Growing Up With Puzzle

I believe I will see all of my pets in heaven one day. I remember when I was small, a teacher said that animals have no souls, don’t really love you and can’t go to heaven. Well, I chose not to believe her. I still don’t. The good thing is that I don’t remember that horrible teacher’s name or even what she looked like – only her biting and chilling advice.

Just last month, our beloved family pet, Puzzle, was put to sleep. He was an amazing 15-years-old. He was part black Labrador, part Daschund. Strangers debated his genealogy on the daily. My husband actually found him on the Internet and drove to San Pedro to convince the pet rescue volunteers that we were his forever family. We were searching for a similar lowrider breed and a handful of Corgi rescue people turned us away. My husband was convinced they were doing credit reports and judging us by our zip code. I think they saw a large family and sensed havoc and a possible rehoming (I really can’t stand that word) issue. The snotty Corgi people missed out and we gained Puzzle.

That was his name all along – Puzzle. And he was definitely true to his name. A total enigma. We didn’t want to change anything about him when we adopted him. In fact, he was about six months old and had a broken leg set in a small white plaster cast. He was such an integral part of the family (really not a dog, but a human counterpart) and had instilled such a beautiful personality to each of my family members that we honestly didn’t think he would ever not be a part of our loud and frenetic family.

Puzzle LJS
One of his favorite jaunts was La Jolla Shores

On December 21st just after midnight, he left us. We had spent about four hours at the local emergency veterinary hospital. The employees were so kind as my husband and I and all four kids crowded into a “quiet room” and discussed the pros and cons of why or how to maintain our dog’s declining existence and frequent seizures.

When we were ready to have the female veterinarian assist with his ending, I knew I couldn’t stay in the room and witness it. I love animals. I’m the one who watched the water level in his stainless steel bowl, cleaned up the pet waste and dutifully walked him around our neighborhood and nearby park. I just don’t love the finale. When I was in elementary school, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian but after having a litter of little kitties born in our backyard dryer and seeing only one survive – I knew I needed to choose a different career path.

“Puzzle, I will see you again in heaven,” I whispered as he lay in my youngest daughter’s lap. His cataract-clouded eyes closed and labored breathing growing more shallow with each inhalation.

Last day
Here with his “twin” sibling, both age 15.

Just hours earlier – it was a typical Erma Bombeck-style evening in our home. My only son, who stands a towering 6’6, injured his knee on the sidewalk outside of his apartment and it blew up like an exploding grapefruit. He called me asking for medical advice – so I had him come over to inspect the orthopedic damage. My diagnosis was a kneecap contusion and treatment recommendations included a sandwich bag full of ice cubes and Naproxen.

During my son’s convalescence, Puzzle started having a seizure beneath the couch. There I was assisting our treasured pet while my son was incapacitated with his knee elevated. One hand was helping my dog and the other was tossing a bag of ice at my son’s kneecap. What else could happen tonight? I just want my head to hit my piled high pillows.

Puzzle’s seizure subsided and he stumbled around our small house with my 18-year-old daughter trailing him to make sure he didn’t bump into anything. But his can-do spirit was short-lived and he started having another violent seizure in the kitchen. My oldest daughter wrapped him in her dorm blanket and the kids piled into the car toward the emergency animal hospital. My husband and I followed behind the caravan. The last seizure was the reckoning we had all been ignoring for weeks. We knew Puzzle’s health was not great, but we needed him.

As my youngest daughter said after he died, “Puzzle was the glue that kept us all together. We probably don’t even like one another!”

Yes, it’s true. Puzzle was the great equalizer in our home. He had this wry, sarcastic look about him, like he had a secret that he would never tell. He didn’t see himself as a pet, but another noble part of the family. He slept at the foot of my bed for the past 15 years. My husband and I now have colder feet as we pull up the covers. We see shadows on the bed in the early morning hours and think it’s him. Doors are left open and there is no sneaking out by our four-legged friend. No frantic barking when the mail carrier shows up at our doorstep. All the bedroom and bathroom trash cans are piled with detritus – no one is scavengering for a discarded snack or interesting leftover.

It’s been almost one month since he left our home for the last time. We are still mourning him. We miss him terribly. Tears still flow. I found a half-eaten tennis ball under the couch cushion and we can’t bear to throw it away. Dog tags are going to be refashioned as jewelry by my youngest daughter. His remains are sitting in our entry way table, like a gift that wants to be opened. He was cremated on Christmas Eve. We each cannot bear to tear into the bag and review what is left of him. A sympathy card came this week from the animal hospital. The employees were so loving with their handwritten thoughts for our family.

Here is one excerpt from the card:

“The heart remembers most what it has loved best. Puzzle will be sorely missed.”

And another:

“The extent of your grief is a measure of the love and dedication you gave each other.”

The Christmas cards have been tossed weeks ago, but this card remains on our mantle. It lifts our spirits. My husband will pick it up on his way toward the sliding door and review the sentiments. We are healing now.

Puzzle Backseat Driver
Forever the backseat driver

Fifteen years is a good run for a pet.  We knew we hit the Lotto with the long years of loving Puzzle. When you are so comfortable with someone, it feels like it will last forever. Puzzle was just like that. He never grew tired of the belly rubs, the second helping of dinner if one of us forgot and the excitement when I would put on my athletic shoes – that was our signal that a walk would be imminent. My youngest daughter is the same age as he was. They literally grew up together. In fact, we all grew up with him in different stages over the past decade-and-a-half. He made us better people.

The Timeline of Twins

A tale of a new mom, a selfless grandmother and her reluctant Christian husband

My husband answered the house phone. It was mid-day on November 19, 1996. He kept saying “oh no, oh my God” and then the ultimate sinker, “let me hand over the phone to Colleen.” The caller was my father. That morning, my mother sustained a stroke while shopping at a nearby mall. She was searching for a track suit for her mother-in-law (my grandmother) before she slumped in the store’s chair. A fast-thinking retail manager called mall security and one of the employees knew CPR. That skill was the reason my mother was now an ICU patient at the regional hospital close to a major university. She was on life support. The doctors encouraged the family to get there as quickly as possible.

I had just seen my vibrant, beautiful mother less than a month ago. She was my caregiver after I delivered my first newborns – boy/girl twins. The pair had come one month early, but were healthy and quite a handful for a new parent. My mom dug right in – got me and my babies on a schedule, walked our family dog, shopped for daily necessities and accompanied our little tribe to the first pediatrician appointment. I remember watching her drive away that windy October afternoon. I know she was exhausted after helping me and my husband for two weeks, but her love and support was immeasurable. I sobbed as my father’s Ford Ranchero blurred into the horizon.

After that phone call, I don’t know if it was shock, postpartum or the sheer urgency to say goodbye, but my husband and I scooped up the twins and crammed voluminous baby gear into our family van within minutes. We raced on the interstate for 90 miles to get to my mother. We were blessed with no Southern California traffic and hustled our way to the hospital wing where my mother lay among other suffering patients.

An ICU wing isn’t the best place to bring premature twins, but here I was. My husband and I took turns with our baby bundles. There wasn’t a Mother’s Room or other private area to breastfeed, so I would visit the larger stall in the restroom and alternate feeding my son and daughter. it was an otherworldly experience.

art blur candlelight candles

As visiting hours ended for the day, we learned that my mother sustained a cerebral vascular accident or CVA. There was a clot in her brain that bulged and was leaking. It was likely a congenital defect as she was thin and had never smoked. Her one vice was slathering too much mayonnaise on her favorite sandwich. If she regained consciousness, the neurosurgeon would decide if he could perform brain surgery. We were told to go home for the day. Keep a positive attitude. Encourage daily visitors to speak to my unconscious mother. And pray.

I remember going to my parents’ home that night. I placed my traveling babies in their layettes in the living room. They were sound asleep – that stillness that scares new moms. Are they still alive? I placed my hand on each of their cherubic bellies and could feel the rise and fall of their breath. My husband went to the store for more diapers and other supplies. I was alone in the house. I don’t think I had been solo in weeks. Instinctively, I went to my mother’s jewelry box and clasped her beloved wedding pearls. I placed them on my heart and walked from room to room. Everything in that house – the unmade bed from that morning, a picture frame, her stationery – reminded me of my mother. I was not ready for her to leave me. She was only 55-years-old.

Two weeks would go by. Each day was filled with a high if we heard a good sign followed by a devastating low when her condition made a U-turn. Our family couldn’t get off this roller coaster. My father, who is not Catholic, would insist that one of his four daughters go to the hospital chapel and pray during visiting hours. He felt that since he wasn’t religious, God wouldn’t listen to him. As the oldest daughter, I could see how each day was draining my father. He was so reliant on my mother. He didn’t even know where the linens were kept in the house. Cooking wasn’t even attempted. Takeout boxes were skyscraping above the kitchen trashcan. It was the Leaning Tower of Pizza.

baked box cheese close up

Just pretend there are 10 more boxes stacked here – like a House of Pizza Cards

My mom’s parish and younger sisters’ Catholic high school community was praying round-the-clock and delivering meals. Surprisingly, I started letting friends watch my newborn twins. My fatigue was so bad that I allowed a well-meaning friend buy a different brand of disposable diapers. My new mom mojo had disappeared. One ICU nurse told me in the hospital cafeteria, “You know, your mother is never going to recover. She’s never going to walk again.” That lack of empathy fueled me.

When I told my father the nurse’s glib statement, he announced, “I will carry your mom on my back for the rest of my life.” As the writer in the family, I always correlated that statement with Jesus carrying the cross.

My father’s unconditional love and promise that day demonstrated how he was willing to physically carry my mom – no matter what – just as long as she could live. As Jesus carried the cross and embraced His suffering for us, we as Catholics carry our own at times knowing the pain and endurance will lead us to peace and salvation. My father was willing to carry his cross. As a reluctant Christian, his faith was never strong than that day 22 years ago.

atmosphere-belief-believe-161136

My mom’s blood pressure was too risky to operate. She also sustained a heart attack during her struggles in the ICU. The beeping machinery was a constant reminder of the delicate nature of life. The right side of her body was paralyzed. She would kick her left leg up in the air. We joked that she was practicing her ballerina moves. She ripped the breathing tube out from her throat.

After that tightrope walk of two weeks, the neurosurgeon finally decided on a narrow window to operate on her bulging aneurysm. The surgery lasted all morning. We all knew the risks. My sisters and I worried that we may be losing two parents if my mom didn’t make it. They had been married 32 years already – raised four daughters in a one-bathroom house and according to my father, paid millions in Catholic school tuition.

This was a pivotal moment in my life. I had been that girl who would always do the right thing, or so I thought. The young woman who would work multiple jobs, dot every “i” and cross every “t.” Now I was a new mother who would say “yes” to everyone and everything when in reality I needed more “no’s” to help myself. I have made a conscious decision to always choose family first since my mom’s accident. The cliche of “life’s too short” is a very tangible thing to me.

My mom survived her brain surgery. Her recovery was long. The prayer vigils were powerful. Our family’s perseverance paid off. My mother now has a timeline to use while in conversation. It’s either “before or after” the aneurysm. When she tells newcomers about her ordeal, she always reminds herself how old her twin grandchildren are. That’s her baseline. She now has 10 grandchildren. My father may not be carrying her on his back, but he shadows her. He doesn’t want to lose her again. And neither do I.

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My twins just celebrated their 22nd birthday. My parents are still married although my dad still doesn’t know where the linens are but has taken up vacuuming recently.