Hunter doesn’t live with us anymore. He was my buddy for three years. The powerful Border-Collie now works on a sheep ranch, doing what comes naturally. When not keeping watch, he tours the ranch from the passenger seat of a pickup truck.
Hunter is the greatest dog I’ve ever known. Even as a puppy, he pulled little stuffed toys into the middle of the room, then crouched to guard against any escapees. As he grew, and grow he did, I was astonished at his inborn ability to chase and catch frisbees. Every day when I got home from work, the big guy and I headed for my neighbor Tony’s back yard. When I tossed the frisbee, Hunter charged, leaped, snagged it, ran in a wide circle, trotted back, laid it at my feet and poised for the next toss. He loved it and I loved it.
When Barbara was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, I panicked. It didn’t seem like panic, but like wisdom. It was panic. I secured an apartment for seniors at John Knox Village and prepared to sell the house. One of the John Knox rules allows only small dogs to live with residents. Hunter could not come with us. His groomer, Cindy, made some calls to friends who own herds of sheep and horses. She found him a job.
I still miss Hunter so much. I won’t go near the sheep ranch. I’m afraid.
I’m afraid I’ll call his name and he’ll come like a bullet.
I’m afraid I’ll hug his powerful body and bury my face in his thick red fur.
I’m afraid I’ll sob so hard I’ll not be able to stop.
I’m afraid I’ll want to take him back home with me.
I’m afraid of the awful conflict stirring deep within his genes.
I’m afraid of the moment he steps back and turns his head toward the herd of sheep.
I’m afraid of his last look into my eyes before he streaks back to work.
I’m afraid that the anguish in my heart will be more than I can stand.
When a thought of Hunter comes to mind, I force myself to say the right things.
-On the ranch is where Hunter should be.
-He’s a Border-Collie, doing what a Border-Collie is born to do.
-Because you love him, let him go.
We never moved to John Knox Village.
The bicycle is a love-gift from God. Whether a frightened kid, a lonely teenager or a beaten-down adult, misery and bike riding are simply incompatible.
Hibriten Mountain keeps watch over Lenoir, NC, where I grew up. The summer before I went to college, I rode my old coaster bike to the foot of the mountain and as far up the winding roads as I could. Whenever necessary I got off and pushed. At the top, I climbed the fire tower for a lordly view of my city lying at the foothills of the Blue Ridge. It was a great day.
This simple machine remains today much the same as it always has been. But life is different on a bike. I rode my bike into Neuschwanstein Castle courtyard. I glided all over Munich when I visited my friend, Ed. I pedaled the streets of Chicago and its Lake Michigan shores when I lived there. I pay attention to the traffic, to the rules of the road. But I am mentally far away from any cares.
Recently, I bought Barbara an adult trike. She loves it. We leave her Alzheimer’s disease at home when we go for a spin through the neighborhood. The three wheels give her security. Normally Barb doesn’t remember things we’ve done. But she brings up the bike ride for hours.
Surely heaven abounds with bicycle paths. –lg
I just finished a book by John Caccioppo: “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”. He says the ability to cooperate with other people, to have friends, is what advanced our species. As humans developed, being a loner was foolish and deadly. Nature’s predators thinned them out. There was safety and success in numbers. I get your back, you get mine. Together we thrive. The survival of the fittest. The survival of the connected.
Modern humans have a genetic dread of loneliness. I think the success of Facebook may have its roots in human evolution.
Loneliness alerts us to danger. We start to feel out of control. It urges us to take action: get connected. People who ignore this alert tend to get serious illnesses. Studies put social isolation on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.
Enter Facebook. Facebook’s software calls its connections “friends”. “Be safe”, urges my genes. “Danger is lurking”. I sign up. When folks ask, “You on Facebook?”, I can nod in the affirmative. I belong. I’m safe.
A few weeks or months go by before the uneasiness sets in. The relief I sought from loneliness has not happened.
The fact is, true relief from loneliness needs the direct presence of at least one other person. To encourage this takes action. A cup of coffee together. A bike ride. A phone call. A visit at times of illness. To have a friend, be a friend.
I am a human being. It’s built in for me to regulate my emotions and behavior. It’s also in my genes to make and keep friends. There is only one force that can impair this process: fear. The terror of feeling helplessly and dangerously alone. I better check my FB page. –lg
Some problems are overwhelming. The saying goes, “When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.” I prefer making a bowl of Breyer’s neopolitan ice cream. So I beat it to the freezer.
But my brain just won’t give up. It becomes a tracker, following trails that look like pathways to the solution. If it comes to a roadblock, it looks for a detour and takes it. While I finish off the bowl of ice cream, tasting the cold sweetness on my tongue, my brain thinks. And thinks. Positive thinking.
I’m not all that smart. I just stay with problems longer. I usually don’t know if a solution will work until I try it. I do know it has to be simple and effective. Otherwise I won’t stick with the answer to this knotty problem.
For every problem you solve, you create another problem. But if the solution is the right one, the other problem will be much easier to deal with. I don’t think any problem can stand up to sustained thinking.
Vanilla or strawberry alone works fine. But for a truly knotty problem, only neopolitan will do.
Sometimes I must escape. Not from the truth of Barb’s dementia, but from despair. I escape into tv and Netflix. She sits beside me, springing up every two minutes for some task. Or she begins reading the same John Grisham novel. Begins again.
Despair can ruin you. I am a Christian, with the knowledge that my strength is love. And faith. And hope. Hope? Some say that despair is the result of failed hope. That it’s the price we pay for setting an impossible aim. I hope that the Alzheimer’s disease will not worsen. I hope that I will not lose more of her. I remember how we were and because I remember, I despair.
Some say that desparation is required for drastic change to occur. That to rise from despair, I must leave the Barbara I knew behind, reject despair and embrace a new hope, a new Barbara. That this is my duty. That to hope is better than to despair.
I say, I did not choose despair. But I can choose courage. God grant me the courage to take action in spite of despair, to search and discover life in this new relationship with this new woman — my precious wife of thirty-plus years.
Still, sometimes I must escape.
I don’t have to look for challenges; they sit beside the bed waiting for me to get up; they want to wrestle me to the ground and sit on my chest; they want to win. So do I. I feel outclassed. I want to go back to bed.
I am told to accept the challenge so I can feel the exhilaration of victory. What victory? This challenge shifts shape like the predator in the movie. It’s three years since Barbara was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve caught glimpses of this predator several times, but it remains a slinking killer. There will be no victory, no exhilaration.
A quote from Buddha goes: “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through persistence.” This is one thing I have going for me. I persist. I will wear on this rock where I can. When I can’t, I will flow around it, smoothing the surfaces where possible. I am a stream. But I still won’t win.
Rather than this challenge being a struggle for victory, could this ugly, dreadful disease be a test? One of those learning tests where the challenges help you to love more, to give more, to be more. If so, it’s better than any therapist.
I believe it can be done. I really believe Barb and I can finish life together in a meaningful way. Perhaps this is the challenge I try to define. I do accept this challenge. By the strength of God my mind will find a way. The solution exists and we will grow into it. –LG