Wellness Wednesday: The Restorative Power of Love

Amsterdam ICU
Amsterdam ICU

The presence of my husband, daughter, and sister around my bed in the Amsterdam ICU—holding my hand, stroking my face, speaking to me even when I was intubated and under heavy sedation—is one reason I did not succumb to the ruptured aneurysm and my body’s six-week fight to live in 2019.

There is a restorative power to love that I experienced then, and that I continued to experience throughout my recovery and rehabilitation.

And I’ve seen the healing power of love in the transformation of our rescue black Lab, Kumba, from vicious attack canine to the calmest, sweetest dog in the neighborhood.

Traumatized rescue

Kumba pawshake
Kumba pawshake

When he was flown from a shelter in Puerto Rico to South Florida in late 2019 by Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, Kumba was so thin and sick that the LRRoF vet was surprised he could even stand. It took two months of medical attention—and foster family love, including being in the pack of the foster household’s two other black Labs—to get Kumba back to health. We just happened to be the lucky family that was first in line when Kumba was ready to be adopted.

Per LRRoF requirements, we brought our daughter’s Lab (and our daughter) to meet Kumba during V and Pancho’s visit from Florida’s west coast. Kumba was a little nervous around Pancho, but a complete soulful sweetheart around us. The match was made, if we could wait another month while Kumba completed recovering. On Super Bowl Sunday 2020, we brought Kumba home.

Kumba becomes Cujo

That’s when we discovered that Kumba was Cujo.

On my husband’s first walk with our new dog, Kumba lunged at our neighborhood’s friendliest dog, snarling, teeth bared and eyes wild. It was a shocking behavior that his foster had not seen. Perhaps being in the pack had given Kumba a sense of protection, but now, alone on a leash in a new environment, Kumba did what he probably did in the shelter fending for himself. Or maybe this is who he was. We had a choice to make: take him back, or help him. We looked in those soulful eyes and knew we had to help. Or at least to protect him and other dogs from this menacing behavior.

Kumba snuggle
Kumba snuggle

We brought in a trainer, Alison Chambers, who confirmed that we had a very good dog who was anxious about other dogs. In our first lesson we learned how to read Kumba’s behavior and how to begin forging the relationship with us that might just lead him out of anxiety and vicious self-protection. We had just one lesson before the pandemic locked everyone down.

Over the next month, I did my best to avoid other dogs on our morning walks, reinforcing positive behavior, but Kumba tensed, pre-attack, any time he saw another dog. Worse yet, he shocked us by dashing out open doors to attack unsuspecting dogs who were doing nothing more than walking by. He snarled, teeth snapping, at our neighbors’ friendly golden, Lexie, when she approached too quickly. There was never blood drawn but the psychic damage and our neighbors’ anger was real. We needed to protect him, ourselves, and others. We bought a muzzle.

The muzzle helped. The social distancing imposed by the pandemic helped— being kept a safe distance away from other dogs (and their people) gave Kumba reassurance. The gentle, sweet dog who loved nothing more than curling up at our feet (or next to us on the couch) began letting go the anxiety and the defensive behavior.

Kumba makes a friend

Then, Kumba made his first dog friend—Reese, the dachshund-golden mix who is the self-appointment goodwill ambassador of our community. Hallelulia! Other small dogs followed—Adam the French bulldog, Cookie the Shitzu—but it was when Kumba greeted German shepherd Myla that we knew he was getting better. Well enough to invite Pancho back.

The first few hours were tricky, but Pancho and Kumba soon established self-protecting force fields that allowed them to share a space without crossing personal boundaries. Another huge step forward for our sweet boy!

Labs Kumba and Pancho
Labs Kumba and Pancho

Finding his people gave Kumba confidence. Finding his bliss—retrieving—gave him a purpose. He was a fragile four-year-old dog who didn’t know how to run, catch, and retrieve when we adopted him. The hours of that pastime have added physical and psychological resilience to our six-year-old happy dog, as I wrote in a post about the magic of finding the thing you were meant to do. Our pup is happiest with a ball in his mouth.

Kumba laser-focused on retrieving

But would this new-found confidence help Kumba over the hurdle of re-making the acquaintance with dogs he previously snarled at?

Love restores

The answer is yes. The power of love restores. Kumba is now completely relaxed around Lexie, the Golden up the block who he snarled at, and he is the dog in the neighborhood who gives nervous dogs and their owners the confidence to approach us. He is such a good host to visiting dogs that he’ll even allow a guest to make herself at home on his bed. ”Mi cama, tu cama,” he is saying to Lila, the sweet girl who hangs out with us on the weekends while her mom works.

Lila on Kumba’s bed
Lila on Kumba’s bed

And around the newest pup in the block, Kiwi the tiny powerhouse? Kumba just kind of smiles and shakes his head at this bundle of confidence. Can you see the thought bubble over Kumba’s head? ”I don’t understand girls, but they’re fun to have around.”

Neighbors Kumba and Kiwi
Neighbors Kumba and Kiwi

Yes, love is a powerful thing, inspiring the best in us all.

A Day With a Palm Tree: A Tribute to Kate, from Kaleidoscope Wojo

A day with a palm tree is a great day!
Stories of personal triumph, community engagement, and environmental stewardship.

About today’s story

Ever since my 2019 close call with a ruptured aneurysm while traveling in Amsterdam and my subsequent return to full life, I am keenly appreciative of the value of life. Today’s story is one that inspires me to remember to live fully every day.

Tom Rhiel, one of the three angels behind Kaleidoscope Wojo — who included my essay Surviving Amsterdam in a recent anthology — wrote a touching tribute to his niece Kate, a young woman whose life was longer than predicted but way too short for those cheering her on. Kate’s optimistic and altruistic commitment to life inspired her circle of friends throughout her life. Tom’s tribute — portions of which I’ve included here, with Tom’s permission — allows Kate to inspire those of us she never met. Tom says that Kate would have liked this idea, too.

The question of why certain things happen to people — and particularly you — isn’t as important as what you did while you were here. You taught us so much. We never stopped learning about ourselves as we watched you live your life.  

Tom Rhiel

A celebration of life

Kate was born with frailties that normally mean a very brief life, and she underwent 200 surgeries. Maybe being aware of the finality of those hours made Kate’s life mean so much to those she loved. As the Tim McGraw song goes, if you live like you were dying, you fully live. And it’s never long enough. My close encounter with death in 2019 was my own wake-up call, but it’s easy to forget. I am so glad to be reminded that this is all fleeting.

You got to know all too well the finality of death at such an early age as dozens of the children you became friends with at Children’s Hospital succumbed to their illnesses. Contained within the sadness of losing these people in your life was the celebration of life that you shared with each other.

The news of your passing hit like a hundred hammer blows to the gut. How many times had we recoiled at the possibility that this day or that day could be your last on earth? You always amazed and delighted us by pushing on, staying with us for 38 years. Except that wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Tom Rhiel

Putting others first

It is so easy to be inward looking. The pandemic has only reinforced our social isolation. Kate put others first, even when she had the chance to keep things for herself. During her Make-A-Wish Foundation visit to the DC Disney store she could pick out anything she wanted.

You being you wouldn’t take anything. 

Tom Rhiel

Attendants quietly bagged anything Kate seemed to like. When the shopping trip was followed a restaurant meal, Kate made sure that the limo driver was also having lunch.

And Kate’s close understanding of death even led her to want to help others through this inevitable conclusion through the study of thanatology in the Montgomery Scholar college honors program. How about that? Such maturity at such a young age, when many of us hide our heads in the sand.

You were wearing Big Girl pants long before anyone knew what that meant. 

Tom Rhiel

Letting others in

This was the ultimate gift this remarkable young woman gave her friends and family: letting them do for her. That’s grace. Inspirational.

As your world was narrowing because of ever growing health challenges you began to let more people in. You discovered just how caring people can be as the number of cheerleaders grew and a community formed around you, ready at a moment’s notice to start prayers, the sending of positive thoughts and energy and any other force they could muster for you to cling to, for you to draw strength from. You touched so many in such a powerful way.

Tom Rhiel

Blasting across the universe with Sammy the dog

We want to think of you now blasting across the universe, Sammy in your arms, as black holes come ablaze as you whiz by the two of you grinning mischievous smiles, hoping you’re causing a bit of trouble for the cosmos.

Tom Rhiel

Always and forever

And, finally, there remains the mantra of love, such an important reminder that we must tell the people we love how we feel. Since 2019, I do not leave words unsaid. Since 2020, none of us can afford to stay mute.

Every phone conversation, every in person gathering ended with the same expression: “I’ll love you always and forever.” Time is infinite, Kate. We will love you always and forever.

Always and forever.  

Tom Rhiel

You can read all of Tom’s blog here and more on Kaleidoscope’s open invitation to women writers here.

Tom Rhiel’s niece Kate
Kate and Sammy

Do you have a story of personal triumph, community engagement, or environmental stewardship that should be shared? Let me know in the comments!