Saturday, October 25, 2008

Grieving for an animal friend

I've noticed that a lot of people are finding that the part in the book about Wesley dying and the grief that I went through sparks in them the opening of the floodgate of grief that they themselves have for their own animal. It's amazing that this is happening, because the book did the same thing for me!

When Wesley died, I went into a sort of shock, and didn't sleep much for about 3 weeks. During that time, though, I sat at the computer and just poured out the whole story into 400 pages that became the rough draft of the book. Then I put that rough draft into chapters.

A few months later a friend of mine, Cait Reed, insisted I come to her writers' group and read my chapters there for critique. I went, but when I actually started to read, I would burst into tears at the slightest thing, like if I said, "Wesley was always gentle with me"...I'd burst into tears.

I'm not the "bursting into tears" type, so I was horrified! Week after week I couldn't get through the reading of the chapters!

I got better at it with practice, but then when I got to the end, I couldn't read at all. I just started crying. I handed the chapter to the person next to me and asked them to read it. They started to read, then they started to cry. We passed the chapter around the table and everyone was crying! even the men! And we started talking about our pets who had passed away.

I thought that was the end of it when I had gotten through that. I mean, of course I did a lot of crying at home finally, after months of being pent up inside. I left his perch up for a full year, and put flowers on it every week. After a year I took it down, but I still don't sleep in that room anymore. I still think of it as "his". And I haven't changed the room.

But then, when it came time to seriously edit the book, after I had signed with Simon and Schuster's Free Press, when I got to the chapter about Wesley starting to get old and decline, I took to my bed completely unable to write. I slept for a couple of weeks. Now, I'm disabled anyway and sleep an insane amount of time because of the brain tumor and its effect on my body and neurological system, but this was more than that. This was being totally unable to even turn on the computer and look at the chapters.

I thought I had writers' block and was kicking myself, feeling guilty, telling myself off, giving myself pep talks and then, Cait, who has a wisdom that seems to always nail the situation on the head perfectly, said, "You can't write because you're emotionally blocked because you have not finished grieving over Wesley." I started crying and couldn't stop. I cried for days. She was right as usual!

So I finally knew what the inability to edit the chapters was about, so I was able to face them. But still, I barely was able to look at them. So I asked Wendy to do the lion's share of editing, Actually, to take them and just do what she could with them herself without me even there. But she had a terrible, terrible time emotionally, and only edited them basically.

We never did spend the time on them that we had on the other chapters. I asked my agent to give it a try but it was just so hard to face and she did a cursory edit.

bottom line is that we never really gave it a deep edit, but I don't think it needed it either. I had said exactly what happened and we just left it at that.

The book, the writing of it and sharing of it, helped me process my grief over Wesley. There are still times where I just lose it. And I still think I hear the "ping" of him landing on his perch's platform and have to remind myself that he's gone.

Other owls still visit me, which is magical. They will screech as they pass over, or I'll just see them - I'm talking about Barn Owls. That helps.

It also helps to interact w/ other barn owls when I do events where there is a barn owl brought to the event by one of the local rehabilitation centers. I have two barn owl friends with whom I do events: Valentino and his human, Nancy Connie from Skyhunters, and Miss Luna, whose human is Christina Jones from South Bay Raptor Rehab.

It really helps me a lot to talk with and pet and look into the eyes of both Miss Luna and Valentino. Wesley's middle name was Valentine because I got him on Valentine's day AND because his face would one day be shaped like a white heart. I imagine that's why Valentino has that name, although in public Nancy does not admit to any name and just says, "He's a Barn Owl." It is against her personal credo to give them names in public, because she doesn't want people to think of them as potential pets, and wants them to remember the Barn Owl species rather than the name of the individual bird. I respect that. But one cannot stay immune to the power of those eyes, to the intensity of the devotion of one's owl, so one ends up naming him anyway, right? Right. ;-)

I am hoping with all my heart that I will be able to get another permit (Wesley's was only for him, and didn't extend to other owls, so no, I don't have another owl yet), and take in another unreleasable barn owl. I want to see if another owl would use his massive auditory cortex to learn human language just like Wesley did, and if he'd make up his own language - make that huge logical leap to understanding the concept of symbolic vocal language, and create his own, like Wesley did. In other words, was Wesley the Einstein of Barn owls or was he right in there with other Barn Owls in his capabilities? I suspect the latter but I'd like to prove it. And this time I would give much more attention to proving and documenting everything w/ video.

I do have hours of video of us together. I need to digitize it all to make it accessible. I have his sounds, too, of course, and how those vocalizations went with his certain behaviors. All that remains to be gone through and verified and written up. Whew!

But the main thing I'm writing about here is that we do have the right to grieve over the loss of our amazing animals and the profound way they affect us. I am glad that we outlive them in one way, because we can make sure they have a full and comfortable life, and that they don't end up in abusive situations. We can make sure they are comfortable in their old age and have a dignified and peaceful end (we can't control everything, but at least we know they were with us and we were with them, hopefully. Again, we can't control all circumstances, I realize that).

But by outliving our dear animal friends, we are doomed to grieve.

I have hamsters, as you know if you read the book. Hamsters only live 2-4 years (I have Syrian hamsters - teddy bear hamsters). I am ALWAYS grieving over a hamster and my friends say, "Why do you do this to yourself? Why don't you pick a species that lives longer?" Well, I don't feel like I "picked" this species for one thing. I feel like this species picked me and drove their little selves deep into my heart and they will always charm me and I will never be able to resist them.

Every single hamster has his own personality. And for years I averaged 56 hamsters at a time because I had a hamster rescue center called Hamster Haven. So I've had hundreds of hamsters in my days, and I can tell you that I have never seen a single hamster set up his cage exactly like all the other hamsters! They have their own, individual ideas about how it should be done!

One hamster will take to a certain toy or feature, and another will ignore it completely. Examples?
Some of my hamsters prefer to lounge in these ferret or rat hammocks that are sold in pet stores. I put them up in a few cages to see what would happen and I have hamster who spend the majority of their time in their hammock, above the rest of the cage! Others ignore it completely or chew it, take it down, and drag it into their nest as a blanket.

Another "toy" is also for ferrets - it's a fuzzy ball that's about the size of a Syrian Hamster, and it has a little bell deep inside it. Some hamsters (I can hear one doing it right now) wrestle with that ball as if it's a littermate, rolling all over the cage with it, with the hamster spread eagle wrapped around the ball, rolling and biting and then jumping off and pushing the ball all over with their nose. That ball is a huge source of entertainment for them. Other hamsters shove it into a corner and completely ignore it, never finding any pleasure, curiosity, or interest in it.

And on it goes.

If I put a kleenex box in there (after removing the bits of plastic lining), some will chew it, some will make it into their "bathroom", others will take bedding in there and move into it as their sleeping quarters, and some will let it sit there and take up space, completely ignoring it until I take it out.

Anyway, it's worth the grief of their short lives, because there is always another one coming up and becoming an amazing little affectionate friend. It's not that I forget the ones that die, but that I don't let it keep me from enjoying the ones I have that are alive still. And yes, it's totally worth it to me! I can't imagine the sterility of living without the hustle and bustle of these very busy and intensely focused little creatures around me all night! I can't imagine not cuddling with them and having them sleep in my hand while I breathe in their sweet smell (kind of like 'Nilla Wafers) and stroke their silky fur. They nudge my nose with theirs and lick my lips as a way of kissing or showing affection. They're amazing and fun!

So, yes, I want to take in another Barn Owl and am exploring getting a permit to do so, and finding the owl that needs a place. And yes, it's worth the grief. And yes, the book helped me grieve Wesley, and now it's like keeping him alive, sort of, when I get to talk about him and tell people about his ways and antics and compare barn owl stories with other people who are caring for unreleasable owls. The book has been a huge blessing to me in that way! And it's been amazing to share with other people and have them share with me, their love for their animals! It's a profound love that's hard to explain and certainly cannot be measured!


TheloniusMick said...

Yes! Reading your book allowed me to at least begin grieving for my wonderful friend, K'shama, the African Gray. And I think the wellspring of emotion unleashed by the chapter on Wesley's decline and eventual death allowed me to grieve other losses, as well. We are discouraged from real, healing grief and thus we often end up carrying around festering sores instead of scars. Scars can give character. They can protect and remind us of time well-spent loving another.

Your story is epic in that it covers a remarkable individual's entire life and a long and loving relationship between two of nature's own and thus the discussion of Wesley's death focuses grief like a lens. I knew Wesley was old and had to pass on eventually, but I bawled like a sissy when I read your accounting of it. Thank you - for the book and the blog. Keep on writing!

GFK said...

I agree....the older we get, the more losses we build up in life, and a book such as this which directly addresses the loss of an animal also touches on losses of other kinds the reader has experienced - deaths of parents and other loved ones, loss of our youth, loss of children who have grown and left home. Stacey, I too thank you for the book and the blog, and encourage you to keep writing!
Milwaukee, WI

Sprocketboy said...

Stacey, I was in the bookstore on Saturday and started to browse your book while standing in the aisle. I was scanning quickly when I came to the chapter about the death of Wesley which was so heart-rending and reminded me so much of the passing of our own parrots that I began to feel tears flowing--weeping is not something you usually see 52 year old men do in bookstores. For those of us who have had such close connections to special animals, it is hard to bear. I know that Dr. Pepperberg was shattered by the unexpected death of Alex the African Grey. Thank you for writing such a beautiful story; you had many happy times with Wesley and as he was so well-loved he had a terrific life with you.

mlktrout said...

Stacey, I have been reading your book. I am at the last chapter and I really don't want to read it because I know he'll die, but I will read it soon. My oldest son died in Iraq back in April, and I keep thinking how he would have loved this book. He was forever bringing home strays or babysitting other people's pets. We kept a ferret once for a co-worker of mine and Jere was the only one who could deal with it...Jere also had a teddy bear hamster named age 2 and a half Murphy suddenly started acting very strangely; Jere came to me in a panic and we raced off to the vet...the vet said Murphy was dying of old age. He injected subcutaneous fluids, but Murphy only lived another two days. Jere, who was then about 17, spent two days cutting school, sitting motionless on his bed with his dying hamster on his chest to keep it warm. That was how much he loved animals. We all love them here at House of Hughes, although it's usually been of a more traditional bent (I'm a big fan of Shelties and currently have two; I went through a horrible depression 10 years ago when my first Sheltie died)...we are forever rescuing stray cats and having them spayed or neutered; the vets at Coastal know us by name after all this time of knowing how we bring in animals...and yet your book has been a real revelation that birds are people too (no insult intended to either species!) and I'm even looking at my sister's parakeets differently now. I'm glad you shared your story -- Wesley's story (btw my husband's name is Wesley and he is amused as anything -- I keep telling him he has to read the book too) with us. It's been an eye opener in many ways, and brought back some fond memories of Jere as well. I only wish he could have read it too.

AdriaticBluez said...

Dear Stacy:

You are such a wonderful writer and you certainly did a GREAT job. If I tell you this and you probably wouldn't believe it, but I think you have became my inspiration!!! For myself and my little girl. Thanks for sharing your lovely Wesley us and thanks for making me realize not to take our pets for granted and love them for whom they are. This book is truly one of my highly collectible, definitely. It's heart-warming, soul-touching, intellectual, plain and honest, and even waaaay so funny and the book is well-put together.

Thanks for helping me to seek out the inner self...I cried and felt so bad my heart is still aching when I think about that Wesley passed away. I, myself, LOVES animals. Since I was kids, I would pet wild buffalos, feed strayed cats and dogs, bring home birdies. One time me and my little girl found this little birdie fall off from he nest, we waited to see if the mother was going to find her but it was so hot and in the summer, she looked dehydrated so we had to bring her home with us and I rushed to the pet store to get birdie formula...unfortunately she didn't survive. I have had many pets in my life and now I have a mixed Chihuahua (yes she's spoiled and she's the love of my life, besides my little girl), 2 Teddy Bear Hamsters (yes they fight like crazy when they're young and I've been putting them together in the same cage (I didn't know you're not supposed to) and now they're good friends. Guess animals eventually adapt to their environment?!, fishes, Pythons, Parakeets, Hermit Crabs, Red-Ear Sliders. Soon we'll be bringing home dozen of lizards from my girl's science teacher haha I can't wait to make my house into a zoo. I wish I would discover my love with working with the animals way before I was young but now I'm stuck in a regular office job but that's ok, it's my calling lol But that doesn't stop me from helping and loving animals.

In conclusion, I just want you to know that you're in my prayers and thank you so much for sharing this wonderful book. I was wondering, do you have more pics of you and Wesley to share with us? By the way, my favorite pic of you and Wesley is the one you looking side way smiling with Wesley next to you. You guys are so cute and perfect together!!!!

Pls take care!

In god’s love,

Jennifer said...

I just finished reading this book and it was absolutely wonderful! I can't think of another book I have read in years that I enjoyed more. Thank you so much for sharing Wesley with all of us, and for writing such a memorable story. I came to love him myself through the book. I pray for your health and future happiness. Please keep blogging to let us know what you are doing and if you get another barn owl.