Animals

Written For Me

“Do you know what you need? You need a service dog.” 

That was how my husband proposed the idea after I began battling with severe vertigo and had passed out a few times. I had seen several doctors but we still didn’t have an explanation for the new bizarre symptoms that were honestly ruining my life. That wasn’t even my only health issue. I also had been spiking chronic low-grade fevers. I had issues with a butterfly rash across my face, joint pain, exhaustion, a stomach disorder, a kidney disease, blood pressure problems that I had never dealt with before, and ocular migraines where I would suddenly lose my vision.  

I couldn’t figure out how to handle everything or where to go next. My quality of life was greatly diminished and the issues with my body would easily wreck the kind of havoc that made every-day tasks nearly impossible… especially when things hit me at once. I could go a couple of weeks feeling amazing when out of left field I would be knocked on my behind for a month or two… or longer. I once lost my vision while I was in the middle of driving. I never saw the semi that was barreling down the highway towards my car. It happened so fast that Nikolai and I were almost taken out of this life for good. Something had to change. Anything! I was desperate.

Still… a service dog? Dogs like that are expensive right? Was I “sick enough” to have one? What did “sick enough” even mean? Was there a person behind the scenes who would qualify sick people for service dogs? What would people think of me for having to rely on a dog to make me a more functional person? The questions swirled around in my brain until it made me feel that much worse. I decided to do the only thing that make sense to me… I sat at a booth hunched over my keyboard inside our local coffee shop and I googled the heck out of it.

I learned that the only one who could approve my service dog request was my physician. I also came to the realization that people used service dogs to do all kinds of things, from helping with PTSD, to managing anxiety, and other health problems as well. Yet the biggest thing I discovered was that I was over qualified.

Incapable of preforming daily tasks due to a disability or illness?  

Check.  

Hospital visits that are frequent?  

Check.  

Official diagnoses on my medical records?  

Check. Check. Check. Check. Check! 

I read that owning and training your own dog with the help of a professional trainer was the fastest way to obtain such an animal. Otherwise, you might be sitting on a wait list for a couple of years or more. It takes a minimum of two years to train a service dog and you need to be committed to the endeavor or you both will fail. It’s one of the hardest (and most rewarding) things that you’ll ever do. Finding the right kind of dog would be a whole other mountain to hike. Temperament testing the dog’s personality for service dog traits and willingness to learn was just the beginning. Even that wouldn’t guarantee success. Dogs have a high rate of flunking out of service work.

Most people don’t have family who raise purebreds at their disposal. Most don’t have an army of people in their corner who have physically seen them suffer over the years either. I was blessed enough to have both. My grandparents had been raising Rough Coat Collies for well over fifty years. They came from a long line of calm, quiet, and gentle dogs. On top of that, my grandmother’s adopted daughter Isabell had worked for a neighbor who raised search and rescue German Shepherds, police dogs, and yes… even service dogs!

My mind was made up. I needed a service dog and with my doctor’s approval in hand… I knew exactly where to get one. I picked up my cellphone and called my grandmother. From that moment on, my life was forever changed by the most amazing dog my family and I have ever known. The events of her birth and that of her siblings are of such epic proportions that you almost had to be there to believe it.  

“I’m not positive, but in my gut, I think that Bambi is pregnant!” 

“How do you know Grandma?!” 

“Well, I don’t know for sure… but I feel it.” 

A week before easter my grandmother had felt that Bambi (Isabell’s German Shepherd) had been filling out her naturally lean frame. Bambi had connected multiple times with my grandfather’s dog Sampson, which was within itself rather miraculous. You see, Sampson was an old man for a purebred Collie. Even though my grandfather had passed away years earlier… Sampson (who was the last generations of purebred collies on my grandparent’s farm), was still very much alive.

We had wanted and loved these puppies before they were born. It was the end of an era for my grandparents but the beginning of an era for me because one of the babies was going to be my service dog. I spent many nights lying awake and praying for a pregnancy to take place. Begging God to provide the kind of dog who would help me become a more functional person for my family. It wasn’t a cure, but I needed to be more confident in my abilities to manage my household and health on my own while my husband was away for work.

The day before easter I was sprawled out in bed with my husband by my side and my 6-year-old son’s foot in my face. Nikolai had crawled into bed with us and spent the night kicking me in the head. It was a beautiful Saturday, there was a periwinkle hue over the mountain peaks and the fireball in the sky was just beginning to show off. It was going to be a lovely, relaxing weekend… until my phone rang.

“You’re aren’t going to believe this! You just aren’t going to believe it!” My grandmother’s voice was lively and animated. 

I yawned, stretched my legs out before me and mumbled sleepily “What time is it? Why are you up so early?”

“SHE DID IT! WE HAVE PUPPIES!” 

I flew to a fully awake sitting position among piles of blankets and maneuvered the limbs of my family away from me. “What do you mean? How?! Last week you weren’t even sure if she was pregnant and now, we have puppies? WE HAVE PUPPIES!” 

I squealed and my body shook with excitement “I HAVE A SERVICE DOG IN TRAINING!!” 

Had I stuck to the typical service dog rules… it may have made my life easier. Rules such as, “not choosing a puppy until you have them professionally evaluated first” are important to a higher success rate. My wonderful trainer lived in Georgia with me and these puppies were located in Arizona with my family. I decided to trust God and do my best to evaluate them myself through facetime. I don’t recommend doing what I did, but if I had done things any differently… than this would be a different story. Tallulah wasn’t the right dog but she was right for me.

Bambi had her babies in a field, choosing to hide them rather than be cozy and warm inside the house. My mom and my grandmother saw blood and found a hole that she dug to hide them in. The first two (and the oldest) puppies never made it into the foxhole. Their bodies were discovered lifeless several feet away. My mom ran her hands over them, rubbing the puppies with all her might. She breathed life into their mouths and gave them CPR to revive them.

One of the two puppies yelped and began rooting but struggled to latch or eat. The other laid limply underneath my mother’s hands. She called me with tears pouring down her face and I listened to her voice quiver as she whispered a prayer over the tiny animal’s body. Hours went by and she continued begging the fellow to live until his body became cold to the touch, stiff, and ridged. There were no more soft sounds from a beating heart. No shallow breaths being taken. He was gently set aside in the dumpster behind the house so that the other dogs couldn’t take him away before she had a chance to bury him. She devoted the rest of her time to encouraging the puppy who didn’t want to eat, to nurse.

Tallulah was found with one of her brothers in the hole her mom dug out of the earth to save them. The moment I saw her picture on my cellphone… I knew that she was mine. It was as if God took the extra time to write my name on her. She was the only puppy born with a large black letter “L” marking on her back… a characteristic trait that she eventually grew out of. Yet she had been written into existence especially for me. Her marking was a beacon of light within the whirlwind of darkness that my health had plunged me into once again.

After a long day, my exhausted mother had to dispose of the dirty towels and blankets from Bambi’s birthing room and move them into the dumpster. She had helped Bambi’s babies to nurse and even delivered a few more puppies along the way. The sky was fading from blue to silver and the stars were making a dashing appearance of their own. It was almost time to bury the body of the first born. The closer she got to the trash can the louder a scuffle from within became. Twelve or more hours had passed and there had been no sign of life or a will to live. Yet she lifted the lid and there he was! A living, breathing, wiggling miracle searching for his mother. That’s how “Lazarus” changed my mom’s life. A puppy that was completely dead came back to life with nothing more than faith and a prayer… the day before Easter.

My own prayed for puppy, has rescued my life countless times. She has warned me when it wasn’t safe for me to be driving. She has told me when my blood pressure became dangerously high. She helped chase an intruder out of my house and away from my son. She’s watched over my baby as if he were her own. I’ve seen her soothe Nikolai on sick days, and giggled to myself over the joy of her bubblegum pink tongue kissing away his sadness until laughter was all he had left. She has put herself between me and those she didn’t trust on multiple occasions and I’ve learned that she’s the best judge of character that I have ever meet.

There were moments within this amazing first year together when I thought that she wouldn’t make it as a service dog. We have been through trials that I never saw coming. Yet between my wonderful trainer’s advice (thank you Sharon!) and Tallulah’s desire to learn, my relationship with this incredible dog has only strengthened. She has saved me again and again. I owe her my life.

If you enjoyed this post about Tallulah, I have written other posts about her as well that you may want to check out! You can find those posts here, here, and here!

Health and Wellness

Discarded Fear

I sat on the dock with my feet dangling over the edge. Wisps of my red hair that had mixed with the salty sweat on my forehead and neck had practically glued themselves to my skin. I tried to pry them away by piling the mass of flames onto the top of my crown to cool myself but they just kept tumbling back down again. I felt sticky and it made the humidity that much more unbearable. Maybe that’s why the idea popped into my head in the first place. A combination between the wicked Tennessee heat wave I had been enduring and the stress that war had brought into my life.   

Fear constantly played in the background of my mind like static taking over a good song on the radio. Somehow the events of the day had subdued it for the time being. It was as if someone turned down the volume just long enough to quiet my insecurities so I could enjoy myself for a spell. The worry that my husband might not make it home was still there, it just played a little softer. My irrational fear of deep dark water was still there too. The fact that I never really got the hang of swimming any more than I could flail my arms during a doggie paddle. A graceful swan dive wasn’t within my skill set so it probably wasn’t the best idea. I also never really got over that weird self-conscious feeling whenever I was forced to undress in the girl’s locker room.

Hush.  

Hush.  

Hush.  

I swirled my toes around the murky darkness at the edge of the bank. It was a fear facing kind of night. The stars danced on the water like fireflies in the middle of summer. The moon shattered into pieces of light over the lake and three of my favorite girlfriends gathered around me. We laughed together after a full day of trail riding horses and eating buttered popcorn for dinner. We smelled like manure and bug spray which made me happy even though in the back of my mind I knew that somewhere in Afghanistan my husband was probably running from mortars. Every day without him was a struggle. I thought a lot about death in between the moments of living my life and I needed an escape.

I was the girl that never really took risks- unlike my husband who pulled me out of my comfort zone whenever he had the opportunity to do so. Mid-twenties at the time and I had never been drunk (I still haven’t). I had never so much as considered trying drugs, and I certainly never put a cigarette to my lips. I was proud of that (I still am), but I wanted to know what freedom felt like. To not be so wrapped up in worry that it prevented me from actually living my life. To all my church friends I was the “bad girl” who made inappropriate sex jokes because I grew up in Chicago. I thought they were funny… they didn’t. Yet to all of my non-Christian friends, I was the religious kill-joy who played it safe and ruined their fun.

All of those things encompassed who I was to some degree or another and yet none of them expressed me at all. There was a whole other version of me that very few got to know. Sure, I was uptight at times. Yet my soul had been searching for the kind of freedom that came with letting go of what was expected of me and finally doing the things that made me happy. I needed liberation from the prison I had built within myself. I looked at the water rippling below me and I couldn’t shake how good it might feel to be fully submerged. To quench the heat of the day. To put a stop to thinking endlessly about what could go wrong and just enjoy everything that could go right.

The tree frogs serenaded one another and the crickets joined in harmony. My friends and I talked about our lives. We cried over things we had never spoken out loud before. We howled over shared memories that had long-since passed and the mood of the night unchained me, link by link. The background noise in my head sounded a lot more like my husband’s voice of reason and his endless support.

“We should go swimming.” Did I say that out loud?  

“We don’t have enough swimsuits.” My blonde friend replied pouting with disappointment.

“Do we really need them?” I pondered.  

“You mean like… skinny dipping?” My brunette friend giggled.  

“Why not?” My heart was racing as I said it.   

How deep was the lake again? I couldn’t remember. Could my feet touch the bottom? Doubtful. Weren’t there fish in there? Probably.   

Snakes? Most definitely.   

It was too late to take it back; a pact of trust had been made. All four of us left piles of discarded clothing on the landing. I pulled the hair tie from my tresses and curled my toes around the edge of the pier. My stomach lurched and goosebumps sent a shiver over my spine but the rest of me was still. My bare-bottom faced the woods but I was locked on the rippling reflection of the sky beneath me. I took in several gulps of air, squeezed my eyes shut, and squealed before launching myself into the milky way.   

Twisted red locks suspended like a halo and my heart paused for a moment. I left everything I had been afraid of behind me with the heap of laundry that I didn’t need. Within that moment I was the brave one. Within that moment, I could do anything I set my mind to and I could do it on my own. The lake kissed my flesh with ice water as I plunged below the surface. It was a shock to my mind. I was swimming naked in an inland with no bottom while facing some of my biggest fears. My soul had never tasted such joy… right up until my foot touched something slimy.

My pale legs danced beneath me and parted water to keep me afloat. I imagined that I looked something like a gladiator or a goddess because that’s how I felt. To everyone else I probably looked like a fish slapping its fins against the shore and begging to be released… but it didn’t matter. A whippoorwill cried out from the darkness like my soul had been reaching towards the light.

I didn’t need anyone to help me get there. No hand holding was required as I stood at the edge of the pier. I did that all on my own. There’s a sense of empowerment when you tackle things you didn’t originally feel comfortable doing. You become washed in pride over having proved to yourself that you could do the unthinkable. A caged bird no longer, fear facing nights are the kind of nights that set you free.  

So tell me, what fears have you faced and how did coming to terms with those fears help you? 

An old image of me before I had my son
Back when I was a lot skinnier 😉
farm life

Unconditional

I have recently started writing as a ghost writer for a wedding photography business. The endeavor has kept the topic of marriage on my brain throughout the week. The other night my husband slipped into Walmart to grab a few things for our house and came out bearing a planter full of violet calla lilies, tulips, and a slew of bulbs to add to my garden. After a stressful January, Rob (my husband) decided it was exactly what I needed to start my February off correctly. His superhero-like ability to recognize my needs before I’ve gotten a moment to recognize them myself, has had a profound impact on our relationship.

The man is more than just my partner, he’s my caregiver, the supporter of my dreams, my cheerleader, the brilliant father of our son, and the man who gets things done. He’s held my hair back while I’ve thrown up, helped me bathe when I couldn’t do it by myself, and I’ve witnessed him pleading with God to save my life. He’s taken our son fishing to give me time to rejuvenate even after working himself to death. He’s accompanied me to more hospital and doctor appointments than I care to admit, and is the hardest working person I’ve ever known. He continually fills the cups of others before he fills his own.

In the middle of a war zone with bombs going off, my husband was sitting in a bunker writing english essays and solving complicated math equations to send to his collage professors. He worked out at the gym on base, yet still managed to call me twice a day while witnessing things most people only see in their nightmares. He graduated with two associate degrees, and a bachelor’s degree in technical managment and engneering. Before we were forced to move (in order to be closer to my team of doctors)… he was just 6 classes shy of graduating with a second bachelor’s degree in electrical engneering. I am forever proud of all that he has accomplished and all that he does for the future of our family.

In the six years that he spent serving our country he made a career out of fixing Apache helicopters. His first job after leaving the service entailed working as a civilain contractor on other types of helicopters as well. More specifically, his original job title was to work on electrical system repairs. However, since he fought in a line unit on the boarder of Pakistan and Afghanistan… he was able to become certified as a civilian to work on mechanical system repairs as well (this is not an easy task to achieve in the world of aviation). This qualified him to work on helicopters, airplanes, and jet turbine engines. He knows how to strip a bird down to the bare bones, rewire it, and put the parts back together again without assistance. He later went on to work for several life-flight companies (which is what he does today).

My husband and I meet my freshmen year of high school (a story that I can’t wait to tell at a later date). We got married in South Korea at his first duty station as a United States soldier. I was eighteen years young when we signed our marriage cirtificate at the embassy and he was just ninteen years old himself. Everyone we knew thought we were crazy. Both friends and family struggled to talk us out of it, but we never waivered. Throughout our marriage we struggled to overcome almost every crisis a relationship could possibly go through. Not because of our age, but because life threw a lot at us all at one time.

We once told our story to a marriage counselor who sat back in her large brown leather recliner to gawk at us. She stayed that way for several moments, eyes wide in disbelief before exclaiming- “Most marriages don’t survive ONE of the events you two have been through, let-alone ALL of them. The fact that you are still together is… beyond impressive.” It could have been taken as an insult but we chose to take it as a compliment.

That wasn’t the first marriage counselor we went to see over the years, or the last. Yet somehow we woke up every day and chose to love one another through our trials. We chose love despite days when warm fuzzy feelings were nowhere to be found. We chose love after seeing the ugliest side of each other and the ugliest parts of ourselves. We chose forgivness over mistakes we both made along the way and we grew stronger for it.

“I chose to be with you because you are my best friend and I didn’t want anyone else.” My husband replied with a wicked grin “Plus, you’re really hot.” I laughed at his remark and shook my head.

We’ve been married now for seventeen years, spent eighteen years of our lives together, and have been best friends for more than twenty years. We’ve been with each other longer than we have lived without one another. We are able to look across a room full of people and understand without words what the other needs and is thinking. Somedays the decision to choose love is an easy one, other times it becomes far more challenging.

There have been situations where one of us ended up working harder on our marriage than the other. Yet, the hard work that was poured into our relationship is what carried both of us through challenging times. Whatever trials we face, we are in this thing together. When we got married we had no idea what was to come. We were two babies full of promise and hope for the future. Despite serious obstacles like near death experiences, PTSD, financial crises, serious health problems, alcoholism, and so much more… our ability to choose love has only strengthened.

My marriage is living proof that when two people decide to put one another first, you can achieve a love that is unconditional. I promise that you read that correctly. No, it’s not a fairytale. That doesn’t mean you don’t get angry or struggle to get through horrible events. It doesn’t require one spouse to be a punching bag for the other spouse either. Love isn’t the warm fuzzy feelings people get when everything is going well. Love is a choice that both parties commit to making, simultaneously. That’s the real secret to a successful marriage.

My husband and I. Images by my amazing friend Chris Hansen, taken long after we were married in Korea
The two of us on our horses
Health and Wellness

The Value in Being Validated

I am no stranger to doctor appointments or hospital visits. My favorite primary care physician once told me that my medical records were so interesting that he took them to bed with him as reading material. I laughed and told him that interesting wasn’t the word I’d use to describe them. I’m thirty five years old but before my twenty fifth birthday I had already had several close calls with death. I’ve seen more specialists in the past seventeen years than most people see in a lifetime. Yet if you had asked what the hardest part about being sick has been for me… I would have told you that it was going through the motions unheard.

I would spend weeks or months counting down the days until my next big doctor appointment. I would carefully make a list of talking points, plan out what I was going to wear, and even decide what kind of makeup to use… all because my life depended on it. Within the few minutes of meeting a new doctor and going over my case with them I could tell whether or not they were going to write me off. If I looked too pretty I was labeled as having psychological issues instead of physical ones. If I wasn’t put together enough, I was (in their mind) a possible drug seeker. If I looked too young… I was a healthy woman physically but a hypochondriac, or a woman who had severe anxiety problems and a nervous stomach.

If the doctor chose within those first five minutes to write me off, then the process of finding someone else and having to wait for an appointment time would start all over again. It would pull me back into the cycle of trying (and failing) to manage symptoms on my own over and over again. I would pin all of my hopes on receiving a diagnosis or finding a doctor who would take a moment to hear me out. Someone that could possibly provide me with the knowledge and power to change my life for the better. Yet when those hopes were dashed… I wanted to claw my way under the silver and white comforter on my bed and stay there.

To say that my quality of life was significantly diminished would have been an understatement. At one point I weighed sixty four pounds… total. I knew if I didn’t fix it, I was going to die. While trying to figure out why I couldn’t hold food down, my doctors discovered by accident that I had a kidney disease. From vomiting, to severe weight loss (then later rapid weight gain), to random fevers, OBGYN trouble, unusual swelling in my limbs, heart and blood pressure issues, to kidney trouble, vertigo, unconsciousness and beyond. Every day of my life was a challenge (and still is).

I can count the doctors I credit for giving me hope again on one hand. Not a diagnosis. Just the ability to have hope that someone was willing to fight for me. When compared with the money spent seeing hundreds of doctors throughout my life… it’s a tragedy. All they had to do to be counted was to take the time to listen. I had more respect for the OBGYN who tried to think outside the box than I did for the OBGYN who brushed off my suffering and told me to only come back and see her when I had my yearly physical exams.

Upon being sent to a cardiologist recently, I sat in the waiting room with one foot out the exit. Having experienced things like severe high blood pressure, unconsciousness, heart palpitations, forgetfulness, feeling jittery, and my hands shaking uncontrollably… my husband pushed me to be seen by a specialist. My husband was afraid that I would have a stroke, but I was afraid that it would end up being another useless endeavor.

This time will be just like all the others” I told myself as I tapped my foot impatiently. I was so sure of it.

I felt that it would be a total waste of time and that our money was better spent elsewhere. Another long battle to find the right doctor to figure out how best to fix me (with medication) or to help me learn to live with my new symptoms. When I was finally ushered into an exam room, I started answering questions being fired at me by the nurse. Ten or fifteen minutes went by after she had left, a short elderly gentlemen entered. He announced that he was my doctor but I only felt relieved because I couldn’t wait to get the whole thing over with. He started off by asking me if I still had fevers. I’d been struggling with them again for several days.

How did he know about that?” I wondered thoughtfully.

He went into great detail about reading my medical history all the way through my time spent at Mayo Clinic many years ago. I began to feel impressed, most physicians wouldn’t take the time to get that far. He went over my kidney disease, my stomach illness, and even read the report that had my autoimmune specialist puzzled. I discussed being a wife and a mother while trying to find balance with my health. I talked about having a small farm, and struggling to accomplish daily tasks. I revisited times when I had left a shopping cart full of groceries sitting inside a store so I could return home quickly in order to rest. I didn’t have to say anything he didn’t already know, but he listened anyway.

When we got done discussing my case, he looked me in the eyes, touched my hand and said “I can’t fix everything, but I think I can help you.”

My eyes overflowed with emotion, fat drops stormed down my cheeks. I sobbed and asked him if I could hug him before wrapping my arms around his shoulders. After we discussed testing, treatments, and follow-up appointments, he bowed his head and prayed with me. Before I left he said I seemed like a kind woman who just wanted her life back. His words planted seeds of hope not because he knew what was wrong with me, but because he spent time listening. He made me feel safe and he validated my concerns. I walked out of his office feeling like I didn’t have to carry my burden alone anymore. Someone was on my team.

You don’t have to be a doctor to validate someone. You just have to be the kind of friend who listens. It takes such little effort on our part to change someone’s life by letting them know that they are being heard. To remind them that they have someone on their team. We get so wrapped up in our own lives that we forget to nurture others. Just the other day I caught myself making this grave mistake while I was talking to my mom and I had to correct myself. The true value in being validated is that burdens become lighter when they’re shared. If you really want to see someone bloom… take the time to listen and plant seeds of validation.

Roses from my garden
Some of my favorite garden blooms
Helping others bloom will add to the joy in your life