Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Opening Up New Vistas

My husband, Bryan, and I brought our sons to the mountains from an early age, strapping small packs on them and the dog for slow hikes to local campgrounds. Ben and Noah loved whittling sticks, playing in the stream, and roasting marshmallows while watching “campers’ TV” in the fire pit. As a
teenager, Noah (center) went backpacking with his dad, best friend Sammy, and Wags, and with youth wilderness organizations in California and the Northwest. He played hackey sack on the summit of Mt. St. Helens, then slid down the steep scree. He admired the peripatetic leaders of the youth trips, who could survive anywhere and converse with anyone as they traversed the back country.

Last week, it was Noah’s legacy that brought Bryan and me to the mountains. Our mission was to meet staff and students from Outward Bound California at “Helipad 2.0,” a huge granite slab near Wishon Lake in the Sierras. We’d been invited because the Noah Langholz Remembrance Fund is helping support scholarships for the organization. We knew we were in the right place when we saw a row of dusty bear canisters and a circle of dirty, enthusiastic teenagers who’d just emerged from two weeks of backpacking. They were fantasizing about good food and cellphones but had managed fine without either and formed a tight group in the process. We listened to their stories and pitched in with cooking, clean-up, and the impressive drill of “de-issuing” gear like helmets, spices, and blister kits. The director told the students that “the real adventure begins now” with what they’d learned about themselves and others. The air fairly crackled with the optimism and energy of young people with their whole lives before them. As Noah should have been, I couldn’t help thinking.

From our shady campsite, Bryan and I looked down on lakes and forests we’d never seen before. The air was fresh and piney, the river below a rollicking torrent. A slip of moon in indigo sky gave way to stars so thick and close, they looked fuzzy. We were here, exploring new vistas in the Sierras and meeting these great people, because of Noah. At least there’s that to be grateful for, and future trips with our son, Ben, even if we’ll never again share a campsite or anything else with Noah.

We left the mountains in time to spend Noah’s should-have-been 26th birthday at home. We brought a foot-long Jeffrey pine cone to place on his rock in the Children’s Memorial and Healing Garden, along with a rose and an apple from a tree he planted in our yard shortly before his death. That tree bears sweet fruit now, 4 ½ years later. Bryan’s new corn crop is a marvel. After so much hurt--I had a can't-stop-crying/shaking fit the day before the Outward Bound meet-up--what can we survivors do but continue to seed the ground and treasure what harvest comes to us?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Pets and Other Comforts

 A photo of Noah that I hadn’t seen in years fell out of a cabinet the other day. He was about 4 or 5, in his summer PJs, flopped on his stomach on the bed with our new dog, Wags, spread out beside him, one paw draped protectively over Noah’s back. Noah beams up at the camera in complete happiness, already secure in his bond with this dog.

A patient, long-lived Lab mix, Wags remained Noah’s spirit animal for years. She taught him to love as he doted on her, took her on adventures, kept her well hugged and kissed. He went on to befriend every pet he met, even a notoriously mean cat, who he curled up with to sleep.

In a photo of him holding another cat during his college years, he looks searchingly into the cat’s face as if wishing his life could be as simple as hers. He found our chickens ridiculous, amusing himself by throwing them in the air to take pictures of them startling, but he held them tenderly, too.

 Pets were Noah’s link with love and the life force. He needed their complete understanding and loyalty, the steadiness of their animal breath. He had joyous reunions with Wags—snout ever whiter, gait ever slower--when he came home from study abroad and from semesters of college. 

The onset of Noah’s major depression coincided with Wags starting to sleep a lot and drag and teeter on her walks. We had to put her down at age 19 in early 2012, just when our 20-year-old Noah was  struggling on a year off from college in San Francisco, far from home. In Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, which Noah read as a kid, everyone has an animal daemon who shares their fate. Did Noah begin to die inside when he lost his beloved Wags?

Eleven months later, we found a handsome, high strung Shepherd-Shar Pei mix at the pound, who we named Lobo. I thought having a dog in the house again, especially a young, energetic dog, would cheer Noah on his visits home. But he barely petted or teased Lobo in what turned out to be the last months of his life. He’d lost the will to laugh or play. 

In the last photo we have of Noah, he’s smiling down at Lobo after running the Los Angeles Marathon. It was the first real smile we’d seen in a long time. Something about Lobo’s essential dog-ness managed to penetrate Noah’s despair, at least for a moment.

Two days later, Lobo was the last living thing to see Noah before he took his life in the garage. I’m guessing that Noah in his altered state didn’t notice Lobo at all. In the days and months that followed, Lobo would learn to stand beside weeping people and lick our knees.

Now, the animals that once comforted Noah are a lifeline for my husband and me. When Lobo finally stops squirrel duty for the day and lies down on the floor in the evening, I lie down and drape myself over him, just like Noah used to do with the much more compliant Wags. We scoop up Miso, our son Ben’s little French bulldog, and cuddle her tight; she grunts and gurgles contentedly, as if purring.  We kiss all the animals on the head, even the chickens. (Actually, only Bryan kisses the chickens, daring to defy the health recommendations of the CDC .)

“That’s ridiculous,” Noah would have said about the CDC's warning. He would have tackled Miso on the rug and chased Lobo in circles around the yard. How we miss his animal spirit.

To my fellow survivors: How have animals been part of your loved one’s life and your own grief journey? Spending time with animals, whether yours or borrowed, becomes more precious than ever after trauma. Let’s hear it for the simple power of pet therapy!