2017 was a difficult year for us. The hardest thing turned out to also be the biggest blessing: Byron's transition to Memory Care at Buckner Westminster Place seven months ago now. There was another hard thing that happened about the same time. I mostly kept it to myself because it made the grief I was already experiencing almost too much to bear. I hid the second hard thing away in a closet in the far recesses of my brain, so I wouldn't have to think about it. (That means I didn't put it on Facebook.)
However, the New Year is always a good time to clean out closets and bring the contents into the light of day.
It’s about Angus, our beloved miniature schnauzer. We adopted him from a bad situation five years ago when he was two. When Byron moved into Buckner, we had to make a number of sacrifices for financial reasons and one of them was to find a new home for Angus. His care would now be too expensive for us due to his special needs.
I tried to find him a home locally with no success, so our veterinarian recommended a schnauzer rescue group in the Dallas area. I called and they said yes, they would be glad to take him, but it would be a month before they had room. So several times a week for the next four weeks, I would look at Angus and start crying, and tell him I was very sorry. He would just gaze at me with his big, brown eyes and put his paw on my arm as if to say, “It’s OK, I understand.” That’s just what a good dog does.
Too quickly the time came for him to leave. The representative from the rescue group and I arranged to meet halfway. She would then take Angus to Dallas where he would stay with one of their foster families until he was adopted. I packed up all Angus’ paraphernalia and food, wrote down pages of specific instructions for his new owner-to-be about his likes, dislikes and habits, and made a video of him doing all his tricks so they would see how smart he is. I prayed that he would love his new people and wouldn’t wonder where his old people were and why they had left him.
At the appointed time and through many tears, I handed Angus over. It was the final blow to life as it had been at our house before Alzheimer’s. Angus was now another casualty of a disease whose tentacles reach far and wide, clutching at everything around it that is nearest and dearest to its victim and family.
I went home to the almost-empty house that reverberated with too much quiet and too many memories. And then there was one.
On a beautiful day in early fall several weeks later, I decided to walk the Paul Boorman Trail for the first time without Byron and Angus. It was one of the things we had enjoyed doing together. Our last stop was always the dog park, Angus’ favorite place in his whole world.
This day, however, the dog park was not part of my plan. I didn’t want to encounter any memories lingering there.
I began walking along the meandering trail that I shared with joggers, cyclists, other dog-walkers and moms pushing strollers. I wasn’t paying enough attention to my surroundings and all of a sudden, there was the dog park in front of me.
I hesitated. Should I?
No, I immediately decided. I’m not ready to face the memories yet. I don’t want to let myself feel the pain. I started to walk on past, then stopped. Something...in retrospect, a nudge from the Holy Spirit, made me realize perhaps I did need to go in. Could it be it was time to face the memories?
Reluctantly, I opened the gate and slowly entered the beautiful wooded oasis of serenity that was the dog park. As I made my way down the path we had walked countless times before, tears began to flow as I began to picture in my mind how it used to be: Byron walking beside me and us holding hands...Angus running on ahead after we let him off his leash, sniffing everything and then running back and forth to check on us as we walked along the trail to the back of the park...sitting on the bench...looking up and watching shafts of sunlight dance through the magnificence of the towering branches...listening to birdsong...Angus darting this way and that, totally in doggy heaven...checking out scents of other dogs and woodsy creatures who had passed through...Angus stopping by our bench to get a drink from his water bottle since he refused to drink from the dog fountain...and finally, leaving our oasis, refreshed and renewed from our adventure together.
I cried the whole time. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. All it did was let the sadness out. Then a flash of insight – Let the sadness out? Maybe that’s a good thing. It occurred to me that I was not allowing myself to grieve the losses of Byron and Angus and the huge change in our circumstances. And that wasn’t working very well for me.
I stopped and prayed for God to give me the strength to keep remembering, even if it made me cry. I asked Him to please help me look for things to be thankful for, and to restore my joy. Then I felt something in me shift and break loose, and I began to feel His peace and healing. Grateful and encouraged, I asked God to show me what he wanted me to do – how to move forward.
This was such a change in perspective and mood from what I had been struggling with for some time. When I had walked into the park, my heart had been hard and guarded. But when I walked out of the park, my heart was joyful and singing. God is faithful, and He is good.
Looking back, it was a pivotal moment in my faith journey as I continue to navigate through the myriad losses for our family from Alzheimer’s disease. With thanksgiving, I now realize that through remembering and letting myself feel the sadness, I am also letting God’s Holy Spirit work in me to allow healing to continue. I can testify that joy can exist even in the midst of grief and pain. Giving thanks is the key.
In this New Year I realize that Byron, now in late stage Alzheimer’s, will continue moving steadily towards a place that will make it increasingly difficult for me to reach him. I don’t know what 2018 will hold for us, but I don’t need to know – I need to just trust the One who holds it. For all these years and through all manner of circumstances, “Thus far, the Lord has helped us” (I Samuel 7:12 NIV). I have no reason to doubt that he will continue to do so. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise Him.”
Psalm 28:7 (NIV)