Monday, June 21, 2010


It breaks my heart to think that he died alone. No one there to comfort him, to wipe sweat from his brow. No one to hold his hand, and say "I'm right here with you. You're not alone. You don't need to be afraid, its okay to let go when you're ready."

There was a thirty-six year gap in our ages. He was a proud, extroverted African-American man or as he preferred to say "person of color." An only child, born and raised in Boston, he'd traveled the world, but never learned how to drive. I was an introverted white woman. The youngest of four, born in New Hampshire, raised in Vermont, who had barely traveled outside of New England, yet we understood each other perfectly.

We were co-workers, who along with a group of four or five others became great friends. We'd lunch together, laugh and solve the world's troubles. On occasion our tight knit little group would take in a Sox game, or head to a restaurant in the North End to celebrate life's milestones; birthdays, the holidays, new jobs, retirements.  We both loved music and literature and talked on the topics often. "Did you see Miss Labelle on the Grammy's last night?" he'd say knowing I did, "Child, that hair and the outfit."

He was a big man, over six feet and was by far the best dressed man or woman in our office. His skin was a deep, dark mahogany, his salt-n-pepper mustache always neatly trimmed, his clothes well made and perfectly fit. He kept a spare tie in his desk at all times so he could change if he stained the one he was wearing while eating lunch. He loved to shop for jewelry at Tiffany's. His laugh, oh his laugh, it was loud, deep and genuine and one of the most joyful sounds I've ever heard. He was a man of great faith and he worshiped at the same AME church he'd attended with his parents as child. Every Sunday he sat in the exact same place. It was the seat his father had occupied before him.

He kept his life neatly compartmentalized; work friends, church friends, family, friends from his club. He was vigilant in keeping all of these worlds separate. A member of our group, the only other male, was very interested in the club Karl frequented on weekends. This guy was white, straight and very conservative, the polar opposite in life experience and world view from most of our group.  He was dying to know about this "club" and teased that if he found out where it was he'd to show up there some Saturday. On one occasion when he called the house and Karl's roommate answered, his desire to know got the better of him. He casually asked the name of the club and was rewarded with the information he'd been so anxious to have. A suburbanite, what he didn't realize was the club was the oldest operating gay club in the city of Boston. It wasn't long after that he dropped the bomb and revealed what he'd learned to Karl. It almost cost him his friendship. He'd crossed a line he shouldn't have, in Karl's world the lines didn't cross, the lives didn't intersect.

I took the T to Brigham and Women's hospital after work. Karl was in the hospital again, but we didn't know what was wrong. When I took the elevator up to his room, I found he had the room to himself.  I sat by his side and we talked about this and that. Occasionally, he would start talking  nonsense and then a few minutes later make perfect sense again. Right before visiting hours ended, a nurse came in to take more blood, "where did he want her to stick him?" she'd asked. Unable to form an answer, he looked at me like a lost child. "Take it from wherever he appears to be the least sore," I told her and she did. Blood drawn, I kissed him on the cheek and told him "I'll see you tomorrow." When tomorrow came, so did the phone call that Karl had died.

Its been sixteen years and still he crosses my mind. I wish he were here to see the strides made within the gay community; marriage, adoption, no cure yet, but better treatment options for HIV/AIDS, more positive portrayals of gays and lesbians in the media. When Barack Obama was elected President, out of all my African-American friends it was Karl that I thought of first. As I sat listening to Obama's acceptance speech on election night, I cried tears of joy that the day had come, tears of sorrow that my old friend hadn't lived to see it. He would have been so proud.

Its strange what one comes to realize over time. After Karl died, all the worlds he'd strived to keep separate came together. I'd always thought it was a shame that he'd chosen to keep each aspect of his life in a little box, even said so to friends. Then one day I woke up and discovered, I've done the exact same thing. Keep it safe, keep it private, let each box sit on its own little shelf; family, work, work friends, volunteer work and friends,  etc. I am intensely private, always have been and I have begun to ask myself why? What is the risk in sharing? What have I lost, what have I gained?  What will happen if you let it all go? Can I change? Do I want to? I'm on the fence and its becoming somewhat less comfortable than it used to be.

If one called his house and got the answering machine, one would hear Karl's deep baritone voice politely inform the caller that he was unavailable to take their call and to please leave a message after the tone. After that standard message was delivered he would say "Uhuru," and the machine would click off. Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom. Uhuru, something we all seek. Uhuru, something we must look within ourselves to find.  Uhuru, something to think about.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

School is in Session!

I watch my dog Maddie walk gingerly across the back deck, a little wobbly in her rear end and wonder how much longer it will be before I have to start carrying her down the steep steps to the yard. Her age, somewhere between eleven and thirteen, is beginning to show and it hurts my heart.

Our morning constitutional complete, we head into the house to join her “brothers” for breakfast. While the dogs eat, I jump on my computer to check my e-mail and Facebook. A friend has sent me a link to a “special letter” published in the Detroit News. When I read it my stomach twists in knots. Its written by Teresa Lynn Chagrin, an “Animal Care & Control Specialist“ for PETA. The title of the letter is “Rescued pit bulls not Family Pets” and it encourages the Livingston County Animal Control to continue to euthanize all pit bull type dogs that come through their doors. Her position is nothing new, for as long as I can remember PETA has sounded the death knell for pit bull type dogs. I know this, yet every time I see it stated in black and white I feel sick inside.

The irony is that PETA has something in common with the thugs, dog fighters and abusers they point to when attempting justify their position. They too make money, in the form of public donations, over the backs of the dogs they wish to exterminate. I keep hoping that they will change. That at long last they will look at the dogs and see what I see, learn what I’ve learned, but so far they have not.

I have lived with dogs all my life. Ask me for a story about my childhood growing up in rural Vermont and a dog; Stanley, Annie or Casey, Taffy, Emily, Minnie, Addie or Bromley will most likely be included in the tale. For the shy youngest child of Bob and Mary Fraser, the dogs were playmates, companions, and confidants. Each of our family dogs taught me something about life: loyalty, commitment, love, friendship and loss.

My childhood home, a large white 1793 colonial, sat on a hill which sloped down to the front lawn. A wide patch of lilies and stinging nettles bordered the lawn, and in front of that the quiet country road on which we lived. On the other side of the road stood the banks of the Connecticut River. The front lawn was flat and long with two huge pine trees, one anchoring each end. It was perfect for playing baseball.

I don’t remember who was batting, it may have been my sister Donna or me, with our brother Stephen, the oldest of the three of us pitching. Our Golden Retriever Taffy was with us, chasing down every pop fly just as she always did. All I know for sure is that one of us hit a foul ball over the patch of lilies and nettles, across the road and down the bank to the river. Taffy, our trusty Center fielder did what she’d done a hundred times before, she crossed the road to retrieve the ball. She found it. She was so proud coming back across the road to her children, baseball in her mouth, blond feathery tail held high and wagging. She didn’t notice the car, I don’t think any of us did, until it was right there, going too fast, straight down the middle of the road.

She made it back to us, circled three times and collapsed at our feet. The driver who hit her, a neighbor from further down the road, got out of his car, looked at Taffy as she lay laboring in the grass, shrugged his shoulders and said “Sorry, I’m late for work.” Then he got back into his car and sped away. Later that afternoon, as our entire family stood by her grave and wept, my father buried Taffy in his beloved garden. It was the first time someone I loved had died. I was five years old.

It was Casey, a beagle who came from “the pound,“ who first taught me that it was possible for someone to overcome their past. Casey had been a hunting dog and knew nothing of living in a house. He was destructive and untrained and it’s a testament to my parents commitment to their pets that he didn‘t end up back at the pound within 48 hours of coming home. He was for a time relocated from the house to the barn and after learning some manners, moved back into the house where he took up permanent residence.

Casey was a dog of great spirit and great voice. He never failed to howl for a handout at the dining room table when we had company over for dinner and although the dogs were not allowed on the furniture, he never overcame his desire to sleep in my mother’s favorite antique wing chair. He would worm his way around any obstruction placed in the seat to keep him out and despite the scolding he’d get if caught, he’d curl up in that chair whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Casey was also the best judge of character of any dog we ever had. As a teenager, I was home alone when a man with some antiques to sell appeared at the door and asked if my parents were home. I told him they were not, but he stepped past me into foyer to see for himself. When he lingered a little too long after I’d said “I’ll tell them you stopped by,” it was Casey who firmly, but appropriately let him know that it was time to go.

Life often comes full circle and so it has been with me. I have worked with dogs for the past twelve years as a volunteer, rescuer and shelter professional. I first met a American Pit Bull Terriers at a Massachusetts shelter where I became a volunteer. At the time I knew nothing of the dogs other than what I’d heard on the news, but I had an open heart and an open mind. It turns out that was all that was needed, the dogs did the rest. I was hooked. It was at that shelter that I adopted Isaac, a little ten week old brown and white pup who had been left to die in a dumpster. Now ten years old and getting very gray, it was Isaac who changed our elderly neighbor’s opinion of his kind and it was Isaac who helped a little girl who had been bitten by another type of dog overcome her fears. She would come to the shelter each Sunday with her mother and grandmother and he would wiggle and wag at the sight of her. It took a few visits before she found the courage to pet him, but when she did she was rewarded with a big smile, a wagging tail and a gentle kiss. After awhile they stopped coming, there was no need, with Isaac’s help the child had overcome her fears.

Since I first walked into that shelter twelve years ago, I’ve work with hundreds of pit bull dogs. The thing that struck me then was the resilience of the dogs I cared for and it is that resilience that amazes me still. With some dogs its their wiggling, wagging eternal optimism, “I’m stuck in this place, but I’m still going to put myself out there and make a new friend” that brings a smile to my face and inspires my admiration. With others it’s their courage to try to overcome. To trust when no human has ever proved to be trustworthy. To bravely put one foot in front of the other and give it one more try. Children share this type of courage, but as we grow into adults it seems to get lost in us. We become worn down, jaded or too invested in our point of view to consider any alternatives.

When we paint every member of a group, human or canine, with the same brush instead of treating them as individuals we do them and ourselves a disservice. If ever there were a group of dogs who proved this point, it’s the group that hailed from Bad Newz Kennels. When Bad Newz Kennels was raided, PETA recommended all of the dogs be euthanized without the benefit of evaluation. What a tragedy it would have been if that had happened. Today, the Bad Newz Kennels Survivors are thriving. The dogs have contributed to society through education, therapy work and by being cherished family companions. To have summarily put them to death would have been a shame and a sin. When we open our minds, watch and learn the dogs will teach us.

And so I wonder, who is the teacher and who is the pupil? The best of us endeavor to socialize our dogs well, to teach them to be confident, happy, well behaved members of our families. For myself, I’ve learned so much more from the dogs I’ve known than I could ever teach them. From shelter dogs; Spice, the very first pit bull to capture my heart and a long time shelter resident taught me that if you keep your spirits up and hang in there good things will come your way. Bubbles and Sweets taught me about overcoming your fears and putting your trust in strangers. Charlie and Alley taught me that sometimes a dog knows who their person is the minute they walk in the room. Scar, Jesse and Jericho that life is full of second chances, when a good one comes your way, TAKE IT. Angel, Annie, Bella and Samson that life isn’t always fair, people will let you down and hearts get broken along the way. Sara Lee that a very smart dog can make you look really brilliant or really silly and that you should think twice before teaching a dog how to open the refrigerator.

I share my home with four companion animals; one cat, Spencer, and three dogs; two American Pit Bull Terriers, Isaac and Maddie and one American Bull dog, Zeus. All are rescues. It is Maddie’s sense of humor that reminds me to lighten up and not take everything so seriously. It is Isaac’s calm, steadfast nature that gives me the strength to keep on keeping on and it is Zeus’s bull dog determination that reminds me not to let my own determination lag when I feel like giving up. They are all teachers of tolerance, forgiveness, patience, devotion. School is in session and we humans still have much to learn. We need to pay better attention.