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.

 

They Sing

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.)

Souvenir

My mother outlived my father by several years, and when she died, my sister and I faced the sysyphean task of cleaning out their house. This included going through my father’s shop in the basement and in the garage, where he did everything from making wooden lamp bases on his lathes, to machining new parts for his car, to carrying out scientific experiments. I’m fairly certain that he never threw anything away. Nothing.

For my sister and me, each decision to keep or discard bore an emotional weight that devastated us both. It took some months, and we were weary in heart and soul both during the task, and for a long while after. Frankly, it would have been much easier for us if my parents had followed the modern art of “tidying-up”. But if they had, so much would have been lost.

The word souvenir comes from the French: a thing that makes you remember. And, perhaps that is what exhausted us so much: every little item we found had a memory attached. My mother’s battered ancient fruitcake tin, where she kept her needles, pins, and thread, and which was always hidden under her chair in the living room. My father’s homemade work aprons that had so often been our gifts to him on father’s day or his birthday.; his navy insignia; his little leather notebooks where he kept lists of books he wanted to read, recordings he wanted to buy, the names, ranks, stations, and bunk numbers of everyone on his ship during World War II,  poems he wanted to remember, a recipe for applejack eggnog.  Even my grandmother’s things were still enmeshed in the collection: her vanity set; her hair ornaments; her love letters. My sister dissolved into tears one evening when we had finished. “I feel as if I am throwing Mom and Daddy away.”

But the reality is that we couldn’t keep it all. So painstakingly, emotionally, and exasperatedly, we combed through the house as if it were an archeological dig. And, in a way, I suppose, it was.

Among the things I found was a dirty metal file box with little plastic drawers for sorting diodes, resistors, and transistors and other early electronic parts. The box had stood on my father’s workbench for as long as I can remember. At the top was my name, printed out in the same style as the labels on each drawer.

I remember the day my name came to be on that box. I was about three, and my father had received a new gadget in the mail: a label maker that used long flat spools of plastic to impress letters on. It was an exciting thing. I remember my father showing me what it did by painstakingly printing out the letters of my name, and then pasting the result at the top of the box.

Seeing that box on his workbench, years after his death, brought me fully back to that moment. I remembered the smell of cut metal and wood, the difficulty of seeing the top of the bench unless I were given a little stool to stand on. I remember my pride in seeing my name on the top of that box, and mostly, I remember being loved as clearly as if I had been embraced.

There is a–by now–somewhat aging trend in the world of home interiors known as “tidying up”. The process, which is a method of decluttering and living a minimalist life, has an almost spiritual quality, in that it claims it will change your life, and its adherents have the tone and enthusiasms of Nineteenth Century evangelists.

Dad's diode caseThere is a vaguely moralistic and superior tone taken by these doyens of home organization. They are the new Puritans. No one needs stuff. No one needs other people’s stuff. It is clutter. It clutters your home and your life. In this age of materialism, when we all have bulging closets, attics, basements, and enough stuff to create another entirely separate household, people’s interest in the process is perfectly understandable.

But, had my father not kept his old things–radio parts that were no longer needed by any working radio–my memory of the label-making would have been lost to me, for there would have been no material thing in the world to remind me of it. That moment would have been lost to me forever.

This is the value of things, perhaps, even, of clutter. It is memories that make us who we are; which haunt us; which enrich and warm us; which remind us of how to be better. And the things, they are the memory triggers. They bring back the moments we might have forgotten in the depths of time: of my mother in her kitchen, or cutting off a button thread with her teeth; my grandmother combing her hair, of picking her up at the bus station and sitting next to her in the car, touching the softness of her fur coat; my father listening to opera at high volume while he worked on his car. These are moments that form us; that make us ourselves.

I will admit that I have kept too many things. We jokingly refer to our garage as “the home for wayward chairs.” I have much of my parents’ good mahogany furniture, their wing chairs and their china cupboard. I have my grandmother’s vanity. I have all my father’s designs, and the paperwork for his one hundred twenty-something patents. It is a lot, and it can be overwhelming sometimes.

But I’ll take clutter any day. It is the price of remembering how it felt to be a little girl who was loved by her father.

Tidying up, indeed.

 

The Island by Night

When I am on the Island, every night, before bed, the dogs and I go out for a long walk in the dark.

There is nowhere else on earth where I could walk alone, in the dark, in the woods, and feel so completely safe. It’s true I have my dogs with me, but they are even less worried than I, and frequently slip away into the trees to leave me to the sound of my own footsteps. On a cloudy night like this, it is so dark that only the melted dirt paths of this January thaw distinguish where to walk from the white snow everywhere.

Moses, who still carries the echoes of lupine ancestors in his soul, likes to disappear into the woods, projecting my course, to silently stalk me, later to charge out onto the path in front of me, in an unnerving fashion. It is a delightful game for him.  Auggie, his apprentice, has begun to follow him deep among the cedar trees.

Their stealth is remarkable, and their ability to judge the intersection of vectors is proof that dogs understand geometry. Each has a red light-up collar: Moses with a slow blink, and Auggie with a fast one, so when they walk with me I can tell who is who. But when they dissolve into the woods and turn dead-on, their collars are no longer visible, and I cannot hear the sound of their padded feet, their bodies long and low, in stalking mode, until they are immediately in front of me, delighted by their prowess and by my praise. Their happiness shifts them from predators to pets, but there is an inner reality that is vital to remember.

These night walks are essential to their well-being and to mine. For them, it is a chance to reassess the activities of the local wildlife. The fox has been out since we walked this afternoon, and the raccoon and deer and possum. The turkeys are roosting in a tree somewhere near, and the deer are no doubt nearby, waiting for the dogs to go in before they come to feed. Their game with me exhilarates the dogs and empowers them.

For me, it is an expansive moment of the soul. Alone, in the dark, but utterly unafraid, I walk along almost invisible paths, listening to the lake, to the occasional cries of owls or foxes, and I feel that I am in my life.

Nowhere else on earth.

Island Update

As both of my readers know, when I am writing a book, the blog gets short shrift. A couple of weeks ago, however, I had an experience which may be of interest: I went to Pete and Fiona’s wedding.

My novels (Available at Amazon, and also here, Barnes and Noble here and here, Target here and here, Walmart here and here, or at your favorite booksellers, for example, here, herehere, here, and here. I’ll wait.) feature the story of Fiona Campbell, a Chicago reporter who moves to Washington Island on a dare. That’s all I’m going to say.

But by an extraordinary coincidence, a couple whose names are Fiona and Peter got married at the island property where I write my books. Susan, my landlady, made sure I knew about it, and the couple were gracious enough to invite me.

It was a perfect summer day. The bride and groom were beautiful, kind, and clearly in love. Everyone was happy.

Just thought you’d like to know.

 

Don’t get any ideas.

Not Judging Books by Their Covers

the_road_into_the_field_199302

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.