This essay is excerpted from my new book, Reflections on a Life in Exile, due out May 1, 2019. It is the story of Reggie, our beloved golden retriever.
I am lying in bed with 170 pounds of dog: one big, one medium. I do love them both. But the big one, the one who lives inside my soul; he is dying.
Tonight we did the last thing: a rescue protocol of chemotherapy used only as a last resort. The vet said there was a fifty-fifty chance that it would give him a few more weeks. But no chance that it would save him.
I listen to his breath. The blissful thing is that he doesn’t know. Among all the deficits and injustices and hard things of dog life, the one great blessing is not to know your mortality. So to him, a hard day is just a hard moment, maybe not an oppressive forever.
Golden retrievers are gentle creatures. They are born sweet. Their docility is not a lack of character, though, as Reggie has demonstrated. He is an artist. His summer days at the lake are not for lounging. They are for a determined and relentless search for the perfect shape, the perfect addition to his sculpture. Tail high and wagging, he scours the floor of the lake with his feet, treading back and forth in a deliberate grid, fully engrossed in his life’s work. When he finds what he needs, he pushes it into place with his feet, and dives down to retrieve it, emerging triumphant to the shore with a rock the size of maybe half a soccer ball. He places it on the lawn in his own pattern, discernible only to him. Every morning my husband picks up the rocks—including those stolen from the neighbor’s shoreline—and throws them back. But by the end of the day a new work of art—a kind of Reggie Stonehenge—has reappeared.
Struggling to straddle the good days and bad days, to balance his happiness and his pain is my job; watching the progression of the evil cancer, and desperately trying to weigh my needs against his. Trying not to think of my deepest wish—to have him forever—and only of his—not to suffer. That’s all. Just no suffering. No nights in the scary hospital, only nights at home with his people who love him. He doesn’t understand if we abandon him as we did for the surgery on his torn knee. He trembled uncontrollably when we returned to that place for a routine thing.
Among the blessings is the kindness of those who care for him. His vet who returned to the exam room while we waited for blood tests with a flowered quilt to lay on the floor for Reggie and for me; the lab tech who smuggles him extra treats; the oncologist who wraps her arms around him and kisses his face before she begins her work.
We cuddle. I let him lie on the white couch. I rub his tummy, he puts his head on my shoulder and we comfort one another, as we do. We feed him rotisserie chicken and imported sausage because he will eat it while healthier things go untouched. And who cares. It nourishes him, and he will eat it. It makes him happy. That’s all.
This big dog, my puppy dog, at seven weeks used to put his whole self into my arms when he came back inside from his outdoor responsibilities. I would hold his small body in my arms. He slept on my pillow so I could carry him outside when he stirred. As he grew, he still remembered how to express love, and would lay his massive paws on my shoulders as I knelt next to him, his head towering over mine, and he would lay his enormous chin on my shoulders. I always held tight; but sometimes distractedly; sometimes hurriedly; sometimes without the same level and intensity of love he had to give me. I had other thoughts. But he always thought about loving me first.
The loss of this love, not human, but canine, may not seem important to everyone. But to me it is the intimate, personal and once in my life love of this soul; entrusted to me as a gift I did not deserve or fully appreciate. With all due humility about myself, I wonder if anyone could deserve this trust, this love, this kindness, this full and open heart. Anyone other than another soul like his.
I owe him the most reverent, beloved, happy and respectful days I can offer him. In his innocence he is both my king and conscience. He is better than me. And he was born to break my heart.
Every morning in the dark, my prayer comes in silence. Or rather, it comes in my silence amid the conversations of others: of the hundreds—possibly thousands of geese calling at sunrise; the turkeys having another of their frequent family squabbles; the robins in their distinctive sweet monotony; the sparrows and the chickadees, each with their own language of singing; the owls calling their last sleepy good nights; and the raccoon silently ambling across the open lawn and slowly up the tree trunk to bed.
The soft sleeping breath of dog one; the impatiently waiting breath of dog two; and the intense watchfulness of the puppy who sits at the window to see, hear, and smell the lives of others, these are the sounds of my prayer. This morning noise is the sound of life, of the world.
The traffic sounds that rise from the valley will come soon, too, but not yet. For now there are just these other lives among us, busily, and with unknown degrees of self-awareness, going about the hard work of living. If they worry—and I think the garter snake who encountered us yesterday in the orchard was damned worried—they don’t sit around and wallow in it. They don’t have time for self pity. They have to eat, and get where they have to be, and find a mate, and feed their young, and elude homicidal neighbors. Every decision they make is life or death. It’s a lot. It is, frankly, more than I have to worry about, and probably more important. But they start each morning by raising their voices.
I don’t know that it’s cheer. Who can say? But it is life affirming. It’s a statement of presence, of vitality, perhaps of territory, perhaps of love.
Life is hard, and may be over before the sun sets.
But still, they sing.
(But still they sing.)
I was watching a small drama this morning at dawn. The polar vortex has moved on, the -22 temperatures have risen more than forty degrees, and the vicious winds, creating a wind chill factor of 40 or 50 below zero, have died. I have been worried about the wild animals, knowing that this weather kills many birds, and probably mammals, too. I have not seen a single squirrel in a week, and this is highly irregular. The turkeys, normally restless and predictable in their daily patterns, have not followed their usual path, but stayed beneath the trees where they roost, puffed into enormous balls of feather, clustered together like giant mushrooms.
I put out seed, and fruit, and all kinds of nuts, suet balls with nuts and meal worms, and big chunks of suet in fat strips from the butcher, which I have to shoo the dogs from. The fat has drawn crows, whom I rarely see up close, and that makes me happy. We have springs on our property so we don’t have to worry about a water supply, but still, this is a hard season for creatures. Many times over the past week I thought of the animals, curled up in balls trying to keep warm in their trees or burrows, and I felt helpless pity.
This morning, though, as I was watching the sunrise, I noticed a black mass against the side of tree deep in the woods. Suspicious, I watched until I saw it move. It was a raccoon, returning home from its nighttime ramble. And then I saw a second raccoon, climbing up the same trunk in a congenial fashion. So this is how they survive the cold. I was enchanted. A pair! There will be babies!
As I watched their clumsy, though expert climb, I was cheered by the thought of their snuggling together in the winter weather. And then I peered more closely. Not two. Three raccoons. Clearly joining forces to keep one another warm. Were they siblings? In this woods, probably. They were all fat, but not as big as some I’ve seen, possibly yearlings. They each perched on a separate branch, far more precariously than any turkey. Turkeys, after all, can fly. And although there was one spectacular slip and fall, the raccoons all managed to stay on the tree without falling fifty feet to the ground.
I wonder whether this arrangement is long-term or merely expedient, but the sight of this little pack, or family, or club, cheered me and distracted me. I watched, my coffee growing cold, as they settled in uncomfortable-looking poses on their separate too-small branches, until they each made their way back to the trunk where they had their nest, and disappeared, presumably until night falls again, when they can resume their sociable adventurings.
All is well.
It’s hard to get up in the dark. I want to stay under the covers, next to the big dog who comes up on the bed as soon as he hears me stir. The fireplace in the bedroom is lit, and it is tranquil and warm. But I know if I don’t get up and write, I will have missed the fundamental purpose of my days, and so, goaded by some kind of literary jackal nipping at my heels, I drag myself up, lured by the prospect of coffee.
And yet, despite my lack of enthusiasm, once I am there sitting before my keyboard, I find myself racing against the sun. There is some mystical thing that happens when I’m writing in the dark. It’s as if I have a direct line to the muse who hides in my heart somewhere, only bold enough to emerge in the dark. The writing and the dark go together, and I have to get as much done as I can while I can.
With the light, too, comes the household activity: the chores, the dogs needing to go out and to have their feet washed, the dishwasher needing to be emptied, the bed made, the calls to the insurance company, the roofer, the trips to the dry cleaner. These kinds of mundane things scare away whatever inspiration I am fortunate enough to find, and the day slips away in the routines of living.
And so, against my will, I find myself rising earlier and earlier, reluctant and eager at the same time, dragging myself to my desk, hoping to write faster than the earth turns.
This morning it is bitter cold, and the trees are still outlined in the snow from two days ago. A pink line of the sun is showing, and a few brave birds have arrived to feast on the seeds and nuts I’ve left for them. The turkeys still balance on their precarious perches high at the tops of the trees. I am hesitant to stir, because that will signal to the dogs that it’s time to move, and then the brief moment of opportunity will be gone. I look at what I’ve written, and vow that tomorrow will be earlier still.
One of my favorite parts of any book tour is a stop at this wonderful little store, where new and used books are carefully organized in stacks to the ceiling. You can also find vintage maps, prints, and other curiosities. Its proprietor, Peter Sloma, is a thoughtful, passionate reader. Its location is not obvious, in part because of the signage rules, but it is very much worth a stop.
So, I am very much looking forward to spending some time at Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, this coming Saturday, June 16th from 4:00- 6:00 pm.
Please stop by and say hello.
I hope you will join me at the Milwaukee launch of Robert’s Rules, Book Three of North of the Tension Line on Thursday, May 24th at 7 pm, at Boswell Book Company. For writers like me, operating a bit below the radar, these things are very much group efforts. I need your help to get my book off the ground. That’s why they call it a launch!
Here’s a blurb from the book: “Robert’s Rules is Book Three in the award-winning North of the Tension Line series, set on a remote island in the Great Lakes. Called a modern-day Jane Austen, author J.F. Riordan creates wry, engaging tales and vivid characters that celebrate the well-lived life of the ordinary man and woman.”
First of all, please come! I would love to meet you, or if you’re an old friend, to see you again. A big crowd tells the bookstore that my books are worth the effort. Bring your friends, your book club, your Moose lodge, your groupies.
Second, please call or visit Boswell, and pre-order. Pre-orders are a very big deal in the publishing industry, and can make or break a book. If you can’t make it to Boswell, please go to your favorite bookseller, or online. Please let me know that you can join me in giving Robert’s Rules a successful launch. Let’s boost it so high that everyone can see it!
I hope to see you there!
I had car trouble yesterday on my way to a signing in Door County. I was tooling along at 70 in the pouring rain, when all of the sudden there was some catastrophic electronic failure. Every dire warning sign flicked on the dashboard. I lost my brakes, I lost my power steering, and the engine began to buck. Fortunately, I was close to an exit in civilization-which for our purposes here means a place with a Mazda dealer only a few miles away–and was able to coast and manhandle the car down a ramp, through a roundabout, and into the parking lot of a minimart.
I hate roundabouts. I mean, I hated them before, but in this case it was lucky I didn’t have to stop. I could just keep coasting.
When I pulled up next to the building out of the way, all the lights in the dashboard went out, and I couldn’t turn off the engine. I had to go inside to figure out where I was so I could tell the tow truck where to come, and normally one doesn’t leave a running car unattended. But what the hell, I thought. It’s not as if anyone could drive it away.
None of this is the point of the story, but I kind of wanted to tell it.
The tow truck showed up in about ten minutes, to my surprise and relief. We were going to be cutting it a little close for me to get to my event, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to explain to the bookstore proprietor–my friend, Peter–that all his planning was going to be for an author-less book signing. I called my husband, who was speeding in my direction to rescue me, and told him he could go back.
Anyway–and now we’re getting to the nub of the thing–the tow truck driver was this young, blond guy with lots of tattoos. He was a kind of classic Wisconsin small town guy, complete with the rural accent: decent, trustworthy, competent, grease on his clothes, dirt under his nails. He hooked up my car, and I climbed into the cab of the truck for the ride to the (mercifully) open car dealer who would loan me a car.
I told him that I was in a bit of a hurry, because there was an event I had to be at. What kind of event? he wanted to know. So I told him I was a writer.
“I love books!” he said. “Harry Potter is my favorite, as you can probably tell by these.” He raised his left arm to indicate his tattoos, which I couldn’t really see, but which must have been representative of this passion. “I listen mostly to audio books, though.” He fumbled in his pocket to get out his I-phone while I hoped that he was looking at the highway. “I’ve listened to…” he looked down at his phone to check the exact figure…”two months and two and a half weeks worth of books this year so far.” He then proceeded to talk about his favorites: after Harry Potter, a series of World War I historical novels by Ken Follet, and some other series in a similar vein. He was knowledgeable about history, and he clearly loved stories of heroism and mysticism. He wanted to know if my books were on audio. I told him not yet, but that we were working on it.
“I read paper books, too,” he said. “But with all the driving around, I do mostly audio.” I kind of doubt that my books are his kind of thing, but so far all my assumptions were being proved false. “Would you like a copy of my book?” I asked. He was enthusiastic.
We got to the dealer, and I dug out a copy of each of my books and signed them for him. We shook hands.
I love thinking about this tow truck driver, wandering around the country roads of Wisconsin, doing this necessary but unglamorous job, the rhythms of different authorial voices accompanying his travels, moved by the heroic acts of protagonists both real and imagined. Along what path will these values take him? How will these stories affect his life and the lives of others? From the seemingly mundane heroism of helping people with broken cars to some other, more dramatic form? Or is it these small daily rescues that give his path meaning?
Maybe he thinks about these things. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a job to him, not a mission. But the meanings of our lives may be things we never realize until we’re looking back. Or they could be things we’ll never know.
People are always more interesting than you think.