Simply G-ma

“Do you want to know what G-ma left us?” Heather said with a smile. “A bookcase.”

My smile matched hers.

“Of course she did.”

It fit, and not just because our home has a minor over-abundance of volumes. (In the same way that Taylor Swift has a minor bit of popularity right now.) Like that bookcase, Heather’s Grandma Marilyn was the starting point for a lot of stories … the kind you write together.

About a week ago, those stories turned a final page.  

G-ma was gone.

We’d known it was coming for a long time. Nothing fell out of a clear blue sky. We had time and beyond to prepare, to show love yet again, to leave no regrets or what-if’s behind. In a way, it didn’t matter. When a life of love gets removed, it feels like someone took scissors to a yearbook photo – you can tell by the hole that someone should be there.

And G-ma was quite a someone.

There’s an old joke that in Reporter Language, the word “feisty” means “short, female.” Marilyn fit both the joking description and the real one, a small lady with a strong backbone and an open heart. She could be stubborn in the best possible way, ready to stand for and with the people she cared about … but also to be knowingly silly in a way that only the truly fearless can be.

We always got along. In fact, we hit it off so well that she wanted to make sure Heather never lost me. “Make sure you make him pot roast,” she told her early in our marriage, a bit of 1950s love language that still sets us both laughing at the memory of it.

I don’t even like pot roast. But I love the heart that offered it.

She played piano well but always wanted to hear me instead when we visited. A frozen pizza served as the centerpiece for many a conversation, often while a pet bird sang out in the background. Helping put up the G-ma’s Christmas tree was an unbreakable tradition, no matter what else might be happening in the world.

Simple things.

But the simplest of all was that Marilyn listened. Fiercely.

She didn’t always agree. (I did mention the stubbornness, right?) But she always listened, not just waiting her turn in the conversation but actively considering what you said. She wanted to understand, to know, to hear.

Heather carries that same trait. It’s not always an easy one. It lowers your shields and leaves you open to the hurt of others, a hurt you sometimes can’t do much to heal. But it also opens you up to their passions, their wonder, their delight in life. When you listen, the world becomes more than a vague outline – it becomes real people in all their pain and glory.

When we listen, we truly become a “we.”

It’s a gift often absent these days. But it can be recovered at any moment, any time when we’re willing to move the focus off our own self. That, too, is not easy. But it’s essential.

By taking those moments, we bring a bit of someone else inside us. When we do, it means that no one’s ever truly gone. We keep them alive and pass them on, touching lives as we were touched.

So maybe the story of G-ma isn’t really over. It’s just up to us to write the sequel.

 Thank you, Marilyn. For the bookcase. For the moments. For the life well-spent.

And don’t worry. We may just make that pot roast yet.

A Blake-Shaped Hole

There’d been a wonderful run in the mountains. As fast as a 15-year-old dog can run, anyway. He’d taken off on an impulse, just like the old days, keeping ahead of my wife Heather until she finally caught up with him near the road.

“Blake, you goof.”

Big Blake panted and grinned as only an English Lab can. All was right.

And then, back home, over the next few days, all began to go wrong.

For a long time, Blake had been slowing down. He’d always rally, sometimes from a change in medicine, sometimes from a laser therapy, sometimes from his own strong heart and a blessing from the Angel of Dogs. But each rally got a little shorter, each miracle a little less enduring than the one before.

Now what rallies there were seemed to come and go like summer lightning. A brief moment of courage to handle the stairs. Twenty minutes of ease while listening to someone read. Some excitement as Missy entered the room, stiffly heaving himself up to greet his developmentally disabled friend. And then, more pain and confusion.

The conversation that had ebbed and flowed for weeks began to accelerate in earnest as Heather and I tried to figure out how much time there really was.  Maybe two weeks? Next weekend? This weekend? Tomorrow?

Each time we looked at his hurting body and worried mind, each time we asked ourselves the question, the true answer got a little clearer.

Today.

And on July 29, after a hamburger of his own and half of Missy’s (this is still Blake we’re talking about), way too many french fries, and all the hugs and tears that a family’s hearts could hold – we let Blake go.

It hurts to write those words.

If it didn’t, something would be terribly wrong.

Because even when you’re ready, you’re never ready.

We touch so many lives, collecting heartprints from each one that embraces ours. We build a well of memories that refreshes our soul, we weave their story into our own for a richer, fuller tapestry.

And then the fabric tears away. And it leaves a hole behind.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the bargain we make, every time we hold someone close in love – that loss will come, but that the having will somehow be worth the losing. We know it. But we let ourselves forget the day will come. We have to, in order to live.

Sometimes, it really seems like it won’t ever end. Big dogs don’t always last long, but Big Blake had an amazing gift of life. At 12, he had all the energy and athleticism he’d possessed at 6. Even into his truly old and slow years, he still had to be watched for acts of food burglary, still stuck to Heather like a second shadow, still often greeted Missy’s arrival with a loud THUMP, THUMP, THUMP on the floor from his muscular tail.

It fools you. Lets you think that maybe you won the lottery, maybe you finally discovered the one that’s truly immortal.

In a way, maybe we did.

Maybe we all have.

Every memory, every story, every past moment of love and exasperation, brings a bit of them back for a moment. It’s never enough. It never can be. And it hurts with the sting of salt water on an open wound.

But that’s part of the bargain, too. That if you give enough to each other, a piece of them stays on in you.

And so a little of me will be forever Blake. A bit of all our family is forever tied to that wonderful blockheaded klutz, with the voracious stomach and the mighty heart.

Once more, Blake is running ahead of us. Someday, we’ll catch up. Near the road, ready to smile as only an English Lab can.

We love you, Blake, you goof.

Wait for us, big buddy.

The Eyes of Loss

A long time ago, C.S. Lewis wrote that the death of a loved one was like the amputation of a leg. The pain might eventually dull. The patient might eventually work out new ways to walk and live life. But they would remain aware of what had been lost for the rest of their life.

It’s been two years for us. And the limp still catches.

Two years since Melanie. Unbelievable.

Melanie, the 21-year-old cousin who had been staying with us for over a year, probably would have laughed at being remembered this hard for this long. She would have joked that it’s only because of the blanket for Missy that she left unfinished, or the dishes that stopped piling up in her bedroom before a much-delayed trip to the sink. She might have teased that at least we didn’t have to listen for the front door at night, to make sure she hadn’t lost her key in her backpack again.

She’d be wrong about that last one, by the way.

A little bit of me has never stopped listening for the door.

The world seemed to freeze on Jan. 26, 2018 when she was found in her bedroom. It almost seemed insulting that it should move on, without so much as a wobble in its orbit. Move on it did. It always does, in all its noise and wonder.

But maybe just a little more muffled than before.

No … no, that’s not quite right. Not anymore. If you’ve been through something similar – and too many of us have – you realize that the numbness is only temporary. After a little while, your awareness goes the other direction and becomes almost unbearably acute. Like Sherlock Holmes, you begin noticing even the smallest details that might connect to a memory.

When my Grandma Elsie passed, it was soccer that brought her back to me unexpectedly. Strange, since in the years I knew her, my English grandmother was a passionate Denver Broncos fan. But she had also been the one to explain a little soccer to us as kids … and that afternoon, with a World Cup game on TV and tea for Missy brewing on the stove, her memory was suddenly inescapable.

With Mel, it can sometimes be as small as an abrupt cold snap. (At 5’1” with a tiny frame, she had little insulation against freezing weather and little patience for it.) Or an online comment evoking her unique blend of sass and heart. Or the book she’d loaned shortly after moving in that I never did return (dang it).

Or, more subtly, a heightened awareness of other people and their hurts.

Because that was Melanie, too.

That last one, I suspect, has a lot of company. No one knows pain like the people who have been hurt badly, whether through a traumatic loss, a chronic illness, or some other wound to the body or soul that simply cannot fully heal. It damages. It isolates.

And sometimes, it amplifies. Having endured pain, you recognize it in others. Not just in sympathy, but in compassion, reaching out to join hurt to hurt.

We start to see each other’s limps. And with that, we walk together a little better than we did before.

I’m not saying that pain or loss is a good thing. I never could, especially after these last two years. But if we can learn to reach to each other’s pain, to see that it matters, that they matter – that, perhaps, is one of the best things of all.

No, the world never stops. But it can become closer.

Maybe even as close as a memory of Mel.

A Last Flight

Sharpie’s initial startled burst of activity had worn off. Now our yellow-and-green parakeet sat gently in Heather’s grasp, occasionally flexing her wings or tightening her talons against my wife’s shirt.

“Shhh,” Heather breathed as she ran her finger gently over the feathers of Sharpie’s head, over and over again.

Sharpie’s eyes slowly eased shut. They opened, closed, opened again, confusion and fear giving way to trust.

“Shhh.”

The eyes closed one more time.

Heather waited, then looked up at me, holding her while she held the bird.

“I think she’s gone,” Heather whispered. “I can’t feel her heartbeat anymore.”

After 11 years of company, Sharpie had flown.

Losing any animal that you love and care for is never easy. With  Sharpie, it was like the end of an era. Of our many Colorado birds, she was the only one that we picked out ourselves, the only one that was not a gift from a friend. Just two months after we returned to the state in 2007, we had gone in search of a parakeet; Heather, one of life’s “bird ladies,” had pointed at a small one that had caught her eye out of the small flock in the store.

As the attendant reached in, another bird jumped in the way and was picked up instead. She was the same color – and kinda gutsy – so Heather took the volunteer. We named her Sharpie, since her yellow was the color of a highlighter, and took her home.

Starting with a hand, ending with a hand.

Sharpie was there as I changed jobs, as we changed homes, as we saw others come and go. The dean of the flock, not as loud as some, but adding her voice to the mix when others piped up (including the occasional playful whistling human).She was a theme, a constant.

Nothing in life stays constant, though.

We knew she was getting old. She had been looking ruffled as birds do, though the last few days had been something of a rally. And then, on Thursday morning, I came down to feed the birds and saw her struggling on the bottom of the cage, unable to fly, trying to climb to her perch.

I got Heather out of bed. She got Sharpie out of her cage. And together, as Sharpie quietly left the world,  we said goodbye.

Goodbye. It’s a powerful word. We don’t always get the moment. But sometimes it feels like the word echoes from every corner.

It was at this time last year that our 21-year-old cousin Melanie died in bed while staying with us. A lover of animals who wanted to be a vet tech, I think she would have appreciated sharing her time with a veteran pet.

It’s the same week that held the anniversary of Mel’s dad. The passing of Heather’s great aunt. The same month that held so many more.

We all get a lot of lessons in saying goodbye. And perhaps the biggest is that “goodbye” is not the same as “letting go” or “moving on.”

You can’t. Not really. If someone has meant enough to you, they’ve replaced pieces of your heart with their own, woven themselves into your life with a brilliant thread. When they’re pulled away, it leaves a gap. And while the sharp edges eventually become duller and the angles become a little more rounded, the hole never truly heals.

In a painful way, that’s a treasure. A sign of how much they were valued.

We do have to say goodbye. For ourselves as much as for the one leaving, maybe more. We have to be able to shape life around the new reality, acknowledge it, take the steps into whatever comes next.

But it doesn’t mean that their presence won’t still be felt. That memories won’t invade at curious times, like a visitor at the door. That something real isn’t still there.

Whether a small bird or a full-grown human, they touched you. Shaped you. Left their fingerprints in your life, mind, and memory.

What is remembered, lives.

Today, as I think about it, that’s especially fitting.

After all, every Sharpie must leave a mark.

In Just a Moment

“I don’t care what you’re working on, get home now,” Heather said on the phone. Then came the words that shattered everything.

Melanie was gone.

Melanie was my wife’s 21-year-old cousin, kind and sassy, stubborn and compassionate, a night owl full of conversation on any topic or none at all. For the last 14 months, she had been staying with us as she put her life back together from a number of challenges and became a full and vivacious member of the household. She swapped stories, played games, helped around the house, even began to crochet a blanket in Hogwarts colors for Missy, our disabled ward.

All that ended on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.

We thought Mel was sleeping late. She often did.

She was still in bed. But this time she wasn’t waking up.

 

There are moments that the words don’t reach,

There is suffering too terrible to name …

“It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton

There are a lot of questions that chase through your head when someone dies so young. “Why? How?” are the obvious ones and sometimes the easiest – those are the ones that at least have a chance of being answered with patient work. (Eventually, that is; we’re still learning those answers ourselves.)

But the most pernicious ones, the most painful and useless questions of all, are the ones that begin “What if?” You know the litany, I’m sure:

“What if we’d taken her to the hospital when she came home feeling sick?”

“What if I’d checked on her sooner?”

“What if I’d said something different … done something different … been more concerned about this … paid more attention to that … ?”

It’s self-torture, running in place on a treadmill made of knives. You get nowhere except to hurt yourself worse than before. But we all keep getting on.

If we’re not careful, we can drown out the question that really matters. “What next?”

It’s a question that Mel was an expert at.

 

Every day, you fight like you’re running out of time …

— “Non-Stop,” from Hamilton

Melanie seemed to fill every moment she had. Sometimes drawing or writing. Sometimes making a friendship bracelet or a brightly-colored rice bag for someone she cared about. Sometimes chatting in the kitchen or over Skype until well past midnight.

None of it was easy. Mel had severe Crohn’s disease and the autoimmune complications that often come from that. Mel had many other struggles and the repercussions that often come from those. But she faced it all with a quirky sense of humor and a heart that could never be anything but genuine.

This is the woman who kept photos of her latest colonoscopy in her wallet, where baby pictures would normally go.

This is the little girl who, when told by her granddad to stop opening and closing the back door as she and her friends raced in and out, simply left it open. “Well, you said …”

This is the friend who had plans to work in a veterinary clinic, and was genuinely excited to receive an animal anatomy coloring book for Christmas.

This is the relative who would trade silly Snapchat photos with her mom and little brother, seeing who could turn each other into the most ridiculous image.

All of which means this is the friend whose absence leaves a hole. A silence. A gap in the story that aches to be filled.

And, perhaps, a reminder.

 

And when my time is up, have I done enough?

Will they tell my story?

— “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” from Hamilton

All of us work to a limited clock. None of us are promised tomorrow. Most of the time, we’re good about not thinking about that.

But when a loved one leaves too soon, it hits you right in the face.

You look at the choices that you made and that you didn’t make. The things you’ve tried and the things you were too scared to do. A different sort of “what if,” perhaps, but one that looks forward instead of backward.

“What have I not done that I should have done? That I still could do?”

I use the word “choice” and it starts that way. But the funny thing is, the mind and the soul have a muscle memory, too. The more you choose an action, the more reflexive it becomes. That can be the start of a lot of bad habits – but it’s also where things like bravery, diligence, kindness and generosity come from. You do the right thing often enough, and eventually it leaves conscious thought. It just becomes what you do.

When time is short, those reflexes matter. And time is always short. Train them. Sharpen them. Reach out. Welcome in.

Melanie did.

And in her absence, I hope we all can, too.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Each Christmas, the same lyrics echo on the speakers:

 

“Through the years, we all will be together,

If the fates allow … “

 

And each year, we get reminded of the ones that the fates aren’t allowing to return.

Don’t get me wrong. Christmas Day is my favorite day of the year. From childhood into my early teens, I would sit up all night on Christmas Eve, softly singing carols to stay awake until 6 a.m. That’s the magic moment when my sisters and I were allowed to sneak downstairs and ogle the tree and the presents beneath, though not to awaken Mom and Dad (who usually came down around 7 a.m. when Grandma Elsie started making coffee.).

To this day, it’s still a great day for us to bask in the presence of family, spending quiet moments in the morning with each other before taking off to Heather’s mom or dad or sister and the relatives that have gathered with them. But each time, for just a moment, our minds visit a few others as well.

Some are simply separated by distance, like my parents and sisters in Washington State, with their collection of the little nieces and nephews. Reachable in theory – and maybe someday in practice – but kept apart for now by time, money, and logistics.

Others are a little more final.

Folks like my English grandmother and Heather’s, who brought their own touch to the season, from teasing Christmas carols to full dinners (complete with burned carrots).

Or like Heather’s uncle Andy (the brother of our disabled ward Missy), a lighthearted soul who left the holidays too soon.

Or like Duchess the Wonder Dog, who we still half-expect to hear digging into the wrapping-paper trash and sneaking into the stockings. After all, it’s our first Christmas without her.

For many, the holidays can bring this back powerfully, even painfully. Our own church has a “Blue Christmas” service for when the memories weigh heavily, and I’m sure it’s not the only one. It’s not an easy thing to be reminded of the empty seats at the table, especially if they became vacant during the holidays or not long after.

And yet, as hard as it is, it’s also an odd source of comfort.

It’s a reminder that they’re not truly gone. Not entirely.

OK, so they’re not exactly going to walk through the door bearing a fruitcake in the next five minutes. But at this time of all times, they live on. In hearts. In memories. In a dozen stories that get retold. Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.

And in that, as much as anything, the Christmas season shows its power.

It’s a time to remember those who showed you love – and to show it in return to those with you, while you can. To draw together those who are close, and remember those who are far. To carry on what you’ve been left, as best as you know how.

It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s more than a little bittersweet. But it, too, is part of the beauty of the season.

Be open to the memories, whether they’re triggered by an old ornament, a stray song on the radio, or just a piece of wrapping paper that looks like a dog chewed it. If you can, let them lift you up rather than weigh you down. After all, this is the time for loving visitors.

Give a moment to the past. And then, when you’re ready, celebrate in the present.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

The Last Choice

“Blake and Du –“

I stopped, took a breath, tried again. “Blake! Do you want some food?”

Big Blake, our muscular English Labrador, bounded down the stairs to breakfast. As he did, I realized once again how hard this was going to be.

Duchess the Wonder Dog wasn’t there. She wasn’t going to be. Not in this world.

Strange how a small dog can leave such a big hole.

We had her for one more Christmas, the gift that Heather and I really wanted most, curious and loving and even cunning enough to steal part of Blake’s Christmas bone. But the cancer became too much. Piece by piece it was stealing her. Stairs had become terrifying for her, requiring us to lift her and hold her close. Her legs needed more and more help simply to stand. She’d lost any interest in dog food, though she still dived into people food with gusto.

Finally, 41 days after her diagnosis, it became time. Time for the kindest, hardest choice of all. Heather had already cried all her tears and held her close, comforting and reassuring. My own face grew wetter and wetter as I stroked and patted Duchess’s fur,  a stream of thank-yous and I-love-yous falling from my mouth.

We both had to be there. There was no question about that. We had been at her side since she was a three-year-old rescue dog and we weren’t going to leave now.

The time came. The eyes closed. The hearts broke.

I’ve never had to make this choice before.

Nearly 14 years old. That’s a long time for any dog. Too short for any heart.

But long enough to fill our hearts with memories.

There was our first meeting in Wichita when she was still timid and fearful from a little-known past. We greeted her, welcomed her, loaded her in the car – and 20 minutes later, our car was hit by a driver turning left against the light. I lifted a frozen Duchess to get her out of the busy intersection and she bit my arms in panic, the first and only time she would ever do so.

I still carry those faint marks on each arm. A memory made tangible.

The years since then could fill a book. They’ve certainly filled a lot of columns. Even in her most timid days, she loved children, letting them climb all over her. Our Kansas dog rejoiced to discover Colorado mountains, roaming far and wide until called close again by Heather’s voice. She charged through any fresh snowfall with glee, spinning through the back yard like a furry tornado, driving her snout deep into the whiteness until she earned the nickname “Snownose.”

Her timidity muted over the years – calmed by love, time, and pizza – but never entirely went away. (Right after a move, we learned that Duchess’s anxiety could become powerful enough to claw through a bedroom door.) But she had her own courage and awareness. A neighbor’s dog that jumped the fence and began barking at Heather soon found a black-and-white growling guardian in front of her. Our disabled ward Missy found that Duchess treated her with loving care … even if the cute doggy didn’t always linger long enough for a pat. A young friend of Missy’s named Hunter declared at a softball game that Duchess’s middle name was Hunter, too – and from that moment, it was.

On and on the stories go. Written in love, held by memory.

That same love made the choice to end her pain necessary … and darned near impossible.

How do you say good-bye to a hello that has lasted so long?

Maybe we never really do.

Maybe that’s how you know you loved and were loved.

My last photo of her was taken a few hours before the end. She had just wolfed down a Wendy’s cheeseburger, a gift that brought joy and excitement with it. As she licked up her lips and looked up with a smile, she seemed – just for a moment – to have become a puppy again. To shed the years and the pain and simply be Duchess.

A final gift. A welcome one.

Thank you, my good girl. Thank you so much.

You may never know it, but you rescued us, too.

Exit, Left

There’s been a Marian-sized hole in my heart this week.

Those of you who read this paper regularly understand. Not long ago, the Longmont Theatre Company lost one of its stalwarts, Marian Bennett. On and offstage, she touched more lives than a workaholic chiropractor. She could communicate volumes about a character with one perfectly timed gleam in her eye and make you breathless with suspense or helpless with laughter.

I want to say she’s irreplaceable. She’d laugh at that and deflate the notion with her familiar Texas twang. And maybe she’d be right. All of us are … and none of us are. We all bring something unique that goes quiet when we leave. And barring a dramatic change in the history of the world, all of us are going to leave. Life is hazardous to your health, and the rest of us have to be ready to carry on when time brings another of us into the majority.

Easy to say. Hard to feel, to acknowledge, to own.

Especially when it’s someone close.

Doubly so when it’s someone who so undeniably lived.

 

Fill  to me the parting glass,

And drink a health whate’er befalls,

Then gently rise and softly call,

Goodnight and joy be to you all.

– The Parting Glass, traditional

 

The phrase “grande dame” can be easily misconstrued. It can suggest someone on a pedestal at best, a prima donna at the worst. But it literally means the great lady. Marian herself was charmed by the title until she looked it up in a dictionary and found that one of the definitions was “a highly respected elderly or middle-aged woman.”

“That (title) made me feel pretty good until I realized they were saying I was old,” she told me with one of her stage grimaces.

But Marian really did fill a room. Some of it was physical – she was a tall woman who naturally drew attention. A lot of it was that she did her best to reach out to everyone nearby. She wanted to talk, to chat, to hug – but you didn’t feel smothered. You kind of felt like your next-door neighbor had just come over to catch up.

On stage, that translated into the most perfect sense of timing I’ve seen in an actress. She could discard her dignity entirely to cross the stage in roller skates, or gather it around her to become King Lear himself, but she was always who she needed to be, where she needed to be.

Part of that was because backstage she worked like a fiend. (She and I often drilled lines on opening night, just to be absolutely sure.) Part of it was confidence, the same confidence that led her to travel, to speak her mind, to welcome a friend on one meeting. A lot of it may have been her willingness to look cockeyed at the world, and enjoy it when others did, too.

She could be nervous or anxious, like any actor. But I never saw her afraid. You can’t be if you go on stage. You have to be able to look inside yourself and then share it with the world.

Come to think of it, that’s true off stage, too. Life is more fun, more alive, if you can live it without fear. Not without common sense (Mar had plenty of that) but without drawing back from what you might find.

Even that makes her sound like a lesson. Granted, we all are to each other. But we’re all so much more, too. We’re friends and family and teachers and neighbors, connected by more than we can see.

And when that connection is broken, it hurts. For a long time. It never quite heals the same way … and it shouldn’t. You’ve loved them, cared for them, taken on some of their memories. Of course, they’re not going to vanish from your mind and soul like an overdue library book.

They’ve touched you – and you bear their fingerprints.

Goodbye, my friend. It was a pleasure to know you, an honor to work with you.

Take your bow with pride.

I’ll see you after the show.

Hands of Hope

There’s an exhaustion that threatens to border on despair. I think a lot of us are there now. I know I am.

I’m tired of this.

What else can you be when you see the same situations play themselves out over and over again? New shooters. New victims. New settings, from Colorado Springs to San Bernardino. And exactly the same results.

I’m tired of our communities becoming a roll call of blood.

I’m tied of the wait to learn a killer’s name, tired of the endless gabble and chatter and theorizing when it’s revealed.

I’m tired of the argument that’s become ritual, as we raise the points we know so well. Guns. Mental illness. Terrorism. Rights. Needs. Like a tae kwon do training pattern, we pose and shake the skies, only to end up right back where we started.

To have this happen in a sacred season seems a grim joke. And yet it’s the time we need the reminder more than ever.

Now, most of all, we have to have hope.

It sounds kind of insubstantial, doesn’t it? Of all the virtues that get celebrated coming into Christmas, hope may be the most misunderstood. It doesn’t get the full spotlight that basks over love. It’s not directly celebrated in carol after carol like peace or joy. When it comes up in the season at all, it’s a quick mention, almost glancing:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoicing …

Respite in the midst of exhaustion. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

But how?

Let me make one thing clear. This is not optimism. A simple conviction that “Hey, everything’s going to be OK” will burn out fast in the face of everything besieging it. Hope has more than good feelings behind it. Hope is putting your sweat where your dreams are.

Hope is the soldier of World War II who can’t see the end of the conflict, but throws himself into it, convinced that his one life can still make a difference.

Hope is the civil rights worker of the 1950s, for whom the vision of freedom seems impossibly far away, who nonetheless keeps marching and speaking and battling to make it happen a little sooner.

Hope is what keeps the teacher at a classroom. The policeman on a beat. It’s what fuels the best of marriages, the kind that didn’t stop all their energy on the altar but kept pouring it into every passing minute and hour and day.

Hope means work. To paraphrase a favorite writer, once you say that problems can be solved, that better is possible, you have to get off your duff and do something.

That’s what can transform a “weary world.”

Despair is easy. You just sit back, let the world happen, and say “told you so.” Hope can wear you out to the point where it almost breaks you. But it’s also the only thing that gives any of us a fighting chance.

This last year has been a quest for hope in our house. Ever since my wife Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we’ve had a lot to do. There have been medicines to try, work schedules to balance, a life to somehow keep going in the midst of everything. And it’s tempting to just sit down and shout at the heavens “I CAN’T DO IT!”

Sometimes we do. Everyone needs to retreat sometimes. But eventually we keep going. We have to. Or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hope asks a lot. But it’s the only way to move forward. It’s the only way to move at all.

Are we ready to try it?

It means more than hand-wringing and pained pronouncements. It requires more than a hashtag and a Facebook post. If we’re going to break the cycle of death, we have to be ready to fix our eyes on a goal and shoulder our piece of the work. It may not be monumental. It may seem hopelessly insignificant. But drops become a flood. And a flood can change landscapes.

Will we? Are we ready at last to take up the burden of hope?

I’m tired of what we’ve got.

Let’s wake our world.

Goodbye, Dude

The Dude abides no more.

Picture a small bird. No, smaller than that. A zebra finch, about the size of your thumb, lively with song, gray with age and deaf as a post.

That was The Dude. Yes, was.

I found him in the cage Wednesday night. Just five hours earlier, he’d been his usual self, hopping and flittering and singing that unique burble that only a finch possesses, somewhere between a running faucet and a squeaky toy.

He wasn’t gone yet. Not quite. But he was clearly on the threshold, his small body curled in the corner, barely moving, barely breathing.

Heather couldn’t stand for him to be alone in the dark. We brought his cage to our bedroom and sat up with him. We promised if he was still lingering in the morning, we’d go to the vet and do the gentle thing.

It wasn’t necessary. In the wee hours, he turned once on the bottom of his case, just enough to notice. And then he made the final flight, the one without wings.

Nine years had come to a quiet end.

If you’ve not kept birds, you may not realize how uncommon that is. Most zebra finches last between five and seven years as pets. There have been older ones, sure, but even if The Dude wasn’t quite George Burns, he was sure as heck Christopher Plummer.

Maybe a bit of Harrison Ford, too. After all, he did get a ride in the mouth of Big Dog Blake and lived to tell the tale.

Amazing, in a lot of ways.

But then, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. If there are two things that our families do well, it’s birds and long-lived pets.

The birds come from Heather’s side. She and her sister Jaimee are the Bird Ladies, embracing anything in feathers. Before The Dude’s passing, our informal aviary comprised three parakeets, two zebra finches, one society finch and a cockatiel whose shrieks could wake Rip Van Winkle. No partridges in pear trees, but I’m sure it’s a matter of time.

The pets that won’t quit, meanwhile, are a hardy Rochat family tradition. Growing up, I had a dog that made it to 13, a cat that made it to 17 — heck, I had a goldfish that lasted around 13 years. It didn’t happen with every pet, every time, but it was strong enough to make a trend.

Put ’em together, and you get a heck of a flock.

And also one where it’s really hard to say goodbye.

It’s human to assume that what has been always will be. That only gets stronger when a gentle soul does indeed keep going day after day and year after year. Maybe they’re a little slower or a touch more careful over time, but they’re still there. Still wonderful. Still loving.

And then, one day, that love leaves.

And so does a little of you.

I wouldn’t trade the time for anything. No way. But deep roots pull harder when they’re finally torn free. Even the smallest of bodies — a finch, a gerbil, a horned toad — can leave a hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

The hole will be filled, with memories and tears. But it never will be what it was before. Neither will you.

And on balance, I think that’s a good thing.

I am a better person than I would have been without Mitzi the dog, Twinkle the cat, and a host of others, right down to the tiniest Dude. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling. There’s a care that only animals can teach, as they magnify the best and worst you choose to show them.

And if it hurts to leave, you probably did it right. It’s a hard comfort. But it’s also an assurance that you touched a heart to a heart and brought both back full.

That’s a treasure beyond words. And as I think on that, I realize that I got the first sentence of this piece wrong.

Down where it counts, The Dude abides.

And he always will.