20 March 2018

Sylvie’s Writing Letters

By: Jon Katz

Sylvie's Writing Letters

Sylvie is a great letter writer, and a great letter reader. She loves to get letters, and says she has made many new friends in the Army OF Good. She asked if I could bring her more notecards and she said yes. I asked her if she needed stamps, and she said yes. We are working together to fill out the addresses on her letters, many of them get returned, and Sylvie turns them into prayers.

I'll bring some tomorrow. Maria and I are doing Bingo night again on Friday. We have to figure out some new prizes, I gave gift certificates to some of the winners two weeks ago, and it turns out one of them took the certificate to the convenience store, cashed it in and tried to buy some liquor.

It didn't work, but we are getting some different prizes for this Friday.

Sylvie doesn't play Bingo, but she loves getting letters, they mean a great deal to her.

You can write Sylvie c/o The Mansion, 11 S.Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.

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Video: At The Mansion: Joan Asks For Help. And Gets Some

By: Jon Katz

Joan Asks For Help: Katie Perez and Joan

At The Mansion today, I saw Joan wandering a bit, she was uncharacteristically short-tempered with another resident. She looked unhappy. She said she was unhappy.  I asked if we could take a walk down the hallway with Red.

Maria and I were both at the Mansion bringing large bags of Easter gift bags prepared by a friend and blog follower, Cathy Stewart. (We are saving them for our Mansion Easter celebration set for Monday, April 2. Your decorations are arriving. We've signed up the Round House Cafe to bring desserts.)

Some people like to think of assisted care facilities as residences for sweet old ladies, sitting quietly, chatting and knitting. That is no so. There's is a lot going on. There are great and constant mood swings, temper tantrums fights and bouts with depression and confusion, highs and lows.

This is especially true in the winter, when everyone is boxed in and thrown together.

I have learned so much about how to help from watching Katie Perez, the former Mansion director, and now the Mansion nurse.

Katie is a hero to me, she cares so much about the residents, and she knows  how to talk to them, she is my role model for that. First, you have to really care, and Katie does. She cares so much she had to step back from her former job to keep from burning out. But she couldn't bear to leave the residents entirely, so she works several days a week.

You have to be calm and steady and persistent, you have to remain focused and listen, and also guide the conversation in a positive direction.

I asked Joan why she was unhappy, and she said  she wanted to go home. She put her head in her hands.

She wanted to build a new house on the water. I asked her what started this feeling, and she said she wanted to work with her hands, to be creative. She has new eyesight troubles that keep her from reading or painting, she spends hours uncertain what to do.

Joan often things she is going home, all of her things are packed and ready to go.  The staff talks to her and distracts her, and she forgets about going home. Until the next day.

The Mansion offers continuous activities, but between her memory problems and eyesight, she can't do many of them of them.  One or two of the residents can be abrupt with her. The staff watches her closely and loves her and cares for her. But still…"I'm struggling," she told me, in between bursts of memory and confusion.

Katie came by and I signalled to her to come  over. She instantly saw what was happening.

Katie looked Joan directly in the eye and asked her why she was unhappy. Joan said she wanted to go to her new home, Katie explained that Joan was in a home where people cared about her, it was her home for now. More than 30 people live at the Mansion, she explained, and Joan was surprised.

Katie asked Joan if she was bored sometimes, and she said she was. This is common in assisted care, especially during a winter like this, where the residents get intense Spring fever and can't walk or sit on the porch or get outside much.

Katie said "you need something different to do, something new."

Katie is amazing for her empathy and ability to communicate, and she told Joan she is much-loved by the residents. She said she understood Joan was frustrated, she needed something of her own. Something she could do with her hands. Something that was creative.

Joan seemed to cheer up, she was intrigued. She trusted Katie. I think she trusts me too.

I asked Joan if I could help her get some supplies for an activity she could do.  I started rattling off ideas.

We were stumped for a bit, Katie and I ran through some possibilities, but Joan – who was following the conversation clearly, kept shaking her head no. We couldn't come up with the right idea. I was stumped.

I went down the hall to get Maria, and she  joined us and I asked her if she had any good art ideas for someone who can't see clearly. How about some clay?, Maria suggested right away.

I got in my Iphone and showed Katie and found clay in the arts department. I showed Joan a picture of the clay, and Joan lit up. That would be perfect, Joan said. I could make sculptures, I wouldn't have to see so clearly. She looked excited. Katie said the Mansion would sponsor an art show of Joan's sculptures. I said I would come and take photos of her work, and Maria volunteered to come and teach her how to use the clay.

Joan brightened, she became herself.

I asked her if she was happier, and she said yes (see the video) I got back on my Iphone – I am now a whiz at this – ordered some of the all dry clay, color white for $8.65. It will be here Friday. If it works out, I can get more.

There are no miracles or panaceas at the Mansion, no magic want to sweep people's troubles away. But it might stimulate Joan and focus her on an activity she can easily do and be recognized for. Something to look forward to and to occupy her mind when it wanders a bit. Small acts of great kindness.

We'll see. I'm excited about it and I will follow-up – so will Maria – to support Joan if this works. If it doesn't, we'll move on to something else.

Katie and I were pleased with the conversation. So was I.

I think the video is important, it shows the evolution of an idea presented in a good way to people who struggle at the edge of life. Joan was engaged and participating.

Katie is a great inspiration.

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The RISSE Refugee Children Thank You

By: Jon Katz

The RISSE Refugee Children Thank You

The RISSE refugee children have asked me to thank you for your gifts sent them via the RISSE Amazon Wish List, which the staff is scrambling to fill every as the Army Of Good eats through the list, now for the sixth time.

They are playing with their new games and puzzles, sitting in bright, soft bean bag chairs, reading under the light of new ramps, learning with new software programs, drawing with new pens and brushes, storing their pens and pencils in bins,  writing on new whiteboard.

RISSE is the refugee and immigrant support center of the Emmaus Methodist Church in Albany. They have approximately 200 young students and teach 1,000 adults. They are essential to the lives and hopes of these new citizens, our brothers and sisters.

I'm going to RISSE on Thursday to take some more photos. Today, some inexpensive but utilitarian items from the new, new, new, new, new, new list. I bought some hand sanitizer pump bottles for $15.96, block erasers for the new whiteboard for $6 (they need two more) and some wet wipes erasers for board cleaning.

The $552 outdoor trash can is being purchased by a reader of the blog, I'll be buying that when the check comes.

The kids, most from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, have not had these things before, and life in the school is being transformed, we have sent more than $5,000 in gifts from the wish list. These children are quite wonderful and courteous and appreciative.

They are no threat to us here in America, their families are struggling.

Mostly, their fathers have either been killed or stranded in refugee camps as our government slams the doors that were once open to them. Their single mothers work in two or three jobs, mostly cleaning hotel rooms, they take classes and courses to improve themselves and the lives of their children.

You are teaching these children, showing them the true heart and soul of America. Thank you. I'm eager to see them on Thursday, and look at the piles of boxes coming in every day from Amazon. You can look at the list here.


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Goodbye To The Little King

By: Jon Katz

Goodbye To The Little King

We euthanized Gus last night.

In the past few days his decline was so steady and evident we realized we were morally obliged, as his stewards,  to ease his suffering, and ours. We had run out of possibilities for treatment, or reason for hope. We were exhausted.

Gus was a valiant little Guy – I came to think of him as the Little King – he was loving and lively to the end, he did not ever succumb to the dread disease that was eating away at him. His spirit was very strong. It never left  him.

Perhaps that was what was so difficult about this decision.

I celebrate his life, rather than mourn his loss. I feel so much gratitude at spending much of this past year with him.

It is easy enough to say Gus died too young, but that seems facile to me. Death is death, and life does not ask us when the things we love should die.

I respect life, and I accept it. Every dog is a gift to me, not a misery.

The poet Mary Oliver wrote of her dog's death: "And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old – or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give."

We did keep him young in that way.

In one sense, it seemed fitting that Gus died young, we will always remember him as a puppy who acted like an adorable dinosaur  in charge of everything in the world. He was a little squirt with a big ego.

It wasn't so much that the food was trapped in his esophagus – we had figured out how to get it moving through, but over the past week it became clear that he was not absorbing his food, and despite  feeding him nearly two cans of high-calorie wet dog food a day, he was losing weight steadily, looking progressively thinner and older.  The disease had advanced, he was coughing up bile.

Yesterday afternoon, Maria and I sat on the couch and Gus jumped into our lap, showered us both with kisses, and vomited all over us and the sofa and the floor. Even on the worst days – and there were many – Gus had fun and made us smile. I am proud of the fact that neither of us ever lost patience with him, or scolded him, or made him feel like we felt anything but love for him.

A life lesson in patience. I will not forget it.

In a strange sense, our last time together  was a beautiful an appropriate farewell. That was it, right there.

In the way of dogs, he was sending us a message. Gus died  on the vet's table with his head on Maria's wrist and my hand under his head. It was very quick and painless. We arranged to have his body frozen and we will bury him in one of the gardens at Bedlam Farm when the Spring thaw finally comes.

He belongs here.

We did our crying and much of our grieving over the weekend. Gus's illness had come to dominate our lives, there was sadness but also relief. It had taken up too much space, we live creative lives and we forget that at our peril. We don't get paychecks every week, we have to work every day and stay focused to keep our  lives. We must always protect them.

A very good and caring person wrote that this must be a horrible time for me, but that is not so.

It is a wonderful time for me, my life is rich and full of love and meaning and work and  creativity.  Gus only enhanced my life, he took nothing from it. Death is a part of life. Maria often said "you love that dog so much!" She was right. Is that anything but a gift?

The photo above is the last photo I took of Gus. He had just commandeered my favorite chair, as he did often. He was, after all, the Little King, everything was his.  It shows his fatigue, he seemed to age years in just a few days. He was starving to death right in front of us. His eyes tell a lot.

When I wrote the book "Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die," I remember interviewing a little girl who had lost a beloved chicken who followed her to school every morning. Her mother asked her if she was all right.

Yes, said the little girl, I'll miss her, but now I get to love another chicken all over again. She spoke my mind. Another thing dogs give us that people can't. We can go out and get another one.

Gus's illness  cemented our love for him. And I learned so much about dogs and nutrition. For one arrogant moment,  I thought i had turned it around. Maria and I never felt closer than when we left the vet and wrapped ourselves around one another out in the parking lot and held tight and cried. We are so grateful for each other.

I thought of getting a Boston Terrier as something of an experiment at first, an intellectual exercise  – I wanted to learn about small dogs and write about them – but it grew well beyond that. Gus slipped right into our lives, every person and animal in our house adored him.

I love the breed and the experience. I will always love border collies and live with them, but Gus added so much to our lives and to my understanding of the small dog, and how different it really is. Gus taught me a lot, another thing for which I am grateful. Small dogs are a part of my life now. My work is not finished.

Gus made us smile many times a day, every day. I called him the Little King because he seemed to think he was running the farm, supervising Fate and Red, and using me as a seat cushion and play toy.

When he could, he loved to ride around in the car, chase Fate and steal her toys, go into the pasture, cuddle up, sleep between us in bed,  mind everyone's business, sit in Maria's studio, and lie on the couch in my study when I was writing. He occupied every space there was.

Dogs are one of the joys of my life. For years, people have asked me how to deal with grieving over their dogs, and I always told them the same thing: get another dog as soon as you are ready.

And I mean it.

People who love dogs should have dogs, so many are in need of good homes. Nothing makes me sadder than when people say the loss of their dog hurt them so much they will never get another. I will not spend years grieving and marking calendars to commemorate Gus's loss. That is not what Gus is about for me.

There are so many dogs in the world, bred and mutt and rescue and shelter – that need  homes. I have leaned to do the things that make me feel good and bring me nourishment and love. And why not?

I won't be phony, I won't pretend to be too grief-stricken to think about it. And if he could think like people and speak in our language, I have no doubt Gus would tell me to go for it.

He was a good time dog. Some dogs are all about work. Some are all about love. Some are all about fun. Gus has the last two covered.

I intend to get another dog as soon as soon as we gather ourselves and do some mourning, and as soon as I get the first e-mail telling me there is only one way to get a dog, which should come seconds after I put this post up on the blog.

Healing takes some time, it is different for each person.

As a steward of my dogs, I believe I did right by Gus. I worked hard to heal him, and failing that, I ended his suffering.

Karla wrote me this morning, she said the Universe can operate only because of opposition – negative magnetic pull to positive magnetic pull, light and dark, loud and quiet, water and fire.

I very much believe that.

We are all asked to live in balance, there are no perfect lives, only lives fully and well lived. There are things much worse than death.

Gus's breeder Robin Gibbons feels so badly about Gus's disease and illness even as we and the vet assure her it had nothing to do with breeding or the line. She is a great breeder, loving and honest and dedicated to making dogs healthy and sound in temperament.

When she came over to see Gus over the weekend with her son Brian, I told her that I hoped she did breed again. Gus was a wonderful dog, and I told  her I would be proud to buy another puppy from her and bring him or her home. She said that meant a lot to her.

Something about that idea is very healing to me, even spiritual, a circle of life. That is my vision.

Robin said she wasn't sure if she wanted to breed again, she never wanted to lose another of her dogs. I hope she will breed again, life happens.  If she doesn't, I'll start looking for another Boston Terrier from another breeder. I don't care to look backwards at what I've lost, I'd rather live in the present and rejoice in what I have.

I told Gus as he lay dying that I wished him a great journey, and I imagined him taking over some other household somewhere and bringing laughter and love into it, as he did with us. I think that is his purpose. I want to pick up on this journey, caught so short. I have more to learn, and I want as much laughter and love as I can cram into my life.

I have no idea why Gus was chosen to die, and I will not waste much time on it.

It doesn't really matter.

That is God's work, not mine. My life is too precious to take too much time grieving for something I would rather celebrate.

I know some people will ask – they already are – how they can honor Gus – he wasn't just my dog. No flowers, please :).

I would be happy if people who wished to honor Gus did so by sending a donation to the work we are doing with the Mansion residents and refugees. Small donations are very welcome – I sometimes tear up when I see those – "5 and $10 bills stuffed into envelopes from all over the country.

The work is my joy, there is so much to do. These people need so much.

I think that would be fitting for anyone who felt the urge. And every dollar and every good deed would make me smile and think of Gus.

No pressure.  Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via Paypal, [email protected]

I am grateful to the many good people who send good wishes and love during Gus's illness. They helped a lot, we did not feel alone.

And to the avalanche of social media busybodies poised to tell me what I should have done or should do,  I thank you too:  you help me understand my truth and speak up for it.

Godspeed, Gus. You'll be home soon.

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19 March 2018

What’s Up At The Mansion

By: Jon Katz

Plans For The Mansion: 

Ruth and Ken are a happy couple, always together, they spend afternoons sitting in the Great Room soaking up the sun. They go out occasionally to smoke.I asked them if there was anything they needed right now, and Ruth said "no, we have everything we need now." That was sweet to hear.


Here's what's up at the Mansion:

Our Horse Carriage trek around town is cancelled. The weather wrecked it when we planned it, and the farmer is no longer returning our calls. This summer, we'll look for somebody else.

Last Friday, St. Patrick's Day, we paid for a band to come and play Irish music. It cost $400.

On April 6, the RISSE soccer team is coming, at their own suggestion, to help serve lunch at the Mansion. There was a real connection between the refugee children and the Mansion residents, it surprised all of us, but then, everyone knows the experience of being cast out.

In May, I hope to offer the residents another boat ride and lunch on the Lake George Steamship Company. They don't give discounts, I think the trip will cost around $400 to $500 depending on how many residents come. They had the most wonderful time eating, dancing, looking out on the water, they are still talking about it.

On May 28, I am taking Julie Smith, the Activities Director, and three residents of her choosing, to lunch at the Round House Cafe. On me. This is part of regular take-a-resident out to lunch program the Army Of Good is sponsoring along with me, to get the residents out into the world.

As the weather warms, I'll be looking for outings to get them into the sun and the countryside and also into the community outside of their walls. I have learned this is important to them, and necessary.

In May, we plan to present a "Night Of Four Skits" at the Mansion. The families are all invited.

I am still distributing your notecards and stamps, they are profoundly grateful for them.

Your gifts and presents and decorations for Easter  have begun arriving. Thank you so much.

Here is a list of residents who like to receive mail and photos: Winnie, Jean A., Ellen, Mary, Gerry, Sylvie, Diane, John, Alice, Jean G., Madeline, Joan, Allan, Bill, Helen, Robert (Bob), Alanna, Barbara, Peggie, Dottie, Tim, Debbie, Art, Guerda, Brenda, Wayne, Kenneth, Ruth.

You can write them c/o The Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge,N.Y., 12816

I need your help in funding some of the outings I would like to offer to the residents as the winter draws to a close.Also to help with some of their smaller needs like clothes, bras, and shoes. You can contribute to this work by sending your contribution to my Post Office Box, Jon Katz, P.O.  Box 205,  Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via Paypal, [email protected] Many thanks. Please mark your check "Mansion."

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