7.25.2011

Letting Go

Letting go.

It’s one of the hardest things we ever have to do… but nevertheless, we have to do it.

Sometimes, the choice is ours. Other times, the choice is made for us. Either way, we're often forced to let go… to release the past in order to embrace the future. This is how we grow.

But even still... it never sucks any less…

In life, I have to let go of people. I have to let go of places and things. I have to let go of memories, dreams, and nightmares. I have to let go of the things I cannot change. I have to let go of mistakes and misfortune. I have to let go of the person I thought I’d be… in order to face the person I’ve become.

In animal rescue, I have to let go of my dogs. I have to let go of my heart. I have to let go of my desire to save them all. I have to let go of the wish for a better world, and simply face reality for what it is today. I have to let go of those I couldn’t reach. I have to let go of my pain, my anger, and my guilt. I have to let go of “life,” as most people know it. And often, I have to let go of me… for them.

Each and every time I let go, it feels like my heart is being ripped from my chest. The pain is truly unbearable. I feel that pain… I breathe that hurt… I can almost taste the sadness.

But life forces us to let go for a reason. Sometimes, we know what that reason is… and we can clearly see where the change will lead. But most of the time, we must blindly let go... and take that leap… with no parachute.

It’s terrifying, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking. It’s also life-changing… and really, life-saving.

Because when we least expect it, the reason why we had to let go becomes clear… and suddenly, everything makes sense.

When you let go of your past… always grab onto your present… and never lose faith in your future. Because I can promise you this: letting go leads to possibility... every single time.

And just remember: as we let go, sometimes hope is all we have. Never let go of that.


7.21.2011

Save the Beers

Funny....
I should be "funny" today.
Yep

I'm sure everyone can use a laugh... so let's make that happen at my expense, okay? 

PS- For anyone who is "lacking" in the sense of humor department, it's probably best to leave now... before your unnecessary judgment begins to eat away at your soul.
(I mean that in a loving way. Really.)

Sooo, I won't lie... I'm feeling a little rough today. I'm not technically "sick." At least, not in the general sense of the word. Yet, I'm slightly functional... and hey... that's something.

But regardless of how I feel today, the laughs I had last night were totally worth the semi-permanent reduction in physical strength and mental capacity. Totally.

Most of you have no idea what I'm talking about right now. Yeah, me neither. But I know this much for sure: sometimes, you have to take a step back from all of the serious junk in the world... and just allow yourself to have some fun. I'm talking ridiculously stupid, completely nonsensical, seemingly-immature-but-well-worth-the-effort fun.

I try to have fun every day, but let's be honest... some days, it just ain't gonna happen. Certain days may start off on a decent foot, but it doesn't take long for the asshats to show-up, the bills to arrive, and the world to say, "Oh really?! You thought today was going to be 'fun?!' That's hilarious! Good luck, stupid!"

Other days, you never had a shot at fun. You wake up late, and the first words out of your mouth are, "Son-of-a-piece-of-a-mother-jank-face!" And from there... it's game over. On days like that, your only hope for sanity (or maybe the opposite?) is that end-of-day beer drinking.

Welcome to yesterday for me.

Reba McEntire, circa 1995
Last night, I altered my mission just a smidge: Save the beers. That's right. I said it. Judge me if you like, but those beers were cold and suffering... they needed me. And guess what? I was there for them. I certainly was.

After a trip to the shelter (beer store), several other facebook friends joined me... and within just a few short hours, we were able to create a nationwide network of beer rescuers.

Wait, crap... I forgot about all of the help we had in Canada, too. Why do I always seem to forget about Canada?? Oh, that's right... it's because most Mississippians are totally unaware that Canada is an actual country. I've had many arguments about this topic... and even though I'm unmistakably correct when I say, "It IS a country," I somehow always lose that battle 'round these parts. Oh well... small price to pay...

Okay, back to the pointless blog post that will inevitably ruin my reputation...

Sooo, last night's beer rescue league managed to produce one of the funniest nights ever recorded on facebook... with more than 268 hilarious comments on a photo of me drinking a beer-- Bud Light to be exact (I'm hoping for some kind of sponsorship).

Honestly, there's nothing better than a ridiculously long thread filled with inappropriate comments, political incorrectness, and borderline illegality. Well... depends on your definition of "borderline." I haven't heard from a few of you today... so... if you're looking to make bail, call someone else. I'm waaay low on cash, and my 2011 New Year's Resolution was to stay FAR AWAY from prison... at all costs. Sorry.

So, the first unnecessary thread led to a dare from Jodi Chick (proud Canadian) to upload a photo of myself posing as Reba McEntire, circa 1995 (don't ask). Since the word "dare" means "you have to," I made it happen. (And I scored a 5 spot. Ja-ja-ja- jackpot!)

$5 richer
That photo led to another ridiculous thread, and another photo request/dare from another random person. The stakes were high... he offered to be my friend in return for a photo with a special pose just for him. And so, once again, I was able to save yet another beer, and make another 5 bucks. If I'm being honest, I was damn proud of me.

Soooo, $10 and an unspecified number of beers later, I had accomplished my mission. That's right: I saved the beers last night, ladies and gentlemen. But really--as with all rescues--they saved me.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that a few dedicated beer drinkers changed the world last night. We made a difference by opening our hearts and veins to those in need. Thank you... to each and every one of you... for being selfless and giving enough to save sooo many sad, very cold beers from suffering. I believe a few Doritos found homes as well, and that's huge.

Thanks y'all, really. Because of you, I feel like pure ass today. It means so much.

7.19.2011

How to Change the World

Here's my best advice:

The people who truly change the world have the following mindset: They don't just accept things for the way they are. They don't just wish things were better. They look at each situation, and ask, "How can I change this for the better... given the existing limitations?" And BAM-- the world is suddenly more awesome.

This represents my core view of change... and the thought process behind each of my decisions and actions.

Basically, I look at life as a series of obstacles... a unique set of challenges that can either be:
accepted for what they are,
wished away for what they're not,
or changed into what they should be.

The third option requires the most work, as well as the right mindset, proper strategy, and most importantly... action.

But, we live in a world of complacency... mixed with a controlled desire for things to be different. Thus, our society often lacks the motivation to take any credible action toward change.

And, therein lies the problem. Accepting injustice only breeds more injustice. Wishing for change only brings less change.  

There's no question that the world is full of barriers and limitations. In the short-term, certain conditions exist... whether you like them or not. Sometimes, the laws are the problem. Sometimes, it's the people, or the finances, or the environment. You may want to change these things... but, as far as today--right now--goes... you aren't moving that mountain before dark.

So, instead, many people just accept these stumbling blocks as concrete walls, claiming, "It is what it is. Why try? I can't change it." 

And trust me on this: if you believe that you can't change something... you won't.

Other people wish. They wish that things could be different... they hope... they pray... that maybe--someday, somehow--the world will be a better place. Maybe things will magically change without the need to take action, or maybe someone else will do something about it...

Maybe someone else will save all the pets in the animal shelters. Maybe someone else will foster that dog. Maybe someone else will donate to charities. Maybe someone else will adopt a pet. Maybe someone else will volunteer for the dog rescue. Maybe someone else will change the laws. Maybe someone else will end the killing. Maybe someone... anyone... but me.

 If enough of those narrow-minded thinkers get together... nothing will ever change for the better. Nothing.

Change only occurs with action-- the right action, driven by the right plan, made at the right time. Anyone who has ever changed anything understands this. If you've never truly changed the world, even in some small way, re-read that sentence. Then, go out and do something about it.

In the short-term, change requires a realistic approach... taking action, based on the unlimited possibilities within the limited circumstances. Essentially, you're thinking outside-the-box... while staying inside-the-box.

In the long-term, the "box" becomes irrelevant... because the unlimited possibilities can be leveraged to "un-limit" the circumstances.

This is where the world really changes--forever. Think big. Think different. Think no-kill.

Short-term changes lead to long-term changes. Small differences lead to big differences. But here's the best part: anyone can contribute. Everyone can do something. Never ever say that you can't change the world. You can.

And when you do... BAM-- the world is suddenly more awesome.

*If you'd like to help animal shelters, adopt a pet, or volunteer for Lucky Dog Rescue, send me an email: luckydogrescueblog@gmail.com. 
**If you'd like to donate to charities, I've got one here for ya! 

7.18.2011

Helping Others


Last year, my friend, Katie Autry, gave me a special birthday gift… a card filled with the life-saving donations from those willing to donate to charities. But within that gift, I also found a world of thought, time, and effort... love, goodwill, and empathy. And, most of all… hope.

I’ll never forget how I felt that day: the overwhelming sense of gratitude, the warmth of understanding, the power of compassion, and the many possibilities of hope.

In the year since, I’ve tried to share that incredible feeling with as many people and animals as possible. On my birthday last year, I wrote the following goals on a piece of paper:

This year, every chance I get, I will do these things:  give back, pay it forward, and inspire change.

And so, in addition to dog rescue, I’ve been able to help a lot of people this year… some truly amazing people. People who give far more than they ever take, and receive far less than they really deserve.

When I look at the people I’ve helped the most, I realize that none of these people ever asked for my help… and most of them never saw it coming. That was the most rewarding part for me, because without their knowledge or request, I was able to plant seeds of hope for each of these people… seeds that would sprout as inspiration, and bloom into the change I wish to see in the world. It’s been incredible to witness.

I’d like to honor a couple of the amazing people I’ve had the privilege of working with this past year... and thank them for helping me accomplish my goals for age 26: give back, pay it forward, and inspire change…


Give Back: ARF of MS & Pippa Jackson
I often write about Pippa Jackson of the wonderful animal shelter, Animal Rescue Fund (ARF) of MS, because she’s an incredible friend, animal rescue advocate, and human being. When it comes to people who inspire me, Pippa is at the very top of my list. She gives everything of herself and takes nothing in return. And honestly, she makes the world a better place, just by being in it. 

Yet… I watch her constantly struggle beneath the weight of a world that doesn’t always appreciate the beauty and rarity of a Pippa Jackson. A world that expects of her, takes from her, and tries to break her spirit. Despite this, Pippa has always been there for me. Always. But, I never really felt like I was able to give back at the level she deserved.

Then, a couple of months ago, I got that opportunity… my chance to say “Thank you for all that you do.”  Due to a county breed ban, Pippa was forced to find immediate placement for 6 Pit Bulls at her animal shelter, which is no easy task for any animal rescue. She called me… not for help, but for friendship and understanding in her time of despair.

That’s when I finally got the chance to give back the hope she’s given to me so many times. I offered to take all 6 Pit Bulls at Lucky Dog Rescue… to remove the entire burden from her shoulders at once. For me, that act was nothing compared to all of the incredible work Pippa does for this world. But for her, it was everything.

*ARF of MS is in desperate need of donations. Please donate to this amazing shelter! 

Pay It Forward: Stacey Mae & Maria Mandel
Few humans or dogs have ever inspired me quite like Maria Mandel & her dog Stacey Mae. A few months ago, I found Stacey Mae’s facebook page and learned of her mission. I was so moved by her incredible work in nursing homes and children’s hospitals, and I wanted to help.

I asked Maria if I could feature Stacey Mae’s mission on my blog, and I started promoting Stacey Mae on all of my facebook pages… encouraging more people to support her incredible work.

At that time, Stacey Mae’s page had 1,800 Likes. Today, Stacey Mae has 11,717 fans.

In addition, through my desire to help Stacey’s love reach even more people in need, I promoted Stacey Mae’s Teddy Bear Project. For the summer project, Maria set a goal of 100 bears. To date, she has received 1,237 teddy bears for delivery to children’s hospitals and nursing homes.

And so, by paying it forward, more than 1,000 additional people were touched by Stacey Mae’s love in their time of need. Unreal.


Thank you, Maria and Stacey Mae, for making this a world that I’m proud to live in.

Inspire Change: Save the Animal Kisses & Arianna
A couple months back, I received a very touching message from the father of a 13-year-old girl named Arianna. Arianna had been so inspired by my blog that she’d started an organization called Save the Animal Kisses (SWAK), in order to raise funds to donate to charities.

Arianna's dad sent me a link to the SWAK website and fan page, and said: “If you don’t mind, it would really mean the world to Arianna if you would Like her page. You’re her inspiration.”

I was beyond touched, so I quickly checked out her website and Liked her facebook page. Then, I looked over at the number of Likes: 19 fans. With a mischievous grin on my face, I developed the following goal: Get Arianna to 100 Likes by the time she gets out of school today.

It doesn’t sound like much, but I knew what that simple act could do for the confidence of a 13-year-old girl with a dream of saving the world. I was once that little girl… and I wanted Arianna to know that anything is possible when you believe.

Well, my plan backfired, because Save the Animal Kisses had 100 Likes within the first 20 minutes. By the end of the school day, Arianna came home to find 1,000 Likes on her SWAK page, with messages from around the world.

I later received the most touching follow-up message from Arianna’s dad, followed by a hand-written thank you note from Arianna. Her letter said:

Ashley, Thank you for what you did for me! I couldn’t even believe it! That was the coolest thing that has ever happened to me! From the first time I found your blog, I decided that I want to be just like you when I grow up. You help so many animals, and you even help girls like me too! That makes you so cool to me! If YOU think I can change the world, then I think I can too. You made my wish come true, Ashley! Thank you! Love, Arianna

That was on March 31, 2011. Today, Save the Animal Kisses has nearly 3,500 Likes, and Arianna has been able to sell many items to help “save the animal kisses.”

In addition, Arianna and I became close buddies, and a couple of text messages from Arianna led me to a conversation with her parents about fostering a dog. So, I was thrilled when they recently made the decision to become a foster home for animal shelter pets, and I helped them with the pet adoption of their first foster baby.

It was truly amazing to play a part in making Arianna's dreams come true. Inspiring change in one young girl will lead to a lifetime of saved animal kisses. Arianna, as always, I'm so proud of you.


*Please lend your support to these incredible people/groups by Liking their facebook pages, visiting their websites, and giving to their causes.

**My newest "Pay It Forward" project is for my friends at Find Pet Friendly Hotels. PLEASE LIKE their facebook page & use the mobile app anytime you need to find a pet friendly hotel for travel!!!

7.10.2011

A Gift From God

*If you haven’t read Annie’s story, CLICK HERE to read: Before You Go to Heaven

The following blog post is Part 3 of my special anniversary tribute to Rudy.
CLICK HERE to read Part 1!
CLICK HERE to read Part 2!
For my birthday last year, I ordered a special memorial for my Rudy garden, a small statue of a dog with angel wings. On July 21, 2010, the package arrived, and I lovingly placed the memorial on Rudy’s grave. Then, I let my foster dog Pepsi out to play in the yard, and walked inside.

Pepsi was devastated by Rudy’s death, so she spent most of her time mourning by his grave. Well… apparently, that day, Pepsi decided to take a stab at eating concrete statues. Within 30 minutes, she’d chewed most of the paint and some of the concrete from my special Rudy memorial.

When I went to let Pepsi inside, I found the gnawed statue lying on the doorstep. In total disbelief, I picked it up, examined the damage, and said, “You have GOT to be kidding me! Pepsi!!! Concrete?!” Then, I quickly checked her mouth for broken teeth and her throat for any debris. She was fine. The statue… not so much.

Saddened and super-embarrassed, I sent a message to the Etsy seller who made the statue, Mary Ferguson of PhenomeGNOME. The message said:

Mary, I received my statue today, and I love it! It’s perfect! Well… it was. I’m pretty embarrassed to tell you what happened. Rudy’s best friend, my foster dog Pepsi, hasn’t been handling Rudy’s death very well. So, I guess she decided to take it out on my statue today. Thirty minutes after I placed the memorial in Rudy’s garden, I found it by the door. And it was… um… missing some paint, and some… um… concrete. Yes, that’s right. Concrete. Pepsi chewed on a concrete statue.

Sadly, I can’t afford to buy another right now. But I think touching-up the paint may hide some of the teeth marks on the concrete. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.) So anyway, I was wondering if you could tell me what color and type of paint I could use to do touch ups? I know you’re busy, and this isn’t your problem, I just hate to put the chewed-up memorial back by Rudy’s grave. I want it to be special for him. Let me know. And thank you, by the way. Your work is amazing. -Ashley


Pepsi, the culprit

Mary was so gracious and funny about the whole thing. She asked if I could send some photos of the damage so she could determine the best way to fix it. I sent pictures with a message that said: “Welcome to my crazy life!” Mary’s response to the photos made me laugh: “OMG Ashley! She really chomped away at it, didn’t she?!”

Then, Mary generously offered to send me the paint to touch-up the statue, and I offered to pay for shipping. She mailed that package on July 30th and sent me the shipping confirmation. When I tried to send reimbursement, Mary simply said, “Consider it my gift to you. It’s been a pleasure.”

Now, keep in mind-- Mary and I were total strangers at this point. Our interactions had been limited to my initial online purchase and the messaging back-and-forth about Pepsi’s destructive chewing. So, this woman honestly owed me nothing. But that little gesture on her behalf touched me in a way that brought tears to my eyes… and hope to my heart. And honestly, at the time, that was everything to me.

After that, my life got pretty crazy, and my brain wasn’t always functioning at full capacity. A month or so passed, and one day, I suddenly realized that I’d never received the paint. I contacted Mary, and she was shocked to hear that it hadn’t arrived. She re-sent the tracking number, and I checked the status, which said: In-transit. Since Mary didn’t want me to wait any longer, she generously offered to send me another package of paint.

Here’s where it gets good:
When Mary sent that second package, neither of us had any way of knowing that I was about to take-in a special dog named Annie, who would soon leave me for Heaven. So it was ironic that Mary’s package arrived on September 14, 2010… the day Annie died.

That day was incredibly painful for me. While Annie was in my home, I refused to expose her to any sadness. So, the day she died, the walls surrounding my pain finally collapsed.

As I drove home with Annie’s dead body in my backseat, the floodgates opened… and the pain in my heart poured down my face as teardrops. For the first time, I allowed myself to feel the despair I’d held inside since my very first day with Annie. I sobbed uncontrollably… for Annie… for Rudy… and for me. I asked God why He thought I could handle so much… why I was forced to let go of another baby so soon after losing Rudy. It was just unbearable.

Suddenly... I could feel the change taking place within myself. That devastating pain was back in my life… the despair I’d fought so hard to overcome after Rudy’s death. At that moment, I could feel all of the hope slipping from my heart, and honestly, I was ready to give up.

I pulled into my driveway, took a deep breath, and prepared to bury yet another dog. I couldn’t believe it… I was back here once again. But this time, there was no denying the truth: it was real; it was happening; and it was time. I got out, unloaded Annie, and chose a spot right next to Rudy. As I laid her in the ground, I fought back the tears, the pain, and the anger I’d been avoiding for days... and really, since Rudy died.

After I covered her body, I stood there in silence. Then… with the realization that yet another piece of my heart was resting beneath the Earth, I surrendered and walked inside.

That’s when I spotted a package on the counter. The label said, Shipped by: Mary Ferguson. In an attempt to distract my broken heart, I decided to go ahead and open it. I wiped the tears from my eyes, peeled back the tape, and opened the box.

And then… my heart stopped…

There are moments in life where God proves His existence, His compassion, and His mercy. In all my life, I have never known a moment quite like this one.

Because Mary’s package contained more than just touch-up paint. I reached inside to find a brand new memorial statue for Rudy’s grave… and something else. A second memorial piece… shaped like a heart… with a paw print in the middle.

Chills ran down my spine and tears filled my eyes… knowing that this moment was truly beyond all coincidence. My hands were shaking as I opened Mary’s note:

Ashley- I thought both you & Rudy deserved much better than a chewed-up statue, so I sent you another. I also made a second piece just for you. I’m not sure if you have somewhere to put it, but hopefully you can find a place. You have a big heart Ashley -- I can feel it through our communication -- and that heart should be rewarded with more than I can ever give you. -Mary

Suddenly, tears were streaming down my face, as this woman—a complete stranger—had just managed to touch my heart more than anyone else ever had. I was truly speechless, shocked, and awestruck. In that moment, I could feel a divine love surrounding me… a power that was larger than Mary, or myself, and both of us combined.

Because, in truth, Annie didn’t enter my life until after the package was shipped, so Mary had no way of knowing that I would actually need a second memorial, or that it would arrive on the very day I needed it. But through her generosity, I now had the perfect way to honor Annie’s grave, as well as Rudy’s. It was an unbelievable gift.

But, there’s more:
The original package was never delivered to my home, and it was never returned to Mary. We only have the confirmation that it was shipped to my address.

The last time I’d checked the status on that first shipment, was the day before the second package arrived. And, as always, it said: In Transit. So, when the second shipment finally got here, my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to check the status on that first package one last time…

When I entered the tracking number of the original shipment and hit Submit, I read: There is no record of this item.  In disbelief, I rechecked and reentered the information again, with the same result: There is no record of this item. I felt chills all over my body, sensing the power of those events we can’t quite explain. Because… for more than a month, that status had read: In Transit. Then, upon the arrival of an unrelated shipment, there was suddenly no record that the first package had ever existed:  There is no record of this item.

I have no idea what happened to that package, but I know one thing for sure… it was never coming here. My greatest hope is that God re-routed that shipment to someone else with a broken heart. Maybe it brought them the same hope it brought me.

The package from Mary was honestly the turning point for me. Finally, I knew that Rudy was okay; I knew that Annie was okay. And most of all, I knew that I’d be okay, because God still cared about me.

How did I know? Well… on September 14, 2010, I received a gift from God. It came in a cardboard box. And when I opened it, these are the words that filled my heart: “Ashley, You can’t give up, because this is why I created you. Keep going… It’s just about to get good…”

--The story was meant to end there. But, in another ironic turn of events…

Ali & I
Last week, Ali’s new dad, Paul DeLeo, searched online for a surprise gift to send me for the anniversary of Rudy’s death. I had no idea he was doing any of this, and he knew nothing of this story or my relationship with Mary.

So, when he ran across the perfect memorial statue online, he contacted the seller. And ironically, it was none other than Mary Ferguson. When Paul explained that he was buying a surprise gift for his friend Ashley Owen Hill, Mary laughed and said, “I think Ashley already has one of my statues. In fact, she has 2. Well, really, 3!”

Paul was totally confused, so Mary told the story I just shared with you. Then she said, “How about this. Instead of buying something from me, send the money to Ashley as a donation. Also, I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, so make sure you tell Ashley about our chance encounter. I know she’ll be just as excited about it as I am.”
Paul & Ali

And I was. After his talk with Mary, Paul sent me a message, and ironically, I received that message as I was writing this very story. Yet again, I was completely blown away. I responded: “You’re kidding!!! You contacted Mary Ferguson?? My Mary?! I don’t even know what to say!!! I love Mary!”

I smiled and laughed to myself, knowing that, once again, there was no explanation for this event. Honestly, it was so unlikely that Paul would ever contact Mary… eerily unlikely. Yes, Mary Ferguson sells the most incredible garden statues (which you should all BUY!), but there are literally hundreds of other statue/memorial retailers online. When I initially searched for Rudy’s memorial, I looked for hours before I ran across Mary’s wonderful store and the perfect item within it. But of course, Paul found Mary right away. Of course he did.

And so, just in time for Rudy’s anniversary, Mary would enter my life again, to remind me of that unbelievable hope she gave me before. After I replied to Paul, I sent Mary the following message:

Mary- It’s funny how life works its way back around. It’s almost been a year since you first gave me hope… and here we are again.

You probably don’t even realize what you did for me last year, but honestly, you changed everything. At a time when my life could’ve easily gone another way, you were the turning point for me. You showed an incredible amount of compassion to a complete and total stranger, and in doing so, you gave me back my life. I’d always wondered what it feels like for the dogs I save… when someone who owes them nothing… gives them everything. Now I know.

If I tried to explain all the things that have happened in my life since Rudy died, you probably wouldn’t believe me. But believe this: you made it all possible. Thank you, Mary, from the bottom of my heart. Your generosity saved more lives than you could know, including my own.  -Ashley

*Mary Ferguson is an incredible human being with a heart of gold. Please thank her for what she did for me by doing 2 things:
PLEASE LIKE her PhenomeGNOME facebook page, & tell her that I sent you! 
Please visit her Etsy shop, PhenomeGNOME. She specializes in handmade garden statues, and her work is amazing! Please buy something!

CLICK HERE to read all of my blogs about Annie!

CLICK TO DONATE TO LUCKY DOG RESCUE!

7.09.2011

One Year Later

The days and weeks after Rudy’s death were some of the toughest of my life. Especially that next day, July 9, 2010, when I had to accept that he was really gone forever.

During that time, I let the pain break me; I let the grief change me; I let my spirit die with him. I became so far removed from the person I was before, that I honestly didn’t even recognize myself anymore. I was just… there. And barely.

While so many friends tried to comfort me, my only request was to be left alone. Because that’s exactly how I felt… alone. Abandoned. Shocked. Angry. Heartbroken. Devastated. And alone.

Even still, I was lucky to have so many people who cared about me. I received more calls, emails, and special gifts than I had at any other time in my life. I had messages from across the country, from people I’d never talked to, reaching out to offer comfort and support. Each person also took the time to explain how I had personally inspired them in some way, and those words truly meant the world to me.

But honestly... I couldn’t see myself as any kind of inspiration. I felt like quite the opposite… a complete and total failure.
One night, I talked to my friend Katie. She was trying to cheer me up by reminding me of all the lives I’d saved over the years. But for me, it had all lost its meaning. I said, “I don’t even know if I care anymore. I honestly think it’s best for me to take a break for a while. Maybe forever.” Katie said, “Ash! No! These dogs need you! You can’t take a break! Please don’t quit!” I responded, “My heart is too broken for this right now. I just can’t do it anymore.” And I got off the phone.

In saying those words… the words I’d promised myself I’d never say… I never wanted to give up on the dogs who need me. But after Rudy’s death, I suddenly felt like my heart just couldn’t take it, like every bit of strength and optimism I’d held inside had been ripped away. For so long—but not long enough—Rudy had been my comfort… from the pain of the work I do, from the cruelty of the world, and often, from reality itself. And now, he was gone. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. And tragically. In addition to Rudy, what really died for me… was hope.

Rudy died on July 8th. My 26th birthday was on July 11th, and it was easily the toughest birthday I’ve ever had. I hadn’t left my house in days, and the last thing I wanted was for people to wish me a “happy” birthday. I just couldn’t bear to talk to anyone. I knew how depressing it was to be in my presence, and I hated myself for being the person I never wanted to be. I was suddenly so different… in the worst possible way… and I didn’t want to burden others with my pain.

For my birthday, I ordered a special memorial for Rudy, a small garden statue of a dog with angel wings. It was just perfect for the flowerbed I’d planted over Rudy’s grave. *Remember this part of the story… it comes back later… in a big way. I’ll share that tomorrow.*

On my birthday, Katie called, asking if she could stop by my house. I nicely told her that I didn’t want to see anyone. But she insisted, saying, “Ash, I’ll only stay a second. I have something for you.”

So I reluctantly agreed… but I warned her that the person she’d see when she arrived was not the same Ash she knew and loved. When she got here, I could see the initial shock on her face in witnessing what the grief had done to me. Despite that, she said, “You look good, Ash.” I responded: “I look like hell. But thanks for caring enough to lie.” Katie said, “Hush. You always look beautiful.”

She had a big smile on her face… which I found odd… but I assumed she was just trying to help me feel normal again. Then, she handed me a card. As I went to take it from her, she stopped me… and said: “The day after Rudy died, I started calling everyone we know. I wanted your birthday to be special, and I couldn’t stand the thought of you giving up on rescue. If I’d had more time, I could’ve done more… but in 2 days, this is what I was able to do for you…”

I asked, “Katie, what did you do??” She grinned and said, “Open it.” I opened the card to find more than $600 in donations… which at the time, was unprecedented for me. The card itself held more signatures than I could even count.

I was completely speechless. I sat there, staring at this card… a representation of so much compassion… tangible proof that so many people in my hometown actually love me and the work I do. I’ve often asked myself, “Does anyone here really care about my work… about my attempts to change the world?” That day, I knew the answer. They do care. Many of them.

With tears streaming down my face, I said, “You didn’t have to do this.” She said, “I wanted to do it… for you. And for all the dogs who need you. Ash, please don’t give up. Just look at how many people believe in you.”

That was the first time since Rudy died that I thought, maybe… just maybe… hope still existed.

A few days later, a tagged photo on facebook would inevitably lead to the purchase of Lucky Dog Retreat… and the realization of my lifelong dream. Suddenly, I was beginning to understand why Rudy had to leave me. In truth, the void in my heart after his death was ultimately the catalyst of change in my life. That loss would push me forward… guiding me towards hope and opportunity… and allowing me to reach my dreams.

And so... instead of despair, I grabbed hope... and held on for the wildest ride of my life...

Over the next few months, so many positive things happened for me. Lucky Dog Retreat became incredibly successful, and I was able to save many more lives through Lucky Dog Rescue. One of those special dogs was Annie, and later sharing her story would change my life in a huge way. (There’s another piece of Annie’s story I haven’t shared before… an event after her death that would give me all the hope I needed for the rest of this story to be possible. I’ll share that story tomorrow. It’s unreal.)

Over time, as each new rescue dog came through, I could feel their love slowly patching the holes in my heart. There are far too many dogs to list them all by name, but they each changed me, healed me, and further saved me from despair. And in December, I adopted my dog Riley, who would provide the final piece of healing.

Also in December, we launched Pet Pardons, a small idea that became huge. I didn’t understand at the time just how huge it really was, but it was a total game changer for me personally, and a life saver for so many pets on death row. Pet Pardons has restored my faith in humanity, compassion, and action, and to date, more than 150,000 users have helped us save more than 3000 lives.




  


In January, a friend of mine, Catherine Moore, suggested that I start a blog, and she offered to build it for me. Writing has always been a passion of mine, and while I was nervous about putting myself out there, I didn’t have much to lose.

I decided on the name “Lucky Dog Rescue Blog,” and lovingly dedicated the site to my Rudy. On January 12, 2011, I launched my first post, My Story.

In all honesty, my greatest hope was that a couple of people would read it, and maybe one person would feel inspired to get involved. That was honestly the extent of my dreams for this thing. But I had no idea… that this blog would completely change my life...

I started writing, and people started reading. And more started reading. And then even more joined in. Messages from across the country—across the globe—were filling my inbox, and my heart was so full at the realization that people were not only connecting with my words, but also finding comfort and being driven to action.

Then, in March, I wrote the story that would change everything… Annie’s story. Yes, that Annie. Annie was a terminally ill death row rescue, who lived her last days in my home. At the suggestion of some friends, I wrote about her time with me… hoping it would inspire someone to do the same for another deserving dog. On March 7, 2011, I posted Annie’s story, assuming it would be just like every other post.

That’s when I was contacted by Care2.com, asking to feature the story in their “Rescue of the Week” segment. I was truly honored, but I still had no idea how far Annie’s story would reach. Adopt-a-Pet shared the story, Alyssa Milano tweeted the post, and Dogster.com, BellaDog Magazine, and countless other sites and publications also featured the story.

Suddenly, rescues and shelters from across the country were asking for my help to develop end-of-life programs for terminally ill pets. The fabulous Dr. Pia Salk of Adopt-a-Pet also called me for a long chat about how the story had personally impacted her. Pia and I would later work together on a post for Martha Stewart's blog. In addition, Guarding Dogs-The Documentary decided to make Lucky Dog Rescue part of their upcoming film project.

Before March, Annie’s life had only ever mattered to me. Now, her memory lives on in the hearts of more people that I ever could’ve imagined…

Because, to date, Annie’s story has been read and shared by well over 100,000 people… and growing.

Following that post, major websites contacted me to write guest blogs for their readers. For my Dogster.com guest blog, I chose to write a story I’d shared in the past… but from a different perspective. That story… was Rudy’s story… and it would be the next game changer for me. I sobbed as I poured my heart into the story of my little boy, and the writing process healed my heart in places that I didn’t know were still hurting. But in sharing that post, I had no idea just how huge it would be…

After Dogster’s feature, I was flooded with calls and messages from people around the world who had been touched by the piece… and the outpouring of compassion and support was nothing short of incredible. American Dog Magazine featured Rudy’s story in their summer issue, along with another of my blog posts, and a 2-page feature on me and Lucky Dog Rescue. That's 6 pages in their summer issue. Unreal.
Ahh yes, the "Barbie" photo
Following the Rudy blog, several other posts would hit it big, with an insane number of clicks and shares. Every week, I’m contacted by another site or publication that wants to feature one of my posts. It’s completely unbelievable. I wish I had the words to explain how honored, touched, and appreciative I am for the outpouring of support I’ve received. "Thank you" just doesn't seem sufficient.

My blog also led to another amazing event this year. A few months ago, one of my blog readers, Michelle Sathe, author of “Pit Stops,” added Lucky Dog Rescue as a stop on her cross-country book tour. In May, she finally came to visit, and it was one of the highlights of my year by far. Also, the blog post Michelle wrote about her time with me was one of the most wonderful pieces ever written about this ole Mississippi girl.

Today, six months after my very first post, Lucky Dog Rescue Blog gets more than 55,000 page views per month… and growing. I’ve received messages from readers across the world, in more than 30 different countries, and I’ve connected with more people than I ever could’ve imagined. Each day, so many special readers take the time to tell me how I’ve inspired them, changed their way of thinking, or driven them to action. After reading my posts, people are suddenly stepping-up to volunteer, foster, and transport… and those very readers are truly changing the world. It’s just more than I ever dreamed possible.

Because... if I’m being honest... I’m still shocked that anyone at all is reading this thing…

Last month, Lucky Dog Rescue received its official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. That was another huge game changer. At 26 years old, I achieved my ultimate goal in life, giving me the chance to save so many more lives going forward. On that day, I felt Rudy, right there with me, saying, “You did it!” But I never would’ve done it, without him. His life inspired me beyond belief… and his death motivated me like nothing else ever could.

Receiving my tax exempt letter was a major accomplishment and the perfect ending to an amazing year… or so I thought. But just before the year ran out… the final piece fell into place. More on that later, but it’s the biggest game changer of all...



One year ago, my life changed forever. And every day since, it’s changed forever too. But the biggest changes only happened, when I altered my mission… from mourning Rudy’s death… to honoring Rudy’s life.

In doing so, I opened my heart, I followed my dreams, and I fought my way back… to hope.

And wow… what a year it’s been…

*Rudy, I love you so much. Thank you for changing my world as much in death... as you did in life. I hope I've made you proud, buddy. When I get to Heaven, I expect to see a long line of dogs waiting to greet me. Please make sure you're first in line. I miss you.
-Mom

**Next, I’ll share one of the most incredible moments from last year, the event after Annie’s death that made this entire year possible. Click below to read that post (Part 3):

7.08.2011

One Year Ago Today

One year ago today, Rudy passed away. I write about Rudy often, because everything I’ve done since his death has been to honor his memory. But until now, I’ve only given a general overview of Rudy’s passing, and a lot of you have asked me to write about exactly what happened that day. So, this is the full story… of the worst day of my life...

July 8, 2010
For the most part, it was a normal work day. I came home for lunch and walked the dogs. Before I went back to work, Rudy was waiting by the backdoor to go outside. So, I let Rudy and Pepsi out to play, and decided to come back in an hour to let them in. Before I left, I watched out the window, as they joyfully chased each other through the grass. I smiled to myself, and then headed out the door.

I made a couple of sales calls, and then stopped to see my friend Katie at work. As I was leaving the shop, I saw a flyer on the door for a missing dog in my neighborhood. Since I’m always out in the area walking dogs, I decided to call and see if the dog was still missing.

I sat in the parking lot and talked to the family for a while. The woman told me that their dog was still gone, and she tearfully explained that they assumed the worst had happened. My heart hurt for them… so I comforted her, and we talked for a while about dogs and their impact on our lives. I mentioned my dog Rudy, and said I couldn’t even imagine what I’d do if something ever happened to him. Then, I promised to keep an eye out for their pup, and told her I’d be thinking about them. When I hung up the phone, I thanked God that my dogs were all safe and alive, and quickly drove home to hug my babies extra-tight.

It’s ironic that I made that call on this particular day, because it turns out that my Rudy was not safe or alive at all…

This was Rudy's favorite sleeping spot, where he died
I got home, threw my stuff down, and went to let Rudy and Pepsi inside. When I opened the back door, my foster dog Pepsi came running like she always does… but she wouldn’t step foot inside. She was frantic… running toward Rudy’s sleeping spot on the side of the house, then back toward me, then back the other way, as if saying,  “Come! Quick!”

I started calling Rudy’s name, but he didn’t come. The AC unit is right next to Rudy’s favorite spot, and the humming can be pretty loud. So I called his name, louder and louder, as I approached the side of the house…


When I got there, I saw my little angel, sleeping so soundly. I said, “Wake up, sleepy head!” But Rudy didn’t budge. So I walked closer… and in a voice that wasn't quite my own, I said, “Buddy??”

That’s when I saw the image that will haunt me for the rest of my life: Rudy’s eyes were open, his tongue was hanging out, and his jaw was clenched down over it.

And I screamed: “Noooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I ran to him, and started shaking him, saying “Rudy! Buddy, no! Buddy, please wake up! Buddy, no, no, no!” Of course, he didn’t move. So I tried to pick him up, but Rudy weighed a good 80 pounds, and even with all my might, I couldn’t move him. I ran screaming into the house to grab my cell phone, dialed Dustin as I ran out, and hysterically screamed, “Come home now! I think Rudy’s dead!”

I threw the phone on the ground, grabbed the water bowl, and poured it over Rudy’s body to try and revive him. Then, I started CPR. Dustin showed up 2 minutes later in a panic. We lifted Rudy, loaded him in the car, and frantically drove to the vet. On the way, I sat in the back with Rudy and continued CPR.

...Even though I knew the reality of what had happened, I simply refused to believe it. With every pump and every breath, my heart was fully convinced... that I could bring him back…

When we arrived at the vet, I ran in screaming, “Help us! Somebody please help us!” Everyone in the vet’s office knows me, but they’ve never seen me act like that. They all knew Rudy too, so I saw the shock in their eyes when they realized it was him. When we laid Rudy on the table, I said, “Please save my baby…”

That’s when I heard the words: “Ashley, there’s no heartbeat. I’m so sorry.”
And with all the hope in my heart, I said, “But you can do something, right? We can still save him, can’t we?”
She replied, “He’s gone, honey. I’m so sorry.”

In all my life, I’d never really “lost it.” I’m a pretty calm person… I rarely get hysterical. But at the moment she told me that my Rudy was gone forever, I lost it.

I started screaming “No! No! No!” over and over. I fell to my knees and started bawling on the floor in the vet’s office. That’s something I never thought I’d do in a million years… but that day, I couldn’t do anything else. Head in my hands, I sobbed uncontrollably.

I looked up at the vet tech, tears streaming down my face, and choked out the words, “But I came right back. He was alive when I left. How long has he been gone?” She looked at him, then back at me, and said, “Probably about 30 minutes.”

That’s when it hit me. Had I not stopped to comfort the family with the missing dog, I would’ve been home in time.

And I hated myself.

I got off the floor, and hugged my Rudy. I sobbed into his fur. I kissed him over and over, held him, and smelled his precious Rudy smell. Suddenly, I came to the realization that this was the last time I’d ever touch my Rudy… the very last time I’d ever hold him. I stood there, hugging him and sobbing, for what felt like hours. I didn’t want to let go, because… dead or alive… I knew I’d never see his face again.

Then, they asked if I was ready to wrap his body for burial. With a shattered heart and tear-filled eyes, I said, “I’ll never be ready for that, but I guess I have no choice.”

When we got home, Dustin unloaded Rudy’s body, and asked me to pick the spot for his grave. Through my tears, I said, “I’m not ready for this…” but it had to be done. So I chose a shaded spot under a tree, and then sat on the ground next to Rudy.

While Dustin dug the grave, I clung to Rudy’s lifeless body, sobbing and shaking my head in disbelief. How could this happen? Why did this happen? It was so incredibly unfair. I save dogs for a living; it’s what I do. I rescue them; I give them life. And the one dog I wanted for my very own… was lying there in front of me… dead. I couldn’t save him.

Dustin finished digging, and tearfully said, “Ash, it’s time…” I held onto Rudy, looked up at Dustin, and said, “I don’t know how to do this. How am I supposed to let him go?” Dustin replied, “Ash, he’s already gone. Let’s respect him and say goodbye.” I cried and said, “But I don’t want to say goodbye to Rudy…”

Life didn’t ask what I wanted. Life didn’t ask if I was ready. Life didn’t ask if I could handle it, and life didn’t care that I couldn’t. And so, ready or not, it was time… to let him go.

Over the last year, I’ve relived those next few moments over and over again… the details of my final goodbye. I remember every breath, every tear, and every thought, as I prepared to bury my son. In what felt like slow motion, I leaned down, gave my Rudy one last kiss, and hugged him for the last time. Then, we gently laid Rudy’s body in the ground.

Before we covered him, Dustin asked if I wanted to say anything. I had so much to say, but none of the words I needed. I had tears; I had pain; I had anger and disbelief. But no words.

As I stood over the garbage-bag-wrapped body of my child, a sea of teardrops fell, landing on the body bag… and slowly rolling off… one by one. I felt like I was suffocating, as I searched for the words to say goodbye. This was the best I could do:

“Today is the worst day of my life. I don’t know how to say goodbye to you. You’re my baby boy… my son. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow, and this will have all been a bad dream. But if it isn’t, then tomorrow will be even worse than today… because you won’t be there at all. Today, you were here. Now, you’re gone. And every day after this, you’ll be gone too. You died today, and my heart died too… because I couldn’t save you. I’m so sorry. I hope you know how much I love you, and that I always will. I was so proud to be your mom; it’s the best thing I've ever done. Thank you for changing my life… thank you for everything. The greatest gift I ever got… was you… and I will miss you every single day, for as long as I live.”

As Dustin covered Rudy’s body with dirt, I felt like I was drowning. I asked him to stop several times, because I just couldn’t take it.

When he was finally done… there was a mound of dirt… where my son used to be.
And underneath it… laid my heart.

I sat by Rudy’s grave all night. Staring at the ground, crying, and talking to him. Most of the time, I was completely numb. I’ve lost many dogs and cats in my life… to cancer, illness, and old age. But the sudden, unexpected loss of my Rudy on July 8, 2010, was just enough to break me.

Throughout the night, I replayed Rudy’s little life over and over again in my mind. I was terrified that I’d forget the precious details, so I desperately clung to each memory I shared with the most special dog I’d ever known…

...I saw him starving on the chain, after his family moved without him. I saw him sitting at the pound, waiting there to die. I saw him living in my home, as he healed inside my heart. And I saw him lifeless in the ground, on the day my Rudy died.

All the while, I’d tell myself it wasn’t real. He just couldn’t be gone; it was just too cruel. Then…I’d look down... grasp the dirt of Rudy’s grave in my hands… and let it run through my fingers. In doing so, I could feel Rudy’s little life slipping right through my fingers too.

As the sun began to rise over Rudy’s grave, I finally surrendered, and walked inside. He wasn’t coming back. I crawled into bed and eventually cried myself to sleep.

I woke an hour or so later, as Dustin was getting up for work. In a tiny voice of hope and anguish, I asked, “Is it true?” He said, “Yes Ash, it’s true. I’m so sorry.” I immediately got up, in disbelief, and walked over to the window. And of course… it was true. I saw the mound of Rudy’s grave in the yard… with Pepsi lying on top in mourning.

Rudy & I sleeping, the day before he died
For some reason, despite the fact that I held his dead body in my hands and sat by his grave all night, my denial was so strong. I was convinced that I’d wake up, and the nightmare would be over.

But that next day, July 9th, was easily the second worst day of my life. Because that’s the day I realized... that Rudy was gone forever. That’s the first day… when he wasn’t there at all.

You may think that Rudy was just a dog, but Rudy wasn’t a dog at all. Rudy was my son, and I was his mom. I gave him life… in every way that matters. And one year ago, I came home to find my little boy… lifeless. He had a heart attack at 3 years old.

The person I was before that day died too; I buried her with Rudy. But with a lot of faith, hope, and love, the best parts of me… came back to life…

While I’d give anything to have him back, even for just a day, the last year has surprisingly been the most incredible year of my life. Tomorrow, I’d like to share what happened after Rudy’s death… the events that would lead to the most life-changing —and life-saving— year I’ve had so far.
The year that would lead me… to all of you...

“Where you used to be, there’s a hole in the world… which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime… and falling in at night.  I miss you.”  ~Edna St. Vincent Millay
*Click below to read my follow-up to this post: One Year Later