When Does Grief Go?

Sometime in 2010 or thereabouts (I don’t recall the exact date and don’t have time to look it up), the blog I was writing began to transform, slowing turning in the direction of dementia and Alzheimer’s as some variety of these debilitating diseases began to take over my mother’s life. During the next five years, I wrote about it so often that I changed the title of the blog to “The Wild Ride,” focusing almost exclusively on the journey Mom and I were taking. Many kind readers walked beside us during that time, sharing their experiences and, bless them, offering emotional support.

Mom died on June 7, 2015. Because we’d had a fractious relationship, I didn’t expect to mourn her much. I thought I’d feel relief (for her and for me) similar to what I felt when my dad passed in 2012. Boy, was I wrong.

I expected to miss her a little bit, but I wasn’t prepared for the vacancy her death left behind. For the last two years of her life (give or take a few months) I was her primary caretaker at home and her constant attendant when she, unfortunately, had to enter a nursing home. We were together every day, for hours at a time. It left a mark I hadn’t realized.

I figured, sure, I’ll miss her for about a year and then it’ll go. It didn’t. And it still hasn’t. It’s particularly tough as Christmas approaches because this was her favorite holiday. When I was a kid, she put a lot into cooking, baking, decorating, playing records on the stereo (remember those?), and watching her beloved “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The original, thank you very much, not any of the make-over abominations.)

In experiencing my own grief and observing that of others, I now understand that it never quite goes away. Sometimes it’s “only” sorrow. Sometimes it’s guilty grief, the “Did I do enough?” sort, which is what I’m experiencing; the weight of having put her in an institution, of my inability to find a different solution, of all the times I lost patience with her.

The grief has changed over time. It’s not (quite) as sharp-edged as it once was, although it still has the ability to haunt my dreams and wake me weeping. The longing to apologize can be overwhelming.

And, man, it’s tedious when people play “My grief is bigger than yours.” This isn’t a contest anyone should want to win. And to those who declare themselves untouched by grief, keep it to yourself. (Although I think you’re a liar.) Don’t look down on those who are suffering its thorns. Don’t denigrate. Don’t say things like, “Aren’t you over it by now?” or (in the case of a pet) “It was only a (fill in the blank).”

Grief is love without a place to land. No one should judge the length of yours.



I’ve been laying low these past couple of weeks. You’re familiar with the drill: the hoopla of Thanksgiving giving way as you barrel downhill, smacking into Christmas like the landlady in Kung Fu Hustle sailing into the billboard. (Click the link; you’ll see what I mean.)

The proposal for The Man Who Loved Elephants went out to a few editors before the Christmas publishing holidays. I feel strongly about this book and its historical value, as well as its hopeful look at the future of elephant conservation. So far, the editors haven’t agreed with me.

I can take criticism and rejection on the chin most days without flinching. You can’t be a writer (or artist or performer) and maintain a fragile ego. The two don’t go together if you hope to succeed. Still, having received five rejections in a single day, I felt a bit pummeled. 

These were not “thanks, but no thanks” rejections. The editors had taken time to write out their thoughts and provide actual reasons for their rejection, a courtesy I truly appreciate, though it didn’t make the sting any less.

I’ll be honest – I cried.

For fifteen seconds.

Then I heard THAT VOICE rising from the back of my brain. You know the one, the monkey-mind that snatches opportunities like this to remind you how worthless you are. I heard her start to open her big fat mouth and I said, “Phyllis, shut the hell up.” (That’s “hell” starting with an F and ending in a K. And, yes, I’ve given my deprecating inner voice a name so that when I tell her to can it, she can’t pretend I’m not speaking to her.  Don’t care if it sounds psychotic; it works.)

Anyway, Phyllis quit yammering. In the silence that followed, I heard another voice say, “Screw them.” (“Screw” being spelled just like “hell.”) I gave myself permission to feel my bruises and then went to bed. I slept soundly and woke the next morning ready to plunk myself down at the computer because THAT, dear friends, is what it’s all about.


Photo courtesy Bermix Studio

Nothing To Do With The Presidential Election

And aren’t you glad about that?

This is about pharmaceuticals; specifically, the drugs we buy to treat our ailing pets.

As some of you know, our eight-year-old Australian shepherd, Holly, was recently diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy. Idiopathic means no underlying cause for her seizures has been discovered despite thorough physical and neurological examinations, an MRI, and spinal tap. It remains in the realm of possibility that she could have a brain tumor or stroke(s) too small to detect, but we’ve chosen to move forward with medication and she is now on Zonisamide.

Allow me to relate a little story which is the point of this post.

Our veterinarian, the brilliant Dr. Jenny Gamble, called the prescription in to our local CVS. When I went to pick it up, the pharmacist said, “Are you aware of the cost?” Ding, ding, ding! went my internal warning system, but what choice did I have? My dog is having seizures and needs meds to control them or risk suffering brain damage.

I replied, “It doesn’t matter. She needs the drugs.”

Wanna guess what it cost me? Go ahead, I’ll give you a minute …


You read that right. One-Hundred-Eight-Dollars and seventy-two friggin’ cents for 30 days worth of medication. $1.51 per pill.

I went home in tears knowing we could not support that sort of expense for months, possibly years, and that Holly would very likely have to be put down because we couldn’t afford the medication.

Because Dr. Gamble had never prescribed this drug before–doing so now in conjunction with Holly’s neurologist, Dr. Laura Scoda–she hadn’t realized know the cost. I sent her an email so she could keep future clients informed. She thoughtfully provided me with a list of possible alternative companies where I could purchase the Zonisamide.

“I’ve heard that CVS is one of the pricier pharmacies,” she said.

I’m so naïve. Silly me to think that drug prices are regulated across the board.

Armed with Dr. Gamble’s list, I contacted the following companies by phone or online: Canadapharmacy.com, Costco, Wal-Mart, and Simply Pharmacy. All were cheaper than CVS. By how much you ask? At the high end, we’re talking around the $60-70 range, so roughly less than half the price of CVS. I wound up choosing Simply Pharmacy. It’s a 40 minute drive to get there, but it’s worth it despite the gas expense. (I also learned they’ll mail prescriptions, so that takes care of that.)

Guess what I paid.


THIRTY-NINE DOLLARS, an easily accomplished .33 per pill. CVS had charged me nearly FIVE TIMES that amount. “Obscene” is the word my husband used.

I’ve no wish to denigrate CVS. I’ve been a patron in the past and never had an issue … but that’s because I was ill-informed. I bet a lot of people are. Take time and do the research, friends. It could save you a bundle of expense, at least for your pet prescription. As for me, I won’t be going back to CVS. It’s just not worth it.

Change in Perspective

A bit of good news from my agent as we slide toward the Thanksgiving holiday – she has sent the proposal and manuscript for “The Man Who Loved Elephants” to a handful of editors, with a December 8 deadline. So it begins! This is a very exciting time for me – nerve-wracking to be sure, but I have confidence in this book.

Although it’s been a rough year with friend & family illnesses, the deaths of our two cats, and our dog Holly’s diagnosis of epilepsy, I am determined to focus on the blessings I’ve received. I have much to be grateful for: a husband who supports my work, a roof over my head, warmth in the cold, food in my belly, a handful of tried-and-true friends … the list goes on.

In this time of unrest (yeah, when isn’t it?), please take a moment to set politics and ideological differences aside and focus on the good thing(s) in your life. Hunt them down. Send a blast of gratitude into this needy world. It can’t hurt, and it might help. Let reflection and peace take precedence over what time the Black Friday sales start. Be an antidote to the madness rather than a participant.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

This Summer’s Elephant-Sized Adventure

I’ve done a bit of traveling over the past year, mostly to the west coast of the U.S., and mostly to Oregon to visit Roger Henneous, who is my dear friend as well as the subject of my latest book, “The Man Who Loved Elephants.” This is him, with his lovely wife, RoseMerrie.

photo courtesy of Melissa Henneous Mayes

For almost 30 years, Roger worked (and worked, and worked, and worked) as Senior Elephant Keeper at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo) in Portland. Those who’ve been misled by romanticism may imagine a zoo keeper’s life to be one of bucolic interaction with the animals he cares for. There is some of that, but mostly it’s as Roger once wrote on a job description: “Days, weeks and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.”

The elephants were Roger’s friends, but they were also his children, his family. Like children, it was up to him to teach them the rules of life in the barn so as to keep them and their keepers safe and healthy. (“Thou shalt do as the keeper asks, thou shalt not knock the keeper down.”) Although some folks out there in the world seem bent on believing that all zoo keepers are deplorable monsters who torture their animals, this is not the case and Roger is proof.

“You can make an elephant do one of two things,” he’s fond of saying. “Run away or kill you. But you can get an elephant to do an amazing number of things.” He learned “elephants are kind of subtle,” so he kept his eyes moving constantly. He learned they have a sense of humor which sometimes cannot be tolerated, as a sound whack from an elephant’s trunk can severely injure a person. He couldn’t out-weigh or out-reach them, so he needed to out-think them; to offer them a better deal when mischief seemed their best course of action.

Although most of the elephants Roger knew have passed on, a few remain. One of these is Hanako, who resides at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Hanako (which means “little flower child”) was a five-year-old youngster when Roger arrived at the Washington Park Zoo, the daughter of Tuy Hoa (pronounced tea-wha) and the bull Thonglaw (pronounced tung-law). It didn’t take him long to realize this was an elephant of a different stripe, possessing a nervous and unpredictable personality.

“She was not, thank God, particularly vicious,” Roger stresses. “But she was flighty. It took nothing to set her off and there were times when I never could figure out what had triggered her.” On one occasion, she tried to kill Roger as he was inspecting her newborn calf.

“Hanako” courtesy of John Houck

Hanako’s tendency toward violence led to her being transferred to Point Defiance, where they employed a “protected contact” system which allowed keepers to care for difficult animals without entering their enclosure. In this way, elephants are trained to present their ears, feet, and trunk through a variety of openings so keepers can inspect them, file their nails, and treat any injuries. The bars of the enclosure are wide enough to accommodate an enormous bristled brush which is used to scrub them down.

In the course of writing about Roger and Hanako, I received a generous invitation from John Houck, Deputy Director at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (also a former co-worker of Roger’s from the Washington Park Zoo days) to visit “the next time you’re out this way.” My husband and I, accompanied by Linda Reifschneider, President of Asian Elephant Support, and her associate Cynthia Christison, we received an unexpected and wildly enjoyable behind-the-scenes tour.

Best of all, thanks to John’s generosity, and that of elephant keeper Kate Burrone, we were able to meet Hanako and feed her. The high-point for me, however, was standing close by and being regarded by her massive, beautiful eye as she took in my scent and tried to figured out who the heck I was. She behaved beautifully and this will forever be one of the high points of my life. Thank you, John and Kate!

Me listening to John Houck beside the puffin pool, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Photo by Ed Everett

Hanako receives her morning bath courtesy of keepers Piper (L) and Kate (R). Photo by Ed Everett

Kate introduces me to Hanako. Photo by Ed Everett