Category Archives: grief

Remembering Rudy

Yesterday afternoon, I was chatting with a colleague about her high-maintenance pomeranian. (Who knew dogs could have Xanax prescriptions?)

As I was laughing about her stories—hand-feeding the pup one kibble at a time or watching the highly anxious small ball of fur suddenly binge eat when unexpected visitors were arriving—I had a sudden revelation. February 14th was a day to remember an important 4-legged friend of my own.

Rudolph Valentino DeFrancesco, the most handsome dalmatian ever born,  made his debut on February 14, 1991. Little did I know that six weeks later, he’d be mine.

At the time, I was working as a junior copywriter at an L.A. ad agency. The mother of a coworker a was a dalmatian breeder—and one afternoon she arrived with several irresistibly adorable puppies in tow. I scooped one up and held it close to my heart. “How much are they?” I asked. “Well, they’re from championship line,” she replied. “American Kennel Club. They have all their papers. Oh and their dad is an actor. He’s been in several pet food commercials. They’re $800 each.”

She might as well have said $800,000. The price was unfathomable to me at that juncture. “Well, if something falls through and you have an extra puppy, let me know” I replied.

A few weeks later, something did fall through. Two puppies needed homes, and I could have one if I was still interested.

I consulted with my husband, and we agreed that it was a go.  I headed over on a Saturday morning in early April for my “meet and greet”—and entered into a room with a sweet mama dalmatian and her two remaining boys. They were both about a foot long, getting some spots, but much of their fur remained white. Both were utterly adorable, but I was particularly drawn to one. He was more high-spirited and spunky. I scooped him up, brought him home and deposited him on the bed, where my husband was still snoozing.

Our new addition cried a bit for his mom and brother that first day, but soon made himself right at home. We named him Rudolph Valentino, and he quickly captured our hearts.

In December of 1992, another addition arrived—our daughter Gabriella. We were faced with comments from a few well-meaning family members. “You’re not keeping that dog, are you?!” my mother inquired. She simply could not fathom my decision. “Dalmations are not good with kids, you know” another stated.

I ignored all the naysayers. I knew better. And the day we arrived home with our new daughter in tow, the one-and-a-half-year-old Rudy was ready. He literally leaped with joy—springing halfway across the living room to greet us.

And for the next 12 and half years, he and she grew up together. We soon learned that he resented the fact that Gabriella received so many toys and stuffed animals. December was especially rough, with here birthday and Christmas both occurring in quick succession. He’d get ahold of her new toy—a stuffed Winnie the Pooh or fuzzy white bear—and chew the noses off of them. In time, Gabriella’s grandma would come to the rescue, rummaging through her button jar for the perfect nose replacement.

He was a master food pilferer, amazingly adept at snatching unattended delicacies off a dinner plate or a loaf of bread off the counter. I’d sometimes catch him while the crime was in progress, but he was so quick for a chubby 70-something-pounder. He’d scurry out his dog door in a flash, with me in hot pursuit cursing and yelling. One Christmas, he ate a whole pound of fudge that was beautifully wrapped and waiting under the tree. He was perfectly fine afterward, FYI. (I’d heard that dogs can die from eating chocolate; this most definitely did not apply to Rudy.)

He also”talked” all the time—and after Gabriella took up the violin in elementary school, started displaying a new talent. She was playing “Joy to the World” one winter evening and he started singing along in harmony. The tune apparently touched him to the bottom of his spotted soul.

Wherever we went, kids would excitedly approach and ask to pet him. “It’s a dalmatian!” they’d exclaim. Rudy was always wonderful with his fans. As he got older, he got a bit more crotchety—and not everyone was a fan. My younger sister couldn’t stand him, and the final straw occurred one holiday season.  Gabriella’s dad was picking her up, and inadvertently let go of Rudy’s leash. He barreled into my sister’s living room, lifted his leg and urinated all over her Christmas tree, beautifully wrapped presents and white rug. Thankfully, I wasn’t there to witness the moment—which we can chuckle about now…a little.

The day that he died on that summer afternoon was absolutely devasting for all of us. Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Gabriella was inconsolable, as were her dad and I. “Rudy was with me every day of my life, Mom.” I held her close and we cried together.  Later that evening, we wrapped him in one of her favorite towels, buried him and held a funeral in our backyard with her neighborhood friends.

I still miss him so, these 12 years later—and always will. I’m so grateful for the conversation I had yesterday with my colleague. I may otherwise have forgotten to remember.

Happy birthday, Rudolph Valentino DeFrancesco. I may forget your birthday down the road, but know this: you’ll be in my heart, always and forever.

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@ awkward intersections in my brain

0280_0065117080 (2)When talking about my family,  siblings and birth order invariably come up in conversation.

Ever since my older sister Ellen died suddenly two years ago,  so much has changed. That includes the “birth order” convo.

Now, when it comes up, I now find myself reaching an an awkward intersection inside my brain–every time.

I’ve always been interested in the subject of birth order, and eventually bring it up with all my friends and colleagues. (How could you not be?)

“I’m one of eight kids; five brothers and two sisters. I was fourth,” I say. Sometimes, I’ll add in a p.s.—“I was the quintessential bitter middle child.”

Other times, when reminiscing about my father, I’ll share this anecdote: “My dad was a lawyer, and absolutely loved it. He wanted all eight of his kids to be lawyers, too. He’d tell me, ‘Lefty, there are so many f**** a******* who are lawyers. You can be one, too.’” (Was that a compliment or an insult?)

I then go on to say that he ended up with four lawyers out of 8— 50%; not bad at all. And it’s at that exact moment that I now  pause and mull it over in my mind:  Should I add the caveat?

I am one of eight—but now we are seven. He did have four kids who grew up to be lawyers–but now there are three.

A little over two years ago, our sister Ellen Marguerite O’Hara, died suddenly. Getting used to speaking of her in the past tense?

It’s taking longer than I’d anticipated.


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I’m easing in this rainy Saturday morning. Sifting through bills, sipping on an underwhelming cup of coffee and adding tasks to my online to-do list. (Latest entry: ”Buy quality coffee beans at Cafe Lladro in Bothell.”)

My phone buzzes with a new post alert. I glance down and read it. It’s one of the those Facebook messages, alerting me of a friend’s birthday.

“Today is Ellen O’Hara’s birthday.  Reply to post a wish on her Timeline of reply with 1 to post “Happy Birthday!”.

I sit, motionless, listening to the pouring rain. Memories of that last horrific day in March of 2014 return.

It was late afternoon on the 10th floor of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital–the cancer floor. A harpist from the hospice had just finished up playing at the foot of my older sister’s bed. Two former colleagues of hers were knocking on the door, having ignored the “no visitors” directive.

I let them in. Ellen awoke. They had no idea how bad off she was, and spent a few minutes trying to banter. “Ellen, are you gonna come to St. Patrick’s Parade this weekend?” She shook her head slowly, back and forth. It was a “no.”

They continued on with their attempted chit-chat, about what I can’t really recall. After a several  more awkward minutes, I told them that she was exhausted and they should probably go.

The second guy had one more question: “Ellen, any words for everyone at the office?”

Ellen stared intently at them both for several beats. She was heavily medicated; pain meds administered every 20 minutes, with one simple click. On this, what would be her last day of life, even when she was asleep, my younger sister and I made sure of it (especially after the night prior, when Ellen’s pain meds ran out for an unthinkable 20 minutes).

Yet now, she was all all there. She slowly, weakly lifted up her arm and waved her hand back and forth, once. Just once. I could hear what she was saying: “Buh bye!” 

The two former colleagues departed. Ellen died hours later.

I return to my tasks at hand. Two years ago, I would have added “Call Ellen and wish her a happy birthday.” Today, I have only old photographs to study, vinyl records to play, candles to light, beer to drink, and memories to mine. (Such is life…and death.)

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The day those five trusty words finally failed me

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Five words have managed to get me through most of my life: “It could always be worse.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve said that phrase, and it always managed to make me feel empowered and strong. Until the day it no longer applied.

It was that horrific week in March of 2014, when my older sister’s scheduled hysterectomy never happened. Those nightmarish five days when the truth was finally revealed, and we discovered that her stage 4 uterine cancer had spread unabated.

I’d had a sinking feeling when I first heard about the hysterectomy a month prior. My younger sister, Regan, the eternal optimist, did not appreciate my negative attitude. I’d just witnessed the rapid decline of several family members of a close friend from ovarian cancer. I couldn’t shake my feelings of fear and dread.

Ellen suffered terribly and died unexpectedly on March 15 just after midnight.  On that last day of her life, Regan and I had left the hospital around 11 p.m., after our eldest brother Tom arrived from California with more family on the way.

Ellen had been asleep, but still moaning intermittently despite powerful IV pain meds she was receiving. We debriefed him–most importantly to ensure that her pain meds absolutely, positively did not run out.

The prior evening, her nurse had been busy with other patients–and Ellen went 25 minutes without any painkillers.

It’s truly unfathomable, the suffering she endured. Even with the potent cocktail of opiates and who knows what else she was getting every 20 minutes on demand, she still frequently said her pain was “off the charts.”

Tom was standing by Ellen’s bed as we left the room. We arrived back at Ellen’s house on Spokane’s South Hill around 11:30 p.m.. opened a bottle of wine, collapsed into her couch and stared at each other, silently.  

The blur of the past week? None of it seemed real, even now. We sipped our wine and sat quietly. Then, Regan reached for her phone, checking for text messages.. We’d asked our brother to send an update after we left.

“We haven’t heard from Tom.” She dialed his number, and winced as he delivered the news. “I think Ellen just died.”

Later that morning, around dawn, I awoke, unrested and bleary-eyed. The dream I’d been having faded to the background; the nightmare was all too real.  

Those trusty five words?  This time, they most definitely would not apply.

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