid of the jumping dogs, she seemed intrigued by the simply happy dogs yearning for a pet—the way she backed up seemed more reflexive than fearful. Many dog owners stopped to offer Lauren a chance to pet their dogs, and Craig and I would try to help her pet them hand over hand. Lauren usually just pulled her hand back more firmly, then pushed us to continue walking; but occasionally she not only made contact with the fur (with much Mom or Dad prompting), but also let us see a glimpse of a smile during the exciting interaction. Craig and I thought, ‘She likes it, it’s just really hard. If she had a predictable creature she could get used to, that pup may push her to do more, or at least provide one more interesting, fun relationship to her life.’ So we talked about getting her a dog.

And I began to pray for a dog. Because it couldn’t be just any dog. It couldn’t be a jumping yippy dog. It couldn’t add a tremendous amount of work to our lives, as Lauren was already a tremendous amount of work. So it had to be older, well house-trained, not a chewer—what a tall order! Craig and I had cats over the years and almost all of our cats came to us, rather than us going to look for them. (Oh, so the dog had to be able to live contentedly with cats, too, not disrupting their spoiled little lives.) The animals I had while growing up also just “found” our family, so I am a firm believer in “making room for strays, then waiting.” (Wow! I’m so Miss Let’s-Just-Make-a-Decision-and-Get-on-with-It in every other aspect of my life that typing that “pet strategy” felt very funny!)

So we made room for a dog, and I prayed for a dog for Lauren. After about 2 years of praying, and avoiding just adopting any ol’ creature on a pet day at PetSmart (Craig’s a sucker for every cute or sad face in a cage) my BFF was on her way to work in the evening and saw a large dog laying on the side of the road like it had been hurt, so she stopped her car. (The road happened to be the street we live on.) My friend assessed that the poor creature, who wouldn’t budge, was lost, tired or hurt and needed assistance. Even though this dog weighed about 75 lbs. and had the shape and markings of a German Shepherd, my crazy friend used a blanket in the back of her car to lift him into her car. She had a dog in her backyard that wouldn’t take kindly to a stranger, so she drove to our house, knowing that we had a fully fenced yard, loved animals and could watch over him at least until she was finished with work.

I wasn’t home when my friend dropped off the dog, but when I arrived home, I saw this dog sitting on our back deck and immediately knew, “That’s our dog!” I like my dogs rather big and wolfy, and he was that. Yet he had the gentlest, even saddest, face. He was a German Shepherd with a hound dog face—seriously, perfect combination. He was beautiful.

Other than some very worn foot pads and furless elbows (perhaps telling that he spent the majority of his life on cement), he seemed perfectly healthy once he was in our yard, sitting up and walking around a bit, but not a big explorer. I hugged him and he just sat there accepting the hug, acting nervous about what I would “do to him” next. He came into the house and walked through it. When our meanest and boldest of cats not only did not make way for him, but hissed at him, he backed up, then chose to give her a wide berth. He looked a little hurt, like, “Why’d you have to be so mean about it?”

By the time my friend returned, Craig and I knew we wanted this dog if he continued to prove he met our family’s criteria, such as being house-broken beyond reproach. (Yes, he was. One of his nicknames is Iron Bladder to this day.)

This dog had an expired rabies tag, but no other identifier on his heavy chain training collar. The next day, we searched down the vet’s office to which his rabies tag was registered. It was about 30 miles away, so we wondered how the dog came to be so far from home. We were sad to call the vet, imagining his records would reveal the owner and our dog would need to go back. But that’s not what happened. Craig made the call and made clear from the start that if this dog had been abandoned, we were very happy to give him a home and that he was the perfect dog for our family. (He may have mentioned Lauren and my prayer.) The vet listened, asked where we found the dog and had a few more questions. He was quiet and hesitant in his responses. He asked us to keep the dog for the weekend while he pursued the matter. We tried to keep our hearts at bay and planned on just getting to know this perfect dog a little better over the weekend, and hoped that his out-of-date rabies shot was an indicator of his not having a former home to go home to.

On Monday, the vet called us back and we couldn’t have been more surprised at what he said. In fact, this dog was owned by a sibling of his! So he had known the dog very well—until a divorce about 18 months prior. According to the vet, the spouse who got the dog in the divorce was a druggie who tended to move around a lot, living with whoever was supplying at the moment. This spouse was also a parent and not found fit to have any custody or even unsupervised visits with their children . . . but the judge awarded this person the family dog!!! The vet said that he was sure any money this person could scrape up would go for drugs before it would go for dog food, then he told us his decision to the ethical conundrum with which he’d struggled over the weekend. He said, “I think you should just keep the dog and pretend you don’t know any of this. And I hope he brings much joy to your family and especially to your daughter.”

But he didn’t stop there. He also said, “To help you out, I’d like to offer to give your dog a long overdue physical exam, make sure he’s healthy and get him updated on his shots, no charge.” We knew how much that cost for a cat, so we were very grateful. The next day, Craig stayed home with Lauren, while Bryn, and I journeyed with our new dog to take up this super kind man on his super kind offer. The doctor was very happy to see the dog and petted him much while doing his exam. We told him we had named him Trooper, so he set up all new paperwork with Trooper’s name at the top, rather than his former name.

But that’s not all. Before we left, Trooper had received a bath, a defleaing and we had packages of (usually expensive) monthly heartworm and flea prevention. This man didn’t have to do this. He could have just ended his phone conversation with “You never heard of me, and I never heard of you. Have a good life.” But he went above and beyond the call of duty in helping his fellow man and animal. And Trooper came home with us.

Bryn loving on Trooper after that vet visit:

And our cat, Stella, checking out the new entity to be addressed in the house:

Stella and Trooper actually grew to be pretty good friends, because she had never lived outdoors, so had no concept of the look and smell of dogs being “evil.” Katie (our “mean” cat of the story) had lived outdoors as a kitten, and apparently her mama trained her well never to trust a dog. She never did. But the beauty of the whole thing: Katie was also mean to our other cats, so they learned to buddy up to Trooper. As Trooper became more comfortable in our house, it was Katie who gave him a wide berth, so the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” theory came into play nicely in our home, bringing peace to the more open-minded, kinder kitties.

I can’t say as Lauren took immediately to Trooper any more than she takes to anyone or anything for which she doesn’t have an immediate use. When he was first learning his place, he would jump onto a sofa occasionally, and she would “need to interact” by pushing his big butt off so she could sit.

Here’s Lauren on a day when it was very cold in our house and I was really just taking her picture because she was wearing my hat and scarf and it was adorable.

It was 2005, so Lauren was still ill and ornery often, and Trooper was still relatively new to us. I think this is the only photo in which Lauren is actively engaged with Trooper. Apparently, Craig was trying to get her to pet him. Though, I doubt that is why Trooper is standing near. He tends to come to us for protection (of us or him, we’re not sure) when we take photos.

You see, after his adoption, we did discover Trooper’s one HUGE flaw—he is scared to death of storms and of fires. This information helped us to make an educated guess about where his former owner likely lived. A house directly across the street from where Trooper was found was repeatedly rented short-term by different, odd people over the years. We could tell by the piles at the street when tenants had been kicked out, as well as what the interior must look like. We had been referring to it as “the meth house” for a long while when a large kitchen fire and another eviction pile seemed to validate our suspicions. Trooper is as scared to death of the simple lighting of a match as he is of thunderstorms. I wish I could remember the date of the kitchen fire in that house, because I now believe there is a great chance that the discovery of Trooper by my friend occurred as a result of, and approximately on the day of, that kitchen fire and eviction.

We imagine that Trooper had been left outside with no covering through some horrible storms involving tornado sightings and hail. If you have ever read or seen Because of Winn Dixie, you have an idea of his reaction to a storm. Trooper reacts to camera flashes similarly, by declaring (in Craig’s voice) “INDOOR LIGHTNING!” and seeking reassurance from us about this crazy phenomenon of lightning with no thunder, gray skies or rain. During a real storm, which seems often where we live, Trooper goes freakazoid. There’s no other way to put it. I’m glad we didn’t have a storm that first weekend before the kind vet called us back and told us we could keep him, or we may have responded, “NO!” But after we committed to be his family, he was here to stay. We have had many, many sleepless nights because of Trooper’s behavior during a storm. Though Craig and I are miserable when dealing with it, we also appreciate that we have experience with sleepless nights for a “special needs” beloved, and that the timing of those two creatures’ night-time neediness didn’t coincide. I prayed for a dog, but I don’t know if I prayed for a dog who needed us—a family with tried and true empathy and patience—as much as we needed him. Maybe Trooper prayed, too.

Today, Trooper is an old man. He is blind in one eye and can’t see too well out of the other one. His hips have been a problem for him from the early years and they especially hurt him when he is trembling during a thunderstorm like a washing machine on spin cycle. He seems a little confused about when it’s night and when it’s day. (I probably would be, too, if I slept as often as this dog—he is much more hound than shepherd.) We worry when we have to go fetch him from the yard at midnight with a flashlight—is he still alive out there? But when he figures out we want him in because it’s time to get night-time ear rubs and snuggle into his master bedroom doggie bed, he’s as happy as a puppy trotting in. His day-time doggie bed is in Lauren’s den—where Lauren hangs out. It has her TV, computer, books, toys and stuffed animals. And her dog. Even though Trooper and she seem to ignore each other, they’re rather inseparable. Trooper seems to know that she is his girl—the one in the house who needs a shepherd most, if only a sleepy shepherd.

Lauren and Trooper interact, if in their own unique way. I mentioned her pushing him off her sofa seat when he was younger. Trooper can’t get onto a sofa anymore, so he is usually sprawled on his dog bed or on the floor near the door to a sunroom off her den. If Lauren goes into the sunroom, usually Trooper goes with her and sprawls out there while she sits or plays there. Lauren likes the door to her den closed, so Trooper must tap on the door to exit. He can push the door open with his nose to enter, but then Lauren must get up to shut the door again. This is such a regular cycle in the house—Trooper out, Lauren shuts the door behind him, Trooper in, Lauren shuts the door behind him—I imagine that Lauren must have some motherly thoughts, like, “Make up your mind!” and “Do you think we live in a dang barn?!” But I don’t think he annoys her too much. When Lauren received a very large stuffed dog about the same shape as Trooper, she spent much time loving on its face, then placed it where Trooper always laid on the floor when he wasn’t in his dog bed. When I cleaned up the room and placed the stuffed dog on the sofa or other new place for Lauren to discover him, he always reappeared in Trooper’s spot, facing the same direction Trooper always faces. The other indication that Lauren likes her dog is that every now and then, she is covered in dog hair. The first couple times I noticed this, I accused Trooper of sleeping on Lauren’s sofa at night. Thankfully, Trooper was vindicated the first time I discovered Lauren happily sitting cross-legged in Trooper’s dog bed, reading a book. Trooper was laying in his second favorite floor spot to make way for her, and they both looked quite content with the arrangement.

What about Trooper as our hiking buddy? He hiked much in the early years:

Lauren and Trooper each had their own issues with hiking, and they came together when these issues collided. Lauren understood hiking and was usually quite focused on getting to the end of the trail. This is evidenced every time we meet a friend (or just a friendly stranger) on the trail who wants to chat. Lauren is generally opposed to chatting when the obvious mission is to walk until you get back to the car. She will usually offer to kiss or hug the friendly person (if she’s in a good mood) which Craig and I easily interpret as “There now. We’ve said hello. Now on your way.” She then pulls Craig or me in the proper direction to continue walking. If we don’t get going again quickly enough, Lauren has been known to take the friendly person’s hand or shoulder and pull or nudge them in the direction they were originally heading, and then turn and try to nudge her family in the proper direction again, too. (Rules are rules, after all. Trails are for hiking, not visiting. Tables and benches are for visiting.)

Trooper had a different issue. Trooper loved hikes and approached all trails with great enthusiasm, sniffing the land history out like all good dogs; but Trooper’s hips and/or stamina could never go quite as far as any of our trails, so Trooper LOVED stopping for a break. A few years into our daily hiking, Craig discovered a wooded trail closer to home. Its length and proximity allowed for more hiking time and less travel time; and it was generally flat, unlike our mountain trail, so it was better for Trooper. This became our standard trail for daily and weekend hikes. Here’s a healthy Lauren in January 2007 walking this trail with the family. I had Trooper on a leash, and Lauren is taking up the rear big time:

Where Trooper and Lauren would collide is when Trooper’s sore hips or simple weariness would make him slow and want to sit and rest. When Lauren would catch up to him, her “no dilly-dallying” rule applied to him as well as any chatty human. She would never pass him. She would slow, but no matter if he was sitting, or just slow, she would raise her foot just enough to use it as a prop for his butt with a slight nudge to it. I could say she literally kicked him back into gear, but the foot action was so slow and gentle, but firm, that it was no kick. There was no maliciousness. Lauren was simply not going to pass her dog, and she was doing whatever she had to do to make him keep going. We actually found her methods most useful of all we tried to get that dog going when he insisted he could go no further. It only worked a few times for me to run ahead and call to him with my super-lovey-dovey mommy voice. Lauren’s “kick” was more humane (and effective) than pulling Trooper’s collar, and it upset him more if we tried to carry him. So . . . “the Lauren-ator” did the trick.

To celebrate birthdays in our family, Craig often takes the day off and the family goes for a hike. There’s an especially beautiful, longer trail along a large creek that we hike on these longer, lazier days. There are ruins to stop and see along this trail, and big rocks to rest on. Lauren understands stopping to rest or snack when there is a big rock, log or bench to sit on. Here is Lauren enjoying a snack break with her dad on rocks with water flowing around them along our “holiday trail”:

And here is Bryn and her beloved pooch:

From the perspective of enjoying nature through hiking, and an answer to prayer in a sweet dog who made our family more whole and happy, these ten years were simply lovely.

A self-confident Lauren on the trail, 2007

A happy mom, dad & pooch on a lovely day for a hike in the woods, 2007

1 comment:

  1. Trooper was the best dog ever! I remember when he came to live with you, and I remember his story. He was meant for you and you for him. Rest in Peace, Doggie from Heaven.