If pictures can speak a thousand words, what can voices show without pictures for us to see? Can we “see” such things as joy or sorrow when someone speaks? If we don’t hear laughter or we don’t hear crying, would we still understand if happiness or sadness was what someone was feeling? Do we catch hesitations, pauses, and the rise and fall of tones in someone’s voice when they communicate? How often are we listening to another’s voice for its pause only so that we can voice what we wish to say?
Have you ever closed your eyes when listening to someone speak? How often do you talk with a stranger on the phone in which what they look like is known only through your own imagining? Some of my responsibilities in the past involved talking on the phone to the same customer service representatives week after week. When I was fortunate to meet one of them in person, they never looked like my mind’s belief. I anticipate they felt the same when they saw me.
I’ve had an increased awareness recently to the sacred honor of listening to voices speak. We are taught that communication includes non-verbal cues such as body movements when someone is talking. We are also taught the importance of eye contact to convey we are listening. In last week’s blog I wrote about making sure we look into someone’s eyes should their smile be a disguise. But what might we hear when the only “view” we have is the voice on the other end of a phone line?
We may not have eyes to gauge if the smile is a disguise matching the masked reply, I’m fine to the question, how are you? When we can only hear a voice and not see someone, what is our cue? If we can’t see body language or look into someone’s eyes for the “total” story, what are some things we can do on this end of the line in our listening?
Can you answer this easier if you know the person you are talking with not face-to-face? Do you think that having a relationship with someone makes it easier to be in-tune to how they say what they say? If it is a stranger, do we then rely on the meaning of the words they speak? Ah, but then how do we make sure it is their meaning of the words and not our meanings in how we are listening?
On my runs I can hear a squirrel scampering through dried leaves or a woodpecker drumming in a nearby tree. I might hear a mourning dove or a sandhill crane. Lately, I can hear all the birds joyously singing with the warmer weather change. Today I could hear the red-winged black birds and the stream as its water was flowing. All sounds I can hear without a sight to see. Sure, you may be right, like our dialogue we just exchanged about the difference between those we know and those we just meet. Because I have formed a relationship with these dear sounds of nature, I can better hear when they speak.
Yet, I am not fluent in the differences – at least, yet – in the songs birds sing. I don’t always know when they might be alerting their friends, for example, to Ginger and me. I am not always certain when it may be one calling for its mate for life, or when it is one simply singing a song in celebration of warm sunlight. The best I can do is to listen from my heart, with my heart, openly. For it always tells me when it is time to pause, listen more closely, and perhaps look up into the trees. I may then see along with the sounds, or I may only have my imagining. Ah, but then again, imagining fills our minds with the most beautiful imagery.
And shouldn’t that be how we best listen to that which we can’t see?
I have been sharing military veteran life stories of brave men and women who have found hope and healing on their journeys with PTSD in the form of fur. Translation – service dogs. I have shared these sacred stories with the intent that the stories can reach others who struggle on their journeys not to give up. I have also shared with the intention that the stories become a bridge. These stories can create a platform in which those who struggle to share their voice for fear of judgment and rejection are met with those who are setting aside their negative perceptions to listen and listen more. Yes, stories that contain pain, trauma, sorrow, and despair, and the moments that created one of or up to all four of these, are not easy stories to listen to. Yet, they are extraordinary stories that matter. The more we listen, the more the story becomes reframed into something that becomes a tender scar and no longer an open wound. For the story teller, the loved ones of the story teller, and us as story listeners; for when we give, we also receive.
This week’s blog is a military veteran story. It is of bravery, hope, and a service dog who brought healing to a family. It is not necessarily a story of diagnosed PTSD. Yet, it is a story of pain, of sorrow, and in some moments despair. And how from that pain, purpose was found and every day since a family has found gifts in the journey with autism. Judge tenderly, if you must. There is usually a side you have not heard, a story you know nothing about, and a battle waged you are not having to fight – Traci Lea La Russa
Here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye. – Le Petit Prince
The world would soon be shaken to the core when I was being shaken to mine in pain. The world didn’t know what was coming on this particular August day. I didn’t know my family’s world, nor the larger world in which we belonged, would soon be turned upside down, sideways, and then begin spinning relentlessly round and round. I only knew this moment in the ambulance in which my body was screaming at me. And I, in turn, was screaming inside, please, oh please, let nothing happen to my baby.
I was a lawyer in the Navy, I was a wife, and I was a mother of a daughter not quite two. And I was carrying her baby brother, our son, with two more months until I was due. I was strapped to a gurney unable to move while the bumpiest road known to mankind was unmercifully scrambling my body. The medicine to alleviate the pain from my kidney stone did not seem to penetrate the acute agony. I was being transported to a hospital with a natal ICU just in case it would become a need. Three hours travel on a good day, now five hours because of traffic was my journey.
After arrival and tests, I became another who stands at the crossroad needing to decide. Would I like good news first, or would I prefer the news that stops time. My kidney stones had dissolved, the grace and gift of roads that jostled every inch of me. Yet, my son did not meet “standard measurements” of where he should be. His brain, his lungs, his kidneys – all at risk of deformity. Excess water on the brain meant our son had hydrocephalus or he would be a Downs Syndrome baby.
In this moment the world began turning at angles I had not experienced before now. So incredibly quiet as time stood still, yet my ears pulsing from a most deafening sound. Was this my reality or was it happening as if I was watching a movie? Surely, the medication had left my mind foggy and this couldn’t be happening. The medical staff seemed to think my husband and I needed time to decide if our son was meant to be. Without hesitation, there was only one option – our son deserves to be on this Earth! the staff heard unanimously.
An ultrasound four weeks later revealed no change. No additional risks, yet the first prognosis the same. My family was on high alert awaiting my due date. We were no longer alone, though, in this vigilant watchful state. The world had just received a jolt unlike anything it had known before, too. New York City, the Pentagon, twin towers collapsed, brave yet non-surviving passengers and flight crews. September 11, 2001 and suddenly my purpose was not only guiding one soul through his transition from the womb into life. I was now writing hundreds of wills for soon to be deployed soldiers preparing that they may not come back alive.
Jack entered this world approximately one month after 911, “normal” with no signs of the concerns once seen. No excess water on the brain and no Down’s Syndrome as his soft spot revealed “healthy”. Of course, true to a parent, my high alert did not ease. Ultra-sensitive that Jack meet the medians for his age my priority. His walking, his height, his appetite, and his speaking. His motor skills were right on point, though at twelve months momma and daddy were not yet his vocabulary.
A wellness check at eighteen months revealed his speaking was not a defiance or a slow start. Once again time froze as my breathing stopped while my blood coursed through my rapidly beating heart. It is not definitive, but we have a high degree of certainty. Your son is autistic, your son is “special needs”. It is said that when time becomes before and no longer the same, hindsight can reveal something deep within us knew something would soon change. We were dancing between protecting ourselves from the sting of reality and preparing for inevitability. Tantrums and “acting out” had already became part of Jack’s coping. In the throws of these moments, our hearts desired to believe. It was nothing that couldn’t be “fixed” with more nap times or the foods he would eat.
Imagine being a mother of a near seven-year old, a five-year old with autism, and a newborn baby. Imagine physical tantrums so forceful, one wasn’t sure there would be strength to keep both mother and son from injury. Imagine medical and alternative health appointments multiple times in one week and driving to these appointments all for one child, while wrapped tightly in that natural maternal guilt for neglecting his siblings. And now that you are imagining the lack of sleep wishing for a few hours reprieve, and then when sleep is available, instead it is insomnia as you lay awake worrying. If you are a parent or a care-giver you can empathize with me. Yet, you know what was hardier than feeling helpless to my son’s needs. It was how people saw Jack for what he was not instead of seeing him for all that he could be.
I don’t say that to judge strangers who saw me in a store with a child screaming until he could barely breathe. Their eyes communicating “can’t you control your spoiled child who is clearly manipulating?” I don’t say that in anger at day care providers who would nervously say your son is too disruptive, taking away from the other children, so we will need to ask you to respectfully leave. I don’t say that to make you feel guilty that I swallowed back many a tear when you turned the other way shaking your head in disgust at my family. How can I blame you when there aren’t visible signs to communicate disability? And, I understand for my husband and I had moments we had to learn to better see. To notice what our son was and not only look at “was not” has not always been easy.
Our son, a runner, and an escapee. More than once he would leave school bound for home with only two things – his running feet. His emotions crested hills and soared to valleys faster than a roller coaster careening through loops, twists, and rapid falls. No longer a baby, and yet, swaddling him tight in my arms sometimes his only sense of calm. And even then, if he had passed a point of no return, my arms were incapable of keeping his raging storm inside him at bay. The only safety Jack could then find was riding out what he felt but had no words he could adequately convey. Being on high alert had new meaning now for me; would it be the school calling in crisis needing my presence immediately?
And then North Star Dogs became a lighthouse shining a beacon to the East. They were presenting opportunity for another alternative therapy. We were feeling we had exhausted multiple holistic healing avenues to give our son the best chance of flourishing. Perhaps a service dog could hear Jack’s torment better than all of us who tried our best to understand his cries he couldn’t always explain. Perhaps a dog would be able to soothe Jack’s fears and inner pain.
A waiting list and unconditional love of grandparents to give Jack this furry gift. Then notification one of ten puppies were destined to be his. Sassy joined our family and once again life became before and no longer the same. Only this time, the storms that often swirled our home were now kept at bay. Sassy had brought new beginnings. Sassy provided service to not only Jack; she brought comfort to our entire family. Sassy, the intervener, distractor, calmer, and paw to hold. Immediate calmness she would bring Jack as soon as the emotional thunder started to rumble and roll.
An unknown author writes and then my soul saw you and it kind of went “Ah, there you are: I’ve been looking for you”. It was an immediate best friendship when four furry feet joined our family brood. Jack was the first to say Sassy was his best friend to anyone he might meet. I am certain Sassy would have said the same words if English she could speak. Her eyes ever watchful of when Jack was in need; unconditional love in the most calming manner her immediate responding. Sassy didn’t bat an eye when the torrential storms of his emotions were at their peak. By his side until he felt at ease, day and through his entire nights of sleep. Sassy was not able to attend school with Jack, for this was before service dogs were more accepted into a school’s routine. That Sassy was waiting for him at home enabled Jack to manage school with a semblance of ease.
While Jack was at school, Sassy would tend to my needs. Though she was Jack’s primary service dog, she was also in-tune to my emotionality. She would remind me I had the strength to keep going and that I was doing okay. She would be my calming force through each of my fast-moving days. Her fur caught my tears when I didn’t want anyone else to see. Her brush against my leg would whisper you are not alone on this journey. I can’t explain what it meant to have Jack find comfort in someone other than me. Somewhat indescribable that instead of my swaddling, placing Jack’s hands against Sassy’s fur lightened a weight I had been carrying.
Sassy has retired as service dog, though her heart is still the wholeness to our family. She is still Jack’s companion while he sleeps. And though now her fur captures far more laughter than my tears, by my side she also brings her serenity. Our son is flourishing with a creative spirit, a caring heart that desires to work with children when he graduates, and a passion that perhaps could lead him to movie script writing. Who knows what the future holds for Jack, but this we have as certainty. What ever Jack decides to do in life, we will all owe much to beloved Sassy.
Little ole humble me, I’m not sure I deserve all these kind words in which you speak. I’m “just” Sassy, fulfilling my purpose and doing what I love to do. To provide comfort and unconditional love to Jack, and to all of you. Some puppies may have been nervous to leave a familiar place and then enter a really large and loud machine. I knew I was boarding a plan to travel from Connecticut to Washington for an important destiny. There was a little boy that had been crying for a friend who understood him when the world around him was a scary place. I could hear his heart across the stars and through space. I could also hear his big sister, his little sisters, his mom and his dad, too. I knew this was a big job I was receiving to serve not just one but a six humans crew. I also knew there was no better job that to become your hope and faith. To remind you that no matter how hard certain moments were, it would get easier and better “someday”.
I know you are proud of Vanessa, as I am, too. How beautifully she is making Jack’s story matter in what she is setting out to do. There will be no teacher more compassionate and equally strong in her leadership as she guides special needs students to their own flourishing. I like to dream of Jack teaching beside her someday. Even if he isn’t a co-teacher, I believe he will be influential in the lives that, together, they will positively change.
I know I never told you, either, that I find my big, talkative, sometimes pushy, sometimes silly, yet always loveable fur brother a good addition to the family. Clive has brought laughter and joy into our home, along with another important quality. Clive is a guardian, too, keeping watch on everyone’s needs. He may not act exactly like me, but as you already know, visual looks don’t show someone everything. He acts like a young lion, poised to react if need be. Don’t be fooled though, that his calmness is also present as he listens attentively.
When we give, we receive, so my dear family. Please know that as you so kindly say I helped each of you, you have given so much to me. You have lovingly said I came into your family to help make you whole. Know that because of all of you, I’ve known no better home. I love you unconditionally, and I thank you for giving back the same to me. Jack, Vanessa, Josie, Colette, Clive, Cathy, Mike – my family. Because of you, I am complete.
This week I am honored to share Jennifer and Onyx’s story of hope. In conversations with others, when I use the acronym PTSD, rarely do I have to explain what the acronym stands for. In conversations, when I have used the acronym MST, most of the time I am met with the question what is MST? I was given the privilege of listening to and then writing Jennifer’s journey of how, like her brothers and sisters in arms, she knew the deepest levels of Pain, Trauma, Sorrow, and Despair. Where Jennifer’s experience is different – her journey into darkness that proceeded her courageous journey to hope was for military sexual trauma, or MST.
Onyx has the best smiles in these pictures, don’t you think?! Some include Onyx showing you the joyous adventures of visiting different national parks. Read on to discover just how meaningful these adventures are!
“Sometimes God will put the Goliath in your life to find the David within you” – Unknown
I, Jennifer, entered this life vowing to fulfill two things; that I would serve and that I would lead. Like the missions I promised to give me all to, to the death if need be, my soul also promised into all of life I would lean. Life is lived one moment at a time, yet the moments stitch together into a large tapestry. Moments that, had they not been experienced, would leave the canvas incomplete. I’ve had times I longed to take scissors to a section, to rip it away clean. I’ve also come to understand that these sections are an essence of me.
I raised my hand and I turned over my soul for safe-keep. I proudly embraced the goals of the military. I would lead for the greater good of all. I would sacrifice limb and life if deemed necessary I fall. For fifteen years my pledge I did uphold. A lifetime career my original goal. I had my own mind, my own body, my own soul, poised and ready to sacrifice all three. My own wholeness was secondary. My words became not my own but of those part of a collective vocabulary. Duty, honor, dignity; I will die for my country. I was not afraid, my trust that I was ready for battle if need be. I knew there was an enemy; thankfully the enemy did not walk beside me. Or so I believed.
Each of us experience trauma in memories we can’t erase. It could be from war, with the image of a comrade’s face. It could be a car accident that didn’t occur holding enemies at bay. Yet, over and over, and non-stop, that accident replays. I vowed that any mission I was ordered to fulfill, I would most certainly do. That I might not be able to quiet my mind while my voice slipped away could be a reality I also knew. I also believed that any post trauma I might endure would be the result of war I would bravely fight. I didn’t yet know that the biggest battle of all would be on this side of the enemy line.
Fear is a powerful weapon, mightier than the heaviest artillery. Fear clouds judgment and blurs the ability to clearly see. It holds the soul at gun point, it holds one’s truth at the end of a knife blade. It tortures personal ethics and a sense of universal right gets misplaced. Two people can hear I will obey. Two different choices can be made. Both hold allegiance to authority. One earns trust while, for the other, trust becomes obsolete. I was the one to lose trust at the hands of others who earned prestige. My soul held at the end of a barrel as the essence of me was stabbed in two. No longer trustful of military virtue.
Some describe a life-changing moment as one in which the world grew dark and still. That moment in life when the ability to feel becomes nil. I have known this cavern, one in which I resided for several years. I couldn’t see it at the time, but light was still near. I stayed in the cocoon of this cave, the only place in which I felt safe. I lived in this cave, and I lived outside in the surroundings. Outside I moved through the motions of a reality I could not touch or reach. Outside of this cave, I heard dishonor, undignified, a promise you did not keep. Inside of this cave, faint I heard warrior, fight, there is purpose you are meant to achieve.
Cut in two, I would first need to know two more slices with the knife. One occurred when a request of leave was denied. My father was given six months to live, cancer his Goliath he would not be able to defend against its might. I was not allowed a leave of absence to be by his side. My father had given his armor to me to wear in court when I sought legal justice for the crime of my stolen soul. Into the cave I retreated further that I could not give that armor back to my father as he died alone.
The fear from sudden attacks, death on our home soil out of the blue, leant to only one priority of leadership, only one option they saw to choose. Fight for the honor of 911, country over family. I already a dissenter in the make per the eyes of the military; certainly, my request was only another form of my trickery. Another blade inserted to stop the beating of my heart now; end the breathing of a sense of self to honor my military vow.
A next cut would come with a gift, though at the time I did not readily see. A confrontation took me too my core, bringing my soul back to me. In 2008 another slice took the form of a nervous breakdown. Into the deepest part of the cave I moved, certain I would no longer be found. I thought I knew silence when that first knife cut me in two. In the back of this cave it was the loudest stillness I ever knew. It deafened me and was a thief taking from places I didn’t know I had more that could be stolen away. I was safest in this cavern, and yet I longed to escape. Words filling pages, rapidly turning through my mind, reams and reams of paper capturing what I was trying to hide. Yet, if someone stepped inside the doorway willing to listen to me speak, all the words were gone, a fleeting retreat.
One does not know courage until one has decided to rise from where one lays. When a blanket and a bed are the only safe refuge, walking to the couch requires enormous strength. You may not understand how someone who fought a war so bravely found it her biggest win to say no to anxiety. My hope is that you never have to know this intimately. And for those who have walked a similar journey or perhaps you are still peaking your head out of the cave, I am here to tell you here is my hand; it will be okay.
I do not say it will be okay lightly to you my friend, for I know at the end of this rope, it feels like an end. I know how words can be said but hold no meaning. All the dictionaries in the world cannot begin to describe how you are feeling. Add the well-intentioned expression of I care and that feeling of isolation grows ten-fold. Now there is expectation, of which you feel you are not meeting, leading you further towards alone.
I mentioned that in that darkness there is a light you cannot see. A force mightier than us all is busy orchestrating. It is lining up messengers who each hold a locked box awaiting a key. Inside the locked box is hope that is ours for the taking. Only one person holds the key that can open as many boxes as one wishes to look in to. That person that holds the key is – you. In that cavern I did not realize that as fear was reaching for me, I in turn was reaching courageously. The warrior within me that had vowed I would fight at any cost had not abandoned me. I had to tend to her warrior wounds for a bit until she was ready. But oh, when I put back on my uniform of self-worth, of honor and dignity, beside my tags was a large key. It opened the first box which contained the words I have the ability to be free.
My freedom came in the form of fur and four feet. She, too, a warrior, like me. Onyx, too, had been fighting her own war of survival, a desire to serve and lead. She entered my life in 2013 with three things I had lost along the way. An open heart to love without fear, to grab hope, to feel faith. Onyx understands what my heart is unable to communicate. She knows better than I do when I feel unsteady and not safe. Onyx has given me the ability to leave the cave for extended periods of time. If I have moments that feel better to re-enter the cavern, she enters with me until my fighting spirit again I find. She doesn’t need me to tell her where she should sit, or she should lay. In a vehicle, in a store, in a national park – Onyx has my back at every place.
Like I who entered this life with purpose to achieve, Onyx, too, had reasons for her being. What adds to the gift of my soul-restorer in a fur coat is that she is my comrade with mutual goals. Now we both strive to fulfill our mission to save lives who face a new deadly war. An assault on wills to live, attacks at individual cores. Onyx and I both had to experience what it felt to lose trust and hope then find it renewed. Otherwise it is only lip service if it isn’t something we’ve went through. A quote from an unknown author reads “sometimes fear won’t go away, so you will have to do it afraid”. Ask Onyx and she will speak on my behalf that fear is a partner to my every day. It hasn’t been removed as a foundation in which I stand. It’s just that now I have four helping pawed hands.
I gave a part of my heart away by choice when I said I do to my husband Lee. The other half of my heart was stolen from me. I thought I would never recover it, that shame would be the only feeling I could embrace. Yet, that force bigger than us all was putting another plan in place. On the day I met Onyx she walked towards me carrying a treasure bag gently between her teeth. I looked into her eyes as she carefully dropped this bag at my feet. With shaking hands, I pulled apart the draw string to look inside. I have moments still, five years later, when I can’t quite believe my eyes. In stillness I looked, in silence I listened as the rhythm began to evenly beat. For in that bag was my heart that Onyx had brought back to me.
With Onyx by my side I have stood in front of others sharing my story in an effort to bring atonement to things that have taken place. My purpose I knew was to influence and lead change. Advocating to congress and major news agencies, spent to points broke of money and time. Non-stop promotion for laws almost passed and factual investigation of crimes. In each interview anger and bitterness walked out the door as forgiveness and worthiness slowly entered the doorway. Amidst judgment, hate, and disbelief, I found the courage to not shy away. That my story could inspire others to fight my aim.
Now my mission has expanded to new territory. Now it is time to inspire those who are searching for their key. I know what it is to enter the cavern looking for dynamite to create the rock collapse. I also know it is possible from that darkest place to start crawling back. Crawling may seem slow, but each hand print forward is a gigantic leap. Each inch forward is to the cadence I cannot be beat. I have known a life without joy, I have known a fear of sunrises and sunsets. The sunset a reminder that the dark will only grow darker and the sunrise that a long day lies ahead. I also know what it is to rediscover that every twenty-four hours of new beginnings is friend, not foe. To relish laughter that springs forth from the happiness of one’s soul. I have known what it is to feel numb and yet feel the most searing pain. I have known what it is to will the next glass on the rocks to keep torturous memories at bay. I also know what it is to no longer need a drink, that leaning into what hurts the most is mutually benefitting. When I am willing to share my story without embarrassment, shame, or guilt, others who are struggling find in my story their own strength and will.
One step at a time or a puzzle piece that connects link by link. I opened one box which contained the next key. The next key opened another box that reinforced you can do this, in yourself believe. The next support system or life-line available each time I opened another lock. I shifted from I’m not sure to I cannot not. Many messengers have been put on my path, angels sent from God up above. Next to me, spelled backwards as D-O-G, is the best one with wings of unconditional love. Onyx loves me, her honor to serve and lead. She loves me not despite of, but because of my story.
I can stand at an entryway into any one of our spectacular national parks where the eyes cannot begin to absorb the beauty to take in. I can watch the sun set over a mountain or listen to the lyrics of the wolves as the evening begins. In the space there is no worry – there only is and be. Before Onyx I couldn’t come to a park, to vast the space surrounding me. Now it is the majestic expansiveness of these national parks I seek. I know that somewhere at the base of one of the mountains is a tiny cave, but no longer do I feel the need to run to its cold walls and hide. Onyx reminds me I have within me a light that needs to shine. In these parks is a natural rhythm, a beat that hums in harmony. Like Onyx and my heart, in unison, a warrior team. Duty, honor, dignity, I would give my life for you. Dear Onyx, for guiding me to live again, my unending gratitude.
For this week’s blog, I am privileged to share with you another sacred story of a military veteran journeying with PTSD who found hope in the form of fur. It is my honor to introduce you to Kristopher and his service dog, Shera. A story of mutual rescuing. A story of strength and healing, bravely and openly shared for inspiration and for education. Those who also journey with PTSD can be inspired. Those who may not understand when they see a dog in a public setting can learn there is always more than we initially see. A quote by John Lubbock states “what we see depends mainly on what we look for”. I will ask you, what are you choosing to look for? May what you choose be with eyes of compassion and a voice of reverent silence ready to listen as unconditionally as dear Shera.
And then my soul saw you and it kind of went “Oh there you are. I’ve been looking for you” – Unknown
Nine hundred miles, give or take, separated her and I physically; yet, space could not keep us from our destiny. She took her first breaths of life in Tennessee while I was feeling squeezed until I could scarcely breath in New York City. She entered this life quickly learning she was not worthy while I, once worthwhile, was finding my sense of value fading. Not yet knowing love, she began traveling Northeast to find belonging. It is said opposites attract, though I think that it is more opposites find each other to form a whole. Soon we would meet, knowing in that instant our souls had just found home.
Shera was five months old when my eyes met hers, and her eyes whispered I am meant for you, and you are meant for me. She knew before I did what her role in my life was meant to be. I saw her as companion while she saw her ability to service my journey with PTSD. Two years after her adoption, we began our certified training. The certified training the formality. For Shera already knew how to listen to the rhythm of my heart when in irregular beat. If I was anxious, Shera was my mellow presence and her body on which I could lean. Her touch my reassurance that I was in safe keep. Or, if night gripped too tight, Shera the warrior to chase away the horrific dreams. Tap, tap, tap she would gently nudge until I would awake from those dark realities. Her beating heart my comfort until I could bring my entire being back into the bedroom. Until I could remove myself from the engraved and chiseled memories I knew.
I struggle to adequately describe the bond that Shera and I share – not because I am afraid or because I doubt that you will care. I struggle two-fold, maybe three. Let me do my best to explain though challenging for me. One, when one spends years “just” living with night terrors, hypervigilance, and public anxiety, one starts to accept it is part of daily living. One also learns that the public is uncomfortable hearing military stories that aren’t filled with highlights of our victories and our bravery. If I share that I get afraid, I may not meet your images you desire to have and hold on to of the military. And third, have you ever had something that your heart struggled to find the words for because it was a feeling in which no words could adequately convey? Perhaps like hearing your unborn child’s heartbeat for the first time in which your breath was absolutely taken away.
I am blessed to be married to my best friend, and I love my step children as if they were of my blood since they were conceived. Yes, now that but of what Shera has that my dear family is missing. Though I know my family accepts me as I am, in all my anxious sensitivity, a part of me worries about what they think. Through my ears I hear their judgments and through my eyes, I see their concern at what feelings are rising in me. They might not be thinking anything negative at all, but in my mind that is what I perceive. Shera’s unconditional love and her ears – and heart – hear my voice when I can’t find my own words to speak. Shera is the safety net that helps me feel completely free to be…me.
I mentioned earlier that I “lived with” PTSD in that “it just is what it is” mode. Prescription medications to sleep and to briefly enter crowded areas part of what would help me cope. In 2015, a psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration gave me a prescription of a different kind. Have you considered a service dog to accompany you by your side? Shera was already filling that role – unofficially – at this time. I didn’t need another service dog; I needed Shera to now earn her service stripes. Shera and I filled that script through AKC Canine Good Citizen training. With the passing of her Public Access Test, now Shera goes everywhere with me. And, very infrequently now is prescription medication a necessity.
I should qualify “everywhere”, for there are certain situations in which Shera does not go. It is a choice I make that she should stay home. Just as Shera has my back and is ever vigilant at what is best for me, I, too, watch out to make Shera is not put into situations that aren’t for her well-being. If a hike is the day’s plan, but the outside temperature is nearing triple digit degrees, Shera stays home so as not to be submerged in grueling heat. Shera may monetarily begrudge not going, for she wants to make sure she is there if I become in need. Yet, just as I know she is always keeping watch over me, Shera knows I have her back equally.
I know that Shera cannot fill the shoes of my comrades I had the honor of serving with for our country. Those shoes can only be filled by the finest of men and women I have had the privilege of knowing. Yet, when Shera lays down behind my back when I am in a grocery story line, I can feel myself protected by my battalion, all of them protecting me from all sides. I like to think that Shera can hear their heartbeats from distant spaces, wherever those spaces may be. Shera has a wisdom like that, a keen “knowing”.
It isn’t easy to be in silence without all the noises of a war zone ringing louder than one’s ears can absorb adequately. And it isn’t easy to be in a crowd so very loud, wishing that silence would come quickly. It is easy to be home because public places feel unsafe. And it isn’t easy to be home because there is fear threat can’t be kept at bay. It is easy to feel better staying up for two or three days straight so that there can be one solid night of sleep. And it can be easy to long for staying asleep to avoid anxiety’s reality. One can be on the front lines praying for the war to end so that you return safely home to family. And once on this side of the front lines, no longer deployed, one prays for finding peace. In this tug and pull, this stretch, this war that rages within that I don’t always have the training to know how to fight, Shera is the one who keeps me centered, moving forward, and upright.
Shera was our flower girl, best man, maid of honor, and I would argue the one to also give us away. Walking down the aisle and then next to my wife and I Shera sat as we said I do on our wedding day. Once again, as Shera stood beside me, I could feel myself surrounded by so many more I couldn’t see. My battalion there in the shadows with raised hands in salute. Kris, way to go man, this girl is most definitely the right one for you!
Shera is an extension of my right arm, her mission to serve my needs. Her purpose is to support me as I journey with PTSD. Yet, when Shera heard me vow to have and to hold, Shera made this vow her own. If my wife is not feeling well, Shera is watchful of her as well as me. Guardian of my wife, too, while keeping me her top priority.
Shera has a second purpose – actually, we both do as a team. Our story is not just about hope, nor dignity. We also feel our story matters for the education we can provide. Dear public, please know, some wounds are invisible to the naked eye. I may not be blind, nor deaf, nor missing of limb, but that does not mean I am not in need. I will never wish the kind of anxiousness and terror I feel near you, yet sometimes I wish you could walk in the footsteps of my feet. And please know, it is not you personally that near paralyzes me and threatens to take me to my knees fighting for breath or not to feel like I might explode. I won’t have words that will make sense to you, but please know. I don’t want to scare you when the walls feel like they are closing in around me. I also recognize that perhaps for you dogs are scary. Because I believe you know that the military place the highest value on one word – our honor- which means everything. I promise you, I will never put you in harm’s way with Shera next to me. Please give her a chance, please withhold your judging, feel free to ask questions for better understanding. Just please don’t pet her without first talking with me. I know there are some who abuse the service dog system, which is unfortunate, but I also kindly ask you not generalize. For the sake of twenty-two brave and honorable veterans who are daily fighting for their lives. A service dog could help a veteran live independently – and that is the key – living.
I have mentioned Shera’s wisdom, her keen intuitiveness that isn’t just to get my attention when she senses I need to remove myself from a large crowd before anxiety takes the lead. There are moments like when we visited a Starbuck’s in New York City. Dear Shera loves all ethnic backgrounds, not a discriminatory bone does she have. That I can walk with her in my home city full of diversification I am glad. Anyway, into a Starbucks we walk passing a gentleman who appeared down on his luck, and who Shera immediately did not like. That Shera started to communicate in a low growl took me by surprise. A few minutes later police arrived due to an incident that took place prior to us entering the door as customers that day. Shera had known something wasn’t right immediately upon us entering that place.
If you see Shera jump up and put her paws on my chest, you might think she is not being a “good” dog because she is not staying down. This is how Shera communicates that she can hear how my heart is starting to rapidly pound. When anxiousness is starting to grip me, Shera lets me know it is time for us to find a quieter place, like going for a walk outside. Her other tactic if we are sitting is to put her paw on my leg, look for her leash, and will me to look into her eyes. Shera has a stubborn streak, too, if I am not paying attention as she speaks. For fifty-pounds give or take, she is very strong when she sits refusing to move her feet. I must say, I didn’t know it possible to find anyone outside my battalion who knew the shape of my back as if it were their own, ever vigilant in their watch of me I feel blessed that I have found another soul who is as diligent in guarding for what I may not immediately see.
These moments of anxiety in which Shera wills me outside are not life and death emergencies. Yet, in the depths of anxiety’s grip, these times can feel like I am being pulled from life towards an ending in which I may no longer be able to breathe. I know sometimes Shera grows in her own anxiousness if she can’t be by my side, yet she bravely hides it ever my calmer dad, it’s all right. A line had to be drawn in which she couldn’t be in pre-op as I prepared for minor surgery. I can still see her excited greeting when I awoke in recovery. I confess, I’m not sure who is happier when our eyes meet. Shera might be more expressive outwardly of what my heart is inwardly communicating. I have missed you girl, oh have I missed you so. You are the biggest part of my heart, as I know you already know.
Dad, I have missed you too, though I knew you were in safe keep. Through rooms and through space, I listen for your heartbeat. I would lay down my life for you, as I know you would lay down yours for me. Did I ever tell you dad, that I could hear you from all the way in Tennessee? Your voice was faint, but I could hear what your heart was trying to speak. Humility and pride, not wanting to burden people with your pain. Oh, how you were striving to be so brave. I was too dad, trying to be courageous and have faith. I knew I needed to get to you and that there would be a way. Even when I felt I wasn’t wanted, I would be quiet and listen to what my own heart was beating in rhythm to. It kept repeating: your souls will reunite soon; he is looking for you. Dad, thank you for calling out to me loud enough for me to hear so that I would know North and East was the direction I needed to go. When my eyes looked into yours, my heart beat excitedly…home.
Before you read Jacob and Tracer’s story below, let me set the stage for this blog and blogs going forward.
Do it now; sometimes later becomes never – Unknown. A good quote, though I believe a friend’s social media post said it better when he shared a picture of a service dog lying near a casket. No longer did this canine have someone to serve. Reach out, ask, get involved, listen, my friend pleaded.
Another dear soul had found his pain mightier than his exhausted strength to live in the pain. Suicide. PTSD once again a thief of hope, and of life. I was already aware that PTSD is a thief for twenty-two military veterans per day. The more I watch and listen, I learn that twenty-two is an understated number. And, this number does not consider men and woman in uniform such as law enforcement, paramedics, or fire fighters.
This has led me to my next steps with the book, Hope Has a Cold Nose. At the right time, I know this book will happen; I will continue until it does! Until then, I don’t want later to become never for someone who could benefit from the extraordinary stories I have had the honor of writing. And the stories I intend to write.
I am grateful to Jacob and Tracer for many reasons. Jacob gave me one of the most sacred gifts someone can give another – he trusted me with his story. And because he did, I was led to a desire to utilize my listening and writing skills to help military veterans like Jacob achieve their next mission.
Jacob and others who have so graciously shared their stories with me have an inherent desire to continue to serve. To lay down one’s life for others is a life-time oath. Military veterans are no longer living out their vows deployed in a war zone; now they live this vow as civilians who do not want to see their armed forces brothers and sisters lose their lives now that they, too, are civilians. An urgent call to duty is that twenty-two more brave men and women do not die today – and twenty-two do not die again tomorrow or the day after and the day after that – because they have reached the point where despair and hopeless win.
Jacob found hope in the form of a soul in a fur coat. When Jacob, a veteran of the U.S. Navy who served in Afghanistan, met Tracer, the will to live became far greater than the certainty that death was the only option that would end suffering. For both Jacob and for Tracer. Tracer was rescued from a shelter, just as Jacob was rescued from his imprisoned pain. For Jacob (and military veterans experiencing PTSD), hope had been slipping away through the regime of medications, out of reach in the nightmares and day terrors, and elusive from traditional forms of therapy. As hope slipped away, so to was Jacob’s family and friends. Until Tracer. Jacob and Tracer, and other veterans who have shared their stories with me, discovered that life worth living again is not just an option. It is a certainty.
My idea of Hope Has a Cold Nose began developing not for fame of the storytellers. It began developing with the intent that the stories shared would reach those whose are struggling to find the strength to keep going. And that it would reach readers who could increase their awareness and learn how they might be able to support those struggling with PTSD. As I continue the focus on turning Hope Has a Cold Nose into a final manuscript, I hear Do it now; sometimes later becomes never and I see my friend’s FB post Reach out, ask, get involved, listen.
As Maya Angelou writes When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift. I cannot predict whose story of hope and dignity will inspire someone else, yet I do know that shared stories do. And that I can get involved by reaching out, listening, writing, and sharing those stories.
I am passionate about the strength and beauty of the human spirit to find hope and purpose when deeply tested by painful and traumatic events. I am also passionate about the holistic healing power of canines to help people on their journeys to reclaiming self-dignity and hope. That being said, if someone has found hope again through equestrian therapy or fly-fishing or any holistic healing methodology, I welcome the opportunity to blog those stories as well. If you know of someone who has found healing and hope on their walk with PTSD, please have them contact me through either of my web pages.
Tell the story of the mountain you climbed. Your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide. – Morgan Harper Nichols.
It is my honor to introduce you to:
JACOB and TRACER
“In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”
― Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain
His war and my war different, yet both of us experienced the same. Both of us have known loss and inescapable pain. He may not have held a hand of a comrade taking his last breath. Yet he knew the feeling of a shield starting to cover his heart when a cage his bed. He may not have longed for silence when the spray of ammo was deafening. He knew the pain of silence when his neighbors stopped their lonely howls for sleep. We both knew the struggle to close our eyes for fear of memories; both of us with images that reinforced we weren’t “good for anything”. On one level, I knew I was fulfilling my sacred oath to serve and protect; yet on another, I felt I was failing for each heart beat that would never resurrect. On one level, his purpose to love unconditionally would not let him lose the faith; yet on another, not being wanted was eroding his spirit away.
Voices he couldn’t shake screamed “NO!”, “Bad!”, and ultimately “We surrender him to you; good ridden he is yours!”. Voices I couldn’t shake yelled “Help me, please”, “Don’t let me die”, “Tell my family I bravely fought the war.” His way of speaking is through his body in its wiggles and shakes; the more to be happy about, the more movement he makes. As words sharper than a knife snapped his heart in two, his eyes grew dim and his body subdued. I had once spoke a voice so charismatically; surrounded by family and friends once my top joy and priority. As one life, then two, then…turn off, oh God, please, that off button let me find. I, too, grew dim, so very dim inside.
Before our souls would find each other, before hope would nudge us both, I needed to partner with despair upon returning home. What right did I have to be alive? or “in this chair, in this room, is the only safe place for me; these the type of messages in my mind’s relentless repeat. The power of three G’s my armor laying across my chest – grief, guilt, and gutless trying to steal my breath. Death had rubbed against me over and over – during deployment it just wouldn’t leave. It had shown me it placed no value on good people – a dirty rotten thief! I was no longer at war, but I was at war every day. Emotions once buried threatening to no longer stay at bay. Those hands I held or wished I could have had they still been attached now keep reaching out when I try to sleep. Okay buddies, cheers to you, this fifth of Absolute is on the house courtesy of me. Down the hatch, one, two, three. Another bottle, another day, oh, sweet oblivion thanks you for your mercy. And, yes Doc, I don’t mind if I do. Pile on the prescriptions – twenty-five feels too few.
Before we were meant to join as one, guardian angels were sent our way. They were the orchestrators as our beacons of faith. Mine was called Teresa and his was a right arm extension of an Earth angel whose calling was shelter dog rescuing. Both were determined they would not give up on him nor me. One step at a time, but steps forward none-the-less. Step one for me, no more drink; Step one for him, another veteran and a planned meet and greet. Step two for me an application acceptance to be partnered with a service dog. Step two for him, a veteran cancellation with one phone call. Step three for me, a six-month waiting period shortened to eight weeks. Step three for him, a veteran named Jacob he was about to meet.
Hello Tracer, I am Jacob. What do you say – shall we give this a try?
Hello Jacob. I am Tracer. And just so you know – I will never leave your side.
I had already been blessed with two gifts to make my life complete. My son Tommy and my daughter Ava, two additional angels inspiring me. Now I have a third gift, a third child to make me whole. Tracer and I inseparable for ninety-nine percent of where I go. Tracer gave me my life back not just once, but twice. Truth be told, he has probably given me many lives back each time he comforts me in the night. He gave me a lifeline the day he and I became a cohesive team. He also was the catalyst for paths intersecting. A dog trainer kindly told me I had a wealth of knowledge that needed to be shared and not kept under lock and key; becoming a leader of a youth organization called the Sea Cadets would become my destiny.
Slowly, steadily, with the softest black fur held tightly in my grip or I held tightly in his; the prescriptions continue to decrease their grip. With a wisdom and an encouragement that he speaks volumes through his eyes, I continue to step forward with my arms open to life. Memories still knock in a menacing way and I’m certain they won’t disappear. Actually, I hope they don’t fade completely for it is important my fellow comrades I keep near. For each youth cadet I help, I am giving purpose to a fellow soldier whose time on Earth was through. Goodness is payed forward in the community a cadet serves, and in the self-confidence, he builds too. It is a slow healing process, and I know I can’t erase what deployment revealed about a dark side of life. But with Tracer by my side, I can listen closely when I close my eyes. I take a deep breath, and I hear my comrades say “thank you for making it matter in how you are fighting for me; because you bravely chose hope you are a beacon of light for others in need. We know it is hard to keep going but you are doing exactly what we need you to do; the enemy doesn’t win because of the courage you choose”.
I am not a hero; medals go to Tracer, to my children, to my wife. Medals go to men I proudly served with side by side. Medals go to those who save lives like Tracer’s and who teach others like Tracer to save lives like mine. Medals go to my friends who found it too hard when they came back to stay alive. Medals go to the sea cadets who give me the honor to believe I am teaching them when, in reality, they are teaching me. Medals go to my friends who also journey with PTSD. Medals go to four-legged souls who also fight to survive, trust that the one they are meant to unconditionally love they will soon find.
I made many a wish upon a star the nights I was deployed. Like Please, oh please stop the noise. Our prayers get answered but not always in the way we are thinking when we reverently beg and plea. A perfect example is the way that the gift of silence came to me. Beside me speaking all the time, through a silent voice of the most incredible love is a four-legged soul in answer to my prayer sent to me from above. I have known what it means to give your all to your team, to give your heart and your soul. It is an entire new level of team with Tracer who makes me whole.
Well, Tracer, my boy, what do you say?
I think you have done well diverting your eyes away?
Diverting my eyes? What do you mean?
You kept your eyes on the track and let your tires break free. We are a pretty good team, aren’t we? You and me. Oh, and one more thing. By your side, I will never leave.
In special thank you to Alana for the honor of writing her story for this week’s blog.
When I needed a hand, I found your paw – Unknown
She has her own biography – two, actually. One is about her mightier than a strike of lightening and volume two about her continued heroine capability. Unfortunately, you won’t find mass publication of her stories if you were anxious to know the titles of each. Libby Power I and Libby Power II are originals only. The originals safely tucked in safe-keep. The stories a sacred tribute to a sister in a fur coat. A sister in familyhood, a sister of the soul.
Her formal name is Liberty, for her birthdate near the Fourth of July. She was known as Libby all her life. I knew my sister as another name, too. Libby was also Life is Better Because (of) You. People talk about the power of setting intentions to realize your dreams. That if you put your focus on what you most desire, you bring your wishes into reality. Perhaps not from birth, nor before I could walk with my own two feet. But most certainly for most of my first eight years of life my desire was Libby. Well, maybe not Libby specifically. But a dog to grow up with my unending plea.
If during shopping my parents spoiled me with a toy, a stuffed dog was my choice. My favorite movie was 101 Dalmatians – oh, the thought of having 101 dogs surrounding me! When my Linus blanket (think Charlie Brown) was worn and needed re-backing, fabric with a dog pattern was the only option I could see. The pictures I drew were of a dog named Sunshine. Though Libby’s name different, she would bring immense warmth and brightness into my life.
One day when at the pool with my mother, a neighbor walked by, a most beautiful Golden Retriever walking along side. Neither my mom nor I knew in that moment we were about to start on a life-changing journey. I eagerly pointing out what breed of dog I wanted as my mom at long last said okay to a dog joining our family. My dad my co-pilot in searching and in driving me. Many a place we visited searching for my sister’s face. And then, there was Libby, and only girl, boldly holding her own among her many brothers trying to pick on their little sister as the odd sibling. Because I knew what it was to not fit in, I knew Libby was meant to be family.
It’s not that I was picked on by brothers – growing up with my brother meant getting older beside a best friend. He loved Libby, too, my co-conspirator in dressing Libby up in pink and teaching her to balance an object on her head. My dear Libby more poised than me in how she could walk gracefully. No, my not fitting in was not from brothers like it was for my Libby. It was being different than my friends in my ability to read. During an age in life when wisdom has not yet knocked and confusion reigns, Libby was the unconditional love and joy starting and ending each of my days.
Her fur caught my tears of sadness, her wagging tail matched the times I was joyfully at play. My confidante who did not judge as she listened to my heart. And that we could understand each other without words was the best part. There is a quote by John Lennon that reads life is what happens to us when we are busy making other plans. My version of this is we share life with a best friend not realizing just how precious the friend is who is holding our hand. Perhaps that is part of life’s flow that hindsight is the door opening that lets gratitude and wisdom walk in. I guess Libby’s responsibility was to ensure I did not feel alone, and mine was to “just” be a kid.
On the day I received my driver’s license, Libby’s soul knew it was time for me to spread my wings. She, always wise, knew me better than I knew me. I had transitioned from childhood to teen-hood, now sixteen. Libby was preparing for her own transitioning. Her trouble walking became a diagnosis not of hip dysplasia but of that C word that grips one tight. On the day I received my driver’s license, I also had to say goodbye. Growing up from eight to sixteen, I had stumbled, tripped and fell many a time, figuratively. Many a time Libby had been there as my backbone to help me back to my feet. Now I was being asked to give back to her the same love. I was needing to let her go to her responsibility as my guardian angel above.
The stuffed toy dogs that had been my companions before Libby came out of the closet that night. Though they weren’t the warm fur of my soul-sister, they graciously caught my tears I cried. It is said that a loved one will visit us in a dream to let us know they are okay. I am so thankful each time Libby visits for us to talk, dress-up, and play.
My heart still feels the void of my fur sister not physically by my side. I anticipate I will feel the absence the rest of my life. During a most confusing time of my life, I had someone to help things make sense. I had someone that taught me how to move through life with elegance. Libby was truly the sunshine that entered my life as an eight-year old about to start walking some dark pathways. Powerful Libby, such a powerful heroine in every way.
I, the author of Libby Power I and Libby Power II, sometimes day dreams about writing volume three. Oh, what adventures I could create for both Libby and me! I pause, thinking about some experiences I’ve had since it became time for Libby to leave. Libby, though not directly, you’ve been a part of my journey.
Like living in the Caribbean and meeting the love of my life. Libby, you always assured me that someday I would become a wife. You would love Byron and think he was perfect for me. You would be right – oh, Libby, I am so happy. I’ve told Bryon so much about you, and I’ve told Coconut, too. Coconut is our child in a fur-coat. She is another very special soul. Of course, you may already know that as you watch from where you reside. Oh, and thank you Libby for any influence you had on Byron to bring Coconut into our lives.
Coconut had a tough life before Byron and I brought her home. Exactly the fears she faced we can’t begin to know. Yet, Libby, because of all that you taught me, I loved her through her trembles and shakes. I’ve held her close and assured her everything would be okay. If you have had any influence over her, I thank you. For she is a good catcher of tears, just as you knew how to do. My tears not as frequent, and I think actually, Libby, I’ve caught more of Coconut’s than she has had to catch of mine. Byron and I are focused on giving Coconut grand adventures in life. Some moments she still gets afraid but her trust far greater than her scars of fear. You know Libby, much like the guidance you gave me to grow in trust as we moved together through the years.
You know Libby, the day we went to pick her up from her foster home, she had just escaped. She was trying to run back to the streets she knew where she felt most safe. I was walking in the direction towards her and she was quickly running towards me. In that moment I knew Coconut was meant to be part of our family. In that moment I was eight years old again, meeting you as you were reminding your brothers you were not wimpy. I think that your strength is part of what spoke to me. I didn’t begin to know then you would teach me how to be a beautiful blend of confidence and elegancy. You were gentle yet strong, a quiet listener and a confident speaker through your heart – a heart more precious than the gold symbolically you. You taught me integrate the same into my dance through life – my life made better dear Libby, because of you.
I can still see his ten, maybe eleven-pound frame moving across the cement under the dim lights. Determination one of his virtues even then when we met that night. A barn his home, this first-born of his family. His father a very large figure, intently watchful of the people his children would meet. His mother daintier in her smaller frame. Yet, she too keeping an eye on each of her children moving out of her range.
His father originally from Germany; a bloodline of royalty. We opted not to change this little one’s name. We didn’t always call him Lord Von Barren, nor Gray. We abbreviated his full name of Lord Von Barren Hans of Gray to simply be Hans or sometimes Hansey. Occasionally he was “Bubba” and in his later years we might whisper “hey, ole boy” affectionately.
Grey, white, brown spots, and patches of missing fur, too. His mother’s fight with a critter while she was pregnant passed ring worm on to her brood. On his one beautiful brown ear was a streak of fur colored in gray and white. That made this little fella our priceless find. He was of little value, at least accordingly to the “elite”. His cost for us to take home was near one fourth of others who have “pedigree”. Our German Shorthair was “not worth anything” for that ear adorned with a gray and white streak.
Yes, our dear Hans so “worth less”, he never went through the puppy teething. Translation, no shoes nor furniture met with his chewing. The only time he ever had anything of ours that he shouldn’t “have”, was a glove he took to his bed to hold on to because he was mad. Hans went near everywhere that we would go. In this particular instance, he had stayed home. The glove not shredded, nor sign of any teeth marks leaving their permanent engraving. He merely wanted us to know that he didn’t go with us was disappointing.
And then there is the game of throw and retrieve. Tennis balls, especially, were Hansey’s favorite thing. His love for tennis balls so great, they would also get to take a drink. If he was thirsty, the tennis ball went into his water bowl during his thirst quench to ensure the ball’s safe keep.
It was with this love of a tennis ball that one could see the flaws that traditional pedigree judges have. We would tell Hans stay as we tossed a tennis ball into the woods out of sight from where he sat. We would then let a minute or two or more pass. Patiently Hans would sit staring in the direction the ball was tossed. We would then communicate okay, now go get your ball. Though we didn’t keep tally, I’m confident the score was zero to nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand times. Zero representing the number of times that ball was not found. No matter the time, the distance, or the range out of sight, our “worth less” boy always returned the ball safe and sound.
I still share the story Hans of how you knew what my heart needed you to do. You curled up next to me when you knew my heart had just broken in two. Normally our now eighty pound “baby” had only one requirement when it was bed time. He had to sleep between his human dad and I. Oh, how we would try to get him to change his mind periodically. Eighty pounds “bulldozing” with his nose can be a powerful thing. Yet, on the night I received the call that my Grandpa had taken his last breath, Hans made his one and only exception to sleep on my side of the bed. Acting as my pillow and my tear catcher through the entire night, Hans kept reassuring me it would all be alright.
A reader of our hearts, equally his unconditional love in return. He kept his promise he gave me for how long he would stay on Earth. After a scare that a lump on his neck would mean he would not earn the name “ole boy” in later years, once again he cuddled next to me catching my tears. While we awaited a call from the veterinarian to hear the words “benign”, Hansey and I talked about his immense value by our sides.
Who else would eagerly burrow into the sleeping bag so excited for slumber party nights? And what about how many painter turtles we would count as we went for a canoe ride? I know you can’t stay with us physically until we have also grown old. But, please Hansey, be at least fifteen before you decide it is time to go. I anticipate Hans knew before that vet call that he could honor what my heart pleaded to be. Physically by our side several more years, Hansey left just a few months shy of fifteen.
Our four-legged child in fur, our companion, the one to first make us a family. Happy twenty-fourth birthday, our dear Hansey. So many feathered souls graced by your regal point while in a field, on the lake, and the yard too. Our gentle giant, a love of kiddy swimming pools you also knew. A friend to cats, a mentor for our baby duck named Pip Squeak That little mallard would follow you around the yard as if you were momma in the lead. A chipmunk squeak would raise both beautiful ears instantly. Your eighty-pound stature also never too heavy for lap sitting.
Your brown ear with that beautiful white and grey streak was our gold mine. Thank you for the gift of you in our lives. We the receivers of your total heart unconditionally – you dear Hans, so very – very, immensely -loved and worthy.
First the expansive larger than life ocean captivated me, in that lure that pulls one in to a mesmerizing beach. Then the tribe around this single winged soul beckoned with their race from and towards the waves. They this feathered friend’s messenger willing me to pause, to watch, to stay. This dancer in the water strong, independent, wise, and a survivor of a story I will not know. His wings outstretch as if an Eagle, yet a name he will never be able to hold. A dip and dive, a shake for water to roll down his back. A look around, repeat once or twice, then oh, his wings stretch to expand. In that sunshine and in that vast space, he stands certain of one thing. He is majestic, he is courageous, he is extraordinary.
Fast forward to the second running race, a few hundred runners each at their own pace. Running in pairs, fours, individually. Running in honor of, memory of, in celebration of bravery. Some wore sashes to display their personal journey. The pink ribbon proudly displaying survivor for all to see. Their stories not verbally shared, but certainly visible to “read”. They have known the depths of fear and they have known immense courage.
A friend wisely said the following words, both of us understanding the definition of extraordinary bravery. For some being able to get up again to another day is courage, the truth of her words still whispering. How many of these individuals in this half marathon weren’t sure they would see this day of this race?
How many people do we pass on a sidewalk who weren’t sure they would see the current day?
Somewhere between mile eight and nine she paused momentarily. She had just videoed her self “doing this” and now she needed more water to drink. The only words I felt I could say was it is an honor to be in this race with you today. After her thank you, she handed me a paragraph from a page. Her first half marathon with feet that were going numb from side effects of her chemotherapy. With a beautiful smile, an equally radiant will, and by herself she was determined to reach mile thirteen.
Together we walked while she continued to make this day about the gifts I would receive. Mother Nature’s daughter like me, she bent to move each wooly caterpillar out of the path of human feet. We talked of how much Nature speaks, of deer, owls, blue jays, bats, and the pillar strength of trees. We talked of peace that comes when one steps into a woods before the feet begin their urging. And how running becomes the bricks that build peace into soul-centering.
We didn’t talk of the days that she wasn’t sure she would be walking with me. We didn’t talk of the moments the only thread she had to hold onto was her bravery. We briefly touched on part of who her tribe was, and how they didn’t relish running. I thought of my winged dancer in the ocean two days before, strong, independent, and majestically stretching his wings. His “like” tribe not beside him, yet, he was not alone. He had what mattered most within him – his courageous and extraordinary soul.
I, who hold a special bond with owls walked beside a survivor who talked of her encounter with an owl on her running journey. Once again, reverent silence the leader, I softly broke its sacredness to say you were given the power of its wisdom” to guide her way. I can still hear her voice filled with that affirming tone of wisdom as she replied, that’s for sure that life and this journey teach a lot about being wise.
In the sunshine of this race day, and in the vast space of what we call life, she walks certain of one thing. She is a brave and majestic eagle, wise, with her outstretched wings. Soar high dear survivor that graced my path, soar in all your extraordinary beauty. Truly my honor to visibly see your story. A beautiful, brave, and inspirational story indeed!
I read a story recently in which the narrator described how she had been taught something so very wise. As a young girl her father wished to show her how to hear the essence of souls; how to listen past the words voiced to know what was being told. The narrator further shared how one day her father saw her practicing what she felt he was trying to teach. She was putting her head against someone’s chest to listen to their heartbeats.
A single word, heart, yet it means so many things. It is our physical source, and it is our soul centering. It is that which resides in our brain, our chest, and our stomach too. And it is what we follow in what we desire to do. It is a rhythm that is most often smooth yet can be erratic periodically. It trusts the flow of life yet can experience uncertainty. It is a sound we hear of another’s and the sound of ours we hear when we are sitting quietly. It is what whispers yes, no, this, not that when we listen to our feelings.
It is what can beat strong, and stronger still as we elevate its rate. It is what can propel us forward in hope and in faith. It is what can plug and struggle to flow. It is what can feel broken and empty of will to forward go. It is what moves us naturally every moment of every day we live. It is what moves us exactly where we are meant to be every moment we exist. It beats without words to tell it to do so. When following its authenticity, it always knows. Interwoven with the air and water to survive, it cannot beat without connectivity. The air above joined with the earth below for harmony. Interwoven with mind and body, the power of three. Fire in the soul begetting love of all things.
It is that which expands as we grow from baby to adult in age. It enlarges to match the size of our body’s frame. It is that which enlarges as we open to those we meet. In each moment we experience we decide to keep expanding it or let it shrink. It has no limits in what it can do to support our body’s desire in how our body wants to move. It has no limits in its ability to love if abundant love is what we choose.
There is one difference in its physicality from its soul. We can give it away in one respect, and in the other we can’t let it go. In some instances, we can donate our heart after our breath rests for life. We can give of our love unconditionally never stopping if we make that our choice. Of course, life teaches us best through opposites and it teaches us to see more than we initially see. Life teaches us to dance and stretch between giving and keeping our heart under lock and key. It teaches us to look again at gifts we received.
My gift was in the form of fur and four legs when I was six, seven, or maybe eight. It was a gift from my father, a special package on an ordinary day. It occurred to me as I was reflecting on the narrator’s story; my ability to listen to hearts is something my father also gave me. I’m certain my father saw me put my ear to Peppi’s chest frequently; she would tell me much though she couldn’t verbally speak. Some of my father’s best friends were also those with four legs and a fur coat. I smile to think just how much he knew before I did what I would need most.
Perhaps each time our heart beats it places a stitch into that moment, and then to the next. And invisible to us is a linked thread. Peppi taught me to listen in quietness to the thump thump thump within both her and I. Hers one of the first rhythms I started to harmonize with mine. The rhythms I hear now threaded from that day on the porch when a long nose and eyes greeted me. When my father gave me the gift of hearing heartbeats.
If you think of the rhythm of your heart, how does it beat? Is it smooth and even? Or is it erratic or the sound stifled with you holding the key? Is its rhythm something you trust in how it flows? Or is it something you try to hold back or control? Do you ever sit quietly and listen for how it is unique? Or do you surround yourself with noise and continuous activity? Have you paused recently to put your head against the chest of another to hear what they speak? Is there opportunity for you to hear the additional rhythm of someone else’s heartbeat? Do you have opportunity to revisit something given to you to see with new eyes? Is there something you now realize was a treasure beyond price?
Perhaps every one of us were taught when we were little how to listen to what is spoken in what someone doesn’t speak. What do you hear when you listen closely?
It’s not the only one treasured and saved. There are others such as the one of Grandma and him in their “younger” days. Yet, true to how life brings the messages needed at the right time, it was this picture nearing day twenty-four I would find. The traditional of an advent calendar contained surprises behind each door; each one special and from the heart, though this one became more.
His heart belonged to his family, to his farm, to his neighbors, and his community. His heart also belonged to souls with four legs and paws for feet. He lived his life in faith, with compassion, and of servitude. Gently partnering with Mother Nature to grow crops, gardens, and flowers he also knew. Creativity as builder, simplicity is life’s abundancy. A man of few words, most remembered at his celebration of life for how he was ever smiling.
I don’t remember lengthy conversations where he imparted his wisdom about life’s ebbs and flows on to me. But as I look at this picture, I know he was significantly responsible for teaching me there is powerful communication through heartbeats. Just as I had heard gratitude and simplicity from the tree and ornaments on Christmas Eve when nine months old, my love for dogs and compassion for others from Grandpa I would come to know.
We never got to finish his life story, blank pages not meant to be filled as legacy. Instead, his story is in our memories, letters Grandma wrote on behalf of both of them, pictures such as these. I reflect on life stories I have written for others – how years one lives fit into a few hundred written words as the essence of one’s life. The more years one lives, the less words are needed to describe. A person may have walked millions of steps while their time on Earth, but their footprints they leave the same. Though the size of their steps will have grown through the years, their soul foundation unchanged.
If you were allowed only one photograph for people to view, what would that picture be to reflect the essence of you? Do you have one already taken that speaks of your heart’s priorities? Is there something you would add or edit before letting others see? If you weren’t aware and someone took a picture of you sitting with someone, or doing something, that makes your heart sing, what words would they use to describe you from their memories? Is there a word missing from their list, if you were to imagine what they would say? Is there growth in the size of your footstep that you would like to make, a positive change?
Among its many messages this picture has for me, elevating a priority on simplicity it speaks. I read words the other day about things stored in closets and totes out of sight does not mean clutter free. What better way to also honor Grandpa for his servitude than donating.
And, as I hug Ginger I smile feeling myself on a porch, or better yet, sitting in silence next to Grandpa listening.
Thump, thump, thump…the rhythm of love’s heart beats.