Sunday, April 19, 2015

Flipping on the "C" Switch

Ever since losing my mother in 2009, I've been haunted by one question regarding her death. Not why she died, but rather, why she died of cancer.

Now I know that every day millions of people die of cancer, so why should my mom be an exception? Sure, it's possible that, like the aforementioned millions, she just drew the short end of the stick. As her oncologist explained to me during Mom's three-week battle with Ovarian cancer, everybody has potential cancer cells lurking in their body, but for reasons unknown, in some people something, somewhere, somehow, flips the "on" switch. The switch certainly never flipped for that 124-year old Brazilian, a chain-smoking childless bachelor who was tagged in 2014 as the world's oldest living human being.

Seems that dodging cancer is a crap shoot at best.

Still, I've been convinced that Mom's cancer wasn't genetic, but environmental. She came from a long line of relatives notorious for living up to triple-digit numbers and without  a single known case of cancer. A few heart attacks maybe, a stroke here and there, but no word of the Big C.

Mom had a really poor diet. She loved junk food and lived off canned and frozen meals; the more mysterious ingredients and preservatives, the better! And she guzzled bottled water like crazy, two, three bottles a day. When I learned that she stored the plastic containers in her warm garage, I warned her about the dangers of toxins leaching in the water and suggested she keep her water supply in a cool spot.  But every time I went to visit, I'd find a six-pack baking in their usual corner of the garage.

Then there's the notable fact that every single family on my childhood block has experienced multiple cancer deaths. Our 1968 neighborhood was built upon a former walnut orchard...were pesticides to blame? Or was it the 1980 spraying of malathion used to stop the medfly infestation? Perhaps it was the asbestos in our popcorn ceiling or the saccharin we used to sweeten our coffee.  Hell, maybe it was the red M&Ms

The list goes on.  

So you may understand why I've had my doubts about Mom's cancer gene just "suddenly" igniting. Now, I've added yet another contender to my many suspects and it has shot to the top of the list: 

Baby powder.

That's right. The delicious scent that conjures up images of gurgling, cuddly, chub-a-lub newborns. As far back as I could remember, every single day after showering, Mom would sprinkle baby powder in the crotch of her underpants for a clean, "fresh" feeling. When my sister and I entered puberty, we followed Mom's lead because Mother Knows Best, right? However, I always seemed to get that darned white powder all over my blue jeans, and my sister didn't like the feel of it, so we soon quit using it. Well into adulthood though, whenever I'd visit Mom, I'd always see the familiar white container of baby powder in her bathroom, right next to the Jean Nate, and would smile at her lifelong habit.

But I wasn't smiling when I saw a recent magazine headline stating a link between talcum powder and Ovarian cancer. When I Googled "talcum powder and cancer" my search engine exploded with articles from around the world, followed with lawsuits and ads from ambulance chasers.  

Is there a link? The answer appears to be inconclusive, although there's enough concern to motivate the American Cancer Society to address the issue and advise that "research in this area continues." Regardless of what future studies may reveal, I'm glad my sister and I tossed the talcum.

Knowing the answer won't bring back Mom, I realize that. Perhaps it's just human nature to want to assign blame, point fingers, assign a culprit, and say in a loud, sanctimonious voice, "Yeah, YOU, you're the fault!" 

And the incongruous baby powder is as good a suspect as any. At least for this rueful daughter. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Tales From the Dark Ride

I used to be a nice person. Really.

But commuting up to four hours a day on congested Bay Area roads has turned me into an unearthly abomination not unlike the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Thinking of moving to California? Consider Idaho, please. Or Utah. Both are lovely this time of year, plus they have plenty of water to boot. Flush all you want!

Because crammed California roads don't have room for even one more Prius or Google Bus. And years of navigating an auto maze of millions has morphed me from that friendly neighborhood lady who walks her greyhound and pats children on the head into a growling, snarling she-beast with the patience of a Tasmanian Devil about to devour her young. I've stopped counting the number of expletives I mutter to myself during my 90-minute drive every morning. Who knew I had such a potty mouth?

My fellow road warriors are responsible for this frightening transformation.  And you know who you are.  

A typical day starts with the dude in the Ford pickup who tailgates me with his brights on because I'm not going fast enough to please this self-proclaimed King of the Road. Never mind that we're on a winding, single lane with no shoulder, it's 6:00 in the morning, still pitch black, and so foggy that visibility is just a couple yards beyond my headlights.  I'm already going 65 in a 45mph zone, but apparently Mario Andretti wants me to go fasterfasterfaster. He lets me know of his need for speed by riding my bumper and blinding me with the glare of his halogen lights in my rear-view mirror. 

Expletive #1.

Then there's the Fast and the Furious wannabe who weaves in and out of traffic, left-right-left-right, in-out-in-out, never using a signal, mind you.  Let the others maintain the rate of speed, thinks this Vin Diesel dolt who usually leaves a string of fender-benders in his wake. Unlike the rest of us, he's got places to go, people to see. We're crawling at a snail's pace because, well, it's just so gosh darn relaxing. Plus, I can't hear enough of those sincere, "We'll give you ten thousand dollars right now because we trust you!" radio commercials. 

Expletive #2.

But I haven't experienced my true auto-aneurysm until I reach that one dreaded light on the corner of Jackson and Mission: You know the kind I'm talking about; the light that stays green for seven seconds and red for seven minutes. I'm waiting, waiting, waiting, and then glory be! The light turns green and I praise God and Allah and Buddha and every other heavenly superhero I can think of, and prepare to take my foot off the brake except....

The driver in front of me has her head down in a position that can only mean one of two things: either she's dozed off during the long red or --and I'm taking a wild guess here--she's texting a really important message to her BFF such as, "OMG, and ever since she pierced it she has to tinkle in two....

HOOOOOONK!  I lay on the horn and she looks up with a surprised jolt that says, "OMG, I'm in a car!" and toodles through the light, which is now yellow. And I'm stuck at the red.  

Expletive #3, #4, #5 and #6. And it's only 7am.  

But the plus side of commuting is that it leaves me plenty of time to think. And I hear that Idaho and Utah are lovely this time of year. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

What's Up With Hazel?

So, what about Hazel? Those first couple days after losing Olivia, watching Hazel was pathetic. Every morning, upon awakening, she'd bolt down the stairs and immediately start searching for her companion throughout the house.  In the kitchen, behind the sofa, in the backyard, out the window, sniff, sniff, sniff, where are you, Olivia?

Then it's like she would suddenly remember, and she'd flop herself on Olivia's pillow like a wet rag and just lie there, heaving the occasional sigh. As if my heart wasn't already breaking, watching Hazel mourn was like rubbing salt in the wound.  I know how you feel, girl. I miss her, too.

But today Hazel is thriving and adjusting to her single status better than I could have hoped for. Of course it helps that I'm heaping her with affection, taking her on marathon walks twice a day, and bringing her with me when I run errands, something I couldn't always maneuver with two dogs. She's probably thinking, "Hey, this isn't so bad."

I'm also taking her to doggie day camp once a week so she can enjoy a little canine stimulation and socialization while I'm at the office.  I don't know what goes on at these soirees, but when I pick up her 10 hours later, she is exhausted, raising her head only to eat dinner, and then returning to her pillow to pass out until the next morning. Let me tell you, this dog snores like a buzz saw.

I'm repeating everything I did after Elvis died--at that time, I focused all my attention on Olivia and that's what helped cement our bond. 

In time there will be second dog, I'm sure of it.  Yes, two dogs are more expensive, more messy, more work. But dogs are pack animals, and watching Olivia and Hazel interact together--walking belly-to-belly, sleeping side by side, and even drinking from the same water bowl (even though they each had their own)--confirmed my belief that dogs may love their humans, but they need their peeps, too. 

I'm just not ready for that second dog, though. Not yet. I still miss my girl too much, but that's okay. Like I said, in time. 

For now, it's Hazel's turn.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

P.S. Olivia

Oh, how I miss Olivia

Last Friday would have been her 7th birthday.  I've never been one to celebrate canine birthdays (even I know when to draw the line!), but on Friday morning I awoke with a vivid image of what Olivia must have looked like as a greyhound puppy, and what a hard life she would face for the next four years, not as a pet, but as a commodity: a race dog. 

That hard life came to an end when, at age 3 1/2, she was retired and I adopted her. However, I've documented how Olivia didn't adapt easily to being a household pet. She didn't know how to receive love or affection. Didn't know how to react to other breeds or how to share her space. During several walks, she lunged at passing small white dogs (her particular bug-a-boo), inciting one angry owner to scream at me in a thick French accent, "Zees is a horrible dog dat ees worse dan zee pitbull!"  More than once Olivia bared her teeth when I got too close to her pillow or growled when I tried to remove something she shouldn't be eating. One time she snapped so close to my face I swore she shaved the peach fuzz off my cheek.

And during our first year together, I often wondered just what had I gotten myself into?  Sure, I would continue to feed her. Walk her. Care for her. But would I ever really love her?

Of course we all know the answer. Eventually Olivia came to realize that an extended arm didn't mean she was going to be smacked, but instead be stroked.Passing dogs wouldn't attack, but just sniff.  Slowly, Olivia transformed from a frightened, wary dog into my loving, happy girl who bounced with sheer joy at the mere sight of me. On walks, she came to greet strangers with a wagging tail, nuzzling nose, and happy trot, expecting them to love her as I did. 

The big orthopedic pillow that she once fiercely protected with a threatening growl soon became "our" pillow. Every single night I'd lay near her side and she would immediately get up, circle three times, then lay back down and spoon against me, draping her head over my shoulder so I could rub her neck, scratch her ears, and kiss her needle nose. While watching TV that's what I would do, giving my lovely 'Livvy all the love and attention she had missed during her first three years of her life. It saddens me that after such a rocky beginning, she knew love for such a brief time. 

But my dear friend Deb said that what happened to Olivia was destined before she ever even entered my life, and if I have faith in the Divine, the decision was made that, "This dog gets to spend some time with Eileen." What mattered was the part of her life she spent with me was as good as it could possibly get and to consider the happiness we shared in our short time together.  Deb's words slowed my tears and warmed my heart. 

"Any dog that lives with you has won the lottery," she continued.  Perhaps, but I'm the one who feels like the winner. Because each canine spirit that graces my life expands my heart and finds new depths of love that I didn't know existed.  I never thought I could love another dog as much as I did Elvis. 

My sweet Olivia proved me wrong.  

Friday, February 13, 2015

'Livvy and the Rainbow Bridge

My constant companion. My faithful friend. My forever love, yesterday, today, and always.

February 27, 2008 - 
February 13, 2015

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Promise to Olivia

My sweet girl is still with me, but three months after her diagnosis, I cannot ignore the heartbreaking facts: she's now doing the three-legged hop, and our formerly brisk mile-long walks have been reduced to ten-minute jaunts to the corner and back.  Her tail is still wagging,  she still gets excited when she sees her leash, and she still has a healthy appetite, all of which almost lets me fool myself into thinking maybe it's not that bad...

...until I see that limp. That's when I remember the vet at U.C. Davis telling me that a bone tumor is very painful followed with her dire warning about the excruciating pain of a leg fracture that is imminent at this stage. I also remember my promise to Olivia-- the same promise I made to Elvis and Lucy:

I won't let you suffer. I will never let you suffer. I have to let Olivia go before the pain becomes unbearable, even at the cost of my own personal grief.  

And so, I'm preparing my girl for this journey she's about to take without me. It may sound crazy, but it's been distressing to think that when Olivia crosses the Rainbow Bridge, she won't know anyone on the other side. That's why, on the floor, next to her pillow, I've placed a portrait of my mom so Olivia might recognize her face. It comforts me to think of placing Olivia in my mother's loving arms and knowing she'll take good care of her newest "grandpuppy."

At night, when I'm lying next to Olivia on her pillow, stroking her velvety ears and rubbing her neck, I tell her about this wonderful place she's going to visit. A place where she'll be reunited with Elvis and can once again run without pain.  I tell my girl how much I love her, and how sorry I am that she's hurting, but I promise she's going to feel better soon.  I try not to cry because I can tell it distresses her and I want her to feel nothing but peace and love. So much love.

And she snuggles deeper against me and sighs a contented sigh and I hold her tight and wonder how can I bring myself to take this final step, how can I say goodbye to this dog I love so much?  I never want to let her go.  But I have to.  

Because it's time to remember my promise. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Lifetime Dog

Last night I invited my friend, Lynn, over to watch an episode of the Twilight Zone. Not just any episode, mind you, but my all-time favorite. I love it so much, in fact, I wrote an essay about it several years ago that ran in my former "Dog's Life" column in the San Francisco Chronicle column. It also ran later in The Bark magazine.

Today, I'm repeating a portion of this essay because it still resonates so strongly. I originally wrote it about my first greyhound, my "lifetime dog," Elvis, but realize now that the emotions I expressed back then capture how I feel about the dogs I've had since Elvis; my mother's dog, Lucy (who I adopted after Mom passed away) and my current girls, Olivia and Hazel.   

If you love your pets with even a fraction of the intensity that I do, you'll know exactly what I mean.


Today, when I look at my beloved dog, who will soon turn 8, I can't help but note his now gray muzzle and eyebrows. Like his human, Elvis is showing signs of age. And I realize, with an ache, that our time together will be much too brief.

That's why I'm so fond of a particular Twilight Zone episode. Titled "The Hunt," it features a recently deceased man and his dog. As they ramble down a country road in the hereafter, they come upon a gate. 

"Welcome to heaven!" the gatekeeper declares. Except for the dog, that is. 

"What kind of heaven won't allow dogs?" the old man asks. "If he can't come in, then I'll stay out with him. He's been my faithful companion all these years and I can't desert him now." 

So the old man continues down the road with his dog.  Soon, they come upon another gate. 

"Welcome to heaven!" the gatekeeper greets both man and dog. When the old man asks about the previous gatekeeper who said that dogs weren't allowed, he learns it was the devil. 

"He gets all the people who are willing to give up a lifetime companion for a comfortable place to stay," the old man is told. "They soon find out their mistake, but then it's too late." 

And the old man and his dog pass through the gates, toward the light. Toward heaven.

When I cradle my dog's face in my hands and look into his liquid eyes, so full of unconditional love and loyalty, there's no doubt.  Elvis is my faithful companion. My lifetime dog.

And this is heaven.

*Read the complete version in The Bark
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