Saying Goodbye to Echo

Echo on his second and last winter campout, making tracks across the lake.

This post is in memory of our dog Echo, who died this spring.

I’ve dreaded writing about it, hence the spacious gap since I last posted here. But he deserves the tribute. I’m hoping that what I share will be comforting or inspiring to someone out there in the vast expanse of the internet who has experienced something similar, or who just needs to hear it.

The Dying Part

April 18 started out like any other day. The kids were off to school, my wife was at the gym, and I was rushing to gear up for my bike ride to work. As usual, I had given myself 30 minutes for a commute that requires on the best of days about 28 minutes, and on the worst of days about 40.

This was not the best of days. On my way out, I noticed Echo in the back yard, not being his usual spunky self. Instead of bouncing around, chasing birds, squirrels, falling leaves, any moving object, or the mere thought of any moving object, he was curled up by the door with his head in his paws. Confused, I went out to check on him.

I knew it was serious when he didn’t jump up to greet me with tongue and tail wagging. He could barely lift his head in my direction. “What’s up buddy?” I asked, as I knelt beside him. His dark brown eyes were heavy and sad like only a dog’s eyes can be. He was clearly in pain. Then I saw blood around his mouth, and my heart dropped. “No, no, no…” I remember saying, over and over. “What’s happening? What’s happening?” I was scared and worried.

Already late for work, I texted my wife to ask if she could take him to the vet. I gave Echo a hug and was off on my bike.

The ride to work was a blur, a swirl of wind, tears, and prayers. After some meetings, I haphazardly prepped for class, while checking in constantly with my wife, who was at the vet. Just before class started we were notified that Echo had eaten something indigestible and it was stuck in his intestines. Surgery could help, but would cost between $2,200 and $4,500. We needed to decide as soon as possible.

First time on grass.

I taught my class in a fog, ended early, and raced home, praying all the way that this would somehow work out. It didn’t, and we chose that afternoon, with much tears and gut-wrenching, to put Echo to sleep. I held his head in my arms and sobbed as the vet injected a lethal blue liquid into an IV in his wrist.

What a terrible decision, having to price out the life of a friend. My staunch frugality was brought to its knees in shame. But, it won in the end. Given our financial circumstances and the less than strong confidence from the vet that surgery would be successful, we decided that the cost wasn’t feasible or justified.

For consolation, I’ve reflected on stories from friends who grew up on farms, where animals were always living and dying, where the human circle of life spreads its wide orbit around countless smaller ones. Although sad, death is natural and normal. Mostly, I’ve reflected on people who’ve lost children, family members, and friends, people whose grief dwarfs my own in comparison, like the moon dwarfs an artificial satellite passing between it an earth.

That evening, we buried our friend in the woods. The brief ceremony focused on what we loved about Echo, and the lessons he taught us. Under my breath, I asked him to forgive me, for this and for all the times I lost my temper and got frustrated with him. I resolved to do better, to pay forward what he gave me with his short life.

The Living Part

We brought Echo into our home as a tiny puppy just over two years ago, during one of the few snowstorms of a mild Nebraska winter. The farmer we bought him from told us he had never been outside. His paws had only ever tread soft carpet, his face and fur had only ever felt indoor, conditioned air. It was a pleasure to introduce him to the world.

Echo’s first snow, at about 10 weeks old.

His first steps into the snowy grass of our back yard were cautious, and preceded by lots of curious sniffing. I wondered if snow had a smell, a thin, crisp, subtle smell that’s really the frozen absence of other smells, the richer, deeper ones that proliferate in heat and life.

To a dog, it must be more than that. Snow, like the other ingredients that make up wintertime, must contribute to the season in a way that only an animal can sense. It must have a variety of smells, from dry to melting, light and fresh to hard and old, and I’m sure Echo learned them all in his first winter.

Fetching in some icy creek water.

After the thaw, Echo experienced grass, mud, wood, rocks, and trash, followed by flowers, bugs, and, finally, water. Wet, wonderful, water. To Echo, everything outdoors was the best ever, but water was supreme. Water was his favorite medium, and he was the paintbrush, swirling and splashing and absorbing, then emerging in a flurry to paint his canvas of earth in all directions.

Echo loved life completely, down to the last drop. His unashamed enthusiasm turned the drabbest and dreariest of days into colorful celebrations of existence. His energy was contagious, and it will be sorely missed.

A rare moment of pause.

Equally as important as his love of life was Echo’s unconditional love of every walking thing. That love was sometimes manifest in a canine instinct to stalk and hunt. Otherwise, Echo wouldn’t hurt a fly, except in his reckless play. This made him the worst watch dog, but also the most gentile, forgiving friend to all he met. Echo was instantly your bestie, without judgment or qualifications. His example is one we can all learn from.

Thinking While Parenting

Since I officially became an adult, I’m trying to spend more time thinking and less time not thinking (see here). It sounds simple enough, but thinking is nearly impossible in a house that’s being ambushed and taken over by kids.

If ideas are light, parenting is a merciless black hole, the antithesis of thought. There’s always a distraction, a child in distress, an offensive noise or sound, to counteract an idea just as it forms in our mind. Because of its mass and gravitational pull, parenting consumes but doesn’t reflect light.

Living on the event horizon of a black hole is problematic for two reasons. First, life disappears with little to show for it; fewer thoughts produce fewer memories (again, see here). Second, the result of not thinking, day after day, is learned thoughtlessness, a habitual state of unconscious reaction. Unconscious habit is the path of least resistance, one with a deep rut down the center, and we go where it takes us.

The path of default reactions takes us to the Doldrums, a parenting Slump, where the days are dreary and mundane, our kids are noisy and pesky, and the future is bleak. Unconsciously, we end up interpreting our experiences through the lens of self, in terms of our own wants and needs (see This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace). Parenting becomes a drag, a responsibility that we willingly accept, but one that gets in the way.

To break free, we have to realize that we created the black hole. We are the masters of our family universe, at least until our kids turn into teenagers, i.e., klingons. We have to get our acts together and take control of our mind and our inter-stellar situation.

Taking control requires creativity. For example, when the kids plug the sink and flood the bathroom, we can react in one of two ways. The first comes easily and without thought. It is driven by our exasperation at having to clean up another mess. It involves stern looks, harsh tones, and some form of punishment. The second comes with some difficulty and mental effort. It is driven by our desire to make the best of things, and to teach our kids to do the same. It involves instruction on the main functions and capacities of a toilet, and a demonstration of how cleaning up can be fun.

To think while parenting, we have to parent outside the box. When your kids give you a flooded bathroom, make an indoor slip-and-slide.

Recently, my wife went out of town and I had our third-dozen kids to myself for the weekend. One day, our girls tried to make pixie dust, spilling flour, sugar, and food coloring on the kitchen floor and then dancing through it and across the house. The house didn’t float away to never-never land. And I was not Peter Pan. I was Captain Hook.

Next time, I want to be Pan the Man. I want to be positive and make the best of the situation.

Thoughtful parenting leads to a conscious decision to be better, to change, to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive, to remember how fortunate we are just to be alive, to have these brief moments with the people we love most. It leads to a change in perspective, where instead of focusing on the darkness we focus on our family, brilliant stars, radiating light.

Time Travel and How I Got to Be Thirty

Living the dream in 1986.

At the turn of a decade, I feel obligated to ask myself where the time has gone. It just vanished. One minute it was here, the next minute it wasn’t. Why is that? Why does everything seem like it was just yesterday? Why do I feel like I’m prematurely old, like I’ve time-traveled from twenty to thirty? Also, why can’t I grow a beard?

Here’s one thing I’ve learned in thirty years: time only slips by when we let it. Looking back on my life, the slowest moments were the ones I thought about the most, for better or worse. Thinking is the key to pausing the clock.

It worries me that my memory is foggy, or gone, of things that happened less than ten years ago. My wife will tell me a story from our trip home one summer, and I’ll have no idea what she’s talking about, like I’m hearing it for the first time, even though I’m one of the main characters. In my twenties, I got used to having my nose to the grindstone, so much so that a trip with my family was just another task on my list. I developed a habit of efficient thinking, sparing brain cells only for thoughts and ideas that helped me get something done.

This all changed in the middle of graduate school, the busiest years of my life. Three things happened: I camped, hiked, and spent more time with my family; I stopped watching TV every night; and I kept a journal. As a result, my life has more details, and I can actually remember them.

Life is like a book. If we never stop to think, it is gradually compressed into a few brief pages, an executive summary, and, looking back, that’s all we have to represent it. But as we ponder on our days, weeks, and years, simple experiences gain substance and value, life grows, and pages are filled. Reflecting on life is one of the secrets to making life full of memories and meaning.

But reflecting doesn’t mean just stopping to smell the roses; it means stopping to watch ourselves smell the roses; it’s not just lifting our gaze from the path that will fall under our next footstep and seeing the trail ahead; it’s stepping off the path to a different vantage point, one that reveals our last thousand footsteps and our next thousand, including our destination at the top of the mountain.

It’s not enough just to seize the day; any other life form can do that. When a dog escapes from the backyard, it holds nothing back, running, jumping, slobbering, wagging, living life to the fullest. Even dogs can seize the day. It’s not enough to squeeze our day for all it’s worth, if we don’t savor it, internalize it, understand it, remember it. Making time count involves using that thing which sets us apart from any other animal: reason, or critical thought.

After we make the most of our day, we have to make sense of our day. Then, we can learn from our mistakes and recognize and appreciate the roses or the inspiring vistas that we didn’t know were there. Not only will our story be full of details, but it will have a theme.

So, at the dawn of my fourth decade, I’m going to step back and reflect on where I’ve been, how I got here, and where I’m headed. What is my theme? And what will it be going forward?

The products of this reflection will appear here as soon as I have time to write about them. For now, I’ll share some advice, which, having completed my twenties, I now have the authority to do: take some time to think. Turn off the TV, or the computer, and talk over the day with a friend, or a child, or a spouse, or with yourself. Think into your journal, or in prayer. A decade from now, you might be glad you did.

Seizing the Day vs Investing in the Future

My little girlThis month marks the beginning of my last semester of graduate school. We’ve been here in Minnesota long enough to witness a road work project from start to completion, barely; long enough to have three babies, none of them twins; long enough to have lived in three different apartments, and to have a toddler grow up into a kindergartener. But, soon, hopefully, I will finish my PhD, at which point we will move on with our lives.

Finally – that’s the first word that comes to mind. Finally, I’ve finished school. Finally, I can start a career. Finally, we can find a home and establish some roots. Finally, we can make friends that we won’t say goodbye to as soon as we get to know them.

The problem is, life is full of finallys.

I think we all struggle at some point with the grass-is-always-greener mentality, sometimes in combination with the best-is-yet-to-come mentality. As a result of this combination, there are multiple fences and multiple lawns, the current one worse than the next. Another lawn is often greener than our own because our sprinklers are aiming over the fence.

We have to water our own lawn.

There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead, saving for tomorrow, investing now in something that will pay off in the future; unless our happiness gets tangled up in the saving, investing, and putting-off; unless we sacrifice so much of the present that the future loses its meaning or its value; unless the future never actually becomes the present.

Too often, we put happiness, good times with family and friends, thank yous, I’m sorrys, and I love yous, on hold, until tomorrow, the weekend, graduation, or summer vacation. Instead, we have to be happy now, enjoy the journey, carpe diem. We have to invest in today.

My wife and I started college and our family at the same time, a decision we’ve never regretted. But in my first couple years I reasoned that studying for 12 hours, only to spend a few minutes with my wife and kids each day, was a necessary sacrifice. I was investing in myself, in my education, so I could get a better job, and hopefully have a more flexible schedule and more reliable income down the road, at which point I’d spend more time with my family. I’ve since changed my strategy.

They say that regular stock market investments early in life are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more, in the long run, than investments of twice the amount later in life. So, I think many of us weigh the trade-off in this way: work hard now, work less later, versus sacrifice family time now, enjoy family time later. The assumption is that the financial future is more important, and more valuable, than the family present.

The problem is, the same forces at work with financial investments also apply to investments in family and friends, and life; as with money, compounding interest creates rich relationships with loved ones as well. This is all theoretical for us, since we’re pretty new at the family thing, and the life thing, but I suspect that the preschool years are just as important as any others, both for us and our children.

I think, and hope, that spending quality time with my kids, now, will help us build a relationship that will weather adolescence, fingers crossed. So, rather than having financial security when my kids reach high school, I’d prefer to barely get by in exchange for some family security. Hopefully, we can have both. But I’d rather err on the side of family.

Read more here.