Another Year Older

I had a wonderful teacher in the first grade. Her name was Miss Kelly, and she had short, curly dark hair, a wide oval face and a big smile. She also seemed quite tall, although I wasn’t a reliable judge of height at that age. And she created fun class plays.

Crane BeachThat year, we performed what would now be described as karaoke. Picture a group of six-year-olds singing and pantomiming on stage to musical hits, circa early Mad Men, and you get the idea. (“How come everyone is laughing?” I remember wondering during our performance.)

I haven’t thought of that first grade play in years, but for the past couple of days, one of our songs arose, unbidden, from the recesses of my gray matter and has been cycling through my head—Sixteen Tons, sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt. . . .

It was my birthday on Saturday. Fortunately, the debt part isn’t what brought the song to mind. But another day older is how I felt, for better or worse.

“Are you excited for your birthday?” Mindi asked me a few days before.

“I don’t know. I guess so,” I replied. After turning 60 last year, 61 seems a bit anti-climactic. And there’s something about adding the 1 to the 60 that tipped the scales toward the “older” side of the equation.

When the day arrived, however, I was in a great mood. Something magical always happens to me on my birthday, a feeling that the day is different, special, blessed. The weather was perfect—70s, sunny, azure sky. Flowers that had been hiding for months suddenly dotted lawns up and down our street. On my walk back from Shabbat services at our synagogue, I noticed violets, always a spring favorite.

That evening, to celebrate my birthday, Al and I drove to a dinner concert in a small town in northern Worcester County, at a restaurant venue that draws class acts from around the country. The show did not disappoint: Michael Allman, son of Gregg, performed amazing R&B and Allman Brothers’ classics with Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers on tenor sax and Jeff Pitchell, an outstanding blues guitarist. I was transported back to my freshman year of college, when Sweet Melissa, Midnight Rider and Whipping Post blasted from stereos in every dorm.

Continuing my birthday weekend the next day, after brunch with friends, we drove an hour-and-a-half to the North Shore, to Crane Beach, beautifully maintained by the Trustees of Reservations, a great conservation organization here in Massachusetts. It was chilly, the water was a deep blue and the air, crisp. But I’d forgotten my hiking shoes in our haste to leave, I should have brought an even warmer coat than the one I had, and the latrines were—well, gross is an understatement.

So I was pretty cranky as we set out on our beach walk. I love the beach in any weather, but I couldn’t appreciate it, at first. After grousing to Al as we walked a ways, I plopped down on the sand while he explored closer to the water (he, of course, was quite comfortable walking barefoot while I was all bundled up and still chilly) and lay back to absorb some sunshine.

The break helped lighten my mood. Soon I was exploring patterns in the rocks and the soft shadows left by footprints in the sand. I took some pictures. Al strolled ahead to inspect what was beyond the next curve in the shoreline. We passed other spring beach-lovers, some in winter jackets and walking shoes, others in shorts and flip-flops. I drew my layers closer to ward off the stiff breeze and kept on walking.

Crane Beach EstateAl noticed a path leading up the side of the dunes, with a boardwalk. At first, I was hesitant to climb, but curiosity got the better of me, so up we went.

Well worth the effort, as the path led to a grassy expanse overlooking the ocean—blue and green and tinged with beige above sandbars—and a nearby island. When we turned around, we realized that this was the view at the bottom of a sweeping lawn that extended from the hilltop Crane Estate, part of the Trustees of Reservations property.

As we hiked back down to the shore, I began to feel a bit tired. The wind was still stiff, and we had to walk into the breeze all the way back. By the time we finally reached the boardwalks leading to the parking lot, I was really dragging. We made a brief stop at an antiques store (overpriced) on our drive through a nearby town, then found a local restaurant a few blocks away for dinner.

Waiting for our meal, I was quite weary. “Are you okay?” Al asked. “I think so,” I said, though I wasn’t really sure. I was worried. Here we had just walked the beach for a few hours, and I was totally spent. We’re planning a trip to Europe this summer, with an aggressive travel itinerary, and all I could think of was—how am I going to keep up with what I want to see and do?

The meal revived me, though I could only drive half the distance home, and had to trade off with Al after we got on the Mass Pike. “I’m feeling my age,” I told him.

It wasn’t until later that night, after I had showered and gotten ready for bed, that a light bulb went off in my head: It’s hard to walk in sand. It takes a lot of extra energy, especially when you’re wearing the wrong shoes. And it was cold out, and it’s even more tiring for me to walk into a chilly headwind. Yes. Indeed.

So I stopped catastrophizing about our trip, at least for now. I do have to pace myself when I’m physically active. That’s the bottom line. But I can do it. I have to believe that.

In our first grade class play, the one other song I remember singing was I Whistle a Happy Tune from The King and I. We each had a partner, and we took turns singing and trying to whistle along to the music. I’m sure we looked adorably hilarious for all the parents in the audience, but I took it all quite seriously, as only a six-year-old can: 

Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are . . .

Yes. Indeed.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com

Spring Tide

Passover is over and the endless winter has actually ended, with only a few stubborn patches of snow remaining. On Sunday, with temperatures hovering in the ’60s, Al suggested we go to the beach. “Great idea!” I said.

So we packed a lunch for the drive and set out for the South Shore, to a coastline we had never explored along Buzzard’s Bay. It was nippy by the water, and I needed all the layers I brought in the car, but so wonderful to see the ocean again. There’s nothing like sea air to clear the senses. Summer can’t be too far away.

Please join me on our hike at Nasketucket Bay State Reservation. . . .

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Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Imagine

Passover this past weekend was extra special. A few hours before we were scheduled to begin our seder on Friday night, we learned that one of our cousins received the all-clear on her lymphoma, following six months of chemotherapy. There were big hugs all around when she and her family arrived for dinner.

A central theme of the seder is retelling the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, as if you, personally, were escaping from slavery to freedom. The word in Hebrew for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “a narrow place.” So the metaphor had exceptional resonance at our table that evening, and again Saturday night, when we repeated the seder at our cousins’.

Then, on Sunday, I learned that the beloved husband of a childhood friend had died the day before of ALS. They were married only a few short years. The words of comfort I shared with her seemed so shallow compared to her loss.

Our bodies can betray us in so many ways.

There are never any guarantees that a treatment will work for a particular disease for any given individual. I am profoundly grateful that our cousin has responded so well to chemo and is on the path to full recovery from cancer.

My friend’s husband, however, had no such options. ALS has no cure, although research is progressing to identify the genetic underpinnings of the disease and treatments that may slow the deterioration of nerve cells.

According to the ALS Association, about 30,000 Americans may have the disease at any point in time. By contrast, figures from the American Cancer Society project more than 1.6 million Americans will be diagnosed with one of the four major forms of cancer this year—colon/rectal, lung, breast and prostate. And that’s not counting the myriad of other ways cancer can attack our bodies. No wonder a preponderance of research dollars go to finding a cure for “the emperor of all maladies.”

Scleroderma research for a cure faces similar hurdles as ALS research. With Congress deadlocked over basic federal spending issues, let alone medical research for rare diseases, the need to find other resources to support this important work has never been greater.

Where could it come from?

Here are some mind-blowing figures:

It’s not that we as a nation don’t have enough money to support medical research for rare diseases. It’s just a matter of priorities and the need to make a commitment, as a society, to be responsible for each other’s well being and not only for ourselves.

Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to live in a country where we spent more on finding a cure for scleroderma or ALS or any number of horrible, painful, debilitating diseases than we do on all those half-eaten snacks that get tossed in the garbage.

Imagine.

Then please consider donating to the Scleroderma Research Foundation or the Scleroderma Foundation—or to the ALS Association.

Thanks for listening.

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Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com

Tending Barre

Around New Year’s, I decided to shake up my exercise routine and join a community fitness center—to access a greater variety of classes, to use the fitness equipment, to break up my work day with a workout.

Good intentions. But, to be honest, I’ve been less than diligent about going. I’ve had plenty of excuses. It’s been way too cold out. I don’t like changing in and out of exercise clothes in the middle of the day. I’m too busy.

Then there have been a few mishaps as I’ve tried to find my place—like killing my knees in a Zumba class and getting short of breath in a “Senior” exercise class. The latter experience left me mortified (can’t they call it something else?), but it was a serious workout and I arrived late, didn’t warm up enough and started feeling faint during the aerobics portion of the class. I recovered, but not without scaring my instructor. Later in the day, I received a thoughtful follow-up email from the fitness center director to be sure I was okay and to suggest a few more options.

Really, the big issue is being careful that I don’t accelerate into strenuous aerobics too quickly, which seems to trigger what my physicians suspect is stress-induced pulmonary hypertension. But it spooked me, and I wasn’t sure what to do.

Then I discovered Barre Exercise. I’ve always loved dance, and over the past ten years, I’ve taken jazz, modern and Middle Eastern belly dancing. As my feet have become more sensitive, I’ve had to cut back. It’s very hard to keep my balance on the balls of my feet as the fat pads have significantly thinned out due to scleroderma.

But this class uses a ballet barre. So I have something to grab onto.

It’s been many years since I took a basic ballet class, and I am no Pavlova. But I had forgotten how much I enjoy the form and grace of ballet movements. All the Pilates classes have paid off. I know how to align myself and engage my core. And I still remember the fundamentals—foot placement, arms, the essentials of a plié, tendu, dégagé, coupé, attitude, battement. I can’t quite hold my balance in an arabesque, but I can approximate the position.

The workout is quite intense—deceptively so, because each movement is limited and controlled. But I work up a sweat, and the cold room no longer feels cold after about 15 minutes. The pacing works, so I can keep up with the aerobics without getting short of breath. And there is plenty of stretching at the end.

Most of all, I actually feel graceful. This is the best part. My range of motion has been so constricted over the years by this disease that the fact that I can actually make a beautiful shape with my body is astonishing and wonderful. I leave the class feeling refreshed and a little more confident each week.

I still need to figure out a way to get myself to the center more often. I know I should probably do the treadmill or stationary bike to build up my aerobic endurance, even though the prospect is boring as all get-out. I’d like to find another class that I enjoy. But at least I’ve been able to tap my inner dancer, once again. Whatever my physical limitations, this is what I always return to. 

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Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Crowning Glory

At long last, ten months after I had to have a painful molar extracted, I finally have a full set of teeth. Nasty old 19, which nearly ruined a weekend vacation in New York City last May, has been replaced by an implant.

None of this has been fun. My scleroderma creates many complications for dental work, especially much difficulty opening my jaw wide enough for my dentists and hygienists to manipulate all the probes and pics and suction tubes and needles and pliers needed for the various steps in the process.

Despite the fact that the roots of my molar had resorbed to the point of exposing the nerve—a rare complication of scleroderma—pulling the damn thing out of my jaw was quite the ordeal last spring. My periodontist, whom I trust implicitly, had to drill it into pieces and extract it by segments, because the roots just didn’t want to let go.

After my gums healed up, the next step was a bone graft. Then setting in the foundation for the implant. All of this required long visits, a lot of Novocaine, and much pulling and stretching of my lips and cheeks, which don’t have much give. Plus months for my gums to heal, in-between. 

Finally, in February, I was ready to go back to my dentist and get impressions made for the crown. He, like my periodontist, understands how hard it is for me to keep my mouth open wide and is always as careful as can be, apologizing whenever I wince. But there’s just no getting around it—even when he uses the smallest tray for the impression or whatever, it hurts. I always feel like my lips or cheeks are about to tear.

Last week, my new 19 arrived. I went to the dentist Wednesday afternoon, looking forward to getting it over with, at last, and being able to chew thoroughly once again—without taking twice as long as normal (which is long enough already) to eat a meal. My dentist tested the placement three times, made adjustments and set in the molar. But when the cement dried, it had settled too close to the next tooth, so he had to jigger it a bit so a piece of floss would pass between the two teeth.

When I left, I noticed a crunching sound inside the molar when I bit down, but I told myself it was okay. I enjoyed chewing a piece of gum—on both sides of my mouth—on the drive home. But by evening, it was clear that the crown was loose. I could click it with my tongue. Saliva was pooling under the base. The left side of my tongue was really sore from all the poking and prodding earlier that day.

So on Friday, I made another 80 mile round trip, back to my dentist, to have the crown reset. I was frustrated, but there was no point in getting angry about it. I can’t open wide, and that makes it much harder for my dentists, no matter how good they are, to do what needs to be done.

Fortunately, this time, the procedure was successful. Ninenteen is now firmly in place. My tongue has healed up from the second round of poking and prodding, and my inner cheek has gotten used to feeling a tooth instead of a gap. I’m still relearning how to chew on the left side. I can’t sense food through the crown the way I can with a real tooth, so it’s taking some practice.

We’re still catching up with all of the dental bills, too. Insurance only covered about a fourth of the $7,500 total—better than nothing, certainly, but still. Talk about sticker shock.

But I can chew again. You don’t realize how important each tooth is until you lose one. Missing that molar has increased the risk of gagging on food, which happened far too many times over the past ten months. I’m grateful that I have excellent care, that I’m able to work my schedule around all these appointments, and that we’re managing to pay for it. There will undoubtedly be another tooth that needs replacing at some point in the future, but, with any luck, it won’t be any time soon.

Meanwhile, pass me the biscotti.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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Priceless

This January marked 30 years since I first met my rheumatologist. Al and I had just married a few weeks earlier. My internist had set up the appointment because my fingers had swollen so much, for no apparent reason, after we ordered our wedding rings, that my ring was too tight when we picked it up at the jeweler’s.

Blood work revealed a positive ANA. I didn’t really know what that meant—that my immune system was attacking healthy tissue—and I almost cancelled the appointment because it seemed like a waste of time.

But that January day, my new rheumatologist explained to me with compassion, patience and insight, chances were that I had either rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or scleroderma. I was in total shock, completely unprepared for such a serious set of options. He answered all my questions, took all the time needed to help me absorb the frightening news. I went home very shaken, but I trusted him.

We were both in our thirties, then. He’s still my go-to guy here at home, complementing my rheumatologist at Boston Medical Center—another wonderful doc who is also now in his sixties. I trust him implicitly, too.

Both of them have followed me for decades, listened to all of my anxieties about this very complex and scary disease, given me excellent advice, understood my aversion to new medications, my fears of hand surgery, my many worries about what’s next. They have encouraged me, cheered my forays into dance classes and Pilates, empathized with my pain from infected ulcers and praised me for my meticulous hand care.

They’ve also given me hard advice that I’ve needed to hear—like the reality check after I gave birth to Emily that it would be far too risky, despite my postpartum delusions about how great it would be to have more babies, to go through it again. “You were really sick,” my hometown rheumatologist told me, straight out. Of course, he was right. I had developed pre-eclampsia at 34 ½ weeks, and by the time I was in labor, my kidneys had shut down and my blood had nearly stopped clotting.

My BMC rheumatologist was the one who pushed me to take exercise seriously in order to stay strong and retain as much range of motion as possible. “Find something you love to do,” was his wise counsel. “That way, you’ll stick with it.”

At a recent visit in Boston, the two of us were joking about the indignities of being mistaken for seniors—but still wanting the senior discount. It will only be a few years until we’ll both be legitimately eligible.

So, in the back of my mind is a new worry: What will I do when these two wonderful physicians, who have been so much a part of my life in coping with this awful disease, finally decide to retire?

It’s no small concern. I know there are other excellent rheumatologists around who are younger, well educated, experienced and will provide fine care. But it won’t be the same.

These two men don’t simply know my diagnosis, blood work, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, echocardiograms, medications, allergies, long history of infections, difficulties with infusions and all the other data points that make up my megabites of digital medical records. They know me. And they genuinely care about me—and I, them.

At some point, I will have to make a transition to a new dynamic duo. I must trust that each of them will hand off to another rheumatologist who will provide a comparable level of excellent care. I’ve been very fortunate to have found them both. I hope my luck will hold, because my scleroderma shows no signs of retiring at 65.

In the meantime, I hope each stays in good health and decides, despite all the frustrations of practicing medicine these days, to stay with it, and with me, for a long time to come. In a health care system where so much is measured by dollars saved, a trusting friendship with your physician who’s helped you manage a long-term, chronic illness for decades is nothing short of priceless.   

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Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Thawing

Winter’s grip is at long last loosening. The icy ruts on our street mostly melted as temperatures rose into the 40s on Monday. The sun shone all day. Snow drifts are slowly, slowly shrinking. Buds are visible on the Callery pear in our front yard.

And somewhere under all that snow, I’m sure there are crocuses waiting for the sun to warm the frozen earth just enough for their tender leaves to push up and free.

Hard as it is for my internal clock to adjust to that first Sunday when we jump forward to Daylight Savings Time, it’s a delight to have the days feel longer again (even as I know it’s just an artificial shift in how we perceive when the day begins and ends).

March can be a deceptive month here in New England, promising spring and then dashing hopes with a late snow storm. But I’m feeling optimistic. According to the weather reports, the Jet Stream has finally moved farther north, which means we’re in for an easier, sunnier spell.

We’re certainly due after all that record-breaking snow and cold. My hands have taken a beating this winter. I’m finally weaning myself off a long round of antibiotics to clear up two infected ulcers, and I have five fingers swaddled in bandages as intransigent ulcers gradually heal. Spring can actually be my toughest season, though, so I’m hoping these will continue to improve.

Even still, there’s just something about seeing the promise of new leaves on the trees and watching water bubbles slide beneath the icy crusts along the street that I find reassuring. No matter how bitter the winter we’ve endured, the snow will melt, the temperatures will warm and the world will turn green once again.

I’m looking forward to wearing something other than the same sweaters, in varying combinations, and foregoing multiple layers—leg warmers, wrist warmers, two or three tops, wool pants, neck scarf, down coat, outer scarf, wool hat, insulated gloves, boots (have I forgotten anything?)—every time I go out the door. As it is, two of my good cashmere v-necks, which I’ve had for years, finally wore out with holes at the elbows. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to shorten the sleeves.

Most of all, I’m looking forward to walking outside with my coat open and a warm breeze on my neck and the sun warming my face.

Spring officially arrives a week from Friday. Oh, yes, I’m ready.

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Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Sleepless in Massachusetts

My grandmother used to say that her mother used to say she was lucky if she slept every other night. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve inherited her genes.

8669222331_3133314c7eOf course, I know there are good sleep habits and bad ones, and lately I’ve been slipping into the bad column—going to bed too late, working on my iMac’s large screen until 10:00 or 11:00 at night so I’m exposing myself to too much light before I should be getting ready for bed (this is actually a huge factor), trying to do too much in the evening so my brain can’t unwind.

Recently I’ve been turning to Turner Classic Movies to relax as I finally get ready for bed, because they’ve been showing a lot of wonderful Oscar-winning films, and there are no blasting commercial interruptions. But then, it’s really hard to stop watching Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men.

So Sunday night, after Chicago ended and I was finishing up bandaging my fingers for the night, I was amused to watch an old black-and-white short film featuring the droll essayist Robert Benchley talking about—what else?—insomnia.

Understand that my sister and I used to take turns when we were young reading Benchley’s essays to each other (and James Thurber, too). Benchley was also born in my home town of Worcester. So I was obliged to watch (at 12:15 a.m.).

The film, How to Sleep, released by MGM in 1935, features Benchley explaining all the ways we do everything but go to sleep—transitioning from a mug of warm milk to a feast of leftovers; getting up for that glass of water to quench our thirst, and another, and another; swatting at mosquitos; and fixing the flapping blinds only to trip on the way back to bed. He failed to mention all the journeys to the bathroom, but then again, it was 1935 and such things weren’t discussed in polite company.

Benchley also demonstrates all the contortions that the sleeper goes through during the night—parodying a study by the Mellon Institute about sleep patterns that was commissioned by the Simmons Mattress Company. This, apparently, was the inspiration for the film, which won an Academy Award and is Benchley’s most famous short feature. Simmons Mattress, however, was not amused.

I shut off the TV and went to bed, feeling lighthearted. But, of course, all it takes is a comedy shtick on insomnia to make me more self-conscious of how I wasn’t falling asleep. I tossed. I turned. I couldn’t shut off my brain. Al was snoring. I shoved him. He stopped and then snored some more.

Finally, around 2:00 a.m., as snow plows once again rumbled down our street, I went downstairs to read. I picked up an art book and was transported to 17th century Spain. A different part of my brain, the visual rather than word-intensive side, took over. By the time I went back to bed, I had finally enabled my busy mind to unclench, and I went to sleep.

Five hours isn’t really enough for a very full day, but I made it. And the one good thing about a bad night’s sleep—odds are much better that I’ll sleep soundly the next. As long as TCM isn’t showing another good flick that will keep me up way past my bedtime.

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Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

A Little Night Music

It’s really cold here, nine degrees on Monday night. Our street is a sheet of ice following a relatively warm day on Sunday—above freezing, WOW—when the snow that fell overnight melted and then refroze as temperatures dropped.

photoBut Saturday night, despite more snow, Al and I made it to a concert of Latin chamber music at Clark University performed by the Worcester Chamber Music Society, featuring Argentine guest soloist JP Jofre, a world class artist on the bandoneón, a type of concertina.

There is no better antidote to yet more snow than hearing the tango on the bandoneón.

When we got home, I decided to take a walk around the block. It was snowing gently, and the temperatures were just below freezing, so it felt relatively mild, even for me. The fresh snow coated all the dirty drifts that have narrowed our roads to nearly one way and freshened the landscape, transforming tree boughs to white lace.

I had the street all to myself. It was quiet and peaceful. Ginger would have loved it.

This winter will eventually come to an end. A week from Sunday, March 8, we switch to Daylight Savings Time and it will be lighter in the evening. The snow will melt (maybe by June).

So, to nudge things along and give you a little break from your own winter doldrums, here’s a video of Jofre performing Ástor Piazzolla’s Escualo with the JP Jofre Hard Tango Chamber Band at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge in September, 2012. Tango, anyone?

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

A Dog’s Life

Last week, on Friday the 13th, we lost our wonderful Ginger. At 16 ½, she had outlived the average Golden Retriever by almost five years. But still, her end came too soon.

It all started when Mindi wrote a grade school report about Goldens. After our first dog died in 1998, she was adamant that if we ever got another, it had to be this breed. About a year later, we began our search, and in October of 2000, we learned of a family that was looking to sell a two-year old, pedigreed Golden.

As Al arrived at the owners’ home, he noticed an electric company truck in their drive. It turned out that the family was behind in their utility payments and about to have their power shut off. So he went to the bank, withdrew $200 to pay their bill and got Ginger in exchange. She jumped in his car and never looked back. That afternoon, Al greeted Mindi and Emily after school with Ginger in tow. At first, they thought he was just holding her for another parent. Needless to say, they were ecstatic to learn she was our new pet.

Neglected by her owners, ten pounds underweight, loaded with fleas (we soon discovered), never spayed, she needed a lot of love and attention. She took refuge under the kitchen table, and that’s where we placed her new bed. But she often liked to sleep on the hardwood floor, perhaps because that’s all she knew before coming to us.

At first, Ginger didn’t have quite enough energy to walk all the way around the block. But as she put on weight and gained strength, she gleamed and grinned. And, despite the former owners’ claim that she would swipe the baby’s meal, she never stole food.

In fact, she never stole anything that I can recall. She never climbed on the dining room table to snarf up a pound cake, like my childhood beagle, Snoopy, nor snatched socks and tissues, like our first dog, Sukki. She never snapped at us, only at dogs that got in her space. She only ran away once, chasing after a skunk on a frigid January night. When Al found her and brought her home, she reeked as she galloped around the house. I don’t recall how many baths it took to remove the scent.

Simply put, Ginger was just a love bug. Hugs and ear-scratches and snuggles were her ambrosia. She adored company and was totally oblivious to social cues from anyone who was skittish around dogs. Any resistance to her sweet face just encouraged her to persist until she got a pat on the head.

The squirrels always got away (thank goodness she never brought dead animals to our door), but she loved the woods. She would race back and forth between Al and me as we hiked, making sure we were both there, then wander a ways to sniff and explore. Her fur, such a beautiful russet, always blended with the fall foliage.

For the past five years, after I was laid off and began my consultancy at home, she was my constant companion. By this time in her life, she had mellowed considerably and was content to sleep, curled up under my desk or next to me in my office as I worked. But come 2:30 in the afternoon, somehow her internal clock would always go off and she would rise to nudge me for a walk, often nosing my hands off the keyboard to get me going. A good thing, for both of us. Those walks always cleared my head and gave us quality time together. I even finally taught her how to heel and not chase other dogs that passed us. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Most of all, she was a loving, comforting presence. We had our own way of communicating. She would let me know what she needed by pacing to and from the desired object—her water bowl, the back door, the kitchen to remind me it was time for pills (in ricotta cheese, of course), the back door again. Whenever I came home, she would always be there to greet me. And whenever I offered a walk, she was ready to go. On Shabbat afternoons, she would curl up nearby while I napped on the couch, and, sometimes, she could still climb up to cuddle next to me.

A hardy girl, she was beloved by her vet, who called Ginger her favorite Golden and always remarked on how she still had such “pep in her step.” But by last year, she was finally beginning to show her age. Arthritis, thyroid issues, weakened sight, loss of hearing in her right ear, lessened smell, confusion—all took their toll. Two weeks ago, she began to have trouble keeping down any food, and after a blood panel, we learned that her liver was failing. I thought she was rallying with medication and new bland food that she loved, but that was wishful thinking.

On Friday, I was writing at the kitchen table before going to the vet for some more anti-nausea meds. I got up to put on my coat and began telling her I’d be back soon, thinking I had let her back inside from her morning rituals, only to realize she wasn’t there. I called for her and looked all over the house, upstairs, the basement, out back, out front, in a total panic. It was as if she had vanished. Finally I clambered through the deep snow in the back yard, following the path she’d carved for herself in the drifts, and found her, collapsed. She was hemorrhaging. Blood stained the snow by her muzzle.

I stumbled back through the snow to get her a blanket, then called Al in hysterics. Thank goodness he could come home from work, because there was no way I could lift her and my fingers were going painfully numb in the frigid weather. He carried her to the car and we took her to the vet, but we knew it was over. She died, peacefully, in loving hands.

Of all the things I learned from Ginger, here’s what I will remember most: Live each moment fully. Be sure to take a nice, long stretch when you wake up. Ask for what you need. Find the good in everyone. And remember that whatever is troubling you, love is the strongest force in the Universe.

Rest in peace, Ginger. You are forever in our hearts.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.