Rascal and the Coat of Many Needles

Rascal demonstrates his lack of tree etiquette.

The other day, while standing in the front yard, I studied our Christmas tree. Framed by the living room window, it gleamed with red, blue, and green lights. Snow drifted into my shoes, and Rascal, our short-legged, 17-year-old dog, waddled into a snow pile.

A combination of either corgi/German shepherd or black lab/basset hound (depending on the veterinarian you consult), Rascal struggled. I scooped him up before the snow could completely swallow him and placed him on more solid ground.

Early evening settled around us in a peaceful softness—dusky blue light seeped into the white landscape, streaks of red and pink painted the sky a rosy glow, and early stars highlighted the heavens. Rascal rubbed his nose in the snow and stared into space, as if he too appreciated God’s choice of palette.

Our Christmas tree, I decided, had exceeded all expectations. Taken from the Manistee National Forest, it was one of my family’s best trees, not our typical Charlie Brown selection. Homemade decorations, from pine cones and ribbons to twig reindeer to ornaments fashioned by young nieces and nephews, hung from its branches.

While the charm of our tree might have been unexpected, even more surprising had been Rascal’s complete disregard for tree etiquette. Back inside, Rascal once again ignored the tree, refusing to skirt around it, as if the tree were invisible. He made his unsteady way toward my husband on the sofa. Cutting beneath the tree, Rascal’s back rubbed against the lowest branches.

The result of this constant short-cutting is that Rascal wears a perpetual coat of pine needles, which he scatters throughout the house. At first, I frequently swept or vacuumed, but I have surrendered, unable to keep up with the shower of needles. His lack of manners even forced us to secure the tree to the wall when Rascal’s wagging tail tipped it over.

Rascal, finally, away from the tree (and clear of needles).

Like the biblical Joseph and his coat of many colors, Rascal too was betrayed by his first family, starting life as a stray, but the similarities end there. Taken in by my sister and her family, greatly loved by my nieces, Rascal has also lived with my mother, and now my husband and I have become his caretakers.

In the end, we have been more his people rather than he being our dog. His genes might have given him a slightly odd physique, but they certainly made up for it in lovability and longevity. For the past 17 years, he has been present through some of my life’s greatest sorrows, unknowingly comforting me and imparting vital lessons.

As Rascal taught me during the Christmas of 2021, expect the unexpected, embrace it if you can. He brought the northern woods inside, spreading needles and twigs everywhere he wandered, forcing me to choose between patience and grace or annoyance and harshness. I chose the former, hoping those two attributes will accompany me wherever I go.

I have been blessed to care for this eccentric mutt, one of God’s helpless, sweet creatures who has shown me companionship, love, and selflessness, made even more meaningful during this season of gratitude.

Merry Christmas!

Grace Notes: A Letter of Gratitude

On October 10, 2016, thirteen helium balloons—carrying hand-written birthday greetings across their colorful surfaces—were released into a clear, Idaho sky. pinkball

Breezes tugged them across the pasture, where Indy, an elderly quarter horse, nodded his white head and swatted his tail, as if wanting to hurry them along, understanding their significance. They drifted, stretching across a wide horizon, their strings shimmying with the wind. Climbing higher, the balloons joined with clouds etched in pink and red, reflecting the setting sun.

The thirteen of us, family and friends, sang the Birthday Song, our voices at first faint but eventually gathering strength. Then we all stood there in silence, watching the floating greeting cards until they disappeared from sight

And even though the intended recipient, my sister Kelly, was no longer with us, having left us only two days prior, I felt her presence, as I’m sure everyone did. Perhaps she was the feathery breeze brushing across our cheeks, the burst of wind chimes singing out into the dusky night, or the shadows darting around Indy.

Our simple gesture of remembrance had altered an evening ripe with anguish and sorrow into a night full of grace. And it was an eight-year-old girl, Lexie, who we had to thank for the transformative gift, a reflection of the love that my sister had generated throughout her life.

Lexie had wanted to give Kelly a birthday present, telling her mother Mandy that she knew exactly how to deliver it, and Mandy made it possible, gathering all the supplies. Because of their initiative, it was easy to imagine the balloons, as they grew smaller, mere pinpricks against the vast sky, leaving this earth for a heavenly embrace.

It was one of many moments of grace over the past several years, during Kelly’s long battle with cancer, in which generosity and selflessness fused together to defeat pain and fear, allowing us to transcend our grief and recognize how extraordinary and giving people can be.

heartThese grace notes lived within Kelly and continue to envelop my family, filling our hearts with gratitude even as we mourn. And so this letter of thankfulness begins with a little girl, who understood that birthday celebrations never need to end, and continues with an almost endless list of people* who helped my sister carry her burden, trying to slip it off her shoulders, if only for a few seconds at a time…

Family

~ My nieces Shaelyn, Sierra, and Sheridan, whose maturity belies their years, filled Kelly with unwavering pride. They never faltered in their support and care for their mother, and their strength and character reflected off the people around them, making us all braver because of them.

~My mother Sherry and stepfather Pete wove a circle of love around Kelly and unconditionally supported her from traveling to Bethesda, MD to driving to doctor’s appointments to simply holding her hand.

~My husband Keith offered endless optimism and humor—even when his heart was aching—without which our lives would have been much darker and bleaker places.

~Visits, calls, and cards from aunts, uncles, and cousins proved that the love of family stretches across any distance. Aunt Janean and cousins Ashley, Kendell, Jon, and Bella met Kelly and Sheridan at Washington swim meets. Uncle Jim, Aunt Kathy, Uncle John, and cousins Ian and Brad joined us at a Corvallis swim meet for a long weekend of sharing family memories. Uncle Alan sent books and cards, and Cousin Liz and family visited Kelly from Arizona, renewing their relationship and strengthening their love for each other. All of this meant so much to Kelly, and she often reflected on how grateful she was to be part of the Fanning-Walsh families.

St. Luke’s MSTI

~Jonathon, Tonya, Karen, and all the nurses and staff at MSTI never stopped fighting, despite the prognosis, and generated a sense of hope and courage through truthful optimism. Their compassion and kindness touched Kelly and my family and will continue to affect us for many years to come, perhaps forever, as I’m sure many families who have dealt with cancer can say. And, Patty, whose willingness to listen, always be available for guidance and comfort, has meant much more than I’m sure she realizes.

Friends from across the years and world

~Encouragement, love, and prayers arrived almost daily from friends across the world in the form of cards, online messages/texts, voice mails, visits, and flowers, often accompanied with a much-needed dose of humor. The names of these friends, from schools, organizations, and work, have run across my mind often over the past several years in a soothing litany: Sam, Beverly, Melody, Marilyn, Ben, Cristina, Bob, Xavier, Ann, Lanette, Rachel, Kristine, Pete, Gina, Lori, Tony, Kathy, Bruce, Carol, Peggy, Don, Hilary, Lucy, Susie, Rachael, Arlene, Willard… there are too many to name and some of whose actions were only known by Kelly. But please know that everything you did from lighting candles and donating to Aquathons to hospital visits brightened Kelly’s journey during a very dark time and has had a lasting effect, engraved on the hearts of all who witnessed your deeds.

~And, of course, as in everyone’s lives, there are friends who never quite fit into that category, who are more than that… Shane, Kelly’s dear companion over the past few years and lifelong friend, became a partner in care, traveling to doctor’s appointments across the United States and making himself available at all times (and continues to do so). And Twyla, more sister than friend, lifted Kelly with her humor and love.

Parma

~The support of the Parma community defies words. I’m at a loss to express how much this town and the people in it meant to Kelly. Cards arrived weekly from PEO sisters, and friends like Val, Jay, Kathy, Dana, Kristy, and many others frequently made themselves available to help or for a kind word. The teachers and staff of the Parma School District—Shelly, Toby, Madelyn, Monique, Patricia, Cory, Mick… everyone—wrapped my nieces in a supportive embrace and held them up during a difficult time. And Pastor Mark of Sterry Church spent hours and hours with Kelly, discussing Christ’s message and guiding her on a spiritual path of hope and renewal.

Neighbors

~From weeding and snowplowing to providing dinners and taking care of animals or simply providing a hug, Kelly’s neighbors—the Timmons, Jeffers, Parkers, Pascales, Mcleans, and Morrels—selflessly gave of their time. Mandy Pascale and her family offered tireless help, support, and friendship with Mandy recently completing three quilts that Kelly never had the chance to finish.

Kappa Kappa Gamma

~Thank you, Karena, for a friendship that transcends the meaning of that word and for teaching me that there is always time for the people we love, despite distance and schedules. And Nola, for walking next to Kelly (and me) over the past forty years from swim team to cross country and track to the University of Idaho, as well as all my Kappa sisters for your letters, messages, and visits over the past several years, along with the glorious anniversary weekend last April, which meant so much to Kelly and will be etched in my memory forever.

Swim Teams

~Boise YMCA Swim Team parents and swimmers became cheerleaders, not only for my nieces but also for Kelly. This outstanding organization provided much more than just an outlet for exercise and competition but grew into a much-loved activity and diversion, especially Coach Linda Conger, who texted Kelly daily with jokes and supplied us all with some of the best tamales in the Boise Valley.

~The reintroduction of a swim team in Parma began as Kelly’s dream and will hopefully continue in the years to come as part of her legacy. All the swim team parents and swimmers were loving and supportive, but Coach Andres, in particular, became a dear friend, always in contact, whether visiting Kelly in the hospital or joining us for Thanksgiving and other family celebrations.

4-H

~Like the Boise Y Swim Team, 4-H took on a larger meaning through the leaders and members’ support for Kelly and her daughters, particularly Mandy and Myrn, whose phone calls and cards continue today.

heartsAll these people and their love flowed through Kelly and continue to bolster us up as we navigate through our grief, extending peace like a river (to borrow from Isiah 66:12). The kindness Kelly received and gave during her life will have a chain reaction, touching everyone who witnessed it, linking us together in an endless loop and making us more aware of other people in need. Which, in the end, would have been exactly what Kelly would have wanted.

Her life was, in a sense, one of service—nursing—tending to people in the broadest meaning of that word. She believed our purpose on earth was to help other people, and if that was the lesson she left, then I know she would have been proud.

And, as Lexie proved, Kelly continues to inspire, setting an example of bravery and optimism that pushes us all upward, beyond the edge of the horizon where magical balloons proclaim their love for a person whose birthday celebration will never end.

 

 

 

 

 

*If I’ve forgotten someone, please forgive me but know that everything you did was remembered and greatly appreciated by Kelly.