I started 2021 with so much hope for it to be a better year than last. I was looking forward to traveling with Cole and growing my businesses. I had simple goals for the complex world we find ourselves in. Little did I know that this was going to be the most difficult year of my life so far. That’s not to say there wasn’t goodness in this past year, there was, but my travels would be alone and my heart would be heavy through all of them. My life is forever changed now and I’m learning how to find my footing in this new world.
In the beginning of this year, I was excited to have booked my first house/pet sitting gig through House Sitters America in Pinckney, Michigan for February after having been fully vaccinated for COViD. Shortly before the trip, I had developed an infection in a gland in my neck but I didn’t let it stop us from taking the trip. Cole and I and my antibiotics hit the road for our 3-week gig on February 19th. As soon as we arrived in Pinckney, it was clear that this was not going to be a good experience on multiple levels but most importantly, the fact that Cole was starting to show signs that something was wrong. Through several visits with multiple vets, it was the emergency vet in Ann Arbor that delivered the news to me at 3:00 AM on March 9th as I sat alone in my car far from home that Cole had metastatic cancer riddled throughout his lungs and not much time left, a month or two max but no minimum given. My world was officially shattered. I took him back to the house in Pinckney and on March 10th, we embarked on our last road trip home to Wisconsin. I scheduled him with a new more holistic vet clinic right away to create a palliative care plan for him and he seemed to do well at first but quickly started to deteriorate after just a few days and just 6-days after we got home from Michigan, I had to make the difficult decision to help him pass on. It was as peaceful as I could make it for him, but it was anything but peaceful for me. Losing him continues to be the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through to date, and I still struggle every day with that grief in ways that sometimes are just simply overwhelming. This kind of grief and sadness is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. It brings with it a new depth to my lived experience though and if there is any silver lining to be found in this, it is that. I was already all too aware from my own cancer experience that we never know what the future holds or how much time we have. Now combined with Cole’s passing and the pandemic, I found a renewed push to live my life my way and do all the things I want to do while I still have time to do them.
The support I received from friends and family during this time was so heartwarming. Friends who had lost their own pets (or were soon to and didn’t know it yet) helped during the weeks that followed by simply making time to talk to me on the phone and letting me cry and sometimes crying right along with me. Some stood by my side, others sent money to help cover the vet bills that had piled up, while others sent flowers and cards to brighten the room. All of it together helped a lot but eventually everyone returned to life as normal and I was left still trying to put the pieces of my heart back together. My life was now clouded with an invisible veil of grief over everything I did but I tried my best to keep on living. It was hard to do though when all I wanted was to be with my best friend again. Eventually, though, I did manage to push myself to get out into the world again. First with a birthday hike at Buckhorn State Park with a dear friend, then with a spring camping trip at that same park the following month. In May I was ready to pet sit again (cats only) and booked a job in Orlando, Florida. On the way there, I spent one night with friends in Nashville, Tennessee, and one night in Savannah, Georgia. I had high hopes of getting out and exploring the east and west coast of Florida while in Orlando but unfortunately, I mostly just stayed at the house and hung out with Talula the cat because I was just having such a hard time emotionally. I did manage to make it out for one excursion to Cocoa Beach shortly before I had to head home. On my way back to Wisconsin, I spent one night with my friends in Nashville, Tennessee after a comically failed motel experience in Montgomery, Alabama.
Shortly after getting home from Florida, I met Luke through an online dating platform and there was a spark. We talked for a couple of weeks and then finally had a first date shortly before I left for my next house/pet sitting gig in the Finger Lakes region of New York. I was immediately drawn to him and so we kept talking throughout my travels. The New York trip started off as a lot of fun. On the way there, I stopped at Niagara Falls and Letchworth State Park, both beautiful. The gig was at a lovely bed and breakfast where I tended to 5-cats, 3-indoor and 2-feral. About a week or so before I left for the trip though I had started to develop some stomach issues which just seemed to get slowly worse over time. After a week or so in New York I started to worry that something was really wrong. I had another house/pet sitting job lined up in Austin, Texas that I was supposed to go to right after I was done in New York. Not sure if I would be well enough for the trip and not wanting to leave that homeowner hanging with a short notice cancellation if I couldn’t, I decided to go to the ER to get checked out. Through a series of tests and scans, they could not figure out what was going on with my stomach, but they did find a lesion on my pancreas that they wanted me to get checked out when I got back home. From what I understood, pancreatic issues were not something to take lightly so, after canceling my Austin job, I made an appointment with my doctor back in Wisconsin. The New York homeowner was very understanding and arranged to have someone come care for the cats so that I could leave a few days earlier and see my doctor even sooner. On the way home I stopped at Taughannock Falls State Park and did a hike at Watkins Glen State Park, both really beautiful.
Once back in Wisconsin, there were a series of doctor visits for a variety of things, not just my pancreas issue, including a suspicious looking growth on my forearm and another one on the corner of my left eye. Luckily the growth on my arm and eye both turned out to be non-cancerous and in the end, it was determined that what was seen on my pancreas was nothing of concern. Meanwhile, my stomach issues persisted. They tested me for a suspected infection but that came back negative, and after trying several 2-week elimination periods of dairy and gluten with no improvement, they referred me to a GI specialist. The specialist recommended we do an endoscopy which showed no explanation for what was going on so now I’m waiting for my doctor to come up with our next steps. To complicate things even further, in September I started to develop a rash of little red spots. First just on my left leg and slowly, over several weeks, spreading to both my legs, arms, feet, hands and stomach. That kicked off another series of doctor visits, biopsies, and blood tests. They finally diagnosed me with leukocytoclastic vasculitis and prescribed me a month long treatment of steroids to suppress my immune system. After ending the steroids, within days, the spots started to reappear. I have not made much progress with my doctors since then and am quite frustrated with the process of dealing with this.
Worried about traveling too far from home over the summer while dealing with all of this medical drama, I spent a lot of time in Wisconsin. I spent many weekends hanging out with Luke in Menomonie. I did a multi-day road trip to hike at 6-state parks from my self-imposed Wisconsin State Park hiking challenge that I started a couple years before moving to Oregon in 2014. I camped with a close friend at Kohler-Andrae State Park where we hung out on the beach of Lake Michigan, hiked and just simply relaxed and enjoyed some time in nature. Luke and I did a day trip to hike at Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island and then took a boat tour of the Apostle Islands. As the fall colors started to peak, Luke and I did a hike at Hoffman Hills and another day I took a solo mini road trip to the North Shore of Minnesota and explored the coast all the way up to Lutsen Mountain where I rode an air tram to the top for a spectacular view of Lake Superior and the colorful forest surrounding the area. I also got myself out for hikes at Devil’s Lake State Park, Gibraltar Rock, and Parfrey’s Glen. All good reminders that Wisconsin does indeed have some beauty to be found here.
I didn’t let the vasculitis or stomach issues stop me from taking another road trip out to the Oregon coast for a month-long house/pet sitting gig. On the way to Oregon, I visited Badlands National Park, Great Salt Lake State Park, Bonneville Salt Flats, the Alvord Desert and Detroit Lake. While in Oregon, I caught up with old friends and co-workers both on the coast and in Portland. I enjoyed lots of good food, some from my favorite restaurants and some made by myself at home. One particularly sunny day I ventured out to check in on my favorite spot on the northern coast, Ecola State Park. I enjoyed lots of animal time with the two cats and dog in my care as well as lots of morning coffee sips while wave watching and sunsets over the ocean when the rain and clouds would allow for them to be seen. I also made time to go out for lots of walks on the beach as well, wishing so badly that Cole could be there with me. After 34-days on the Oregon coast, I began the journey home. I drove along the Oregon and California coast making several stops along the way for photos including places like Harris Beach State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and McWay Falls in Big Sur. Once I started to make my way east, I stopped at Joshua Tree National Park, Saguaro National Park and White Sands National Park before arriving in Kansas for a long overdue several day visit with a dear friend there.
I arrived back home in mid-December and it was nice to be settled in one place again for a while. I had another round of house/pet sitting lined up for the same homeowners on the Oregon coast for January 17th though February 18th as well as a trip planned to the Big Island in Hawaii for my sister’s wedding February 18th through March 5th but with everything we’re learning about the transmissibility of the Omicron variant combined with my higher-risk of complications should I catch it and lack of health insurance outside of Wisconsin, I made the difficult decision to avoid air travel and cancelled both trips. I was looking forward to both so much and it’s difficult for me to say no to travel opportunities but it really does seem like the best thing for me to do. I’m hopeful things will calm down and be safer this spring and summer so I can resume traveling by car.
The final blow to 2021 came with the end of my relationship with Luke. As much as I adore him, forces beyond our control have made it impossible for us to be in a relationship right now. The best silver lining to that though is that we are committed to remaining good friends, something we did really well throughout our relationship. I’m really thankful to have someone like him in my life who has been so kind and supportive throughout all my ups and downs this year and who is always cheering me on with everything I decide to tackle. We should all be so lucky to have that kind of support in our lives.
2021 has been a year of loss, adventure, uncertainty, growth, challenges, creativity and opportunity. After having traveled over 15,000-miles throughout 25-states this year, I’m torn between hunkering down and adventuring even more in the New Year. Perhaps it’s the cold, snow covered landscape of Wisconsin but I definitely feel a pull toward quiet and calm in my life right now. The pandemic helps make that an easy choice for my health but there is an energy inside me that knows how precious time can be. I find myself holding on to happy memories of the past with Cole and wishing so hard that I could have known what our last Christmas, birthday, and walk to the mailbox would have been in the moment so I could have savored it that much more. The sad truth is that we usually never know these things are the last until it’s too late. As the pandemic surges again and people I love age, battle cancer, or struggle to find wellness, I can’t help but fixate on how heartbreakingly delicate it all is. So my intention for 2022, if nothing else, is to be present as much as possible to savor all the small moments, continue exploring my curiosities, tending to my health, and making sure the people I love know how important they are to me.
Best wishes and good luck to us all in the New Year!