Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Season of Giving

The other day I was thinking about my favorite holiday memories, and while there were the usual things like going to my Aunt Pat's house every year for our family Christmas gathering, or getting to open just one present on Christmas Eve, or making the trek out into the snow to cut down our tree every year, I realized that there's another piece of my holiday memories that I remember pretty vividly.  Growing up, my dad was the president of his union at the paper mill he worked in.  Say what you will about unions, but their members usually have their hearts in the right places. When I was very small, the union would adopt families every Christmas and all of the members would band together to buy gifts for those families who had fallen on hard times so that they could still have a Christmas.  I don't remember a lot of the details of it, but I remember that every year my dad took me along when we delivered presents to these families.  I have very clear memories of going to visit an elderly woman who needed a blind person's cane (the kind with the red tip, my dad explained to me, so people knew she was blind), and I remember her smile as my dad explained what he was giving to her, and how many times she thanked us for being so kind.  I remember a woman who kept trying to hide that she was starting to cry as gifts got unloaded from the car and piled onto her doorstep.  I remember being four or five years old and going into my dad's factory after hours, through a different door than the one we used if we went to visit dad at work, which seemed like such a big deal.  We left fruit baskets on the desks of each of the secretaries the night before Christmas Eve so that when they came in on Christmas Eve, they would have gifts waiting for them.  I remember being so excited that we were leaving them a surprise, and imaging how happy they would be with their surprise in the morning.  It never clicked in my tiny kid mind that the union did this every year, and the secretaries probably expected to come in and find those on their desks.  All I knew is that I was playing Santa for these people, and it was awesome.

Sometimes my parents would take me shopping with them when they bought their contributions to the adopted families.  I remember them explaining to me that we had to find something that other families would like, and we have to think about what would make them happiest and what they would need.  Sometimes I was allowed to contribute an opinion on what we should buy.  I would stand the bar at the bottom of the cart, clinging to the end of the cart basket as they wheeled through the store, wondering what these people were going to think when someone came over and did something nice, just because they wanted to do something nice.  There was no other reason.  Just to be nice.

As the years passed, the union shrunk, wages didn't go up as cost of living did, and the years of charitable giving disappeared.  I'm not even sure any of my siblings were ever old enough to tag along on the deliveries before they ended all together.  But I remember it.  I remember looking forward to it every year.  I remember feeling happy about making other people happy, and although I didn't pay too much attention when it all ended, looking back I'm a bit sad that it did.

It's had me thinking lately about what sort of example I want to be to the young people in my life.  To my niece, my nephews, even Jasmine and Tori, who are pushing their way into adulthood but still young enough to be influenced by the examples around them.  On the whole, I can't remember more than a handful of gifts I received when I was little.  I remember ones that were especially prized, or that turned into favorite toys, and I'm more than grateful that I received them, but I'm not sure I remember any quite so vividly as I remember that woman smiling as we handed her a cane so she could get around more easily.  We didn't give her just a cane, we gave her some independence, and that is priceless.  We didn't just hand a bunch of wrapped packages to that mother who tried to hide her tears.  We handed her a reason to smile when life might not give her too many of those.  That is the example I want to set for the young people I know.  That giving of yourself, your time, reaching out to touch the life of someone else, that is what is important in this world.  It's through giving that we learn to receive with grace.  And it makes you appreciate what you have so much more.

Next year I think I want to gather some friends and adopt a family together.  I might not have the means to purchase gifts for an entire family myself, but I think that if I gathered a lot of friends and family together, we could change someone's life a little bit, if even just for one day.  It takes a village, after all.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

No, Thank YOU

Recently I've come to an understanding that the thank you note, once an expression of gratitude for kindness that has been received, has sort of become a source of canned responses.  Thank you notes are now the yearbook signatures of the adult world.  They're trite, and often impersonal.  Like yearbook signatures, they mention vague things that happened and contain only the requisite number of words to be deemed acceptable, and then they end in that generic, non committal fashion with something like "Hope to see you soon" or "Stay in touch".  I imagine that in the days of hand written letters, the thank you note held more weight, but now it's just an obligation someone has to get through in order to look as if they have done all of the necessary steps.  This is particularly true in thank you notes that are received after a gift has been given.  If someone is diligent, the note includes reference to the specific gift you gave to them.  If they are not, you get a nondescript "Thanks so much for the gift", which makes you sort of want to mention to them later how you like the gift you gave them to watch the scramble where they try to remember which thing came from you.  Or, even better, mention a totally ridiculous gift and imply that you gave it to them and watch the web spin about how much they really love it, this fictitious item you have bestowed upon them.

Basically, all I'm saying is that thank you notes are usually crap.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Adventures with an Elderly Dog: Part 3

This is Simon, in a photo that was taken on his "Sweet 16".  That's right, he's 16 years old, which is a medical fucking marvel for the canine species.  Simon has been in my life for the past 15 years, in some capacity, and in Jason's since the day they adopted him when he was around a year old.  He hasn't always lived with us, but since we moved into our house 4 years ago, we've been in charge of his care and keeping.  That hasn't always been easy.  Heck, it wasn't easy when he was a younger dog.  He had a habit of taking off any time he got outside without a leash or a fence to restrain him.  He would just go wander the neighborhood, and if you tried to catch him he thought you were playing an awesome game and would stay just enough out of your reach to prevent you from getting a hold of him, but close enough to give you hope.  And if you stopped chasing, he'd run back toward you like "Oh, come on, we're not done yet".  If you went back home and waited about twenty minutes or so, he'd come back and wait on the porch, suddenly bored with his exploration.  When it came to taking him for a walk, he would get so excited he'd pull the leash and knock you straight over.  If you were strong enough to restrain him, he walked practically on his hind legs only, upright like a person, in his attempt to pull away and take off for an unrestrained run.  Baths were a wrestling match, which he nearly always won.  The Fourth of July was a nightmare, because he would bark at every bang and pop that went off in the neighborhood, attempting to jump out the window to kill the bad noises.  Jumping out the window wasn't unheard of either.  Jason lived in a split level house, and the downstairs bedroom was partially below ground.  Simon liked to hop from the desk chair to the desk, then straight out the window at ground level when he didn't feel like making the trek upstairs to go outside.

All in all, he's been a great dog.  He loved to play fetch in his younger days.  He also used to find his own wrapped Christmas gifts under the tree and unwrap them, but only when given permission to do so, and he never touched any other gift under the tree but his own.  He learned to open the treat bucket and help himself when the occasion suited him.  He never had any accidents in the house prior to becoming a decrepit old man, and he loves the humans in his life.  Particularly Jason.

Now he's old.  Not like, a little old, but fucking old.  His hearing went a few years ago, and from there things have been a bit down hill.  He started losing bladder control, necessitating the use of doggie diapers.  He began to poop in the house, mostly because he couldn't get up to let us know he needed outside.  And sometimes it was in his sleep so....I'm not even sure he knew it was going on.  We invested in a personal rug shampooer specifically to handle Simon messes.  He's been battling arthritis since before we bought the house, and it seems to be getting worse as time goes.  Some days his back legs don't seem to want to work at all.  He's pretty smelly most of the time, partially due to the diapers, but partially due to the fact that baths are pretty traumatic for him these days.  He can't stand in the tub, and he cries the whole time we have him in there as if he doesn't realize why we're putting him through this kind of torture.  And then there are the times when he just barks.  Like a metronome.  For no reason.  Just sitting, and barking.  It's maddening.  All in all, taking care of him has become more and more challenging with each passing week, but then there are days when he's able to wander up to one of us for affection, or the nights when Jason scratches his ears before bed and he looks like nothing in this world will ever make him happier than having Jason pet him, and I think "Yeah.  Ok.  I'm in for as long as you are, pal".

The reason I'm bringing this up is because today I was scrolling Twitter and saw this:
I thought to myself "Yes, that's sort of what it's about, isn't it?".  Simon, for the majority of his life, has given us everything he had.  He's loved us fiercely.  He's been excited to see us come home.  He's been there for a hug when we're upset, or for some entertainment when we're in need of a laugh.  He's protected us, and in our absence he has guarded our home.  He has been around for the major life changes.  Getting married.  Buying a house.  And now, he's a very old man.  He's not going to be around forever.  His frame gets thinner with each passing day, and his legs get stiffer.  He hears nothing.  He barks like crazy and it makes us insane.  But in 16 years, what has he ever asked of us?  He's wanted food, and affection.  That's it.  He's given so much more to us than we have had to give to him, and maybe he was just paying it forward.  Maybe now it's our turn to give back.  Maybe love is about taking a dog for a walk in a wheelchair because his legs don't work anymore, simply because that is what love is.  It's enduring, and unconditional, and if it were us in that position, Simon would give us everything he could.

Does that mean I don't have days when I think "I wish I had the courage to put you down", or that I don't want to look at him and pull an Austin Powers "WHY WON'T YOU DIE?!" when he's barked all day, pooped on the carpet a few times, and leaked out of his diaper?  No.  Not at all.  I have those days, more frequently than I'd like to admit, but then I watch the doggie smile appear as Jason scratches his ears and I think it again.  "Yeah.  Ok.  I'm in for as long as you are, pal".

Others might not understand it.  I've heard more than a my share of criticisms about how we need to just kill him.  One person outright said they dream of kicking him down the stairs when they're at home alone with him.  People who don't have to take care of him bitch about how we should just get rid of him.  These are people who don't see.  They don't know.  They haven't been there the whole time.  They never saw how much love he gave back when he could.  We owe him.  We pay it back.  Even on the days when we wish we didn't have to.  That's what love is.  It endures.  It is unconditional.

Yeah.  Ok.  I'm in for as long as you are, pal.