PepinReposesmallCleaning off some stickie notes from my desktop, some of which are quite old, and came across this remembrance. I was trying to write posts about life that were 150 words or less:

The gentle harp alarm emanating from my iPod annoys me at 6:30 a.m. & I clumsily reach out to turn it off. Even that mellow sound is inadequate against my late-to-bed-early-to-rise snappishness. When I crack open my eyes, I see Sgt. Pepper standing next to the bed, staring at my face. Her eyes big and moist, her tail a furious blur of wags. She exudes excitement—the sun has risen and it’s time for breakfast! My crankiness dissolves; I can’t help but smile.  A highlight of my day before I’ve left bed.

I miss that damn dog.

The lead up to good news

SangriaMy mom was given a break from chemo three months ago. Her tumor markers were low–single digits–and had been for sometime. Her oncologist finally said, You know what, we’re going to give you a break from chemo. The numbers aren’t moving, so we may as well give your body a break. She was wary; she thought the moment she stopped chemo, the cancer would start growing again.

However, once the break started, and once she was reminded that this is the point of chemo–to get rid of cancer as much as possible so that you can stop taking chemo–she embraced it.

She gardened, she cleaned, she shopped, and she rode with me to Massachusetts and stayed with me for two weeks. (And we shopped and ate and shopped. It was great.)

When she left, I knew my brother would be visiting her within a week after getting back to Ohio, so I knew she would be entertained and not too sad about not being with me anymore (though we were both sad to be by ourselves after being together for so long).

My brother texted me this morning to say they were getting ready to go see mom’s oncologist for her three month update. I had totally forgotten that appointment was today.

I know loss and fear are are integral parts of the human experience, along with, of course, joy, happiness, love, anger. There is no way to avoid loss and fear, and there is no way to only experience joy, happiness, love. Being alive means constantly navigating the waves of these emotions, and knowing, as Buddha says, that none of them lasts forever.

So, I received my brother’s text and replied, then immediately felt like I had to put something out to the universe. Something to help mom as she approached this appointment. I am not a particularly religious person; my prayer tends to be one of gratitude directed out towards the universe, in general. But whenever I get to this kind of point in my path, my first instinct is to pray for things to be okay.

I remember, distinctly, lying in bed and saying prayers as a child, and repeating over and over “please let my mom be okay.please let my dad be okay; please let me grandma be okay. please let them live a long time; please let them know I love them.” I would say this over and over as if the number of times I said it increased the chances of it happening. (Side note: I also think, as I look back on my life and early adulthood, there is evidence of very mild obsessive/compulsive behavior, and eventually I’d like to write a post considering what it means to grow up at a time/in an environment where that behavior was viewed as voluntary and not compulsory. There was no diagnosing it; there was only the instruction to stop it. But I digress.)

Even as an adult in my late 20s, when my dad was living and dying with cancer and I was hundreds and hundreds of miles away, I would pray at night, “please let him have one more day. please please please.” And he did, and I got to spend the last 30 days of his life right next to him. But that had nothing to do with my prayer. The prayer was to make me feel like I was doing something.

And today, I received the text, and I thought I need to pray that the cancer didn’t come back. I need to ask god, the universe, anyone who’s listening to please let the numbers be low. But that’s not how prayer works. And I know it. You cannot ask for things to be different than how they are. Reality is reality and there is no altering it from moment to moment with entreaties to god. And when I acknowledge that, and remind myself, it is a fool’s errand to pray that something be different than it is, I come back to the wish for strength. Please let me be strong enough to handle the news. Please let my mom be strong enough to handle the news.

I changed my thoughts, my prayers, my wishes to that, and though it doesn’t satisfy the initial desire to drop to my knees and bargain with god, it helps center me nonetheless. I felt a bit sturdier. I reminded myself of the great time we just had together, a photo of her drinking a big ol’ margarita hanging on my refrigerator. I adore that woman, but we will not be here together forever. That is just a fact. I can barely think it without getting choked up, but it’s fact.

I first learned about my dad’s cancer due to call I received from my grandma. She left a message suggesting I call and talk to my dad. My stomach knotted and my skin felt prickly. I knew something weird was going on. When I called, he said, “I’ve got cancer, kid.” I started crying. And I’ll never forget one of the first things out of his mouth when I started crying was telling me we’d had 27 great years together, and to not be sad. I cried harder.

But he was right. He died when I was 30, and we had 30 great, great years together. Some kids don’t get as many. And my mom and I have had 40 great years together. And I hope to have 40 more (though I can hear mom say No Way to that many more years…she’s bit achey from all these years of chemo, and while she doesn’t want to go anytime soon, she also says she doesn’t want to be hanging around and in pain for years on end.)

I was at the office when I received the next few texts from my brother. When I saw it was him, my heart flipped. I knew they held the news I’d been waiting for yet afraid to hear. And then he said her numbers had only gone up a bit! They planned to let her stay off chemo for another three months. I was elated. That’s the complicating element in these health dramas… you’re filled with dread and nerves while waiting for the news, to the point of nausea, and when the news comes and it’s good, you feel giddy with relief.

And so three more months without chemo for madre. I am so, so happy, though I know we’ll all be going through this again three months from now. But for today, we’re all happy. I texted her how happy I was that her numbers were low. She texted back, me too, can you believe it?!!! We went to celebrate and have dinner. I had a sangria!

I told her she should have had several.

Update from a New Englander

I live in Massachusetts now! I can hardly believe it. It was only February when I was commiserating with friends about a work situation that infuriated me. I decided that weekend it was time to pursue new avenues. I had been keeping my eyes on new opportunities prior to then, but it was the work news I received that weekend, and the conversations that followed that really lit a fire under me.

And here I am, five months later in my new job, doing what I love, and living in a beautiful area, filled with cultural opportunities and close to big cities. And I finally helped my husband move back to his beloved New England. It’s been a remarkable first half of 2016.

I’m currently here alone; hubby and my pups are coming up at the end of summer. I miss them like crazy. We’re a bit nervous about selling our house in a timely manner. It would be painful to pay rent and a mortgage in Illinois. So send out good vibes to the housing gods!

The people I work with are fantastic. Talented, funning, interesting and focused on doing great work. The standards are high and I love it.

The landscape is breathtaking. I mean just stunning. Mountains everywhere. In every direction. I’ve learned one of the local mountains was inspiration for Herman Melville’s white whale–Melville had a view of it from his home in the area and when it was snow covered, it reminded him of a great white whale.

Of course, I have yet to be here during a winter, but I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m hoping to take up cross country skiing. A colleague I went to lunch with recently said the way to really embrace the winter here is to embrace all the winter sports, and that’s what I plan to do.


The Joy of Paul

Paul the cat came into our lives about eight months after I moved in with my then boyfriend (now husband), DS, in 2001.

Paul Portrait

Beautiful Paul cat

DS had bought a home that I shared with him and we decided to adopt a cat or two.

DS, me, and his daughter, AMS, all went to the local pound where we spent hours looking at the available cats. AMS found a black female cat that was missing her tail and connected with her immediately. The cat was two-years-old and AS decided that was the one for her. She named her Bailey and we still have her with us.

I also chose a cat, but he was sick (a respiratory infection, I think…not sure), and because we were adopting two cats, they wouldn’t let us adopt the sick one along with the healthy one. We had been there for a long time and decided to leave with just Bailey.

A week later, Bailey was STILL hiding under the futon upstairs in DS’s office. I was frustrated. “What’s the point of having a cat if you never see it?” I asked DS. “I’m going to go adopt another one.”

122802Paul on stairs photo by Shannon O'Brien

Young Paul in Florida

This time I went by myself because DS had to work, and AMS had returned to her mom’s house. The visit took hours (again), as I looked at them all, and tried to decide which one connected with me. Finally, I had decided on three cats located in the display cases at the front of the building.

Two of the cats were quite gorgeous–exotic looking fur and beautiful faces. The third was Paul who looked quite average compared to the other two. Just a big, black and white cat who was waving his paw in my face.

Young Paul

Goofy, beloved cat

I asked an attendant if I could see the three cats (one at a time of course). I picked up the first one, and he immediately started fussing and trying to get out of my arms. He didn’t want to be held. The second one did the same thing. Finally, we opened Paul’s cage and the attendant handed him to me, and Paul fell back in my arms like a baby, totally trusting. He was calm and sweet and wanted to be held.

I told the attendant he was the one for me; we put him back in the cage and started filling out paperwork. I distinctly remember watching a volunteer go get him once my paperwork was finished, and when she opened the cage door, he was sitting there and she leaned her forehead in and he put his forehead against hers. It was so sweet.

They put him in his cardboard travel box and I put him in my car and drove him home.


Hiding in the plants at our Florida home

I think DS was already home when I returned, and I brought the box in and let Paul out. DS thought he was a gorgeous cat, but was surprised by his size. He was 17 lbs. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that that was big for a cat.

As we’re sitting there with Paul, Bailey starts creeping down the stairs to see what’s going on and proceeds to lose her shit when she sees Paul. There is much hissing and growling, but Paul backed down pretty quickly (he’s a lover, not a fighter), and they became friends soon after.


The early years with Bailey and Paul in Florida.

Bailey and Paul

The later years with Bailey and Paul in Illinois.

All was well, and we watched as Paul checked out the room. He walked over to DS’s black leather couch and started using it as a scratching post. The cat had been in the house for 30 minutes or so, and this was his first action (after hissing at Bailey). We chastised him and he moved on to attacking the toys that Bailey had left alone all week. Then he started climbing the couch again.

“That cat’s crazy,” DS says. “I don’t think he’s meant to be inside. You should take him back.” He said Paul had to be kept in the laundry room until then, away from the rest of the house.

DS and I have rarely fought in our fifteen-year relationship, but this was one of our first fights and it was a doozy.

I’m fairly committed to the idea that once I’ve brought an animal home from the pound/rescue, there is NO WAY I’m returning it. That’s why I don’t make those decisions lightly. I will do what I need to do to make it work.

Me and Paul

A girl and her cat

So, that night there was much screaming and crying on my part, demanding that Paul stay, that I’ve made a promise to him, that I would move out with him before I take him back to the pound. On and on and on…I cried myself to sleep. I don’t remember DS fighting back much, but he must have because I remember going on and on. Maybe I was just trying to wear him down.

The next morning I woke up, eyes swollen from crying the night before. DS was already downstairs. I walked down and there was Paul, sitting in the living room, looking at me. “He’s on supervised visitation,” DS said and I knew he was softening and Paul would get to stay. We took him and Bailey to be declawed; that was our compromise. (Though now I’m better educated on that procedure and will not put our future cats through such an experience. Nail trimming only.)

We’ve both been so grateful to have that fat, silly cat in our lives. I call him my first dog–he came when called; he loved sitting on laps and being cuddled. He was completely unperturbed by any dog that entered our household. When we adopted Rigby, a 10-year-old pomeranian mix, he was ambivalent, and would lounge on a dining room chair, swatting at her backend. She was oblivious.

Paul and Rigby

Rigby and Paul

I had guinea pigs and recently found a video of one of them running around our living room floor; Paul looks intrigued, but jumps out of the way whenever the pig runs in his direction.

When he first met Sgt. Pepper, the youngest dog I had adopted up to that point, I thought for sure her energy would freak him out. Pepper skipped into the living room of our rental house in Illinois, and Paul sat on the floor completely unmoved. Bailey, on the other hand, ran for her life.

Begging for food 1

Sgt. Pepper and Paul begging for food. Pepper was approaching the end of her life here; she had cancer, which is why she’s so swollen.

And it’s been the same story with Jojo and Lucy. If he were younger, I think he’d enjoy wrestling with them–especially Lucy, who is smaller, and who seems to love Paul.


Always wanting to sleep on the newest blanket available

In Florida, he’d sunbathe and chase lizards on our porch, and he was always begging for food from the table. At Christmas, we would wrap up catnip in paper and he would unwrap it with his teeth, excited to get at the contents.

Spence and all the critters

Critters snuggling with DS. (Minus Bailey who is not a snuggler)

I remember sitting in the living room in the Florida house one day and Paul came running through at high speed. He had a piece of yarn hanging from his mouth. I didn’t think much of it until he kept running–back and forth. DS finally grabbed him and it turned out he’d swallowed half the yarn. He was panicking. DS pulled it out of his mouth and a crisis was averted.

Paul Window Blinds

Paul on my desk. He broke the blinds by going in and out of them so much.

He’s kept us company for 15 years. Making us laugh. Driving us crazy. (We had to rethink his feeding schedule when we realized he would cry (loudly) in our bedroom in the morning until we got up to feed him. We changed it to evening feedings for wet food.) Comforting us. Bringing us joy.

We learned he had cancer a few years ago. It’s a type of lymphoma, I believe. It has a high mortality rate, and one time in 2013, we thought we were going to lose him. His vet gave him a dose of medicine. “This might help him for a week. It might help for a month. We’ll see how it goes,” the vet said. Here we are, three years later and only now has his health declined more.

Paper Reading

Reading the paper

He’d been pawing at his mouth a lot over the last couple months, and when we took him in to be looked at, his gums were inflamed and some teeth needed to be pulled. Not an inexpensive procedure, but after some thought, I’d decided I would pay it if it would help him be comfortable for a little longer. Age has caught up with him. His fur isn’t like it was, and he’s down to 11 lbs. But he’s still as hungry as ever, so I thought that was a good sign.


Critter butts

Me and critters

Nothing better than relaxing with the critters.

I dropped him off for the dental, but the vet called me later to say she did an x-ray and it looked like cancer was in the jaw bone. When I first told my mom about Paul’s mouth problems, cancer was her first guess due to the experience one of her friend’s had with her dog’s teeth (and because Paul is living with cancer already). She was right.

Sleeping with Jojo

Snoozing with Jojo


Chilling with Lucy

It’s painful saying goodbye to such a good and devoted friend. He’s 17-years-old. He’s brought us happiness for 15 years. He has been such a joy. It’s sad letting him go, but what more can I ask from this furry little creature than for the delight he’s already given to all of us for so many years (though we always want more years). And what more can a friend do but find a way to ease that furry companion’s pain, and hold him in her arms, and thank him for being part of her life.

Family Portrait

Paul recently pushing his way between me and DS when we were next to each other on the couch. He’s brought us such laughter.

funeral prep

Today I went with mom to make her funeral arrangements.

She’s doing well and feeling good, and it seems those are the times she can talk about death and dying openly. When she’s ill, or when the spectre of death seems too close, the last thing she wants to think about are the details of funeral planning and obituary writing. It’s too scary. Only when the idea is abstracted can we face it directly.

I didn’t hesitate to say yes when she asked me to go.  My stepdad didn’t think she should do it, and he wouldn’t go with her to do it.  He defaults to dark humor to slap away any serious conversations about death and dying. I think it’s how he was raised…you didn’t talk about such things. Having studied Buddhism for so long, I know it’s a fool’s errand to pretend that we won’t die. One of my favorite quotes says, “The problem is you think you have time.” It’s attributed to Buddha and it says everything.

We arrived early to the funeral home, and I felt a bit awkwardo because people were also arriving for a funeral/showing. I always want to show the utmost respect for those grieving, and I wasn’t expecting our business to be handled in the same areas as people who were crying for a loved one. I mean, we were in different rooms, but I would have thought we would have been in a different part of the building. Maybe I overthink things.

Because we were early, we waited in a cafe (yes, the funeral home had a cafe and were serving Starbucks coffee. Say what?) One of the reasons mom wanted me to come, besides giving her general support, is because she plans to be cremated and wants to buy me and my brother a keepsake where we can hold her ashes. Something small so she’ll always be with us. The cafe also displayed a number of urns and other ways to remember loved ones. We were walking around, commenting on these items. We saw a brochure listing items that could be used as carriers for cremains, and it had a section for jewelry.


Now, I don’t know if you know me personally, but I love jewerly, particularly turquoise. It is my favorite stone and I wish to be bedazzled in it. And when I opened up the brochure, one of the first items I saw was a silver medallion with a turquoise bead.”I want that!” I said, pointing to the photo of the pendant like a child picking out a christmas present. “I love it!” 

We walked to one of the couches to look at the brochure, and I remembered I was not simply picking out a necklace. “Mom, I have to say this is one of the most bizarre conversations I’ve ever had. It’s kind of weird being so excited about a necklace, then remembering, Oh, Yeah, this is going to carry mom’sashes.” She laughed and said it didn’t bother her. This was the time to talk about such things.

The meeting took two hours and there were a lot of details to go through. I mean, a lot. It made me want to get my arrangements made just so no one has to do it for me because it’s a lot to deal with. They have all her family members’ names for the obituary, and some fun facts about her. I tried to get her to include her cat’s name in the obit, but she thought that wouldn’t look too good considering she’d opted to not name all seven of her half-siblings, which cracked me up.

Her urn is a beautiful biodegrable box with buterflies carved in to it. It’s a work of art. She loves it. We specified the details of her very small service. There were so many details to consider. So many.

When we left, she thanked me for being there with her, helping with decisions and asking questions. I asked her if she felt better.  She said she felt much better now that it was all taken care of. 

And that is what matters.