Chelle Summer


Remembering Nestle

Michelle Rusk

Because of circumstances beyond my control and that I am not letting define how I remember my yellow lab Nestle, I didn't know about her death until several months after it happened. I hadn't seen her in a year because she was living with my former husband. She truly was his dog and I knew that he needed her more than I did. And in the several months between when she died– although I didn't know it– and when I found out, I had a funny feeling she wasn't here anymore. I found myself talking to her through prayer and wishing her well. She was nearly fifteen and had more lives than anyone I know, but I just wish I'd been given a chance to say goodbye.

In the same breath, I know that where Nestle is at– barking up a storm in heaven and driving Mom crazy– it's all about love and she is happy, no longer hindered by a body that was giving out on her. And that had survived what felt like twenty lives.

I always told the story that we had gone to Albuquerque's westside animal shelter in November 2003 to find Chaco a sister. Joe picked out Nestle– who looked like an innocent young dog just sitting in her kennel while everyone else around her barked. He was convinced she was the perfect dog because she didn't bark. Yes, we know how that went.

Later, as he stood in line to do all the adoption paperwork, I went back to the kennel to see her. There she was barking with all the other dogs and I knew then we were in for quite a road.

From the moment she arrived, Nestle quickly made her mark in more ways than one. That first weekend we had our holiday party and as I was cleaning the house and prepping for it, she decided to use the house as her bathroom and then stole coffee grounds out of the trash can. From there she ran out the front door, nearly getting hit by a car.

In the years to come, she would steal the Thanksgiving turkey off the counter and eat it, be attacked by Chaco so badly that she nearly died (and spent several months recovering at the vet although she tried to bite the vet every time she saw him after although he was the one who saved her life), and barked endlessly.

Our friend Joe the dog trainer worked with her on the barking but the shock collar didn't deter her. She kept right on barking. Nor could you hug another human around her– she instantly started to bark as if she wanted in on the action. And she loved to swim although I would never have hired her a as lifeguard after she tried to swim over our first German Shepherd Daisy several times. It was easy to figure out why Daisy never wanted to get back in the swimming pool again.

Still, she was the most loving dog one could have, willing to be brushed, was the one to come close if you were crying, and unless you were the vet, she was always happy to see you.

Nestle lived a full life, probably more full than most humans. Three of what I call my "original four" dogs are in heaven now, hanging out with my parents who knew them, and Gidget who came after Daisy died.

What's hardest of all to believe is that thirteen years with her flew by and she's no longer here. But that's what happens when we're busy living life, time passes and suddenly was time for Nestle to move on past a body that was being destroyed by the evil hemangioarcoma cancer.

Yet in my head I can still hear her barking. 

Chaco's Sunset

Michelle Rusk

Chaco wasn't supposed to be my dog.

When we adopted him on New Year's Day 2003, it was because my then-husband needed to quit smoking and start exercising. As I stood in line at the store the following day with a box of Nicoderm and dog treats at the checkout stand, I had to laugh at the dichotomy of what I was buying. 

Quickly it became apparent that Joe wasn't going to walk Chaco and so after my three-mile morning run, I started to take Chaco to the park a few blocks from our house for a what started as walk (mostly because he was really depressed those first few weeks with us– we don't know what happened in his prior life but he had a chip and no one responded when they were contacted and he had been found eating out of a garbage can on the University of New Mexico campus) but eventually it turned into a run where he pulled me along. My life was transformed after that.

I couldn't have known in that January all that was ahead of me: the crash by a drunk driver that August that would alter everything when Joe would get a brain injury, my foray into doctoral work and Chaco's inspiration that people must be helped by their dogs after the death of a human loved one, the addition of several more dogs, the publication of my book Ginger's Gift: Hope and Healing Through Dog Companionship that was largely inspired by the road Chaco led me on when he became part of our family, the death of my dad, the trips around country and the world educating people about suicide and suicide grief, the addition of the swimming pool and then the remodel of most of the house, my holding everything together while Joe struggled to function and work, the eventual divorce, the move back to Illinois that split Chaco and Gidget from Nestle and Hattie, the move back to Albuquerque that brought the dogs together, the deaths of Daisy and then Gidget, the death of mom, the addition of Lilly after the death of Gidget earlier this year and, of course, in the midst of this, the addition of Greg into our lives.

Chaco changed me in ways I never could have predicted. I was not a dog person. I always tell the story that the Linn Family joke about Karen's dog Chaos was, "Will Michelle ever pet the dog?" But when Chaco came into my life, everything as different. We took him to Texas several times and then up to Minnesota, making him more traveled that many Americans with all the states he visited, and just about every morning for the past fourteen years– as long as I was home– he got either a run or a run-walk and later just a walk. The morning he died he went for his walk. He whined until he got outside and felt at home leading the way to the park each day.

For all those years when I was holding the household together with very little tape, every morning when Chaco and I would go out for a run-walk, I could see the hope as the sun started to come up over the mountains. I always felt like, no matter how challenging life was, it was as if the day before had been hosed off and there was a new day starting. I began to pray during my time with Chaco, mostly because it was usually some of the most uninterrupted time of my day (although because of Chaco I also became a bigger member of the park community– suddenly people who didn't talk to me before, started to talk to me, because of my handsome dog of course).

In Naperville, we ran along the river, including through the fresh snow in the winter. Chaco chased squirrels up trees and watched them for hours. He laid by the pool– right back in his old spot– when we moved back to Albuquerque. He was quiet, he asked for very little. He slept at the foot of the stairs and, as my former husband said, with one eye open to make sure no one could get to me. 

And last December we nearly lost him until the vet told me it wasn't time yet. With a pair of socks for his back legs to keep him from slipping and what I jokingly call a magic powder, I made sure that every night I told him I loved him and that I was glad he was my dog, before I went to bed in case he died during the night. I didn't want any regrets about the life that we shared.

But on Saturday the deterioration was coming quickly; he was standing sideways. The vet said it was the right time, that the muscle mass on his hips was wasting away. He could bounce back but it wasn't going to get better. 

Chaco's journey with me was finished. He traveled through so many events with me but now with Lilly and Greg along for the ride (and with Hattie, too- Nestle resides with her "real" dad), he knew he could move on, surely greeted by Mom, Dad, Gidget, and Daisy in heaven.

And he made sure about six weeks ago he had one last hurrah before the cold weather set in: while he always laid by the pool, he never ever ever ever ever ever wanted to get in it. I have photos of him clinging to my former husband, freaked out as Joe tried to carry him in the water. Chaco would swim in a lake or a river or even go for a ride in a boat but he could never grasp the concept of the pool.

One evening as twilight was settling in, Greg and I heard some whining. We both figured he had fallen and couldn't get up as that was happening more and more. But when we couldn't find him, we went outside to see him swimming laps in the pool.

We never knew if he fell in on accident or on purpose but he looked happy and didn't want to come to the edge where Greg was calling him (somewhat of a futile attempt because Chaco was deaf by then). The weight of his back hips that were failing him fell off in the water (although he was still wearing his socks).

And for one time, at nearly sixteen years old, Chaco got his swim. The road was complete, the time to move on looming.

He went quietly, his snout on my leg Saturday morning. No more pain, no more pacing, no more looking like he couldn't remember what he had done five minutes before. No more back legs failing him. Freedom with all those who have gone before him. And me left with the memories of a life that hasn't been the same since he came around that corner on New Year's Day and entered my life.


Learning to Run Again

Michelle Rusk

I couldn't blame Lilly. I'm sure she didn't see me coming when she bounded down the stairs– probably because she heard the door or Hattie stir. But when she ran her head right into the inside of my right knee as I trekked up the stairs, well, as I said to Greg, "That didn't sound good." But was it Lilly's head or my knee that incurred the damage?

For a week I felt something a little weird but nothing that kept me from running, or running and walking the dogs.

Until the next week when I couldn't run at all.

I've gone through phases where I hurt, I ache. I'm getting old, I'm trying to accept that. But this, this was different. I went for acupuncture and besides the usual moxa and needles, she cupped my knee, trying to pull the pain out. Then there was the day where I stepped on uneven ground trying to pick up a zucchini and could barely walk at all.

"It looks like you're dancing," My Chinese doctor's husband said when I showed up hobbling for acupuncture an hour later.

I could barely walk, I tore into my stash of heavy duty ibuprofen so I could walk. I took two days off from walking the dogs but I couldn't stand being away from my community in the early morning hours at the park. 

I walked, I swam, I was cupped and needled to stop the pain and help the injury heal. Weeks went by and suddenly I realized I hadn't gone that long without running since I was in high school. I missed my route, seeing my friend Jennifer and giving her the morning temperature as I do every day when we pass each other.

I kept busy with work, writing, making bags, dreaming about where I'm going to take Chelle Summer.

I won't deny it, it was a big challenge for me. I begged God to let me learn whatever lesson I needed so I could go forward and get back to my routine. 

It was a severe bone bruise, easily possible from the force of a strong German Shepherd on her way down the stairs. And slowly it would heal. I worried I might never run again, and when  did run I felt as if my body were all over the place. And then I rammed my knee into the metal bleachers at a soccer game, Lilly hit her head on my knee again. It felt never ending.

But two weeks ago, slowly it really began to get back. Finally I could run-walk my nearly three-mile route. 

Patience. Patience. All is well. Everything is passing.


The Swimsuit

Michelle Rusk

The plan had been to start making swimsuits. I just thought I had bit more time to learn my new serger before I tackled my first one. However, my friend Veronica was leaving on vacation at the end of July (to the beaches of California, no less) and she needed a suit. I wasn’t going to say no to the opportunity to create something for my friend, especially because it was a chance for me to start making them.

But I didn’t really consider what a daunting challenge I had in front of me. What didn’t scare me was that I knew my mom had created one for my older sister Karen in the 1970s– one that lasted Karen quite a long time– and Mom had done it on the same Bernina sewing machine that I am using.

We bought a serger for me in Late May but with two trips in June, I haven’t had much of a chance to use it. I would need to make Veronica’s swimsuit on the Bernina with lots of zig zag stitches.

Taking her measurements, the pattern, the notions, and the fabric she picked in hand, I realized what a daunting task I had in front of me. I couldn’t do it alone.

Often in the past I have written about my struggle to be the competitive runner I was supposed to be. I often joke that in high school God and I broke up- an unanswered prayer in eighth grade regarding my dad’s job situation left me not believing in God. I thought I had to do everything on my own.

But several weeks ago as I watched the Olympic trials, particularly track and field, many of the runners talked about how much God helped them.

If I was going to make a swimsuit, not only would I need to channel my mom but I’d need God’s help, too.

Sewing knits– which tend to slide all over the place– is tricky. Getting the needle and thread to behave on the knits can be perilous, too. I allowed myself hours at a time. Just in case. And prayed a lot, often shaking as I sat down, unsure how I could truly make Veronica’s measurements match a pattern that was confusing (my friend Bonnie often called pattern instructions “destructions” because of the chaos they cause). It also made me realize why women hate buying swimsuits. No one’s measurements are the same. How can we be standardized when our bodies are so unique? And I know this from trying on all the clothes that I do– how much doesn’t fit right because of my short frame.

With the seams sewn together but nothing else, Veronica came by and was happy with the fit. It looked great but I was mostly concerned that it felt good. I didn’t want to create something she would never wear.

And when the suit was finished, truly looking like a swimsuit, I felt like I’d survived a final exam and needed a nap. When she put it on, not only was it a perfect fit, but she was happy and comfortable. Excited is a better word.

It wasn’t beginners luck as I attribute some of my successful to the binkini bottom I made in January that taught me some elastic lessons, but rather it was taking the time and letting go, asking for help in a way it took me a long time to comprehend.