Life without Sam

One year ago we were getting settled in Cholula. My two biggest anxieties had nothing to do with living in Mexico – they were that my grandpa would pass away while I was gone, or that Samson would.

They lived through the winter and on into spring. Grandpa grew increasingly dissatisfied with his quality of life on dialysis and at several points talked about going off of it, but soldiered on. Samson continued to lose muscle and fur, but still trotted along for his morning walks. When we got back to Ohio in May, I had the luxury of spending most of the summer with them.

And then they both passed away. First Grandpa, just a couple weeks shy of his 93rd birthday. And then, a few weeks later, Samson.

Grandpa eventually got to the point where it didn’t make sense to continue dialysis. He had made peace with the idea, and he’d talked about it long enough that we’d made some peace with it too. I will forever appreciate the honesty with which he talked about what it’s like to live to 92. He was buried in the church cemetary on the most beautiful midsummer day.

About a week after Grandpa’s funeral we made the trek back to Boston and moved into the first floor of an old Victorian. Samson came too. One week later we let him outside late at night and he tumbled in the dark and rolled down the slope of the front lawn. Without any muscle he couldn’t regain his footing, and he fell off a ledge down to the pavement.

It’s hard to write this without crying.

The day of his fall he got up and hobbled into the kitchen, so I hoped that he was just stiff and with time he’d recover. But he never did. Over the next two days he lost more and more mobility until he couldn’t get up. The vet said he’d likely injured his spine, and it wasn’t something that could be fixed. I remember thinking that I’d always assumed Sam would lose interest in food, and that would be my sign that he was ready to go. But there he was lying immobile in his bed, willing the vet to return to the treat jar on her counter.

The night before he fell Samson asked to sleep in bed with us. He hadn’t done that in years. It seems crazy to suggest it, because after all it was an accident…the fall…but Read and I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow he knew something.

When he took his last little raggedly breath, a long, low, sad wail came out of me. My baby dog. My once in a lifetime dog. I counted once and we’d been to 24 states together. Two cross-country moves. Something like ten apartments. He was my – and then ourconstant protector and companion.

So now we’re trying to figure out life without him. In some ways it’s easier – not having to be home at certain points or carry a baby while letting him outside – but still a sense of loss hangs over so many moments. I restarted my job and R. started writing his dissertation and the baby started daycare, so there’s been all kinds of new to keep us busy. But sometimes in the evening we walk to the neighborhood dog park just to watch them play and run around, and talk about how if Sam were there, he’d be sitting off to the side with us, watching the action and pondering the next chapter of his yet-unpublished-memoir.
Samson

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In the mood for more Samson stories?
The story of how he found me
That time he jumped off the balcony
That time I got a letter about his threatening behavior
That time he returned to Hocking Hills

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Moving to Mexico: What to pack for a year abroad

“What to pack for a year abroad” was one of the phrases crowding my Google search last summer, and after a couple of months I can share some reflections on how our packing has held up to day-to-day life in another country. photo 2(1)As I posted last month, the thing I’ve missed the most is this elderly gentleman who unfortunately must stay behind with my parents. Right now I’m finishing up a fall visit home to see him. Here he is wearing a cutoff toddler t-shirt. It started as a way to keep him from licking a sore, but my mom noticed he enjoyed being dressed and bought a few more. Isn’t his neck roll adorable? Oh Sam. I’m not looking forward to telling him goodbye again.

P1080028Others who move internationally sometimes do so with financial help from the military or their employer, which makes it possible to ship furniture, housewares, etc. In this case any shipping costs would have come out of our pocket, so we found a furnished apartment through airbnb and were limited to one carry-on and two checked bags each (approximately 300 lbs. for the two of us). Above is what it all looked like at the ticket counter:

Both of us started with essentials/basics. This was not much different than what you’d pack for a long vacation. The one wrinkle was that I was 5 months pregnant and not sure what size I’d be in month 7 or 8, but the fact that I wouldn’t be working in Mexico (and could therefore resort to t-shirts and sweats if needed) helped. For this category I packed:
– 4 pairs of shoes (2 sandals, 1 converse, 1 running)
– underwear/socks/swimsuit
– 6 stretchy skirts/dresses
– 3 sweaters
– 12 tank/shortsleeve shirts
– 5 pairs of pants (2 jeans, 1 khaki, 1 legging, 1 yoga)
– toiletries/vitamins
– hair straightener
– laptop
– ipod
– camera
– passport/credit cards/copies of medical records

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Next we focused on items that make a place feel like home. While it’s true that Mexico, like most countries, has all kinds of retailers and all kinds of options for making a furnished apartment liveable, I wanted the place to have some familiar everyday objects in it. I also didn’t want to be taking taxis and buses all over town, buying things that could have fit in our suitcases. So we started sorting the contents of our Boston apartment and asking: Do we use this item nearly every day? Is having it around worth the space and weight it will take up in our luggage? Here’s what made the cut:
– fitted sheets, mattress pad, pillow
– lightweight down comforter with cover
– 3 multipurpose tapestries (wall decoration, tablecloth, etc.)
– 3 kitchen towels
– 1 wall calendar
– 4 reusable cloth shopping bags
– a handful of hangers
– espresso pot/coffee grinder/5 lbs. of our favorite coffee
– my favorite mug
– my favorite big mason jar (that I use for drinking)
–  3 good knives (1 butcher, 1 paring, 1 serrated)
– small cast iron skillet
– kitchen shears
– 1 favorite metal spatula
**right before leaving we made a giant photo collage poster of our pets at Walgreens and I think it was the best $30 we spent making the place feel like home. We hung it up in the kitchen.**

And finally, we thought about leisure and hobbies. Most hobbies are specialized enough that it will be hard to recreate them in another place without some advanced planning. R. enjoys working out, but obviously his free weights couldn’t make the trip, so he invested in some high-quality resistance bands. In my case, it was all about the fiber and knitting. A friend was kind enough to lend me her portable spinning wheel for the year, and in addition to that I brought:
– 5 packs of fiber to spin
– 1 knitting noddy
– yarn stash for 1 sweater, 1 blanket, 2 cowls, 1 shawl
– knitting needles/yarn gauge/knitting notebook
– measuring tape
– 1 small quilt, pieced and pinned
– quilting needles/thread
– a Kindle (for easy access to plenty of reading material)fiber

So…how’d we do?
All in all, pretty well. Both of us had visited the area before, so we had a sense for the weather and the sort of things that are available at major stores. For example, R. knew that nobody in Mexico carries shoes for his giant feet so he’d need to pack a year’s worth of footwear. And I knew that cast iron pans just can’t be found in Puebla, so if I wanted one for my morning eggs it was worth the poundage to pack one.

If you’re not able to scout your new home ahead of time, I recommend searching the chatboards of your particular country on this expat site. Most have a thread about items that are difficult for Americans to find and/or things that expats wish they had packed. I’d read on the Mexico chatboard that people were disappointed in the selection (and prices) of bedding, so I decided to basically pack up all but our mattress. I’m so glad we did this. It meant that the very day we moved in to our apartment we could make up the bed just like we had it in Boston, and with the cool evening temperatures it’s been great having a down comforter.

What do we wish we’d packed?
Besides Samson and the cats? Well, I don’t think we could have fit anything more in our overstuffed suitcases, but there are certainly things I’m excited to pick up this week in Ohio. We also keep a little running list of things family members who visit can bring. Most are food related, and I think that just comes from getting tired of local flavor profiles and/or craving random items from home that we can’t find in Mexico. Among the things I’m bringing back are:
– 2 boxes of Trader Joe’s pumpkin pancake mix
– real maple syrup
– 1 jar molassas (for molassas cookies and for adding it to white sugar to make brown sugar, which you just can’t find)
– 2 packages Sour Patch Kids
– 1 bag peanut butter M&Ms
– Asian spice packets for stir-fry and fried rice
– 2 bottles Asian marinade
– A bigger cast iron pan (I just really don’t like the pots and pans in Mexico…they’re all aluminum or non-stick and nothing is very heavy)
– more yarn
– baby clothes…but that’s the start of an entirely different post about “minimalism and infant care” that I’ll write sometime in the spring…

Other posts in this series
At home in Cholula
Moving to Mexico: Transporting a pet to another country

Moving to Mexico: Transporting a pet to another country

Regular readers (of the knitting variety) may want to skip this post, as it contains more detail on the regulations of transporting pets and flying dogs in airplanes than the average person could possibly be interested in. However, if you are a Samson fan, I have interspersed pleasant portraits of him throughout that you can scroll for. Here…I’ll give you a nice one just to start us off, and to show new visitors exactly who it is we spent months trying to bring to Mexico.

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The cats probably deserve a sidebar here. We miss Teddy and Edith terribly, but from the beginning we didn’t plan to relocate them. We couldn’t be sure how safe it would be to let them roam Cholula (cars? stray dogs? a populace unfriendly to naive gringo cats?) and reducing them to apartment living at this point would be painful. Plus, they’re young and healthy. We felt like they’d be happiest with my parents, and after nine months we can all reunite.

Samson was a different story, as I think dogs just generally care more about being with their owners. He’s also really old – 14 or 15 – meaning that nine months with my parents becomes a more uncertain time frame. And he loves some of the daily features of life in Mexico – sun, warmth, smells, accessible trash – so we thought it could be a nice retirement.

P1070995While we ultimately arranged to fly Sam to Mexico, our first plan was actually to drive there. We wanted the convenience of a car, especially once we found out about the baby, but also so R. could easily visit remote research sites (renting a car in Mexico is surprisingly expensive, due to mandatory international insurance, and long-term lease options don’t exist). I started pouring over maps and reading expat forums on the best places to cross, and researching the regulations on importing and insuring a car in Mexico. It’s a lot more complicated than driving to Baja for a two week vacation.

But over several months, the plan to make a 37-hour road trip to Mexico slowly fell apart. First, the federal government, which sponsors R’s grant, wouldn’t allow driving due to travel advisories at the border. When pushed they relented, saying we would have to sign a waiver acknowledging we were doing so against their safety recommendations. We were still committed, assuring ourselves that thousands of people cross the border every day, and that as long as we traveled big toll highways during daylight hours, we’d be fine. Then R’s advisor, a well-seasoned world traveler, said he’d heard from fellow academics that driving into Mexico isn’t anything like what it used to be, and that those who have done it for decades are no longer willing after experiencing things like illegal cartel checkpoints on the highway. Ouch. The final nail was learning that because we don’t own our car outright – because we make payments to the bank – we’d never be able to get the bank to agree to insuring the car for a year in Mexico.

And with that, I returned this spring to googling “How to fly your dog to Mexico.” Here’s what I can offer…

Be careful with the googling
Samson is too big to fit under a seat, which was all the more distressing because most of the initial search hits are news stories about dogs and cats that died horrible deaths in the cargo holds. Yes, it happens. But not nearly as much as search results suggest. To offset the salacious news articles, I suggest:
– Talking with your vet. Or a few vets. Mine works frequently with clients who fly large pets in cargo. She has also flown her own golden retrievers cross-country.
– Reviewing statistics. This article and this one were especially helpful.
– Checking out Pet Relocation, a company that does just that for (I thought) a hefty fee. Seeing their blog of pets successfully flown round the world helped give me perspective. All the pugs flying to Singapore reminded me we just had to get Sammy to the next country over.

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The costs add up. So does the bureaucracy.
United is not my favorite airline for human passengers, but they do have one of the best records for transporting animals under their Petsafe program. They also service Mexico.  This blog post was, by FAR, the most helpful and accurate in describing the steps involved in flying your dog. The flight, the cargo fee, the vet certifications…I was doing great until I got to #4 – Find a customs broker. This required calling a long list of Mexican phone numbers to try and find a customs broker who would meet Samson at the airport and be responsible for getting him through, all for nearly $700. I was pregnant, facing a long to-do list that included closing things up at work for a year, packing up the house, researching insurance and birth options in Mexico…I broke down and contacted Pet Relocation, whose fee suddenly started to look quite reasonable.

It’s hard not to fantasize about being independently wealthy
That’s because there are times when a shit-ton of money can solve a problem, and this is one of them. Me? I would’ve chartered a private jet so Sam wouldn’t have to fly cargo. Or maybe ordered up a yacht and we could’ve all happily sailed to Veracruz before getting in a rented towncar for the drive to Cholula. Ugh. I hate to confess how many times I returned to this fantasy.

No amount of research and planning will answer the truly difficult questions
Am I doing this for the dog, or me? Am I more okay with risking that he’ll not survive the flight, or that the end of his life will come and I won’t be there? Should I even be going to Mexico, as compared to carrying on with work/apt/pets/baby in the States and making visits? And so on. No one knows the answers. The best you can do is surround yourself with supportive friends and family who, even if they disagree with your decisions, understand that they’re difficult. We were very fortunate in this regard.

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The best-laid plans…
After all the arrangements – the vet appointment, the Pet Relocation fee, getting Sam used to a kennel, finding a pet-friendly Mexican apartment – I woke up two days before our flight and found Samson immobile on the bed. He was breathing, but too fast and too shallow. He couldn’t walk.

We rushed him to the vet and found out that his gallbladder was all sludged up and there were two small tumors on his spleen. The vet was optimistic that medication would clear up the gallbladder, said that there wasn’t a way to tell if the tumors were benign (without surgery), and warned against Samson flying…definitely for a while, maybe for good.

We cried. A lot. We paid a fee to delay our flights for a few days and talked through what it would look like for Sam to stay with my parents. The events of the morning had shown me just how hard it would be to handle the same situation in Mexico given our lack of a car and my lack of language skills. What if R. were out doing research? Could I get Sam to the vet…would a cab even take him? We both thought that maybe this was all a sign that our old dog wasn’t as prepared for international travel as we’d hoped. So we spent the remaining days with him, we gave him lots of pets and hugs, and we told him he had to live at least a month…long enough to get our visas settled so that we could be allowed to come back and visit.

Samson’s vet appointment last week went well. It’s always uncertain with a dog his age, but with luck he’ll last the next nine months. I hope. I know he’s getting the best care and love with my parents. But…it’s hard. I’ve dreamed about him. I caught a sweatshirt on the couch out of the corner of my eye the other day and for a second thought it was him.

Photo on 5-8-12 at 12Our last week in Ohio, before Sam got sick, I was visiting my grandparents. My grandpa asked how much it cost to fly Sam to Mexico. When I refused to tell him, he guessed it probably cost “$25 or $50…at least,” and then asked did I really think it was worth all the hassle and money? I replied that Samson is that dog, the one I’ll compare all other dogs to. And what do I work every day for if not to spend money on trying to get him to Mexico to be with me? My grandpa – a 92-year old non-nonsense midwestern farmer – softened. Then he got a little choked up himself. Last month their little old chihuahua passed away, and he said that he still looks for her next to the table or beside the bed, and sometimes he thinks he can feel her brush his pant leg. “Those dogs. They become like family. I understand.”

So if you are trying to move heaven and earth to bring a family member across international borders, I understand. I really do. And so does my grandpa (provided we let him think it’s not much more than $50). I wish for you good luck and supportive friends. Oh, and if you happen to be a long-distance trucker who regularly runs a route between the midwest and the state of Puebla, I have a little black and tan friend who I’d pay a pretty penny for if he could ride in your cab. He would only require a good classic country music station and some beef jerky sticks from the truckstops.

Camera-less blog post #2

I’m learning how un-fun blogging is when there’s no camera around. Sigh. It’s probably time that I gave up my phone-that-only-calls-people and just got a smartphone. The cameras on those things just keep getting better and better.

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At a party this winter someone saw my phone (see above) and asked, “So do you feel jealous of people with smartphones, or just self-righteous?” It was a martini-induced zinger that made me laugh. I mean….who goes this long without a little self-righteousness? Mostly I’m just worried that a smartphone’s GPS will erode my navigation abilities the way cellphones made me forget all phone numbers. I take my spatial memory very seriously because it’s about the only kind I have.

I also fear getting sucked into smartphone-usage like this:

phoneBut since I’m not so principled as to avoid mooching off friends’ smartphones (“can you look up a number/address/knitting pattern for me?”) I may have stumbled into dreaded technology-hypocrite territory:

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No camera means I can’t show you pictures of our big Wednesday snowfall, which is too bad because for some reason it was an especially pretty one. However I do have a few pictures of FO’s thanks to Christine: Scrap Hat #1, Handspun Socks, and Scrap Hat #2. Plus a nice portrait of Samson 😉

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When it’s 8 degrees Fahrenheit out….

…this is the most lucrative bit of cat real estate in the apartment.
UntitledThey love the warmth of the pilot light. It also provides a nice vantage point for spying on a brown Boston terrier who we’re dog-sitting. He is very cute and nice, but he and the cats aren’t quite sure about each other.

UntitledEdith took her own safety very seriously at the beginning, and for the first time ever I found her perched on top of the shower door.

If you were caught up in Storm Hercules, I hope you’re safe and warm. We didn’t get too much snow here – maybe 8 inches with some drifting – but it was incredibly cold out. My walk in the snow didn’t last long.

UntitledSo…naturally I worked on some knitting and sewing. The sockyarn that I spun up this fall yielded a pair of Christmas socks for my mom and there was still enough left over to make myself a pair. I’m finishing up the second one now. I also started working on a new quilt. Kind of a wonky chevron thing to use up a bunch of scraps. Did you have any snow day projects?

socks

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An old dog

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I love my husband for many reasons, but high on that list is the time he spent teaching Samson how to ride in my bike basket. He did it when Sam could still run alongside us for a couple miles but we wanted a way to take him on longer trips down the Eugene bike path. Now Sam doesn’t ever want to run as fast as a bike. But he’ll sit in the milk crate for a long while. Last weekend he accompanied me on a ride to the library…

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Watching my beloved dog grow old is hard. He has a lot of pep in his step still, and sometimes strangers we meet at the park are surprised to hear he’s 13, but he is slowing down nonetheless. He’s lumpier. And his skin hangs looser and he snores louder. And more than ever he’s interested in staying warm, which makes me think of a friend’s ancient cat Foof who lived out the last few years of her life hardly ever straying from an electric heating pad on top of the bed. She was 17, and I remember how cool her fur felt as she slept there on her little heater.

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Short of moving to a warmer climate, what we can currently offer Sam is the top of the file cabinet in the back office.  There’s a small wall heater back there with two settings: HOT and OFF. When it’s on all the heat rises to the ceiling, creating cold feet and a sweaty forehead. Sam was joining R. for his study sessions this winter and spring, but his bed on the floor was cold even with the wall heater on. The top of the file cabinet, however, is super toasty and sauna-like. Eventually we might need to provide him a Foof-arrangement.

For those of you who have seen a pet through old age, do you have any words of wisdom to share?

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Wanting to read more about Samson?
The story of how he found me
That time he jumped off the balcony
That time I got a letter about his threatening behavior
That time he returned to Hocking Hills
That time we said goodbye

Goodbye two thousand and twelve

I’m a few days late in putting together my salute to 2012, a year not terribly different from 2011. It was our coasting-comfortable year – same job for me, same apartment, same program for R – a welcome respite after so much change the two years before and what I’m sure is more change to come in 2013.

Compared to 2011, there was not quite as much experimentation in the kitchen this year. There was more sewing though, inspired by my trip to the fashion district of L.A. in early spring. Some mittens, a couple of dresses, a maxi skirt, two shirts, and my biggest accomplishment with the sewing machine: the chevron baby quilt.

2012: Year in Review

Still a lot of knitting. I think Holl was my favorite FO of 2012. I published two hat patterns – Joyride and Ryegrass – and my goal is to do more of that in 2013.

2012: Year in Review

We did a little more traveling in 2012 – Ohio to the park where I found Sam, Oregon, South Carolina, Cape Cod, Los Angeles. Everyone splurges on something, and R. and I have talked about how we’d rather have a tinier house in the future if it meant we could afford more travel (tinier house, but still yard enough for some sheep 😉
2012: Year in Review

Much love to you and yours in the coming year! I’ll sign out with one more photo collage, this one of the person (and pets) that make this space a home.

2012: Year in Review