A Man for All Seasons

This piece originally appeared in the Women’s Sports Foundation newsletter in 1995.  My father passed away in October 1994, just after I completed my internship with the organization.

Dad and Virginia. You knew there had to be a dog in this post....

Dad and Gin.

You could say my father took a passing interest in my sports career. We threw anything that would fly: baseballs, softballs, footballs, basketballs, soccer balls. We made divots with pitching wedges and craters with shot puts. Dad cross-cut the diamond in our front yard to create our own Candlestick Park. I did my part by trampling the grass in the base paths and in the batter’s box by the wooden plate Dad had planted in the front of the swing set. In the winter, the slanted gravel driveway hosted dribbling and shooting contests, tactical discussions about offenses and defenses, and the occasional one-on-one game. Our house was my arena, the yard my stadium and my parents my coaches, umpires and fans.

Dad, Christmas 1990

Dad, Christmas 1990

Although my mother attended nearly every game and with my father coached many of my teams as I grew up, Dad and I were inseparable. Sports gave us the opportunity to build a special relationship that many fathers and daughters never experience. His physical and emotional support were major factors in my development as an athlete and as a person. He taught me to be confident in my abilities, to persevere even when the odds were against me, and to respect my opponents as well as my allies. Although I learned these skills on the field, they have been invaluable in the classroom and the office. From the time I could swing a bat, Dad took me to the high school baseball diamond and pitched to me, ducking line drives and dancing around ground balls. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t get out of the way, and I would wince at the sound of a not-so-softball on bone. Before retrieving the ball, he would point to the place between his eyebrows and say, “Next time, I want you to hit me right here.” My father never let gender stand in the way of my competing in any sport. When I was eight, I wanted to play baseball. Dad encouraged me to try out for the city league even though I had been discouraged by many local baseball officials. Surprisingly, I was the first pick of the draft, and I soon grew accustomed to being the only girl in the league. When I was 10, Dad volunteered to coach a boys’ soccer team so I could play on a more competitive level. He continued to support and encourage me in high school when I wanted to play boys’ golf instead of volleyball.

I loved that catcher's mitt.  It's the one Dad and my grandmother bought me when I was nine.

I loved that catcher’s mitt. It’s the one Dad and my grandmother bought me when I was nine.

My fondest memories are of our trips to the sporting goods store. The search for the perfect shoe, the feel of the soft leather batting gloves on my hands, wrapped around the handle of one bar after another. Dad taught me about the different types of leather grains in fielder’s gloves: “Always get the one that’s been on the rack the longest,” he would say. “Let everyone help you break it in.” We picked out everything together: soccer balls and basketballs, a backboard and rim, cleats and sneakers. He involved me in every equipment decision except one: a full set of catcher’s gear and a mitt when I was nine years old. He and my grandmother gave it to me before my first Little League baseball season.

Proud Poppa, 1989

I enjoyed sharing my accomplishments with my father. When I was named a softball All-American as a sophomore at Muskingum College in Ohio, Dad walked around for months with a big grin, saying, “An All-American as a sophomore. That’s just great!” When I was a senior, the Muskingum women’s basketball team earned a berth in the Final Four in Minnesota. It meant so much to see my parents in the stands, watching me play in two games that, until then, I (and they) had only dreamed about. The following week, Dad flew to Florida to watch my softball team’s spring training. It wasn’t my play that made the week special, it was the fact that my father was there. We relived the Final Four, discussed the mechanics of my swing and enjoyed our time together. My father’s involvement in girls’ and women’s sports went beyond a love of watching me play and coaching my teams. In the years after I graduated from college, he volunteered as an assistant coach for the high school soccer and softball teams, coached a junior high basketball team and assisted with the summer high school softball team. So much of what I am was influenced by my father: my determined mind set, my competitiveness, my ability to lead quietly. In my 20-year, 10-sport career, my parents missed about 25 games, most of which were long-distance games while I was in college. He passed away late last year, but not before passing on his love of sports to me and many other young people. As a father, coach, umpire, and fan, he will be greatly missed.

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Nota Bene

Harley, Helen and I have just returned from a walk in the woods. Forty-five minutes is about all Harley can handle these days. The short duration doesn’t seem to bother Helen as she enjoys running out front and returning, often with news of what’s to come on our path.

We’re on the rickety old deck at the back of the cabin now, with Forest Service brown paint peeling from the floor boards, and screw heads reaching out for bare feet and paw pads. The boards screech and bounce as Helen trots from side to side, almost manic in her desire to take it all in. The deck’s boundary is a series of slats and railings. The slats are just far enough apart that each dog can extend a head and neck out into the breeze. The wind has a sound here, rushing through the pines, hustling up the mountain.

As Harley stands with his head through slats, surveying the forest floor, I trail my hand along his side, coarse fur escaping into the breeze. My attention is drawn to his back paws and something I’ve been watching for a few months now, the fourth toenail on his right paw. It’s significantly shorter than the others, worn and oddly shaped. I’ve known that this was coming but that doesn’t make it any easier to see.

Harley likely has degenerative peripheral neuropathy. I say “likely” because I have no interest in a spinal tap to confirm or deny the results for a disease that has no cure. What I know is that his ability to lift his right leg, swing it through and put it down squarely is deteriorating. That fourth nail is the canary in the coal mine. When he walked with his “normal” gangly gait, he rotated his knee inward, lifted his paw, swung it through and put it down. Now, he’s not lifting that leg enough for the paw to clear the ground. The world is his emery board and that fourth toenail is being ground away with every step.

He’s not unhappy and I don’t think he’s in pain, but he is aware of his diminishing capacity. The neuropathy affects his balance and proprioception, as well. He is more careful –and fearful—of shiny, slippery floors. He lies down during car rides now, letting Helen have the prime window position. He is more likely to lean on humans and objects, gladly accepting a break from holding his rear end up on his own.

I’ve taken note of all these things and many others as Harley continues to age. I’ve paid attention. Paying attention involves a transaction: By giving my focus, I gain awareness. But awareness isn’t free. There’s a price to be paid for paying attention and the currency is emotion: sadness, anxiety, apprehension, joy, contentment, peace. Sometimes, I’m willing pay the toll but other times, I begrudgingly dig into my pocket for that precious silver coin. Either way, the toll is taken.

I don’t have to travel this road. I could ignore his stumbles, turn away from his falls. I could leave his troubles behind and focus on my own. But I won’t. I’ll pay attention, no matter the cost. He is worth it and much more.

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Beautiful mornings are different here. It’s 65 degrees, overcast with a steady 10 mile per hour breeze. It’s not windy, the air doesn’t buffet me, but rather wraps around me like a silky top sheet, billowing gently across my skin. Harley and Helen and I are enjoying a leisurely walk in Fort Lowell Park, one of our favorite destinations. The vibrant green of the little league fields, the smell of freshly mowed grass floating on the breeze, the trees dancing and swaying slowly in a perfect rhythm our steps – they all contribute to a perfect morning as we glide through the park.

I’m lost in thought this morning, letting ideas swirl around me–something I’ve been unable to do for a few months. Shut up, be quiet and listen. As we walk, the Harley and Helen explore the winter homes of the resident burrowing rodents at the park, the fresh earth calling to them. An occasional head pokes up to check on the disturbance from above.

We walk a bit farther and I’m strangely distracted by a foursome of seniors playing doubles tennis on the hard courts across the fields. We saunter toward them and I lower myself to the ground. As I do so, Harley nuzzles me with his prickly whiskers, gently rubbing his face against my cheek. Helen is just confused about why we stopped. She hasn’t learned to sit and enjoy the moment. That will come later, but for now, she stays on high alert as Harley and I relax in the grass.

As I’m running my fingers through the mishmash of coat in his right hip and thigh, the blizzard beings. It’s just a small flurry at first, but as I speed my cadence, the fur flies. He’s blowing coat, ridding himself of the unnecessary undercoat in preparation for a long, hot summer. Thankfully, I’m upwind of this mass exodus of fur. Eventually, he gives in to gravity and just sits on my lap, one hip resting softly on my thighs. I stroke his back, gently massaging his lean muscles, enjoying our time together.

We watch the tennis match a bit longer, the men doing their best to get to drop shots just over the net and lobs into the corners. After a few more points, we decide to move on. As we rise and start our trek back toward the car, a small family approaches. Mother, father and a young son, about 5 years old. The boy has a round face with dark hair peeking out from under the too-big baseball cap that sits slightly askew on his head. The boy turns to his dad and quietly says, “I want to pet the dog.” Dad makes eye contact with me and I confirm that it’s OK to pet the big one but the smaller one is too nervous.

The boy moves quietly toward Harley and me, his hands at his side, his pace measured. Harley is bent down nibbling in some grass and glances up to say hello to the boy then returns to his snack. The boy pets Harley on the neck with a gentleness I rarely see in kids his age. His eyes are gentle. He is an old soul. The boy strokes Harley’s fur as I comment, “You know how to say hi to dogs. Do you have a dog at home?” His response is pure innocence. “I do. His name is Lucky. He lets me hug him.” As he says these words, he gives Harley a soft hug around the neck and shoulders, his small arms barely reaching Harley’s chest. As he pulls back, the little boy says, “Lucky lets me kiss him, too.” And with that, he bends forward and places a delicate kiss between Harley’s shoulder blades, all that was available as Harley continued with his grass snack.

The boy gently caressed Harley one last time then followed his folks as they moved on toward the rest of their morning. As they walked away, I said, “Lucky is a very lucky dog to have a boy like you.” He smiled and skipped lightly back to hold his mother’s hand.

Normally, when we go on walks and meet folks, it’s Harley spreading love and quiet joy. But today, we received that gift, a simple act of kindness, a gentle kiss. Thank you, little boy.

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Learning to Fall

A brilliant pair of orioles is working on two blocks of suet in the mesquite tree. They swing gently in the wind, easily maintaining their balance while they enjoy the seed and rich sweetness of the meal. Corkie rests quietly beside me while I stroke his thick fur. His coat is a confusion of dense, white Corgi curls and longer, Golden wisps. It feels like freshly picked cotton, soft and loosely enmeshed, but not tangled.

Corkie is about 15 years old and is showing his age. When I started working with Corkie and his Cheyanne, I was called in to help his sister, who has a noticeable limp on a front limb and two weak knees. As is sometimes the case, my attention was redirected to Corkie when he began to lose his footing. At first, it was simple things. A missed step off the brick patio, a stumble on the road during a walk. Things that could easily be explained by his curious nature and desire to get anywhere quickly. Then it got worse and couldn’t be explained away. Nosedives on the kitchen floor. Sudden descents on the rug in the bedroom. He wasn’t slipping or tripping, his front left leg was giving out.

As his balance slipped, so did his spirits. He became more selective about which curiosities he would pursue. Was it worth it to get up? Add to that his gradual but now complete hearing loss and the result was a stationary Corgi/Golden mix—two breeds that are known for anything but stillness, even in advanced age.

After a trip to the vet and a series of vitamin and drug injections, Corkie’s spirits began to rise. He was curious again. His legs still failed, but he was motivated enough to get his feet dirty again. I have what I call The Dirty Feet Club. I love to see my senior dogs with dirty feet. It means they’re up and moving and experiencing their world. Clean feet are a sign of decline—of mobility and of will.

He still takes walks and he still falls. But he’s learned to turn and tuck his head, to meet the pavement with a glancing blow to his shoulder rather than a jarring direct hit to the nose or chin. I wouldn’t say he’s accepted his limitations. He’s learned to work with them, to avoid injury and still get where he needs to go.

Brooke, his mom, and I are learning to let him fall, too. It hurts to watch that leg buckle under him, the nerve signal stopping just short of delivering its stabilizing message. What we realize now is that this is his solution. He’s learned to fall. Our job is to stay out of the way. Our help only hurts, throwing him off balance and sending him crashing onto his delicate nose. It’s hard to accept falling because it feels like failing. If we listen to Corkie, he tells us that the real failure is not adapting to the current realities. We’re a work in progress, but like Cork, we’re going to keep trying.

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Becoming Judie Kay

Every daughter realizes at some point in her life that, “Dear God, I’ve become my mother.” Sometimes it’s said with a bowed head, shaking slowly side to side and other times with a smile and pride knowing your mother would be proud of the woman you’ve become. I’ve had many moments like these in recent years, though none quite as strong as one I had last week.

The kids and I love to walk at Fort Lowell Park, with its pond, giant old trees, and assorted ball fields. As we often do, we start our walk down what was once the grand entrance to the fort, lined with cottonwood trees, some of the original trees still standing tall. An outpost well outside of the original Tucson settlement, the fort had a post office, extensive kitchens and barracks, parts of each which still remain, albeit protected behind chain link. It’s a beautiful late afternoon, probably one of the last we’ll see until early November. The air is warm but not hot, as the sun is on its downward arc now. The kids explore each tree well with the intensity of a CSI unit, checking trunks closely for clues about previous visitors. We make our way across an open field toward the water.

The pond reminds me of playing at Old Reid Park back home as a kid. Ducks and geese noisily carrying on conversations while turtles pile on the rocks vying for the best sunning spot. Parents and kids joyfully disregard the “Do Not Feed the Ducks” signs, tossing old white bread to the paddling ducks.

Harley and Helen wiggle their noses vigorously as we near the water’s edge — but not too close as each likes to launch into bodies of water in pursuit of water fowl and foul water.

We stroll around the next ballfields and toward the stream. It’s not really a stream, it’s more of a water filtration system constructed to look as natural as possible, with long narrow gullies flowing toward a smaller holding pond. Both kids jump into the shallow water for a drink and quick splash to cool off. Harley enjoys nibbling on the lush grass growing at the edge of a small waterfall. Helen does her best to pluck a few tender blades, turning her head sideways, trying to grasp the grass in the small area at the back of her mouth where her teeth actually come together. It’s tough to eat grass with a bite as bad as Helen’s. No luck this time, either. We finish our walk across two open baseball fields, well watered and thick. They look like a freshly made bed, the grass a vibrant hi-loft comforter laid out across the top of the earth.

We return to the car for refreshments and one of Harley’s favorite parts of the walk. He loves moving water. Pouring the cool water into the bowl is almost impossible as he drinks from the wide stream, splashing water in the car, on me and on his sister. He smiles, and so do I. As they share the rest of the bowl, I’m reminded again of how lucky I am. The joy and pride I feel presses against my chest, swelling inside my rib cage. I wonder if my own mother felt this. I shouldn’t doubt it, though. She told my brothers and me many, many times how proud she was of us and how much she loved us.

Thinking of her, I decide at that moment that we’re going to Dairy Queen. When I was a kid playing Little League, mom took me to my mid-week morning practices. I have no memories of those practices, but the trips to DQ afterward have stayed with me all these years. After practice, she’d ask me if I wanted a milkshake (like I was ever going to say “no”) and we’d cruise toward our favorite shop in the massive light blue Ford station wagon. There was never a question about getting a chocolate shake, always made with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and white milk. The question was always what went with it. I remember two options: the safety-orange Keebler crackers with peanut butter in the middle or a foot-long hotdog with yellow mustard. To me, those will always remind me of mom and those trips to DQ, sitting at a picnic table in the shade behind the shop.

Remembering those special times, I load the kids up and tell them we’re heading to Dairy Queen. We drive the few miles up the road to our closest shop and I pull up to the drive-thru window. I tell the enthusiastic teenager that I’d like a chocolate shake and a small cone in a cup. I motion to the backseat where both dogs now have their heads out the window, knowing that good things come from drive-up windows. The ladies at the bank, Walgreens and occasional McDonald’s have reinforced their theory. Today, they’re right again. The teenaged ice cream wizard tells me that for just $0.89 I can get a dog sundae. Fascinated, I say of course. I’ve never heard of such a thing at DQ. “One or two?” she asks. I have 140lbs of dog in the car. “Better make it two,” I say.

We pull around to the other side and we all watch with huge smiles on our faces as she carefully prepares the sundaes. She fills the medium cups with vanilla ice cream and brings them over to the counter by the window. The kids watch in amazement as she breaks six-inch dog cookies into smaller pieces and artfully arranges them in the cup. I wonder if my eyes were ever that big when I was watching the women make my shake so many years ago. As she sprinkles the last of the crumbs onto the top, the whistling begins. Helen is so excited at this point, I think she’s going to explode. Harley cranes his long neck into the front seat, hoping for a lick as I bring each sundae through the open front window.

Thankfully, there’s a parking space close by, so I pull in and plot my enjoyment strategy. The kids are quite good about sharing food, but this is DQ. I decide to work with one sundae at a time. While one gobbles the ice cream in the cup, I scoop some ice cream onto a broken cookie and hand-fed the other. Incidentally, dogs don’t calmly lick ice cream from a bowl. They try to take as much as possible with one bite, alligator style. Snap! Trying to avoid a brain freeze for both, I convince them to slow down a bit (OK, I hold the ice cream back for a few seconds). Watching them lick ice cream from their jowls and whiskers, tongues smacking and lapping the sweet vanilla liquid, I feel like my mom. We shared so many great moments like this and I loved sharing this with my own kids.

I can only hope that I was a bit neater with my ice cream but I know myself well enough to know that I was probably covered in dirt from practice and spotted with chocolate and/or mustard by the time we finished our time at that shaded picnic table out back. I’m pretty sure mom just smiled, as I’m doing now.

Posted in Harley, Helen, Senior Dogs | 8 Comments

What an In-Teresting Monster.

I scared a dog today. I didn’t mean to, of course, but it happened. I didn’t understand what was making Charlie uncomfortable until I tucked my hair behind my ear and it all became clear.

I have crazy hair. It’s curly, unruly, thick and streaked with silver. OK, streaked is being kind and so is silver. Swaths of gray is probably more accurate. Think less Julianna Marguiles, more Roseanne Roseannadanna.  You get the picture.

I don’t often release the Kraken and wear it down because it takes on a life of its own, expanding to double the size of my head. Most days, it’s on full lockdown, wrapped in a bun (known as the “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” or RBG for short) or a tight pony tail.

I love my brothers but they’ve had a field day making jokes about my hair since I was a little girl. There were references to Broom Hilda, Witchy, Crisco, rats’ nests, Medusa and warnings to stay away from open flames.

By far my favorite and certainly the most enduring —and endearing—hair joke in my family is the one that revolves around a Bugs Bunny cartoon called Water, Water Every Hare. It’s a classic from 1952 in which Bugs finds himself trapped in the castle of an evil scientist who needs a rabbit brain to complete his experiment. The scientist sends Rudolph, a big red-haired monster in tennis shoes to capture Bugs and bring him to the laboratory. In an effort to escape Rudolph and the castle, Bugs becomes a gabby hairdresser and herein lies the fun for kids of all ages.

“My stars! Where did you ever get that awful hairdo? It doesn’t become you at all. For goodness’ sake, let me fix it up. Look how stringy and messy it is. What a shame! Such an interesting monster, too. My stars, if an interesting monster can’t have an interesting hairdo, then I don’t know what things are coming to. In my business, you meet so many interesting people. (Bobby pins, please.) But the most interesting ones are the monsters. Oh, dear, that’ll never stay. We’ll just have to have a permanent.”  Enter the dynamite curlers.  

So on this morning as I entered Charlie’s house, my hair must have been, eh, quite full. I would love to know what was going through his mind as his mom, Pam, opened the door to welcome me in. He knew I was coming and had always met me with an enthusiastic greeting.

Charlie is a Rat Terrier mix, so his normal greetings include a full array of spins, leaps, jumps, barks, paws up dancing and excited sprints. Today? Shock. Complete and utter shock. He stopped mid-jump, and backed away in silent confusion. “It smells like you, but why is your fur so big? Are you mad at me? Are you going to hurt me? I’m going to go wait by my rawhide until Mom makes this better.”

Embarrassed that Charlie was afraid to come near me, I pulled the hair band off my wrist and started to corral the curls. With a few swift swipes, I wrangled my hair into a thick gray-brown bushel and secured it with my brown elastic. As I brought my hands back down from my head, I sat down in the floor and called to Charlie. He approached cautiously, looking at my face and head, amazed at the transformation. Finally, he broke out into an ornery grin and ran onto my lap.

“Whew! Don’t ever do that to your hair again. It’s scary!”

“Thanks, Charlie. I hope my brothers send you something nice.”

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I’m sitting on the couch with Harley curled up at my side, snoozing away. The Keith Jarrett Trio’s cover of “It’s All In the Game,” one of my all-time favorite pieces, is drifting over us. Being alone like this with Harley, I’m struck by how much he reminds me of my father. And not just the gentle snoring.

One of my most vivid memories of my father is a feeling. It’s not a particular moment or event, a baseball game or a special outing, though we had plenty of those. It’s my sense of our relationship. Dad and I didn’t need to talk much. I felt close to my dad by just being in the same room. No conversation or activity required. We understood that about each other. Silence spoke volumes for us.

As Harley repositions himself to get just a little closer and rest his head on my thigh, I get that same sensation:  closeness without complication. Although Harley’s presence at my side seems familiar and comfortable, it’s odd. He rarely falls asleep touching me — let alone with his head on my lap. Like Dad, Harley prefers to be together, but apart, to share a space but maintain his own personal space. When Dad and I sat in the living room, I sat in a rocking chair with a nappy plaid cover and a wobbly footstool. Dad had a special lounge chair with a side table covered with his stuff. A well-worn whetstone, a box of matches, an ugly lamp, used Dilly Bar sticks, an unfinished Old West pistol project.

That’s why tonight I’m amazed and touched that Harley and Dad are sitting so close. I can feel their tenderness and warmth. Now I can feel Dad’s hand on the crest of my head, gently tousling my hair. I can feel his arm come to rest on the top of the cushions behind me. I can see his smile from the corner of my eye. I can feel his girth beside me, substantial and soft.

Somehow, Harley opens this portal for me.  As he’s aged, Harley has become more and more the old man my father never became.  Slowed by knee injuries and chronic maladies, Harley’s settled into a senior routine now.  Our walks are slower and shorter but no less enjoyable. He still flashes that hound dog smile, slightly open mouth and sparkling eyes.

When I imagine Dad as an old man, I see something similar.  He is smiling from a chair in the living room, that table of dad things overflowing beside him.  We’re sitting together watching the day drift by.  We’re looking through a wall full of windows, out over a green pasture onto a sunny October day.  Soft, golden light catches the maple leaves holding on for a few more days. I turn in my chair and tell him that I love him.  He smiles, reaches out for my arm and says, “I love you too, Kasey.”

I know Harley is just sleeping.  His head is pressing into my hip now, his brown velvet ear draped over my thigh. He has no idea what I see in him or the emotions he evokes. But that’s ok. I love him for who he is.  I love our relationship for what it is now. Simple.

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