The past decade has been the most monumental in terms of the changes that have happened in my life. Ten years ago this week I found out my mother had terminal cancer and less than five months later she was gone. As I reflect, I realize now what a life altering event that was for me, quite possibly the most influential on my life thus far aside from actually being born. It was the guiding beacon that would lead me down life’s path to where I am today….and particularly key in leading me to the plant-based/vegan diet and lifestyle I have been following for 8 years now.
The New Year, and especially new decade, is often a time I choose for introspection and reflection. I’m filled with a rush of conflicting emotions as I contemplate the past ten years. From losing my mom to cancer in 2010, followed by a rough patch but eventually landed on my feet, then losing my dad a short couple of years later, to meeting Anna and welcoming our two wonderful children into our lives, to losing my furry BFF, Murphy the beagle, last year who was with me through it all; from traveling adventures around the world and back, learning about my family roots in Croatia (and I will go to India this coming decade to connect to the other side!), to fulfilling some artistic endeavors while continuing to pursue others, it’s been a wild ride through peaks and valleys, to say the least. Regardless, I’m grateful for the lessons, the love, and the life experiences.
My Mother’s Death:
Nothing can prepare you for losing your mother. It’s a very specific kind of agonizingly painful grief that only those who’ve gone through it can understand. The passing of the one who gave you life and nurtured you in the way only a mother can is one of the worst losses one can experience. And the younger you are when it happens, the more shocking it is. I happened to be very close to my mom and spoke to her almost every day, so it was that much more intense when she was gone. The pain is still there, ebbing and flowing with life’s comings and goings. Sometimes it pops up unexpectedly when I’m driving down the highway, other times it’s the holidays that can trigger a flood of feelings acutely to the surface. But it’s the memories in the making that are most difficult for me to bear. Particularly the experiences she’d never have with the grandkids she never met. If there’s one thing I was most guilty about after she passed it was that I never gave her grandchildren, despite her often badgering me about it. Little did she know, less than 4 years after she passed away, our daughter Amalya would be born.
One of the biggest lessons I learned about grieving during the aftermath of her death was that it’s OK to ask for help. My initial instinct was to shove it down, be strong for my family, but that landed me in some rough waters. It was grief therapy, especially grief support groups, that got me through the darkest times. I’ve gone to grief support groups ever since and it’s been extremely helpful to process the loss with other people in similar situations. Everybody grieves in their own way and that’s OK, but moving forward I now had somewhat of a barometer of when I needed to get some help. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to deal with it, have a good cry or laugh or scream or whatever, so you can move on in a healthy way. And other modalities like seeking out my mom’s heritage by upholding promises I made to her in her last few years, they kept her with me and helped keep me moving onward.
You can read about my adventures in discovering my mother’s roots in Croatia here:
My mom’s death wasn’t only an awful experience of grief, guilt and pain, for me it was further marred by this sense of utter helplessness to be able to help her. Terminal cancer is a nasty prognosis to swallow and I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be the one on the receiving end of it, nor do I want to try and even think about it. Being the family member of someone with cancer was way closer than I want to ever be to it. As much as I always thought of myself as “healthy” and someone who ate an impeccable diet, the research I had done after her diagnosis revealed otherwise.
When my mom was diagnosed, with every waking free second I was doing research on how we could fight this thing. From dietary to alternative treatments and supplements, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), to Ayurveda, and everything in between, I was looking into it. I read medical studies and journals, I watched documentaries and videos of symposiums, spoke to various experts, and more.
The one thing that I could not ignore was that almost all roads I explored led to a more plant-based diet.
Could it be? As someone who firmly believed that those who followed a vegan diet were experiencing some form of insanity, I was taken aback by this discovery. While I tried to get my mom to eat healthier, even made her all sorts of salads and health shakes the last few months, she was too far gone and sadly had given up emotionally by then, so I was unable to save her.
The next several years after that I continued to research obsessively, devour whatever research I could get my hands on, and speak to medical experts – both western and eastern/alternative. I wasn’t going to let any other family member or myself go down this horrible road to a final demise. Watching the human body slowly shut down, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, is excruciating. I held her hand through most of it all the way to the last minute and I don’t recommend anyone suffer through that.
Trust me when I say that no morsel of food, taste sensation or brainwashed cultural diet is worth that kind of suffering.
I had become somewhat of an aficionado at the point when I finally decided that I would attempt to go fully plant-based. I transitioned over the course of a year – going pescatarian (no meat, just seafood), then vegetarian (eggs & dairy allowed), and finally fully plant-based (vegan).
The drastic positive changes in my health and energy levels would not have been possible if I hadn’t switch to plant-based.
I just hit my eighth year of being vegan and I would not be experiencing this level of amazing health if I hadn’t learned those lessons through losing my mom.
It’s interesting how life works that way sometimes. My entire perspective was shattered and shifted to a whole new way of thinking. During this time my compassion for animals and the environment increased exponentially. I was always passionate about animals and nature, but I’m on a whole new level of activism and connectedness that would not have happened if she hadn’t passed the way she did.
Once I was back on my feet, life was good and I met Anna. Sparks went off and the rest, as they say, is history. The universe had us on a fast track that neither of us was prepared for, but we were thrust into it nevertheless. I think we’ve done pretty darn well thus far.
One interesting story that I didn’t find out about until Anna was about six months pregnant, was about my mom watching Dancing with the Stars. My dad told me she and him used to watch DWTS and my mom’s favorite dancer was Anna. I had never seen the show and didn’t know that my parents watched it, so it was quite the shock to me. Once again, funny how the universe works…was my mom working some magic from the beyond?
The Death of My Father:
Anna and I went to visit my dad in St. Louis when she was six months pregnant. It was the first, and only, time she met him. We went to dinner a few times, and she got to chat with him quite a bit as he regaled her with stories of his youth when he dabbled in ballroom dancing, a hidden history of his revealed that I’d never heard before. One week later after we arrived back in LA, we got the call that he had died. Although he wasn’t in the best of health, he wasn’t experiencing any urgent major issues when we saw him, so it was still a shock.
It was another rough go for a month as the family dealt with yet another funeral, then handled the affairs one must manage when a parent dies. It’s an awful and horrible experience, although some part of it is cathartic.
Side Note: I highly recommend that everyone pre-pay and plan their own funerals so as to not burden your living loved ones with it while they are grieving your loss.
Anyway, Anna patiently supported from a distance, I didn’t want her to come and put any undue stress on her or the baby. That was a brutal month we both won’t soon forget.
They say as a man, when your father dies, it’s the final step in coming of age as your own man. I can see where that expression is coming from now. It felt like with the snap of a finger I was thrust into the position of family patriarch a mere few months prior to becoming a father. Heavy stuff to process with pressure to match, but we play the cards we’re dealt, right?
Becoming a Dad:
When Amalya was born, I was ready to be a dad, but nothing can really prepare you for the moment you stare into the eyes of your child for the first time. It seismically shifted me, and especially on the coattails of losing my father, there was a roller coaster of feelings and thoughts to process. Anna and I took a step back from the industry for several months and focused on our family. I’m so glad we did that, it brought us closer together as a new family and helped me get my head screwed on straight.
Here’s a blog post I wrote on my first father’s day: http://nevinmillan.com/2014/06/15/first-fathers-day/
I knew I wanted to be a more involved father than my dad was, but would I be up to the task? Watching this tiny nugget turn into a little human and now a bonafide person with her own wants, needs, and desires is nothing short of magical. As much as I so wish my mom and dad could have met her, would I be as good of a father if I hadn’t gone through the pain of losing my parents? It’s a mind-bending conundrum with no real soothing answer, but nonetheless, definitely makes you think about life’s ups and downs and the grand scheme of it all.
You can read more about one of my parental experiences here: http://nevinmillan.com/2018/01/18/a-precious-moment/
Baby Number 2:
A few years later we welcomed our son, Kaspyan. Building the father-son relationship with him that I didn’t really have with my father has been one of the highlights of my life thus far.
While Amalya is more intense, and just like me – basically a mini-me, Kaspyan is more chill, and kind of the yin to my yang. While I’m enjoying every cuddly moment of the baby/toddler phase, I’m excited for when he’ll be old enough for us to have those man-to-man bonding experiences.
One thing about parenting nobody really tells you beforehand is that you learn as much about yourself and life in general as your kids learn from you, probably more. They’re absorbing so much every moment, learning about how the world works, but I swear I’m learning so much more every single day, and I love it. I’m one lucky man!
Here’s another parenting post about having a 2nd child: http://nevinmillan.com/2017/10/02/love-for-a-second-child/
The years in between those major life events I regrouped, recalibrated, adjusted to the new normal. There’s no doubt I’ve changed as a person, as an artist, and continue to evolve. So many lessons learned, so much life packed into a handful of years.
While I’m sad for those souls who’ve passed on, I’m so eternally grateful for our family and the amazing adventures we’ve had. I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings! Sending love and light to all my friends and family who’ve been there for me during the darkest hours, thick and thin, and into the light.
“Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, and filling the emptiness we didn’t ever know we had” – Thom Jones
This quote by writer Thom Jones truly explains how it felt when Murphy and I first met. I was in my early twenties in graduate school at the University of Miami. He was a few months old, spunky little puppy from a litter of four Beagles. He had the most personality from all of them, even at that young age. My girlfriend at the time actually noticed him first, but I fell for him hard. We had gone to “just take a look” at puppies, and of course ended up leaving with him. We had been talking about dogs for months, but the stars aligned and Murphy found us that day, that moment. I remember how he curled up in my lap as I drove home to our house in Miami.
I grew up with animals – cats, dogs, hamsters, birds, rabbits – but they were family pets that we all shared. Something felt different about this one – he was mine (and hers) and we were solely responsible for him. I could feel the love bubbling up minutes after we left with him, I was hooked.
Many are curious how we named him…it’s a silly story, but it is what it is. Growing up with a lot of pets, we usually named them based on some physical quality or personality trait. When we sat down to name him, I noticed that the shape of his puppy head looked just like Eddie Murphy’s head (I’m a huge fan of 1980s/90s Eddie Murphy!). We first considered ‘Eddie’, but decided that didn’t work. When we said ‘Murphy’ out loud, it was perfect.
MURPHY THE PUPPY
For any Beagle parents out there, you know the challenges we faced, but at the time we didn’t quite fully understand what we had gotten ourselves into until we were in it. Beagles are arguably the most adorable puppies with their puppy eyes, prominent little snouts, and massive ears, but wow are they rambunctious and curious beyond anything I had ever encountered. The first couple of nights were brutal because we were “crate training” and he howled almost the entire night. We finally gave in and he ended up in bed with us. Little did I know, almost 18 years later I’d still be snuggling up with my furry best friend.
We were diligent with his puppy training – potty training, obedience training, etc. He would run loose in puppy class and all the other dogs would follow suit. The little guy loved to play and loved being chased, which would carry on throughout his life. But one thing started to stand out – this guy was smart, like really clever. He outsmarted our backyard and dug under a fence to escape – my mom referred to him as our “little rascal Houdini”. He knew just how to work us to get what he wanted – a lesson I’d learn from him and apply to my acting years later. He had become our guide, both physically as well as spiritually. There was a soul and life behind his eyes unlike I had ever noticed in an animal friend before. There was a playful buoyancy to him that was just like a little boy around 5 years old but mixed with a sage elder statesman who knew about life, love, and the beyond. He tapped into a part of my soul and heart that I didn’t know was there and brought out a side of me that I didn’t know I was capable of.
While I always knew I wanted to be a dad one day, aside from helping out a lot with my younger sister growing up, Murphy was my first foray into this phase of life. Not long after he joined us, 9/11 happened. I remember sitting there on my sofa holding him tight wondering what would happen to our world, to society. I wanted to protect him from the potential dangers. Watching the towers falls, the tears from my eyes landed on his little puppy head as I caressed him and promised him I’d keep him safe forever.
MURPHY THE YOUNG BUCK
A couple of years later, Murphy had grown into a strapping lad, clever as can be. He had become quite adept at begging for treats, and tricking us into leaving our food unattended then snatching a bite or two in a moment when we weren’t looking. By that time the relationship with my girlfriend ended, but we both moved to Los Angeles and co-parented him. I was lucky enough to find a house in the middle of Hollywood with a pretty big yard, so his Hollywood years were filled with running around baying (the specific sound only a Beagle makes!) at squirrels and possums.
We’d run to Runyon Canyon and back, go on jogs, hikes, cafes, restaurants, you name it, this dog and I were all over LA attached at the hip. A couple of times he did manage to escape the fence enclosure of our yard and I caught him prancing on the sidewalk next to Sunset Boulevard like a show pony or digging through the neighbor’s cat food. But for the most part, we were buds that spent days and nights together. I remember cuddling with him at night and by the next morning he had claimed 90% of the bed while I was pushed into a little sliver at the edge almost falling off. But I’d wake up smiling every day and for that it was worth it!
One of the most unique aspects about Murphy and our relationship was how we affected other people. While he was still alive, but also after he passed, many people sent me messages about how we inspired them to get a dog. They saw our palpable connection and wanted to find that as well – because I think in life, it’s what we all strive for anyway, isn’t it? Whether it’s to other humans or animals or whatever… that deep love, that prescient bond – isn’t that what life’s about? I haven’t counted, but it’s got to be close to twenty or so, and that’s just the people that told me, I’m sure there are more that haven’t yet mentioned it to me. I’m so moved at how he and I had that kind of affect for people.
Murphy was one of those beings that had a distinct presence; you knew when he entered a room, unless he didn’t want you to know and he was in spy-mode, gathering reconnaissance for his latest “Operation Steal Food” mission. At any moment he was capable of loving on you, coercing for a neck rub, begging for a morsel of your food, or prompting you to chase him. But it’s the tough times he was there for me that I’ll always remember.
When my mom got diagnosed with cancer, I was in shock and denial as many people are when that happens. But my brother and I cancelled our lease in LA, put our stuff in storage, hopped in the car with Murphy and drove cross country back to St. Louis to be with her. Those 4 months were some of the toughest I’ve had thus far in my life and Murphy kept me solid through all of it. Knowing I had to be responsible for him, walks, feeding, exercise, and more – it kept me going. He was that bright beacon of life when I was cloaked in despair. I even took him to the hospice facility she was in a few times to cheer her up, and some of the other patients too.
When I came back to the house in the middle of the night after she passed, I held him tight and cried my heart out. It was a private moment, one of countless, that I had shared with him, and only him. I hugged him tight because of the grief of having just lost my mother whom I was very close to, but also because being freshly faced with the finality and permanence of death reminded me that one day I’d live to lose him too, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it.
Fast forward a couple more years… I meet Anna, who unbeknownst to me at the time would become my life partner and mother to my children. When he first met her he went bonkers – he’d put on shows for her, running around the room, jumping on the sofa, chasing his tail – it was hilarious. Then he’d nuzzle up to her. Murphy had become somewhat of a litmus test for my dating life – if he didn’t like someone or someone didn’t like him, it was never going to happen. But he definitely gave his “bone-a-fied”, “paw of approval” with her! ;-P
When we got pregnant and planned to move in with each other, we hit a snag. Anna was allergic to most dogs, and while she did love Murphy, she could only take him in doses and being in a house all day with him would prove to be extremely difficult. It had become a situation that I didn’t know how we’d get through. Murphy and I were a package deal, he was an extension of me, so he goes where I go, but this concept was a bit tough for someone who has never had a pet to understand. We tried keeping him outside in the yard for longer stretches, but that lasted barely a day due to his incessant barking and howling – he belonged inside with his family and he and I both knew it! I promised her I’d figure it out.
I bought very fancy air purifiers and had her try a bunch of homeopathic pet allergy treatments. We kept him quarantined to one part of the house and over the course of a month, widened out that area to where he eventually had free reign, except for the master bedroom. By the grace of the universe, Anna acclimated to him and disaster averted! While I had to give up the night snuggles with him, it was a compromise and our family is better for it. She had thought she could never have a pet, and this gift he gave her was truly beautiful. She grew to love him and built her own connection with him and it was lovely to witness.
When my father passed away a few months before Amalya was born and right in the thick of Anna and I trying to figure out this situation, Murphy once again was there for me. I had to leave him with a friend while I went back to St. Louis to deal with the aftermath of my father’s affairs, but when I came back I really leaned on him emotionally. I was becoming a father, but no father to look to for guidance. It was a terrifying time and the holidays were upon us by then. I remember locking myself in a room with Murphy and refusing to come out…I didn’t want to deal with anyone or anything except him. He was the only thing I felt I could rely on in that dark time, and we were a team, us against the world.
I’m still trying to get my bearings without him. Adjusting to life without someone that I’ve been basically inseparable from and shared intimate parts of my life with for almost 18 years is tough. It’s difficult to capture in words, but it’s like losing an arm or something. Life will go on and I’ll figure it out, but a piece of me will always be aching, I’ll just learn to live with that ache.
As Murphy got up there in age, I had always thought the ship had sailed for him to ever meet my kids. But as some may know, our first little bundle of joy was a bit of a surprise. So not only was I ecstatic (and terrified!) about becoming a dad, I was even more excited for that child to meet my best friend and it filled me with such joy.
The relationship that Amalya developed with Murphy was amazing. From the beginning she loved him so much she’d smother him with love and hugs and kisses. He was a bit standoffish, not crazy about her, but he tolerated her. She affectionately referred to him as “Boppy” when she was learning to speak. Over the course of a few years, he steadily warmed up to her and by the end of his life he truly did love her, I saw it and loved every second of it. Our second child, Kaspyan, also grew to love him. He called Murphy “Gaga”, so adorable. He lay with him, pet him, it was so sweet. I’m grateful he got to meet and be affected by Murphy, however I can’t help but be a little sad about him not getting more time with my best friend.
Murphy had a plethora of nicknames. ‘Murph-dog’ or ‘The Gentleman’ were the most common. He’s also been known as ‘Man’, ‘the Monkey’, ‘Murphalufugus’, Murph-its, or simply Murph as many knew him as. One friend used to bizarrely refer to him as ‘Bruce’. Aside from the silly names, he was just my main dude, my little man.
Oh, the outfits I put this guy in, despite his “Are you f-ing kidding me Dad?” looks, ha! But he did love his sweaters when he was older and we went to snowy areas. I always had a fantasy of making a calendar of him as different characters from movies – like the ridiculous dog owners do in the movie “Best in Show”. I envisioned him dressed as Indiana Jones – aka “Indiana Bones” – but I could never find the right outfit anywhere, and never motivated enough to make my own. I guess some other dog in the future will have to bear the brunt of my dog-dress up obsession. For now torturing my kids with dress up photo shoots will suffice.
At one point when I was still in Miami, a “dog agent” spotted Murphy at a park and thought he had some great markings and wanted to get him trained to be a set dog. We looked into it, but the time and financial investment wasn’t worth it. But a few years later when I was in LA producing and starring in my first short film in 2005, the director and I stuck Murphy in a scene and he was great! (you can view the short here: https://vimeo.com/nevinmillan/balance)
Several years later he was in the opening credits sequence of a comedy pilot I co-produced starring Fred Savage and Stephen Weber called “Being Bin Laden”. And finally, he was most recently in a project I acted in this summer. They were viral marketing videos connected to a movie called “Alien Theory”. The videos haven’t been released yet, but when they are, I’ll be sure to link to them here. You can view his IMDb page here: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2385243/
I’d also rehearse acting scenes with him – dogs are quite present and in the moment, so I’d read to him with a voice recording of the other lines and he would be right there with me, haha…maybe a little confused, but super interested!
I’ve taken road trips all over this country and even some of Europe. I think the only places in the US I haven’t driven extensively is the Northwest, Alaska and very north Northeast. For many of those US trips, I had my furry co-pilot in tow.
One of the most epic road trips of my life was one I took with him a few months after my mother passed away. I was making my way back to Los Angeles after being gone for awhile. Two road warriors taking on the American west, we even had matching collar/wrist cuff!
I left St. Louis, Missouri, went up through Iowa, Minnesota, and into South Dakota where my car broke down. The adventures we had during this road trip were so significant that I’ve written a screenplay and working on a novel loosely inspired by our experience. It’s too long to get into on this post, but due to the car breaking down we ended up being stranded in South Dakota for much longer than I had planned and we hiked all over the Black Hills, saw Mount Rushmore, slept under the stars together, communed with strangers, made friends, ran alongside a Bison farm, toured Custer State Park, went to Deadwood and got caught up in the famous Sturgis Bike Rally. After that we hiked the Rocky Mountains, Badlands, Grand Canyon, quick hike in Utah, Joshua Tree, and we even stopped in Vegas for a few nights (a friend was staying in a dog-friendly hotel and we met up). All in all, the journey was epic and he was my partner through all of it.
One time when we were hiking in the Rocky Mountains – we were on a trail in one of the National Forests and I guess the trail wasn’t the best marked, so I got kind of lost. The sun was going to set soon and I was trying to find my way back down to the trailhead, but kept getting turned around. This was in 2010 so cell phone signals weren’t as good and GPS wasn’t working. I kept trying to go in one direction, but Murphy kept leading me the opposite way. I was certain I was headed the right direction but he refused to follow me. He literally pulled me the other way. I finally gave in and followed him…low and behold, he was right! He guided me out of a sticky situation that could’ve ended up much worse; we were in the middle of nowhere Rocky Mountains outside of Boulder.
Other than that mishap and dealing with the broken down car, some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life were on that trip. Sleeping in the open air with my best friend, pondering life, wondering what the future would bring. I don’t know what else could come close to that level of simple bliss. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that level of loyalty and companionship with another being or soul in my life, thus far. He knew I needed this experience, and he stepped up to the plate and knocked my life back into place.
CARS & BOATS
When I arrived back to LA after my mom passed, and after that epic road trip adventure, our journey back to normalcy was just beginning. I had arranged to crash at a friend’s place for a few months while I got back on my feet. Unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances, that arrangement fell through last minute, leaving me high and dry. I had spent most of my savings on alternative treatments for my mother (which are not covered by insurance) and sustaining my family and myself during that time and I was not bringing in any income, so the coffers were pretty low. To make matters worse, that time was shortly after the financial collapse of 2008, which my family did not come out of very well. Things were tight all around, financially. And as anyone who has lived in LA knows, finding a place to live is not easy, especially if you’re a jobless thespian. I ended up finding a perfect place, but it wasn’t going to become available for another 5 months or so.
I managed to couch surf for a few weeks at friends’ places that were dog friendly, but those opportunities eventually dried up. I popped into a cheap motel every now and then, but in LA they are not that “cheap” and most are not dog friendly. So for about a month and a half, I ended up living out of my car. Yes, Murphy and I were basically homeless.
It’s illegal in LA to sleep in your car, so I’d have to drive up into the Hollywood Hills and stealthily sleep in my car on small side streets amongst the uber-affluent (ironically). I made a bed of blankets in the back of my beat up old Jeep Grand Cherokee on top of my belongings and Murphy and I cuddled up together night after night. I never told anyone about this, I was too ashamed.
Many friends had places I could crash, but none of them were dog friendly. Every now and then a night or two would work out somewhere, but it was never a long stretch. And I didn’t want to put him up in a boarding place either, nor could I have afforded it at the time. He was my responsibility and I’d stick with him no matter what, that’s how we rolled.
I would wake up and workout at parks in the morning, freshen up in park bathrooms, post up at a coffee shop and apply to jobs from my computer, do graphic/web/design work, go to meetings, auditions, making sure everywhere I went was dog friendly. Aside from dealing with the fallout of loved ones dying, it was the most challenging time of my life.
Finally after about six weeks of that, a friend’s dad allowed me to stay on his sailboat in Marina Del Rey in exchange for graphic and web design work. So for about another six weeks, Murphy and I lived on a boat together, and it was pretty damn amazing. Little trivia here – the boat we lived on was the very same boat that was used at the end of the movie “50 First Dates”. Anyway, he and I slept so well rocking to sleep on the water and as small as that boat cabin was, I was so appreciative to not be sleeping in the back of my car.
When that arrangement ended, some lovely friends who I hadn’t been in contact with reconnected with me and they let me crash at their dog friendly house for a couple of months until the apartment I had been waiting for became available. Life has had many ups and downs, and this experience was filled with many downs, but through all of it Murphy and I were a team, inseparable, unrelenting, indivisible. I shed many tears of shame clutching him tightly at night under the covers in the back of that Jeep, questioning every decision I had made in life that had led me to that situation. I’ve grown now to appreciate those moments, as tough as they were.
While Murphy was generally a really healthy dog for most of his life, he did have his share of health scares. In 2012 a weird growth that popped up on his neck tested positive as cancerous. He had an operation to have it removed. It went well and he survived and thrived for another 6 years! He had a couple of bouts with pancreatitis, which I subsequently circumvented by giving him digestive enzymes for the last 5 or 6 years of his life, along with a low fat diet. In addition I switched him to a raw diet, which helped tremendously – most people couldn’t believe his age when I told them and I attribute it to his diet and supplements. There’s also a seaweed based supplement (GreenMin by Dr. Dobias – https://www.amazon.com/DR-DOBIAS-GreenMin-Dogs-Supplement/dp/B01AB643UK ) I had him on as well as a turmeric paste recipe that I’d mix into his food (join this FB group for details on how to make it: https://www.facebook.com/groups/415313751866609/?fref=nf ).
The last few years of his life he dealt with blindness and hip dysplasia that were getting progressively worse. The last year we had a dog chiropractor do adjustments on him, which really helped a lot with his mobility. All in all, I was lucky he was so healthy and ultimately in the end his physical body just gave out from old age.
Using a “dog year estimator” online that calculates the approximate age based on breed, gender, and geographic location, his dog year equivalent was roughly 100 years old…now THAT’s a good life indeed.
As a musician, naturally music has always been a major part of my life. From his puppy stages, I began playing guitar, piano, and singing around him. At first he was a little scared and apprehensive of the loud sounds, but then he grew used to it and sat near me whenever I played. As he got a little older, the music soothed him. For the remainder of his life, whenever I’d play he would curl up and nap near me, snoring away. If I would stop playing he would lift his head and look at me with an expression that read, “Why’d you stop??” I’d continue playing and he would lay his head back down and go back to sleep. It was adorable. I have so many fond memories of just serenading him and both of us in blissful peace. No judgments or other complexities, just two best friends innocently loving music together and enjoying each other’s company. Not sure if that experience is possible with a human (other than small babies).
The night before Murphy’s memorial service I could not sleep at all. We had the remains of his physical vessel (for private reasons, I won’t be sharing any details as to what form those remains were in) readied for burial, so it was the last night I would be under the same roof with that physical representation of my best friend. At around 2 AM I took my guitar, sat next to the container and played for him one last time. The session went until about 5 AM. I was in tears the whole time and even learned parts of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”. It was therapeutic for me and I know somewhere Murphy heard me and enjoyed it in peaceful bliss as always.
I’ve always found that focusing on gratitude has helped so much during times of deep pain, like a warm, uplifting blanket against the dark, cold abyss of guilt ridden grief. To the universe, the mysterious unknown force that brought us together, I am eternally grateful. I am forever thankful for all my friends, roommates, family, veterinarians, and kind strangers who helped and loved Murphy through the years. And most of all, thank you to Murphy, the kind, loving, adventurous soul who taught me so much about love, life, responsibility, and loyalty. I’ve learned more about being human from him than any other living thing in my life…although my (human) kids are probably tied with him at this point. I am one lucky dude to have received the gift of his companionship and love for as long as I did. I’m a better man, father, and all around human because of Murphy and fewer experiences in this world are more profound than that. What more could one ask for?
What does it mean to be a loyal companion? How does one truly practice unconditional love? Murphy taught me the answers to these questions. I don’t know that I will ever live up to those answers the way he did, but I will certainly spend the rest of my life honoring him by attempting to.
The love shared with a pet is unlike any other kind of relationship in our lives. It’s pure, symbiotic and reciprocal in a way that is so personal, private and straight through the center of your heart without any of the baggage. While the love for a human child is the closest thing to it, it’s different because a) you don’t expect to outlive your children and b) the kids grow to become independent adults that aren’t as reliant on the parent. To lie down next to your pet and stare deep into each other’s eyes is like having your souls shake hands and embrace in that moment with no worries or interference from anything else. Staring into a newborn baby’s eyes is quite similar, actually, but they grow so quickly out of that stage, whereas you can connect to a pet like this for the duration of their way too short, but wonderfully significant lives.
The loss of this deep connection is real and it is tough. I’m honestly struggling more with it than when I lost my father. For anyone going through a similar loss, I highly recommend pet loss grief support groups – I’m going to one every 2 weeks. And speaking to a pet loss therapist privately is helpful during the more acute bouts with grief – I had 3 private sessions in the weeks right after Murphy passed. The memorial service we held for him helped a ton in saying goodbye, not only for me, but also for the whole family and some close friends who knew him well. I’ve ordered mementos and keepsakes from Etsy.com and photos that I’m starting to hang up around the house. I’m also developing a children’s book series based on him. I’ve found that looking at photos and videos of him has been super helpful as well.
Some days are good and I’m at peace with the circle of life and happy that he is no longer struggling to walk and see, no longer in pain. But other days I can barely go 30 min without drowning in tears. And that’s how it goes with grief. I often think about my parents, and others I’ve lost along the way, and now Murphy will be part of those reminiscings too. I’ve found that the only solace to losing loved ones is knowing I’ll have quite the welcome party when it’s my turn to transition to the other side. Somehow the idea of that ever so slightly chips away at the fear of my own mortality.
There’s a poem by an unknown author about a “Rainbow Bridge” that I came across shortly after he passed that I’d like to share. It’s a lovely sentiment that brings such warmth to my heart when I think of it.
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor.
Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance.
His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers.
Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.
The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….
See you at the Rainbow Bridge, Murph.
I want to share with you a beautiful moment between my daughter and I. A precious moment that I will not only cherish forever, but that makes one think about life, death, and the existential worlds before and after those events.
When I was still a grade-school youngster, my mother bought me a children’s book with a message I’m sure she had wanted to communicate to me, but perhaps wasn’t able to articulate it as well as the book did. The book goes through stages of life between a mother and son from the son’s infancy to adulthood and a repeated message of love from the mother to son. On the last page, the mother is dying and the son says the same message of love back to the mother. It’s a lovely sentiment and I cherish that book to this very day.
You see, my mother passed away almost 8 years ago. At the top of the many aspects of her death that tore me apart inside was the fact that I hadn’t given her grandchildren. It haunts me daily that she will never enjoy the laughs of my children. Attached to the pure joy of their laughter is a dark sliver of grief hovering deep inside, lurking within, disallowing the experience of full joy. Oh how I wish it would release.
I tried letting go of this book, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. When my daughter joined this world, as soon as she was old enough to comprehend it, I pulled it out and attempted to read it to her a few years ago. I couldn’t get past page 3 without breaking down into a sobbing mess. I’ve since brought the book out every so often, especially because she asks about it. Each time, I’m able to get a page or two further, but I still can’t get through it without being overcome with tears of pain and grief.
A few days ago she asked to read that book again. It had been awhile since the last attempt, and I was in a peppy mood so I thought I would give it a shot. Sure enough, my lip quivered around page 4 as I tried to hold it back, but about halfway through the book I fell over bawling. My sweet little girl, who turns 4 yrs old today, wanted to know why I was crying. “I miss my mama.” I told her. “Then go and see her.” she said with a matter-of-fact, child-like simplicity. If only…
We’ve tried explaining to her that my mom, her grandma, is “up in heaven” or that she’s “with God” and other nebulously existential descriptions. But it’s such a difficult concept to communicate to a toddler, we’re never sure on what level she’s comprehending. Her insatiable curiosity inevitably leads down some painful roads of conversation, but I do the best I can to give an answer and move on.
This time, however, there seemed to be a deeper level of knowing. She even tried to comfort me, sweetly putting her hand on my back saying, “It’s OK Papa, one day you’ll go to heaven and be with God and you’ll see your Mama.” Of course, this comforting only made my tears gush out harder. I’m crying now as I write this.
Two days later, after breakfast, she sat next to me on the sofa and said one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever heard.
“You know, last night when I was sleeping, your mama came to visit me.”
“Oh yeah?” I curiously replied.
“Yeah, and now she’s in my heart. She’s in my body now, with me.”
I hugged her and she went on with business as usual. However, I was left dumbfounded, in awe of this revelation. Could it have been a simple dream and this was her way of communicating that? Sure. But she never met my mom, nor have we watched any home videos or looked at a ton of photos of her yet…mostly because of the pain it causes me. Eventually we’ll get into that stuff, but my point is that she doesn’t really have a frame of reference to just “imagine” or conjur up her grandma in a dream.
Let me get even trippier with this.
For as far as I can remember, my mother was OBSESSED with N.D.E. or Near Death Experiences as well as Life After Death. She read countless books on those subjects. She watched documentaries, talk show appearances, life after death testimonies. Anything in that realm, she was into it. As she was dying, she told us she would come back and visit us, she was certain of it, not a twinkle of doubt as she expressed it.
Am I saying this is definitive proof of anything? Not really. But it’s yet another signal to me that there are indeed other forces at work that we don’t fully understand, label them in whatever way that floats your boat. Ancient and Indigenous cultures were more plugged into it than “modern” society is now. But there is no doubt in my mind that something special happened here, something difficult to articulate, but we can all sense it’s there. Like those times when you’re in that place between awake and dream, when you’re alone with your thoughts, when you’re staring up at the cosmos, when you think of your friend and they call you, when the song in your head comes on the radio, when you hear stories like the herd of elephants that traveled many miles for 12 hours to pay respects to the “Elephant Whisperer” who saved them years prior and had just passed away, when you feel you’re connected to everything and nothing all at once, that mystical sense that there is more out there than the eye can see. This moment was one of those times.
While I’m eternally sad that my children will never meet their paternal grandma on this plane of existence, I am starting to come around to having solace that perhaps they’ll experience her in other ways. And for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed the laugh of my child with all the joy that comes with it. Was this one last gift from my mom delivered from the other side? I can’t say for sure, but for now, that will do.
Anna, my partner, and I recently announced the birth of our second child shortly after our son Kaspyan was born healthy into the loving embrace of his welcoming family. We are so enamored and borderline obsessed with our daughter that in the back of my mind, I had wondered whether the moment of his birth would be as profound for me as hers was. Would I shed tears of joy like I did the first time? Would I hold him with as much unconditional love as I had for her during those precious first moments and thereafter? I honestly did not know what to expect. It’s a facet of life I had never really thought about until we found out we were expecting again. My heart was bursting from seam to seam with adoration for my first born, Amalya, that I could not conceive of how my heart could even handle another child. I do have a hairy kid in the form of my male Beagle named Murphy, whom I love dearly, but I knew having a human child would be a whole new level (and it is), so there wasn’t the same mystery to me the first time around as there was with the expectation of a second child.
As his harmonious first cries echoed in our bathroom (Anna opted for a home, water birth) while our eyes gazed upon him for the first time, the reaction was just as life altering as it was the first time. Anna and I both rejoiced in tears of pure joy… a feeling I can count on one hand how many times I’ve experienced to that level. When I held him for the first time, something interesting happened. I looked into his eyes and I felt a strange mix of emotions bubbling inside. Of course I was ecstatic to be holding my healthy newborn son, but a part of me almost felt as though I was neglecting or in some way “cheating” on my love for my first-born daughter. A strange sense of guilt was brewing inside that I had not expected and was quite perplexed to be experiencing. It’s difficult to articulate accurately, but it was as if my heart and soul were in a temporary confused state of trying to adjust and come to grips with the profundity of what had just happened. I was moving from “how in the world is it going to be possible to love another child this much? Will my heart explode?” to “This is how…”
With Amalya it was instantaneous. I held her for the first time and looked into her eyes and the flame of deep parental love had ignited, bursting my heart ablaze. But with Kaspyan, it was more of a slow burn for the first few days. The flame was lit of course, but it’s as if my inner soul was saying, “OK, we read you loud and clear, just give us a minute to make some room in here!” Anna, Amalya, and I had such a great camaraderie and chemistry together, what would this new little stranger do to that balance? We will soon find out, and I suspect we will be learning to adjust to that for many years to come.
As hours turned to days, and days to weeks and now at one month since he was born, I have been amazed at how exponentially fast my heart has expanded to accommodate the love for my second child. I finally have my answer. The capacity for love is not finite, but rather infinite in its capability. My heart’s capacity to love unconditionally literally increased to accommodate my second child, whom I am now thoroughly obsessed with on a level I never even thought possible. I can’t wait to see him, give a ton of snuggles and watch him discover the world. And when he wakes up at night, despite my weary, tired eyes, I smile from ear to ear and tend to him with excitement because…well, Love. It really is an incredible feeling to experience!
The lesson is that this concept of Love, whether it’s parental, romantic, or platonic, knows no bounds. But more importantly, I think it’s the capability of receiving that love that can help open those gates. The more I postulated about it, the more I realized that maybe it was I that needed to prepare myself for receiving the love from my second child. I am still getting used to Amalya running up to me, hugging my leg saying, “I love you, Papa!” It’s so sweet and makes my heart skip a beat every time, so maybe I’m still adjusting to all this? While I won’t go into the details here, I will say that my home life growing up was not so gilded in declarations of adoration, quite the opposite actually. So, this new life of mine I have created, as lovely and loving as it is, remains a foreign land that I’m still getting used to, so adjusting to it is a natural process, I suppose.
Love can be such an enigmatic subject to think about, much less write about, but this parental love capacity is something that had been bouncing around in my mind for months, that I thought I’d see what else was out there.
Dr. Ellen Weber wrote a blog post in Psychology Today about love and favoritism of children when parenting. Her conclusion is that parents my favor certain children during various stages of their development. For instance, one parent may love the infancy stage while another may only prefer the toddler years, and so on. So, it can flip flop. While I have yet to figure out all of that yet, I can see how certain stages might appeal to certain aspects of a particular parent’s personality. That being said, I think having an equal unconditional love baseline for all your children is important. Whether or not you like or prefer a certain stage they’re in should not affect the overall love, at least I’m pretty sure it won’t with me.
Dr. Gayle Peterson writes in her blog about how you won’t really love your kids equally because your kids will all be different and will require their own unique brand of love from each parent. While I think that’s true to some extent, there’s still that baseline foundation of unconditional, parental love that should blanket your whole brood, however many there are. The kind of love that wants to protect them, provide for them, comfort them and prepare them for the trials and tribulations of life.
I leave you with this wisdom from an article about the Dalai Lama’s insight into parenting:
“A child cannot survive without the care of others; love is its most important nourishment. The allaying of the child’s many fears and the healthy development of its self-confidence depend directly upon love.”
On this Father’s Day, I’m faced with a unique experience of it being my first without my father around while simultaneously being my first as a new father (to a human child that is, love ya Murph-dog!). A melding of various emotions, memories, both new and old dance circles around my thoughts. There exists an unsettled dissonance as I come to terms with the fragility and finality of life whilst embracing the new adventures that come along with the breaking dawn of a new one. Torn between the loss of the memories yet to come that I will never share with my late parents, yet thankful for the ones I already have that taught me the lessons the universe needed me to know and have made me who I am at this moment. Thank you Dad for all the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. I’m the better man and father for it.
When I’m in need of guidance, I like to look to nature. I recently read a post about male red foxes and how they not only tend to their foxy lady mamas constantly so the mama fox can tend to their adorable baby foxes, but they also teach valuable life lessons to their young. For the first month after the female gives birth, the father provides her with food every 4-6 hours so she can stay in the den to feed the young and keep them warm. When the offspring are older and able to scurry about, Papa Fox spends endless hours playing with his critters. When they’re about 3 months old, the father starts to teach them valuable life lessons. For instance, he will bury food under leaves and twigs around the den and encourage the offspring to find it, thus teaching them how to sniff out food and forage. These daddy foxes embrace their new role as fathers with an instinctual bliss and responsibility, no “how to” books, no Red Fox YouTube channel to refer to. They just naturally do what is right for their children.
I hope I’ll be able to trust my innate fatherly instincts and rise to the occasion like the male red fox. I hope I’ll be able to improve on the positive lessons I learned from my dad and not repeat the mistakes he made along the way. I hope.
I look forward to many more Father’s Days to come as I reflect on those that have passed. As with all new dads, the term “father” takes on a whole new meaning that one can only truly understand by becoming one. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, old and new. RIP Dad, wish you could have met your granddaughter, she’s an amazing beam of light, an old soul that is sure to to teach me as many lessons about life as I will be sure to teach her.