Sunday, June 20, 2021

How Maya is doing


How we’re doing currently:

The painter arrived at 7:00a.m. yesterday to power-wash the outside of the house. He was here for about 45 minutes, running a compressor and shouting cheerfully with his buddy. Although I took Maya outside four times over the course of the day, she was so traumatized by it, she did not feel safe enough to relieve herself. Twelve hours later, at 7:00p.m., she finally peed.

I want to offer a brief explanation of what it’s like working with a feral dog. My friend Ann asked recently if giving Maya treats would help. I explained that yes, Maya does like treats, but she will not eat them until I’ve left the room. No matter how badly she wants them or how long I stand there. She will not eat or drink in my presence. Thomas was the same way seven years ago.

Here’s the thing: Domestic dogs are raised by domestic mama dogs. The behavior they see modeled for them is that humans are helpers who are (overall, we hope) kind and generous, offering good food and clean water, safety and security, love and affection. Feral dogs or dogs born in puppy mills or hoarding situations (as Thomas and Maya both were) are never socialized to trust humans. (I feel their pain, believe me; I have those trust issues myself.) In Thom’s case, he was left to fend for himself, running wild on four acres in the desert with over one hundred other dogs. In Maya’s case, the folks at the Really Terrible Rescue where I adopted her liked to boast that they ‘took her from a guy who had her for three years and didn’t do anything with her.’ They promptly took her to their rescue, put her in a narrow concrete dog run, and didn’t do anything with her for three years (except feed her and chase her out to run around with other dogs for ten minutes a day while they hosed out her kennel).

Here's how we were four months ago when I brought her home:

Petting her terrified her. She would simply cringe and tremble. Any restraint—collar, harness, slip lead, holding her—terrified her. She chewed through her harness on the trip home. She chewed through a leash in one bite that same evening. I couldn’t get near her unless she was confined in a small space, so taking her outside required leashing her, getting her to follow me (because a tug on the leash would compel her to bite it in half), getting her out the door where I would drop her leash and she would immediately hide under the patio table or chair or swing, tangling the trailing leash around chair legs, etc. Eventually, if she had to go bad enough, she would dart to the grass, relieve herself, and come back to the patio. When I approached her, she would trot away (she still does), but I could step on the end of her leash to catch her. Coming back in was easy after that. All I had to do was slide the door open and she would bolt for her safe spot. (Thank goodness I bought that anti-anxiety bed before I brought her home.)

As the weeks went by, I slowly shortened that nice new cotton leash, cutting off one foot at a time, so she wouldn't have so much slack whipping around behind her, which also frightened her. (I started with a thirty-foot leash. Good thing.) After she met Thomas and the two decided to tolerate each other (actually, she adores him to the point of annoying him, just as I did with my big brother—probably still the case), getting her in and out was easy. If Thomas is with me, she comes right along. If I take her out alone, I usually have to leash her. (Because if I go in the den and call her to come outside, she either doesn’t move a muscle or she sits up and gives me her best “What the hell are you going to do to me now, lady?” expression.)

After she’d been here two months, I started walking her around the house. Mind you, she is still so shut down that she spends 90% of her time lying on her side in her bed with her head under my desk.

Everything in this world is still new and strange and scary to her, just as it was for Thomas in the beginning. We had to start somewhere, though, so I began by walking her through the house every day, up and down the hallway (terrifying the cats, poor dears, who would hide under the bed the minute the crazy-eyed wolf dog appeared). We then graduated to walking through the garage, out to the driveway. Our initial attempt was disastrous, with Maya fighting desperately like a hooked fish at the end of the leash, biting it and spinning around in her terror. We lasted about 30 seconds out there. 60 seconds the next time. 90 seconds the next—but then a human walked by and she was beside herself with terror, pleading with her eyes for me to take her in. “Can’t you see we are in peril for our very lives?” she said. “No, baby girl, it’s just a person,” I told her. “He won’t hurt you.” But we went in.

Her first walk on the street was equally disastrous. We went west (at 6:00a.m. to assure no humans would be present)—until a neighbor stepped out to retrieve his newspaper and saw her.

“GOOD MORNING, KAY! IS THAT YOUR NEW DOG?” he shouted. Maya spun around and began dragging me back home. “SHE DOESN’T WALK VERY WELL ON THE LEASH, DOES SHE?” he called to our retreating backsides.

Next time, we went east. We made it all the way to the corner—five houses down!—before our sweet neighbor, Linda, came out to get her paper. “Kay, is that Maya?” she asked quietly. “She’s so beautiful!” Whereupon Maya spun around and headed for home again as fast as her little legs would trot.

(Note to Cesar Milan, formerly known as the Dog Whisperer and still my hero: Yes, Cesar, I know that a dog that is pulling is in “a state of excitement,” but no, I can’t stop in the middle of the street and tell her to sit until she’s calm. She's terrified. And frankly, she’s nearly as afraid of me as she is of Linda. So yeah, I’m gonna let her drag me back to where she feels safe. I’m sorry if I let you down. Much respect, K.)

Where was I? Oh—note to self: Walk Maya even earlier than 6:00a.m.

Then I hit on the great idea of walking her with Thomas. Chaos ensued. But also: Dog joy. Pure, unadulterated dog joy.

Thomas, initially, was annoyed that he had to share his walk with his out-of-control little sister. Somehow, I got them both through the garage and out to the driveway. But Thomas—like any stubborn cattle dog mix—stopped dead when he got to the street (as Maya continued on, nearly pulling my arm off).

“No,” he said. “This is dog shit. First of all, we go out the kitchen door, not the garage. And I do my walk. Then treats. That’s all.” Thomas, by the way, does a killer side-eye.

“Thom,” I said, barely containing my laughter. “With me.” I tugged and he moved forward.

As soon as Maya saw that her brother was going to walk with us, she exploded in dog joy, hopping up and down on her front paws, her little ears flopping, and yes, wait for it—wagging her tail!! Tick tock, tick tock, back and forth it swung as she trotted proudly beside him. I was laughing and crying, watching her be not-terrified. Of course, the outing became a bit somber when we turned the corner. She’d never been around the block. But, although her tail stopped ticking tocking, she didn’t tuck it. She just kept trooping along beside him until we reached the driveway—at which point I made a giant mistake and unleashed Thomas, who kept right on going around to the front porch and kitchen door, where he usually goes in. Meanwhile, Miss Insistent dragged me through the garage to the back yard, so I had to abandon my boy out front until I had her secured in the house, then go back for him. (Good thing it was 5:00a.m. and no one was around to panic upon seeing an unleashed dog who slightly resembles a coyote trotting frantically up and down the street, from my porch to my driveway and back again.)


Best walk ever (except for the dismount).

Full disclosure here (and probably TMI, sorry), I have seen Maya wag her tail before. Never at me, always at Thomas. Or after she poops. She gets ecstatically happy after she poops, then, within minutes, reverts to sullen, sad dog again.

But: She has now walked solo around the block a couple of times without incident. Oh—and she sits on command now. She’s incredibly smart, so every time she sat down, I would tell her, “Good sit, Maya, good girl.” She knows that the sooner she sits calmly, the sooner I take off the hated collar.

She also now tolerates getting petted, and she likes ear scratches (though she won’t admit it).

Her nails are still horrendously long, but she won’t let me touch her feet, much less hold a paw long enough to clip them. It’s going to take two people. Two very brave, very strong, very committed, very patient people. I won’t take her on any long walks until I can get those nails clipped, but it will happen, sooner or later. And then, oh, the places we’ll go! Because if I can walk her, I can fix her. We just need time and an open road.

Bonus content for those who are still reading (and if you are, thank you!): 

Maya’s DNA:

    29% Chihuahua

    23% Miniature American Shepherd

    15% Wolf

    10% Jack Russell Terrier

    7% Parson Russell Terrier

    7% Central Asian Ovcharka

    2% Dutch Shepherd Dog

    2% Puli

    2% McNab

    2% Rat Terrier

    1% Staffordshire Terrier 

Miss Maya on her first solo walk. Her tail is tucked because she doesn't understand why we aren't going back inside where it's safe.



Saturday, June 12, 2021


These two beloved friends, Marc Houseman and Ginger Brickey, taught me to love and appreciate cemeteries, for the opportunity to honor the dead, but also for the sense of closure and affirmation of love, for the beauty and for the serenity.

I did not write today's post. When it was brought to my attention as a post on Facebook, I asked permission of the author to re-post it here. These are not my words, but these are definitely my sentiments exactly. Thank you, Clare Brewer Oldham, for so eloquently stating my feelings about graveyards, and for so graciously allowing me to re-post your words here.

What Clare said:

Should it be up for interpretation, graves are not for the dead. They are for the living.

In Los Angeles, a person comes across many "descansos." Small crosses, sometimes with flowers, toys, photographs, at roadsides and intersections. When you see them, you know someone died there.

They are illegal, but that doesn't mean much when someone has died and a person loved them. I assume the cops choose not to do anything about them for that reason. Because you see them everywhere. They are not removed.

My dad never wanted to talk about death in any real way. He would allude to his possible demise, mention what doctors had predicted, but he didn't want to talk about burial versus cremation, or where, or how.

Being me, and intent on making things work the best way they could, trying to plan ahead, I eventually cornered him years ago, demanded that he tell me if he wanted to be buried or cremated. He admitted he wanted to be buried.

I was happy when I heard him say that, not because there is a difference either way after you are dead, but because there is a difference for those left behind. A small plaque on a wall may be just what some families desire. Ashes spread over a beloved ground may be what others desire. For me, I have always loved gravestones.

I have visited cemeteries in South Dakota, California, Oklahoma, Virginia, Colorado, and Paris. Three in Paris. Plus the Catacombs. I am a lover of the dead, in that I love to see their names, to contemplate their lives, even though I do not know them. Since I was young I learned how to do "grave rubbings" with paper and pencil or charcoal. The writing on a gravestone would come out of such a rubbing. It always felt like an homage to a stranger who had become my friend.

I have loved so many people I wish I had known. Small babies, small children, teenage soldiers, poets, singers, philosophers, scientists, wives desolate at the loss of their husbands, husbands eviscerated at the death of their wives. Your heart could nearly burst from seeing such people, stones sticking out of the earth so they are not forgotten.

When I moved to California, I was surprised to see that the majority of graves are not gravestones, the type that says something and sticks out of the earth, but rather "headstones," small plaques implanted in the ground of the deceased. When you see a cemetery here, it looks like a rolling green hill from afar. Even from up close. Again I beat the drum of whatever a family desires for their lost loved one, they should get. I hold no judgement of any way in which a family chooses to honor their loved ones.

But I will say, it is not for me. I have always needed a stone jutting out of the earth. I have always needed to see the name there, worn away perhaps, but visible and tangible. I do not want a cemetery to tell me that it is more appealing (and cheaper) to have a headstone versus a gravestone. See the rolling green hills from the freeway? Don't worry, you will not die. That's what it seems to be telling me. But I love the stark, curved, moss-covered, jutting gravestones--the ones that demand you look at them. Remember them. Take a moment to pause on their names, to see their lifespans, to read their small commentaries. See them rising from the earth as you drive by. Feel, for a moment, your own mortality.

My dad is now buried in a military cemetery. Every stone is the same--not exactly what I had wished or imagined, but good all the same. I desperately need a place where I can come back to him, though he could not come back to me. The military seems to know what I know--you put up a stone, rising from the ground, to show living people the reality of death. Here lie soldiers and heroes, the stones say. They line up, row after row, on the plain. Do not look away. This is what they meant to the world. See them shining at you? Do not look away.

It should be thus, in my opinion, for all people--our lives and deaths are reminders to those that follow. A place to visit and remember. And sometimes your child just wants to feel close to you, again, for a moment--just wants to rest her head on your gravestone, touch the engraving of your name in the marble, know that your body is right beneath her, the body that made her, that held her, that loved her, that left her.

Remember.  That's all I want to do.  Always remember. To be able to sit and talk to him, though I know he is changed. To see my own death, not so far away. For what is time, truly? And to be able to sit and lean against the stone as if it were my father's arms. Because it is the closest I will ever get again to my father's arms.

Me...beside the tombstone of my great-great-grandfather, who is buried in the churchyard of the church he helped build with his own hands in Mitchell Township, Wisconsin.

My dad's stone, here in Southern California. He rests in the shade of a large jacaranda tree that was a tiny baby tree in 1963 when he was buried.


Sunday, May 23, 2021

In Memoriam: Marc Houseman

In the summer of 2008, I did an internet search of my infamous great-grandmother. I’d written The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford a few years before, but hadn’t found a publisher willing to take a chance on the memoir, so every summer after school let out, I would spend time scrolling through online junk about her, just to see if anyone else had written anything extensive about Bertha. I had all but given up on getting the book published. That summer, I happened upon an online blurb announcing that some guy named Marc Houseman would be giving a presentation on her. Who does this guy think he is? was my first thought. My second thought was, I wonder what crap he’s feeding people about her.

Another quick online search led me to the website for the Washington Historical Society in Washington, Missouri. Seems this Houseman guy was a so-called historian there. I found an email address on the site and shot off a short missive, stating tersely that if he was going to be doing presentations on my great-grandmother, he’d better be basing them on facts, not fiction. He replied within the hour—calmly, professionally, kindly—and we began to exchange information via email about Bertha, about my family, and about Marc’s interest in those subjects.

Thus began a close and dear friendship that I will cherish forever, which is why I’ve spent the past week mostly crying. Because Marc Houseman has left us, passing on to begin his next journey. And I’m here to tell you, it’s damned unfair.

Ten years my junior, Marc was an extraordinary man, brilliant, personable, humble and self-effacing, with a strong sense of honor for the dead and an equally strong love of donuts. He, along with my cousin Danny, encouraged me to pull out my memoir about Bertha and do whatever I needed to in order to get the book published, which I did.

A year after I met Marc online, I met him in person. After Tainted Legacy was published in October of 2008, we planned a book tour for the following summer, and he helped me connect with several libraries so that I could do speaking and signing events. During the year, we had gotten to know each other pretty well through our email exchanges, and I had begun signing my emails to him “Hugs, K.” He responded in kind. When I arrived in Missouri for the book tour, Marc came to pick me up at my hotel in Pacific. I was a bit nervous waiting for him in the lobby since I had never actually met him in person, but when he walked in carrying a sign that said “REAL HUGS,” my laughter quickly dissipated any anxiety.

That summer, we established a pattern that would be blissfully repeated nearly every summer for a decade. Marc was my tour guide, driving me along the back roads of rural Missouri to cemeteries where my kinfolk were buried so I could pay my respects and take photos of their very old headstones. One summer, prior to my trip back there, I told him in an email I was interested in researching my maternal grandfather’s ancestry. When I arrived in Missouri that year, he met me in the lobby of the hotel carrying a file folder. He handed it to me. “That’s your grandfather’s line,” he said, “going all the way back to the Revolutionary War.” Then we climbed into his truck, and he took me to as many cemeteries as he had been able to discover in which those ancestors were buried.

Marc loved the Three Stooges, such was the corny, quirkiness of his sense of humor. He also loved studying the Presidents of the United States—prior to Eisenhower. He loved old things and old people. He was kind with the elderly and gentle with the young. He loved old hymns. Once, after we’d strolled a cemetery for a half hour or so in relentless humidity, he approached the door of the church on the property. “Look,” he said, pulling the door, “it’s open.” There was nothing inside but the old church organ. He sat down and to my great surprise, began to play “The Old Rugged Cross.” Somehow a few words to that song still exist in my memory, so I sang what I could recall, and Marc joined in. Thereafter on our road trips to far-away cemeteries, we would often sing hymns or "old timey" songs.

To list all of Marc’s accomplishments would take many pages. He was the director of the museum in Washington and president of the historical society. He regularly led a crew of volunteers to do cemetery restoration (righting and/or repairing fallen or broken headstones, or simply cleaning them—turns out there’s a right way and a very wrong way to do those things). He was deeply involved with the Odd Fellows chapter in his town where he was loved and respected for all the work he did to honor the dead and to enable others like myself to discover the fascinating stories behind their ancestry.

Marc was the main (and mighty) force behind the monumental task of fundraising for and building a columbarium in the Odd Fellows cemetery. On one of my trips back there, Marc had taken me into the basement of a crematorium. A shelf against one wall held a couple dozen small cardboard boxes. “Those,” he told me, “are cremains that were never claimed.” It happens. Someone’s family member dies and is cremated, but no one ever picks up the ashes. And so they simply sit. The dates on those boxes were decades old. Marc’s hard work resulted in an aesthetically beautiful columbarium where abandoned ashes would have a home. But his work didn’t stop there. Once the columbarium was completed and they began to receive unclaimed cremains, Marc and his volunteers would search online to find the families of the deceased. In several instances, the cremains were those of military veterans. In one such case, Marc not only returned the cremains to a grateful niece, he arranged to have them buried at Jefferson Barracks, a veterans cemetery near St. Louis, with a proper memorial service and military honors for the deceased. (To read an equally sweet story that also explains the intent of the Odd Fellows fraternity, click here.)

The gentleman on the left is Ron Shaver. He and Marc are unloading another shipment of unclaimed cremains inside the columbarium. Yep, each one of those boxes holds the ashes of a forgotten or abandoned deceased individual.

See what I mean? What a classy guy. I say again through tears, it’s just not fair.

To me, Marc will always be that goofy guy who loved the story of my great-grandmother, the cool friend who would take time out of his busy schedule to escort me around to places I would never have found on my own, cemeteries that can’t be found on most maps. He was an incredible source of knowledge, he was a sweet soul, and he was one of the dearest friends I’ve ever had. To say he will be missed is a profound understatement. I simply do not know how to order my life without him in it.

Why are Marc and I smiling over someone's headstone? Because local lore had it that, due to her alleged crimes, my great-grandmother's grave "should go unmarked for fifty years." I would not have known that had I not met Marc. When he told me, I did some quick figuring; fifty years past her death would have been 2002. In the summer of that year, I wrote the first draft of Tainted Legacy. Six years later I met Marc, the book was published, and we worked together to finally put a stone on her grave so that my great-grandchildren, should I be blessed to one day have some, will one day be able to find her. I have also buried some of my mother's ashes there as well.


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

House for Sale

There’s a big old house for sale in Morse Mill, Missouri, and it’s a very special house.

The house is 3800 square feet, and it’s located on 4.5 beautiful acres. But that’s not what makes it special.

It’s multi-storied and sits across the road from the Big River, so I’m betting there’s probably a gorgeous view of that wide, meandering river from the south-facing bedrooms on the upper floors. But that’s not what makes the house special.

Oh—speaking of bedrooms, there are six. And six bathrooms. Perfect for a bed & breakfast place, right? And the entire place has been fully renovated. (Check out the impressive photos here.) But that’s not what makes the house special, either.

A hundred years ago, this property was a bustling hotel, and it’s rumored that Charles Lindbergh once stayed there. The original hotel register still exists. But although that’s a fascinating tidbit from history, it is not what makes this place special.

What makes it special is that my great-grandmother stayed there. Well, okay, she didn’t actually stay as a guest. She worked there and helped run it for a year or so.

Why is that special? Because now that Bertha Gifford’s name has been associated with murderers and psychopaths and female serial killers, everyone seems to think that she has some reason to haunt this place simply because she worked there. The truth is, she wasn’t accused of poisoning anyone until she lived in Catawissa. Her trial was some twenty years or so after she worked at the hotel in Morse Mill. But a lot of folks seem determined to jump on the Crazy Bertha bandwagon, and it only took one or two of those folks to claim they’d seen or heard evidence of Bertha’s spirit at the hotel. Then everyone and his cousin wanted to do a paranormal investigation. (Yeah, go ahead, if you have a couple hours; just search “Morse Mill Hotel” on YouTube. Just…don’t believe everything you watch. Ugh.)

It doesn’t help that he-who-shall-remain-nameless has exploited the hell out of Bertha’s brief work stint there, claiming that she killed upwards of 40 people (what the actual you-know-what?) while working there, “most of them children.” (WHAT THE ACTUAL ????) None of what he has perpetuated is true. None of it. But it has brought people to the hotel in droves, which I suppose has lined his pockets with some change. Ugh ugh ugh.

But O Happy Day the hotel has finally been renovated and is now offered for sale. I can’t afford to buy it or I would. Dear Universe, I implore you, send someone kind and compassionate to take it over, to let it once again celebrate the living (famous or not), to be a tranquil resting place for weary travelers. Including me, maybe, next time I visit Missouri. Here’s hoping.

Before it served as a hotel, this was actually someone's home, built prior to the Civil War.

What it looks like now, for sale


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Power of One


"The world needed to see what I was seeing." --Darnella Frazier

This is just to say… Thank you.

Thank you to all the strong, weary, defiant women who have been determined enough, angry enough, whatever enough, to say “Enough is enough.”

In September of 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to attend the funeral of her son, Emmett Till, who had been tortured and murdered by two White men. Against the advice of everyone involved, Mamie Till-Mobley insisted on an open casket funeral, telling the press, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby." The disturbing photos taken of Emmett Till's mutilated face were distributed throughout the country and around the world.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus, sat in the back—in the seating designated for Black folks—but was ordered by the bus driver to stand in order to allow a White man to sit down. She refused and was subsequently arrested.

On May 25, 2020, Darnella Frazier happened upon a scene in which police were attempting to take a man into custody. When the officers had subdued the man but continued to use force against him, she began recording the incident on her cell phone. Later that day, she posted the video on her Facebook page, footage that has now been seen by viewers around the world and which led to the arrest and conviction of Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on the neck of the already subdued George Floyd until his breathing stopped, his heart stopped, and he could not be revived.

I love the image of her standing there on the sidewalk, phone raised, face determined. “The world needed to see what I was seeing,” she said. Yes, honey, we did. Of course we’d seen similar atrocities before, many times, in many ways. But not like this. Not when there could be no discussion of whether it was “a good shoot” or “a bad shoot” or whether the brutality could be justified. What we witnessed this time was a slow public lynching, with the perpetrator’s smug facial expression captured for all the world to see. 

Thank you, Darnella, for simply having the humanity to stand there and document what you saw. What was happening “wasn’t right,” just as you said. 

Time and again we wonder, What can one person do to change things? Turns out, one single person can make sweeping changes simply by caring enough to act.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Bringing Maya Home

The short version:

They picked her up and put her in the back of the Subaru, where I’d put the seat down and arranged some towels and blankets. She was quiet as I drove the 70 miles back home. When we arrived, I managed to get her to step down out of the car—and realized that on the drive she’d already chewed halfway through the harness I’d put on her at the rescue, and when I tried to lead her into the house, she looked directly at me as she bit all the way through the one-inch cotton lead I’d just purchased. So I picked her up and carried her into the laundry room. She went straight for the fluffy, cocoon-like “anti-anxiety” bed I’d gotten her, where she curled in a ball and silently remained for days, except for short periods of time when she was taken to the yard to relieve herself. One week in, she didn’t appreciate the sound of the dryer going, and as I watched, she excused herself by climbing over the “tall” pet gate I’d placed between the laundry room and kitchen. She trotted twice around the living room until she spied the den, then chose it as a much quieter habitat. I promptly moved her bed in there, where she spends most of her time sleeping next to my big writing desk.

She’s been here a month, and she’s made tiny increments of progress. She now (sort of) walks on a leash. Words in her lexicon:

No (when she starts to chew the leash—she learned this one in two days)

Collar (so she knows to sit still while I put it on or take it off)

Outside (whenever we go out)

Maya (not the name the rescue gave her)

On the first day, she was calm and lady-like in her meeting with Thomas, and he was equally a gentleman in meeting her. They now go in and out of the house easily together. The cats are curious about Maya, and she is curious about them, but everyone has made peace with the new pack member.

And they will all live happily ever after.

The long version (and this is the tougher one to read, so if you have things to do, click out, get on with your life, and just know that Maya Angelou Murphy is safe in her forever home now):

Last spring, I saw her profile on the website of a rescue I had donated to in the past. (Something I now deeply regret. Keep reading and you’ll understand why.) I saw her again in late December and was surprised she hadn’t been adopted. She was medium-sized and female, so she fit what I was looking for in a new hiking partner, since Thomas can no longer hike with me. I filled out an application and was told I could come meet her on the weekend.

Thus began a series of visitations with her that extended over a period of six weeks, during which time she began to relax a tiny bit in my presence, and simultaneously, I alienated nearly everyone (with one exception) on staff with the rescue.

The first time I went there, they had Maya in a small crate—with a chair sitting next to it. That’s how they wanted me to “meet” her. I explained that it would not be possible for me to assess her needs or her personality under those conditions, and I finally convinced them to put her back in her kennel so that I could sit with her in there, but it was a tense conversation, during which time the staff members admitted that because she “got upset” every time they put a leash on, they never did anything with her. No walks, no socialization—she had not even been spayed. I was told that “with a hundred dogs on the property,” there was “barely time to feed and clean up after them.” That was the care Maya received in the time that she was there—feeding and the feces removed from her kennel. Vaccinations when they were due. That’s it. She was filthy, her nails were overgrown, and she had no idea how to interact with humans. I thought they’d had her in these conditions for a year or so. She’d been like that for three. 

They told me she was three years old, and they listed that age on her adoption paperwork, but her rabies vaccination listed her correct age as six. At some point during my weeks of visitation, they finally had her spay surgery done. Her certificate of sterilization also shows her age as six. Staffers on site told me she’d been confiscated from a hoarder, but I later learned she was pulled from another rescue that had her for a long time and never did anything with her, either.

There were other issues with this rescue—too many to document here. On one of my visits, I was petting one of the dogs allowed to roam the property, and I discovered a huge, live tick (still trying to wiggle its way under his skin) on his neck. The staffer I notified was annoyed that I pointed it out. Nothing was done to eradicate or treat for the tick on the dog. Another small dog running loose tried to bite me. I managed to move my leg out of the way in time. There were, in fact, one hundred dogs on the property—barking, baying, howling, whimpering and spinning in their kennels. The noise and chaos were overwhelming every time, and after each visit I had to sit in the silence of my car for long minutes before beginning the long drive home just to decompress before getting on the highway.

Each time I left, I was heartbroken to leave Maya behind. But I couldn't bring her home if I couldn't somehow, at least minimally, manage her on a leash. Each time I returned, the hostility directed at me by the staff seemed to double, as if my request to simply sit on the ground in Maya's kennel and pet her was an imposition. But the day came when she finally relaxed and allowed me to handle her, so I decided it was time. I knew she wouldn't begin to recover until she came home to a quiet routine in a setting where she could feel safe.

The first day we met, at the so-called "rescue"

A dog like Maya is not what I went looking for. But….

A dog like Thomas is not what I was looking for when I brought him home, either.

Yep, it’s going to be another long road to recovery with this little girl. But doesn’t she deserve a chance? Just as much as Thomas did? Just as much as any dog does? And I would say to my critics (and oh my goodness, can I just say here—since my critics never read my blog anyway—just shut up. Shut up. No one asked you, it’s not your decision, and I’m the one caring for her), what is it you think Maya is going to take from me that I don’t have to give? Time? Love? Patience? Pffftttt.

I already know what I will get back from her eventually, and I can’t wait, but I don’t really have to. I love Maya… just as she is. Someday, she may be able to trust enough to love me back. Just knowing she is safe now, she has the care she needs, lots of love, good food, daily walks, ear scratches, a soft bed that she loves, treats, two kitty friends and a big brother carefully showing her the way we do things, is enough.

And they will all live happily ever after.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Broken Ones

This was how Thomas looked when he arrived at Upland Animal Shelter in 2013.

For my thirty-seventh birthday, my daughter gave me a kitten. A scrawny little squalling thing with huge ears and a feisty attitude.

“The lady said she was the runt, so I picked her because I knew that’s the one you would want.”

My daughter was still a teenager, but already she knew me so well. Yep, I’m betting that is the one I would have chosen. Calpurnia (named for the beloved housekeeper in To Kill a Mockingbird) grew into a beautiful little cat who lived a long life and was a great companion.

When Cal died, I sought out a rescue group in Upland, and the nice volunteer introduced me to many a pretty kitty, torties and tigers and the like.

“Do you have any black cats?” I asked. Cal was black, my young cat, Boo Radley was black, and by then I knew that black cats, like black dogs, have a harder time finding forever homes.

“Well, we have one,” she told me. “She’s very small, and she’s missing half her tail.”

“I’ll take her,” I said. The volunteer insisted that I “meet” her, so she let “Sugar Plum” (I know; I cringed at the name, too) out of her cage. She jumped to the floor, strolled purposefully across the room to the bench where I was sitting, and, jumping up, hunkered down next to me.

So that was that.

(I told Sug on the way home as she rode silently in the cat carrier, “I’m sorry, but Sugar Plum is a terrible name for a cat. Don’t worry. We’ll think of a new, cool name for you.” Ha ha ha. That never happened, and for a dozen years with me, she was Sug, Sugie, Sugie-Pie-Honey-Bunch—and Sugar Plumpkin, the very fitting name my daughter gave her.)

Despite her rough beginning in life (she was not born with that stump of a tail; someone took the rest of it, and I don’t like to imagine how), Sug was absolutely the best little friend, a great mouser, terrific bed warmer, and, in her last years with me, my sweet little comfort at night as she developed the habit of placing her head in my palm as we drifted off to sleep.

Of course, I have blogged here on several occasions about my good boy, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs, the feral dog sheltered by the Friends of Upland Animal Shelter, good folks who refused to deem him “unadoptable,” despite how absolutely terrified and shut down he was. Thomas was so, so broken in his spirit, he would not respond to humans, would not even make eye contact.

“He just needs someone to take him home and give him a safe place in their yard to live out his days,” one of the volunteers told me. Thomas had languished in the shelter for six months, she said. No one wants the dog who isn’t tail-waggin’ friendly.

Except me, I guess. Because I brought him home—even though he turned his head away every time I looked at him, and I had to corner him in the garage every time I wanted to put a collar on him, and he flinched every time I touched him. (He still does, mostly, unless I warn him a touch is coming.)

At first, everything about him was challenging. He wouldn’t eat or drink or relieve himself in daylight. He walked on a leash but was so terrified of people walking by or motorcycles starting up (even if they were blocks away) or cars driving past that I had to always keep a tight grip on the lead because I never knew when he would suddenly bolt in the opposite direction, straining all the muscles in my left arm. He’s blind in his right eye, so I have to remember to hand him treats with my right hand on his left side.

Oh. Treats. He wouldn’t eat them at first. Then he developed the habit of showing up when I made toast in the morning. I started setting pieces of the crust on the floor near him. If I ignored him, he would creep up and grab his piece and run off with it to eat it. After months and months and months of this morning ritual, he finally, one day, accepted a piece of toast from my hand, turning and running away as soon as he’d secured it. Now he knows the command “take nice,” which means he has to very gently remove his highly expensive, low fat, human food grade peanut butter treats from my fingers.

Another new trick he has learned is getting into the truck for his daily ride by walking up a ramp. We began this process after I learned of the arthritis in Thom’s shoulder. No more jumping. I bought a sturdy pet ramp (after reading several reviews), then started training him (with his peanut butter treats) to stand on it while it was level, then walk on it level, then walk on it when it was slightly raised. The last step confused him. He didn’t understand why I wanted him to walk on the ramp and also get in the truck. His look said it all: “Can’t I just jump in, Mom?” But he’s a patient old guy now, and he humored me, walking up the ramp as I led him on the leash. Now as soon as it is placed, he walks right up it and into the truck, no lead required.

Who says you can’t teach on old dog new tricks?

Thomas last night, waiting patiently for me to peel his favorite dessert: A raw carrot.

Sadly, the one trick I can’t teach him is how to reverse the aging process.

Three weeks ago, Thomas had a seizure.

Thank goodness I was there to see it, to know what happened, to stroke his back and comfort him. I called Dr. Lebovic, the “Home Vet” and best veterinarian I’ve ever had. He validated what I suspected; while this could be “a one-time thing,” chances are Thom will seize again eventually as his body slowly breaks down. “When we need to” we will talk again of “next steps,” Lebovic said.

In the meantime, Thomas is taking a vitamin-rich food supplement and also a CBD supplement (again, human food grade) that helps with his arthritis and his anxiety.

I will do whatever it takes to keep him happy and comfortable. Because my point here is, as broken as he was when I brought him home, he didn’t stay that way. And he has been the best, best buddy. We have logged hundreds of miles walking and hiking together, and hundreds more driving around so Thomas could view the world from the safety and security of the extra cab of my Ford Ranger. His anxiety and fear of humans was completely justified and understandable to me, and he was worth all the extra effort it took to bring him around to being “almost a real dog,” as I like to tease him.

There have been those, even among my family members, who have criticized me for taking on a dog with “too many issues.” Let me tell you if you’ve never experienced it, the joy and triumph I felt when that sweet boy finally, after two years, trusted me enough to roll over onto his back and let me pet his belly was so overwhelming it brought me to tears. And I cannot count the number of times—especially in this past year—that I have been ever so grateful to be able to lie down next to him and stroke his fur until the tears stopped flowing or my heartbeat slowed to normal.

Thank you, dear, faithful Reader, for allowing me to reminisce for a bit, and for reading once again about how much I adore this big, fluffy, teddy bear of a dog.

All of that, really, is just preface to say this:

Six weeks before Thomas had his seizure, I met a dog that was described by the rescue group as “shy” and “three years old.” In reality, she is six (at least) and absolutely terrified of people—just as Thomas was. I had to visit her four times before I felt I would be able to manage her if I brought her home—which I did, having committed to her adoption the day before Thom’s episode.

So yep, here we go, another broken one. But ya know what? Thomas has taught me so much about how to help a broken dog heal, this one should be a piece of cake.

Okay, I’m joking. Seriously, I laughed out loud when I wrote that.

But stay tuned. For the most part, Miss Maya Angelou Murphy is spending her time either curled in a tight ball or hiding under furniture. But she’s home. And I will definitely keep you posted about her progress.

See what I mean?