Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Half a Year Ago Today

We met one sad, scared little man.  

This passport photo was taken maybe thirty minutes after that traumatic first meeting.  I sat him on the stool in front of the white curtain, my arm on his back to make sure he didn't fall.  "Smile!" I said in a cheery sing-song voice.  Although an appropriate thing to say at a photo session, it was quite ridiculous under the circumstances, spoken to a child who didn't understand English and had just left everything he'd ever known.  "Smile!"  The poor boy.

What an amazing 6 months we've had together and what a truly amazing child.  Not only has he adjusted, he's thrived.  His teachers at church and at school give us nothing but glowing comments; they all adore him.  His English is incredible.  He certainly doesn't have the depth of vocabulary that some 4 year-olds have, but he's not very far off.   Not far off at all.  He speaks in full sentences--sentences filled with adjectives and adverbs, pronouns and possessives.   He still has a touch of an accent, but it's quickly fading and we'll miss it when it's gone. 

He is sweet and helpful, smart and funny.  Oh my, is he funny.  He makes us laugh every single day.  What a blessing to have that contagious smile in our home.  He lights up a room with his whole-face grin.   It's humbling to think how easy it would have been to miss out on XiXi, to have let that gift pass us by without ever knowing what we'd missed.  Over a year ago, when we saw his photo on a website, we were in no way ready for an adoption.   At least that's what we thought.  Heavenly Father obviously knew better.

Happy six months together, precious XiXi!  SMILE!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do Dogs Shed in Heaven?

If they don't, our Olaf has now officially achieved perfection.

It's just his family that's a absolute mess.

Olaf was, without a doubt, the world's cutest puppy.

I carried him home from the breeder's on my lap, a warm, wiggly, bear cub of a dog.

Would you check out the size of that paw?  Even as a baby, it was clear he would soon be shopping at the big and tall store.

His doggie brother Charlie, our labrador retriever, five years his senior, was named after Charlie Brown.   We wanted to stay in keeping with the Peanuts theme, but this dog was certainly no Snoopy.  Or Pigpen.  Or Linus.  Bruder piped up that Snoopy had a fat brother in a fur hat and that his name was Olaf.  Lightbulbs dinged over the heads of all family members and it was decided instantly.  He was Olaf.

When he was still a baby, we took a trip to the Oregon coast, but since we couldn't imagine leaving him in a kennel, we rented an RV and he came along for the ride.

He's always been so gentle that even toddler Rose could hold his leash.

We learned on that trip that Olaf detested water, wouldn't even step paw in it, but would happily run along the beach.  Basically anything with his people, he was game.

He grew at an alarming rate.  By 10 months he was pushing 100 pounds.

Here he is during his gangly teenage stage in the Olympic Mountains with the kids.  I've always loved mountain photos of Olaf.  Being a Bernese Mountain Dog, it just seemed fitting.  If we could put the kids in lederhosen and get them yodeling, the scene would be perfect.

I can't tell you how many times I heard, "Holy cow!  What a cool dog!"  Or, "Is that some type of Saint Bernard?"  Or my favorite, "Oh, I know what he is!  He's one of those Burmese Mountain Dogs, right?"  I always commended the proud individual on their canine knowledge, but inwardly laughed at the image of Olaf in his thick black coat, lounging on the tropical shores of Burma.

For almost seven years, Olaf has been such a huge part of our home and family.

Whether it's been welcoming trick or treaters on Halloween,

laughing with the kids on crazy dress day,

or sending off his boy on his first drive in his new car.

He's been there for landscaping and dirt moving projects,

bike rides and lawn games,

kid's birthday parties,

and of course, the Christmas Eve pyramid.  Oh, how he hated the Christmas Eve pyramid.  If he could wring his hands, assuming he had hands, this annual event would make him do it.  He was a bit of a worrier at heart.  More than once, he tried to hide behind me when some toy breed barked at him.   He also worried about our laminate floor.  Not the whole floor, just one particular section.  He'd stand there, hemming and hawing over what he should do, then he'd always turn around and throw it into reverse to slowly back into the carpeted family room.  Lyle added the BEEP, BEEP, BEEP sound of a truck in reverse.  People thought it was some trick we taught him, but no, it was just his own little brand of weirdness shining through.

   Olaf was always gentle and kindhearted.  Never once in his life did he show the slightest hint of aggression.  Our lab will growl, as most dogs would, if say, a raccoon saunters onto our porch, but never Olaf.  Not a single growl ever escaped his lips. 

He went on countless walks around our two mile loop.....not just with our family, with anyone.  He was positive that everyone adored him, and as far as I can tell, he was right.  He was beloved by the whole neighborhood and many walkers would get to our property and cup their hands around their mouths and yell, "OLAF!" and he'd join them for a jaunt.  When our neighbors heard he was sick, one brought him a cheeseburger, another a bone.  They shared Olaf stories and fought back tears.

Olaf loved the recent arrival of our goats.  In this photo, he was staring with rapt attention, along with the kids, as the goats were let into the pasture.  

He chased them with tail wagging glee and then sat outside their fence and stared at them.  He found them endlessly entertaining.

When visitors came to our home, Olaf gave them a little sniff, then promptly turned around, sat on their feet, and threw his head back at them in a big Berner grin.  I believe he had a 100% success rate in getting a pat.

He went on many scout campouts and was the ultimate tent warmer.  On a cold night, everyone wanted to sleep with Olaf.  He accompanied the boys on numerous hikes, 

almost all successful.

There was one notable exception when he laid down mid-trail and refused to take another step. 
 I've had hikes like that myself.

But when I picture Olaf, I won't see him on a trail or in the mountains or at the beach.  When I think of  him, I'll always see him on the hill above our house.

Without fail, when our car turned the final dusty, bumpy corner for home, he was there, waiting for us.  

Tonight, with the help of our neighbors, we buried our gentle giant on his hill.  Everyone agreed that that's where he should be.

As much as our hearts are breaking right now, I would bring home that furry bear cub bundle again in a  heartbeat.   I can see our children, years from now, with their children, sitting snuggled on their laps, and they're telling them,
"When I was a kid, we had the coolest dog....."  And then they'll smile.  
"His name was Olaf."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Three Miles

In under seventeen minutes!
That's fast.
Like really fast.

Today he took two whole minutes off his time from last year.
We're so proud of this kid.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kindergarten Confusion

Cholita loves kindergarten.  She lays out her uniform every night before going to bed, she writes little notes to her teacher, and she impatiently waits for that wonderful day when she'll get her first piece of homework.   Another perk of school is that she's made several friends who she's pretty sure are her soul mates.  The friend I heard about the most was a little girl who for the purposes of this blog we'll call Jordan.  She gushed on a daily basis how Jordan was not only nice, but funny, great on the monkey bars, and had beautiful long blonde hair.

One day Cholita came out of class with a skip in her step and an envelope in her hand.  Jordan was having a party.  Could life get any better?  At home, I read the invitation:  Jordan is turning 6!  Come help celebrate his birthday on......"  I didn't even read the rest.

"Um, Cholita....." I wasn't quite sure how to say this.  "Um, are you sure that Jordan is a girl?"

Cholita laughed.  "Yes.  She's a girl."  Then she nervously added,  "That's a weird thing to ask."

"Well, the invitation has the word "his" on it, which means boy."

She shrugged.  "I guess her mom messed up when she was typing."  She bit her fingernail, a habit she recently broke.

"Moms don't generally mess that up."  I tried to say it as gently as I could.  "Cholita, I'm pretty sure Jordan's a boy."

Angry tears welled up in her eyes.  "Mom, SHE'S A GIRL!"

We talked about why she was so sure she was girl and it all came down to the long hair, which she said she always wore in a pony tail.  I pointed out that sometimes boys wear ponytails,  but she wouldn't hear of it.   Then suddenly she gasped.

"Oh no!  Mom, I just thought of something!  She has....."  she gulped like the words were too hard to spit out.  "She has.......a baseball backpack!"  That was the ultimate piece of evidence and she sobbed long and loud.

It's been a week now since her social world was rocked by this news, but only about 2 days since she's been able to use the masculine pronoun when referring to her friend.  I am happy to say though, that they are still friends.   Cholita has always had lots of friends who are boys and enjoys playing with boys, but I wasn't sure how a mental switcheroo would affect the relationship.

I finally got to see Jordan the other day when he was getting on the bus.   The school dress code makes the clothing pretty gender neutral, so that's not a clear giveaway; unless of course, you're opting for the skirt or jumper.  But the tan pants and a navy blue polo he was wearing could totally go either way.

Looking at her dear friend, even as an adult, the hairstyle would have completely thrown me off.  It's not that it's just a ponytail.  It's a double pony tail, with half of the hair pulled up on the top of his head, and the rest all gathered into a bouncy ponytail in the back.   No wonder Cholita was confused.

After the initial shock, I'm proud that she's taken it in stride.  "Well," she said, "I was going to get her......I mean him......a doll, but he said that he wants Star Wars legos."  Then she laughed.   "Yep, that means he's definitely a boy!"  

P.S. No new news on the Olaf front.  It's been hard.  Like really hard.  Like one of the top 10 hardest things I've dealt with in my mercifully easy life.   It's not hard because he looks like he's in pain.  As awful as that would be, it would make the decision easy.  Or at least easier.  It's hard because he's wagging his tail and giving us happy smiles and reveling in the most attention he's had in years, all while looking like a chemo patient.  I hate this.  

P.P.S. He's from a litter of 6 males and I know the status of 5 of those dogs.   Literally within weeks of each other, THREE have been diagnosed with cancer, one put down only the day before we had Olaf at the vet.   The mom dog died recently of old age at 11 long Berner years old.  The dad died of cancer at 7.  Unfortunately, the boys evidently take after Papa.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Keeping Him Happy

That's the name of the game right now.  With lots of kid love and an eat-whatever-the-heck-you-want diet, Olaf has gained some weight and given us lots of tail thumping, happy Berner grins.

I took photos of Olaf with the kids yesterday.  It's hard to see him so skinny, but the spark is back in his eyes.

These past six years Olaf's watched our oldest

grow from boy to man.

He's seen two little girls 

become beautiful young ladies.

And he's welcomed two dear children home from China.

We couldn't ask for any more of him.  

The "keeping him happy" plan has been stepped up since we received the hard news today that Olaf does in fact have cancer.   The specialists who reviewed his radiographs found a mass in his retroperitoneal cavity, with the liver and spleen "looking suspicious".   They think it's either histiocystosis or lymphoma, both with the same prognosis.  Right now he's comfortable and happy.  We'll keep him that way as long as we can, but hopefully not a moment too long.  That's the least we can do for a member of the family.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Shadow of Our Former Dog

This has been a hard, hard day.  We spent a good portion of it at the vet's office.  And another good portion fighting back tears, sometimes successfully, oftentimes not so successfully.  Our poor giant of a dog is wasting away and we're not sure what's ailing him.  In his prime, Olaf was probably close to 120 pounds.  When we put him on the scale today at the vet's office, we were shocked to see that he's now 76.   Under that huge fur coat he's just a skeleton.  He's lethargic.  He hardly eats anything.  He drools, which he's never done before.  He doesn't even manage a tail thump when you pat his head.

Taking him to the doctor today, we highly doubted that he'd be coming back.  We told the kids this, because we didn't want them to feel blind sighted , and they reacted about how we expected they would.  It was a hard day.  I was so thankful Lyle was with me.  He actually had to carry Olaf into the exam room.  The nurse took a look at him and said that she'd take him into the back room and have the doctor examine him there.  That can't be good.

When the doctor came to talk to us, he said, "I don't know what he has, but I know he's very, very sick."  His temperature was 105 and his heartbeat, which he said should be about 80, was 200.  His gums were not their normal pink color, but a sickly gray.  They started him on IV fluids and began blood work.  We returned 2 hours later and learned that the blood work, surprisingly, looked normal.  They took radiographs and there were no obvious masses.  Cancer is rampant in the ranks of berners, so we thought for sure that's what they'd find.   He's not even quite 7 years old, hardly geriatric, but with the bane of cancer, Bernese Mountain dogs have an average life expectancy of only 8 years.

With the IV fluids, Olaf's gums have pinked back up and his heart rate is down, but the doctor still suggested we transfer him to an emergency center to spend the night.  We elected instead to bring him home.  As long as he's reasonably comfortable, he's happier here and the kids wanted so badly to see him on our porch once again.   We need to check in with the vet tomorrow and we have an appointment scheduled for Monday. The best case scenario is that he has some raging infection and that the meds he's on now will knock it out.  That's what we're hoping for and we owe it to him to try that route.  But if that's not what it is, we also owe it to him to stop his suffering.  With all that he's given to us over the years, that's the least we can give him in return.   Please, oh please let it be an infection.

What we wouldn't give to see him looking like this again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Yet Another Gift Via E-Mail

Be still my heart.  This is the youngest photo I've ever seen of our sweet little man.  He was born in July (most likely),  found in a park in September, and when this picture was taken, had been a resident of the orphanage for a little over a month.  Apparently a copy of this photo was hanging on his crib and one of the nannies remembers that he grabbed it, tore it up, and ate it.   Considering the pink outfit and bunny hat, do you blame him for wanting it destroyed?   Little did he know there was another copy!  And thank goodness.  I will always cherish this darling photo.

The only other photo that I have of him as an infant was taken a couple of months later.  In that time, his hemangioma had already gotten smaller.  I think his birth mother saw it at its worst.  She may have thought that the growth was something more sinister or may have worried that he'd be disfigured for life.  I wish she could see her handsome boy today.  Doctors and dentists have looked in his mouth, shining lights and probing his cheek and can see absolutely no evidence of the hemangioma.  There's not even a scar from the surgery.  He's as perfect as he could possibly be.

Someday I want to return to that park in Kunming and put up a poster, showing photos of baby XiXi and handsome young man XiXi.  It would bring me such joy to think that maybe his mother would see it and that she'd know that her son is happy, healthy, handsome, and loved beyond measure.  She carried him in the womb for nine months, her arms for two months, and I imagine she still carries him in her heart.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Back to School!

Our big kids, the senior and freshman in high school, were out the door before dawn and before the camera made it off the closet shelf.   But the littles got to experience the full embarrassment of their mother snapping pictures and waving as they tried to nonchalantly get on the bus.

This year we have a lovely fifth grader, in her last year of elementary school,

an adorable kindergartener,

and a very eager, very peppy preschooler.

Pretty darn sweet, if I do say so myself.

This one was so very excited to take a bus.

While this one so feels like there should be a preschool bus.

Welcome to the new school year!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Garden Stamp of Approval

My mother-in-law once told me that she always had a spot in her garden that was "experimental", where she'd test out new plants and see what made the cut.   I told her that our whole entire yard is experimental.  As a total beginner, we have 5 acres full of trial and error.

You really need to watch plants for a few years to see if they are all you'd hoped they'd be.  Some I've been in love with for a season but then have been annoyed with the rest of the year.  Some I've even loved for many seasons but then come to detest because I learn that they desire world domination.....or at least domination of an entire flower bed.

Here are a few things that have stood the test of time and have been given the stamp of approval in our garden:

Kinnickinnick:  It's not only fun to say, it's really a  great easy-care plant.  I planted our first kinnickinnick about 4 years ago and it's slowly but surely proven its worth.  It has year-round interest, is drought tolerant, and drapes beautifully over our entry rock wall.

And to think, I only bought it for the name.

Another plant that has been give our stamp of approval is Russian Sage.  Evidently it's not really a sage and it's not really Russian, but whatever it is, we like it.  It's a sparkling silvery purple in late summer when most other flowers look faded, it's drought tolerant, and the bees love it.  It's also spiky but needs no staking, something I almost always refuse to do.

It's a great companion to the rose colored sedum in the background.

Hardy Geranium 'Biokovo': This plant deserves a better photo, taken when it's in bloom.  It's a great ground cover, here under our Japanese maple and fills in all the nooks and crannies admirably without taking over more than it's own fair share of space.  There are so many varieties of hardy geranium that a girl could start quite a collection.

Viburnums:  I love this plant, our doublefile viburnum, seen here in Spring when the white flowers shine.   Whole books have been written detailing the different varieties of viburnum.  Like the hardy geranium, I could start a sizable collection.  I just planted a korean spice viburnum that I'm hoping is a little more drought tolerant than the doublefile, it's only fault.  Drought tolerance seems to be theme here.  You'd think that in rainy western Washington, that wouldn't be an issue, but come August, it absolutely is.  I want plants that I can pretty much ignore.  But the doublefile is so gorgeous, I make an exception and drag out the hose to keep it happy.

Evergreens.  When I first started planting, I had tunnel vision for the flowers.  What I've found though is that without some stalwart evergreens, things can look chaotic in a hurry.  I planted this adorable hinoki cypress last week and love it's chartreuse color.  There's a wide range of greens and I need to explore mixing them up a bit more.    

I'm happy to be heading into fall, when I can plant bulbs.  This year I'm trying some species tulips, plants which will hopefully prove to be keepers in our experimental yard.