New Baby Reminders: A Note to my Future Self

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Week-old Laurel meeting some mountain laurel for the first time, August 2012

In about five weeks—September 15 or thereabouts—I will be giving birth to a baby. A girl, likely a Virgo, with a predicted weight of 7ish pounds. Her big sister Laurel will be turning two on August 20th. Laurel is excited about her baby sister and keeps talking about what will happen after she “pops out” of Mommy’s belly.

Last time, although I was prepared for labor and delivery (lots of yoga, lots of reading, lots of practicing breathing techniques), I don’t think I was adequately prepared for having a newborn. Most of my anxieties involved getting the baby out of my body, and that process went exactly as I’d hoped—I had no intervention, not even continuous monitoring or an IV, and no pain meds or epidural. Everyone says that having a baby is “the worst pain you will ever feel,” and call me strange, but I wanted to feel what that worst pain felt like (and in retrospect, I can imagine things that would hurt a whole lot worse).

While the actual birthing went very smoothly, the next few weeks (months?) seemed less so. I don’t think I was prepared for the aftermath—the bringing-the-baby-home part, and what it entailed. So, I wrote this list, and I’m putting it on my blog in case it helps someone else.

New Baby Reminders for my Future Self:

  • You feel depressed because of hormones and chemicals. It’s OK. Life is good. Remember that having a baby messes with all kinds of biological systems. It’s tough on a body—in addition to expelling a human from your uterus, suddenly you’ve got weirdly stretched skin, some cramps, bleeding, soreness, maybe sutures in sensitive places. You’re in pain, you’re overwhelmed, you’re excited, you’re anxious. Is something wrong with the baby? Is she crying too much? Why isn’t she crying? Is she hungry? Why hasn’t she pooped for a week? Am I supposed to scrape off that horrible belly button thing, or leave it? I can’t remember! Did I do the swaddling correctly? What about SIDS? Oh, look, here’s an email about an essay I submitted for publication—they want to accept it but they want some revisions first. ASAP. Oh, here’s a voicemail—someone has an injured hawk, it’s covered in maggots and shrieking, what should they do with it? Is my hair falling out? I think my hair is falling out. Is the baby smiling? Are they supposed to smile this soon? And suddenly you’re weeping. Again. But it’s OK. I repeat: it’s mostly chemicals and hormones, and a new human, mixed in with the chaos of your “normal” existence. Remember, life is very, very good.
  • She’s been hearing things for a while, but everything the baby touches and sees will be new. First brush of grass against her feet. First warmth of the sunshine. First dog fur. First time held against her mom’s skin. First kiss from her dad. First chickadee, first cardinal. First oak leaf. Wow! How cool is that?
  • Nursing will get easier after the first two or three months. That sounds like a long time, but it isn’t. And if something happens and you can’t nurse, it will be OK. Not ideal but still fine. Formula isn’t made of sawdust and rat poison; don’t guilt yourself into a frenzy if you need to supplement.
  • Nursing in public normalizes nursing in public. Be brave. I nursed Laurel for a fairly long time—until she was about 20 months old—but for the last several months of that stretch we only nursed before bed. I give myself about a C+ grade for nursing in public. I nursed her on park benches a few times, and on two different flights by two different airlines, and just about daily in the car. But I was never brave enough to let her nurse in a restaurant or in a mall or in a crowded public place. I thought about it, and I wanted to, but I guess I was too scared of what people might say. Which is a shame! Me, afraid of what people might say—gah! Why is it “normal” for mostly-naked women’s bodies to be displayed sexually in advertising, on television, in public, etc., but if a boob comes out to feed an infant in a restaurant, it might be met with whispering and disapproving glances? There’s nothing sexual about feeding a baby. And besides, they’re just breasts. All mammals have them and use them to feed their babies. What could be more normal and natural than that?
  • Don’t forget about Laurel. She loves you, and this is a huge change for her. She’s been the center of your universe, but now she will have to share your attention. She’s an outspoken (some might say demanding) kid. Expect her to let you know how she feels. Expect tantrums. Hug her and tell her you love her and that she’s still your favorite big girl. But now you have a favorite little girl, as well.
  • Don’t forget about Liza Jane. She needs attention, too. She lost Mr. Bones, her big brother, mentor, and constant companion, just a few months ago. Take some time everyday to pet her, hug her, and give her extra treats.
  • Is there someone else? Oh, yes, Jesse! He will be overwhelmed, too. Jesse may not have to deal with the same chemical and hormonal soup that you will, but he will have to deal with you dealing with the hormone soup, in addition to doing his best to take care of the baby, Laurel, and all the creatures so you can check your email now and then. And he will have to go back to work sooner than you will. He will miss things that you will get to see. Make sure you hug him, too, and remind him that you love him and that he’s the best dad around.
  • Go outside. It will make everyone feel better. Touch the grass. Hug a tree. Watch the turkey vultures swoop low over the hayfield. Let Laurel run around and pull up weeds. Put the baby on a blanket in the shade. Bring Liza, too.
  • Drink a lot of water. When is drinking more water not a good idea? Almost never. Drink up. And while you’re at it, have a beer with dinner and don’t feel guilty. Or have half a beer, if a whole one makes you nervous.
  • Accept help. When someone asks to come visit, say yes. While they’re visiting, they can play with Laurel or hold the baby (or both!) while you go to the bathroom, alone.
  • Try to write during this experience because your memory will fail. I promise you, Katie, your memory will fail. Record, record, record. Someday, your baby might want to know about the first time she rolled over, or the first person who came to visit her, or what her big sister’s reaction was the first time they met. And you might like to recall what day-to-day life was like during the first days and weeks of your daughter’s life. Like drinking water, you can’t write too much.
  • Take a video of the baby’s “startle” reflex. It’s so cute! And it disappears rather quickly. At least, I think it does. (I should have written it down last time…)
  • Remember that YOU are still YOU. In addition to being Mom, you are spouse, daughter, sister, friend, writer, educator, caretaker, organizer. Strong and funny. Environmentalist. Feminist. Not just weepy and leaky and full of love, although you’re those things, too.

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    Laurel and a little wormie friend, summer 2014

And before you know it, you will have a two-year-old who talks about deer poopy and always wants to know “Wha happen? Wha happen?” and will demand cheddar rabbit-shaped crackers, which she pronounces “crackhouse.” While you’re in the midst of it, time will feel like it’s moving very, very slowly. People will say things like, “Enjoy this time! It’s so precious!” and you will turn away and feel like crying, again. But then, suddenly, months will have passed. And life is still good.

Future self, I hope this has helped you. If it hasn’t, read the list again, then hug that baby, hug that little girl, bring Daddy a beer, pet that dog, and go feed one of those birds. Edit an essay. Post something on Facebook. Think about the books you’re writing. Then hug the baby one more time, before she can run away.

Luna: A Sister Story

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Luna the barn owl

Two years ago I went into labor with a barn owl on my lap. I’d been sitting on a step stool with my gloved left hand resting on my thigh and “Luna” the barn owl perched atop it. Luna was in training to become one of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia’s first educational ambassador birds, and we spent about an hour together every morning. We’d been building trust, and she’d learned how to step confidently onto the glove and stay there while I walked in and out of doors, up and down stairs, and sat down and stood up. I worked on making experiences positive for her by offering bits of dead mice throughout the process.

Although barn owls are the world’s most widespread owl species (found on every continent except Antarctica), they are uncommon in West Virginia and other nearby states. They hunt open fields and farmlands for voles, moles, mice, and occasionally birds, primarily at night. Barn owls have been known to nest in (you guessed it) barns, abandoned houses, cliffs, hollow trees, and artificial nest boxes. Many myths and superstitions about barn owls exist throughout the world, and their white, heart-shaped faces make them easily recognizable across cultures and languages.

That morning, as I reached into the baggie of bloody mouse pieces attached to my belt loop and searched with my fingertips for a rib or torso section (Luna’s favorite), I felt a twinge in my own abdomen. Not painful, really—more like a strange tickle. Interesting, I thought, and handed Luna the mousey bit. She took in gently in her beak and swallowed it, then made her twittery “baby owl” sounds and blinked her big black eyes.

Luna and I met in early March of 2012; she was crumpled at the bottom of a cardboard box, covered in white down feathers and unable to stand. The WV Division of Natural Resources biologist who’d rescued her told me that a pair of barn owls had nested on the Hardy County courthouse in Moorefield, WV, on a ledge about thirty feet above the main entrance. One morning, a custodian found Luna lying on the sidewalk below the nest

Luna at admission

Luna at admission

ledge. She’d either fallen accidentally or been pushed out by her siblings.

It was clear to everyone involved that the baby owl was badly—perhaps gravely—injured. Radiographs revealed a fractured pelvis, femur, and ulna, and she had ruptured air sacs and bruising throughout her body. She held her eyes squeezed shut and refused to eat. When we did manage to get medicated “carnivore slurry” into her, she would usually regurgitate a few minutes later. We considered humane euthanasia, but because of young animals’ tendency to heal quickly, we waited.

Slowly, the little owl began to improve. She kept food down and gained weight. We switched from slurry to minced mice, her bruises faded, and her overall demeanor changed; she perked up, and she began looking around and noticing her surroundings. After several weeks, it seemed that the baby barn owl might not die after all. But she still couldn’t stand properly; one of her legs was weaker than the other, and when she did attempt to stand, she balanced on the side of her foot.

By this point, of course, we’d fallen in love with Luna. Her shining dark eyes seemed to look straight into us. She was so ugly that she was cute, covered with a mix of scraggly down feathers and new quills poking through her thin grey skin. Due to the extent of her injuries, Jesse (Luna’s 24-hour avian veterinarian) determined that she would never be able to return to the wild. The ulna fracture was too close to the joint to repair surgically; her wings would always be slightly asymmetrical, impairing her ability to fly. But the bigger problem was her legs. Even to remain in captivity as an educational ambassador, she would need to be able to use both feet. We would have to attempt to strengthen the weak foot, and somehow rotate it so she would stand on it properly.

The ACCA’s dedicated volunteers and interns, as well as her friends at Cheat Lake Animal Hospital, performed physiotherapy on Luna’s leg several times every day for about two months, stretching the talons and supporting her body weight while encouraging her to stand on the foot. Jesse fashioned a little boot—kind of an orthopedic shoe—for the owl. The bottom was a piece of hard plastic with grooves for her talons; the talons were placed appropriately in the grooves, and we padded the boot with gauze. We secured the boot and foot in place with an elastic bandage. She wore it almost constantly, except during her physiotherapy sessions, and about once a week Jesse had to make a larger boot to accommodate her growing feet and legs. She also received several rounds of acupuncture to help stimulate nerves and ease pain.

Luna wearing the boot as she receives an acupuncture treatment

Luna wearing the boot as she receives an acupuncture treatment

After about three months, we removed the boot for good. Luna’s foot had rotated into appropriate placement, and she could stand evenly on both. Her legs would always be weaker than a “normal” barn owl’s, and her posture slightly lopsided, but her legs and feet were strong enough for her to stand on either one and stretch; she could even tuck one leg beneath her while resting and put all of her body weight on the other—and she could do this on either leg. Confident that she was strong and healthy enough to live comfortably in captivity, we applied for, and were granted, a federal permit to keep her, permanently, to use in educational programs about owls and the ecosystems we share. She would be an ambassador for barn owls everywhere, traveling to classrooms, scout meetings, camps, and events.

As Luna grew, so did my belly. Jesse and I figured that caring for a needy, badly injured barn owl would be good practice for caring for a newborn human (and, as it turns out, we weren’t wrong!) I may be accused of anthropomorphizing, but for a little owl, Luna developed a big personality. She’s playful and curious, and she’s been known to pounce onto crumpled pieces of paper, pens, and various cat toys we provide for enrichment. She talks frequently, making raspy “pish pish sh sh” and drawn-out “ssshhhhhhhh” calls, as well as quieter twittering and clucking. I watched her silky fawn and white feathers replace the fuzzy down, and suddenly it seemed that she’d grown from an awkward, gravely injured chick into a gorgeous young barn owl (albeit it a gorgeous young barn owl with a slightly lopsided posture).

Luna and I spent part of nearly every day together from her arrival in March until my (human) daughter, Laurel, was born. That morning, back in August of 2012, I realized that the twinges I’d been feeling were contractions, and about twelve hours later Laurel was born. We spent the standard forty-eight hours in the hospital and then brought our baby girl home. Maybe it was the hormone soup making me emotional and weepy, but I felt that Luna and Laurel needed to meet each other as soon as possible. Jesse obliged, and he brought Luna to our house to meet her new featherless sibling. We gathered on the back porch, and I reached into Luna’s carrier and she stepped onto the glove and twittered at me. I sat on a chair and rested Luna and my arm on my thigh, just like I’d been doing for months. Jesse sat in the chair next to us and held tiny baby Laurel. A slight breeze rustled the maple leaves above us, and we sat in silence with the two young creatures.

I’m not sure what they thought of each other at that moment, or if one even realized the other was there. I don’t know what sixth (or seventh or eighth) senses barn owls might possess, but could Luna have known that every time she’d perched on my glove previously, she’d been just inches from womb-bound Laurel? Barn owls reportedly have excellent hearing, perhaps the most acute hearing of any animal on the planet; could Luna have heard the beats of Laurel’s tiny heart? I think she must have. And while Laurel was in utero she must have heard Luna’s twitters and shrieks, too, separated from them by only a few thin layers of tissue, skin, and clothing.

Luna was only two or three weeks old when she came to the ACCA. I’d been about three months pregnant at the time, when gestational Laurel was the size of a peach. They grew together—Luna healing and changing, becoming feathered and healthy, and Laurel developing from peach to mango to honeydew before finally meeting Luna on the outside, with the sunshine on their faces.

Luna stretching at an educational program

Luna stretching at an educational program

I still spend a lot of time with Luna, but not as much as I used to. She travels to several educational programs a month, and she’s received dozens of “fan” letters and drawings from children she’s met at various events. She’s a fabulous ambassador for barn owls and birds in general. In addition to the rewards of rehabilitating, training, and now sharing Luna with others, one of the greatest joys of this experience has been watching Laurel and Luna continue to grow alongside each other. Laurel’s first word was “owl,” and while they obviously haven’t had direct physical contact, Luna and Laurel know each other quite well. Laurel visits the ACCA’s facility almost every day and “helps” by sweeping the floor, rearranging items on low shelves, and stacking water bowls. When we ask Laurel who her sister is, she tells us “Luna.”

In a few months Laurel will be getting another sister, this one a human. We’ve told Laurel that we’re having a baby, and that she will be a big sister. But something occurred to me the other day, and it inspired me to write this story: when Laurel hears “new sister,” is she imagining a human baby or a barn owl? Maybe she’s not sure of the difference, and maybe that’s OK. Whether we have feathers or flesh, wings or hair, we’re family.

No Ceruleans (but a Nice Walk in the Woods Anyway)

I still haven’t seen or heard a cerulean warbler in Cooper’s Rock State Forest this year. Even though Cooper’s Rock is one of the most-visited state forests in West Virginia, I still somehow think of it as “my” private cerulean viewing park. The main entrance to the forest is five or six miles up the Interstate from where we live, and each spring I look forward to the ceruleans arriving just before the trees leaf out.IMG_1794

This week I’ve checked the usual places: the Raven Rock Trail, the area near the Cross-country Ski Trail parking lot, the powerline cut on the way to the small reservoir pond, the woods past the Trout Pond on the other side of the Interstate. I’m not sure of the name of the short trail that Jesse, Laurel, Liza Jane, and I hiked today, but it’s between the Raven Rock trailhead and the overlook—you park on the right, cross the road, and the trail begins in gravel. It leads past some popular climbing rocks and rhododendron and mountain laurel tangles before ending in a cleared poweline cut; I believe the powerline cut continues to the overlook area at Raven Rock. You can cross the grassy cut, hike up the hill a bit, and join the McCollum Trail and keep going, but we turned around and went back. The youngster was getting restless.

And we didn’t see any ceruleans. Maybe it’s a slow-starting spring, or maybe I’m just missing them, but I seem to always have at least one cerulean at Cooper’s Rock by now. I read an article today about the effects of mercury on songbird reproduction; is it possible that mercury (or some other contaminant) could be affecting ceruleans? Jesse worked on an environmental mercury study focusing on piscivorous birds several years ago in Maine, and we’d discussed the possibility that the heavy metal could find its way to insectivores, as well. I don’t think this has been studied (yet) in ceruleans, but perhaps one day it will be. Whatever the case, not hearing their buzzy song (which always sounds encouraging to me) kind of makes me nervous; I picture their small blue bodies floating dead in the Gulf of Mexico, or fluttering above a razed tropical forest, unable to find a food or shelter. Or arriving back in the vicinity of Cooper’s Rock, but passing it up for some reason. Habitat changes, perhaps, or maybe something we haven’t thought of yet. I’ll keep looking for my little friends; I hope they’re out there somewhere.

Even without ceruleans, we had a lot to see this morning. We watched a black-and-white warbler gathering nesting material, had great looks at scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings, and saw copulating chipping sparrows. A purposeful-looking squadron of eight black vultures swept above the powerline cut, and all morning turkey vultures rocked overhead on the warm air.

Laurel enjoyed the walk, too, and it makes me happy to be in the woods with her. She stops frequently to pick up rocks—little ones she calls “babies” and bigger ones she calls either “Mommy” or “Dada.” Today she found a particularly beautiful rock that she carried with her most of the hike; every few minutes she would stop and kiss it fervently (of course, she eventually dropped it somewhere and forgot about it). She also found an old cracker in the pocket of her fleece that crumbled when she tried to eat it. She gave it to Liza Jane, who dropped a few crumbs. Laurel picked up the biggest crumb. Jesse told her to leave it on the ground for the bears, but instead she held the crumb above her head and shouted, “Bear! Bear! Bear!” After the walk, we visited the bear and new turtle “eco-sculptures” near the overlook. Laurel was a bit nervous about the turtle but helped “fix” the bear by sticking clumps of leaves into its frame. She fell asleep in her carseat before we were out of the forest.

I know Laurel probably won’t remember most of these experiences, but I hope that by now the forest, the birds, the bugs, and the mountains have been permanently written into her psyche. I hope, somewhere in the recesses of her mind, happiness will always feel like a warm spring day, a trail through mossy boulders and rhododendron, with birdsong floating down around her shoulders.

*

This morning’s list:

Turkey Vulture
Black Vulture
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Chimney Swift
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Hooded Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Ovenbird
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Scarlet Tanager
Brown-headed Cowbird
Song Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Indigo Bunting
Eastern Towhee

Mr. William Bones, 2000-2014

When Jesse was in veterinary school he would sometimes travel for weeks at a time for externships and fieldwork. On those nights, Mr. iR6DsHTVLagOwGpkytaZhoYwCkIWmZg0AFV1_Ox9UUYBones and I would be alone in the house. He would be on high alert, in full-blown “protect Mom” mode—ears lifted, nose twitching, growling softly at the slightest sounds. We’d go to sleep in bed, and he’d usually take Jesse’s spot, resting his head on the pillow and stretching out next to me. Sometimes Bones would wake up, listen for a moment, then hop out of bed and trot down the dark hallway. I’d wake up, too, pull the covers to my chin and hold my breath until Bones would come back and lightly jump onto the bed. He’d turn in a circle a few times before stretching out again and sighing. I don’t think I realized it at the time—I was probably slightly annoyed at being woken up—but Bones’ constant vigilance made me feel safe. He was looking out for me. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen. He’d go down the dark hallway first and check things out.

Jesse and I adopted Bones from the Marion County Dog Pound in Fairmont, WV, in September of 2000. I was 23-years-old and Jesse had just turned 22. I remember it vividly. The day before, we’d gone to the Monongalia County Dog Pound and played with two Beagle-mix dogs, both about a year old. We went home, and over a few beers that evening we decided we’d return the next day and adopt one of them. When we walked to the kennel where they’d been, other dogs were in their place. We asked the woman working if both dogs had been adopted; she walked through a door in the back and came out frowning. “Next time you see something you like, don’t wait,” she said. Of course, I had an emotional breakdown right there on the concrete floor.

We drove a half-hour south to the Marion County Dog Pound in Fairmont. There, we met two Beagle-mix puppies, littermates. One was

S7lD-yzgvES2b3kEhdlnU5pqOe80bLxos6TpIt4-Zwcoutgoing and friendly; the other stayed in the back of the cage and barked at us. The pup’s mother was there, too, but she was afraid to come close. The worker said that the litter and their mother had been left in a box next to a dumpster behind a shopping center. We chose the barker with the white tip on the end of his tail, paid the $20 adoption fee, and headed for home. The puppy was skinny, covered in fleas, and immediately threw up in our car. We were in love.

I wrote some of what happened next in a post a few years ago (https://ceruleanblues.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/a-birthday-tribute-to-mr-william-bones-my-best-friend/), but I’ll repeat it here. After only a few days, our new puppy surprised us with explosive, bloody diarrhea. It was a Sunday (the only day pets get sick) and most veterinary clinics were closed. But we dialed Cheat Lake Animal Hospital and the practice’s new owner, Dr. Jean Meade, answered the phone. Bring him right in, she said.

The rest is history: Mr. Bones was diagnosed with parvovirus, a serious illness that often kills puppies. He spent about a week in the clinic’s quarantine ward, and he has the distinction of being Cheat Lake Animal Hospital’s first parvo puppy. Jean and her colleagues saved him. Almost fourteen years later, Jesse is a veterinarian and practices at CLAH, where he himself has helped save many parvo puppies.

And after a long, amazing, adventurous life full of love and joy, Mr. William Bones passed away during the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

There isn’t anything I can write that can adequately describe what a wonderful creature Mr. Bones was. Simply, he was my best friend, my constant companion, my confidant, my little man in a dog suit. He had a way of appearing next to me whenever I felt sad or lonely, or whenever I was laughing. Or eating. I guess he was always next to me—checking on me, making sure I was OK, seeing what I was up to. A few weeks ago, if I’d been sitting in front of my computer for this long, Mr. Bones would have visited me at least twice, ambling up to my desk chair and gently pushing his nose against my leg before padding softly away. No one checks on me now.

Mr. Bones had a wonderful singing voice, a rich baritone. When we lived near a volunteer fire department, he’d howl along with the siren. Before the days of voicemail, when the answering machine would click on and beep, he’d yelp and howl and lay his ears back. He hated the smoke alarm, the doorbell, the UPS man, thunder, gunshots, fireworks.

His family tree was a mystery. We knew from seeing his mother that Bones was at least half Beagle. Years later, we had a DNA dog-breed aRoFJgy1Hd9RlGDd733bA2wGbCYwbwGtE5Ei93qWMLEtest run (yes, really) and it came back 50% Beagle, 25% Boston terrier, and 25% “untraceable,” which means “mutt for more than three generations.” But he grew bigger than both Beagles and Bostons, a trim 35 pounds or so, with long, thin legs and delicate white paws. His snout was long, too, and ears a little shorter than a Beagle’s, and less flat. His fur was softer than a Beagle’s, too, and lacked the greasiness of most hound breeds; it was soft, so, so soft, and would hold the sun’s warmth. He had the softest ears of any dog I’ve met. You could build another dog out of the extra skin around his neck. Wow, I loved him…

I still hear him barking upstairs when I pull my car into the garage. I see him out of the corner of my eye, standing next to the table waiting for food. When I take the leash off the hook, I hear the soft thump as jumps down from our bed, hear the tags on his collar jingle, hear his feet trot down the hallway. At night, I feel his back pressed against my legs. I can feel his warmth. His fur is stuck to my clothes and his saliva stains the back windows of my car. His anti-seizure meds sit on the counter, the bottle half full. His collar is on the counter, too—not around his neck. Not anymore.

Mr. Bones was agile and sure-footed, and he loved to hike. He loved to climb on rocks, too, and never, not once, did he shy away from a sheer boulder or steep cliff. He scaled objects no dog had any business climbing. When we’d take him backpacking, he’d have a pup-party when we’d settle on a spot to camp, streaking around the perimeter with a big grin on his face.

He seemed happiest when hiking, camping, and exploring the woods. Bones’ favorite places included the Hemlock Trail at Cooper’s Rock State Forest (the last place we took him hiking before he passed away) and Heritage Park (also known as Brown Farm) in Blacksburg, VA. The Hemlock Trail follows Laurel Run, a fast-moving but small creek; Bones loved to dive off the trail and scoot down the bank to the creek, wading onto the slick rocks for a drink. He’d also hop onto the trunks of fallen hemlocks and trot along the smooth logs, sometimes ending up directly over the rushing water (which made me very nervous). At Heritage Park, he’d jump on top of round hay bales and run, leaping, from bale to bale. We’d run on the ground alongside him, all of us laughing.

Mr. Bones has hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, and a portion of the Allegheny TrailAEHvb1oUSCTQgxXtVzW9i3II7oLZ9OeH4jH0eGCsCmQ on the West Virginia / Virginia border. And many other trails in many states. Eight or nine years ago, the two of us hiked a trail labeled “intermediate” in Grafton Notch, near the New Hampshire / Maine border. The three-mile loop was so steep in places that metal ladder rungs had been attached to rock faces—I had to scoop up Bones, lift him above my head, and heave him up and over the sheer rocks. He’s backpacked several times in the Otter Creek Wilderness of the Monongahela National Forest, explored the coast of Delaware, listened to a chuck-will’s-widow calling all night outside our tent in the Carolina Sandhills, and scared a moose away from our campsite along Maine’s Rapid River. His last two camping trips were to Shenandoah National Park, VA, and Raystown Lake, PA, both last summer.

For about ten years Jesse, Mr. Bones, and I were a trio. Jesse and I had only been living together for a few weeks when we adopted him. I was in my first semester of graduate school. Bones saw us through many of our lives’ milestones: our wedding, two Master’s degrees, a veterinary doctorate, a book publication, the birth of our first child, and most of a second doctorate. Bones helped me immeasurably after the shootings at Virginia Tech—he stayed close during my late-night panic attacks and uncontrolled weeping, and he even provided comfort for grieving strangers on campus. Bones has been with me for all of what I consider “my adult life.” I’m not sure I know how to function without him.

Our trio became four when we adopted Liza Jane in the fall of 2009. In a lot of ways, we chose her with Bones in mind; we wanted a dog dh7wdRmkQWQ4zjQ7iYBknAkzjfMbQvnHmRcV6d-GH64smaller than him, and we wanted a fairly calm dog that wouldn’t push him around. At first, Bones’ expressions seemed to say, “When is she leaving?” but after a few weeks, they became best friends. Liza hasn’t eaten much in the week since Bones died, and she’s been very subdued, not wanting to leave us. She’s lonely without him, too.

Mr. Bones surprised me after our daughter Laurel’s birth. I figured he’d tolerate her, but I didn’t predict he’d fall in love. An epileptic since age two, when Bones first met Laurel we thought he was going to have a seizure; when we came home from the hospital, we set Laurel’s carseat on the floor for the dogs to meet her. Bones stuck his nose against her skin, her blankets, and he started to tremble. His eyes glazed over. He looked anxious, but it wasn’t epilepsy; I guess it was love. One of my deepest regrets is that our next baby (due in September) won’t get to meet and spend time with Mr. Bones.

Bones had a hemangiosarcoma—a cancerous tumor—on his heart. We noticed that he was having trouble breathing the evening of March 3; IMG_9956Jesse found the tumor on ultrasound the morning of March 4. For the next three weeks, we spoiled our old dog—lots of treats, snuggling, extra time outside, even venison cooked just for him. Jesse took him to the animal hospital three or four times to pull fluid off his heart; the tumor would bleed, and the sac around the heart would fill with blood, preventing proper circulation. Before getting fluid pulled, Bones would be depressed and very quiet, but almost immediately afterwards he’d be back to his old self, even chasing Liza and Laurel down the hallway and playing with toys.

We knew that one day the tumor would kill him, but we thought we’d have several more weeks or even months. We’d had a trip scheduled to Arizona—mostly for me to do research for my vulture book, but also to escape the horrible winter and to relax in the desert for a few days. We decided to go; obviously, if we thought Bones would die while we were away we never, never would have left him.

The day before our trip, Jesse pulled fluid off Bones’ heart again. After, Bones followed us around as we packed our bags and cleaned the house, acting just like he’d always acted. On my way out the door to the airport, I gathered the biggest handful of treats I could carry. Bones hopped up onto his spot on the end of the couch and waited patiently for me to deliver the treats. I spent a few minutes petting his face, his ears, and hugging him. I specifically told him do not die while we were in Arizona. And then we left.

Our friend Holly stayed with him that Thursday night. She said he greeted her with a wagging tail. On Friday afternoon he was still acting like himself, and he even tried to nose a can of wet dog food (a luxury!) out of Holly’s hands. Holly left around 3pm. Around 10pm, our friend Emma arrived to take care of the dogs, and she found Bones unresponsive, pale, and cold. She rushed him to the animal hospital. The veterinarian on duty, our friend Shannon, pulled blood off Bones’ heart, and like the previous incidents, he quickly returned to normal.

Emma brought him home. She texted that he’d trotted into the house. She took him outside and he went to the bathroom. He ate a few bites of canned food. She lifted him onto his (our) bed with Liza Jane, and then Emma got into bed, too. She texted me a picture of Bones relaxing on the bed, drooling, a very peaceful look on his face. In Arizona, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and fell asleep. In West Virginia, the three of them fell asleep, too. When Emma woke up at some point in the wee hours of the morning, she discovered that our beloved Mr. Bones had passed away. She texted Jesse; he didn’t hear it, but he woke up (also at some point in the wee hours of the morning), saw her message and called her. Then he gently woke me and whispered, “Bones is gone.”

I sat up. Laurel was sleeping in the bed between us, and she hadn’t stirred. Jesse and I both started to cry as quietly as we could manage. I felt like vomiting. I should have been there with him. He should have been stretched out next to me when he died. I felt like I failed him. But dying peacefully while sleeping in bed, at home, comfortable, surrounded by familiar sights and smells—we’d all be remarkably fortunate to die like Mr. Bones.

When we’d gone to bed in our hotel that night, we’d left the patio door open to let the breeze into the room. As we sat there crying in the dark, a whole chorus of coyotes began yipping and howling out in the desert. They grew louder and louder, sounding almost joyful in their frenzy. I tried to hold my breath and listen. Maybe all good dogs get to become coyotes when they die, chasing rabbits around the sagebrush, rolling wherever they want, sleeping in a den. Maybe Mr. Bones was with them now, somewhere out there in the dark.

Bones was always going first—around a bend in a trail, up a steep hill, down a dark hallway. A few steps ahead, making sure it was safe, returning to check on me, then going a few steps ahead again. I’m not a religious person, and I’m fairly certain that when living things die, they die—no heaven, no hell, no reincarnation, just the slow return of our bodies to their elemental basics. But if there is some sort of communion of spirits after this life ends, I expect to find Mr. Bones there, waiting for me, wherever there is. He went first, again. He’ll check it out and let me know if it’s safe. If it is, I’ll follow him.

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Guest Blog Postings

Hello friends,

Check out my two guest posts on Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s “The Vulture Chronicles” blog. The posts are about my recent vulture trip to Arizona — Part One is about the “Welcome Back, Buzzards” celebration at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, and Part Two is about my search for “Jennie” in Gila Bend. “Jennie” is a turkey vulture wearing a Hawk Mountain satellite transmitter.

Enjoy!

http://hawkmountain.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/vulture-vacation-part-one/