Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Moment of Grace

The soul never thinks without a picture

Photograph by Marsha Steckling

Billy was one I agonized over
I agonized the first time I saw him frolicking with his brothers across the street from where Magnolia Sammy lived...would they hurt Sammy? This was, after all, a very much and still abandoned area of New Orleans and how would these dogs, a feral trio, have any way of knowing just how much effort I had put into Magnolia Sammy’s careSo, I agonized when I reported them and asked the local animal control to trap them and I agonized some more until ARNO’s Executive Director personally requested that the trio be released to ARNO if and when it was determined that no further progress could be made with these feral dogs. And I again agonized when Billy and his brothers Jesse and James joined us at ARNO last November because they hid from us and the world around them, all three, crammed skillfully into one Igloo doghouse to avoid the big bad world around them.

And so the time passed and the three brothers progressed, Jesse more than the others and unfortunately we lost James while he was undergoing treatment for heartworms and then there was Billy or Billy the Kid. Billy was the nervous one, the shy one, the frightful one who clutched your leg with both front paws as you tried to take him for an afternoon walk.
Billy is the only dog who can run across the street while crawling on his belly, maybe he thought if he crouched down really low, nothing could get him. It is probably all these qualities in Billy that were the reason I love him, he is vulnerability and sweetness and complete innocence and anyone who met Billy could see he was special.

And so that time finally came, the day someone else would meet Billy and fall head over heels in love with this child-like creature, a day that I often thought would never come. Yes, I agonized over that as well, what if Jesse goes first? Jesse is what others might perceive as a more adjusted, a more normal dog and I worried that noone would ever see the Billy we see, the Billy we love if Jesse was adopted first because Jesse is Billy’s brother and their bond is a joy to watch but also my own personal albatross. Billy and Jesse, as feral dogs born on the streets of New Orleans after Katrina, would never be those small fluffy litter-mates that are separated every day, in every corner of the world, as new puppies are adopted into loving homes.....Billy and Jesse were each other’s safety zone for nearly two years and together, they could face anything, together, they faced everything. And so I carried that albatross around my neck, never once imagining that someone, somebody would love Billy for just exactly who he was and I’ll never understand why that never occurred to me because those of us who knew Billy better than anyone loved him because he was Billy. And so the day came when someone else did too.

Maybe it is because she is a professional photographer, or maybe it is because she loves him just as much as we do, or maybe it is because the eyes are truly the windows to the soul, that my favorite photograph of Billy was taken by a woman who came to help us for a week in May, she came from Colorado and she must have fallen hard. And so when I heard the news a month later that she wanted Billy, she wanted us to send him home to Colorado, I wondered how I could make the world see Billy’s soul in that photo, make them see the Billy we knew. But then I realized I didn’t know if Billy or any animal has a soul and so I decided to find out.

And so the days passed and I spent as much time as I could with Billy and Jesse but could not find a way to explain Billy’s soul and soon put the thought away. I played with both brothers, I walked them, I sat with them, I watched them run across the small hills in the canine pool area and I agonized again, I agonized because Billy was free and happy and fun and dog-like when he was chasing Jesse or running away from Jesse, and how they liked to run. Would Billy ever be this creature we loved, this child-like boy who came alive when Jesse was near? I agonized and played and agonized some more and on our last night together, Jesse and Billy played until they dropped right there in the dirt they had dug holes in for hours and although I took many photos that night, the images of their last frolic together is burned into my memory forever

And so the morning finally came and after one last and very long walk together, I made up some excuse for Tom, ARNO’s on-site and long-term volunteer, to put Jesse back into his kennel but the truth was that I didn’t want to put Jesse away and look at his face and then walk away from only Jesse, no Jesse and Billy. And so I sat next to Billy in the pre-dawn darkness and hugged him and cried and was finally convinced by Tom’s words that this is why we do this and Billy had a family waiting for him, so I had better get going. And so, after Tom said goodbye to Billy, Billy said goodbye to ARNO, his home for the past nine months. And it was so hard to say goodbye to him at the airport, it was so hard not to change my mind and let him stay, not with a family the way he should spend his life, but here with Jesse so that once a day he could come out and be with Jesse and be that “normal” dog who plays and jumps and runs and loves life, but I sent him on his way, and only because I knew that the person on the other end already loved Billy, he was already a loved dog and I held onto that love as the hope that Billy would eventually be that normal dog there, too.

As I left ARNO later that afternoon, I felt hopeful, we had gotten word that Billy was with his family on the way from the airport to his new home, his new life, and he was sniffing her fingers, his new mom’s hand, and I was hopeful that he remembered her and that she loved him. And as I drove through the pouring rain toward New Orleans, toward other dogs, other Billy’s, I was hopeful but melancholy, happy but sad and then it was all washed away in one single moment, one single moment of Grace.

As I drove through the downpour, it began to slow and there it was directly and gloriously in front of my eyes and I knew in an instant, it was his, it was Billy’s. Stretched magnificently across the horizon in front of my eyes, not somewhere off in the distance out of the corner of my eyes, but right there, big and bright and beautiful, it was a rainbow. And there was no thought process, it was so much quicker than that, it was an instantaneous recognition of that rainbow that bluebirds fly over, so why oh why can’t I, oh why oh why can’t Billy? And so I knew that I would no longer agonize about Billy being a normal dog, because right there in front of me was the message I had really needed to receive, Billy flew over that rainbow, he had landed, he had made it, and he was the dog he was meant to be, the Billy I loved, the Billy we loved, the Billy that she will now love.

But this moment, this rainbow, this message was not cause for the tears that rolled freely down my face because it was the moment that the albatross was lifted from my neck for Billy, this moment, this rainbow, this message was cause for tears and goose-bumps and hairs that stood up on my neck and deeper breathing, this rainbow was cause for all of this because it was the moment in my life that rang clear for me, a moment that was significant because if my recognition of that rainbow was as instant as it had been, then there could be only one explanation. The person who for most of her life never questioned whether God exists, and for most of her younger life believed that God in fact did not exist, now, immediately recognizes when her questions, her prayers, her worries are being answered. Whereas I was always a doubter, a non-believer, a non-religious person, I can no longer deny that I am a very spiritual person. I may not go to church, but I see God’s church all around me, everyday.

I don’t believe that I found God in the past two years, God was always there. I don’t believe that these animals I have worked with were messengers sent from God either. What I do believe is that my efforts to help the animals in post-Katrina New Orleans has brought me full circle.
And so when I go back and read my own writings from these past two years, I see the transformation in my words, I can see when the questioning began for me, I can see when the realization of purpose took place, the realization that I have a purpose and what I believe is that in all my years in many chosen vocations, office manger, student, paralegal, in all those years and during all that work, work that I enjoy immensely, I never began questioning, I never began reflecting, and subsequently, I never began writing about those thoughts, those reflections, those self-searching moments....but now I do. And so I believe that while these animals, these creatures, no, they have not been my own personal line to a higher power, they are innocent creatures who I have helped, but it was during those two years, that time in my life when I was giving my heart and soul to helping those creatures, that I was also opening my heart to others.
I was opening my heart to children, to elderly, to homeless, to poor, to people so unlike who I was or who I appeared to be to others who only looked at me but without an open heart may not have truly seen me. And so I believe that a deeper message was received when I saw that rainbow, I saw that rainbow and instantly knew what it was and now I know that while I spent a week or so trying to determine if animals have souls, it wasn’t until that rainbow that I truly understood, finally, that I have a soul.

And so I have no information, no research, no deep thoughts on whether animals and my beloved Billy has a soul, but then, that moment of Grace, that realization of my own soul, where did that journey begin? I only have to look into the eyes in that photo, my new favorite photo of Billy, Billy at his home, and I know that I already have the answer that I couldn’t find.
Photograph by Marsha Steckling

Monday, June 04, 2007

God, grant me.......

F i n d i n g S e r e n i t y

I had been on this street a thousand and one times since Katrina but I had never seen her before, she appeared and I still have no idea from where or even which direction. She foraged in the shells of an empty lot, looking for food or so I thought. I quietly placed my trapping gear into my truck so that she would not be startled but even the sound of an approaching vehicle was too overwhelming and I was able to see only that she, he, was a shepherd, a German Shepherd and “it” was frightened. Immediately, and nearly reflex-like, I followed slowly behind as my mind began the plans for what lied ahead. Would she take food or would she run? Would she allow me to approach her or would she warn against it? Would she be able to be quickly trapped or would she prove to be elusive and in need of patience?

For nearly thirty minutes I tried everything possible to get her to take any of the small “pre-bait” portions of food I placed around the Tulane/Gravier section of New Orleans, all in locations that she had wandered through as I followed her haphazard movements along what seemed to be a path she was completely unfamiliar with. She had the look of the newly lost, the recently dumped, confused, disoriented, scared and nose to the ground. Each time I placed food down, she either ignored it or ran away if she spotted me, this was beginning to look could I help her if I couldn’t get her to stay in one area, even for food? As my mind subconsciously rewrote those plans, I climbed back into the truck to start the drive home, knowing that I would be back in less than an hour but also knowing that the odds were not good that I would easily find her. I wondered, what are the odds of trapping her if I can’t find her again? As I neared the end of the street, S. Miro Street, the street I have driven one thousand and one times, I caught a glimpse of her heading back toward me as she trotted along the sidewalk on Tulane Avenue and again, almost as if reflex, I threw my truck into reverse so she wouldn’t see me and run, and planned one final food drop......surely, she would have to cross directly over this food and this is where I would return with a trap.

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change.....

Although it must have been a sound first before anything else, in the seconds it unfolded it was a feeling first as my heart sunk in my chest and then a processed thought as my mind registered it and finally, a sound, this one audible and registered and I will never forget that sequence with its’ time-lapse quality and I will never forget what flesh and bone sounds like as an automobile speeds into a life. I know that I will often recall the sound of skin as it is dragged across asphalt, the thud of a body as it finally comes to rest only ten feet in front of me and I will do my best to never again wonder about a place, a destination that must be important, too important for a human being who just ended a life to postpone his arrival there because he is checking to see if anything can be done to help her, or at least getting out of his car, or possibly just stopping for a brief second......wherever that important place is, it’s nowhere I want to go.

the Courage to Change the things I can.....................
She couldn’t possibly be alive, I saw her as she cartwheeled underneath the metal that dragged her down but, and again almost as if reflex, I ran the ten feet and was shocked to see she was still breathing...barely. Prayer is evidently more reflexive than tears as all emotion placed themselves on hold...but I remember the prayers and I remember trying to broker a deal with God to help me pick her up without causing more pain and I remember the deal where I asked for green lights and no potholes and I particularly remember the deal where I begged to please just let me find a veterinarian who hadn’t gone home yet on a Friday evening and who would be willing to help end her pain. The crunch, the drag, the thud, I knew she couldn’t be saved but all my deals were for the end of her pain and ironically, what I remember the most is that I never offered anything in return so I guess that makes me a pretty poor deal broker, doesn’t it?

And the Wisdom to know the Difference

They weren’t really deals if nothing was offered in return, they were truly, prayers. Prayers are made to a higher power, to God and every prayer I uttered was for her, so that she could find peace without more pain. I think my prayers were heard because along the fifteen minute drive to the veterinarian clinic, somewhere around twelve minutes into her dying, her pain ended and my began. I drove with only my left hand so that my right hand could hold a bloody paw, a paw that let me know she was still alive and I knew she was still alive, barely, until those gasps that came all in a row and quickly and then her paw in my hand let me know that her pain was over, Thank God. My prayers stopped at that point and the emotions checked began as I drove the rest of the way to the clinic through blurred clumps of mascara. She, yes she, was about six to seven years old, she was without identification, no tags, no chip but someone, somewhere used to be hers and they left their mark with a spay scar. She left her mark on the back seat of my truck where her life bled out from her broken body, and her blood was red like yours and mine and her blood was warm like yours and mine and her blood was real, just like yours, mine and that human on his way to an important place. She left her mark elsewhere as well.


The Serenity Prayer is relevant for anyone who struggles and I struggle often. My struggle is not with the courage part or the part about changing things, and its not the Wisdom part struggle is with accepting the things I cannot change and so Serenity has been a lifelong unattainable. I have never been able to do enough, help as many as I should, be good enough at, and that is par for the course with any individual who works to help others....rescue, relief, shelter, workers in fields or industries where another’s pain and suffering is always right around the corner. With no skills or ability at accepting that I cannot change everything, Serenity or inner peace with myself has always escaped me, consistently and constantly replaced by plans.

Serenity, or at least the head of the path toward that end finally found me, I didn’t find it, she found me. She looked and felt and lived and breathed and died as a German Shepherd, a shepherd who I call Serenity and what she brought to me is what I have been unable to find on my own, Acceptance. It took some time even after Serenity found me, it took until three o’clock the next morning when I found myself just sitting in the park on my street, looking at that weird dust that seemed to be floating in the even weirder fuzzy circle which encircled a full moon.
As I sat there just transfixed with a strange looking moon, my tears had stopped hours before, a strange thought occurred to me, one which I had never contemplated before and that was the realization that plans have always substituted for acceptance but ultimately, it is not my plans that are the Master Plan, that was written by another.

Maybe it wasn’t the plan for me to “save” the shepherd that had appeared out of nowhere, maybe I was there for something else. No, I really can’t save them all, I can’t do everything, be everywhere and I can’t end all the suffering in this world, and if I can truly accept that, maybe I can understand what my real role in the shepherd’s world was.....maybe it was my job to help her die instead. Serenity found me, I hope in some small way, in the back of my truck, with her bloody paw in my hand, I hope Serenity finally found some peace.