I'm not one to dive into the world of what's meant to be, or the underlying meaning behind coincidences, but sometimes life will throw you something that leaves you spinning. In this case, it was a large arc that turned into at least two full circles. You just can't make this stuff up. Here's my life.
When you lose someone close to you, two dates often loom large; their birthday, and the day they died. It's just the way it is. It's hard to feel celebratory on either day, but the gift of their life is always worth a respectful pause. My mother's birthday is today, January 10th. It would have been her 70th year on this planet, had she not made the fateful choice to take her own life on March 3, 1991. I was 14 years old. Despite the obvious pain that such a situation entails, she left me so many gifts, some of which came in the form of blatant warnings, many in the form of shining examples.
My mother was a whirlwind. Everyone who knew her describes her as one of the most intelligent and capable people they had ever known. Whether she was performing triage, teaching nursing students or running the hospital where she was the Director of Nursing and Assistant Administrator until the day she died, she was in charge, and in control. I volunteered there several summers, and one of my first jobs was delivering meals to the various floors, so I was there to see her in action. When she walked in the room there was a certain reverence, a palatable respect among her colleagues. It was definitive.
Unfortunately, when she came home, other patterns took over. At the end of the day, she gave so much of herself, and had such unattainable standards, life's disappointments and failures overwhelmed her, and she decided this place wasn't for her anymore.
Her memorial was mind-blowing. Our local church was overflowing in a way I had never witnessed. Had she known that there would be such an outpouring, would that have changed things? Who knows? What I do know is that she was a giver, to a fault, and she was loved by many.
We lived on a small non-working farm, essentially an animal adoption facility, in a little town outside of Princeton NJ. We didn't produce anything other than manure, in truth. At one point it felt like we were living on Noah's ark. My father used to answer the phone, "Earle's Emporium and Petting Zoo!" It was a bit of a mad house. Scratch that. It was a mad house.
One summer, we rescued a hilarious Billy goat, named Pepper, from Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, of all places. At the time, we didn't even have a fence. My mom and dad picked him up in our rusty red van from NYC, and literally, over a weekend, built a fence around our meadow, and a stable shortly thereafter. After that, we adopted an old mustang that was trained for handicap kids, but just got too old to play that game. He barely moved. Naturally, his name was Lightning.
Another time, mom found a kitten in the middle of the road on the way home from her night shift, in the wee hours. Two little eyes shining back in the headlights. We named her Elsa, because mom found her right next to the Ewing Lawrence Sewage Authority.
One winter evening, my dad was outside getting firewood and heard a faint meow against the muted sound of snowfall. When he tracked it down to our garbage, he dug in and found that there was a tiny kitten that had burrowed into one of the bags, through the side, and gotten trapped. He had a nasty infection on his leg, which smelled terrible. My mom nursed him back to health, of course. Between his dumpster-diving episode, and his foul-smelling wound, we named him Stinker.
And then there were the dogs. Lots of dogs, but three who were mine, or I was theirs, more likely. I don't think I spent a night alone. It wasn't uncommon to be scrunched up with all of them on my bed. It was a little boy's heaven.
We never bought any of these creatures. They found us. They needed a safe place, and my family was glad to provide it. If you're lucky enough to know what I'm talking about, there's something unquestionably special when you adopt an animal in need, especially dogs. They know that they were rescued. There seems to be a sense of gratitude in their eyes. As a child, I distinctly recall the first time I noticed this. I adored those critters, and they adored me. It was such a privilege to take care of them. In many ways, they also took care of me.
The one thing that wasn't so great about this setup was that I was severely asthmatic, and living in a moldy house. Being completely immersed in every possible allergen - both indoors and out - didn't help things either. Interestingly, when we moved out of that house, my symptoms largely disappeared. Everyone chalked it up to me "growing out" of my asthma, which made sense back then, based upon what was known at the time. The health impact of mold wasn't even on the radar back then.
Fast forward. After a 9-year stint on Wall Street, I decided to do something meaningful with my life, but without a clue where to begin. After selling various possessions and putting the rest in storage, I embarked on an 18-month voyage to nowhere. Toward the end I spent a spell in Hawaii, still no closer to figuring out what the next chapter of my life might look like. Bored one day, I began reading some of the local papers and learned about a huge mold problem in the Kalia Tower of Waikiki Village on Oahu. It's estimated that the total project cost $50 million, easily the largest mold remediation ever, at the time, and also huge news on this little island.
Some of the stories about people getting sick got me asking questions. Were my respiratory issues as a kid building-related? I called my father from a payphone and asked him if he thought we had a mold problem. What did I know? I was just a kid at the time. He laughed and said, "Ha! We had MUSHROOMS growing in the basement! Of course we had mold." Enough said. I was now more than curious. I started spending an inordinate amount of time in the Internet cafes searching for things like "asthma + mold" only to find very little to go on. Nonetheless, I was undeterred. I could sense that there was a major connection between many common illnesses and this nasty stuff, when it grows in our homes.
When I returned to NJ, with my curiosity unabated, I took a job working for a mold remediation company out of Pennsylvania, just to learn the ropes. I was on the sales side, so I got to see everything that went on, and I was shocked at how crude and unsophisticated the process was. If the contractor suspected mold might be in a wall, they'd just tear it out. No testing, no investigation. After all, this was in the contractor's best interest; more work is more money. The homeowner didn't know any better, but they still had to foot the bill. This didn't sit well with me at all.
About four months in, I read about a dog trainer in Florida who had trained a pup to sniff out hidden mold in buildings. A light bulb went on. Now this makes sense! Dogs have been trusted for ages to find missing people, bombs, drugs, truffles, and in recent years, cancer! So, why not mold? I flew down to Florida shortly thereafter to check it out. I was pleased to learn that the Florida Canine Academy primarily trains dogs rescued from shelters. I loved that. They prefer mutts over purebreds. Loved that too. I decided to bite the bullet and pony up a tidy sum. I was introduced shortly thereafter to the girl would become my best friend and partner for over 12 years: Oreo.
A lanky, black lab/border collie mix, she wasn't what I was expecting. Only one year old, she was still kind of awkward, like a 6th grade teenager. She was also extremely head strong, which worried me, but Bill Whitstine, her trainer, had matched us for personality. According to him, we were a perfect fit. Turns out he was right. He thought she'd learn to respect me in short order, which she did, but she never stopped testing me.
Our training together while we were still in Florida really consisted of me being trained. She was already proficient in playing the "find the mold" game. It was me who needed to learn to interpret her subtle behaviors. The total training was one week, and at the end I got a Certification, Oreo's adoption papers and a health certificate from the vet. Her birthday on the paperwork was March 3rd, the day my mother passed. I couldn't help but think that my mom would have been tickled to see this. Here I am bringing home a mutt that spent two times on doggy death row, rescued from a kill shelter, and trained to help families who have a mold problem.
When we got home I built a training facility in my basement, and we worked for hours and hours together, every single day. We were slowly becoming a unit. It couldn't have been more that two months later when we got a call from Channel 6 Action News. They were actually trying to debunk us, which I was not aware of at the time, but ended up validating us instead, and released a glowing report. This ultimately led to a Good Morning America appearance, features in hundreds of newspapers and magazines, an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, two books on working dogs, and a college biology text book. It was amazing. Our phone rang off the hook for years and years. As a result, without the slightest bit of advertising, Oreo and I were able to help thousands of families regain control of their health and peace of mind. It was a far cry from the work I did on Wall Street, and like nothing I could have ever imagined. It was the best experience of my life. She was special to everyone who knew her. She even got holiday cards from our clients. At one point she had more friends on Facebook than most people I know.
One day she suddenly started slowing down. I had never seen her like that. She was always the one pulling forward, sniffing at every blade of grass. This particular day, she walked behind me. I took her in for some tests. They detected some anomalies, but my vet suggested that I keep an eye on her to see if she felt better in the days ahead, which she seemingly did. I remained optimistic.
A week or so later, I went away on vacation with my better half, Sarah, and left Oreo with my father. On the last day of our trip, he called me to say that Oreo wouldn't get up off the bathroom floor. He had to pick her up, and although she was mostly limp, she still managed to give him a lick on the cheek. She was the sweetest. I asked him to take her in to get scanned. What they found was insurmountable. As I was getting ready to board the plane, I asked the vet if they could buy us enough time for me to get home, from halfway across the country. She made no promises. It was one of the worst flights of my life.
When we landed, we went directly to my father's house, where she was lovingly swaddled, motionless in a blanket, my father and stepmother crying in the background. As I approached, her tail began to thump against the sofa cushion every so softly. She gazed up slowly, clearly thrilled to see me, but with this deeper sadness, as if she somehow knew that she was getting ready to leave. I could see that she was having a hard time breathing. My heart was in tatters. Nothing can prepare you for this.
I took her home, and we spent the night together on the sofa, where we so often did. In the morning, Sarah and I took her in to put her to sleep. Devastating, but necessary. She deserved to die in dignity, with me at her side. She was the finest soul. And she was now officially among the ranks of many other wonderful spirits I've known and loved. I had always wished my mother had met her. As I was thinking that very thought, with tears streaming down my face, leaving the vet's office, I looked down at her paperwork. It stopped me in my tracks. It was January 10th. My mother's birthday.
These two dates, January 10th and March 3rd, are days of celebration in my world now. For them to be intertwined so closely is nothing short of serendipitous. My life would not have been possible were it not for one, and would not be complete, if not for the other. The gifts they both left me with are priceless. The world is a better place because they both lived. How fortunate can one man be?
Happy birthday, Mom. You have Oreo now. Take good care of each other. You are both sorely missed. Thank you for everything.
"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." ~ Will Rogers