Chelle Summer

grief

Remembering Nestle

Michelle Rusk
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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. 

A Short Time on My Soapbox

Michelle Rusk

I spent the latter part of last week at the American Association of Suicidology conference in Phoenix, my first conference since I handed the presidential gavel off to Bill Schmitz four years ago. I try to fill my days with creating, whether it be through writing, sewing, or other like projects. However, in the recent weeks between multiple suicides at my high school and the uproar of the Netflix television series, "13 Reasons Why," I've tried to stay out of any discussions, believing my time is best spent continuing to throw inspiration out there rather than sitting here typing opinions.

However, I found my soapbox and today I'm offering a little bit of my perspective before I put the soapbox away again.

I haven't seen "13 Reasons Why" and nor do I plan to watch it or read the book. Instead, I'm offering my thoughts about what I believe is missing in our culture– a message that hasn't changed in the four years since I became a past president of the American Association of Suicidology.

We've spent a lot of time and energy looking into why people kill themselves. Yes, it's important, absolutely, but in that same time we still know much less about how people cope and how we can help them cope when they think that the only way to end their pain is to end their lives. What I have learned from the twenty-some years since my sister ended her life and I was forced to face intense grief for the first time in my life, is that no one grieves the same. I also believe that to be true when we are faced with challenges in our lives: we're all going to work toward finding hope in different ways because we are, well, different people. 

What I do believe is that we can do is help people find the start of the hopeful journeys. Give them ideas, help them begin to learn coping skills so that when life hands then a challenge, they know at least how to find hope. It might not feel like hope is there, but it is. Often it's just that the light is so dim we can't see it. We should allow them to express their pain, let them know that we know they are hurting. But then we should help lead them toward the light, even slowly.

We are all faced with challenges and difficulties, some of us seemingly more than others, but learning from them and using them as springboards for growth is what makes us stronger and helps us to someday look back at the road behind us, hands on our hips, and know that we have come a long way. And then continue forward on the road.

 

A Different Kind of Lent

Michelle Rusk

For about six years I've used Lent as a time to work on strengthening my prayer life and letting go of what I can't control. March has become a challenging time for me because even though time marches on and my life is great, imprinted in the back of my mind are the anniversaries of the deaths of both my sister and my mom. I had decided that this year I would focus on strengthening my relationship with Our Lady of Guadalupe– whose feast day and my birthday are the same day– so I knew I needed to find something different to do for Lent.

I have a stack of spiritual-based books that I have started to read and haven't finished. And I had just picked up a new one at church (because I needed a book like I need a hole in my head!)– My Life with the Saints by James Martin, SJ, so I thought Lent would be a good opportunity for me to read his book and hopefully one other. Fr. Martin writes about how he has become to know the saints in his life, something I am interested in as Our Lady of Guadalupe has become more important in my life. While I read two newspapers a day and have several magazines subscriptions, reading books is something I haven't done much of since graduate school (I blame all the article reading I did). I see Lent as a time to challenge myself to make myself better and reading these books is easily part of that journey– while also making me a better writer along the way– after all, there is a correlation between reading and writing.

The second part of my Lent involves the driving range. Yes, you heard right– the driving range. My golf game has gone by the wayside since my mom's death three years ago and an injury to my shoulder after an accident with my now-deceased dog Gidget. And I have a tendency to work too much– because there are certain goals I want to accomplish– and not slow down as I should. Forcing myself to the driving range once a week does that and also connects me to God in the sunshine and learning to be patient with myself. I admit though, having taken a trip a week ago and having another one coming up has made this a harder task to accomplish than reading, but hopefully tomorrow afternoon I'll make it out there.

It's not an ordinary Lent, but this isn't ordinary time either! To me, Lent isn't about what I can give up– over twenty years ago a priest told me not to focus on what I could give for Lent because I'd lost so much with my sister's death– and now with my mom's death added into the mix, I definitely see it as a time of working on making me a better person, on strengthening my spiritual journey. And as I already have a more extensive prayer life than most people, I knew I needed to add something different this year. 

And so it is: reading and the driving range. 

The Path to the Future Through the Past

Michelle Rusk

I don't believe my deceased family members could have been any closer to me than they were this weekend when I took a trip back to my hometown, Naperville, in the Chicago suburbs.

My friend Karen graciously co-hosted a Chelle Summer Open House with me at her house. We both invited our friends for a Sunday afternoon of prickly pear punch, sangria, carob cookies, and an overwhelming selection of Chelle Summer handbags that I had made. 

I found a penny the day before I left and then on my first morning in Naperville– on my run– I found a dime. My dad. Later that morning, a Cardinal kept flying around the backyard, another sure symbol of at least my dad. Some time after I graduated from college, every night a Cardinal flew into the garage and stayed there, my dad waiting to shut the garage door (after his last smoke of the evening) when the Cardinal he called, "Birdie" had arrived for the night. While I know people say Cardinals are signs of their loved ones, it's always had a slightly different meaning for me because of my dad and Birdie.

The signs continued Saturday with Mom's song "Every Rose Has a Thorn" by Poison appearing in a Facebook comment that morning and that afternoon when we sang, "On Eagle's Wings" at mass. It was like they were with me in every way but physically.

I was back in my old neighborhood staying some blocks from the house I grew up in and around the corner from the house I owned just a few years ago. I stay with people I call family, but I'll admit I feel slightly disconnected without my parents– or my sister– there.

And yet, although I only get "home" about once a year now, I still believe that it's important to remember where you're from to see where you go in the future. You must know who you came from, what has influenced you, and the path you took, to see the journey ahead.

There are some aspects of my life I'm not totally secure in for the future– I know what I want, but that journey isn't quite clear. And yet I know that by taking a step into the past somehow it's taking me several steps forward.

Honoring Quietly

Michelle Rusk

About fifteen years ago, I remember sitting in the local support group for the suicide bereaved, this several years after my book for sibling suicide had been published, and we were talking about ways to honor a loved one who had died. A man who had lost his mother to suicide said– as he shook his head– "I have no idea what to do."

I responded, "That's okay. You don't have to know right away." 

Many more losses later I am well versed in this. For me, figuring out how I will honor them is how I move forward, but I also realize that we don't have an answer to how to do that right away. 

However, what I choose to do today is much different than when I lost my younger sister nearly twenty-four years ago. While it wasn't instant, I knew I had some need to help other sibling survivors of suicide, mostly because the world was different (the internet was very limited and there was no social media); we couldn't connect to each other like we do today with a simple Google search. That turned into a book which launched a speaking career and traveling around the world, educating and helping people both with suicide grief and suicide prevention.

For my dad's death eleven years ago, I was still deep into suicide work and inching my way toward a doctorate. I didn't have the time– or energy– to figure out what else I might do. But after my mom's death in 2014, my perspective had already begun to shift and I saw where it tied me back (as I have written recently) to the person I wanted to be growing up.

But also in this time, I have watched people launch foundations in loved ones' names, hoping to raise funds to help people or causes, or where they do walks and run, with the goal of doing the same. 

Recently I saw something someone was doing in a loved one's name and a thought struck me– I don't have the need to be so public about saying, "I'm doing this because of my mom." And then  at a party last weekend a friend and I were discussing this, how my journey in that way has become more private: I don't need to share it all with the world.

And yet what I still share is what I create– my writing, my sewing, my painting. I know that pursuing a creative life is honoring the three family members I traveled with in the station wagon (long after my older brother and sister stopped taking family trips with us). I also know that getting my education (particularly before I married– per her instructions) was a way to honor my maternal grandmother who couldn't go to college because she had to help her brothers financially get college degrees. It was never something I talked about, more something I did. 

Today the journey is about doing without having to say why I'm doing it every minute of the day. Sure, there are aspects I share, especially when I particularly know how they inspired something, but mostly it's about taking time each day to pursue what makes me happy is what honors them and makes my life an authentic one.

 

My Identity

Michelle Rusk

For so long I had such a need to identify myself as a first, a suicide survivor, and then as the language changed, a suicide loss survivor. It was clearly part of my grief road in the early parts of the past twenty-four years. But I have found myself not disconnected from it, but like the surface of the road beneath me has changed.

I know there are people who will read that and be dismayed that I'm saying that. However, it's a good thing that I say it. I have found that in the years since I have moved on from doing suicide-related work full time, that often people are upset that I am not doing it. But to me, I am showing that you can still have a great life despite all that happens to you.

Traditionally, parents who have lost children have been the ones who have been the loudest voices (and I say that with a  positive note to it!) making suicide prevention a prevention and organizing support groups for those left behind. What I have realized over the years is that they had many years of life before their children died. I was only twenty-one when my sister died and now, as I come up on twenty-four years since her death, I see that I didn't have much life before being hit with the loss. I find today that I don't want my life to be consumed by it. As a friend said to me recently, "You don't have a need to wear the black armband." For a long time, I did feel like I needed to– or wanted to. 

Instead, I see the road much differently today. As my life continues to be filled with losses and the world feels a bit challenging, I'm working to stay focused. Each day I pray that I continue to be creative, to write and sew, and that my sister and my parents help me to stay inspired.

What I couldn't see in all those years of helping others– which taught me so much– that there would come a day that it would swing back to me and remind me of the person I always wanted to be. It's as if I have traveled through the loss to be able to find my way back to my relationships with each of my deceased family members. Now they can help me– although not in the same way as if they were here– continue to create, to sew, and to write. There is only love where they are now, no pain of anything that happened here in life. But it was my journey to get where I could see beyond the pain so that the four of us could have a relationship without it causing a block on my end.

And they could remind me of who I always wanted to be. And help me make that happen.

The Love from our Parents

Michelle Rusk

In the past few months, I've had a number of people I know lose their parents. There's been an ebb and flow, particularly in the last year, although none of my friends are the same age so it's not like we've reached "an age" where we our parents might die. It's just happening.

In the eleven years since my dad died and then the three years since my mom died, I've had some time to process and think about what their deaths mean to me and how I go forward, especially at an age when most people I know still have both their parents, or at least one. 

About fifteen months before my mom died, she told me something that has helped me, something that I believe all our parents want for us, particularly when they reach the afterlife where I believe there is no pain, no sadness, no hurt or anger over what has happened in life. In the afterlife, they want us to be happy, they want us to have the lives we're supposed to, and they want us to know we're still with them.

Mom told me that she knew I was different than the rest of the family and that I needed to go forward and be who I'm supposed to be. What Mom wanted for all her kids was happiness, to see them have the happiness she never had truly had in her life coping with polio, a not very great marriage, and all the sadness and insecurity that went with both of those. 

I didn't think much about what she said to me until after she died. In my sadness knowing that she, my dad, and my younger sister are all gone (the three people in my family I spent the most time with because my older brother and sister had moved out of the house by the time I entered junior high), I have clung to those words.

And I've also come to realize something else: she freed me from the past with her message. The memories are mine to keep but I don't have to hold onto the sadness of anything that was said, unsaid, happened, or didn't happen. I can forward without letting any of the past hold me back, instead using from my past what motivates and inspires me (much of what you see in my designs). 

It's painful to move forward in loss, especially that of our parents, because we fear we lose the past, of what defines us in some ways. But it's our choice to keep what works and helps us go forward. The rest we can leave behind. After all, that's what our parents wanted most for us: to know that we are happy and who we want to be.

The Chair

Michelle Rusk

On a sunny day several months after my mom's death in 2014, I dropped off some of her stuff at a local thrift store that benefits local animals. No one helped me unload the car and as I drove away, a chair she always sat in– one that was in our living room most of my life– stood alone on the loading dock waiting for someone to take it inside.

I didn't think much about the chair in the past few years. I hadn't been sure what I could do with it because it matched the decor of our Chicago suburban home, not my Albuquerque mid-century design. It's just one of many items I've held onto only later to finally give away (many of them because I did two cross country moves over a year and a half) because I wasn't sure how I could use them in the future.

About a month ago, however, I saw something that sparked an idea of what I could have done with the chair. I saw how I could have repainted and reupholstered it to match my decor. This isn't the first time that's happened but it stayed with me until I finally let it go– probably because I got distracted by other projects I'm working on.

Then on Veteran's Day– a day both Greg and I had off from work– we went to an estate sale in an older neighborhood (actually, the one that he grew up in), nearby and I spotted a great chair in the living room. It was a rather small house, built in the 1940s, and the chair looked huge. But comfortable. And an ottoman no less!

We purchased our items and went home. 

But I couldn't stop thinking about the chair. It wasn't overpriced. It was in good condition. It could wait until we found the right fabric to redo it.

And when we went back the next morning, it was still there.

We brought it home; I worried it would be too big for the living room. I moved the chair in its place to my office where I found it actually looked better. The new chair was perfect in its new home.

Finally, it was something Greg and purchased together, part of our new journey together. And a gift from Mom.

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.

 

Harry Caray and my sister D-D-Denise

Michelle Rusk

While everyone is remembering their parents or grandparents after the Cubs made the World Series, for me, it's about how my baseball bound my younger sister and I. It was my dad who took me to my first Cubs game although Denise was very young and stayed home (we got her the pennant behind her head) and later he often secured tickets ninth row behind first base that a man he worked with had, mostly taking Denise with him and once for opening day on her birthday, April 4.

I believe I went once with him, another time he gave me the tickets and my friend Dave and I trekked to the north side. Other times though, I went with my friends and sat in the bleachers. 

But it's mom who took us to New York City where we saw the Cubs play the Mets in Shea Stadium. I don't think my sister ever forgave Harry Caray after that day.

Mom worked for the old Midway Airlines and she as always looking for fun day trips for us to take. So on an April Sunday in the late 1980s, we boarded a plan to LaGuardia and took a bus to Shea where we saw the Cubs and Mets play. Having watched many, many, many Cubs games in my young life at that time, I knew that Harry Caray would announce the names of Cubs fans who were attending away games (which would almost be the entire stadium in Atlanta at the time).

I wandered the stadium somehow finding my way to where they were broadcasting and handed my note to someone at the door, not knowing if our names were read on the air or not.

We were recording the game at home but other people later told us that had indeed heard that "Marianne Linn and her daughters, Michelle and D-D-Denise..." were at the game.

"How could do that to my name?" she asked, disappointed, as she shook her head.

How many drinks had he had by then? we all wondered.

Denise and I pretty much lived for Cubs baseball. I'm not sure we ever attended a game together but we watched many of them on television together. Some of my favorite memories of life with her are the nights we drove over to Cub Foods and picked up a half gallon of Kemp's strawberry frozen yogurt and a package of Archway oatmeal raisin cookies that we then turned into ice cream sandwiches as we watched the Cubs play the late games against the Los Angeles Dodgers on the little black and white television in the kitchen.

And we watched the playoffs even when they obviously didn't include the Cubs although by then we were calling them the "Scrubs" because they had fallen apart by the end of the season.

I never thought I would see the day when the Cubs made the World Series but I also am honest when I say that baseball doesn't mean what it once did to me. I didn't watch it for a long time after she died and since then– especially now that I can't just turn on the radio or WGN to put on a game on the background– my life has changed. 

I hope that in heaven she is doing a jig today, with Mom and Dad. Yesterday as I drove to watch Greg's soccer team play, "Harden my Heart" My Melissa Manchester came on the radio as I pulled into the school parking lot. 

"Hi Denise," I greeted her, knowing it's one of three songs I believe that play to remind me she is there with me.

I'm sure that was her way of telling me she remembers our Cubs times together, too. And that anything is possible, even a Cubs World Series.