“Put Up Your Umbrella” Breathe Again

February 6, 2008
Megan & Winnie - February 6, 2008

Even when Megan was in hospice we tried to be ‘in the act of living’ and not the mindset of dying until we knew she was clearly taking her last breath.  Her friend Mallory had just adopted a Tea Cup Maltese, and Megan wanted one – bad.  I knew I could not afford such a pricey little bag of fur, especially with all of Megan’s medical expenses, so Megan contacted the breeder of her first dog (Buffy, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) to ask if they had a new litter of Spaniels.  Bill and Penny responded to Megan that they were no longer breeding King Charles Spaniels.

But then this confidential e-mail arrived to my e-mail box a week later:

Good morning,  I’m Bill Fattig…..Buffy’s grandpa. While Penny and I have been praying and pulling for Megan we’ve felt very helpless.  I know you understand. We have a little Maltese female about nine weeks old.  We were wondering if this is a good time to offer her to you and Megan as a birthday gift for Megan.  I can only imagine the stress you’re under right now so if you think this might be bad timing I totally understand.  Please let me know.  Bill

What were the chances that they were now breeding the very dog that Megan wanted?  The coincidence was uncanny, and unless I was The Grinch, how could I say no?  It was my girl’s dream come true.

My response was:

Dear Bill,

I just think, sight unseen, this is an answer to Megan’s prayers and a gift from God.  The more I think about it, she has been talking about it (getting another puppy) round about–but not wanting to put any pressure on me.  It would make her REALLY happy.

I already get up every night to check on Megan, so letting a puppy out would not change my sleeping pattern of being half-awake anyway.  I trust you know time is of the essence–Megan is very ill. While I certainly could have someone come pick the dog up, life is about relationships and my hope is that you could come here and surprise Megan.  Thank you from my heart, for your generous offer.  Valerie

And Megan’s reaction to getting the dog:

Bill and Penny, OMG!!! Are you kidding me!! I have been wanting a new dog to sleep with me but I didn’t want to burden my mom with helping and the impending “what if I don’t get better?”

Can I say yes!!!  What do I name her?  The tears are streaming down my face and I am speechless. Thank you so much.  I don’t know much about the breed except they are too cute for words.  Do they attach to a person?  How can I even thank you?  I can’t believe that I checked my email now…my mom just told me I am picking up the dog tomorrow with my dad in York and Penny will be there.  I can hardly contain myself; my heart is beating so fast…THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU a billion!  Love, Megan

On February 6, 2008, forty-five days before Megan’s death, Winnie arrived.

Winnie - The Ride Home to Omaha

As Megan’s primary caregiver, I did not need a puppy.  I didn’t care how stinking cute it was.  But Megan needed the puppy so for a few moments a day she could feel like she was caring for someone, instead of everyone caring for her.  I was careful to not bond with Winnie, as I wanted her undying affection to be directed toward Megan.  I was also imagining Winnie going on the auction block immediately after Megan’s death.  Her departure would best enable my grieving process of lying in bed with the covers over my head, catching up on four years of lost sleep.

In the days following the puppy’s arrival, Megan made me promise I would take care of Winnie all her dog-gone years.  This was not an easy request to grant.  After my daughter passed away, that tiny thing would faithfully wake me at 6:30 a.m. so she could dash outside to relieve her pea size bladder.  Winnie found herself most at home ferociously barking to get my attention for no good reason.  If ferocious is extreme fierceness we should have named her “Fierce”.  Unaware that she weighs less than 5 pounds, Winnie was running the show.  Yet against all odds, Winnie made me love her, and I was beginning to realize that she was the living legacy of Megan’s refusal to give up.

Despite the Winnie distraction, in the days after Megan died I found myself struggling to catch my breath.  I even wondered if I was having a heart attack.  I was still sleep deprived, as methodically, like clock work, I would wake up every night at 4:00 a.m.  That was the time, for two years, that I would rise to dash across the house with Megan’s morphine or other assorted drugs.  4 – 8 – 12 – 4 – 8 – 12.  The a.m. or p.m. didn’t seem to matter, as every four hours I was her drug runner.  Even when Hospice took over her medication through an i.v. pump, I continued to wake up at 4:00 a.m.  Then I wasn’t running with drugs…I was running to see if she was alive, or to see if she was awake, or to tell her just one more time that I loved her.

In the months after Megan’s death, 4:00 a.m. still came.  Sometimes I would check the time, but the glance to my cell phone just confirmed what I already knew – it was 4:00 a.m.  I no longer needed to move out of bed.  My job seemed to just breathe.  It was as though if I didn’t calculate to take a breath, my body would stop breathing, stop living….and part of me didn’t care.

Completely house broken, by age 7 months, Winnie no longer tolerated being in her kennel at night, with Megan’s first dog Buffy (the real dog) lounging on my bed.  The idea of dogs sleeping on a bed must creep out many a reader.  Dogs lick their butts and eat poop in the yard.  My dogs are no exception.  The paradox of my germ-phobe, neat freak existence during Megan’s chemo being replaced by two scraggly dogs on my bed reminded me that I sure didn’t get what I wanted in life.

Then one night, it happened.  Four a.m., for so long a time of darkness and grief, brought with it the redemptive quiet of the morning.  I woke up to discover a 4.2 pound Tea Cup Maltese curled up on my stomach, lulled by the motion of my breathing.  The dog that I thought guarded the gates of hell was guarding my every breath, and I fell quickly back to sleep.


It would be just a few days later that a friend would point out to me that if you have panic attacks, they recommend you lie down and put a 4 to 6 pound weight on your stomach to help you breathe deeply through your stomach and not through your chest.    Is it that Winnie knew I needed her help?  Or did Megan know I would need Winnie?

Blanketed in love, a little bag of fur that I now adore helped me breathe again.

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  1. It’s been quite a while since we’ve been in contact. I love your writing even though I cried the whole way through it. I am so glad that Winnie has been of help to you and Megan. It was amazing how that arrangement came about. I have never felt so strong about anything in my life. It’s like God told us to give this darling puppy to you and Megan. I feel blessed to have had the honor to meet Megan and give her a hug. God bless you and may you continue to write and heal.
    With love,

  2. Val,
    I am deeply moved at reading your moving and gut-wrenchingly honest thoughts and feelings. Your words are powerful and I hope that there is healing for you as you write them. I pray that others will, through your writings, learn how to reach out to those who are going through tragic illnesses with family members. I have many more thoughts than this, but we will have to get together and talk in person. For now, know my admiration and love are with you.

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Article by: Valerie Bourdain