Long Goodbye

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.


Star-crossed Love


I had to stop at a store yesterday to return something, a task I detest, but which you might think was among my very favorite activities, given how often I find myself doing it.

The clerk and I started chatting, and one thing leading to another, I mentioned my two dogs in the car. “What kind of dogs?” she asked. I gave my standard answer: Pete, an Indiana Spotted Dog (Pete is a rescue from a kill shelter in Indiana, and of indeterminate breed, but with a speckled coat that looks like granite), and Moses, a German Shepherd.

Her attention was instantly riveted by the words “German Shepherd.”

“I had a German Shepherd,” she said. “But I had to put him down.” I felt a wave of sympathy. The shortness of dogs’ lives is a looming loss for those of us who love them, and the thought of it can shatter me if I linger on it.

She knew what I have learned: that there is something different about German Shepherd Dogs, no matter what other kinds of dogs you have had or how much you have loved them. I told her what the vet told me when Moses was a tiny puppy: “Nothing and no one on earth will ever love you as much as a German Shepherd will.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and mine did, too. She told me how true that was, and how smart her dog had been, and what a clever jailbreak artist he was. She told me that even when his hip dysplasia had made it impossible for him to walk she had cared for him until his pain became too much.

She seemed so sad. When I suggested that somewhere in the world there was a dog who desperately needed someone like her to love him she shook her head. No. She could never endure that loss again. It was too much.

The store was busy, and people were waiting for her attention, but I wished I could have taken her out for a cup of coffee, and brought her over to meet Moses and Pete, waiting patiently, if a bit odoriferously, in the car.

I have writing to do, and I have to go to Washington for work tomorrow, and I don’t know how I’m going to get everything done before I leave the house at 5:30 in the morning.

But Moses and Pete and I are going for a ramble. Life is all about priorities.

The intricacies of the casual conversation

CHuckles flickr

I am on a first name basis with the people at our local hardware store. I am there sporadically but often, and they have patiently–and without one note of patronization–advised me on various topics ranging from the correct size of a wall anchor to replacing an outlet. They greet me like an old friend when I come in, and this minor element of small town life cheers me.
The frequency of my visits has increased recently for various reasons, so our conversations have taken on a serial quality, generally picking up where we left off. I was standing at the register this week piling up my purchases. “Will this be all?” I was asked politely. I struggled perfunctorily with myself and lost.
“And a package of Chuckles.”
Chuckles are a candy I know from my childhood, rarely seen anymore, at least in the midwest. They are an oblong package of five flat squares of gum drop style candy, with little ridges shaped into them, and coated with a crystal layer of sugar. They are always laid out in the same order: red, yellow, black, orange, green. I’m not sure when the hardware store started carrying them. But I first started noticing them this summer, when I was making frequent visits for items to prepare my late mother’s house for sale.
After our business was finished, I stood chatting, and opened up my package of Chuckles as I did so. Watching me, the owner said:
“You know, no one who buys those can ever leave the store without opening the package.”
“There’s something about their connection to childhood, I think. It’s powerful.” She paused for a moment, recollecting. “One guy who comes in stands at the counter to eat them so he can throw away the package here and his wife won’t know.”
“Maybe it’s better as a guilty pleasure.”
“So many things are.”
There was a moment of silence as I ate the first Chuckle.
“Which is your favorite?” the owner wanted to know. She pointed to the clerk. “He never eats the orange ones.”
“Really?” I was aghast. Orange is one of the best flavors.
“I find the orange ones hidden behind the counter.” She looked sideways at her assistant.
The clerk was not in the least abashed. “I start to eat them, and then forget about them.”
“You have to eat them in order,” I said.”It’s a cardinal rule.”
This interested them, and they both looked at me.
“You must be right about the childhood thing. I’ve been eating them this way since I was small. Green first. And then each flavor in order. Because the best one is the red one, and you have to save the best for last.”
As I thought about this piece of childish philosophy, I suddenly realized that it was more complicated, and I hadn’t been aware of it until this moment. I spoke slowly as my awareness of the process unfolded from my subconscious.
“And you can’t bite them right away. You have to let them melt in your mouth until all the sugar is gone, and then you bite into the little ridges very carefully. Then you can chew the pieces. But it’s better if you let them slowly melt in your mouth.”
“It’s a childhood ritual,” commented the clerk.
I nodded, thinking about the oddities of the mind, and how this leftover from my very early life could still be, unconsciously, part of my behavior. Another customer walked in, and we all went on with our day.
Somehow the conversation came up with my friend later on.
She listened, and then she said:
“How long have you been doing this?”
“All my life.”
“No. I mean eating the Chuckles. You don’t eat candy.”
I thought about it.
“I don’t know. All summer, I guess. I’m not used to eating sugar and they make me feel terrible afterward, but I can’t resist. It’s weirdly comforting.”
“So you’re eating a childhood candy, using a childhood ritual, as you work on fixing up your late mother’s house. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand what’s going on here.”
“I guess not.”
Hardware stores are interesting places. I’ve always thought so.

A Thanksgiving for Orphans


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the starkness of late fall, the sense of the beginning of things, filled with the anticipation of the holidays and the beauty of the coming winter. Ever since I have had my own household I have filled my house with guests for Thanksgiving, joking that I was always on the look-out for holiday orphans.

But this year for the first time there will be no guests. I will make a traditional dinner, but it will only be my husband and me. For the first time we are both orphans ourselves, and I don’t have the energy to put up a cheerful front when the absence of so many people we loved will be so fully felt. Last year, on my mother’s last Thanksgiving, I could fill the absence with the special care of her. She was the last man standing. Now she is gone.

Of those who used to annually grace our table, we have lost four.

You would think that in middle age the loss of a parent would not hurt so much, but that is only what you would think until it happens to you. Every memory now is fraught with the poignancy of passing time, and the changing human geography of our lives. My dear friend, who lost her mother recently, said to me the other day: Remember when we were kids and no one ever died?

I see now how age can bring melancholy, with every new occasion or holiday memory colored by the loss of those who once celebrated with you, the loss of your old life, your old self, the family you always had.

But this is not the proper way to live. Each day is meant to be embraced with hope and joy. To do otherwise is a form of sinfulness.

Today will be hard, a deliberate pause to remember and mourn, and then to shed the old skin of grief.

Hope begins again tomorrow.

Love and Grief


My husband likes to say that Moses is a tuning fork. He is our German Shepherd who loves by pure concentration. His every focus is on those he loves, and he trembles when he senses our stress. The night I left to go to my mother in her last crisis, he fought to be with me where he could not come, even as Charlie lovingly urged him to stay at home.  In his distress, gentle Moses put his teeth on Charlie for trying to stop him from getting in my car. It was a protest, not an attack. But my leaving Moses behind was a betrayal to us both.

As a comfort and a way of drawing out my stillborn sorrow, I have been re-reading Madeline L’Engle’s adolescent novels which are explorations of faith and mortality. They will provoke my grief eventually, if not immediately. My own faith, so relatively new and untested, is approximately the same as the novel series’ teenager as she encounters death for the first time: in a friend’s father, in a friend’s illness,  then in her grandfather. At the same time in the story, a dolphin’s baby dies, and the teenage protagonist writes a poem. Maybe it isn’t great poetry, but I like it because it expresses the value of life and love regardless of the boundaries of species. In it the angels weep because every life matters even in the span of the universe.

I am in a place where I am gathering all the love I can find. And the love of Moses, who sleeps now at my feet, is a treasure as deep as any I can claim.

The devotion of dogs is not new. Homer acknowledges the love of Argos, the dog of Odysseus, who, waiting twenty years for the return of his master, is neglected, flea-ridden, and sleeping on a pile of dung. And yet, when Argos at last sees his master–even though no human creature recognizes him–Argos wags his tail in greeting to the one he has always loved, and dies. Odysseus, who has endured the battle of Troy, Sirens, Circe, the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the deaths of all his companions, and the wrath of Poseidon, nevertheless weeps for the love of his old dog.

Moses is a dog. And his deep love for me is as real and palpable as any other love I know. He grieves when I grieve, and he is filled with joy when I am. What is love, if not this? And what greater comfort in grief than this deep devotion?

His soul reaches out to me and, gratefully, I answer.