Thursday, August 25, 2016

Lily

Mornings are the hardest, I think, when I come downstairs and there is no tail thumping softly against the floor to greet me. Or maybe it’s bedtime, when I head toward the door to let the dog in before remembering. Or the countless moments in between: when the kids drop Goldfish crackers on the floor and there is no eager pup to lick them up, or when we head out and there is no happy, giant ball of fur pleading to come with us, or when I reach my hand down mindlessly from the couch to rub a belly and meet empty space instead.

One of Lil's favorite activities: going for a ride.
We said goodbye to the best dog ever last week, and there seem to be lots of empty spaces in our home now, a home that before last Thursday always included Lily. We are getting used to the sad fact that our girl is gone, and most of the time we are, at least outwardly, OK. But the reminders of her are everywhere; often the sadness hits all over again, and one person’s tears lead to general sniffling all around.

Baby Lil
Lily was intertwined in everything we did. We brought her home when she was a puppy, all fluff and energy and hopeful joy. That was before we were married, and I knew when David suggested we get a dog, he was serious about me. She was there a year later when he popped the question, and stood witness with our family and friends the following summer when we said our vows. She was there to welcome our children home with curious sniffs and gentle licks, to love them unconditionally and to play with them as they grew – at first enduring their climbing all over and around her, later tagging along happily on hikes, forays around the yard and woods, and drives to school drop-off in the mornings.
Welcoming the littlest one, a few years ago.

Lily was there for more than 12 years. Always ready for an adventure. Greeting us happily when we came home, whether we’d been gone all day or only a few minutes. Wagging her tail sleepily in the mornings. Begging for her bedtime biscuits at night. Following the kids into the kitchen when they cleared their dishes after meals, always hoping there was a crust of toast or a bit of leftover hamburger that might end up in her dish. Bounding out to roll in the snow. Swimming in the river. Smiling her golden smile all the time.

She had been my nearly-constant companion these years since the human children arrived. She accompanied me to take the kids to school, then we returned together to a quiet house. Now and then, always just at the point where I needed a distraction, she’d plod over to where I sat typing and put her head in my lap, gazing at me beseechingly until I got up from the keyboard and took her on a walk through the woods. She was always good company on those walks, leaving me to my thoughts as she trotted along sniffing the myriad smells of the forest.

Everybody's buddy
Just over a year ago Lily and I headed out together for a favorite hike, and she struggled the whole way. I knew then, sadly, that it would be our last long hike together. Gradually she went from jaunting around the field to moving more slowly through the yard. By the end, she could barely get to the garden without stumbling, her legs simply giving out. Often, she could not get up without help. Finally, she needed to be carried more often than she could make it outside herself.

While Lily’s legs failed her, her spirit never faltered. She still smiled at us and stretched out as much as she could for belly rubs. But we knew she was hurting more than we could fathom. We knew it was time to say goodbye, to let her go.

Two happy girls in the woods.
I’m still getting used to her not being here. Yes, the mornings are the hardest: that quiet time before anyone else is awake, when it used to be just me and Lil blinking the sleepiness away while the coffee percolated. Once the kids are up, the house becomes a bustling distraction of breakfast and playing and planning out our final fun-filled summer days. But underneath all that activity, I miss my dog. We all do.

Next week, the kids return to school. I will be doubly lonely then, driving home without Lily in the backseat, her head pushed blissfully out the window. There will be no kid-fueled distractions at home, just me and my work. I’m not quite sure how I’ll manage. Lily has always been here with me. I imagine I’ll find myself getting up often to let the dog out. I may well fall into melancholy when I spot a tuft of Lily fur lingering in some corner of the house. I’ll miss her well-timed interruptions, that take-me-for-a-walk look. I’m dreading that first solo trek through the woods. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the August 26, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Top Notch

If you ever need to feel appreciated, volunteer to work the last water station on the last leg of a mountain triathlon. That’s what the kids and I did Saturday, spending the morning about two-thirds of the way up Cannon Mountain, just below the final, grueling climb of the Top Notch Triathlon. By the greetings we received from many racers, you would have thought we were handing out rare treasure rather than small paper cups of cool water.

Ready and waiting for thirsty racers.
When I mentioned the idea of volunteering for the Top Notch – locally known simply as “The Triathlon” – the kids were immediately eager. The Triathlon is more than a challenging athletic contest; it is a community gathering, a day where friends and neighbors come together to support an event that benefits the local recreation department. My kids cheered me on as I completed the final leg of the race four years ago, and after volunteering last weekend, they’ve caught the Triathlon bug.

Now in its third decade, the Triathlon attracts racers from local towns and as far away as Alaska. We saw serious, hard core competitors on the mountain last weekend, as well as youngsters accompanied by parents, the local elementary school principal, and the town’s police chief. The results show competitors ranging in age from 11 to 77, and finish times from just over an hour to well over three.

Our Triathlon day started with an early morning ride up the Cannon Mountain Tramway, with the kids remarking several times how strange it seemed to be on the Tram during the summer, rather than when the mountains are blanketed with snow and we are dressed in ski boots and warm layers. With us in the tram car was Jean McKenna, who has served for the past several years as the official finish line greeter on Triathlon day.

Bubbly and welcoming (even first thing in the morning), Jean spends hours handing out bottles of water and words of encouragement for those last few yards of the race. Even when you think your legs will give out and your lungs burst with the effort of making it to the top of the mountain and across the finish, you keep going, if for no other reason than Jean says you can. She ran the race for 13 years before retiring to her finish line post, and there’s no better person for the job.

Saturday morning, we left Jean to her task and hiked to our station, descending a trail the kids had only ever skied. We all agreed the pitch seems steeper when you’re wearing sneakers and walking through wildflowers than when there are skis strapped to your feet and the downward schuss is effortless.

We spotted the first competitor about an hour after the race started, and a few more speedy racers passed within the next few minutes. Some of these took water without slowing their pace, steady and strong. Soon enough there was a stream of climbers, and gradually the intensity of the racers lessened. There were more smiles, pauses to drink the water or refill bottles, brief snippets of conversation. Many racers thanked us for being there. Several made joyful, though tired, exclamations upon seeing us over the rise. Some asked how much further there was to go, and we told them to listen for the cheers from the finish line, which I know inspire tired legs to keep trucking on that final steep stretch.

Several friends passed our station in the crowded middle of the pack, some doing the Triathlon for the first time, others annual repeaters. Many racers were sporting shirts from past Top Notch Triathlons, indicating they’d been here before. One man near the end told us he’ll turn 70 next year. He’s done the race as part of the team in past years, but this year was competing as an individual. He wants to do the same next year, figuring if he simply finishes, he’ll be in the top three of the 70-plus category.

I’m not sure my children realized the uniqueness of an event that encompasses the community, not sure they see the value in living in a place where kids not much older than they are willingly push themselves through the course, or where their school principal climbs mountains, or where the chief of police comes smiling through, well ahead of the sergeant, who pauses to catch his breath and tell us that completing the Triathlon is a goal he’s wanted to accomplish for three years.

Long before the last racers came through, though, the kids asked if we could repeat the experience next year, participate in the day once again as volunteers. But they’re also talking with each other and with friends about putting together Triathlon teams someday, joining the cadre of bikers, swimmers, and mountain climbers toiling through the natural playground in our backyard.

Maybe they don’t yet realize how lucky they are to be growing up here, but they know Triathlon Day is special.  

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the August 12, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sweet Summer

Summer is my favorite season. I say that about every season in its prime, so don’t mind me in a few months, when the leaves are ablaze in the colors of autumn and the air is perfectly crisp and I claim fall is my favorite, or when winter arrives all white and frosty and magical and I announce it is my preferred season, then months later embrace the reawakening of spring as the best. Right now, my love affair is with summer.

At some point, several years into adulthood, it struck me that although I no longer had that last-day-of school excitement, with summer’s carefree days stretching infinitely into the hazy heat of the season, I still thrilled at the arrival of summer. So ingrained was that feeling of summer freedom that I felt it as the days lengthened and warmed as clearly as I had as a kid, even though my schedule of work and responsibility was the same now in July as it was in November or March.

Maybe that lingering sense of summer freedom is because I have always lived in places where summer – with its warmth and color and long days – is fleeting. Or maybe it’s that I have so many good memories of the season from my childhood – hiking with my family, lazy afternoons of reading in the backyard hammock, time in the garden with my mother, catching fireflies just after dusk, sparklers on the 4th of July by the backyard campfire, countless hours spent kicking a soccer ball, and one epic cross-country journey with my parents and brothers and a pop-up camper. 

Whatever the reason, now that I have kids who fully embrace the joys of summer – kids old enough to put on their own sunscreen and carry their own backpacks, but still a few years away from summer jobs and the dreaded teenage years of being too hip to hang with Mom – summer has regained that sense of freedom and insouciance.

Here are some of the things I love about summer:

·         Jumping into cool water on a hot day.

·         Reading by the big window in our living room – or on the front porch – after the kids are tucked in, as twilight slowly engulfs the mountains, passing through an impossible array of subtle hues on its way to full dark.

·         The smell of roses: heady and heavenly.

·         The sparkle of a thousand fireflies twinkling across the field, as close to magic as anything I’ve seen.

·         Family soccer games in the front yard.

·         Watching my children fall into books and get lost there for chunks of time – bed time, after breakfast time, by the pool or river time.

·         Clean sheets dried on the clothesline and smelling of sunshine.

·         Color. So much color.

·         Flowers picked from the field and the garden and placed in a simple glass jar on the dining room table.

·         Birdsong, even the annoyingly redundant call of the catbird at dawn.

·         Vegetables gathered from the garden: the succulent result of the tilling and planting and weeding and watering.

·         Trips to the ocean.

·         Bike rides through the woods.

·         Outings with friends and our combined gaggle of children.

·         (Mostly) unrushed mornings – and not having to pack lunches every single day.

·         Thunder echoing through the mountains and the cooling rain which often follows.

·         The games my children imagine together, whether they are pretending to be wild animals (sometimes not much of a stretch) or building a fort in the woods by the river.

·         Running in the quiet and relative coolness of early morning.

·         Fresh, wild berries, found unexpectedly and consumed on the spot – or gathered purposefully and tucked into the freezer for less bountiful days to come.

·         Flip-flops. Or, even better, going barefoot.

·         Campfires and s’mores and late-night laughter.

·         Standing atop a tall mountain with my children, who are still discovering how much they can do, how far they can climb – and who still want me along for the adventure.

There are hitches in all this summer freedom, of course. Often the garden goes unweeded, becoming jungle-like while we are off hiking and splashing in the river. All those house projects I swore I’d tackle this season get pushed, once again, to next season’s to-do list. And my work hours are severely diminished in these weeks when the kids are with me nearly all the time.

When I ask my children, though, what they love most about summer, all three place “spending more time with my family” at the top of the list. Perhaps this will not always be their favorite part of summer; certainly they will outgrow this self-sufficient-yet-still-ingenuous phase, as they have outgrown other childhood phases.

So I am taking advantage of these days when they want to do things, go places, explore and adventure together. Someday, I hope, when they have moved beyond the enchanting freedom of their childhood summers, they will still thrill at the season’s arrival, still embrace the simple joys of summer, still remember all the sweet summer fun we had together. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 22, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.