Monday, November 26, 2012

In Training for Christmas

Among the things I inherited from my father -- my music background, my prematurely gray hair (thanks Dad!), my cooking skills -- none is perhaps as meaningful as his model train set, which has been part of my Yuletide since birth.

The legend of the trains is twisty-turny affair, of course, but the best I've been able to root it out, it goes like this: At some point in the late 1930s, when my Dad was a youngster, his father -- my Pop-pop -- was temporarily out of work, the result of a strike. Pop-pop worked for Midvale Steel ( as a machinist. The strike was long and times were tough, but as always seemed to be the case back then, my grandparents cinched their belts even tighter than usual and made it through.

They were facing a rather grim Christmas season that year when, glory be!, the strike was settled and the workers received a rather large lump sum settlement in pay. 

Despite the pressing needs of the bills that had mounted, my grandfather took a portion of that settlement check and purchased a set of Lionel trains for Christmas.

A platform was constructed, and here the story gets fuzzy, as the platform seemed to be a piecemeal affair, augmented through the years. But as far as I know, it always included a tiny village of houses that provided residence for the town inhabitants, and legend has it that those original houses were made of stiff cardboard. I've also heard tell of tales of sawdust "snow" blanketing the tiny neighborhood, which caused my grandmother no end of cleanup as it eventually dusted her carpets and furniture. So a fence was added for containment purposes. Later, lights were added, to illuminate not only the fence but the homesteads it surrounded.

Those trains have been an integral part of Weckerly Christmases ever since.

Which is not to say that they were as revered then as they are now.

My Dad and his brother -- my uncle -- delighted in running the trains at full-tilt until they would leave the tracks in spectacular displays of mayhem and destruction. Unfortunately for the Lionels, many of these disasters occurred in their basement, where the cement floor was unforgiving to the engine.

Years passed, and the trains were boxed, stored, and almost forgotten.

When my Dad married and had children of his own (my elder brother), the trains and platform were resurrected. The engine, unfortunately, was beyond repair. I've later learned that iron shortages led the Lionel Company to improvise on materials back then, and the sturdiness of some of those 1930s engines was always in question, crash damage aside.

A new engine was purchased, this is now the late 1950s, and the rear truck was modified (this would have been Pop-pop's specialty, as a machinist, re-jiggering something for utility purposes) as a retrofit for the existing tender and passenger cars.

The paper houses, too, were gone, and Plasticville residences replaced them. They didn't exactly match the style of the trains themselves, but then again, eclecticism was always part of the platform. For instance, the platform has always included a barn with animals, but scaling is a challenge, evidenced by the tiny cows and gigantic chickens that dot the farmyard.

We like to say that things like those "nuclear" chickens add to the charm.

The best part about the trains is that Santa brought them.

When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, the house blazed outside with colorful lights, but inside, things were purposefully bland. The only decorations permitted before we went to bed that night were our stockings and the creche.

Once we were asleep, my parents went into hyperdrive, The platform and trains were hauled from their storage spot in the basement (on shelving that hung over the washer/dryer). My grandparents would arrive from the City and assist, and often, a few errant aunts and uncles would accompany them.

The menfolk did the assembly and electrical work; the ladies decorated the tree.

The final task was a matter of placing our presents around the platform, and tip-toeing up to bed, but Christmas being Christmas, there were often glitches and issues along the way that caused their bedtime to stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Many was the Christmas, my Dad used to tell, that he would barely lay his head on the pillow when a set of wet toddler fingers would poke him in the eye, accompanied by a whisper:

"Dad! Dad! It's Christmas! Santa, Dad! Santa!"

Pounding down those stairs on Christmas morn was an unforgettable experience, as our entire living room had been transformed into a display that would cause both Mr. Gimbel and Mr, Macy to gasp with surprise. Tree! Trains! Platform! Holly! Lights! Tinsel!

Oh yeah, and presents!

Of course Santa was real. Mere mortals could never pull this off. Never.

As I grew, there were eventually changes to the story and the traditions, driven, I suppose, by necessity. I recall that we were asked by the North Pole if we could take down the display ourselves and pack it away. I suppose that before that, Santa Himself returned and returned the living room to its normal status. But over time, things being what they were, His schedule no longer permitted that luxury. So we would disassemble the trains and the platform and "...put all the boxes on the roof, so Santa can just swing by and pick it up."

Made sense to me!

Years continued to pass. Santa's truth was revealed to me, and decorating for Christmas no longer was an overnight sensation. But on this rule, Dad was insistent: The trains would go up Christmas Eve, not one second sooner.

It became a family project. After a hearty breakfast, we three boys would help Dad tote the boxes from the basement, move the furniture in the living room, and put up the platform. This was often an all-day project, accompanied by the sound of Christmas carols on the radio (which had gone all-Christmas, all the time, only on Christmas Eve itself, not a month prior) and the scent of Mom's Christmas cookies baking in the kitchen.

By this time, the mid-1970s, both Dad and I were involved in church music, and the call of Christmas Eve Mass often had us scurrying to finish with the trains. The benchmark we were always trying to beat was that the trains must be running by 4:00 p.m., when we had to stop work and turn our attention to showering/eating before Mass.

It was a lot of work. But a lot of fun. And such an integral part of Christmas that we didn't dare tamper with the tradition.

Except for one year. My mother's family had a tradition of a yearly reunion Christmas party that rotate through her siblings. Mom had a large family -- there were five sisters and a brother -- which meant a ton of cousins descending on the home of that year's host family.

Dad, anticipating the onslaught one year, proposed that we skip the trains. The living room was too small; there was too much risk of damage; time was short; the boys were getting older; it was time to retire the tradition.

I was heartbroken. I couldn't imagine Christmas without the hearing the mechanical churning of that engine and whiffing the faint electrical smell in the air. But he was steadfast. We would put up the tree, the lights, the decorations. But no platform.

That Christmas Eve, we were finished with our Yuletide tasks before noon. Uncertain what to do with the remainder of the day, we wandered aimlessly through the house, letting the carols unspool on the radio but merely as background music to... nothing.

None of us was happy. But the unhappiest of all? It was Dad. By late that afternoon, when it was time to clean up and prep for Mass, he moped around the living room, gazed at the lonely tree and the array of presents, and sighed:

"It doesn't look like Christmas..."

That was the last year we ever skipped the trains.

When it came time for our own children, Dad reached a decision as to the fate of the trains: They would come to me. 

And here they remain.

There were more modifications to the platform and the trains and the legend that accompanies them. Again, these were driven by necessity -- no matter how much he may want to, a music director at a church can't be supervising Santa's descent down the chimney on Christmas Eve with trains. So our timelines were shifted away from Christmas Eve, but not too early.

The Plasticville houses were also replaced over the years by a set of ceramic buildings that are much more sturdy and also less architecturally anachronistic. The nuclear chickens, however, continue to peck around the barn.

One of the changes I've made was the resurrection of the train's whistling tender. As kids, we were told that this car was "broken," but I've come now to believe that it only needed some TLC and that, perhaps, my grandmother declared it non-working because she had tired of its ceaseless, hollow whoo-whoo-ing. With the help of a Lionel train aficionado -- who, it turns out, is our optometrist --  the whistler rejoined the train display in 2010, and its happy sound is now as much a part of the holiday as carols and jingle bells.

These trains have survived more than 70 years. They've brightened Christmases that were both prosperous and lean, years good and bad, years of bonus and frugality, spirits high and spirits broken. Wartime. Peacetime. Life's ups. And its downs.

Through it all, they work their particular brand of magic. The first Christmas after Dad passed away, I vividly recall finishing up their assembly, letting them fly around the track, and breaking down in tears at the loss of their chief engineer. But that sadness was but a passing moment, for it's all but impossible to experience the trains -- to see the faint puffs of smoke coming from the little stack as it rings a whimsical town of little houses and tiny residents -- and feel anything but the comfort and warmth of deep-seated tradition.

All aboard!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful for Those George Bailey Moments

I'm finding myself in an interesting position this Thanksgiving. Still out of work. Into month #7 without full-time employment. Struggling financially. Bracing for a rather lean Christmas. Tiring of the job-hunt and all its frustrations. 

Days marked by worry, insomnia, poor eating, listlessness, stress.

And yet I'm finding things to be grateful for.

Or maybe it's someOne offering gentle reminders of things to be grateful for.

I have been the recipient, along this journey of the jobless, of many happy occurrences that I call George Bailey Moments.

George Bailey, as you may or may not recall, is the everyman hero in the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, which, I may as well mention, is my favorite film of all time. Yes, above Jaws, above To Kill a Mockingbird, above Fantasia, above Singin' in the Rain.

At the climax of the film, George breaks through his crushing despondency by realizing a very powerful truth. You see, through all the prior history covered in the movie--taking George from a youth to a middle-aged husband and father--he makes sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. He subverts dream after dream for his family, shunting aside his youthful aspirations of grandeur.

And he falls prey to the notion that along the way, as he's put all his goals on ice, that nobody has noticed. Not a single soul appreciates his continual acts of selflessness, whether they resulted from sheer altruism or forced by circumstance.

He suffers in silence. Or so he thinks.

But on Christmas Eve, at the bottom of a very deep pit in which he finds himself, George is shown that despite his conviction that the world doesn't care a fig for his problems, in reality, his situation is quite the opposite.

Mary, his wife, cares. His kids care. His mother cares. Mr. Martini, who he helped out of a slum, cares. Mr. Gower, the druggist he saved from committing a terrible accident, cares. Bert the cop. Ernie the taxi driver. Uncle Billy. Brother Harry. They all care.

And in the tearful final moments of the movie, George knows that despite his constant struggles and his meager income and his battered car and threadbare suits and drafty house, he is, in fact, "...the richest man in town."

His friends show him that. His friends, with whom no man is a failure.

And so I find that lesson hitting home hard this holiday. I have known failure. I've shaken its hand numerous times over the past seven months. But I also have friends--and family--that  have led me to a number of George Bailey Moments. And I am thankful for them.

Oh, how I am thankful.

The various "families" in my life have shown great concern and bountiful compassion: my close-friend family, my dog-class family (human and canine), my church family, my family of former colleagues and professional contacts, my neighborhood family, my extended blood-relation family (cousins and aunts), my college-friends family, my cyber-family.

Even a hodgepodge family of total strangers who have touched me with a kind word or an unexpected smile when I really really needed one.

I am especially appreciative of my nearest-dearest family, the one under my own roof. It has been a long row to hoe, finding my way back to full employment, and it's not over yet. And they have been with me every step of the way. They have endured my impatience, my depression, my tears, my dashed hopes, my laziness (especially with housework), my boredom, my frustrations. They have seen me be scattered, unfocused, and slipshod. They have ridden this horrible roller coaster  out of necessity, not out of choice, and all along the way, they continue to accept, support, love, and nurture me.

Especially my spouse. Eileen and I are approaching 25 years of marriage; our silver anniversary is May 21, 2013. Each day through that quarter century, she has remained true to the vow to love me in good times and in bad. 

Particularly the bad. If on some cosmic beach somewhere there are footprints in the sand where the Lord carries me through the difficulties of life, mine are the combined tracks of Eileen carrying me while the Lord carries her.

So I raise a glass this Thanksgiving to all those families. And am deeply grateful for the George Bailey Moments they provide me.

By all them--all you--I am blessed.

For all them--all you--I am thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Boughs of Folly

The musical Mame includes the well-known song "We Need a Little Christmas." Its appearance in the score occurs just after the crash of the New York Stock Market, and the penniless Mame Dennis is depressed, facing the prospects of a rather dismal Christmas. Believing that an early celebration of Yuletide to be just the thing to lift both her spirits and those of her live-in nephew, she responds immediately and with full force to the idea that it is time to "...haul out the holly, put up the tree before my spirits fall again."

Patrick, her young charge, is baffled by her timeline:

"But Auntie Mame," he counters, "it's one week past Thanksgiving Day now!"

As if to say: Okay, Auntie, I know your daily philosophy is that life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death, but the idea of decorating for Christmas now -- three full weeks before the holiday itself -- is really out there.

Auntie Mame would get along perfectly well with the modern celebration of Christmas, when retailers and theme parks -- and even households! -- think nothing of hauling out an entire forest of holly, well before Thanksgiving. Sometimes in conjunction with Halloween, even.

Don't get me wrong. I adore Christmas decorations, especially the outside displays that brighten up the darkest nights of the year. Those December evenings -- when the sun fades from the sky by 5:00 p.m. -- I love nothing more than driving home and enjoying the inflatable Santas, the trees festooned with thousands of colorful lights, the bunting and ribbons.

I just blanch at the thoughts of them when leaves are still in their full-splendor of color change and the Thanksgiving turkeys are still fattening on the farm.

It wasn't always this way.

Consider the Christmas song "Mistletoe and Holly," as sung by Frank Sinatra, which features this line:

"Then comes the big night/Giving the tree the trim."

Which implies that assembling the Christmas tree and decorating it is an activity for Christmas Eve.

Hollywood bears this out as well. The climax of the Capra classic It's a Wonderful Life shows the Bailey family prepping for Christmas Day by spending the Eve tossing tinsel on the sturdy evergreen standing in the parlor. Of course, that's before the forlorn George decides to check out early.

My parents remember when Christmas Eve preparations for Santa meant tree-trimming that night and not before. Their traditions carried over into our own, and when we were young, we went to bed Christmas Eve with only our stockings hung and the creche set up on a small table in the living room.

Imagine our wonder -- miracle of miracles -- when we pounded down the stairs the next morning and saw not only our heart's desire in the toy department, but also a tree gleaming with lights and ornaments, and all kinds of other foo-faws making the living room a red-and-green wonderland.

Of course Santa was real. Who else could pull off that kind of magic in just one night?

I'm not even sure when all this started to change. Of course the retailers played a role. Black Friday isn't called Black Friday for nothing.

The availability of artificial trees had to have played a role as well; after all, a cut tree wouldn't survive being indoors for six solid weeks.

But the biggest culprit is probably our modern world's constant time-crunch. Christmas Eve means cooking and cleaning and church and large dinners and family visits and travel and packing the car and picking up relatives from the airport and wrapping last-minute presents and jamming Locking Tab A into Holding Gasket B and who's got time to put up a tree in all that mayhem?

So we'll back it up a day.

A week.

A month.

It all starts to blur together, increasing our slide toward Hallothanskmas, that mishmash of holiday observances that takes the separate traditions of October, November, and December, places them in a Cuisinart, and whirls them all together.

The true shame of this earlybirdism is that the holidays grow wearisome rather quickly. The earlier we jump the gun on Christmas, the earlier it collapses into a din of repetitive Christmas songs, congealed egg nog, and candy cane comas.

It's Noel nullified. Over before it even begins.

Just consider how many tattered trees find their way curbside -- cast aside for the trash truck -- even before the new year. Nothing to me is more depressing than a December 26th marked by naked Christmas trees, stripped of ornaments and lights and wearing just a few shreds of tinsel, tipped over at the end of a driveway like a drunken fratboy the day after a party.

But I suppose it's all part of time marching on. Of course the Christmas decorations have to go (except in certain households, where they stay up year-round, but that's another issue altogether).

By the time the sun sets on Christmas Day, Valentines is a scant 49 days away.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name

I have renamed my blog.

It took the comment of a long-ago friend to point out the shortcomings with the former title, but once she did, I agreed 100%.

The phrase "It wasn't enough" was among the parting words from my former place of full-time employment. It was uttered in April when I was cut loose. That departure came after a period during which I was told (and believed, color me naive) that my extra efforts could actually save my position. In assessing the results, it was determined by the Powers That Be that I had fallen short.

"We know you tried really hard. But it wasn't enough."

Stuck for a title to my new blog, the time for which was afforded by my lack of full-time employment, I put the phrase to use, hoping to sap it of its power the way that racist and sexist labels are often re-defined by the people to whom they're meant to slur.

It never really worked out that way.

I see now that I was becoming trapped by it. Those offhand words -- and all they signified -- were boxing me in.

And funny enough, I'm sure my employer long ago put me in its rear view mirror and zoomed onward to the next set of meetings, projects, conference calls, sales pitches, product launches, and deadlines.

While I remained in the past. Even if it were just from the standpoint of this blog. Every time I launched a new posting through Facebook or Twitter, there it was: It Wasn't Enough.

A message wrapped in a three-day old flounder, reeking of rot and buzzing with flies.

Well, no more.

I'm looking upward, onward, forward. I like the new name -- the hope that it engenders, the positive outlook, the anticipation of things to come.

Being unemployed has opened me to dozens of pieces of advice. One of the most compelling also came from a friend (not the same person who pointed out her displeasure with my former blog's name, but someone just as insightful).

She told me this: "Be the man you are now, right at this moment, with all your experience and insight and talent and wit and drive. Not the person you were back in April when you were cut loose."

My former blog name -- a big fat albatross that I wore like a cowbell -- was a huge part of who I was in April.

But it is not who I am in November. Or who I will be in December. Or next year. Or next decade. Or beyond that.

Welcome to my newly named blog.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Death, There Is Your Sting

My head hurts. My heart hurts.

I have just come back from the hospital where my sister-in-law, Kathy Morris Weckerly, is dying.

Cancer is killing her. Or the chemo designed to fight the cancer. Doesn't matter, really. The cause won't change the outcome, which is that, at age 54, after dealing with this enemy since her 20s, she will lose this battle.

Kathy has been hospitalized since the end of September, put there originally by fluid that accumulated in her lungs. Barely one month prior, we were together in Ocean City, NJ, where she fared well, despite needing to take a nap or two during the day.

Isn't that what being at the shore is all about anyway?

Eight weeks afterward, neither Ocean City nor Kathy are the sameHow quickly things change.

Kathy came into our lives at a time when it seemed we all needed her. My brother had a rocky first marriage. We didn't care for his first wife much -- less so when she left him, taking every possession they co-owned. He arrived home from work one day and knew that the relationship was over when he found the house completely emptied, save for a lawn chair and a disconnected phone cord.

Hell apparently hath no fury like a moving man's daughter's scorn.

Paul was down and out. His fractured relationship with my parents -- born of rebellious teen years -- had caused rifts that had never quite healed. So it wasn't as if he were going to become a baby-boomerang, an adult child moving back in with mom and dad, thanks to economic setbacks.

Into this brokenness, Kathy wandered. I believe they met in a bar or something, and she could see from early on that he was at the bottom of a very deep well. Patiently, subtly, cautiously, she led him out. He rebuilt his life, starting on the inside. When sufficiently bolstered, he began rebuilding bridges on the outside.

Eventually, Kathy brought him back into the fold of our family. Best, it was a two-for-one deal, for with him came her.

Her last hurdle was to convince him to get married, a convention he had sworn off years ago. This iceberg, too, melted under her warm smile, quick laugh, and openness.

Kathy embraced all of us, warts and all. She ingratiated herself to my parents, to Eileen and me, and eventually to our kids.

Even our pets loved her. She often told the story of her first dinner with her soon-to-be in-laws. Kathy learned quickly that for the most part, where my Dad went, so, too did his dog, Murphy, a thoroughly lovable, floppy-eared, mildly disobedient Basset Hound.

During that dinner, Dad lost track of Murphy. Kathy soon found him: He was half-standing on a kitchen chair, devouring an entire pound of butter she had left in the open.

Didn't bother her. She laughed then and continued to laugh about that incident.

Our kids came along. They adored her, too. She was unable to have children on her own, but that didn't slow her from being the best aunt a trio of nieces could ask for.

Medically, Kathy was a continual yin and yang. Some days good. Some days worrisome. Never to burden anyone with her issues, she downplayed everything. "I'm okay," she'd comment. "They're watching x, y, or z, but I'm not too concerned about it."

She helped immeasurably when we were forced to bid my Dad goodbye.

She then shouldered much responsibility with my mother's needs, as Mom tried -- and ultimately failed -- to live alone. Through this trying time, Kathy was the perfect blend of pragmatism and humor; she either knew exactly what to do to solve a difficulty, or she knew the exact comment that would cause a chuckle and break the tension.

She was there 100% when Mom left us, too.

Family was crucial to Kathy. No bother was a bother if it involved family. And she was abundant with family. Her birth mother passed away when she was quite young. Overwhelmed, presumably, he father almost allowed the family to crack apart, but he eventually remarried and things stabilized. 

Then along came my brother Paul and our crew.

She made time for all, attending each birthday party, Christmas dinner, Confirmation, dance recital, and Communion along the way.

It was only this past April that she slowed down. The cancer getting active throughout her body, and the chemo she fought so hard to avoid all her life finally became a necessity.

The effects were swift and drastic. Unable to manage her work, she went on medical leave. She continued doing her best through the summer, feeling well enough to join us at the beach. Beyond that, she and Paul were planning an Aruba trip in October, and we all crossed fingers that she would be well enough to go.

She wasn't. Her kidney performance got shaky. A lung collapsed. She was just on the verge of recovering from these two setbacks when the bottom dropped out.

Scans and tests confirmed the worst. The cancer was back, it was spreading, and it was proving to be as stubborn as hell.

This past weekend, her blood pressure plummeted, the result of internal bleeding. Her doctors examined her through an endoscope to see if there were some way of stemming the tide, perhaps surgically. But there was none. The cancer -- or the chemo -- was leading to a wholesale breakdown of the structures within her organs, causing massive bleeding.

Bowels. Liver. Pancreas. Spleen. Lung. Brain. All teeming with a wildfire that could not be controlled.

It is only a matter of time before she escapes the confines of her failing body. At that moment, her bright spirit will soar onward. We wept over the initial news, and I am sure that when the final result is confirmed, we will weep again.

One more loss in a series of losses; one more exit from our lives in short proximity to the other exits from our lives. So arbitrary. So unfair.

I comfort myself with a few thoughts, though: My stint of unemployment provided  opportunities to visit her during times that I would otherwise be chained to a desk. During one of those visits -- it was just she and I -- I thanked her. I thanked her for bringing my brother back to us. I told her that my parents would forever hold her in their hearts because of the manner in which she helped heal that rift.

She nodded. She understood. It probably didn't have to be vocalized, such was the power of her insight into family dynamics. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I was able to say something so heartfelt and full of gratitude.

I also find peace in knowing that there are legions of loved ones waiting her arrival. My parents are among them.

And another soul...

A certain thoroughly lovable, floppy eared, mildly-disobedient, butter-eating Basset Hound.

Godspeed, Kathy. We love you. We will miss you. And we are richer for having known you.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Each [Dog] Touches So Many Others, He Leaves an Awful Hole When He's Not Around

Tomorrow -- Nov 03 -- marks the two-year anniversary of the loss of a very close friend of mine.

He left this world very suddenly, almost shockingly so.

He suffered an ailment that, despite my closeness to him, I was unaware of. If he felt poorly, he never mentioned it. But that was his way, really.

By the time I knew what was going on, it was too late.

He was a study in interesting contrasts. He could be fiercely independent and sometimes aloof, but to his close friends, he was gentle, warm, and kind. He could be stand-offish to strangers, but once he let you into his circle, you were a pal for life and could do no wrong.  

My children grew up with him nearby. He enriched their young lives, both physically and emotionally. Physically, he helped the youngest learn to walk, offering steady support as she toddled along. Emotionally, he was a constant presence, an open ear, a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.

He and I had long, deep, philosophical conversations on a steady basis. He listened well --very well -- and often responded to my problems with a silence that enabled me to figure things out for myself. A great gift, that.

He helped me reach beyond my own bubble and make friends that I would have never encountered otherwise. Although he is gone now, those friendships remain rock solid, and I expect them to stretch well into the future.

He helped me set goals, which we achieved together. I was very proud of our accomplishments as a team, none of which I could even have dreamed of before he became a part of my life.

Our relationship wasn't always butterflies and rainbows. We differed in approaches, opinions, habits, and details, and often it took a sturdy hand to show him that he had crossed a line. He never held it against me, though, appreciating the boundaries.

He had faults. He was not always friendly with those who were like him. I commented on his behavior often by saying: "He will never start a fight, but he will certainly end one."

Little kids loved him; my dad thought he was a prince; strangers who met him on the street would comment about his handsomeness; I still miss him on a daily basis.

He was Wesley, our black Labrador Retriever.

He came to our home in 2000 at eight weeks, when Amanda and Claire were little kids and Kristin was barely on the horizon. 

He had some health problems early on, including a heart murmur that turned out in adulthood to be tricuspid valve dysplasia (TVD),  an abnormality in one of the flaps of the heart that caused a little backwash of blood with each beat. As he aged, we addressed this issue pharmacologically.

His behavior as a teen was reprehensible, to the point that he was on the verge of losing his happy home and being returned to the breeder. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, including that supplied by our obedience trainer. Her advice and constant attention brought him around, and I remain grateful to her to this day for her insight, wisdom, and patience.

In adulthood, Wesley and I had some limited success with the American Kennel Club's program of obedience titles. He earned a Companion Dog designation, meaning he passed a number of tests designed to evaluate how well we worked together as a team. He also earned a title in Rally Obedience, which is similar but involves doing different behaviors on a course, dictated by a series of signs.

The last phase of his life was as a therapy dog. We were part of a program called DART, which stands for Dog Assistant Reading Trainers. Each week, we met at the local library to work with children who were having difficulty reading. The crux of the program is the fact that in non-threatening environments such as that created when reading to a dog, kids who struggle verbally improve dramatically.

All it really involved for Wesley was lying on the floor, next to a kid, and listening to him/her read for 15 minute intervals.

He loved the attention.

The years crept up on Wes rather stealthily. At age two, his muzz began showing a few gray hairs mixed into the weave. By seven or eight, this frosting was showing up on his haunches and between his toes.

He remained sprightly. After a snowfall, he was fond of leaping through the drifts and digging tunnels with his snout. And he never lost his interest in swimming, taking each opportunity he could to paddle through the water, come ashore to shake vigorously (the twizzle of his tail quivering last), and then dive in again for more.

But as the years wore on, his naps became longer and more sound. And I could tell that the winter chill was beginning to settle into his bones.

The end was ugly. A few days prior to his departure, he got totally disoriented during a walk around our neighborhood. It was as if he had suffered a stroke or something; he just stood on the sidewalk with a confused look on his face, not seeming to know where he was or what he was doing.

It frightened me. He wouldn't even walk, just stood stock-still.

In a few seconds, though, it passed, and we came home.

A handful of days later, he stopped eating. And the morning of Nov 03, he wouldn't go outside at all, unable to rise from his sleeping spot on the floor. I called the vet and got an emergency appointment. Somehow by the grace of God, I got him in the car and over to the office.

Tests followed. The vet was unsure what the issue was until he did a CAT scan and found a large, ugly tumor on Wesley's spleen. Worse, it had ruptured. I was told that even if it had been whole, removing it was a dangerous and often fatal proposition. But since it had ruptured...

I was numb. I knew this day was coming eventually, but I had no idea it was that day. I called Eileen at work and we wept. She offered to take off and come and share this final farewell with me, but I declined. This was my task to do, and I would do it alone. We were ushered into a separate room, and Wesley Matilda Murphy was set free.

The outpouring was enormous -- more than I could have dreamed. Wes had led me to an online community of Labrador Retriever owners, and, in sharing his escapades over the years, we had become very close to the fellow owners there. Their grief was almost as compelling as mine.

And our obedience class friends were all shaken. Even though Wesley and I hadn't competed in years, we continued to go to class. It was good for him to continue to sharpen his skills. It was good for me to get outside, bond with others, have a laugh or two.

Wesley gave many gifts over the course of his life. I like to think of the kids he helped as readers, that perhaps they're on their way to high school now, bolstered academically by a paunchy guy with a big black dog that listened to their stories. 

As a final act, his remains were donated to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. I had been contacted with the initial diagnosis of TVD and told that, should I choose, the veterinary community would find enormous value in the ability to study his heart post-mortem. I decided that day that if I could spare some other family the difficulty of dealing with this disease, Wes' demise would have a benefit.

Wes' heart was too big for one family, anyway.

Wes changed our household. In fact, he continues to have an influence. Not only are we still finding errant black hairs nestled into the nap of the carpets but we also have been so indoctrinated into the joys of owing a dog -- a Labrador Retriever at that -- that we've re-upped for this adventure with another dog. Parker, a yellow Lab, is quite unlike Wesley was, but he has also found a way into our home and our hearts, thanks to the path his predecessor forged.

So tomorrow, as usual. I will be up before the sun, leash in hand, dog trotting at my side. I will smile as he sniffs from adventure to adventure, prancing happily through the fallen leaves, nose working double-time at the scents brought in by the autumn breeze. 

But if I'm a little quieter tomorrow, a little grateful to be somewhat on my own, a little blue, a little distracted, a little wistful...


You'll understand why.