Too Much of a Good Thing

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I have a thing for mushrooms. Not to eat (I think I read too many murder mysteries where the victims were taken out with the local mushrooms) but to photograph. There is something magical about them–not only their variety and color, but also how rapidly they can grow–seemingly overnight!

My mushroom photo collection is extensive, and I delight in spying some delicate fungal growth hiding beneath fallen leaves or nestled in pine needles during my morning dog walks.

Just the other day, I took these side by side images–both probably Aminita species, which contain some of the most toxic mushrooms known. My fingers are in the frame for scale. The first image is of a typical mushroom growing in my yard right now. The second is one I found growing beneath the horse trailer. I’ve never seen one so large before! And I swear, it wasn’t there a few days ago…

I can’t do justice to the second mushroom, as it was hidden up under the horse trailer. But trust me when I say it was bigger than a NERF football!

 

 

 

But while I admire mushrooms in the wild, I confess I am less enthralled with them when they are continually popping up in my fenced yard. It goes back to reading all those British murder mysteries as an impressionable teenager and the likelihood these particular shrumes are Aminita species. Mushrooms in that family account for 50% of all mushroom-related deaths in people and most of them in dogs.

With all the heavy rains we’ve had here, the mushrooms are literally growing overnight. For the last couple of days, I’ve been pulling up mushrooms as I find them in the area where the dogs play, and I’ve been getting at least five pounds a day, I kid you not.

I’ve also had to induce vomiting in one of my dogs, after catching him gnoshing on a mushroom before I could stop him. So under the principle of better safe than sorry, I pull them up.

But their prolific nature has me paranoid now. Every afternoon I head out to the yard with a garbage bag and a set of plastic gloves to pull up mushrooms. They hide under leaf litter. They prefer shade and wet mulchy dirt. They love rotten logs and deep grass. And so I scan the area, digging them up as I go, trying to get as much of the root as possible. Just when I’m convinced I’ve located all the ones there are to find that day, I spy another one: sometimes a bright button of color mimicking the fallen leaves, sometimes a dull brown nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding soil.

I love autumn. October is my absolute favorite time of year. I love how the light changes in spectrum from white to gold as it slants through the trees on an autumn afternoon. I love how it lights up the grass from within, making it glow. I love the first hint of frost in the morning air, and that whiff of wood smoke, too. I love the sound of dead leaves scurrying across a sidewalk or crunching underfoot. Nothing makes me happier than pulling out my chunky sweaters in maroon and gold, or pulling on my favorite pair of boots. Give me a book, a blanket, and a cup of hot cocoa, and I’m a happy camper. Autumn is a gallop across fields of drying grass while the mountains all around burst into color. It’s watching the dogs frisk with glee on the morning walk because of the nip in the air. It’s smiling as you hear the honk of migrating geese, and look up to see them fly in V formation overhead.

But darn it, it’s also when the mushrooms proliferate like mad. And until we get a hard frost, I’m going to be removing them from the yard.

(T-Rex for scale…)

And Now We Are Two

Captain and I took our first walk together without Sampson this evening.

After an uncomfortable evening, in which more than once I woke up because I didn’t hear the stertorous breathing that has marked Sampson’s respirations these past weeks and I thought he had died, he only picked at his home-cooked breakfast this morning. His legs threatened to give out on him when I took him outside, and I knew it was time.

Of course, he perked up when I took him to the vet’s–enough to eat treats at the hands of the staffers who have known him most of his life–but that’s exactly what I wanted. Him still able to motor in under his own steam, if somewhat wobbly. Not glassy-eyed and in distress because he couldn’t breathe. Still bestowing tail-wags and kisses, even though the wide stance of his legs was yet another indicator of how hard he was working to move air.

The process went as smoothly and peacefully as anyone could hope for. He was ready. A pawprint was made. Next week, his ashes will be returned to me and together, Captain, my husband, and I will scatter them along one of our favorite walks.

But oh, it felt so strange to be just Captain and me this evening. This is the first time in nearly twenty years I haven’t had a big dog by my side. I was conscious not just of the absence of his presence, but of a sense of vulnerability I haven’t felt in a very long time.

There will be another big dog at some point. I’ve been looking at my schedule and seeing when the best time to introduce a puppy would be. Not because I didn’t love Sampson, or because I’m trying to replace him, but because I loved him so much his absence leaves a huge hole that only another fuzzy little face can fill.

Goodnight, Sampson.

Who’s a good boy? You are.

Take Your Time

These days, we’re walking more slowly.

Where once the dogs dragged me along as though we were running the Iditarod, these days, there is slack in the leash. Sampson either walks alongside me in perfect heel position, or lags a few steps behind. Captain and I are learning to match his pace, to not push him too much.

I no longer play Pokeman Go when walking the dogs. Though I still enjoy the game, these days, I’m more aware of how Sampson is breathing, and whether or not I need to give him a break. We’ve been blessed by cool weather–for days now, the breeze has been damp caress, ruffling my hair gently in passing. I’m grateful because it has given us a little more time. I realize even without the increased heat our time together is limited, but the typical Carolina humidity is going to play havoc with Sampson’s ability to breathe.

But each day, I see the gradual decline. His appetite is beginning to fail, and I, someone who can barely be persuaded to cook for herself or family, am scouring the internet looking for tempting, wholesome recipes for my dog that won’t upset his stomach. In the past month since his diagnosis, he’s begun to lose muscle at an alarming rate too. And he seems to have gone gray almost overnight. The rate at which the cancer is aging him is nearly unbelievable. It’s like when one of those space vampires on that show Stargate Atlantis suck the life out of their victims, leaving them old before their time. The hiking trip we took just a few weeks ago would be impossible today. I’m so glad we went when we did.

And yet, while I think he is enjoying being spoiled with special food, I don’t think he needs special trips. He’s happy just to go on our daily walks. These days, we mostly go to the playground, and he actually slows down as we pass the jungle gym in the hopes some children will come out and tell him how handsome he is.

The days when he desperately needed to run off leash to burn the energy off of him are gone. A car can pass within feet of us and he barely reacts. That’s okay. It’s kind of restful, actually. And when we’re in the big hayfield behind the house, I do let him off lead. He and Captain putter around in the weeds, the little Jack Russell running circles around the tired old Shepherd.

And he is getting tired. I can see it in his eyes. I know the time is coming when I will have to make a decision. But today, we sat in the hayfield for a while, admiring the view. I have him to thank for that. For making me slow down. For reminding me to listen for the calls of the meadow larks and the redwing blackbirds. To close my eyes against the background hum of lawn mowers in the distance, and smell fresh-cut grass on the damp wind.

 

Today by the ball field, we were approached by a family who wanted to pet him. Soon we were surrounded by a small crowd, with Sampson in the middle, wagging his tail and holding court. The mother, sharing that they too had a Shepherd, asked how old Sampson was. My voice caught as I answered because his birthday is soon and I’m not sure he’ll see it. I found myself telling them he had cancer. You could feel the sorrow close over the group as soon as I said the words.

Afterward, Sampson turned back toward the car, choosing to cut our walk short for the first time in his life.

I wish I’d started these posts sooner. I know Captain and I will still go walking once Sampson is gone. I know I will get another dog, and will share the joys and frustrations of having a puppy again after so long without one. But Sampson has taught me that more than ever, life is but the blink of an eye, the space of one heartbeat and the next. I’ve never had a decade pass so swiftly in my recollection. More than anything, I’ve spent that decade working. I know I will have to continue to work hard to make ends meet.

But life is also more than just making ends meet. Sometimes we have to chase the ball. Sometimes we need to lie in green fields and drink in the late afternoon sun. Mostly, we need to just be.

That’s the greatest gift dogs teach us.

 

Walking with Sampson

My dog Sampson is dying.

He has a mass in his chest the size of a grapefruit, a lesion called hemangiosarcoma, which is common in older Shepherds. It’s a miracle he’s even breathing, let alone eating, playing, and seriously considering chasing that car when it goes past us on our evening walks. Aside from breathing a little hard all the time and slowing down on our walks, you wouldn’t know he was as ill as he is. The last three evenings I’ve taken him down to the local playing fields. Children are drawn to him like a magnet. They come boiling off the baseball diamonds and tennis courts like a swarm of bees, running up to us. “May we pet your dog?”

I make them slow down (because seriously, you don’t run up to a Shepherd waving rackets or baseball bats) but my fears are groundless. Sampson’s ears melt back in happy anticipation of the adoration that is his due, his tail wagging as the kids run their hands all over him. Several times I’ve been tempted to say something. To tell them he has cancer. But I don’t. I don’t because he is so happy and they are so happy, and how can I spoil that moment?

He doesn’t have much time left. We know this.

But the funny thing is, he doesn’t. Or if he does, he doesn’t care.

I firmly believe that dogs come into our lives at various times to teach us lessons when we need them most. I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing dogs in my life. My first Shepherd taught me what it was like to be loved completely and totally for who I was. My second taught me life was more than just getting through the day and set me on a path of life-changing self-discovery I’d never have taken without her. I changed careers because of that dog.

Even though Sampson has an inoperable mass in his chest, I consider us fortunate in that not only do we have time to adjust to the realization we’re going to lose him soon, but he is teaching me much about living for the present. Making the most of each day. How to be a dog.

I spend far too much time these days either living in the past (reacting to events that should no longer be affecting me but still do) or worrying about the future and things I can’t control. Each of us only gets today. Yes, we’re probably overworked and utterly exhausted because that seems to be the American Way, but we have to remember the things that make life worth living. Believe me, it seems like only a couple of years ago, I brought home a fuzzy little moose-puppy. In reality, it was over a decade, and yet it seems like the blink of an eye.

When I go walking with the dogs in the woods, I am reminded of Thoreau: 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

That is what Sampson is teaching me right now. I’m very much aware I’ve spent a good deal of the last decade griping at him to go lie down. I wish now we’d gone hiking more often. That I’d been more patient with his enthusiastic energy. That I’d told my employers ‘screw it’ and spent that time with those that I love.

I can’t undo that now, but I can be the person my dog thinks I am. I can’t quite manage the bucket list thing, but I am determined to make the time Sampson has left be the best it can be. I know on some level, he’s happy as long as we’re together and he doesn’t have to fight for my attention. That’s not quite enough for me, though. So a few weeks ago, I impulsively rented a dog-friendly cabin at a state park, and the four of us–the husband, Sampson, me, and little Captain– went away for an isolated weekend in the woods.

The weather was perfect. The daytime temps were in the upper thirties and lower forties–brisk but not so cold to make long walks in the woods unpleasant. The nights were brilliantly cold in the manner that took your breath away, as did the stars overhead when you stepped outside the cabin at night. No internet. No television. We sat in front of the fire and read while the dogs napped at our feet, tired from the day’s walks. I didn’t want to come home. Best. Weekend. Ever.

And sometimes, that’s all it takes. A reminder life is more than just getting through the day. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Hawaii to reconnect with those you love. You just have to unplug and look at them.

There will be more walks with Sampson. And when he is gone, there will be more walks with Captain, and whatever new dog I accept into my life. I just hope I can retain these lessons in my heart so the next dog–and everyone else I love–can benefit from them.

The cabin had a little journal where campers could leave messages. The book was nearly full–there was just a tiny amount of space left on the last page. Most of the entries had been written by children, stating how much they’d loved their week of swimming and hiking. I left this post: