Thursday, February 25, 2016

Farewell, Sweet Maple

We didn't know when we kissed Maple good-bye last summer that we were saying farewell forever.

Our sweet Maple dog went to heaven last night.

Maple. Our first baby. We had pick of the litter, and we chose the runt. She was sweet, but spunky. When the other Vizsla puppies tried to edge her out of her rightful place at the food bowl, we watched as she gently, politely, assertively nosed her way back in like a little southern belle. Her brothers became celebrities, owned by several Chicago White Sox players, but we brought home the All Star. She was ours to love and raise, and we did. Along the way, she helped us raise our babies. She started the chapter on "starting a family."
Maple was the original Vlach-Little
She helped us prep the nurseries over the years

Maple, who at eight weeks old, whimpered in her dog crate at the foot of our bed until we pulled her up into our comforter; she slept with her face on a pillow between us like a human being. Years later, when I couldn't sleep, I would crawl into her dog bed with her on the floor....laying my face on her warm velvety stomach until my breathing matched hers and I felt drowsy at last. She trained us as we taught her. She watched Illini games with my grandpa Don, cuddled on my mom's lap after chemo, sat by my side for eight hour stretches while I was on bed rest (protecting me both from acute loneliness and from a fierce squirrel that was stuck in the attic).

She was our kids' favorite friend. A ballerina in a tutu, the station fire dog, Elmo every Halloween, a real-life Fairy Dog Mother in Milwaukee's Bastille Day festival. We used to pull her out from under the kids' beds after they'd fallen asleep. She was sneaky and clever -- that dog could steal a pizza from the counter if you turned your back for more than a second. She attacked this Girl Scout leader's cookie supply and created a bit of an awkward situation. Maple used to run into our Nashville neighbor's garage and clean their dog's food bowl, then walk around the cul-de-sac and shred everyone's recycling bags, licking empty containers as a second course. She had her place at the foot of the couch for years, keeping my feet warm after we put the kids to bed.
Superhero Maple
Dressed-up-for-Christmas Maple
Luau-on-my-birthday Maple
Fairy Dog Mother Maple
Horsey Maple
Maple was neurotic. She would bat around dirty laundry on the floor until it landed in her food bowl. She never was one of those dogs you could tie up for a second while you grabbed coffee in Starbucks -- she needed to be attached to you AT EVERY MOMENT. I can't possibly imagine how many times I not only stepped on her, but tumbled right off my own feet backyards over her.

It's difficult not to get melodramatic about her loss. I know, I know....she's a dog. But she was a family member. I loved her deeply and actually depended on her for company. She held a starring role in every celebration we've ever had; she's part of our family's story and history. Leaving her in the States when we moved abroad was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. For 11 years, I gave her every apple core I've ever eaten, and even now, 18 months after our transfer, I still instinctively push every loaf of bread back from the edge of the counter.

Rob's parents gave us the most beautiful gift -- there are no words for the love they have shown us by loving our dog throughout her life, caring for her during her final chapter. When it came time to move to Europe -- rented house, no fence, new baby, lots of travel, not to mention a tough trip abroad under the plane for an older dog -- they gave her what we couldn't: Steadfast companionship and constant attention. They doted on her. They gave her routine. They took her to work and along for their errands. Sandie cooked her gourmet meals that were easy on her stomach. Tom followed her around the house with her dog bed so she could be comfortable in whatever pool of sunshine she found to bathe in. They took her for daily bike rides on her leash, long walks through the forest preserve, and she had her very own pink four-poster canopy bed. Princess Maple even had her own wardrobe.
This fall, they called us with the news that there was a tumor and that our playful, sparkling, good natured pup's days were numbered. We gave them our full blessing to make the hard decisions. We knew it was coming, but I still didn't expect it so soon...I thought I'd get to say goodbye one more time. I was planning our home leave reunion.

Rob came home from work early and we told the kids. Their reactions put each of their individual personalities on center stage. Madeline understood before I even finished my sentence; she gasped and wailed Madeline's name, but she never cried, ever stoic. Sensitive Charlie, on the other hand, had quick, hot, fast tears that lasted for a long time; he didn't talk or ask questions...I just held him. And John seemed to not understand. The words floated over his head and he talked about unrelated events, laughing and playing, oblivious. But then unexpectedly, as I carefully answered Madeline's more mature questions, John erupted into convulsing sobs; I had to pick him up and cradle him to calm him down. Together, he and I chose a large rock in the backyard and we wrote Maple's name on it. It seems to comfort him quite a bit; this morning, we each took several turns going into the backyard to look at the rock with him before school. Madeline and Charlie instinctively understood its significance.
Sometimes loss is an important part of life and love.

Maple. I wish saying her name could bring her back for one more cuddle. I couldn't be there with you at the end, friend, but Tom and Sandie held you and loved you as you went to sleep. This is my good-bye. I can hear your breath and smell your fur and feel your warmth. Your tail is wagging...I could always tell exactly where you were by that telltale thump-thump-thump. And now you're in pet heaven. If you could read this and understand the words I'm writing, I would say thank you. For being such a good friend, loyal companion, patient big sister and incredible teacher.

We'll always love you.
Meeting Bitsy!
They became fast friends.
Maple never really knew she was a big dog.
Rob taught her how to go down stairs.
Maple was a part of every celebration, like this dog-themed birthday party

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Our Jedi Knight Turns 7!

Charlie is seven years old! He seems so grown up -- it's hard to remember a time when his curly hair was platinum, when he lived-and-breathed firefighters, or the adorable way he used to pronounce "umbrella." Now, he's reading books about D-Day and Gettysburg, building elaborate Lego projects independently and playing soccer in padded goalie gear. Firefighters gave way to Superheroes long ago, which have been whole-heartedly replaced by Star Wars. But what remains constant is sweet Charlie's affectionate nature, his genuine kindness and his goofball sense of humor. He's a well-liked kid for sure, and a true joy to be around. We're waiting for his two bottom teeth to fall out....his permanent teeth have grown in behind them and our seven-year-old boy has shark teeth!

To celebrate Charlie, we invited 15 boys over for a Star Wars birthday party at our house. As always, Madeline and John were his extra special guests. It was fun that his actual birthday landed on Saturday this year! He woke up to a room full of balloons, as has become a birthday tradition, and of course, a singing candle on his stack of mini pancakes!
Receiving John's gift....
This kid reads his own cards now!
At 11am, the boys started pouring in. Kids from all over the world -- Belgium, Iceland, South Africa, Korea, Japan and Scotland, Luxembourg, Holland and the States. Each friend was immediately outfitted in a Jedi robe (no-sew tunics made out of IKEA fabric) and invited to color Star Wars coloring sheets. Our whole family got in on the action: Rob was a Jedi Master; Madeline, Bitsy and I dressed as Princess Leias; and naturally, John and Charlie were padawans.
We soon moved on to dangling donuts. Then we began the Jedi Academy and handed each child a Light Saber made out of pool noodles and a little Duct Tape. This part of the party was INSANE for us, and INSANELY FUN for the kids. The dueling Jedi Knights eventually had to be relieved of their weapons (to be handed back to them as parting gifts), and we lined everyone up on a piece of electrical tape running the length of the living room. We told the boys to use the Force to balance on one leg.....but that if they put the other foot down, they would be hit with Silly String. (When I saw the wet, sticky neon product all over the first floor, I quickly told the boys to collect as much as they could off the ground and make a Death Star. It worked! The boys scrambled around cleaned up the Silly String like it was a fun game and we saved the rugs).
The Princesses
Next up: Hutt dogs, Padawan popcorn, Yoda Soda and an R2D2 cake that was a particular highlight. The boys played hide and seek and Foosball while they waited for their parents to arrive. And we only lost one shelf-full of picture frames, which was amazing given the 18 swinging light sabers. The boys were wild, but sweet, and incredibly gentle with little Bitsy, who sat on the floor taking it all in.

Princess Leia Buns....
Charlie relaxed the rest of the afternoon, putting together his new Lego sets. That night, at his request, we made homemade pizzas and got the cake back out for the day's third rendition of Happy Birthday. And then we gave him his last gift: a pair of ski goggles with a note telling him that Rob would be taking him (and his siblings) skiing at Snowhall in France the next day! We gave him two more pair of ski goggles to give to Madeline and John. And boy, did they have fun!

What a day! What a weekend! What a BOY! We love you so much, Charlie!