Farewell, Our Fearless Little Warrior

Quality of life. Quality of life. Quality of life. This is your new mantra.  

Quality of life is what you have to determine when your pet gets old or sick, or both. How do you define quality of life, and how do you measure it? And when it’s an animal—a pet who is considered a family member—how do you determine that its life is no longer worth living?  

“Can he walk? Can he eat? Can he breathe? Can he glean any enjoyment whatsoever out of his days?” the online questionnaires ask when searching for the answer to the dreaded question: How do you know when it’s time to euthanize your pet?

You begin contemplating the end. You wonder how many more days you can eke out. How many more meals you can try to hand feed your furry friend. How many more sleepless nights you will have from taking him out to pee. How many mornings you will hold your own breath until you make sure your pet is still breathing.

One questionnaire asks, “Are you weary?” Yes, you are weary. You are so very, very weary you want to be euthanized yourself. 

“Who made you God?” you admonish yourself for even considering the lethal injection.

Of course, we would always prefer that end-of-life decisions were left up to nature. We want our pets to die peacefully, painlessly in their sleep. But nature doesn’t operate on our schedule. Nature pays no mind to our heartache—and healthcare costs—and the wish for a natural death as we watch in agony over their steady decline. To be fair, nature often does offer to take our loved ones before they grow too old to stand on their own legs or too confused to find their water dish. Out in the wild, the weak and injured become prey for the food chain. But we intervene with trips to the vet, with IVs and antibiotics, stitches and insulin, teeth cleaning and painkillers. We do whatever it takes to prolong the inevitable.

We love our pets so much. We want them to be with us forever. We cannot imagine life without them. We don’t want to let go. We refuse to let go.

You go back online and take another quiz. “Rate from 1 to 10 your pet’s hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, and mobility.” Your score is off the chart. He aches too much to walk. He won’t eat—even though you’ve offered him baked salmon, grilled steak, roasted chicken. He drinks water like he can’t get enough. His coat is dull and gray. His teeth, once so strong and white, have turned dark brown. He’s blind. He’s got diabetes, congestive heart failure, arthritis. 

You could call a friend, who just put down his 18-and-a-half-year-old dachshund, to ask what you should do. But you know that asking for opinions will just create more drama. It’s your decision. You want to keep it private. So you spend the day doing simple tasks that allow your mind to work it out. You sew—and break the needle. You bake—and burn the bread. 

Finally, you take your dog—your 15-and-a-half-year-old Jack Russell-Yorkshire terrier mix—for a ride on the side-by-side. You speed down the gravel roads as fast as the little off-road vehicle will go. Your dog puts his face into the wind, his hair blows back, his nose twitches with curiosity, he perks up like he’s his old self—the one you haven’t seen for months. Feeling the wind in his face is one of his favorite things, the only thing from which he can still derive pleasure. You’ve given him his last taste of what little quality of life he has left. 

The websites say pet owners often wait too long. Their animals suffer needlessly. But on this windy ride he’s so alert. Maybe he could live longer. Maybe today is not the day for the vet to come to the house. But you’ve already made the appointment. It was so painful to come to this decision that to reverse it now will only cause more confusion, more crying. You’ve cried enough. You’ve been crying for the past two years over his multiplying illnesses and his numerous brushes with death. You have your own quality of life to consider, and that quality has been diminishing along with your dog’s health. 

Like humans, animals have their good days and bad days. For a dog that has had an exceptionally good life, you acknowledge that it’s fitting for him to depart on one of his good days. Even though your heart is shattering into a million pieces and your chest feels like it’s going to implode. You repeat the mantra over and over: Quality of life. Quality of life. Quality of life. You remind yourself that quality of life also applies to quality of death. The word “euthanasia,” as you’ve learned through your exhaustive internet searches, is Greek for “good death.” 

You don’t believe it yet, but in the future you will realize that this “good death” is the greatest love you can show your pet. And love is the greatest, most enduring quality of all.

For Jack Howard-Iken
May 17, 2004 — September 10, 2019
“The Jack Russell Terrier is as stubborn as they come, which may be why this breed lives so long. Given proper care, the life expectancy of this fearless, energetic, vocal dog breed averages about 15 years, possibly even longer.”

Dear Jack, 

We never thought you’d live to see old age, but like with everything you did, you exceeded our expectations. Here’s to feeling the wind in your face on the other side. 

Love,Beth, Doug, and Mali

*You might also like to read Jack’s post from 2017 on life at Camp Doug*

The World Needs More People Like Ann

My friend Ann is dying. She had breast cancer about 10 years ago but it came back. In her spine. Containable but not curable, the drugs held it back for about a year or two. I hadn’t talked to her for a while and last fall I had a very strong sense that I needed to get in touch—and not just by email. Something told me I needed to pick up the phone and call her. She was happy to hear from me, but had some not so happy news: The cancer was growing.

In early December, I started getting emails from Ann’s brother. I was on a mailing list, one I’m sure is a very big list because of the number of Ann’s friends. In the past several months the chemo was affecting Ann’s nerves to the point she could no longer use her hands or feet. She couldn’t write or walk. But there was the possibility, the hope, that the neuropathy could depart in the same quick way it began.

The updates kept coming.

Ann is being moved from the hospital to the rehabilitation center for physical therapy.
Ann is making progress and determined to get home.

Ann is going home, but will need 24-hour care. A nurse will be there during the day but we’ll have friends stay with her overnight, so let me know if you would like to come for a few days or a week.

I volunteered to spend a week with her in March. (She lives in San Francisco.) Given her loving friends I’m sure she has enough caregiving volunteers to get her through the next five years. But I will not be going to San Francisco to help because Ann won’t make it five years, or even five months.

I woke up to an email update from her brother.

Ann received news yesterday that her battle with cancer is quickly coming to an end. Ann has in mind to say her goodbyes in the coming days and weeks. Then it seems she will be ready to depart on her next adventure. She seems to have no regrets and accepts that this is her time. She has great care and love of those around her. And wishes you and us all great happiness, love and peace.

And so the grief begins.

Ann is just three years older than me. She has been a mentor, a role model, a big sister, a grief counselor after Marcus died, and a true and loving friend.

Like me, she lost someone she loved who died suddenly and unexpectedly, so she already knew the ropes of this kind of grief. (The cliché is intentional; her love was a rock climber.) She was there for me—to listen, to coach, to refill my wine glass, to just be. She was there for me a few years later when Daisy was killed by a coyote. Ann, a dog lover herself, was once again a step ahead of me as she had lost her dog Shayla (an Airedale terrier) not long before Daisy died.

Ann’s dog, Shayla, was one of the most remarkable dogs I’ve ever met. I tell the story of her often, how, when Ann worked from home, Shayla would come to Ann’s desk to remind her to get off the phone and take her for a walk. After a few minutes, if Ann was still talking, Shayla would go get her leash and present it to Ann, standing there with it dangling from her mouth which, with her tall size, was level with the desktop. And when that still didn’t work, she would go get Ann’s fleece jacket off the hook by the door and drop it onto Ann’s lap, signaling that, “Excuse me, you really need to hang up now. It’s time to go out.” If that cuteness couldn’t make you end a call, no matter how important the business discussion, nothing could!

Ann and Shayla

Shayla was only 7 when she died. She got sick and Ann did everything she could to keep her dog healthy, happy, alive. She even stayed with Shayla at the animal hospital, because she believed—she knew—her presence would help the dog recover. And, with Ann’s affection, Shayla did recover (from an illness of leptospirosis.) Shayla’s recovery, which even her vet attributed to Ann’s love, was so remarkable that a magazine did a story featuring Ann on how spending time at the vet with your sick pet helps it heal.

I have followed Ann’s example of animal bedside care—many times now—whenever Jack is at the vet for his various health issues. (I did with Daisy, too.) Each time I sit on the cold cement floor of the vet’s office, gently stroking my dog’s fur for hours, I always think of Ann and Shayla and it keeps me going.

Ann talked with a pet psychic after Shayla died and the psychic told her Shayla was doing okay. When Daisy died, Ann gifted me a session with the psychic who told me Daisy was doing okay. (When your heart is THAT broken, any little bit of reassurance or affirmation is helpful.) It is one of the most heartfelt gifts I have ever received.

Lately I have been experiencing a period of turmoil—depression and despair over a combination of things: the current battlefield of politics, climate change, gun violence in schools and, more personally, what it means to be 55 and all the upheaval that goes with it: menopause; muffin top; loss of libido, bone density, and muscle tone; the seemingly limited future of my career; how to manage my finances; how to balance the solitude of the farm with my need for city; and the sobering reality that I now qualify for senior housing. But all of my worries seem so trivial now, my whiny first-world problems thrust into perspective by the news that Ann, who is just 60, is preparing to take leave.

Now I am asking:

    What really matters?
    What do we leave behind?
    What are we most proud of?
    What did we accomplish?

Ann hasn’t squandered away her time in the existential wasteland of turmoil and despair. She has been too busy, spending her life helping others as well as the environment. She has been:

  • Advocating for women in the outdoor industry
  • Serving on boards of environmental non-profits
  • Mentoring teams of young people to help them grow in their careers
  • Overseeing a foundation’s endowment allocating grants to wilderness conservation and outdoor education
  • Building public speaking careers for adventurers, enabling them to share their risk management lessons learned from Mt. Everest, El Capitan, Antarctica and beyond 
  • Building an outdoor clothing brand into an internationally recognized and highly respected name
  • Organizing a film festival featuring the feats of extreme athletes who have triumphed over tragedy
  • And, in her earlier career, producing music events

She has traveled the world, spending a lot of time in the mountains—in the Himalayas, in Yosemite, in Muir Woods.

She has nurtured friendships that span the globe, often hosting those friends in her home, their sleeping bags and backpacks turning her living room—an otherwise cozy and elegant sanctuary filled with Buddhist art and Tibetan prayer flags—into a climbers’ base camp. I have been one of those lucky friends, sleeping bag in tow, treated to her home cooked meals (my favorite being grilled tilapia with sautéed mushrooms and puréed cauliflower, and a bottle of Malbec) and waking up on her couch to a view of the Redwood forest, talking with Ann for hours over coffee.

And yet, when the time comes—and, sadly, it is coming too soon—what will Ann be remembered for most? Not for her grilled tilapia and comfy couch. Not for her career and for her many, many accomplishments. Not even for her recent, wholly deserved Outdoor Industry Lifetime Achievement Award. All of that is impressive and important, yes. But what she will be remembered for most is her kindness. Her generosity. Her humility. Her love. Her spirit, a spirit so bright and beautiful its light will keep shining long after her physical form can no longer contain it.

May we all be so lucky to be remembered that way.

May Ann’s legacy serve as a guide for those of us still here, and for others yet to come. May we model her values and her examples of honesty and integrity, to make the world a better place for as long as we are here.

We will miss you, Ann, but know you will be there with all of that kindness, generosity, humility, and love when we see you on the other side. And we will all get there eventually. Thank you for being in my life and for all the goodness you have contributed—to me and to so many others. Wishing you peace on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to meeting up with you in the next one.

With all my love and deepest gratitude,

UPDATE:  Ann Krcik passed away on February 28, 2018. She told her family the day before her departure, “I feel so happy and free.” I imagine her now, soaring in the winds, her soul so light, her joy boundless. Fly high, my friend. Fly high.

Guest Blog: Life in the Not Very Fast Lane at Camp Doug(h) — by Doug

There is no set time when Happy Hour starts on the farm. Beth’s dad, Tom Howard, had a set in stone 5pm start time. For us, in the late spring or summer, it may start at 9pm while we are fixing supper. But now and then it actually starts right on time.

The official start is when we make the left turn off the sidewalk towards the machine shed where the side-by-side is parked. At this moment our dogs, Jack and Mali, race ahead of us to be first in. Loaded up, the four of us—Beth, the dogs, and me—enjoy a wind-in-our-face ride to the pond. Now we are living!

The pond is where we want to be on hot summer evenings. Mali squirms out through our legs the instant we are stopped. Jack jumps out then waits obediently for his life jacket from Beth. I dive in from the dock, instantly washing off a day’s worth of dust and sweat. Beth tosses in Jack’s inner tube with the plywood platform (for Jack to stand on), then she throws Jack’s stick. Jack promptly swims after it. Beth dives in to join us. Mali, unlike Jack, is content to hunt frogs in the grass along the edge. Eventually we all enjoy a drying wind as we motor back to the house.

Once home, the dogs get beef liver treats for leading us on such a grand adventure. Now, accompanied by our beverage of choice (a gin and tonic or wine for Beth, beer or “brown water” for me,) Beth starts to work on a salad and I light the grill. Pork or beef from our freezer will go over the coals. Produce from our garden will go in the salad. Another evening of farm-to-table dining at Camp Doug(h).

Now that the picnic table, shaded from the evening sun, is set, Jack and Mali line up for their ritual wait, hoping for steak or pork chop bones. With fresh food on the table, the lingering aroma from the grill, a soft summer breeze caressing us, we toast to another beautiful day.

But the day is not quite finished. With fading light, it is time for “cowboy TV.” Yes, it is when I light a small bonfire in the fire ring beyond the picnic table. Once the flames have calmed down we relax with a little night cap while watching our favorite show. There is a bit of a disagreement as to what show to watch. I like to watch the pulsing red light of glowing embers. Beth prefers to stir the fire and watch the flames. Somehow we manage.

Eventually the fire starts to fade. But it’s not just the fire. Beth and I are fading too. There is one more thing to do: walk the dogs. You would think they could go on their own, but no, they wait for us. Under a starry summer sky we parade down the gravel road. Mali is always out in front. Jack usually brings up the rear. With a little luck, we may see a shooting star.

Guest Blogger: Jack Iken on Life at Camp Doug

Hi, this is Jack Iken. The last time I guest-blogged on my mom’s page was five years ago, which is like 42 years in dog time. I only guest-blogged one other time.  I have posted on Facebook a few times since then, but blogging is way better because you can say more and the stories stay around longer.

It was Doug who suggested I write a blog post. I like Doug. He calls me Hot Rod. He’s like my stepdad now. My real dad, Marcus Iken, whose last name I still use (but I only get called by my full name, Jack Iken, when I’m in trouble), died 8 years ago. I miss him.

Daisy & me
aka Team Terrier

I also miss Daisy. Even though I pretended not to like her, and always growled at her when she tried to sit in the front seat of the car, which was my spot, I really miss her too. She died 3 years ago this November when we both got attacked by a coyote. My mom was so sad. She said if she had lost both of us she might not have survived, especially because it was right after we moved out of the American Gothic House and didn’t have a home. I was lucky my neck wounds healed after a few weeks. I’m pretty tough—every time I go to the vet they say things like “he’s one tough cookie.” But that was definitely a rough patch. I was really lonely without Daisy.

I’m not lonely anymore, because now I live at Camp Doug. It’s in Iowa about an hour from our old house. It’s so cool because it’s a farm with cow manure and lots of other super smelly stuff to eat or roll in, like old road kill. I don’t have to wear a collar or be on a leash, ever.

But best of all is hanging out with Doug and his dog Mali.

This is Mali and me waiting for treats.

I love Mali. I like girl dogs who are athletic and not afraid of getting their paws dirty. Mali is like me, half and half. I’m half Jack Russell and half Yorkshire terrier. Mali is half beagle and half Springer Spaniel. She can run really, really fast, like so fast you can’t even see her. I’m fast too, but Mali has longer legs. Doug say, “She’s all lungs and muscle.” She’s like a lean machine. She likes to catch squirrels. I always try to catch squirrels but I never actually do. For me it is more fun to chase them, and then bark my head off at them when they climb back up the tree. But Mali—well, my mom gets really upset with her because she is good at catching small animals, sometimes baby ones, and that makes my mom cry a lot and complain to Doug. When she’s mad like that I just go hide in my man cave, which is the opening under Doug’s desk, where it’s quiet and dark. He doesn’t sit there very often because mostly he is out working on his farm, so I don’t have to worry about his feet getting in my way.

It’s not just my mom, Doug, Mali and me living at Camp Doug. Maybellene lives here too, inside. She’s a calico cat who thinks she owns the kitchen. Sometimes we fight and I always get blamed, but she is the one who usually starts it.

This is Maybellene. And she is in MY chair.

Her son Tiger, who is a redhead like Doug, lives outside and shares the barn with the goats, but mostly Tiger is up in the hayloft and the goats are below. Sometimes Tiger has the neighbor cats over for sleepovers. One of his friends is all black with eyes so light and green and creepy the cat looks like it could be in a horror movie; the other one is black with white paws and, as my mom pointed out, has big balls. (My balls were removed when I was a baby, but that’s okay. I’m still tough and manly. Some people even call me macho.) My mom keeps wondering if there will be kittens, but Doug says Tiger is fixed and we don’t know if the green-eyed-monster cat is a girl. But I don’t want any more pets taking attention away from me. It’s already bad enough with those damn goats.

This is Cinnamon. 

There are three goats and they have big horns. There were four, but Cinnamon died a few months ago, probably from old age because she was 15 and 15 is really old for a goat. She was the shy one, like Daisy, and she never caused any trouble. She is buried on the edge of the cornfield. That was a sad time for my mom, because Cinnamon died right after her dad, my Pappou Tom. (Pappou is Greek for Grandpa.) I loved my Pappou and he loved me, though he did not like my barking. I think his hearing aids were on the wrong setting, because I think my bark sounds pretty awesome.

This is Pappou Tom when he visited us
at Camp Doug last August.

Anyway, I was saying, the three goats…

Mr. Friendly and Tiger
with other 2 goats behind

The big white goat, the one with the biggest horns, is called Mr. Friendly. But he is not friendly! He has tried to butt me a few times, but I’m not scared of him or any of them now that I’ve learned how to be a goat herder. I’m really good at it. My mom lets the goats out of their pen to graze in the yard. She says they need some freedom and extra room to graze. But Doug doesn’t like this too much because they eat the flowers and bushes next to the barn. Instead of getting mad at my mom, he keeps putting up more fences around the yard as a compromise. But he also has me as his secret weapon. When I see them come too close to the house I go berserk and shift into my Samurai mode. You should see how fast those fat goats can run! I round them up and they go straight back into their pen. I’m like WAY better at herding than a border collie. I like helping out Doug.

I’ve been living here at Camp Doug for two years now, which is three months longer than my mom. She brought me back here to spend the summer when she traveled around the world making pie. She remembered how happy I had been when we were at Camp Doug before we moved back to California (for those really depressing six months when I had to be on a leash) and she said she would not go on her Big Trip unless I had a good, safe place to stay.

Camp Doug is an awesome place. That summer, Doug took me to the pond every day. I swam and he threw a stick for me. I love playing stick. It’s my favorite thing, besides playing keep away, tug-of-war, digging big holes in the dirt, and chasing squirrels (and goats, cows and cats.)

Also that summer, Doug took Mali and me on long walks to the creek and threw the stick for me there too. One time he even brought his saw to cut extra sticks so there would always be one ready to throw. The supply would run low because I like to take my sticks home with me–I collect them like trophies–and sometimes it takes a while to find a new one. I’m very particular about the size of my sticks. I won’t chase just anything. It has to be big, like a branch or a log, but small enough that a person can still throw it.

This is what I’m talking about!

Doug also took me kayaking (and still does.) He taped a piece of carpet to the bow so I can stand on the front of the boat without sliding off. That’s the best!

Seriously, this is the most fun thing ever.

He took lots of pictures and videos of me while my mom was traveling and sent them to her. He posted them on Facebook too. My mom got kind of jealous because people liked the posts about me better than her posts about being in what she called “exotic places.” Not my problem. It was her choice to see the world when she could have just stayed in Iowa. But I was having too much fun to give it any thought.

The best part about that summer was the treats. Doug has pigs on his farm so sometimes he has fresh pig liver. It’s pretty slimy, but it’s cold and refreshing on a hot day and it’s a healthy snack.

When my mom came back to pick me up from summer camp I told her I wasn’t leaving. I said, “I love you, mom. You can do what you want, but I’m going to stay at Camp Doug forever.” She saw how happy I was, and she also loves Doug (though in a different way than me), so she said, “Okay,” and moved here too.

This is me in the truck. I love it.
It smells like farm animals.

It is so cool to live on a farm. I’m like the happiest I’ve ever been. I love to ride in Doug’s pick up truck. I don’t like to get in my mom’s car anymore because that means leaving the farm and maybe going to a city and being on a leash. But Doug’s truck always goes somewhere fun, someplace that involves dirt, like to the pond or to a cow pasture. I wasn’t allowed near the cows at first, but now I have proven myself to be good at herding cows too. They don’t run as fast as the goats, but it’s still fun to get these big beasts to move. I mean, they’re like huge. Plus there’s so many of them and they make a lot of noise.

Doug has a lot of cows. So that’s a lot of herding for me.

Speaking of noise, that’s one of the best things about living here. I love to bark. Every night from about 7:00 to 9:00 PM, I get to be outside and bark as much as I want. Doug calls it “Guarding the Perimeter,” like I’m a watchdog. But that’s not it. I just really like to bark. It’s my way of expressing myself, the Jack Russell side of me. It’s also a good way to communicate with our neighbor’s dogs that live on the other side of the cornfield, and they like to bark back.

This is Mali and me doing the daytime version
of “Guarding the Perimeter”

Sometimes we hear coyotes barking too. This makes me bark even louder, and sometimes I even howl. But the coyotes make my mom crazy with fear. She yells at me, “Jack Iken, you get in here right now! I mean it. NOW!” She is practically panicking but Doug is pretty relaxed and tells her, “He’s fine. The coyotes aren’t that close. And they have plenty to eat out in the field.” She snaps back at him, “You know what happened to Daisy. I am not taking any chances.” And then we all go to bed (I sleep under the bed) and try to sleep, even though we can still hear the coyotes yipping and partying and killing stuff outside. I would never admit it, but I kind of understand why mom worries about me.

That thing that looks like a Moon Rover is the side-by-side.
It’s perfect for trips to the pond.

Farm life is awesome!

I’m 13 now and Doug is 62, and as much as we like to go on long walks around the farm, we both get a little more tired than we used to, our joints get a little achier than we’d like. So Doug got this really sweet off-road thing for us to ride around in. It’s called a side-by-side, which is kind of a weird name, but it means you can sit next to each other on the bench seat. It’s got a roll bar and seat belts, and netting on the sides that keeps me from falling out. When we don’t feel like walking, especially when it’s too hot, we drive this new 4WD rig to the pond. Mali doesn’t like riding in the truck—she gets really nervous—but she likes the side-by-side as much as I do. Sometimes after swimming, my mom will drive it really fast on the gravel road so my hair will dry. But I think she does it because more than anything my mom likes to make me happy. She knows I like feeling the wind in my face. But I know she likes it too.

Our family portrait

My mom said I could guest blog again sometime, but I might not have time. I might be too busy signing autographs after the August issue of Farm and Ranch Living Magazine comes out, since they are doing a story on me. I wasn’t looking to become famous; they approached me and what could I say? Plus I already have a full summer schedule with pond swimming, stick fetching, herding goats and cows and my other farm chores, like climbing on the hay bales and napping. And tonight we are going canoeing because there’s a full moon. My mom is going to make me wear my lifejacket. Life was a little more relaxed when it was just the guys—Doug and me and, well, Mali, since she’s like one of the guys—but I’m very glad my mom is here too.

I really have to pee, so I’m going outside. Bye for now.

Until next time,
Jack Iken