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.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich this week, about the release of Robert’s Rules, Book Three in my North of the Tension Line series, my appearance tonight at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, and small town life on Washington Island. Listen here, then come tonight and say hello.
It is the time of year when life blooms. The frogs are singing, the geese are still flying overhead to the place where they will spend the night. The robins chirrup the call that means, to me, dawn and dusk. But if I stand in my driveway, with the dogs lying still, I can hear things growing. Literally. There is a rustle in the woods that does not come from an animal’s movement. It is the slow, steady creep of leaves and stems and flowers, finding their place in the light and air.
The time of year is nostalgic with memories of childhood spring concerts, graduations, proms, life events. The soft green nacensce of leaves and flowers, the scent of bloom; the memory of love; of longing. Spring smells of all these things.
My job is ending. I don’t know when I will work again, but my husband has declared it a day of liberation. We drink old champagne, the sound of birds and lawn mowers in the background, the birds singing their old, unchanging songs. I hear the robins, the cardinals, the sparrows, the meadow larks; the woodpeckers, and the phoebes. The bird songs are mixed with the soft insistence of puppy Auggie, whining under his breath that I should pay attention to him, to his green ball.
The lilies of the valley are still coiled in tight rolls, waiting to unfold. The bluebells have begun to bloom, but they have not yet burst into riot. The narcissi spill their scent upon the air. The peonies push their red shoots up, and I look for a careful placement of the metal rings that will keep their blooms from lying on the ground a few weeks hence. I dream of them all winter, of their exuberant, joyous explosion.
The turkeys rise up, no longer visible on the ground in the woods, from green bowers into their now hidden roosts. The deer chuff in the woods as they browse, but the green leaves hide their movement. A big raccoon makes her cumbersome way down a tall tree to begin her nighttime rambles.
It is spring. The world is poised. A great writer died last night, and I feel the world’s aftershocks. We are smaller now, without him.
Nevertheless, this old song sings. The frogs, the geese, the robins, the rustling leaves. It is soft-scented and sweet.
The world goes on, beautiful and ruthless. We watch– worn, enchanted, hopeful, but powerless to change the slow, hard progress of life.
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!
If you’re an early riser, catch me tomorrow morning talking about my new book on WKOW’s Wake up Wisconsin Weekend at 6:25 am.