Monday, February 28, 2011

A Message From Beyond?

I believe.

Not in a God, or an almighty being. I don't disbelieve, I just don't think there is an all-powerful director, or judge or giver or taker.

I believe in Magic and I believe in forces outside ourselves - though I'm not so sure we don't create the forces without knowing it.

Years ago I signed up for a class in which the instructor was to explain some of the wonders and questions of our universe. Aliens, the Bermuda Triangle, ghosts and such. It quickly became clear this man was a dud, hell bent on finding any reason to try to explain away every bit of intrigue in the universe. I stopped attending. What an old poop he was.

My second Newfoundland developed cancer. A tumor grew from the base of her nose and out her eye socket. She looked awful but she maintained her will to live. Shortly before she died, I took her to the coast for a few days after Christmas as the beach was where she was the most alive. She loved the water, the feel of the wind in her fur. Though she was slowing down, I tossed sticks several feet into the water for her and my good little water rescue girl would slowly wade out, grab the stick and return it to the safety of the shore.

One day we walked the downtown of a small coastal town, its tinsel and lights still displayed from the Christmas holiday. Eylah wasn't one to pick things up and carry them. Except for the sticks that she would rescue from their watery deaths, I never saw her carry an item around in our 7 1/2 years together.

But, as we walked down this street, she saw a yellow glitter-covered star which had apparently dropped from a Christmas display. Eylah bent down, picked it up and carried it through town. It was as though she was telling me that she knew she had a connection - that soon, she too would be a star. I lost my dear girl within 2 weeks of that day.

Yes, I believe that somehow we receive messages, if only we are aware. The messages may not be life altering but there is magic in them, nonetheless.

This week I am helping my mom die.

This morning, I opened the garage to find a storm had brought with it one simple scrap of what I first thought was trash. When I picked it up to throw it away, I realized it was something else entirely. The little scrap turned out to be a small plastic ghost which must have been blowing around the streets of town for months. I brought the ghost inside, wiped it off and keep it near my computer.

As I watch and care for my Mom through her last days here, I think someone has sent me a message that perhaps, we are not waiting alone.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Thermometer

Hospice came this week and brought a bunch of drugs to counter any anxiety or pain Mom may have in her last days. One thing she has been struggling with has been an erratic temperature, and suddenly i realize I need a thermometer if I'm to know when to give her something!

I go through all mom's drawers and find two ancient models and pop them both in my mouth simultaneously. One informs that I am dead - no temp at all. The other says I have a temp of about 102.

I figure I'd better run to the drugstore for something more reliable and I buy a new digital thermometer. When I get it back home and check, this thermometer says I have a temp of about 96, which is low even for me. So I pass it to my uncle who checks his and before I know it 4 of us have taken our temps with this thing. No one gets a reading of even 97. We agree we got a lemon and decide to return it.

Back at the little drug store, I explain that the thermometer is defective and that we know this because we are having a death watch and for fun we are sitting around taking our temperatures.

I notice that the people are looking at us like we are kinda odd.

The problem is that this is their last thermometer so I think "well, I'll just get those little sleeves that go over the end of a thermometer because, honestly I DO have a thermometer - it's just that it belongs to Arayo and the only times it has been used, the temps taken have been from the south side of a Newf!"

I mention to the little gal at the cash register that I'll just use my dog's thermometer because I know that I get the same readings that the vet does, and these sleeves will make it okay for human consumption.

She stutters, suggests that, because it is a COVER for the thermometer, doesn't mean that it is going to provide sterile protection from something I'd previously had up my dog's rear.

People sitting around waiting for their prescriptions are now starting to pay VERY close attention to this conversation. Someone in the store is obviously whacko!

My cousin is with me and I notice she has backed off a bit, but then comments loudly "I'm never going to have her for MY nurse!"

The lady to my left nearly falls off her chair laughing.

"Well, when you are terminal anyway, what damage can it do?" I proclaim, and pass over two bucks for the sleeves.

The pharmacist leaves his post at the rear of the store and runs over to the thermometer wall to double check there are no hidden thermometers. He knows my mom and likes her. He doesn't want her temperature being taken with a dog's butt thermometer.

The blond at the cash register looks as though she believes she will be hauled off to prison and charged with being an accomplice to this crime and she's trying really hard not to accept my cash.

The woman on the chair and her husband are both in stitches.

My cousin finally says she will loan me one of hers and bring it to town tomorrow, though as we walk to the car she suggests that if mom has a suspected temp tonight, I should just pop Arayo's thermometer in a plastic bag and have her suck on it anyway.

As we get in my Subaru, I realize we are parked next to a car with 4 small barking dogs in it. I'll bet it belongs to the woman who got such a kick out of the interaction inside.

Honestly, I suspect she's used her dog thermometer on her husband more than once - just never fessed up where it was last utilized!

Photo: Mom and Karyn - Karyn's the funny lookin' one....

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Arayo, Watching Over Mom

Mom isn't a real big Newfoundland fan. They are big, they eat a lot, they shed a lot and they are so EXPENSIVE! I knew that Mom would have to be really sick for me to come home to help her as only when she was really ill would she be okay with Arayo in her house.

In the past Mom has asked me to come home and invited Arayo. "You can bring the dog. He (she never could get it that Arayo is a she) can stay in the garage. You can stay out there with him too if you don't want him to be alone. It is a NICE garage! Zippy likes it."

"Mom, Zippy is a car. Besides it is December. We are not sleeping in your garage when it is 7 degrees outside."

"You can turn on the clothes drier. That will warm it up a little and we can bring out a space heater. It will be toasty."

"It will be 12 degrees instead of 7 and it is still a garage. You come visit me instead."

But, as the cancer advanced in her body, Mom stopped worrying quite so much about having 100 pounds of Newf in her home and once here, Arayo grew on her.

No longer did she worry that Arayo would rush by and knock her over, and more and more I found her petting Arayo's big black head. I've gone into her room to find out who Mom was talking to, only to find her carrying on a conversation with Arayo.

Mom was suckered in by Arayo's big sad eyes. With little or no appetite, Mom would ask for a sandwich, then be too weak to eat it. She loves that Arayo will spend hours watching her (and that sandwich), but that she maintains her polite upbringing and won't just grab it for herself.

After being in the hospital for several nights, we have brought my mother home and her doctor estimates that the time we have with her will be days, not weeks.

Tonight Arayo went missing. I searched the house and finally checked Mom's room where she's sleeping off a long day of visitors. There I found Arayo - laying on the floor - not sleeping, but watching over my Mother. Arayo has somehow figured out - if not all that is going on, at least that Mom needs extra care.

Guarding Mom seems to be Arayo's new job for a while.

Friday, February 25, 2011

One Week Left to Live

Today, I brought my Mom home to die.

Five years ago she started saying things like "If you get a call that I'm dead, know I wanted it this way."

"Ah, Mom, is there something you aren't telling me?"

"Oh, no. I'm just saying……."

Mom's a firm believer in quality of life. If the quality isn't there, its time to check out. So her plan of dealing with the diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) was to ignore it until it got ahead of her and then die. If she could find a way to hurry the process along, then great, but she never quite figured that last piece out.

Two years after diagnosis, she passed out in public and was dragged (under great protest) to the hospital for stitches. Later, the docs who saw her blood levels tried to reach her, and when they couldn't they called the police to break into her home, expecting she was dead, or close to it. Turned out she was out having pizza with a friend, but she was forced to fess up about her health at that point.

Then the family got involved. It looked to me that the treatment for CLL wasn't horribly debilitating so we had a little intervention, with family arriving in Kansas from Washington, California and Arkansas.

I pushed her towards a trial treatment in Houston, which was interesting, if unsuccessful. That ended after we became refugees - evicted into the streets from The MD Anderson Rotary House hotel during Hurricane Ike in September 2008. (But, the Gods were watching out for us as we found long lost family members who invited us to ride the storm out with them. Others were not so lucky.) Treatment transferred back to Kansas after that.

Arayo and I arrived in Oswego in late December and we've been helping her as her body has slowly lost its fight with this disease. Monday afternoon she was walking around, then 2 hours later couldn't stand or walk. Yesterday, her oncologist said we can expect maybe a week left with her.

So today I brought her back to the home she and my father built 60 years ago. The place she loves most in the world. Together we'll see the rest of this journey to its end.

Photo: Mom with her fuel efficient car, Mr. Zippy

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Searching for Hurricane Katrina

"Ground Zero". Arayo and I stand on the beautiful white sand beach and imagine this scene 5 years ago when Hurricane Katrina came to town, leaving death and destruction in her wake.

A beautiful beach-side community, pummeled by winds and waves so strong as to flatten homes and send anyone foolish enough to try riding out the storm to a very vicious death.

Do we know how to to have a good time on the road, or what?

Dubbed by USA Today as "The Town that Vanished", Waveland, MS, is no stranger to impressive storms. This coastal community spent a decade recovering from the damage that Hurricane Camille wrought on it in 1969. Then, when Katrina reared her head in 2005, bringing along a 33 foot storm surge, she made sure that this town, which sat in the center of her path, would feel her might.

Pre-Katrina Waveland was a quaint sea-side community of about 6,000 people but most of the roads leading through town take us past blocks and blocks of emptiness. A few lots sport "For Sale" signs and the homes that have rebuilt are elevated - no doubt fortified by impressive steal reinforcements.

Most of the remaining trees are enormous, with branches massive and strong. Though many bear scars of limbs decapitated in the 140 mph winds, they stand, a testament to the endurance of nature.

A water-front church sports a sign proudly advertising that no storm, no matter its power, can stop them from proclaiming their glory to God. I wonder how God takes this - rebuilding on this scene of destruction? "Come on, Big Boy - hit us again! We can take it!"

Time will tell how Waveland rebounds. If the lure of living near the beauty of the beach make people risk the might of yet another major hurricane or if many have said "uncle" and made a permanent move to less risky lands?

Photo: Arayo enjoys the ocean breeze - no doubt sniffing if another Hurricane is drawing near.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gobblin' Up The Shoreline

Big yellow machines chomp up the landscape and spit it back out. Other big yellow machines haul it off for processing by additional big yellow machines. The scene looks like something from a sci-fi movie.

My hosts have brought me to this beautiful Mississippi island - the white sand beaches, stunning beyond belief, are covered by deep tracks left by the equipment that mars the otherwise perfect setting.

Few people join us on this stretch of paradise. Most everyone is in town, watching the Christmas Parade. But kids, floats, horses and girls in colorful antebellum dresses can't compete with the roar of the scene being played out on the coastline.

I pad over to the gentleman, apparently positioned to keep gawkers from getting too near the thundering equipment. Today, his is not a high-stress gig.

"Oil spill clean-up?", I ask, sort of surprised that they have gotten to this so soon.

"Yup. All the sand has to be dug up, run through a processor to clean it, then replaced." He says they've been there several weeks and should be on the beach well into the new year.

After some chatting about our shared love of dogs, I rejoin my hosts and we photograph newfies on the beach. As we return to our cars, the clean up crew heads out - perhaps for a lunchtime picnic. Across the sand they go in vehicles - a parade of clean-up employees - a sani-can caboose attached to the back of one of the vehicles.

That is what I love about big equipment! You can move anything!

Photo: Arayo supervises the Oil Spill Clean-Up on a Mississippi Beach

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Huntin' Gators

Moss drips from the trees and the water is covered with a green slime that screams of danger. The live kind. The kind you have to be crazy not to be terrified of.

I am terrified, and on high-alert status.

I can hear the snakes discussing amongst themselves that we are on the way. Hissing, sharpening their fangs, and doing little snakie rolls, sit ups, back bends, and knots. Making sure they are flexed and primed so they can grab us when we draw near - then suck us into their green, slimy, watery abyss.

Miz Arayo has that prey drive, so I wrap the leash another time around my hand, keeping her near and watching her every move. If a squirrel dashed past us, she'd bolt after it and rush across the green algae, only to fall through, into the trap laid by the snakes and their evil counterparts, the gators!

A man passes and shows us on the map where he spotted an alligator earlier. While snakes terrify me, Mr. Gator is another thing all together. I'm fascinated by their big teeth, blinky raised eyes and strange crinkly bodies.

I'm reminded of a time years ago. Visiting friends in Louisiana, I headed off in search of an alligator preserve. As dusk was approaching, I found myself on a path, water on either side of me, camera in hand. I hadn't gone far when I stopped for an enormous alligator across my path. I did a little jig of happiness and began documenting this old guy. When I had enough of the "profile, mouth closed" shots, I began talking to him, encouraging him to give me a toothy grin.

He was anti-social, belligerent, refusing to budge. I considered a bit, then decided he could use some encouragement. Besides, a photo of an alligator with his mouth open would be fun! I picked up a rock and tossed it his way. It landed on his snout. He didn't even blink.

I tossed another rock, bigger this time. I got the same result. Nothing.

Realizing I was losing light and needed a tripod for much more shooting, I returned to my car for one. When I came back, probably with the intention of poking the gator with the tripod before mounting my camera on it, he was gone.

Not until returning to my friend's home did I learn that gators are fast and not necessarily known for their tolerance of dopey women who throw rocks at their heads. The gator I found must have been brain damaged - or assumed i was. It gave me a break and didn't eat me that evening. Somewhere in my files, I have slides of this big old gator's head with a dozen or so rocks on his nose. My future as a wildlife photographer left something to be desired - but I was probably lucky I was allowed to have a future at all!

Photos: The only gator in view was perched far into a slimy green lake - no doubt he was a decoy for others lurking nearby. Miz Arayo poses from a secure bench - unaware of the danger lurking below and beyond.

Friday, February 11, 2011

In the Shadow of a Giant Peanut

We are looking for the peanut and find it on a side street in a dinky town in Georgia. The lady had said "Look for the big peanut with Jimmy's face on it!" And, there it was - on a corner of a parking lot in a residential area of Jimmy Carter's home town - a 13 foot tall goober with a big toothy grin.

The drive from South Carolina to Mississippi was uneventful, though long. As Arayo and I drove our normal backroads through America's south, I asked myself if there wasn't something I was missing? Surely this part of the country had something to offer as a side attraction.

The only thing of note that came to mind was that Jimmy Carter was from Georgia. But, what were the odds that we were anywhere near Plains? After all - we had already driven the majority of the way across the state.

But a visit to Jimmy's hometown was meant to be as we were 15 miles away and my route could easily take us through the home of our 39th President.

Now, I have to admit - when Jimmy was in office, I thought he was a dork. Though, hindsight proves that it was me who was really the idiot. I freely admit it. The more I know about the man, the more I respect him. In my opinion, Jimmy Carter may be the last president this country has had with the guts to lead with his conscience. Hell, he may be the last President who HAS a conscience. No wonder he didn't make it in Washington.

Jimmy Carter came from simple roots. His first restroom was an outdoor privy, water came from a hand-cranked well. As a kid, he ran barefoot through the muddy fields and began selling boiled peanuts at the age of 5. He learned about joblessness and hunger from the tramps that knocked on his door, asking for water, or a bit of food. Something his mother always gladly shared.

While President he begged Americans to pull together during the energy crisis, doing his part by throwing on a sweater and turning down the heat in the White House. He wasn't asking us to do what he wasn't prepared to do himself.

In July, 1979, he addressed the American public on television and warned Americans that too many of us were worshiping self-indulgence and consumption. "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns," he said. He encouraged people to fill their lives with meaning and purpose.

You GO Jimmy!

Carter declared amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers, encouraged energy conservation, installed solar panels on the White House and - curses of all curses - he boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in response to the 1979 Soviet's invasion of Afghanistan. Not a decision that earned him brownie points, but for a man leading with his conscience - it was, I believe - the right decision.

His time in the Presidency was too short. A man who takes the high road isn't going to have a good time of it when he's dealing with the bottom feeders of Washington.

But, out of office, now, 30 years, Carter has continued to work tirelessly for human rights. At 86 years of age, he is still an inspiration and living his life with purpose. He and Rosalynn, his wife of 65 years, continue to live in the home they built years ago in Plains - population 637. He teaches Sunday School at his local church, takes his turn at the church lawn maintenance, and still advises on the international scene.

Jimmy Carter - thank you for being a real stand-up guy!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Newfy's Mom - Saving The World's Primates

Arayo and I are surrounded by rowdy calls of "whoop, whooooop, whooooop". The sign in front of me reads "Please close the door. Northie has a drinking problem."

We are not in a low-class bar but at the International Primate Protection League gibbon sanctuary in South Carolina. Northie, who likes drinking from the toilet, is a Newfoundland and the companion of the IPPL's founder and director, Shirley McGreal. His unconventional family includes over 30 gibbons and a handful of otters who have found refuge here.

Northie is lucky - he lives with one of those rare individuals who is not comfortable living in a world without doing her damnedest to make it a better place. In the early 70's Shirley saw the plight of primates that were being trafficked and decided to do all she could to stop it. That this calling has been dangerous and global in scope has not stopped her tireless work.

Shirley's leap into saving the world's primates began in the early 70's while picking up freight at an airport in Thailand. She was stunned to see crates of animals awaiting shipment out of the country and felt they were begging her for help. She dove into research, and two years later she began the International Primate Protection League.

Her investigations into illegal trafficking of primates have led her, at great risk, to go undercover into the compounds of animal smugglers. Her findings have exposed criminals, bringing them to justice and ultimately changing laws and banning the sales of endangered primates around the globe.

She has grown her small organization to 15,000 worldwide members who help carry out investigations of trafficking and abuse worldwide. IPPL assists grassroots wildlife groups in their efforts to promote concern for primates, and supports rescue centers overseas, in addition to maintaining the gibbon rescue center in South Carolina.

Recognized many times for her work, in 2008, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed upon Shirley the prestigious "Order of the British Empire", one of Britain's highest honors.

Many primates owe their lives to Shirley McGreal, and, we humans owe her our gratitude for her courage, passion and work towards a just cause. If there were more people like her, the world would, indeed, be a much much better place to live. Arayo and I are honored to have spent time with her.

Please visit her website and consider joining IPPL to help Northie's mom fight the good fight!

PHOTOS - Northie lives with over 30 gibbons who have been rescued by his mom! Shirely McGreal knows which of the gibbons need a good back rub. Shirley and Northie at home at the IPPL headquarters in South Carolina.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Taking on the Confederates

If asked to rate places I'd like to visit, battlefields would be right there at the bottom of the heap. Civil War battlefields, at the bottom of that list. I'm very anti-war. Not that I don't think there are times to stand up for ones rights, but it seems to me that there HAS to be another way to solve problems that don't involve killing each other.

But, our route took us through a little spot on the road where a quaint town opened onto beautiful rolling hillsides. Gettysburg. It stands on its own, as though it needn't be attached to a state - although, it resides in Pennsylvania, in case, like me, you would need to look it up.

"Oh, why not," I said to Arayo. "The least we can do is take a photo of you here with a cannon or something." (And, if she wanted to help water a monument to a dead confederate, then I wasn't going to argue with her.)

Gettysburg - where over 165,000 Americans duked it out, killing 8,000 and injuring 27,000 more. We should be so proud. I know this is part of our history, but pride in all this is just not something I can grasp.

As we make our way further south, the war keeps resurfacing. It is more important here, in the south. No longer is it the "Civil War". It is now "The Woaah of Nawthurn Aggression." (The WHAT!?)

I've been to Tiawan, to China, Africa and even lived in the craziest of all - Sicily - but the deep south of our country is more foreign to me than all these other places. For instance, there is the confederate flag. To me, flying the confederate flag is akin to continuing to fly the Nazi flag. It doesn't really symbolize all that is good and kind in the world. But, some folks down south still love their confederate roots. And, not just those backwoods uneducated, gun-totting, red-necks.

The State of South Carolina proudly flew the Confederate Flag on the State House dome until 2,000 when it was removed to its own flagpole on the House grounds. The NAACP has voted their approval of this fallacious flag flying by declaring an economic boycott of the state and they are joined in this by other civil rights groups. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned holding sporting events in the state because of this continued flag presence. But...... the state is apparently standing by their right to fly this symbol of stupidity. They even honor their fallen confederate soldiers each May by giving all state employees a paid holiday in their honor. sigh……

The South is beautiful - some of it REALLY stunning - and I'd like to explore more, but I don't think I'll be packing my bags and moving there anytime soon.