Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Writing, Teaching, Language, Landscape, Life

O’Keeffe – Spirit of Winter Solstice

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O'Keeffe on the ranch.

O’Keeffe on the ranch.

Spirit of Winter Solstice

It all started with a found dog brought to me years ago and in another lifetime. In this other lifetime, my children were quite young, I was married to their father, and I’d been witness to our family dog attack a toddler in our home. My fear of dogs around young children was so extreme that I never, ever let Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn near dogs. When they toddled over to pet any dog, the memory and sounds of the bark, growl, and attack rang in my ears. I heard the mother’s scream when her child was bit. When the kids were anywhere near a dog, my blood raced, and my vision narrowed to a dark tunnel that held only my child and the animal – until I moved my child safely away.

Then a dog, all 90 pounds of unknown German Shepherd arrived one night in my home. My family had found him walking the road in the country in the dark and brought him home. My vision narrowed as I watched his mouth eye-level with Wynn. I spent the evening trying to keep the kids away from him. They asked, “What are we going to name him, Mom? What are we going to name him?”

“We’re not keeping him,” I said. “He is somebody’s dog. We’ll find his owners and return him.”

“Dad said he didn’t have a collar and so he didn’t belong to anybody, so we’re keeping him.”

“He must belong to somebody. We’ll find his family.”

The next day I called all the local animal shelters and pounds to report a found dog, in case anybody had reported a dog missing or lost. I made flyers and posted them all over the closest town, as well as Santa Fe. I kept the dog with me, away from the kids. And, we waited for somebody to call to claim him. I called the local vets to report his presence and ask if anybody was searching for a dog. Nothing. One week passed. Then, another. I put ads in the local papers. The dog still had no name. “We can’t name him,” I said. “He isn’t ours and he’ll go back with his family soon.” I was determined to find his family and get him out of our home and our lives.

I couldn’t leave him alone in the house, as he’d chew through the door. We didn’t have a kennel, so I took the dog with me everywhere, loading him up in the back of our Suburban. Another couple of weeks passed. Maybe it was because we were together all the time, imprinting, but somewhere along the line, I started to fall in love with this dog I’d never wanted, ate all of my favorite shoes (somehow he seemed to intuit my favorites and chose these as his chew toys, leaving the others alone), and barked incessantly in the truck everywhere we went. 

I tried for weeks to find his owners. And somewhere along the way, my heart opened a tiny bit and he found his way inside, through my determination not to let him in. I took him to the animal shelter and dropped him off—only to return the next day, anxiously scanning the kennels for “my dog.” We looked at each other through the mesh and both rushed to the gate. I got him out of there and “home” as fast as I could. Something shifted inside me then. At last, I named him, “O’Keeffe” after Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist whose work I love. “He’s man enough to carry off a woman’s name,” I said.

O'Keeffe running on the ranch.

O’Keeffe running on the ranch.

Six months passed. I started to take O’Keeffe running with me. I tried to teach him to heel while I ran. He never learned. As we ran miles through the desert, he channeled much more the spirit of a husky sled dog pulling a sled at top speed through the snow. He never missed a run. He LOVED it. I had to put on my running clothes in a room where he couldn’t see me. As soon as he saw me dressed for running, he started levitating feet off the air, jumping all over, and almost knock me down as I tried to tie my shoes to get out the door. For the first few years, we ran in the dark of pre-dawn. Through the winter, snow, wind and cold, so dark I couldn’t see my feet, we ran. He loved it.

The first time Dad and Mom came to visit, Dad let him out one morning at 4:00 am and O’Keeffe must’ve thought it was time for run and he took off. Dad walked the streets of our neighborhood at 4:30 am calling, “O’Malley! O’Sullivan! O’Grady!”

Someone once told me that while Labradors are family dogs, German Shepherds are one-person dogs and O’Keeffe was mine. If I moved from one room to the next, he came with me. He had an uncanny ability to intuit exactly where I was going to walk and would meet me there.

O’Keeffe was always there.

A few years later when suddenly my kids were gone from me every other week to be with their dad, it was just O’Keeffe and me. He seemed to sense the loneliness and pain and stayed extra close to me. We ran miles and miles. I talked to him and cried with him. He was always, always there. O’Keeffe had three beds in our home, one in the living room, one under my writing desk, and one in my bedroom. Whichever room I was in, he lay on that bed. When I wrote, I lay my feet on his belly. Through those lonely, painful years, O’Keeffie’s was always, always there. I can’t imagine what I would’ve done during that time without his presence. He took my loneliness and pain and held steady alongside me through the hardest years of my life.

O'Keeffe 2007

O’Keeffe, 2007

When the kids were home, O’Keeffe was forever found curled up in the book nook with whichever child was reading. I’d find Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn curled up against the pillow, their legs or arms thrown haphazardly over O’Keeffe. And as a mom alone with three small kids, I never worried about somebody breaking into our home. I left all bedroom doors open and had no doubt that O’Keeffe would’ve torn any intruder limb-from-limb. One time O’Keeffe and I were out running and our friend, Heidi, rode past on her mountain bike. She told me later that she saw us coming, “Let me just say that nobody is going to mess with you with that dog beside you.”

O’Keeffe loved the freedom of the ranch and took on the look of a sleek wolf after our month there in the summer. O’Keeffe was regal in both in body and nature.

Three years ago, I noticed that O’Keeffe seemed to tire on our runs. He was around eight-years-old (the best guess the veterinarian could give) and I thought maybe he was getting too old. He couldn’t come on long runs anymore, so we walked. That worked for a while, but within weeks even short walks tired him. I took him to the vet, who took him into the back of his clinic for tests. When the vet emerged, I learned that O’Keeffe had cancer of the blood. There was no cure and it was just a matter of time.

O’Keeffe went much more quickly than I dreamed. I hated leaving him to go to work or anyplace else. I opened the door to my home the evening of Winter Solstice 2010. I knew as soon as I opened the door. I couldn’t feel him. I found him lying beside my bed. I had so wanted to be with him when he passed. I felt he’d left me, instead of choosing for me to be there with him. Since that time, I’ve heard story after story of animals and people passing in that moment when loved ones are out of the room.

Of course, his spirit chose the evening of the Winter Solstice to pass over, a sacred day symbolizing rebirth and the coming of light.

Three years later, I still feel O’Keeffe’s absence, miss the best running partner ever, and find myself reaching out to rub his belly under my writing table, only to find empty air. Then, one day, Noé told me a story and instead of O’Keeffe’s absence, I now feel his presence.

Noé woke one night and walked from our bedroom to the kitchen. As he walked through the living room in the dark, a large dog walked toward him. “Hey, Clyde,” he said. Clyde is our new Shepherd, whose bed is in the living room. Noé reached out to pet Clyde and touched nothing but air, and  turned the corner into the kitchen to discover Clyde laying on the floor there. Noé looked back into the living room to find the large dog he’d just seen—and found nothing there.

Winter Solstice candle.

Winter Solstice candle for O’Keeffe

Except there is. O’Keeffe’s spirit lives with us still. Not quite yet able to let go of his ashes, they’re tucked away in my closet, along with his collar. One day I’ll spread his ashes along our running trail and on the ranch. I just haven’t quite been able to do it yet. 

On this Winter Solstice, I light a candle for O’Keeffe. For his majestic, kind, loving, protective spirit who walked with me through the darkest years and always brought light. He gave the best of himself and lived with unconditional love. His spirit found mine when I needed him most. He was there with me to take care of my kids when I was otherwise alone. I am forever grateful. 

When I wake in the early morning darkness, I always hope that perhaps I’ll find O’Keeffe’s spirit there in the living room, as Noé caught a glimpse of him. This hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll keep hoping. Maybe I’ll leave out one of my favorite shoes for him…

* * *

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Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores the beauty and tensions of language, culture, and place.

45 thoughts on “O’Keeffe – Spirit of Winter Solstice

  1. Oh so moving. I wish Tula had made the decision for me. It was so hard to take her the vet’s that last time.

  2. Pingback: Dewdrops Birthday | Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

  3. Dear Dawn:
    Why is it that stories about beloved dogs can bring one to tears when few other things can – we feel we have to remain stoic in the face of human tragedy but the passing of an animal brings on such sorrow it is impossible not to cry. Every dog lover knows or will know the loss of an irreplaceable companion – and to be able to share that loss with another person who feels the same way does help to ease the pain.
    Thank you for the gift of your thoughts, written down.
    Meg

    • Dear Meg,
      All you write here went straight to my heart. I was surprised to find that as soon as I started writing this piece, I started crying… and pretty much had tears running down my cheeks for the next 48 hours. Sinking back into all that O’Keeffe was in my life and the experience of his death brought all of those deeply held feelings right back into my immediacy and every time I thought of him, I started crying all over again. It does ease the pain to connect with another person who understands.
      Thank you so much for taking the time to write and share the path.
      Dawn

  4. Dear Nancy, Oh, I love that you knew O’Keeffe. And yes, a ‘bridge’ between those tough years to now a time of happiness. What is amazing to me is that O’Keeffe came to Noé – when they’d never met in life. So glad you enjoyed the card. You should’ve seen us trying to get a photo with everyone… always an adventure! Love you, too, Winkie

  5. Winkie, What a beautiful story! i well remember O’Keefe myself. It is wonderful that there is a ‘bridge’ between having O’Keefe w/you and the kids in those difficult years and him still lingering to have contact w/Noe’ and in a time of happiness! I just loved the card you sent! So good to see you all together….it warmed my heart! Thanks for Dewdrops…..it is so good to read. Stay in touch and so will I. Love you, Nancy

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  6. A friend recently found your blog and sent this to me. I am so glad she did! Storm is my version of your O’Keeffe. I sometimes hear her by the forsythia bush when I get home from work after dark. She has been gone a few years and I still miss her so much. Thankfully God made us with lots of room in our hearts. Others have joined our family since then…the most recent being Laramie. A thin little border collie who was so scared. He found me riding my mustang Wyoming at the conservation area…that is how Laramie got his name. Nobody claimed him so I got to fess up to my husband that I had Laramie named before my ride was over. 🙂 I fell in love with him. Thank you so much for the laughter, the tears, and the memories. I hope you get to catch a glimpse of O’Keeffe like Noe’ did.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Dear Karen,
      Oh, I am so grateful to your friend who sent this to you! Storm… What a gorgeous name and I love knowing you hear her by the forsythia bush after dark. Amazing how much we miss them, even after years, isn’t it? This continues to surprise me. And little Laramie…What a blessing for you both! I look forward to hearing more about Laramie and your mustang in upcoming years. I also hope to see O’Keeffe sometime… I’ll let you know, if I do! 🙂

      Merry, Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  7. Wonderful, wonderful story. As my Mishka (the ‘one’ for me) lays beside me, I am so grateful for the last few years I will have with her. Thank you, Dawn, and I hope you and Noe and family have wonderful holidays!

  8. Dawn, I loved your story & it made a lump in my throat. You are a remarkable young lady and SO talented.

    • Sharon, I’m so grateful. It meant so much to me to (hopefully) create the tribute that O’Keeffe deserves. Mom had such a wonderful time with you and your family. I loved hearing her stories and seeing the photos. Here’s to our deep,deep roots. Much love, Dawn

  9. You made me cry like a baby….I know the ache of losing a very loved friend like your O’Keefe, more than one. My mom made the decision to leave our German Sheperd named Lucille with new owner’s while we moved to Arizona because she feared for the safety of my baby brother. I always thought that was not fair and I cried and cried and cried. Then there was Isabella, my sweet Is, an adopted mix. Both dogs were my best friend and our departure from each other tore my heart out……
    It has never been the same with other dogs for me since.
    Love your story….
    Rach

    • Rachel, Oh I’m so grateful to know of Lucille and Isabella. I’m understanding the move to AZ more and more as we talk now as adults. Yes, I can only imagine the move at that age and then not able to bring your best friend. Thank you so much for telling me about this. Their departure does rip one’s heart right out… So grateful to understand more of your own story, dear Rachel. Love to you.

  10. Oh Dawn, what a story. You made me cry first thing in the morning. I felt your pain when I was reading about O’Keefe. We always had pets in our family and I know this pain when we lost one. Even after years it still hurts just to think about it. And you wrote this beautiful story, I can’t image how many boxes of Kleenex….
    Thank you for sharing
    Anja

    • Anja, tears first thing in the morning for both of us. Thanks so much for sharing in this story and journey. It is amazing that yes, even after years. Many boxes of Kleenex… And so grateful for that time and O’Keeffe’s presence. Thinking of you this holiday season. Huge hugs!

  11. Okay, you made me cry. Always thought I was a cat person, but I’ve changed-aloof to crazy love. O’Keeffe: the spirit of winter solstice made me think I’d somehow missed a piece of O’Keeffe art. Not possible! Great picture and wonderful piece.

    • Sandra, I’ve been crying since I sat to write this piece late last night by candlelight. So grateful to share the tears! I had to chuckle through my tears to learn your initial thoughts of a missed piece of O’Keeffe art. “Not possible!” I would’ve thought the same thing! 🙂 O’Keeffe was a truly majestic spirit. Oh, damn…. reaching for the Kleenex again. Sending love, comadre.

  12. I had to stop reading…I could not see the computer because my eyes were so full of tears. Beautifully written, Dawn. It touches the heart of all who have experienced that special relationship with a dog.

  13. I remember valiant O’Keeffe, dear Dawn. Thanks for sharing such a loving tribute to him. I have no doubt that his magnificent spirit continues to watch over your wonderful family, but especially you.

  14. Dawn, I love your posts and this one brought tears to my eyes as it reminded me of my little Max who passed last January. Each of my animals has brought me unique gifts and great joy. I am glad your heart stayed open so you could share your home with another 4 paws of love.

  15. touching, dawn….deeply touching.

  16. Out back from our house we have a pet cemetery, where two generations of dogs rest. Hanna and Sarah–a lab mix and a Chesapeake, who joined us when we moved into the house we built in 1987. Then Sam and Gabby–brother/sister chocolate and black labs. Now Ruby and Tess accompany us on our daily walk around our property and on my runs. Deb and I couldn’t have kids, but our dogs have filled our lives with their loving presence. There is nothing harder than when they leave. Bittersweet reminders of the impermanence of life. Now it is me who is slowing down when Ruby and Tess take me for a run and my own muzzle that has gone grey

    • Al, what a gorgeous tribute to two generations of dogs. I loved learning of Hanna and Sarah, then Sam and Gabby and their presence in you and Deb’s lives. Your love for them shines through and I can envision the walks. This is so beautifully conveyed, Al…” Ruby and Tess take me for a run and my own muzzle that has gone grey.” Beautifully, beautifully expressed. Thank you.

  17. Oh dear friend , thanks for this beautifully told story of woman and dog. They say people leave footprints on our hearts so I guess you’d say OMalley no OHara oh yeah… Okeefe left bite marks on your shoes! Yup, loved the part about your dad out calling for him using what ever “O” name came to mind! Loving Solstice to you!

    • Sandy, “O’Malley! O’ Hara!” Oh, did I laugh when Dad told me that story. I still will suddenly start chuckling at the thought. Oh, dear O’Keeffie’s – I’m so glad you knew him. Yep, he definitely left bite marks on my shoes and footprints deeply imprinted on my heart. Loving Solstice to you, too!

  18. Dawn, I know the love of a dear close dog friend, too. Our little Keva was my constant companion for almost 14 years. When she passed away five years ago, on the night of our anniversary, I thought I would never get over her leaving me. Within two weeks we had found our current dog, Libre, who helped fill a big hole in my heart, but I still to this day miss my Keva. Keva used to visit me the first few months after she passed, but I rarely feel her presence any more. I’m sure you cried all the way through writing this, because I cried reading it. I’m so glad you had the wisdom and love of O’Keeffe. And, yes, animals and people often do pass when we aren’t with them because our love is so strong they can’t bear to leave us, so they wait until we leave, even for the briefest moment, because they cannot bear to part from us either. Thank you for writing about the love we all feel for our fur children.

    • Dear Kenna, I thought of you and Keva as I wrote this. You’ve written about her and shared photos and I knew how great the love you two had for one another. So this has me all teary again, “And, yes, animals and people often do pass when we aren’t with them because our love is so strong they can’t bear to leave us, so they wait until we leave, even for the briefest moment, because they cannot bear to part from us either.” So grateful to share that love and the tears.

  19. Dear Dawn, this story really touched my spirit. I had a dog years ago, my first dog, Doozer. I have not gotten a dog again since we had to put him down because of congenital heart failure. Your pain is heavy in your heart, as is mine. I too, one day, hope to be able to get another dog, Doozer II. Just a few weeks ago my sister had to put her cat of 15 years to sleep because of cancer. Absolutely heartbreaking! This cat, Sylvester, choose her and her son Esteban. My nephew was only a couple of months old when Sylvester wandered into their yard as a kitten, looking for food and love. Well, he found it. For the next 15 years he was loved, spoiled, played with and snuggled. To see her family, now a family of four, have to put Sylvester to sleep was so….I cant find a word that could describe it, it wasn’t just sad or even heart breaking, obviously it left me speechless to see my 15 year old nephew and his 12 year old brother Sebastian cry and sob for their beloved cat. It really does show that our pets are our family, not just animals that we have to feed. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. Merry Christmas and Blessings to you and your family.

    • Dear Angela, thank you so much for reaching out and sharing your own journey with this love and heartbreak. It still amazes me the strength and power of each with our animals. I, too, will lift thoughts of a Doozer II. And Sylvester who chose your sister and her son…”loved, spoiled, played with, and snuggled” and then the sadness. Thank you so much for writing of your own personal stories. I sit here by the Christmas tree and candles, so grateful to share the journey. Thank you. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  20. Dawn, this is such a beautiful, beautiful story. I remember O’Keeffe well, and how he wouldn’t ever leave your side. On that day you moved to your little temporary house, I remember the sound and smell of him panting with worry for you as he stuck tight by your side night and day. What a blessing that you had him in your life….

    • Pammie, and here I thought I was done with the Kleenex…. I just read what you wrote and reached for another. That time was such a blur. Thank you so much for this memory. I was immediately back in the place and could hear and feel him. What a gift… Yes, what a blessing. Love, love.

  21. Beautiful, heartwarming, funny and overwhelmingly sad. Unconditional love is priceless. Now I’ll put away my Kleenex. Thank you for sharing.

    • Dear Patricia, I went through a box of Kleenex in the writing of this piece last night. I wrote by candlelight and the light of the Christmas tree. So grateful to share our Kleenex journey together. O’Keeffe had such a magnificent spirit. So grateful to share all with you. Blessings and blessings to you and yours.

  22. Oh my! I hardly know what to write. As a person who loves dogs as much as I do this story warmed my very soul. Both my husband and I have lost many dogs in our lifetimes and know all too well the pain of those losses. We currently have two rescued dogs and two rescued cats. Not having those dogs that we have lost would have been far worse than loving them and losing them. O’Keefe found you when you most needed him and was determined to stick by your side no matter what – and he did. 😀 Knowing that his spirit lives on is a gift. Blessings and hugs to all of you, to the spirit of O’Keefe, and to Clyde.

    • Dear Lindy, I thought of you as I wrote this piece by candlelight last night. I know how much you love animals. You express this so beautifully and wisely – that O’Keeffe found me when I needed him most and stuck with me. He knew this long before I did. And, yes, the joy of their presence envelops the pain of the loss. He was such a gift. So very grateful to share this with you. Blessings and hugs to you and yours, dear Lindy!

  23. Dear Donna, Thank you so much for sharing this experience. Your love and loss of three dogs in twenty years – isn’t it true that they do stay with us always. As I wrote this story, O’Keeffe felt so present – and I went through a box of Kleenex. So grateful that your current dog is a rescue dog and so very fortunate to be with you. Thanks so much for taking the time to connect.

  24. Thank you for a beautiful story. I have lost three dogs in the last twenty years, but they are still with me. My current dog is a rescue dog who must have prayed for a retired couple to give her enough attention. They do enrich our lives.

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