Honoring Karim, the shaman

Eight years ago, in September 2011, we walked into the animal shelter in Santa Fe to meet the Bull Terrier, who at the time was known as Blue and when he came home with us a few days later we chose the name Karim. In Urdu, Karim means blessing. At the shelter, they estimated that he was 3 years old; we have since wondered if he was as old as 5 back then. Either way, that would make the last Tuesday in September, the 24th, his 11th (or possibly 13th) birthday.

This past Saturday, October 12, Karim died. We buried him at midday on Sunday, the 13th, in a grave that I began to dig (15% of what was the needed size and depth) in mid-September when I wondered and worried if he would day in the 48 hours that I was out of town. He didn’t die while I was gone, so I got to dig the grave that he and I needed. Since late August, we have known that his right kidney was inflamed and there was blood in urine. (Looking through photos after he died, we saw one from six months ago, from March that showed a few drops of blood in pee in the foyer.)

In Advice for Future Corpses: And Those Who Love Them, Sallie Tisdale writes (on page 88), “If you are going to help someone who is dying, you should be prepared to help in the toilet.” In a way, Karim had us (and many friends and dog sitters who came to care for him and Jataka when we were away at births or vacations), preparing for his death for years. Coming home to find piss or shit in the foyer became so frequent upon returning home that I was at ease cleaning it up some days and at other times I was livid. In recent months, I got into the habit of walking from the parked car to the front door quickly and by myself to see if there was anything awaiting us. And the day before he died, it dawned on me that I had been doing this quick walk to the front door because I anticipated that I would come home and find Karim dead in the foyer, on the couch, or on the dog bed. All that urine and poop was getting me ready for death. On Saturday, I came home to find him on the dog bed in front of the wood stove before walking back outside to let Brinda and Sabiya know that he had died before we walked in together to see him, sit with him, be with him and be with one another in the presence of his death.

It was a sobering last month or six weeks of his life as his weight declined quickly. I could see it first in his vertebrae along his back, then the ribs along his formerly stout midsection, and finally in the hip bones that portruded at angles that had never been evident before. When I would rub his neck, there was much less muscle and mass to massage.

The disintegrating, disappearing body was simultaneously jarring and expected as he loved so many foods. Before Karim, I had not known that a dog would chew up carrots, cabbage and broccoli. A constant topic of debate was whether Karim’s favorite fruit was peach, mango, apple or whatever was in season. In preparing for  his burial, I pulled out one peach pit and two cherry pits from a katori in the fridge for Sabiya to throw into the grave along with a pink collar and a white blanket that we wrapped him in. He loved blankets, and I have learned from Karim and Brinda that (some or most) dogs love sleeping partially or fully under a blanket. Whenever a blanket or a jacket, a pile of clean laundry or a pile of pillows and blankets for the bed were available, he would go settle in for a most comfortable snuggle — it didn’t matter to him if he slept so long as he got to snuggle in a makeshift bed.

Even as he was getting weaker and slower and skinnier, he walked over to a chair on the portal to lay outside for less than an hour. The autumn air was crisp in the shade and he would go to the green chair to get a few more minutes outside before I carried him back inside. In the last week, there were three nights that I took him out to pee when we were greeted with the hoo hoo hooting of an owl; one night, there were two owls in the valley hooting for the few minutes that Karim and I were out in the dark. On the morning of his death, a magpie — a bird totem for entering other realms — jumped under a table on the portal less than 10 feet from his dying body.

 ***
Karim was Brinda and my first dog together, who we got to through some incredbile and unpredictable circumstances, three months after moving to Santa Fe and 14 months after our relationships started. She was volunteering at the animal shelter and met him one week that I was out of town. 

     “You have to come home,” she said. “Bud, is everything all right?” “Yes, there’s a Bull Terrierr at the shelter!” “I will become in eight days.” “He won’t be here in eight days.”

I did not come home early but in that time, Blue, as he was known, was adopted by an elderly woman despite the concerns about his strength and temperament voiced by one of the employees. He was returned less than 24 hours later, then acquired kennel cough placing him in quarantine the entire time that I was gone. 

Brinda told me in the last few days that it is through Karim that like dthat I was along guy. It was through July 2014 reading/consultation with Lena Barrios, a Mayan healer, that I learned that my birth corresponds with the nahual of Tz’i

As our first dog, he was also our first child who instilled parental duties, responsibilities, existential questions, dilemmas and delights that we had not entertained or experienced prior to his arrival. We had innumerable, amazing experiences with him in eight years:

  • The first Halloween when children came knocking at the door and lost interest in candy when they saw the dog who they asked to pet.
  • When we sat in a hot tub outside the bedroom windows while he sat on the bed and watched us. After a few minutes of watching and waiting for me to get out of the tub, he squatted and peed on the middle of the bed to convey (what we understood at the time as) his displeasure of being left inside while we reveled outside. 
  • Another time, I was working upstairs, and one of us had let him into the backyard and then a few minutes later, inquired where he was. Brinda asked if he was upstairs with me. When I told her no, we ran to the back to look and wonder and wander around the backyard until we saw the hole under the fence. We ran out the front door scrambling and ran to the park less than a block away to find him accttached to the face of a 14 year old, large, female Husky with three adults trying to pull his jaw off of her. One trick that we had learned from a dog trainer a EDs or months earlier was to pull and pinch the inner thigh to get him to unlatch. I learned that and had to use it just that one time. (Some comic relief afterwards, when the Husky was safe back at her home and we were back in ours was to replay the one adult who was tossing — more accurately described as sprinkling — water onto Karim’s muzzle like he was a boxer.
  • When we moved all the furniture out of a previous home and left Karim with a bowl of water and bed. In four hours of isolation, he walked into and apparently rolled all over the inside of the empty, ashy fireplace because we came back to find his coat gray  from nose to tail. We will never know if it was some sort of cleansing practice or despair or simply some BT mischief.
  • This summer, we knew that he was getting closer to death, so we would let him go “sojourn” as he wandered for 20 to 30 minutes. Solo adventures had been inconceivable in his spry years because he likely would have gotten into a fight with the larger, older dog next door or been picked up by someone who fights dogs. But, the two things that we imagine that he was doing while sojourning were eating acorns and looking for an arroyo or a bed of leave, a shady spot or a sunny spot where he could choose to die. But, we stopped permitting the sojourns after a few instances where coagulated blood showed that the impact that the acorns were having on his kidney(s).
  • Four years ago, he ate so many acorns on walks with a leash that he had incontinence causing him to pee while laying on the dog bed. After consulting a neighbor who is a veterinarian and the Internet, we learned that acorns are toxic for dogs.
  • And the time that he saw a mouse in the foyer, snapped into terrier mode launching his 40 pound body into the air, using his muzzle to stun the mouse, before grabbing it with his teeth and throwing it down his throat.

Karim was the ultimate blessing as he prepared me for fatherhood. In the early years of our relationship, there were many a night that we would watch the dizzying and hilarious antics of Bull Terriers — splashing, spinning (or as we called it helicoptering), cuddling, and trancing — in videos online that had us laughing for hours at their joy, persistence, and intensity. There was the first year when we strapped a child’s pair of butterfly wings onto his back and paraded him around the kitchen. In those early years, we learned that in England, Bull Terriers were bred and raised to accompany and protect children in the countryside and I took this distinct lineage as a sign that child or children were coming, I just had to work with my own patience/impatience and trust some forces greater than I could imagine. By some miracle, he endured and lived long to support us with the arrival of two children before his time to go back to the mountain.

When Vinnie Died on Wednesday

It was just before dinnertime and we were driving home from an afternoon at the pool: feeling festive, relaxed, joyous. And, in hindsight, feeling alive. And, three houses from home, I drove across the arroyo and saw the big, brown dog lying on the dirt of the road. I instantly recognized what I was eyeing and said “oh no” aloud. Even though I recognized it/him (that is death and Vinnie), my mind tried to concoct some alternate experience that I was not seeing a dead dog lying 40 feet in front of the windshield. 

– What is he doing? 

– Lying down. 

That is all the response and words that I could muster to the three year old mind in the car seat over my shoulder inquiring about the oddity before us. I paused and tried to figure out what was most appropriate of the multiple things to do, to be done, of how to attend to what was happening: go to the neighbors’; move the carcass; go tell Brin before she saw him; hide it from a toddler’s line of sight; go check his pulse and see if he is sleeping; that is not a natural nor comfortable position to sleep in. So, I proceeded slowly and moved the car delicately around the dog, passing on the driver’s side so I could look out the window as we drove past and saw the flies flying above the small pool of blood underneath his mouth drying in the sand. 

– Did you hit him? 

– No, I drove around.

And I sped to the front door. I left the car running and knocked the knocker once. No response and looked like nobody was home. So I dashed back to the car, and got back to Vinnie’s body still lying in the road. I drove past so the car faced away, and the toddler could not witness what I was doing, and jumped out and walked over to Vinnie. 

He was heavy. 90 pounds of hulking dog deadweighting. This is the fittingness of that single word: deadweight. Vinnie was less than one year old. We first met him December of last year, a puppy so small that he fit into two hands. A cute, cuddly pit bull mix with an brown and white coat. We have watched him grow for the last 10 months, and have only gotten to pet and know him in greater proximity in the last month as we tossed bits of jerky out the window on the way home. A few weeks ago, we had some pieces of cheese in the car, leftovers from another hot summer afternoon at the pool, and tossed those to Vinnie and his brothers, Rusty and Ozzie. That was the day that Vinnie walked all the way to the front door, lay on the mat and wait for 15 minutes to see if there might be more cheese that would come from within. Vinnie drooled such a long slobber that the toddler asked “what is that?” as she watched it fall from his lips to the ground. 

That was the day that everything with Vinnie changed. He was still cautious with us, and would sit 20 feet from the car when we came and parked. But, he wanted to know if we might have a bit of jerky, tortilla chips or that godsend of more cheddar to toss his way from the window or have him come over and eat from our hand. It was only the last 4 weeks, but in 10 months, 4 weeks is a sizable chunk of life. It is 10% of Vinnie’s life this time around. And more importantly, it was the proximiny and the time spent and the trust built and burgeoning internatction that all three of us had. More than we’d ever had with Ozzie, and it was supposed to be the bond that would grow with Vinnie as he became the primary dog next door once Rusty, the 15 year old, bear-fighting-and-surviving-to-have-my-papa-tell-you-about-it, dies. We had been anticipating Rusty’s death to come sometime soon (his papa said he didn’t think that he’d make it through the winter, but he’s also said that for the last two winters). It wasn’t supposed to be Vinnie. 

Vinnie with the long tail with the fat top that stretched out. Vinnie with the beautiful color and distinctive brand just above his hips. Vinnie with ginormous paws and the massive skull. Vinnie with the extra skin on his jowls that he’d just begun to trust us to hold and rub. 

Akal, old baby Vinnie. Akal. Akal. 

9 months later, and 10 years on

May 2015. Today is Mike Brown’s 19th birthday. This I learned from the political education and relationships that I have benefitted from through the It Starts Today campaign that ends today on Mike Brown’s birthday. April 2005. Ten years ago, I was invited by John, Courtney, and Jamie to apply to join the Advisory Board at Resource Generation. I did so. I entered my first board meeting at the Walker Center in suburban Boston in a cohort of rookie board members along with Andrew, Ajita, Penny, and Meg. We were some kind of board Fab 5 heading into headwinds of organizational turbulence, interpersonal challenges, and divine breakthroughs that I could hardly fathom when I first walked through that doorway as board member. It was revolutionary to attend meetings where the culture was to introduce yourself by saying four things: Your name. The place you live. Your class identity. Your “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun). I’ve been more schooled in and on gender and sexuality from the colleagues, friends, comrades, and confidantes of RG than any Women & Gender Studies classes could have instilled. At the first RG conference that I attended (circa 2006), multiple RGers did not only talk about their inherited wealth but told stories of how they could trace their white families’ wealth all the way back to slavery. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It rocked my world. And, I was hooked. RG gave me the tools, the political education, the camaraderie to be able to say that “my mom grew up in a working-class, white family” for the first time. I had never understood this, nor seen this facet of my family tree before being immersed in spaces that were explicit and unapologetic about class, classism, capitalism, and class dynamics. Not by being outwardly focused and waxing philosophical about class in society, but by being inwardly focused on families and the belief systems and biases that color my choices. I have been off of the board for just about four years and forever give thanks and have multiple, daily appreciations for the gifts that having been a board member at RG has bestowed upon me. Wisdom, love, patience, courage, trust in others (in their anxieties and their daring feats and so much more), impatience, humility, a yearning to tell stories and write blog posts among them. And ask others questions so they will write their blog posts and tell different versions of their stories. Today, I honor the life, the premature death, and the legacy of Mike Brown and all the people of Ferguson, Missouri. As one more name, place, and episode in the long legacy of lynching and the addiction to violence that discolor the US Constitution. I had not known the name of Ferguson before last summer. The people and popular outrage of Ferguson compelled me to figure out how I could act where I was and with those people that I already knew. To inquire who were the small group of people that I could band together with in such a nauseating, perplexing, horrifying time. If you’ve got some change in your pocket, some discretionary dollars in your bank account then go and invest in Black liberation, in Black leadership, and in Black dignity. By investing in Blacks in America, we are investing in all humankind. Thanks, yall. And, praise Jesus that I’ve learned to see that those who believe in freedom are of all races, of all classes, of all nationalities. And, I will continue to seek out those who believe in freedom and civil disobedience.

Comfort foods sought

It has been an evening of breadmaking, washing dishes and leftovers. I am venturing out by cooking one of the staples of comfort food by cooking hash browns after seeing a friend mention them for months. In the midst of the death of two on this Sunday, I seek comfort food tonight. In addition to the comforts of the kitchen, the internet becomes another salve for me. Similar to the Margaret Mead quote that “each of us is unique, just like everybody else” I turn to the quiet abyss of the internet, trusting that the privacy of my words will be encountered by someone similarly alone, quiet and in front of a screen.

Do we gravitate towards comfort food during times of duress, loss, doubt because it is an acknowledgement that any meal may well be our last meal? I have inquired about the possibilities and proximity of death for some fifteen years, mostly in the inner depths of my own soul. The moment that kicked the consciousness of death doorway wide open was when I was a few hundred meters from coastline with my parents — the three of our heads bobbing up and down in rough waves. As a young man, I had barely embraced the idea that my parents were no longer the infinitely powerful beings that I had known them as throughout my first two decades. As we doggy paddled awaiting a dinghy that never came, I reckoned with the mortality of myself, and feared how long their fifty-something, smoking bodies could endure the turbulence within sight of land. It was then clear to me that my parents were no longer invincible.

###

I still recall the light of an overcast day as it passed through the red of my fleece sweatshirt in the fourth grade. It was a day or two after the news of my grandma’s death had come courtesy of the telephone line, news carried from two countries away. Unable to cry at home or in the presence of others in my family in the days afterwards, I finally found the space and solitude to bawl during lunch as i hid (or shielded) my face from all the other students who had the same lunch period. I had no idea whether anyone else saw me that day, which didn’t matter to me as I was unable to come to terms with being alone in such an unfamiliar way. It was fortunate to not have to deal with anyone else at school, just as it had been at home. Rather than being in Colorado, it happened while in the surroundings of a new school with none of my three siblings anywhere around. It was the first death of a family member in my decade’s old life, my grandma who loved me, tickled me and treated me with the fawning adoration befitting of a grandparent to a grandkid.

In the two decades since then, attending to unfinished business, expressions of love, another home cooked meal (that can be either beautifully simple or elaborate) are some of the simple moments that I appreciate in this moment. Rather than subject myself to a tailspin of regret, second guessing and remorse, there is an unparalleled freedom when I readily acknowledged that death is with us all the time. It is all around, and rather than continue to participate in the delusion, avoidance, skirting over or skirting past, I prefer to notice it.

I don’t know that I am befriending it, but choosing to not neglect it feels like a path less traveled.

Tending to unfinished business rather than bucket lists

I’ve had death and how our collective culture revolves around, relates to and treats death for the last month since my cousin died. I heard of his death in a car accident at midday on a Thursday.

Within a few days, I heard mention of Bucket Lists at least three times. And multiple other times in recent weeks. My emotions over the last month swam far, deep and wide. I have been quite irritated when I hear about “bucket lists” because a tone of jovial, fun-filled, and this-is-cool accompanies it. Much of my irritation is due to the material or experiential aspect of most things that populate these lists — hot air balloons, travel, bungee cord jumping. It feels like yet another instance where we are supposed to wear happy faces and feel great, even though most of our feelings about death and transition are not happiness nor greatness.

On the other hand, I first learned about Unfinished Business two years ago when I opened a first book by Elisabeth KublerRoss, which was either The Tunnel and the Light or On Death and Dying. Ahh, the joys of reading and the power that new ideas, when remembered, can have on altering my own life. Since first reading Kubler-Ross, Unfinished Business has become a counterpoint, or an antidote, to the Bucket List.

Unfinished business, according to a summary of how Kubler Ross described it to a six year old with a dying sister, is:

anything that you haven’t done, because this is your last chance to say or do anything you want to do, so that you don’t have to worry about it afterwards when it is too late.

Forgiveness. Love. Freedom. Permission. These are the simple and fundamental things in life. For some odd reasons (including attempts to control and manipulate others) we have a tendency to make life much more complex and messy than these staples.

_______

Unfinished business is affirmed by reading this list of the five biggest regrets (biggest wishes, in other words) of people approaching death, which was compiled by a palliative care nurse. The five biggest regrets/wishes are:

  1. wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected.
  2. wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. wish I’d let myself be happier.

Courage. Live truly. Play. Express feelings. Touch. Happiness.

C.L.T.P.E.F.T.H. is a word game worthy of befriending the 5 As of David Richo: acceptance, affection, allowance, appreciation, attention.

_____

At this moment in my life, I am attending to finishing my business in this life by:

  • appreciating and celebrating people sooner, on the same day or as soon as possible
  • not holding onto grudges with family, friends, coworkers or strangers
  • eating well, sleeping when and as much as I can,
  • writing more and more by honoring the urge when it arises
  • telling my parents, siblings, more females and males that I love them
  • sharing the ways that love looks
  • letting go of the need to have someone say “I love you, too” after I tell them of my love.
  • responding “thank you” (rather than “I love you, too”) when someone tells me that they love me
  • eating chocolate and baking cookies or bread more often
  • accessing compassion (for others and myself) quickly
  • slowing down
  • recognizing that the only person’s who’s accolades and approval to concern myself with is me