Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lessons learned from GiGi...

GiGi is my 10-year-old Belgian Malinois and constant companion. She is my "significant other" and a daily life lesson in how to be happy.

About a year and a half ago, it became clear GiGi was having trouble with her back left leg. We went to UC Davis and it was decided that GiGi has Degenerative Myelopathy - an incurable condition. The good news is that it does not hurt her - her butt has gone numb. The bad news is that it will eventually kill her. We both live just happy she is here and still very much her willful, wayward, opinionated, joyous, spirited self. 

In GiGi's mind, there is nothing "wrong", just something is different and she adjusts her movements to compensate. She has no sadness about what she can no longer do - she is too busy causing trouble with what she has. At this point, GiGi cannot use her back legs at all and uses her front legs to pull her body along... my little mermaid.

GiGi is still very much as she has always been: she still chases cats and squirrels. The other day, she chased a little girl in a battery-operated Barbie Jeep. GiGi scooted along as fast as she could to try to bite the tires of the alien thing making the same annoying sound as the much-hated vacuum cleaner.

GiGi's condition has brought a funny change: she talks a lot more. Gently woofing her opinion on almost every subject... we hold conversations now. She uses her "inside voice" which is quieter than the loud alarm bark she still has.

GiGi still loves to swim, but I am afraid I am the problem here. There are few places we have found where I  have the stamina to haul her butt to the water so she can swim. We went to Highland Park in Ben Lomond. Getting to the water was hard, about half a mile, all downhill. Getting back to the car was another story and we won't be going again any time soon.

We tried a couple of different doggie wheelchairs and neither really worked for GiGi. She knocked it sideways and then laughed at me. You can't dig for gophers while in a wheelchair and we are all about digging for gophers. So I carry her butt in a sling to get where we are going, then let her go on her own if there is a slick surface or grass. Keeping her active will slow the progression of the disease.

It is GiGi's spirit that prompts me to ask people not to say "poor dog" or make sad faces around her. Do not wince when she scoots along. She is happy and has no need of pity or sadness.

A couple of weeks ago, we had three different strangers approach us and say that GiGi is suffering and should be put down. I'm afraid I don't have GiGi's ability to ignore them and I ended up yelling at them because I was minding my own business and did not ask for their opinion. They all initiated the conversation by saying I should put GiGi down because she could not walk and was suffering.

You would not kill your child because they got polio, would you? I guess President Franklin D. Roosevelt should have been euthanized? I am appalled at the audacity of people who think they know anything about GiGi's condition. One of them was a vet tech at Petsmart/Banfield who suggested I put GiGi down, then asked me if GiGi had a vet. I said yes, she has three vets: one for general issues, one for her condition, and one for acupuncture. Ignorance and mis-placed compassion. You cannot put your own pre-conceived ideas on this.

Someone suggested that we are an educational opportunity for people. We did not ask to be a learning experience and it is sometimes hard enough for me to handle what is happening with GiGi without having to help some stranger grasp the concepts.

This does point out the recent change in attitudes about our pets. There was a time that GiGi would have already been "put down" because she was not 100% healthy. I've always had big dogs and a couple of them had dysplasia or arthritis in the hips. It is painful and eventually they could not walk. I wish I could go back - there was one 120-pound German Shepherd named Tattoo that was not ready to go even though he was incontinent and in pain. Now I wish I would have given him a bit more time, but I was ignorant back then. So I guess if we can help change someone's mind about putting down their disabled pet, then we will have to continue to be an educational opportunity.

GiGi and I are in this together and I believe that GiGi will let me know when she is done and tired of being here... and she is nowhere near that. Her attitude is the same as it has always been: joyous and willful. She is fully present in her life and not in any pain... I am very grateful that she has no pain.

At one point, I had a months-long period of "pre-grief" – daily crying and mourning GiGi's passing just because she has this disease. It left me grateful for every single day I get to share life with her, but also hyper-aware of every subtle change in her condition. At this moment, it is only effecting her back legs, but eventually she will be incontinent. We are ready for that time: a water-resistant crib mattress and pee pee pads. GiGi has taught me that if I don't act like incontinence is "wrong", it will be okay. Also, I learned how to help her by "expressing" her functions - just push the right "buttons" on her body and out it comes.

I am learning from GiGi that nothing is "wrong", it's just different now. Accept the current situation and move on. She has always shown me the lessons to love everyone and forgive them in an instant... and forgive myself as well. Live in the moment... be happy you are here.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Counting your blessings...

The only way to stay sane is to count my blessings every day. Be grateful for what I have.

At this point, my blessings are pretty simple:

- I am grateful GiGi is still very much herself and is active. I will write another time about GiGi's condition.

- I am grateful GiGi is well-behaved enough to be laying at my feet as my "service dog" while I am using the electricity and wifi in this cafe.

- I am VERY grateful it is not raining.

- I am grateful that this campground is nice... it has a rolling lawn next to us and redwood trees.

- I am grateful the campground rents space by the month. State campgrounds do not and have very strict rules about how long you can stay... only 7 consecutive nights in any one campground.

- I am VERY grateful that we are not living in the car or camping illegally.

- I am grateful to have a co-camper who has cooking utensils.

- I am also VERY grateful that my co-camper is a great camp wife and he makes coffee in the morning.

- I am grateful to have a co-camper to share the cost with or GiGi and I would be living in the car.

- I am grateful to have been able to borrow a tent, sleeping bags, and the most comfortable inflatable mattress. We are quite cozy at night.

I have a love/hate with the tent. It is not tall enough to stand up in and, so far, I have not found a graceful way of exiting the tent. I feel like it either belches me out or gives birth to me. Sometimes I crawl out into the dirt and then stand up. Sometimes I attempt to stand up and then exit. Either way...

- I am grateful when there is no one around to watch me exit the tent. I am never sure how much of my body parts are on display as I fight with the tent that I am grateful to have. I am sure the German tourist children camping next to us would be scarred for life if one of my boobs decided to make an appearance... giggle.

- I am grateful for a real bathroom with hot showers.

- I would be even more grateful if the bathroom would magically move closer to my tent at 2:30am when I have to get up to pee.

- I am grateful to have reached a point in my life where a blow dryer, curling iron, and cosmetics are not necessities and I don't feel the need to stay in the bathroom until I look "perfect".

- I am grateful to wake up some mornings to Vinnie (one of the permanent residents) playing the dulcimer. I will try to record a bit of him at some point.

- I am grateful the campground has an ever-changing cast of characters. Last week, German tourists. This week, a guy who flat picks his guitar like a pro. Wish I could get him and the dulcimer guy together.

- I am grateful that we are camped next to a rolling lawn for GiGi to frolick. She scoots all over the place, chasing sticks and a resident campground cat. One day, there was a little girl with a battery-operated Barbie Jeep. GiGi hated that thing and scoot/chased her all over trying to bite the tires.

- I am grateful to have found a campground with wifi... I would be even more grateful if it worked reliably.

- I am grateful that the strangled screaming I hear  is an albino peacock and not the tourists being murdered in their beds.

- I am VERY grateful to people for donating enough funds for us to buy an RV... now if we could find one.

- I am becoming grateful for the experience of becoming homeless.

Monday, July 22, 2013


One of my first surprises is that the lower down the food chain that people are, the more they seem to want to form community... banding together and offering support. Sharing information about sources and resources. Something I've not experienced in a traditional housing situation.

How many "homed" people know their neighbors?

When is the last time you shared anything with a neighbor?

Seems the more expensive the housing and the more money you have, the less you reach out to others. Smells like inverse logic, doesn't it? Those who have, keep it to themselves... those who don't have, share with others.

The campground we are in has two sections: one for permanent residents with trailers/RVs and the area I am in is for transients/vacationers. There are some interesting people living here and they all have stories. I quickly learn that you can't judge them by their appearance (and I should not have done that anyway, duh!). There are no "losers" here, just people in transition doing the best they can at this moment. The lesson of "living in the moment" is being driven home with this experience and with GiGi's condition.

1917 Vogue Magazine
There are surprise "gifts" every day.... one of the campground residents is a professional musician of punk/rock/bluegrass and has toured with some very well-known bands. He picks up a four-string dulcimer and plays the most amazing and beautiful music while wandering the campground. Shocking what sound he can get from only 4 strings... sounds like at least 12 strings. His fingers just dance up and down the frets. I want to marry his hands, or have them grafted onto my arms instead of these slow, stubby fingers that struggle to strum a tortured sound from a guitar.

The musician and his lady/wife have run a couple of shops where they sold things. The shops went under for various reasons, but they are planning their next one... they both have a passion for finding things to sell, making things to sell, and selling to people.

Most of the people I meet here all have one thing in common: they cannot afford the high rents in Santa Cruz County on their low wages or fixed incomes. They are making alternative choices that give them a bit more control over their situation. They are turning trailers and RVs into "mobile" apartments, sometimes stringing a couple trailers together to give them what they need. 

There is a young single mother who lives in an Airstream with her daughter and has an extra trailer as the playroom. She is doing her best for her kid on her single income. Across the way, there is a married couple with a two teenagers who have a large RV, plus a second trailer where the husband lives. They almost divorced until they found this solution. People thinking outside the box for solutions.

As people in the campground tell me their stories, I come to realize how heroic they are... living through terrible life events and figuring out how to go on from there. They have not lost their hopes and dreams.

Maybe there is hope for me and GiGi yet.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

When the Worst Happens....

What do you do when the worst thing you can imagine happens?

There is something liberating about having the worst happen... it's got to get better from here, right?

I don't think anyone growing up dreams of someday becoming homeless... it is nothing we aspire to. I fought becoming homeless and, for a while, lived with people I would not have chosen and felt I had no say or control because it was not my space. There is something about not paying for the space I inhabit that makes me feel like a second class citizen with no rights.

So now we, me and my dog GiGi, are homeless... currently living in a tent. GiGi and I were lucky to be able to band together with someone else and split the cost of a campsite, so we have a legal place to sleep, but for how long?

The basics...
It is an education in basics and how to provide them: food, shelter, safety, bathroom access, cleanliness. The first night, I got food poisoning and spent the night with my body evacuating and turning itself inside-out, then sleeping all the next day. Today, I am at square one in almost every way.

Everything takes longer than I think it should...
Boiling water for coffee takes longer on a camp stove (and I am immensely grateful there is a camp stove). Laundry needs to be done more frequently because there is limited space for clothes. Every time I leave, there is the possibility things will be stolen, so the valuables travel with me (and I hope they are not stolen from the car).  I spend too much time trying to figure out how to make it better and how to do what I need to do. Electricity is needed DAILY for the iPhone and laptop, plus wifi.... where do I find these? Is it free? What do I do with GiGi while I am recharging?

Nothing is easy. The tent I borrowed is not tall enough to stand up in and I have not found a graceful way to exit the tent. I kinda fall out into the dirt (cursing), and then try to stand up, making sure I am not flashing anyone. There is just enough room inside for the inflatable queen size mattress I borrowed and all of GiGi's bedding. My clothes are in a suitcase outside.

I am learning how to take baby steps in living.