16 October 2011

Death Brings Life

Originally published in monthly print newspaper, TODO Austin, October 2011.

Rest in peace, Changa (23 August 2011).
Your spirit remains.
The weather has cooled down. (Sort of.) It’s rained. (Sort of.) Regardless, fall has started, and now we begin the end-of-year holidays that put the rest of the year on fast forward. Holidays can be hectic, but there is one that gives us a chance to slow down and reflect. Most of us in the U.S. grew up with Halloween, but if you grew up with the Mexican culture, you likely celebrated Día de los Muertos. Or if you’re like me, even though you grew up with both cultures, it wasn’t part of the family tradition, and you discovered it later in life.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is mainly a Mexican holiday dating back to the Pre-Columbian era, honoring friends and family who have died. It takes place on November 2nd, but infants and children are also honored on November 1st, which is Día de los Angelitos. Rather than being a somber occasion, people gather and remember loved ones by build altars – both at home and at the cemeteries – with sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods, drinks, and possessions of the deceased. They sing, laugh, and tell stories, to create a cheerful and welcoming gathering, inviting the souls of the dead to return for a day and rejoin the living.

I’ve been lucky that death has tended to stay far from my family and friends, although it is inevitable, and one day, we will all die. As time passes, I will deal with it more and more. Sometimes it seems people have a hard time talking about, or even acknowledging death. My grandmother María Ines Lopez Gurrola passed away in 2007. This was my first experience losing someone close. Maybe because I did not see her every day, the way I used to when I was a child, her absence did not hit me a in a very real way.

I knew I would no longer be able to see when I visited Mexico, and that whatever stories she never told would never be heard. She comes to me in dreams often, even though I never dreamt of her when she was alive. This makes me believe that even if souls do not return to Earth, some form of energy does, even if just in the form of a memory.

At the end of July, one of our dogs, Changa, developed a brain tumor. It appeared, almost overnight, the way a cartoon character sprouts a lump after getting bopped on the head. It was perfectly round, a ping-pong sized ball, popping out between her eyes. After seeing three vets and one specialist, the diagnosis was grim. Probably malignant – that is, cancer – and even if it was operable, it would be an expensive and torturous process both for us and for Changa. The vets told us all we could do was make her as happy and comfortable for the remainder of her life. We’d know the day it was time to let her go.

Changa first came to our home in April of 2006, along with Tonka. We rescued them from a friend of a friend who had gone to Washington for a job. Changa was around four years old and Tonka was six – both Catahoulas and my first dogs that were not Chihuahuas. At first, these 50-pound dogs with an unknown history overwhelmed me, but I grew to love their smart and funny personalities. Catahoula owners are fans for life. Although he didn’t always do it on command, Tonka knew just the right moment to offer you his paw when you were feeling down. Changa always wanted to be right at my feet and rubbed her face like a sea otter when she was feeling happy. They both always took part in Shand’s band rehearsals, unfazed by loud guitars and drums. Musical dogs, just like their human ma and pa.

When Changa took her last breath on August 23, 2011, I not only felt the emotional sadness, but also the physical sadness of losing a friend, a family member. I know dogs aren’t exactly like children, but to us, they were like children. The moment her heart stopped beating, I felt as if someone punched me in the stomach and tore out a giant piece of my insides. For a couple of days, I walked around feeling dizzy and numb, as if floating and not really in this world. I don’t know if those sensations were normal, or what they mean, but that’s what I felt.

During the Bastrop fires, Shand was looking at a website with pictures of lost and found dogs. From there, he stumbled upon CatahoulaRescue.com, which then led him to the Urgent Animals at the Wise County Texas Animal Shelter Facebook page. When I came home, he said, “You need to look at this.” And there was a picture of a sweet-faced puppy who looked like a mini-version of Changa, scheduled to be euthanized in a couple of days. Although Catahoulas are a breed, the AKC does not recognize them, probably because they descended from molossers and greyhounds, brought to Louisiana by Hernando de Soto, who mixed with the Native American dog. Catahoulas vary in shape, size, and color. Changa’s physique was one of the least common variations.

So, on September 10, three-month old Lola came to live with us. She likes rooting in the canna plants for a cool spot, lays down with her paws stretched out ahead like Superman, and she has this way of watching each and every tiny move you make. Just like Changa. Although Changa has left the Earth, perhaps part of her came back to us in the form of Lola. We hadn’t even planned on adopting another dog just yet. Death sometimes happens when you least expect it. But so does new life.

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