Thursday, July 16, 2015



As a mystery writer and criminal defense attorney I deal with death on an almost weekly, if not daily basis. However death is always in the abstract, not real, only something on paper. Today, I witnessed death up close and personal.

I was on my way to court in the city of Riverside, California when I saw something in the roadway that did not make sense. It was moving, and was not a color that I associated with a blowing plastic bag or paper. As I slowed down I realized it was a cat that had more likely than not been hit by a car, but was not yet deceased.

Horrified, I drove for another block before realizing I could not let that poor animal remain on that busy street and be hit again, or worse yet, cause an accident as other drivers hopefully swerved to avoid it much as I had. I did a quick U-turn and drove back to the scene. Another quick U-turn and I pulled my car to the side of the road where the cat struggled. With no cars coming I immediately jumped from my car and ran to the cat, picked it up and took it to the grass on the parkway by the side of the road.

As soon as I picked up the cat I knew it was probably a feral cat and was definitely in its death throws. The cat’s fur was dirty and his body was thin, with the trauma to its head most likely mortal. One of his eyes was dislodged from its socket, and his skull was partially crushed. But yet, he struggled to survive, his instinct was to run, but the signals to his legs only strong enough to cause them to stretch and contract. It broke my heart, yet I could not leave him alone to die.

I whispered quietly to the cat, and stroked his fur, imagining that I was the first human hand that had given him this sign of affection and security. To my amazement he began to purr, his last breaths coming with his brave attempt to prove he was still strong. Seeing that his death was near I found myself crying, and then praying that God would take this blessed animal and bring him into His loving arms. With the prayer sent to Heaven, the cat’s breath came slower, the contractions in his legs stopping, with one last breath expelled as a purr, he transitioned to God.

Seeing his blood on my hands, and knowing that the cat was now beyond pain or hunger or fear, I felt my tears stream down my face, my strong impersonal persona of criminal defense attorney crumbling. Yet, even with my tears I heard the voice without a voice tell me that I had acted in his stead this morning. I was this animal’s angel in death to help him transition with at least one loving hand on him as he passed.

We never know when we will be called to be that angel. Just know that every living thing needs love and a loving hand when it passes. Just remember it is truly blessed when you are the one called upon and know you have the strength.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The itching located on my right abdomen just beneath my bra was driving me crazy. That was almost overshadowed by the burning pain on my right collar bone. Only twenty-three minutes into a 24 hour torture of wearing a portable heart-monitor and the leads to device were making me a basket case.
Mind you, it wasn’t the actual monitor, or even that the doctors were still trying to find my heart that I kept telling them the California State Bar required I leave by the door in order to get my Bar Card to practice law, it was my dire allergy to the adhesives used to connect the monitor to my body.
AAARRRGG! Twenty-three hours and thirty-seven minutes to go. . .
Scratch, scratch, scratch, tap, tap, tap, don’t disturb the leads Mary Jo.
How was it that I found myself now in a position of going from one doctor to another as they tested me and prodded me to find out why I was so tired and why my heart was doing rapid salsa dancing in my chest?
Come on, really?
For those of you have ever had to stand in front of a crowd and give a speech, only to feel the floor drop out from beneath you. Or let’s say you have just seen a horrible accident and wondered how you could help, only to be tortured by dreams for days. Or, a favorite friend or loved one finds themselves in desperate trouble and turns to you for help with the burden of finding a way to help them on your shoulders, that, my friend is what being a practicing criminal defense trial attorney is like on daily basis.
Now, after more than twenty-eight years in the courtroom, my body is finally giving out, and no longer willing to take the stress, never mind the steady diet of adrenaline, caffeine, sugar, and fats.
But, I try not to despair, as I transition to a better life and lifestyle. I am trying yoga—does my body really bend that way? Donuts, caffeinated coffee, diet soda, and red meats are no longer my friends and comfort. But, I do have kale, broccoli, fresh green beans, and I am becoming extremely fond of Sabra Hummus.
And, the brightest light of all as I transition to a new life is that I get to spend time with my beloved dogs—Fina and Scruggs; my cats—Samantha and Boo Bear; and of course my dear husband Prince Charming. I also get to spend more time with my favorite fictional characters of my books—Detective Jake Swanson, Melissa Sanchez, and new ones Kelly Landrieu, Prax Desmett, and Jason Carson.

Hmm, so as I itch, scratch, tap and try to be patient, I decide that maybe this transition won’t be so bad—once this damnable heart monitor is removed!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

CHAPTER TEN SCRUGGS COMES HOME—THE GREETING (40th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(40th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

With my new dog sprawled all four legs pointing in different directions, horrified I crawled toward my new dog. In the meantime, my other two dogs heard the commotion coming from the house.  Hearing the desperation in my involuntary cry to Scruggs, Tara, the full-blooded Rottweiler, started growling and jumping against the sliding glass door.  She threw her considerable weight against the door, willing it to move, trying to rescue me from whatever was causing my distress.  Fina, on the other hand, more accustomed to using cunning rather than force, used her paw to slide the door open.  Evidently, when I had been home earlier, I had left the door unlocked and Fina had used it to her advantage, allowing both dogs to run into the house.
This was not the initial greeting I had planned.  Oh, hell no.  I had planned on leaving Scruggs behind the gate in the laundry room, allowing the dogs to sniff each other while he regained his strength.  I did not want a face-to-face meeting while Scruggs was not physically able to stand.  With Tara weighing 116 pounds, and Fina a lighter seventy-eight pounds, I didn’t want them hurting Scruggs with the sheer force of their weight.
But, once again, I misjudged my dogs.  They came charging into the kitchen area where Scruggs and I had landed.  Tara, who was still on high alert, ran right by me.  But Fina immediately sighted on Scruggs and slowed as she saw me gather him into my arms to hold him.  She skidded to a stop, sniffing the air, searching my face for clues.
“Fina, baby,” I said, trying to use my most soothing voice.  “Remember him?  This is Scruggs.  He’s joining our family.”
Fina inched a little closer, sniffing Scruggs as she came.  Scruggs had the good sense to wag his tail, his tongue still lolling out of his mouth.  He smiled his happy grin at Fina, and she stopped dead.  Then her little stump of a tail began to wag furiously.  She grinned back at him, and came over to give him a good sniff.  He lay quietly while Fina sniffed him from head to toe. Then she turned her attention to me. She sniffed my face, my head, and finally my hands as I held the new dog.  Satisfied, she lay down next to us, putting her head on my knee.
Tara, though, continued to search the house.  She went to the front door to check for danger, and then ran upstairs to make sure the danger had not escaped up there.  She finally came down to me, her tailless butt wagging as she came.
 “Good girl, Tara,” I said.  “Good girl, you make sure Mommy’s safe, huh, my baby girl.”
Pleased with herself, she came over to the scrum of human and dogs sprawled on the kitchen floor.  She danced around us, her bottom wagging furiously as she circled us, trying to figure out what game we were playing.  It was only when Fina warned her with a sharp bark that she stopped to look at us.
“Huh?” she seemed to say.
“Tara, gentle, baby girl,” I said.  “This is Scruggs.  Gentle so you don’t hurt him.”
Immediately my Rottweiler stopped her dancing.  She held steady as she tentatively reached her nose out to sniff the dog being held in my arms.  Scruggs took that instant to furiously wiggle out of my arms and stand upright.  He stood nose to nose with a dog that not only outweighed him by seventy pounds, but one who was not under the influence of anesthesia.

But even with the strange dog in her house, Tara held steady.  She didn’t move as I held my breath.  Tara waited as the groggy dog staggered toward her to give her a good welcome sniff.  When Scruggs had gone over her head to tail, she did her own greeting.  Soon, my kitchen was filled with wagging butts and tails, and twelve paws danced around me as I struggled to find my own feet.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

CHAPTER TEN SCRUGGS COMES HOME—COMING THROUGH THE DOOR (39th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(39th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

Maybe fine wasn’t the right word to use when telling Prince Charming I would be ‘okay’ to get Scruggs into the house at home. Maybe I should have used a phrase like:
 “I’ve always wanted to ride a tornado;” or
“dancing with a whirling dervish sounds like fun;” or even
“I’ve always wanted my arm jerked out of my socket by a psychotic dog.” 
All of those phrases would have been more appropriate than fine.
Needless to say, I was whirled and jerked and pulled by the poor dog all the way to my SUV.  Then I poured the reluctant dog into the back compartment of the vehicle.  But since the rear hatch was electronic, I couldn’t slam it shut.  Every time I pushed Scruggs into the back and hit the button to close the hatch there was enough of a delay that he had enough time to try to jump out. The gate would hit his head, and then reopen. This went on for at least four tries until I decided to put him in the back seat.  Unfortunately for me, this left him free to put his head between the front seats and drool copious amounts of slimy stuff all over me. By the time we got home, I was drenched.
The trip into the house was even worse.  From the minute his little white paws hit the tile flooring of our entryway he started skidding and sliding.  He ended up sprawled, spread eagle, on the floor, each leg heading in a different direction—his face flat on the floor, with his eyes rolling in different directions.  But Scruggs did not whimper or protest.  He just lay quietly thumping his tail.
But when I tried to pick up the front legs, the back legs slid away, and when I went around to his back to pick up the rear legs, his nose and front legs plowed forward onto the tile.  He moaned softly, and his tail did a slight wag.  I tried to lift him from the side, but even with his underweight forty-five pounds, he was too heavy for me to get his four paws beneath him.  We twirled and swirled around on the entryway tile for several minutes, but there was no way I was able to get enough purchase on him to lever him into a standing position.  Worse yet, he did not seem to have either the strength or will to do it himself.  After about five minutes of struggling, I gave up and sat with his head in my lap.  He smiled up at me like a drunken suitor, happy just to have his head in my lap.  As he panted, his tongue lolled out of his mouth and drool dripped from it, creating a puddle that grew as the minutes passed.
Sitting with him while he gained strength, I was able to really look at the dog I had just adopted.   I looked at his soft, dark brown eyes, the pretty white blaze down the front of his face, and the weird wiry whiskers that traveled up from his nose and almost obscured his vision.  I remembered how from the first time I saw Scruggs at the Humane Society I believed he was a golden retriever mix of some sort.  He was a deep rich golden color, had a beautifully plumed tail, with feather-like wisps of long fur on his front and rear legs.  More importantly, he had a loving and sweet disposition, which led me firmly in the direction of golden retriever.  The whiskers on his face and the wiry hairs sticking out all over his body gave me some concern as to his daddy’s heritage but, overall, he was definitely a retriever mix. 
The interlude in the tiled entry also gave me a chance to quietly consider where Scruggs would fit in my life and in my heart.  He had captured it when I wasn’t looking.  He had held it when I had almost stopped believing in miracles.  But where did he fit?  Why had he come to the de la Peña household?  How would this scruffy retriever mix fit into a household of Rottweilers?  He appeared to be a high-energy dog, while the Rottweiler’s ideas of a hard afternoon were moving from the couch to the floor several times, and maybe following me up and down the stairs.
 My husband and I considered ourselves to be a predominately Rottweiler household.  We loved the breed and had a deep understanding of what was needed to keep them happy and balanced.  But this dog was an enigma.  I had no way of knowing if he would be happy as primarily an outdoor dog or be more like Tara and Fina, couch potatoes with spurts of outdoor activities.
So, as I sat musing about Scruggs and his future in our home, his panting slowed, his eyes closed, and his breathing became regular as he fell into a deep sleep.  I sat with him until my legs had lost all feeling and my tailbone screamed its distress.  I could feel myself turning into a cripple the longer I sat cradling the dog’s head in my lap.  Movement was critical or I most certainly would have faced living the rest of my life in a wheelchair and paralyzed from the waist down.
“Scruggs,” I said, trying to gently displace his head.  “Scruggies, Mommy has to move, or her legs are going to fall off.”

As I shifted his weight, the dog suddenly sprang to life.  He jumped up from his prone position in the entryway only to bolt toward the back door.  Unfortunately for Scruggs, there were three steps leading down to the lower level of the house.  He missed them completely and again was sprawled face down, all four legs pointing in different directions.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

CHAPTER TEN SCRUGGS COMES HOME—PICKING UP SCRUGGS FROM THE VET (38th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(38th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

Though the afternoon at the law office had been frantic, my fear of getting to the Humane Society’s vets office was overblown. Prince Charming and I arrived at the Humane Society with time to spare. The yard was still bustling with activity, and there were still a large number of people waiting in line at the counters. I was too anxious to wait—and afraid of another run-in with one of the princesses—so I made a bee line for the intake counter at the front of the shelter.  The volunteer was more than happy to point us in the direction of the animal hospital at the back of the grounds.
The vet tech at the hospital smiled when she read the paperwork I handed to her. 
“You’ve come to get that precious gold dog and black kitten,” she said. “The kitten is doing just fine. She’s still a little groggy, and probably needs a sheltered place to recover but, all in all, she’s fine.”
“And the dog?” I asked.
Her smile got wider as she answered, “He’s a little loopy from the anesthesia but also doing well.”
I handed her the collar and leash for Scruggs while my husband handed her the cat carrier for Samantha.  The tech took the items from us and disappeared through a closed door.  As the door opened and closed I could hear a wail coming from the back.  It was low and keening, like a death knell. 
My husband and I exchanged looks.
“You think?” he asked me, staring hard at the closed door.
I rolled my eyes back at him. “I hope not,” I answered.
We waited for what seemed like a century, both of us holding our breath, afraid of what would come through that closed door.
Soon we heard the distinctive sound of claws crabbing on the tile floor.  The sound was excited and frantic.  There were a few bumps against the closed door, a soft command to “wait,” then the door opened.
Scruggs came through the door, dragging the tech with him.  I stepped in front of him to block his rush toward the low window with its view of trees and grass.
“Scruggs,” I said, grabbing his collar.  “It’s okay, boy.”
As soon as the tech saw I had the collar, she let go of the leash. With less pressure on his collar, he put more energy into his plunge toward the outdoors.  It was enough to catch me off-guard, and we both ended up on the floor with Scruggs sprawled on top of me, drool running from his mouth like a leaky faucet.
My husband caught my eye. His eyes were twinkling, and a smile played at the corner of his mouth.
 “Need some help?” he asked.
“No, no,” I answered, trying to roll over on my side to stand up, while pulling my skirt down to keep from exposing my not-so-fancy underwear.  “I’ve got it.”
The tech stood still as she watched me struggle to my feet.  I looked hard at her, but she averted her eyes rather than meet my irritated stare.  Instead she turned to Prince Charming.  “The kitten needs a few more minutes.  She won’t be ready for about other ten or so minutes,” she said to him.  “The vet wants to check her again before discharge.”
By that time I had struggled to my feet, and was doing the same Maypole dance the volunteer did the day before.  Scruggs was circling mindlessly around me, trying to tie me up with the leash as I played it over and around my head.
“You want to wait?” the prince asked laughingly as he ducked out of the way of the pacing dog and me.  “Or do you want to get Scruggs home and settled?”
The irony was not lost on me.  Waiting was out of the question.  The dog needed to get home and settled.  I knew the sooner I could get him home, the sooner we could begin the delicate task of settling him into our home.
Because Scruggs was not a puppy he had already been imprinted with someone else’s mode of living.  From looking at him I had presumed he had been an outdoor dog for a long time and was not used to being inside.  Or, worse yet, he may have been a street dog not by choice, but because he may have been abused or abandoned.  Either of these would leave him even more in need of repetitive structures and commands, thus making the first few days in our home crucial.   We were going to need to be firm and consistent until Scruggs felt secure in our environment by knowing we were in charge and he could trust us.  Getting him home and settled was therefore imperative.
“I’ll take him now,” I said.  “You can follow with Samantha. I need to get him quiet.”
“Okay, but do you need some help getting him to the car?”
“No, no,” I answered, “I’ll be fine.”

Yeah, right. . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

CHAPTER NINE PREPARING FOR THE HOMECOMING—DUTY CALLS (37TH installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(37TH installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)
After making all the preparations to bring home a new dog and kitten, I decided to do my wifely duties and call the law office.
“Law Office,” the Prince answered.
“Why are you answering the phone?” I asked.
“Staff is off getting lunch.  I ordered a fish taco for you, if that’s okay?”  he answered.
I smothered my irritation at his assumption that I would be coming to the office.  I knew I had to go in, but it was the last thing I wanted to do.  As my mind raced around what I had accomplished, I knew there was nothing left for me to do at the house.  But I still yearned to be free from other people’s problems for just that day.  Alas, duty called.  I needed to go to the office no matter how badly I wanted never to enter that place again.
“Yes,” I sighed.  “I’m done here and on my way in.”
“Thank you, little girl,” he answered.
Driving into the office I thought about my husband’s last statement to me on the phone.  His voice had been sweet and relieved.  I wondered what was happening that he needed me.
When I arrived at the office it was in a chaotic uproar.  Every chair in the waiting room was filled, and there were people waiting in the hallway.
I tried to enter the office without drawing attention to myself but our secretary must have caught the movement out of the corner of her eye.  She almost tackled me as I headed to my office to put down my purse and briefcase.
“M. J.,” she said, almost in tears.  “M. J., there’s all these people here, they don’t have appointments, they all want to talk to you and you have all these messages, and what do you want to do first?”
“Where’s my partner?” I asked.
“He’s in his office with clients, and he hasn’t eaten yet, and you know how mad you get at me when he doesn’t eat, and I don’t know what to do,” she said, this time with tears spilling onto her cheeks.
As much as I wanted to choke her, I decided that given the chaos, it wasn’t the time to perfect my murder skills.  Instead, I took a deep breath, grabbed the messages from her hand, and leafed through them.  Most were not urgent, but there were a couple from opposing attorneys that needed my prompt attention.
“Okay, listen,” I told her.  “Let me return a couple of these calls.  Tell the people waiting I’ll be with them in order that they came in.”
My secretary rolled her eyes at me, swiped at her tears, then left me to answer my calls.
My afternoon turned into a blur of activity.  I met with several clients, prepared paperwork for their signature while they waited, returned numerous phone calls, and quieted a sobbing mother whose son had been arrested for robbery.  The phone never stopped ringing, and my headache never abated.
Before I knew it, the afternoon had passed and it was five o’clock.
“Oh, my God!  Scruggs and Samantha!” 
It was my turn for my eyes to tear.  There were still people in the waiting room and the door to Prince Charming’s office was closed.
As the pressure behind my eyes grew, I also felt myself get angry.  He knew how important it was to be at the shelter before six o’clock.  He knew how important it was for him to be there to help me.  Again resentment grew inside me at the thought that, once again, he was leaving me to handle it.
Yet, even as I grew frustrated and angry, a voice inside my head reminded me that I was the one who wanted to adopt the animals.  It was my decision to get a dog and the cat.  It wasn’t my husband who had made this leap, it was me.  I swallowed my anger, replacing it with resignation as I decided I would just go by myself.  We didn’t have time to drop one of the cars at the house before going to the shelter, so I decided I would go on my own, leaving him to join me if he could.
But, as I knocked on the door to his office, he opened it himself.  He was standing, as were his clients.  “M. J.,” he said, “I was just telling these people I needed to leave.  I have an appointment to adopt a dog and kitten tonight.”
He was smiling and his eyes were shining as he said that.  I felt my heart roll over in my chest, and the tears that were starting to fall changed to tears of appreciation instead of disappointment.
He took my arm and winked at me, then turned to our secretary.  “You’ll just need to tell the others that they’ll have to come back tomorrow.  I’m sorry, but my wife and I have an appointment to get a couple of new kids.”
Her eyes bulged out of their sockets momentarily as she stammered her acquiescence.

“Come on, little girl,” he said smiling at me.  “We’ve got to bring Scruggies and Samantha home!”

Monday, June 8, 2015


It pulled me from a deep slumber, the sharp pain crushing my chest, spreading up to my throat and grabbing my jaw in a death grip. From there it spread down through my upper abdomen to my groin area, leaving my body in writhing pain.

Holy Christ! Was this the big one?

I tried to breathe through the pain, taking deep breaths, holding them and letting them out slowly. But no matter how much I tried to control my breathing it didn’t help. I took in the air as gasps and let it out in groans. The pain would not be appeased by my lowly attempts to control it with breaths.


I staggered out of bed, only to be met with a wave of nausea, my undigested diner from the night before catching in my throat.

“What are the symptoms of a heart attack in women?” I kept asking myself as I staggered to my computer.

A quick perusal of I found an article by Dr. Tom Iarocci  from October 11, 2013, which gave me the list of symptoms which include:
  • ·         Angina: pain, discomfort, pressure or tightness in the middle of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and then comes back; sometimes mistaken for heartburn
  • ·         Pain or discomfort in upper body including arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • ·         Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • ·         Cold sweat or sweating
  • ·         Feeling of indigestion, choking or heartburn
  • ·         Nausea or vomiting
  • ·         Feeling dizzy, light-headed or extremely weak
  • ·         Feeling anxious
  • ·         Rapid or irregular heart beats

Hmm, close, but was it really a heart attack?

As it turned out, it was a warning shot over my bow.

My heart was reacting to the unrelenting stress of trying to transition from my law practice into being a full time author. I was doing neither well, and the stress of underperforming was wearing on me and my body.

My choice was clear—leave the practice of law—or DIE!

Whoa! Really? The choice was that clear?

Transitions are never easy. The stress of making the choice to make the leap can be incapacitating. Leave what I have known for more than 28 years, a career in which I have been very successful, and jump into a pond with so many wide-eyed dreamers, but with so many broken hearts and broken dreams?  

Today I took the first step. I swallowed my pride and put the courts and clients on notice—I am DONE!  I can’t do it anymore.

Whew—I get cold sweats just thinking about it. But, my heart doesn’t race when I think about the future. My heart remains calm when I write, and most of all no matter how difficult the transition, the alternative when it includes dying is a BITCH!


Thursday, June 4, 2015

CHAPTER NINE PREPARING FOR THE HOMECOMING—PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING (36th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(36TH installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

I literally ran as fast as I could through the pet store, buying food, toys, bed, as well as a collar and leash for Scruggs.  Each of the animals had special needs, and I tried hard to anticipate them all.
Because Samantha was a young kitten and meant to be primarily an indoors animal, I needed to create special place for her to which she could retreat when tired.  I also knew it was critical for there to be a gradual meeting between her and Caesar, the older silver tabby cat.  He was a softy at heart, and extremely gentle, but at eleven years old I did not want to upset him too much.  Also, with Samantha being so tiny, I knew I had to keep her safe from accidental harm from the large dogs.  I decided she would occupy the upstairs guestroom.  I bought her a new snuggle bed, kitten food, a new cat pan, and new dishes.  To comfort her, I also bought her a small stuffed toy to keep in the bed with her. 
It was something I had learned when Caesar was first brought into our home.  I had come into his room and couldn’t find him.  Panicked, I had torn through the house looking for him.  Eventually, I found him curled around the numerous stuffed animals I had spread across the top of the piano.  As he got older, he chose one of the toys to take to bed with him.  Cosmo did the same thing.  He also chose a stuffed toy he carried with him for a couple of years.  Thus, it only seemed appropriate for me to find a toy for Samantha.
For Scruggs all I purchased was a new food dish for him, a stylish collar with name tag, and a new leash.  He was not coming with a microchip and I wanted to make sure if he ran away that he could be found easily.  I planned on using the newly purchased bed I had gotten for Alice just before she passed.  She had never really used it, and when she died I washed it and put it away.
After making my purchases I raced home to prepare the house.  Upstairs in the guest room I created a special place for Samantha.  I put her bed under a table so it would create a cave, and I placed her soft toy in the bed.  I also filled her new bowl with water and a little bit of kitten food.  Close by I placed the new cat box filled with sand.  It would be close enough for her to find but not right on top of her.  I also connected a night light to give a soft glow when it got dark.  By preparing this room I felt I had created a safe environment for Samantha so she could meet Caesar through the closed door.  I also expected that the safe room would keep her from being accidentally hurt by the paws of the large dogs.
Scruggs was my next challenge.  He would still be under the influence of the anesthesia from his surgery.  The two or so hours in recovery would only be enough to ensure he did not have surgical complications, but it was not nearly enough time for the anesthesia to clear his system.  From past experiences with my other dogs I knew the drugs given to him would likely leave him disoriented and possibly even induce a mild form of psychosis.  I had witnessed our beloved Alice snap at invisible ghosts on the day she recovered from anesthesia, while Tara whimpered and cowered before her self-imposed terrors.  Taking all of this into consideration I knew that bringing poor Scruggs home would be even more difficult than usual. 
Therefore, I knew it would be crucial to have a safe place for him to recover.  I decided the laundry room was the best place for him.  It was connected to the family room by a very short hallway.  I carefully placed the bed and a bowl of water for him in the room and erected a gate so that he could hear us in the family room.  The area would be dark, somewhat secluded and away from the prying noses of the other two dogs.  He also would be able to hear our voices from the adjoining room.  I thought it was dark enough in the laundry room to be like a den to give him the sense that he had a place to hide while he recovered from the anesthesia and settled into the rhythms of our household.

With all the dashing around, I couldn’t decide if I was happy or just scared to death.  When all seemed secure, I called the office. My mistake.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

CHAPTER NINE PREPARING FOR THE HOMECOMING—A PLATE TOO FULL (35TH installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

(35TH installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

The day that my new dog and new kitten were to come home was a blur of activity for me as I tried to balance my law practice with the demands of bringing two new animals into my home.  My calendar of appearances had me going to two different courthouses in two different counties. At each appearance I was jittery and anxious to be done quickly. I wanted to finish being a lawyer for a while so I could enjoy the thrill of bringing a new dog and kitten into our house. 
In preparation of Scruggs’s and Samantha’s homecoming I still needed to buy a collar and leash for Scruggs and prepare a safe place for them both to recover from their respective surgeries.  I was afraid the general anesthesia would leave both animals disoriented and fragile when they first got home, and I was especially concerned for little Samantha.
The tiny black kitten was small enough to hold in the palm of my hand.  And, while I knew the shelter said they would not perform surgery if she wasn’t at least two pounds, I was almost positive that two pounds of cherries had more heft than she did.  I also worried about her actual age. Upon closer inspection I realized her copper-colored eyes were a blending of baby blue and yellowish green.  It was a sure sign she was probably less than six weeks old, more likely closer to five.  With her tiny size and delicate condition, I knew from experience she would need extra care and nursing.
Of course Scruggs presented problems of his own.  I was almost certain that if he was the street dog we presumed he was, he would not be housebroken.  This would require effort and attention to him as he learned what to expect in our household. 
Besides the individual demands presented by Samantha and Scruggs, bringing any new animal into a home was a challenge.  I knew it was a heavy responsibility and one that needed to be handled with care.  It was not enough to simply want an animal and bring it home; rather, it was important to establish a ritual to introduce the new pets to the already established environment.  I knew some planning needed to go into the process.   More than anything, I knew in my heart that any dog, cat, bird, or other pet was not a disposable accessory to be brought out or put away depending on the mood of their owner—or, worse yet, discarded like an unwanted toy when they no longer brought pleasure to the owner.
As anxious as I was to complete my court appearances, everything seemed to conspire against me that day.  I fretted as a routine felony arraignment that should have taken five minutes instead took a half hour.  Traffic was horrible when I drove to the next court, turning a thirty-minute drive into almost an hour.  Then I was left to twiddle my thumbs for more than an hour at a misdemeanor pretrial in which the deputy district attorney could not be found to handle my case.  It seemed that everywhere I stepped that morning I was met with the quicksand of overcrowded courts snaring me and pulling me under.  Finally, at a few minutes before noon, I was able to walk out the door of the courthouse of my last appearance.  I knew I was needed at the office, but I had errands to run to make the house ready for the new adoptees.
Rushing to my car, my phone rang.  As I started to juggle it to my ear, I could see from the caller ID that it was Prince Charming.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Just now getting done,” I answered.
“You been to the pet store yet?” he asked.
I felt my shoulders hunch as tension tightened my neck.  My eyes squinted and my voice got tight.  “Not yet,” I said, grinding my teeth.
I took a breath and continued.  “I got held up in court today.  Everything took longer than expected.”
“You coming in today?” he asked.
I closed my eyes, picturing the pile of work sitting on my desk requiring my attention. If I spent at least four hours of uninterrupted time I could probably get most of the work cut in half.  But at the office there was no such thing as uninterrupted time.  The same well-meaning secretary, who assaulted me with messages as soon as I walked in the door, was the same one who did not understand a closed door to my office meant I was not to be interrupted.  She would routinely pass the calls straight through to me without first finding out if she could help the client herself.  The thought of going to the office dampened any joy I felt at the thought of bringing Scruggs and Samantha home.
As my law partner waited for my answer, I felt my shoulders and neck tighten.  My familiar headache returned as I weighed my options.  I was needed at the office, but I also needed to prepare the house for the animals.  If I went directly to the office, there was always the chance I would not get free to do what needed to be done at the house.
As the silence hung between the two of us I finally made a decision.  “Listen,” I said.  “Let me just run over to the pet store and get the few things we need for Scruggs and Samantha, then I’ll be in.”
“You want lunch?” he asked.
“No, just let me run the errands,” I said.
“You need to eat,” he said.
I look back on it now and know he was trying to be kind, but with the state of cold war between the prince and me I wasn’t ready to give him any grace.  I immediately jumped to the defensive.
“And just when do I have time to eat?” I growled.  “I have too much to do.  It never ends, does it?  The more I do, the more all of you expect.  I have a secretary who won’t type my work because she expects me to do my own typing.  You expect me to do all your motion work.  And I am expected to meet with clients.  Just when do I have time to also do the ‘wifey’ things that need to be done?”  By then my head of steam had reached a point that I wanted to kick at the tires of my car.  But I had already tried that trick, leaving a large black smudge across a new pair of camel-colored boots instead of releasing my angst.  I was left to stamp my feet like a four-year-old.
From the silence on the other end of the phone, I assumed Prince Charming was counting to ten, maybe even more, given the silence hanging between us.
Finally, he responded.  “Okay, just run your errands.  Then, please, check with me when you get done.”

I was left with nothing to say. I snapped my phone shut without even a good-bye, knowing Prince Charming hated it when I hung up on him.  But, by then I didn’t care.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

CHAPTER EIGHT SCRUGGS MEETS THE “KIDS”— (34th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)



(34th installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

The afternoon of the adoption meeting I had finally controlled my two dogs, Fina and Tara enough that we could sit quietly outside of the Humane Society. As we waited, Agent Tamara drove into the unloading area of the shelter.  She saw us waiting on the grass and came to greet us.
“So, you’ve brought the kids?” she asked.  “Do you need some help?”
I almost laughed out loud but managed to smile instead.  “Sure,” I answered.  “Why don’t you take Fina, the Rottie mix, and I’ll take Tara.”
With both dogs under control, we were able to enter the shelter to meet Scruggs.  But my reason for anxiety wasn’t over yet. 
Once inside the compound, Agent Tamara handed both leashes to me as she headed into the office.  “You wait here,” she said.  “I’ll get someone to bring your new dog out here so that everyone can meet.”
I started to protest, hoping the “meet and greet” would occur at the safe haven of the adoption pen.  It was quiet there, and I hoped my dogs would settle down enough to make a good impression.  The last place I wanted it to occur was in the yard with the trucks.  But before I could raise my voice to ask for a quieter place, Tamara was out of sight.  I was left to handle the dogs on my own, apprehension filling me.
While we waited, I kept both dogs in a “sit” position; both of them were acting like it was no big deal to wait quietly at the dog pound. But I knew it was an act. 
Tara was panting heavily as she split her attention from my face to the distracting sound of confined and barking dogs. Fina kept shifting from a “sit” to a “down” position, inching closer and closer to the pens as she changed position. She was doing her equivalent of a doggy sneak, but it was easier to ignore her than reprimand her.
Agent Tamara appeared a short time later with a broad smile on her face.  “One of the volunteers will bring your dog around,” she said.  “I’ll just wait here with you.”
As she stood next to Tara, the dog took the opportunity to give her hand a swipe with her large tongue. 
“How sweet your dog is,” she said, patting Tara’s head.
I knew it wasn’t affection. I could tell from the look in Tara’s eyes. She was pleading with someone she sensed had authority and was asking to leave that place. Fina just kept inching closer and closer to the sound of the other dogs, silently inching until she was almost at the end of her leash.
I could see Scruggs coming around the corner. He was a whirling dervish of golden activity, twirling and jumping as he used the volunteer for a Maypole. Scruggs wrapped the leash around the volunteer’s legs, causing him to pirouette to unwind. All that was missing were a few ribbons and some music.
“Here,” Agent Tamara said.  “We’ll take the Rot up first to meet the dog. If that goes well, then we’ll bring the other dog. We don’t want a pack issue if the two decide they don’t like the new dog.”
I knew she was concerned that the two buddies might decide for whatever reason not to like Scruggs. Because they were pack mates, they could turn on the new dog instantaneously if either one of them decided the new dog was a threat.
Okay, so that was the plan, but in keeping with the day, the plan didn’t work.  As soon as Fina saw Scruggs she bolted from my hand, ripping not only the leash from me, but taking at least two layers of skin with it.  She ran headlong toward the dog. Tara seeing Fina’s reaction started to stand to follow.
“Oh, crap,” I said as I started to run after Fina.  While I was on the move, Tara started moving, too. She ran in front of me, cutting me off like a nose tackle. I sprawled headlong on the concrete, skinning my knees and my hands. I looked up just in time to see Fina wiggle a greeting at Scruggs. Soon both dogs were sniffing each other’s’ butts, both laughing a greeting.  Then Tara, the more reserved of the two dogs, joined them and created a circle of butt-sniffing and tail-wagging.
By this time Agent Tamara and the volunteer were laughing.  “Looks like there’s no issue if the dogs will get along,” she said.
“No, just a question if the two black ones will live,” I said under my breath.
“Huh?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I answered.  “I’m just glad they all get along.”
“Okay, then, I’ll sign this form giving the okay for you to adopt your dog, and you can pick him up tomorrow,” Tamara said.
“And the kitten?” I asked.  “She has to be spayed.  Will you keep her a couple of days to recuperate?”
“Oh, no,” Tamara responded.  “We perform the surgery in the morning, and they’re ready to go by four o’clock. We close at six, so you need to get them sometime before then.”
I was a little shocked.  Samantha was little; I wasn’t even sure she was two pounds.  Being such a tiny baby, I was afraid for her safety.  Just as I was starting to protest, I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“I hope I’m not too late,” Prince Charming said.
I squinted and hunched my shoulders, looking at my raw and blistered hands.  Oh, hell no, he wasn’t “too late.” I wanted to yell at him for making me suffer alone.  But by that time he and Agent Tamara were chatting amicably about the great social greeting the dogs were having.  She reiterated to him the animals would be ready for pick-up the next day as he nodded agreement.
“Great,” he said.  “If you can hold them till about five o’clock, I’ll make sure I keep my calendar clear.  I want to be here when Scruggies and Samantha come home.”
I found myself squinting at him in disbelief again. Not for one moment did I believe he’d remember to come with me. I was too used to being alone, and I was positive something would come up to keep him from coming with me. 
Just thinking about the imagined future slights fouled my mood.  I stayed silent and cranky all the way to the car.  Never mind that Prince Charming was there to handle the more rambunctious Fina.  Never mind that it would have been almost impossible to get both dogs back into the car without his help.  My focus was on my bleeding palms and my torn pant leg.  I wasn’t ready to forgive and I definitely wasn’t ready to forget.  

MARY DE LA PEÑA,  author of Scruggs and Samantha

I’ve been thinking too much about death lately, not because I consider myself morbid or anything, but rather grief is surrounding me bringing death up close and personal. It has me wondering how we survive having our faith tested by loss. Do we just fold our tents and give up, or do we find a purpose and reason to continue forward—or, does God send angels in different forms and personas to give us messages of hope and compassion?
Recently, a man who my husband considered not only one of his closest friends, but also his comrade in arms, died from cancer. The men were more than just friends; each had played a major role in saving the other’s life in in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos. But, it was more than just my husband’s loss, great as it was, Jack’s wife was also my dear friend and her grief brought into close focus the question of what I will do should my much older husband predecease me? It is that question that has spun me into fear, anticipatory loss, and panic—how can I live without him?
A few years ago I was surrounded by loss—my mother, my children’s paternal grandparents, my ex-husband, and too many cats, as well as a dog. It was the succession of losses that finally sent me on a journey to rescue an animal, truly believing that if I rescued an animal I would find meaning in my life. The quest became the catalyst for my book, Scruggs and Samantha, How a Shelter Dog and Kitten Saved Cinderella’s Marriage. Yet, more importantly, rescuing my golden dog Scruggs and the tiny black kitten (now a very overweight cat) brought into focus that God gives us angels in many forms, we only need to open our hearts and minds to see His gifts.
Here’s what I mean: Last Friday I was in the cafeteria of the local courthouse worrying about my clients and my husband. I was in a real funk, dragging my chin on the ground, convinced I had been forsaken. Lost in thought I have no idea from whence she came, but suddenly a woman appeared and placed a small booklet on my table. She said, “This will help,” and then she disappeared. I looked down and the book was entitled, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled. 
Reaching for the booklet my hand felt as if it was shot through with an electric current—a peace settled over me as I opened it. I read, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” (Psalms 46:1) and “Cast thy burden unto the LORD, and He shall sustain thee.” (Psalms 55:22)
There was more, but the first few phrases broke my dissolute spell, and I felt my heart stir. Yes, I was still afraid, but at least I my faith in angels was restored. But, God came to me again. When I returned home that afternoon my dogs and Boo Bear, my new cat, did not leave my side. They stayed near me, sleeping on my feet, sitting on my lap, comforting me with their presence.  My own precious angels were again working their magic.
So, as I ponder death, grief, and the anguish of loss after my friend’s funeral and internment in the National Cemetery, I am accompanied by my angel Boo, with my other angel Scruggs at my feet. Their presence gives me comfort, and I know that God will give me the strength I need by sending His angels to restore me when I most need them.
To all of you reading this, let not death frighten you. Let not loss deter you. For you are surrounded by angels, you only need to look, listen, and let them into your hearts.

For more on my precious angles, read Scruggs and Samantha, How a Shelter Dog and Kitten Saved Cinderella’s Marriage, available through

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

CHAPTER EIGHT SCRUGGS MEETS THE “KIDS”—MEET TARA and FINA (31st installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)



(31st installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

My heart was light as I rushed home to collect the “kids” for their appointment with Agent Tamara and Scruggs.  I wasn’t overly concerned that either of my two dogs would have a problem with meeting another dog.  They were dog park pros, after all, and were used to meeting other dogs. The only thing that I was concerned about was my physical ability to handle the two large dogs by myself.
Tara, my full-blooded Rottweiler, was a gentle spirit.  Although she was more than twenty-six inches at her shoulder, and weighed a German-svelte 116 pounds, she had no concept of her power and strength.  As with Katie who had come before her, and our beloved Alice, she had been front-loaded with obedience training. 
Fina, a rescue who had found her way into our household, was my major concern.  She was a Rottweiler mix of indeterminate origin, and I had long told her that, while her momma may have been a Rottweiler, her daddy was a coyote.  She had the distinctive black and tan markings of a Rottweiler, but her nose was sharply pointed and her body was lean with the long coyote legs made for trotting great distances.  More telling than her body shape and size was her tendency to howl and her desire to hunt.  She howled at everything, including the moon, and the coyotes who sang at our back fence and any dog that passed by on the street.  Worse yet, she was almost a year old when she was rescued from a backyard and made her way to my home.  But it was during a time I had been preoccupied with my mother’s illness and eventual death.  Prince Charming had also been an absent “daddy” during that time, as he was too busy taking care of business during my absences from the office.  As a result, Fina was never properly trained in obedience other than basic commands we used around our house. 

Like the other dogs in the house, Fina had learned to “get out of the kitchen” and wait patiently at the invisible line separating the kitchen from the dining room.  She would “potty” on command, squeezing out a few drops when necessary to earn her treat.  She even knew sit and “lay down,” which was the more informal command meaning “come lay down next to me,” rather than immediately drop to the ground.  But some of the other commands were beyond her.  She did not know how to walk quietly at my side, either in the “heel” position or the casual walk.  Most troubling of all, she only came when she wanted to, which meant only when she thought food or a treat was imminent.  So, while I wasn’t worried too much about my ability to handle Tara, I was very concerned about Fina.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

CHAPTER EIGHT SCRUGGS MEETS THE “KIDS”—WE’RE NOT GOING IN THERE (33rd installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)



(33rd installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

The scene of me trying to load the two dogs in the quietude of our own neighborhood was bad enough, but the shelter was worse. Instead of the quiet of my neighborhood, we were met with the cacophony of barking from the dogs confined in cages. Trucks were coming and going, and the usual number of people were milling around the front of the building.
The noise was enough to send both dogs into exaggerated behaviors.  Fina became more boisterous, while Tara was more reluctant and more alert.  Fina was determined to find the dogs she heard barking, and Tara was convinced she needed to keep me from entering that hellish place.
Fina immediately bolted from the car, almost jerking my arm from its socket.  Tara refused to leave the safety of the car. She rolled her eyes at me, pleading with me not to go anywhere near those cages.
Figuring Tara was safe in the car, I tried to get Fina under control.  “Fina,” I said firmly.  “Fina, come.”
She looked back over her shoulder at me and continued to dance at the end of the leash.
“Fina, damn it, come!”
Her eyes widened at my voice.  Maybe it was the use of the D-word, or maybe it was my tone, but she tucked her stubby tail close to her tan butt and slinked back to me.
That was enough for Tara; she immediately leaped from the SUV and came to sit next to me, leaning her considerable weight against my knee.  Fina wiggled her way over to the larger dog, licking her face and head, and then she also sat down.
“All right, you two,” I said.  “You have to behave.  We’re meeting a new dog, and you have to be good.”
Right, as if the dogs could understand me.  It wasn’t a Disney tale.  Both dogs just took up where they left off, with Fina surging ahead and Tara cross-stepping in front of me in an attempt to herd me back to the car.  Barely in control I tripped and pushed and pulled the two dogs to the entrance of the Humane Society.
 Of course, as most wives do whenever they are faced with a situation they can’t control they blame their husbands.  I blamed Prince Charming.  I silently cursed him as I sweated from the effort of controlling the two large dogs.  Then, I cursed him aloud at the entrance to the shelter when Fina came to a sliding halt and Tara began to back up, pulling hard against the leash.  Both dogs decided they wanted no part of entering hell.
Fina bolted back to Tara, again licking her face as if telling her, “You’re right, we don’t want to go in there!”  Both dogs turned and started pulling me back toward the car.  I slammed on my brakes, trying to dig my heels into the concrete walk, determined not to lose the ground I had gained.  But the dogs outweighed me, and their fear gave them extra strength to pull me along as I slid and stumbled backward away from the front gate.
Frustrated, hot, and aching from pulling on the two dogs, I started to cry, blaming Prince Charming for the mess I had created.
“Damn it,” I cried.  “Why do I always have to do this alone?”
With tears streaming down my face, I braced harder against the dogs, ordering Tara to stop.  It was a command she had learned years before, and she knew it meant that whatever she was doing she was to stop immediately.
She halted, one foot raised in mid-stride.  She rolled her eyes back at me, pleading but still obeying.  With Tara frozen in place, Fina stopped her headlong rush to the car long enough to come back to her buddy.
The area where we came to rest was the grassy strip of land fronting the Humane Society.  I pulled both dogs off the sidewalk onto the grass.
“Wait,” I said.  “Just wait, you two.”
I gathered the leashes into my hand, not moving, just letting the dogs sniff the air and the grass.  We waited for about five minutes to settle our emotions.  Finally, Tara began to relax.  She came to me and sat by my side.  Fina followed. It was enough to make me believe I could do this.

Silly me. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

CHAPTER EIGHT SCRUGGS MEETS THE “KIDS”—YOU WANT US TO DO WHAT? (32nd installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)



(32ND installment, Scruggs and Samantha, by Mary de la Pena)

The afternoon of the temperament and bonding meeting between Scruggs and my other two dogs was very hot by the time I attempted to load both dogs into the SUV.
Loading them was nearly disastrous. We were a scrum of dogs, leashes, under-the-breath curses, and near-death trips and falls as I tried to load the dogs. Fina was pulling on the leash in her effort to be first. She didn’t know where we were going, only that we were going somewhere; wherever that place was, she wanted to be first in line.
Tara was more reticent.  She sensed I was distracted and somewhat apprehensive. That was all she needed to know to put her on hyper-alert.  She went into guard mode, which meant she kept trying to put herself in front of me to ward off the unseen danger she knew was lurking somewhere near.  I was left to twirl, push, and pull the dogs toward the SUV.
As soon as I opened the rear lift-gate with the automatic opener, Fina rushed headlong to jump into the rear compartment. Unfortunately for her, her leash stopped her mid-leap.  She crashed down just short of her target, causing me to trip over her as I tried to encourage Tara to jump into the car. With Fina thrashing around on her back, tangled in the leash, Tara decided there was no way she was going anywhere near the area causing the other dog’s distress. She threw her 116 pounds against the leash and pulled her collar off her neck. With nothing to stop her she bolted back to the safety of the front door, and sat firmly on the welcome mat, rolling her eyes at me when I called.
Fina, on the other hand, finally disentangled herself from the leash and jumped gracefully into the rear area of the SUV.  However, whenever I pushed the button to close the lift gate, she jumped out of the car and ran around it in her self-devised game of chase. As the game continued, I caught her leash, led her to the rear of the vehicle, and again opened the lift gate for her to jump in, only to have her jump out again as soon as she saw the door start to close.
In and out, around and around we went. Finally, I just stopped.
“Enough,” I said.  “Enough, you two!”
Fina froze in her tracks, staring hard at me. 
Tara, come,” I said with a deep growl to my voice.
Tara came around the corner of the house and looked at me but continued to lean toward the front door.
“Both of you,” I said.  “Enough. Fina, stay. Tara, come!”
Fina, who really had never learned the word “stay,” flopped down on her back instead, waving her legs in the air in complete submission.  Tara slinked toward me, her stump of a tail pressed hard against her tan butt.
I pressed the remote for the lift-gate, glaring at Fina, daring her to move. She continued to wiggle on her back, legs straight up in the air. Tara froze watching me intently.
“Both of you,” I said in my commanding voice. “Get in the car, now.”
Fina flipped over and immediately jumped in the car. Tara came toward the car and danced at the rear, pleading with me to help her into the car.
“Don’t give me that, Tara,” I said.  “You can jump.  Get in the car.”
With one more pleading glance back at me, she rocked on her hind legs a few times. Then, with a clumsy arching leap, she landed in the rear compartment of the SUV.
“Now, stay, you two,” I commanded as I pressed the button.  Neither one moved while the rear door closed, safely locking them inside.  
Exhausted from the effort, I again wondered if I could handle three large dogs. These two were hard enough, with one of them trained, and the other slightly trained. Scruggs was clearly a street dog with no training at all. He needed calm consistency, not emotional tirades.
I closed my eyes in silent prayer and prayed for strength.  As I did so, I felt my resolve to adopt Scruggs and Samantha again come coursing back into me.

I wish I could say that my two dogs were better at the shelter, but of course they weren’t.