Thursday, February 19, 2015

Graham Crackers

The big plastic bag of graham crackers sat in the bottom of my pantry for over two months. Like every other year, I bought way too many when I’d done the comprehensive shopping trip for the annual gingerbread house party. It’s okay to run out of candy canes when building gingerbread houses. To run out of household siding is not forgivable.

After all the colorful scraps of candy and sticky smudges of white frosting had been cleaned up I was left with a lot of crackers - eight packages still sealed, the rest gathered into Ziploc bags. They were banished to the bottom of the pantry until I could figure out what to do with them.

By mid February I was ready to have them gone, so I could have the floor space for cases of juice boxes and stock piled kitchen supplies. I work at a Rec Center with an active kid’s program.  I decided to haul the plastic bag of crackers into work, to see if I could pawn them off on the director of our children’s’ programs.

I got to work and immediately forgot about the donation crackers that filled out the bottom of my work bag. By the time I remembered them, the director had gone home. I considered just leaving them in the break room, with a note for the director to find the next day. Then I remembered something.

Every Thursday night at our Rec Center, the lobby is filled with kids getting out of swim practice. They huddle in packs around the front doors, the girls with their wet hair swept up into loose buns and the boys with their damp towels draped around their necks, as they wait for parents to come retrieve them. They are always hungry.

When they are not scavenging from the vending machines, they are digging into the bottom of backpacks, looking for any morsel to calm the ravaging hunger that was stirred up by too many laps in the pool. Most have not had dinner yet, even as the clock says it’s past seven. I wondered if these foragers might be interested in my old graham crackers.

I dug an old paper plate covered in a Christmas scene out of the back of our break room cabinet. I ripped open a few packages of crackers and stacked them high on the plate. The plate went onto the center of my front counter. Within minutes there were teenagers sniffing around.

“Are these free?”

Once I said the magic ‘yes’, you would have thought I’d opened up a large box of hot pizza. The crowd moved as a unit, from the couches and front lobby tables, to come hover over the front desk and a single plate of stale crackers.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I instantly thought about the days when my kids were in elementary school and we’d ski on the weekends, back when we lived in Utah. I knew that a long day of skiing did things to kids’ bodies that were much like the effects of a long day of swimming. A special deep kind of hunger set in and on the drive home my kids would eat just about anything. In those years I used to save every last stray cracker, every heel from the loaf of bread, every snack in the cabinet that was rejected on a regular day of after-school hunger. I collected them all in one big Ziploc, which was brought out on the drive home from skiing. And it never failed that the kids would practically fight over who got that last heel of bread or last scrape of peanut butter out of the jar. That hunger made everything taste good.

I was witnessing that same hunger in the water logged swimmers in my Rec Center lobby. The first plate of crackers was gone in two minutes. I dug into my bag and opened two more. Then two more. As round one of swimmers headed out the front door to waiting parents, dribbling crumbs in their path, the next round headed out of the locker rooms. “Are these for anyone?”

The most surprising reaction came from the parents who walked by the desk. As they saw the kids taking crackers, they gave me the questioning look, I shook my head, and they quickly grabbed one for themselves. More than one looked over their shoulder and said, “You forget how good a basic graham cracker is!”

Graham crackers. That box on the snack shelf of the pantry that is rejected over and over, as more exciting options like Ritz Bitz and Chips Ahoy get all the glory. Unless someone takes the time to spread some chocolate frosting in the middle, no one thinks about a graham cracker being the perfect snack.

But at the end of a long day, a day of school and swimming, or office jobs and work meetings, in the pocket of time before the real food makes its way to the dinner table, sometimes what you need is something simple. Something basic and plain. Something as delectable as a single graham cracker.



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Louie Vito - Nicest Guy at X Games.

If you've followed my writing on, you already know that I'm a huge fan of the Winter X Games. With four kids, three of them risk seeking males, we have religiously watched the X Games for most of their childhood. We never dreamed we'd ever live close enough to go in person.

Immediately after we moved to Colorado, we looked up the dates and made plans to attend. I was able to go with a media pass, because of my connection with GeekMom, and it was an incredible four day weekend, full of great new memories.

We've now attended three years in a row, and I hope to be a regular for many years to come. There are many reasons why I love the X Games (which I've written about many times for and one of the big ones is the accessibility of the athletes. The path from the end of the Super Pipe, back to the snowmobile that takes athletes up the mountain, weaves through the crowd of excited fans. There is a lot of high fiving, a lot of selfies snapped. This even happens during the competition.

On the drive home this year I was formulating all the articles I'd be writing about X Games this year. And the one I was most excited about was this one: Why Louie Vito May Be The Nicest Guy at X Games.

Louie Vito is a rock star in the snowboarding world. He has earned just under 45 medals in major events, from as far back as 2006. The things he can do in that Super Pipe are no less than amazing. Like many of the professional athletes, Louie looks forward to X Games because of its relaxed mood. He competes just as hard, but he also spends a lot of energy hanging out with the crowds.

I first noticed it in 2013. Most of the athletes are willing to high five, or bump knuckles with the fans who line the fences, but Louie took it a step further. Anyone who asked (or hollered at him) was given the picture, signature, or even hug that they wanted. Watching the guy, you'd never know he was in the middle of a world class competition, just waiting for his next run.

Last year I had my son Sam with me. In the midst of Louie's schmoozing, I asked for a picture. Of course he obliged. We came home with this gem.

And again this year, Louie was in full hospitality mode. He chatted with fans, he took selfies, and he signed his name over and over. When an older gentleman handed him a cell phone, and asked him to talk to his wife, Louie didn't bat an eye. He chatted with her for a few minutes, and ended up asking her why she hadn't come to Aspen.  All in good fun.

This year I got a series of pictures, of Louie doing what he does best. I had a chance to talk to him for a few minutes and told him I was going to write this article. He wasn't looking for the press. His answer was, "This is why we're here. If you don't love this part, there's no reason to be here." This is a guy who appreciates his fans and recognizes how they play into his career.

And finally I snapped a picture with Louie and me, and then Louie and my daughter. He flashed that genuine, huge Louie smile, then turned around and got back to 'his crowd.'

If I had the authority to hand out medals at the end of X Games, the first one I'd present would be a shiny gold one. It would be just one of many in Louie's collection, but I think it would be one of his most important ones. Engraved on it would be the words "Louie Vito - Nicest Guy At X Games".

See ya next year Louie. And hopefully many, many years after that.

Side Note: I'm keeping my eye on a young man named Scottie James, a boarder from Australia. He's talented, he's young, and he's good with the crowds. Watch out Louie, you might have a stiff competition for the Nicest Guy medal next year. 

Here are a few more gems, of Louie, doing his thing, working the crowd, and even taking a picture of one of the other athletes with fans, graciously playing photographer. And in the end, signing my artificial leg for me. Nothing surprises this guy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Patriots Husband + Seahawks Wife = Can This Marriage Be Saved?

I knew it when I married him. He'd grown up in NH, so naturally he had a lifetime membership in the Patriots Fan Club. I've always been a Seahawks fan. I've never lived in Seattle, which makes it more interesting. 

I picked them to be 'my team' when I was a teen, growing up in Missouri. I liked their uniforms. Through the years I fell in love with their heart. I loved being a 12 who was representing my team in the no mans land that is every state outside of Washington. I'm pretty thrilled that after all these years, they still have the coolest uniforms in the NFL. 

Hubby and I made our opposite team loyalties work. We enjoyed our football Sundays. He did his best to catch his Patriots, and I was giddy when my local television station would play a random Seahawks game. We lived all over the United States, in the 25 years that we've been married, and in no state was my team a priority. For our years in New England, his team seemed to belong to every state on the east coast. I was jealous.

We never had issues concerning our opposing teams because the Seahawks rarely, if ever, played the Patriots. His team would have their runs of successes. Many playoff games and Super Bowls. While my team struggled to figure out who we were. I cheered for them anyway.

In our frequent moves, we happened to move to the mountains of Colorado in 2011. We were geographically closer to my team than we had been back in New York, but I knew there was still no chance my games would ever qualify for 'regional interest'. It was all about the Broncos, all the time.

Two years later I got a new prosthetic leg - a Seahawks leg. Yes, I'm such a crazy 12 that I chose to have our logo plastered all over my artificial limb. I wanted to take every step with my team.

You know what happens next. 

After thirty years of rooting for my Seahawks, it was finally our turn. But the team we were facing was the one I had just landed in. I lived in the beehive of fandom that is the Broncos. My Seahawks leg was not welcome here. My go to line was, "Hey, I've been a Seahawks fan for over 30 years. No one cared until this year!"

After the thrashing that was last year's Super Bowl, I tried to lay low for a bit, out of respect for my heartbroken neighbors. I cheered on my own, in the privacy of my own home, and clung to fan groups online.

Then came another record breaking season. And, after much angst (and maybe just a few voodoo trances flung toward the television) the Broncos fell out of the running. Surrounded by my crestfallen neighbors in Orange, I literally breathed a sigh of relief that Sunday.

Then came the final games. I knew in my head, by studying the tables, that it was a possibility, but until it got as close as a single game, I couldn't let myself go there. There was no way hubby's lifetime team would face my lifetime team in a Super Bowl. It just couldn't be.

Now here we are. We celebrated that quarter century anniversary just three months ago. We've had our ups and downs through the years, and we've made it this far with plenty of days that still put smiles on our faces. But this game is coming up. This game.

Our son, seeing what the match up would be, his mom's team against his dad's, and knowing we'd just had a milestone anniversary, texted us from his home in Kentucky. "Well, at least you had a good run."

The hubby is wisely traveling out of state this week for work. He's left me to obsess on the fan pages, wear my blue and green gear (and leg!) every day, and just generally be obnoxious as I celebrate my team. A team that is thrilled beyond words to be playing in back to back Super Bowls.

Before we know it, Sunday will be here. All the years of following our two teams, supporting each other when teams would struggle, and rejoicing together when teams did well, this day will come. After the wonderful naive years of being able to claim our spouse's team as our own, we are on the opposite sides of the field now.

Hubby will be back in town Friday. On Saturday we'll go get our Super Bowl food supplies, walking past the Broncos merchandise on clearance. Most likely we won't even mention the game. There will be too much anticipation in the air, leaving no space for words.

We'll get out of bed Sunday. I'll click on this Hawks covered leg and don my favorite Hawks shirt. He'll pretend he's not nervous. The perfect poker face. He'll take his spot on the couch and I'll take mine. 

And then we'll see what happens.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Mother's Road

As of August 31st of this year my mom has been gone for exactly 20 years. 

Almost all of my adult years have been lived without her. Although I strongly believe she's watching over me, I still miss her deeply, especially on the day she died and on her birthday. Last year my heart was comforted in a new way.

As usual, I posted a small message on Facebook on the anniversary of her death. Along with the usual condolences, I got a new kind of message. It was from a childhood friend I had lost touch with through the years, and only found again because of mutual friends on Facebook.

Sarah and her sister Emily lived in my neighborhood when I was very young. We all went to the same elementary school. Then we moved out to the country and my family exploded with foster children. I began to treasure the times I got to sleep over at Sarah's house. Her family was almost the polar opposite of mine.

Her mom was the only divorced parent I'd ever known. The three of them lived in a small house just a few blocks from our elementary school. It was quiet and calm and peaceful at her house. My family lived 15 miles out of town, in a house that was overflowing with my own four siblings as well as a revolving number of foster siblings. It was never quiet, calm or peaceful at my house.

I didn't like having sleepovers at my house. It felt like there was too much intrusion from all the other people who lived in that space. I loved going to Sarah's house, which was calm and cozy and where her mom strategically stayed in her bedroom so we felt like we were all on our own.

What I didn't know, until just last year, was the as much as I loved hiding out at Sarah's house, she loved coming to my house. She loved seeing a huge family all sharing one space. She loved the constant interruptions. She loved watching my mom coordinate our family circus.

So on the 19th anniversary of my mom's death last year, Sarah sent me a message through facebook. "I saw your post about your mom. I am very sad for your loss. She made a significant impact on me. She had a truly amazing spirit. In fact, he dedication to foster care was inspiring to me. Yesterday, I finally got the approval to adopt children of my own. My plan is to adopt older siblings from foster care. I have been thinking about doing this since spending all that time with your amazing family. The reach of your mom's inspiration is long and deep."

Her news touched me deeply. And somehow it didn't surprise me to find out that it had all come together on one of the two days of the year that I celebrate my mom. I chose to think of it as a way my mom was watching over not just me, but my friend Sarah.

I expressed my excitement to Sarah, about her brand new family, and told her to consider my mom an honorary grandmother to her future children. I assured her that as much as my mom watched over my own kids as they've grown up, I was sure she'd be watching over Sarah's.

And I told her one more thing. "Watch the date of October 11th".

My mom's birthday is October 11th and if I've learned anything about how my mom still speaks to me, I've learned that she loves to work through her special days.

Sarah received her two little boys last fall. They've been working on becoming a family for almost a year now. They've turned her life upside down in all the best ways. She's finally getting to experience all the joys and pains that the rest of us have already lived through with our preschoolers. And she's given a stable new life to two little brothers who had not known much of stability before they crossed her threshold.

Over the weekend I got a text from Sarah. "When's your mom's birthday?" is all it said.

I knew it. I knew it would happen, but still it took my breath away.

When I answered 'October 11', Sarah immediately replied.

'October 10 is final termination of parental rights. We start official adoption October 11th'.

There it is. She's still out there. Watching over me. Watching over my children. And watching over a little girl named Sarah who is all grown up now, and is making life choices because of her amazing influence.

Happy New Family... Sarah, Timothy and Andrew. 

You are surrounded by people who support you and will love you in your growing up years. And you'll always be watched over by a very special grandma whose life decisions 40 years ago changed the course of your lives today.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Goodbye Kitty Kitty

My 17 year old son came into the kitchen yesterday and said, 'So when does Ruffie get a post?" I was confused. Our family cat, named Ruffie, died a week ago, after being a part of our family for a dozen years. But I was unsure what my son was talking about.

"You wrote a long post about Kylie (our poodle) when she died. And you wrote a post about Max (our new dog) when he got lost over Thanksgiving. When are you going to write a post about Ruffin's life?"

Oh. I get it. And yes, I do need to document that fluffy creature's place in our family and in our hearts. In the midst of a day I really don't have time to work on my own blog posts, here I am, writing about Ruffie.

A dozen years ago we were settled into our new house in Utah. We had moved around the country for my husband's job and finally felt like we might call this new place home, for a long time. As promised, we set out to finally get a family pet.

Or at least toddler Sam and I set out. It was going to be a surprise for Christmas.

Sam and I went to the local shelter and walked in the door, knowing what we wanted. I read off the list to the manager -

Not a kitten

Two to three years old

Potty trained (well!)

Good with lots of kids

There were about eight cats that met the requirements. We walked back to look at them. I looked at the ones on the top row while Sam took in the cages along the bottom, his eye level.

They were all sweet. There was no way to tell which one was supposed to be ours. Our first family pet. The pet my kids had waited for, and dreamed about, for years.

Then one fluffy kitty on the bottom row stepped up his game. He sat back on his haunches and batted his paws in the air, like a dog who is begging. He swiped and swiped at the air in front of Sam. And Sam was hooked.

We came back several more times, and the 'praying' kitty was still there. Finally, we put the money down and told the manager we'd be back with the rest of the family to pick him up that weekend, the weekend before Christmas.

Husband sneaked off to the store to buy a litter box, food, a dish...then hid them strategically in the garage. The big kids had no idea they were going to be pet owners soon and Sam did a great job of not mentioning our many trips to visit the kitties at the shelter. In his mind, it was just like the zoo trips we took on a regular basis.

That Saturday morning we got up early and told the kids to get ready and get in the van. We were going to find a big surprise. Before lunch time we drove the back roads that led to the shelter, roads that were not familiar to our children, so the curiosity just grew. When we pulled up to the small, unmarked building, the only clue they had was Sam, yelling out "Kitty!" as he saw the place he'd visited many times.

The kids piled out of the van and filed into the shelter, not believing they were finally getting a cat.

The manager on duty went back to find the kitty, the one I'd already paid for. He wasn't there. After all those trips and all that narrowing down of kitties, our perfect kitty was not there. He had been taken, along with a big group of other cats and dogs, to the pet fair being held at the local WalMart.

We were horrified. The kids were devastated. The manager was frantic.

She quickly called the people at the pet fair. They said our kitty had not been adopted yet. It was good news. We rushed back to the van and headed off to Walmart.

Sure enough a huge tractor trailer was in the parking lot. It was filled with cages. Only a few people could go in at a time. Hubby decided to go get our kitty.

He came out with a dirty, smelly cat with matted hair. It seems he'd been put in a cage that was too small, and not been checked on regularly. The kids didn't mind. He was a kitty and he was ours.

We talked in quiet voices on the drive home, not to scare him. Once we got him inside, Hubby got the job of putting him into a bath. It's not a myth that cats hate water. Our new kitty fought and fussed, but came out looking clean and a lot more comfortable.

We named him Ruffin. Well, we didn't name him, the shelter had. And the kids were too adamant that he keep his 'real' name. I lobbied for a name that people might understand fluffy, or powderpuff. They wouldn't have it. His name was Ruffin, a name we'd have to repeat every time we'd tell it to people. We finally came to say, " muffin with an R".

But, like most kitties, even after years of calling him Ruffin, he still only answered to 'kitty kitty', said in the right tone of voice.

Ruffie fit in our family nicely. He was potty trained and polite. He snuggled with anyone who needed it. He got passed around the family and never seemed to be rattled. This was important in our household of four kids and dozens of friends.

He religiously cleaned himself and kept his fur fluffy and soft. I never had to bathe him, even after he'd been outside, chasing grasshoppers.

When we moved from Utah to New York, he made the long drive with ease. He loved our New York house even more than our Utah house. In New York we had long grass in our backyard that led to woods. There were not only grasshoppers to chase, but endless ground hogs and chipmunks to stalk. Many times he'd bring his prize to the front door and lay it on the step. Hunting kept him happy and tolerant, when he was being hugged a bit too hard later in the day.

He never seemed to age. As the poodle showed many signs of slowing down, the kitty just lived, from year to year, like he was the two year old cat we'd adopted at that far away shelter. It was hard to realize he was getting old.

He moved with us one more time. This time from New York to Colorado. It was harder to let him out in our new backyard, because we often had wild animals come through, and many of our neighbors had lost their small animals to mountain lion attacks. Ruffie did his begging/praying routine by the back door, as we tried to say, "Not today, kitty" in our most comforting voice.

Six months ago he suddenly seemed old. He stopped grooming his fur. I had to give him weekly baths, which he hated, but seemed to feel so much better afterward. He got mats in his fur, from laying around all day. I had to shave the back half of his body, leaving him with a humiliating haircut. He soon rarely left the spot under the shower chair in our bathroom. He got frequent love, as the family members cycled through to do their business. We moved his food, water, and litter box up there, and created his own little retirement home.

The only exception to his shower chair cave was anywhere Isaac happened to be. Isaac is the 17 year old who asked me to write this post. He's the Dr. Dootlittle of our family. He's a pet whisperer. He and Ruffie have grown very close in recent years. 

I could be snuggling with a fluffy kitty on my bed, watching TV, and as soon as Ruffie heard Isaac headed downstairs to his bedroom for the night, my kitty pal was gone. Leaping off the bed, padding down the hall way, ending up curled up to his favorite person.

Isaac carried him around like a baby. He seemed to enjoy it. When the rest of us would try it, he'd squirm and jump down. Isaac could do anything to him and he'd always come back for more.

When Isaac walked into the house at night, Ruffie came running. He knew when his favorite guy was home and casually, without seeming too needy, would hang out anywhere that Isaac was. Playing video games? Ruffie was curled up on the couch behind him. Watching a movie? Ruffie walked the back edge of the couch, reminding Isaac that he was there. That cat loved my boy.

And my boy loved him back.

On Sunday, Isaac came to us and said, "Where's the cat?" I don't really keep tabs on him. He's so independent, I just wait to hear him fussing if he needs food or water. But Isaac knew where he was at all times, and he couldn't find him in his regular spots.
We weren't concerned. Ruffie liked hiding places and I assumed he was just lost in someone's bed covers, or tucked away in a closet.

Then Isaac came back in the room, crying. "He died", was all he said.

It was hard to comprehend. Especially for a boy whose time at home was spent practically attached to that kitty.

Sometime in the night, Ruffie had crawled under the bed in the guest bedroom and taken his last breath. I would assume he went peacefully. He never showed us signs of pain. It was devastating for Isaac to be the one who found him, but also appropriate.

The first person to touch him, to pet his still soft fur, and to tell him goodbye, was his favorite person. I have no doubt he was watching from kitty heaven, sitting on his haunches, doing his begging act, to say, "I loved you too, Isaac."

It's the biggest loss my boy has ever had. It hurts deeply. In the past week the rest of us have missed hearing Ruffie padding around the house. We've missed petting him every time we went into the bathroom. But Isaac has missed him in a deeper way.

His arms are empty. His bed is not quite as warm. He plays video games by himself. He's going to have to learn to come in the back door and not have his first instinct to be 'finding the cat'.

We will bury Ruffie's ashes in a hole next to our poodle's ashes, in a cozy spot under a tree in a beautiful park called Elk Meadow. We will stack rocks on his grave and say sad and loving things about him.

Then life will go on. My boy will carry around grief for his kitty for a very long time. The bigger your heart, the deeper it hurts.

Some day we will get another kitty. Because Isaac will be leaving home soon for schooling, we aren't sure what our next step should be. But for now we've put away his litter box, run his bowls through the dishwasher, and learned to live with the wide open bathroom floor that no longer contains our kitty.

Ruffie was a huge part of our family. He grew up with the kids and they will all miss him. But Ruffie knows that he was loved and he led a good life. What stray kitty wouldn't love being cuddled by a tall teenage boy?

 He was a blessed kitty indeed.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why I Cried at Safeway

Dear Top People at Safeway,                                      

I have lived all over the country and have called many grocery store chains my 'home' store. I currently live in the mountains of Colorado and my nearest place to purchase the food that keeps my teenagers alive is a Safeway store. To say I know the employees of your Evergreen Colorado Safeway store well would be an understatement.

Until today I've been very pleased by the service I get at my local store. I load up my digital coupons, buy what's on sale, and accumulate our much needed gas points. 

I adore the 'kid' who works in the fruits and veggies section, who always has a smile and never seems bored with stacking apples and re-filling packages of baby carrots. Just about every time I'm shopping, one of your employees asks me, as I'm roaming the aisles, if there is anything they can help me with. The staff at the deli counter keeps my family in great turkey and potato salad every week. And the check out gang is so familiar to me that they almost feel like seeing family every week.

But today your people surprised me. At least, one of your people did, and I feel that she represents the entirety of your staff.

This afternoon I had the usual overflowing cart and was just about done with my hour long shopping trip. On the long haul to the check out lanes I briefly stopped by the Easter section. As I stood there, contemplating what I should throw in the cart, a young woman wearing a Safeway shirt asked me, "Can I help you find anything?"

I'm used to this question. I almost said, no thanks. But I instantly decided that I could use a little help. 

You see, I was searching for some Easter candy to send to my son. He's holed up in some remote location in the Middle East, and will most likely be doing military exercises with his Army platoon on the day that the big Bunny comes to houses around here. I was really hoping to send him some Easter celebration in a care package, but one thing was tripping me up. I can't mail him chocolate. It has a good chance of melting before it reaches him.

So I was faced with packing an Easter care package that didn't have chocolate. No bunnies. No eggs. None of the fun stuff. I shared my dilemma with your employee. She spent a few minutes helping me track down some pretty good options. I thought I'd looked through it all, but she ended up offering some pretty decent substitution suggestions. Then she went on her way.

A half an hour later I had my full cart unloaded onto the conveyor belt, scanned, and re-packed into the cart. Except for one pile. At first I thought the check out woman had forgotten to add all of my Easter selections to my bill. I assumed she thought they belonged to the customer behind me.

When I asked, this is what she said, "No, we aren't charging you for this stuff. The young lady who helped you pick it out told me to suspend the transaction and let her pay for it...for your son."

I was shocked. But sure enough, after I paid for my family's groceries, I was handed a bag full of Easter fun, with no charge.

As a mom who has a son in the Middle East, sometimes holidays are hard. Even when I have three other children 'back home', the one who is not here is the one who weighs heavy on your heart. Especially when he's in a place that's not quite as safe as an Easter bunny's lap.  All I can do is send him care packages and spend a lot of time praying for his safe return.

The kindness your employee showed today means more than she'll ever know. I don't know if she has a family member in the military, or if she's just full of patriotism, but she sure made my day. And the day of my husband, who was as shocked and honored as I was, when I told him the story tonight at the dinner table.

When I got home, I shared this on my facebook page - this act of kindness that your employee did, to make me walk to my car with tears running down my face. Within an hour I had 57 'likes'. I wanted to let everyone know that there are good people (and good companies) out there, doing little acts of kindness that might not seem like much - but just might make one certain mom's day.

I'll be sending this letter to you and to my local store. I want your employee to know how much I appreciated her message to our family. And I want the rest of the staff of your store to know, just when I thought I couldn't feel more positive about my experiences there every week, one of them steps up to the plate and hits a home run.

One Very Loyal Shopper

Friday, March 28, 2014

Max is Lost

We got the call on the day after Thanksgiving, which also happened to be my birthday.

I was standing in a massive hotel lobby, surrounded by every one of my four siblings, their families, my one surviving pair of aunt/uncle, and my dad and stepmom. We were in the middle of a rare Johnson family reunion, taking turns standing in front of the three story Christmas tree the hotel had so beautifully decorated and we had so conveniently borrowed for the backdrop of our family pictures.

In the middle of all the joy, my friend from 'back home' was in my ear, saying, "Judy, I hate to tell you this, but Max ran away on Wednesday and we just can't find him."

This was not the call I'd expected. Every one of us had been worried that our elderly cat would decide to say his final goodbyes the minute we hit the road for Dallas. In fact, when my husband got the text from my friend, saying, 'Call me as soon as you can', I was sure that my birthday would from that day forward be associated with the day our beloved cat died. But the cat was fine. Still hanging out comfortably on his favorite folded up blanket. 

Instead, the dog was gone.

We still called Max our puppy. Maybe it's because we'd never had a younger dog before we got Max. We spent the kids' childhoods moving all over the country and a dog was a bit too labor intensive for our lifestyle. We got the cat from a shelter in the mid 2000s and knew we'd commit to the dog when the time was right. Then, after we'd settled in Upstate NY, and thought it was our last move, we'd adopted Kylie.

She was an elderly, pure bred poodle, as sweet as the day is long. We had five great years with her and finally lost her, mainly to 'old age', just after we uprooted from NY and made the move to Colorado. She was never energetic. She was more the type who loved curling up with you to watch movies. Or sit next to you on the front porch, enjoying the weather. When we took her to meet the new vet in CO, and the doctor asked us how Kylie was doing on her 'daily hikes', we had to hold back our laughter.

Kylie was not a fan of the minimal one loop around the block, much less a hike through the many open meadows and mountain trails we now lived in the midst of. She'd been bred for years, before we'd found her at the shelter. She was a tired ole girl and just wanted to relax away the rest of her life. So we loved her up for her last years on the planet.

Not soon after we buried Kylie's ashes next to one of our favorite local trails, we found Max. 

Or, more accurately, I went to work one Saturday morning and came home a few hours later to reports by the children along the lines of  'we found this great dog and dad said we might get him!' This was a bit of a surprise, as we'd just had a family meeting the week before, and the hubby had decided it might be good to settle into our new Colorado life a bit more before we decided what kind of dog we'd get next. 

I guess a week was enough 'settle' time, because, while out running errands that day, they'd seen this precious floppy eared soul sitting at the back of the enclosure in the middle of a pet adoption fair.

Max and his siblings has been born to a farmer's dog and were barely tolerated. After a few of Max's siblings got hit by cars on their remote country road, the neighbors called the local shelter. Max was just over six months old and not sure who he could trust in the world. But he was calm, and he was loving, and he seemed to need a bunch of kids as much as they needed him.

I met him the next day, as the kids brought him to the Rec Center where I work. I'm a mama, deep in my soul a mama, so all I could see was another little creature who needed some nurturing. I was game.

We had so much love and life to share with Max that we intimidated him a bit in the first few weeks. We had to remind each other to give him space, give him time to trust us.

He slowly learned that the warm bed would be there every night and the tasty food would fall into his dish twice a day. He loved his crate, filled with soft pillows and blankets by his new fan club. It took him a bit to learn that we were trustworthy. By the end of one day he would be snuggling on the couch with one of the kids and by morning he'd seem to have forgotten that we were his new forever family. But we were patient and showed him over and over again that we weren't going anywhere.

We made endless memories, in the year and a half that we became his and he became ours. 

On a good day he'd get in a two hour hike up mountain trails with one of our teenagers, then a second one when Dad got home and needed to be outdoors to shake off too much time at a desk. With great gusto he'd run frantic circles around our back yard, sometimes chasing a ball and sometimes just chasing his own spirit. 

He quickly picked up on the 'keys' cue and whenever any of us went to run errands he sat up tall by the side door, eyebrows raised, ears perked high, seeming to ask with facial expressions alone, "Do I get to go too??"

He was happy to just go along for the ride. He never minded hanging out in the truck or minivan while groceries were selected or library books picked out. He loved just being out, seeing people coming and going across the parking lot, smelling the unique smells that every part of town inhabits. It was an added bonus if the trip ended up at 'that stoplight', the one that led to the dog park a few miles from home.

For the first time in our kids' lives, they had a true puppy. A dog who could be riled up by a raised eyebrow or pitch change in their voice. A dog who ran twice as fast as they did, but always circled back to find his people before the trail got too long. A dog who held promise of many more years of memories.

When I first heard the news that Max had run away I was not surprised, especially once I heard the details of his escape. We'd told my friend that Max didn't need a leash when he was in our yard. The weather in November is chilly enough that he's motivated to do his business and get back inside. So on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a day after we left town, she came over to our house and started the routine of taking care of the animals.

She opened the sliding back door and watched him run to his favorite spot in the back corner of our yard, the place where the woods begin. She sat quietly at our picnic table, waiting for him to finish his business. Once he was done he looked back at her.

He held her gaze for a long minute, then he turned and ran.

I have no doubt that it was nothing that my friend did wrong. She fed him exactly as we'd told her to. She tried her best to pet him and love on him, when he'd allow her to get close, which wasn't very often. She is an animal loving person and has the skill of knowing just how much room to give him. But when he looked back and saw her sitting at that picnic table, something in his brain clicked.

His family was gone. And he had the wide open woods in front of him. He was going to go find them.

By the time she ran down to her house and got her car, he was long gone.

She spent the next 48 hours, including much of her own Thanksgiving holiday, searching high and low for our puppy.  With her own teenagers riding along to keep her company, she drove the mountainous roads in our town. She called every shelter, vet and sheriff's department she could think of. She called friends who live locally and begged them to be on the lookout for a very lost, probably cold and hungry puppy who was just looking for his kids. And then finally, she knew she had to break down and call us to let us know he was gone.

Through the rest of our reunion we tried not to think about the fact Max was not at home. We tried not to think about the fact it was cold out and, in our town, he had about as much of a chance of being found as he did of just being hopelessly lost in the wilderness. We all knew that he was not the trained hunting dog who would naturally know how to forage for food and create shelter. He was our puppy, who was born in a barn,  and neglected until he came to our house, where he was promptly spoiled rotten.

The drive back to Colorado, from Texas, was a long one. The letdown after a much anticipated vacation with people we love and rarely get to see was punctuated by the fact my friend had not called to say that Max had been found. The quiet cell phone meant he was still out there, somewhere.

We got back on Saturday night. We found his crate, along with his water and food bowls, carefully placed on our back patio, by my friend who was hoping he'd just come back home when the hunger got the best of him. She said some nights the food would be gone by morning, but that doesn't mean much when our trash cans are regularly scavenged by bears and other wild animals.

She continued to beat herself up, blaming herself for his escape, even though I continually reminded her that she'd done everything right. Our puppy was just not interested in the basics of care. He wanted his kids. And there wasn't much she could do to stop him from going to find them. Once we got into town, I told her to leave the hunt to us. She'd done enough, tortured herself enough, and it was time to let us put in some detective work.

Sunday, which normally would have been used for unpacking and watching football, my youngest son and his daddy drove all the same roads my friend had been driving, hoping that hearing their voices would bring Max out of his hiding place. They hiked all the trails at his favorite dog park. They called shelters and sheriff offices. In the middle of the night Sunday I was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, praying that in the end we would just find out, either way, what had happened to our precious boy. When it became apparent that sleep would not come, I got out of bed and made my way downstairs.

I checked the back porch. Crate still there, door open. Food and water dishes, still full. I opened the sliding door just a crack and whistled. A few times I called his name, trying not to wake the neighbors, but still reach as far as it could go into the woods behind our house. No rustling. No energetic little brown dog running toward his warm home.

I signed up for a Craigslist account and posted a heartfelt plea, along with an recent picture of Max in both the lost and found and the pet sections. I also scoured the 'found' listings, hoping that I'd stumble upon our boy. Lots of pit bull mixes and Chihuahuas, but no medium brown dog with floppy ears. I went to the back door, called for him one more time, then fell into a fitful sleep on the couch that is nearest the door where he just might reappear.

The most heart breaking part of the experience was helping my youngest son handle his grief. Max was his friend. Max was the loving constant in his life, when older siblings were pushing too many of his buttons. I cried along with him on Sunday night, as he sobbed to me, "But I was supposed to grow up with Max!"

A big part of his grief came from the not knowing. His mind immediately went to the worst case scenario. "I can see him in my mind, curled up in the wild...cold and suffering!" he cried to me.  I assured him that there was just as much chance that someone had found him and was still trying to figure out who to call so we could be reunited. I hoped it was true.

As I snuggled up with him on my king sized bed on Sunday night, trying to help him drift off to sleep while Dad and his older brother did one more lap around the dog parks and neighborhood roads in the dark, I found myself telling him stories of the day I felt my deepest grief, the day I lost my mom. I told him about the days after she died, a handful of years before he was born, and how deeply sad I'd felt. He held my hand as I cried new tears for her, understanding for the first time these stories of a grandmother he never knew.

On Monday I found myself searching for him in the woods along the road as I drove to the grocery store. Maybe he was somewhere in those shadows, hunkered down, waiting us out. Maybe he was injured, just a short distance from home, and unable to even hobble the short distance to help.

Once back home I went to the back door and whistled, calling his name, a few times every hour. Part of me wanted to believe he truly was 'okay'. That he was in someone's house, being fed, maybe bathed, before they drove him to the shelter, where we'd find him. But part of me knew that sustained temperatures in the teens, along with wind gusts in the high 70s didn't make for a very friendly climate for a skinny dog surviving in the woods.

My older son went to his college classes on Monday, then spent the rest of the day driving around Denver, visiting every shelter he could find, hoping to see a familiar puppy's face. He came home tired and defeated.

We all went to bed on Monday night with heavy hearts. What we didn't know was that we wouldn't sleep for long.

Just after midnight I awoke to my daughter's voice, screaming, "He's BACK! Max is BACK!" Within seconds of sitting up in bed, there he was, running down the hallway to our bedroom. It was hard to imagine it wasn't a dream.

My husband, Max's favorite hiking buddy, sat up and said, "Max?" in a surprised voice. 

It was all the encouragement he needed. Two seconds later a very dirty, smelly dog had jumped up on our bed, a place he was never allowed before he got lost.

There was much petting and grinning and pronouncements of "I can't believe he's home!" 

He was home. Smelling like a dead animal and thinner than we'd ever seen him, he was home.

My daughter had been asleep when a scratching sound woke her up. Then she heard a tinkling sound, like dog tags clinking against each other. On a whim she climbed out of bed and made her way to the back door. And there he was. He'd found his way home.

In the days after, as I slowly introduced his system to healthy food, we had hints of his trials. Apparently he had not found a friendly person to feed him and protect him from the wind. He coughed up several piles of pine needles and bark. After a very long bath (with two 'repeat and rinses') he made his way to his cozy crate and sunk down into the fluffy blankets. He slept away most of two whole days.

And then he was back. His energy was back. His joy was back. Our Max was back.

The day after he returned we had temperatures that fell below zero and many inches of new snowfall. We all recognized that if he hadn't come home when he did, he probably wouldn't have made it. The conditions were just too brutal.

But he did make it. With whatever God has in heaven that protects the creatures of the earth, our Max was watched over and led home at just the right time.

Our puppy thought he could find his kids, after they dared to leave him for more than a day. He ran and ran and struggled and struggled. But in the end all it took for him to find them was the simple act of finding his way home.

Back to that sliding door that leads to the place where he is loved.