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Animals: How They Change Our Hearts

I live in a suburb of New Orleans and have been writing here off and on for 10 years. I have been married 53 years to the same crazy guy.




Looking back on 2013, I will always remember it as the year things changed. I suspect there was a deep psychological catalyst and I could think and rethink what it was, but it doesn't matter. It was the year I began to be able to love more, the year my heart opened, if there is such a thing as an open heart. It began with a dream I had about death. I dreamed that death had come to take me away in the form of a gray-haired man in a black car. In the dream, I knew I wasn't ready to leave and resisted his urgings to get in the car. I think the dream made me realize that I wasn't quite living. I did nice things for people. I loved my family and my friends, but it was without passion, without grace, almost without feeling. Then a very, very sad thing happened to me.


Losing Frankie

We had a cat, a stray, who lived in our backyard for 14 years. She was the mother of General Lee, who is our indoor cat. We fed Frankie for years and when she was about 12, she finally let us pet her, and then only if we did it exactly right. Otherwise, she would hiss and fuss. She spit at me every day for years when I went out to feed her. Last spring, she became very ill. She had had a stroke the year before and seemed to have had another. This time we didn't take her to the vet because when we took her the year before, not only did she scratch the vet, she bit Joe; and it upset her terribly being caught and put in a carrier. We decided to let her die at home on her on, which she did. I remember the morning we found her, finally at peace, my heart clenched and something broke, some dam, some wall inside me. When I cried for Frankie, I think I was crying for my mom, who died at 53, for my friend Whitney, who died at 30, for my dear father-in-law, for everyone I'd lost and for whom I hadn't been able to truly grieve. It takes us a lifetime to build walls, to put up barriers to emotion, but it only takes a moment for them to fall. It took me 67 years to build mine and they all crumbled the day Franks died. I cried until there was no one and nothing left to cry for. Everything has been different for me since then.


Being Present

After Franks died, I became more present in my own life. I learned to listen to sounds, like the doves in the backyard, the crows flying overheard, even the wind. I stopped ignoring my grandchildren when they talked and began to listen and realize how funny and smart and actually interesting they are. I began really listening to my husband, Joe, and actually engaged in conversation with him. When we went fishing, I began to consciously see the beauty of the water, the wild plants, the sun, of life. The tone of my life changed. A friend told me she believed the whole thing started with the death dream and I agree. I belong to a lucid dreaming group, and one night someone suggested that perhaps life is just a dream, something we fabricate in our own consciousness. If we think about that idea, really think about it, we realize we want the dream to be a good one. When I try to dream at night, especially lucid dream, I spend time meditating and getting my mind right. Lately I do the same each morning. Surely if I can spend that time preparing for a dream, perhaps I should spend the same time preparing for life each day. I have gone from being a passive participant in life to being part of the dance.



I believe we all construct walls. I think some of them are healthy and some are not. We need a healthy ego and boundaries to survive in the world. However, I think some of the walls we've built are barriers to feeling love, feeling connection, feeling anything. At some point, I suppose we've been hurt so badly that for that moment in time, we prefer feeling nothing to feeling the pain that goes along with loss and we begin to insulate ourselves against pain by holding back our emotions, burying them, putting them away. I don't remember any particular event in my life that caused me to begin constructing my barriers, but I know they were there and were intricate and complicated and lasting. I'm certain Frankie's death was the culmination of a thousand things that led to their fall.

When I was a child, we were never allowed to have pets like cats and dogs. I had two parakeets. The reasoning was because at one time we had a dog. I think his name was Mike. I don't know how Mike died, but he died and we cried and cried and my father decided we should never have another dog because it was too sad when they died. It is flawed logic. Consciously, we know that. Our subconscious, however, is another matter. Moments like the death of Mike are when the subconscious reaches for the hammer and nails.


Like Attracts Like

I believe that when we are more open to feeling, to emotion, to love, that good things happen to us. This has been a year of overflowing blessings for me. I had a totally unexpected email from a family member saying that a book I have long wanted to be written would be written. I finally located and reconnected with one of the dearest friends of my life, someone from my college days in the '60s who helped me through my mother's death in addition to being there always when I needed her. I realized that although we are told often not to muck around in the past, there are treasures there too, just waiting to be reclaimed. Mostly what this new state of being has attracted is peace of mind, the feeling that although life is painful at times and loss is inevitable, it is a divine gift and should be treated as such. My sister and I had a wonderful time at a reunion for my mom's side of the family a few months ago. As I left some of the relatives, I felt momentary panic, realizing that I would likely never see some of the older ones again. But then that's part of the dance of life, leaving. We would not want to stay too long in our dream.


Opening Windows

I feel as though the windows of my mind are opening slowly and letting in fresh air and light. We as a society don't use the word "love" much. We think it's embarrassing or tacky and tend to avoid it; it makes us nervous and uncomfortable. We want to be composed, reserved and sophisticated and not mistaken for being overly religious or overly emotional. But so many of us have, as I had, eliminated real feeling through fear of being hurt. Love is what we all need, what we all crave and, in my opinion, the reason we are here: to love and be loved. Everyone is not lucky enough to have a Frankie to make the first crack in the walls. Sometimes it has to be done deliberately from within, driven by wanting to have a more fulfilling, more exciting, more purposeful life.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, love. But the greatest of these is love.

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