Saturday, August 19, 2017

The years we had with Margie just weren't enough

From today's Briefing:

I often wish dogs lived as long as sea turtles. We'd have our furry companions for a good 80 years, maybe longer, and our hearts would break less often.

Two weeks ago, my children and I made the difficult and necessary decision to let our Margie go. She was 12 years old, a member of our family for more than 10 years.

We adopted her from a Scottish terrier rescue group when she was a toddler, the same age as our human toddler, Katie. We brought her into our home when life was mostly normal around here. Mom, dad and two young kids eager to go on walks and snuggle a fuzzy friend.

We never learned why Margie was with the rescue group, but it didn't take us long to suspect that she'd run away from her first home. She was a runner.

We were deceived more than once by her squat legs and slightly chunky body. She would act casually, lounging by the front door. In reality, in those early years, she was waiting for her opportunity to see the world. She'd spy a crack in the door, as a package was delivered or someone was walking in, wiggle her way out and charge for the sidewalk.

Katie Damm and Margie the Scottish terrier(Tyra Damm)
Katie Damm and Margie the Scottish terrier  

There was never time to lace up running shoes to chase her. You'd sprint out the door in whatever you were wearing, scan north and south, then fly after her. She could sprint faster than any human for about a quarter of a mile. Then she'd slow down and eventually stop, allowing her people to scoop her up and carry her home.

Most of the time, though, she stood guard. At the front window, watching for squirrels and rabbits. On the sofa, curled atop children's feet. In the kitchen, in case of falling scraps.

Just a few months after she'd settled in as a Damm, we learned that Steve was ill. Margie became his constant companion. She sought him out all over the house — upstairs on the exercise bike, resting on the green chair in the family room, napping in the bedroom.

Our Margie may have not understood the intricacies of brain cancer, but she instinctively knew how to comfort her people — first Steve through his illness and then Cooper, Katie and me in our grief after Steve's death.

Margie stands guard at the door.(Tyra Damm)
Margie stands guard at the door.  

Margie loved neighborhood walks and belly rubs. She loved burrowing in a pile of freshly laundered sheets and towels. She was an especially literate dog, in attendance for hundreds of guided reading sessions and bedtime stories.

She was a majestic mountain of fur, with triangle ears that heard everything and a bark to let us know when it was time to go out, time to come in, time to eat.

In the past couple of years, she had surgery to remove an abdominal growth, and she started slowing down. She took daily medication for a couple of chronic health conditions. She could no longer leap on furniture. She couldn't sleep through the night without needing to go outside for a bathroom break.

And in the past few months, she steadily lost weight despite a healthy appetite.

All of the sudden, she stopped eating altogether and struggled to put weight on her back legs. I knew, though I wanted to deny, that her body could take no more.

The kids and I decided, with our vet's guidance, that it was time.

Katie sat on my left side. Cooper sat on the right. Margie rested in a blanket on my lap. I held her as she took her last breath. We cried and cried and cried.

I like to imagine Margie and Steve reunited, which provides a little comfort as we adjust to life without our pup. We miss the skitter of her paws on the wood floor. We miss morning and evening walks around the block. I sometimes wake in the middle of the night, expecting to hear her bark, crestfallen when I remember the silence.

Yet our hearts will eventually mend, and one day we'll be able to talk about Margie without a lump in our throats.Why do we invite these animals into our lives, these beloved family members who we know won't outlive us? Because they love unconditionally and comfort selflessly and create buckets of joy — even though we don't get to hold on as long as we'd like.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Saturday, August 05, 2017

The surprising lesson I learned while being driven around Chicago

From today's Briefing:

Everyone has a story. We just have to listen.

The kids and I spent a couple of days in Chicago last week, and we were surrounded by stories. Every time we climbed into the back of a taxi cab or Lyft car, we learned a little more.

Our driver to the Museum of Science and Industry wants to travel to Texas someday, mostly to try the food and visit the home base of his church. Cedric has heard that the produce is fresher and the beef is better here. And he'd love to see Joel Osteen preach live at Lakewood Church in Houston.

Cedric shared that he was on public assistance when he was younger. He said that he could have found a way to continue to receive welfare even when he no longer qualified, but he knew that would be dishonest — and he would be taking money from someone else who needed it.

He allows that same philosophy to guide his decisions today. When he shops and sees a bargain, he rarely buys it. "If I didn't need it 10 minutes before I walked in the store, I don't need it now," he said. It would be better, he said, to leave that bargain for a shopper who really needs the item and the discount.

We waved goodbye, climbed out of his car and explored the museum. We bought nothing from the gift shop, Cedric's advice fresh on our minds.

Samuel drove us from our hotel to the theater. He's a special-education teacher hoping to be rehired by the school he transferred to last year. It's close to his home — he can walk — and he enjoys the work.

He was fascinated by the amount of money spent on high school football stadiums in Texas. At the same time, he lamented the poor budgeting decisions of his own school district and state.

"They make a lot of bad choices," he said, with the soft, calm voice you'd hope for from a young man who works with children with special needs.

We wished him luck for the new school year and spilled out on the sidewalk, eager to stand in line for Hamilton.

We relied on Christopher to drive us back to the hotel. He endured our effusive praise for the musical — we stopped short of singing the soundtrack — and we listened to his story.

He lives in Indiana and drives about 45 miles one-way to get to Chicago. The money is good — better than he can make at home. He prefers the afternoon, evening and late-night shifts. On busy weekends, he might not return to his wife and children until 5 or 6 a.m. He's got all kinds of tales of revelry.

No one, though, entertains like our cab driver from the airport.

He spoke with a heavy accent, so we had to lean forward and concentrate on every word. In half an hour, we learned about his three grown children, his travels in Africa and South America, his opinion on pharmaceutical companies and his work in computational physics.

He drives for fun, he says, to get away from his university lab.

After the car in front of us ran a red light and was almost hit by another car, our cabbie shook his head sadly and said, "There is only one second between life and death. Cherish every moment." (Chicago traffic is not for the fainthearted.)

Katie, Cooper and our sweet cab driver
He quizzed Cooper on probability and left him with a puzzle to solve.

He told us about his parents in Scotland and his phone calls home.

"Kids, cherish your mom. She is special," he said. "There is a lifelong bond. Don't ever joke with it."

And then we reached our destination and said goodbye and marveled, again, at the people we've met, the strangers still out there and the stories we've yet to hear.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at