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.

 

Singing Your Own Song

We went to see a world premier play at the Milwaukee Rep last night: American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith. It was beautifully written and moving, and performed by only one actor, the talented James Devita, whose career I have been following since we were both students in Milwaukee. It was a powerful theatrical experience about which I have only one quibble. But this is not a theatrical review blog, and what matters is that you should go, if you can. You will weep.

But what actually came away with me on the deepest level, former English major that I am, was the long and loving reference to Walt Whitman.

This sounds a little silly, but I had forgotten about Walt Whitman.

I grew up reading Walt Whitman, often, and with gradually increasing understanding. At first I just loved the rhythms of the poetry. I was carried along by his passion. Then I fell in love with what it was.

I am annoyed by people who ask: “What is the poet trying to say?” My slightly irritable answer is: He’s not trying to say anything. He’s saying it. The poem is what he says.

And this is why imbuing a message in art which is not intrinsically involved in the art itself can be dangerous. But Whitman was not delivering a message. He was writing poetry. The poetry IS the message. At least it is, if it’s done well.

I taught Whitman’s poetry as a high school American Lit teacher. And even now, I am a great–possibly overly-enthused–re-reader of many things. But Walt Whitman has not entered my thoughts for too many years now, and last night I re-encountered him with a fresh heart.

The play quotes a line from Leaves of Grass, in which the songs of people in different lives sing out in their own voices to make the joyous melody of freedom, of individual value and dignity: Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. I loved that Murray-Smith celebrated that celebration of America.

Pali, the poetry-writing ferry captain in my books, is a man who sings songs, whose work vibrates with a unique and beautiful voice. The question is: whose voice is it?

I love this question more than any of the others. The mysteries of life delight me.

 

Moses Leads his People out of the Wilderness- Part 3

I wrote this series of essays two years ago, and I publish them here at the request of a friend who just lost her big dog. My sympathies, Anna. He was such a good, sweet boy.

Pete and Baby MosesDogs grieve. I had heard it and understood it, but I’d never seen it before. We stood in the kitchen talking about Reggie, and hearing the name, Pete’s ears perked. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Reggie’s gone”, and had the uncanny sensation that his face had changed. What did he understand? He had been moping; not eating. He ran outside briefly when necessary and ran right back in. No dawdling in the sun, no sniffling where squirrels had been. He didn’t bark when we came home, there was just silence when we opened the door. Pete wasn’t in the mood for cheerful greetings, preferring to hide upstairs.

We realized very quickly that none of us could bear the empty silence of the house with Pete hiding and refusing to eat, and us feeling our own mortality too much. You get tired of crying, and you can’t dwell on death. Another dog was inevitable. We knew, at least, that much.

Since I was a little girl, I have wanted a German Shepherd. I admire them for their bravery and intelligence, their dignity and loyalty. And I think they are beautiful. But the time had never been right to have a dog who would demand so much training and so much attention. With the passing of Reggie I realized that this was my last chance. In the span of another dog’s life I would probably be too old to have such a powerful dog. And maybe as much as anything, I couldn’t bear having another Golden.
I knew from long correspondence the right person to call who specialized in gentle German Shepherds, but the wait would be long. Probably 6-12 months. We sent an e-mail to add our names to the list.

So life-changing things hang upon the large things and the small. And sometimes on the misfortune of others. We all live within some margin of error. At home we joke about how houses and cars always seem to sense that there’s a little extra in the bank, timing their infirmities or demise with the moment when you have something special planned, just as you’re about to get ahead. And when you’ve been saving to buy the German Shepherd puppy you’ve been waiting for since last year, that’s probably about the right time for your furnace to die. And sure enough. Within half an hour of applying we got an e-mail back. “I’ve just had a cancellation. Would you like to pick him up this weekend?” Somewhere in the universe someone named Nick has a shiny new boiler for his furnace. But he will wait for another year to get a puppy.

On the other hand, there is Fate. What made us write then, that night? It was too soon; we weren’t ready yet. There aren’t many weekends in which we have no obligations, but we had nothing planned. And then there was poor Nick and his furnace.

We got up at 5 that Saturday morning and drove the twelve hour round trip to an Iowa farm on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, leaving Pete at home with a friend. It was so remote the GPS didn’t recognize the place. We arrived around noon. Even knowing what I knew about the disposition of these dogs I was a little nervous about getting out of the car while an extremely large German Shepherd with an enormous head barked at us. But when we met, he gently nudged my hand and then leaned against each of us separately like a big cat. We knew who he was. We had seen his picture on the breeder’s website standing shoulder to shoulder with a pony. This was our puppy’s uncle. We met the family: Dad, Mom, Grandma, another uncle, a full brother from another litter, and, of course, the puppies.

His official name is Moses, Prince of Egypt. We call him Moses Mooch. He is mostly black, with red legs and paws, and the beginnings of red markings around his face and inside of his ears. He wasn’t the biggest puppy in the litter, but he had the longest legs. When we brought him home he had two floppy ears, like all German Shepherd puppies. This morning he woke up with one standing straight up, the other still flopping at the tip. He looks like a small puppy rabbit.

Moses bounces in with joy. His mother, his father, and his uncles are gentle giants, so calm and sweet that they make a Golden look like Cujo. He is too young to know about big losses, and he seems delighted to have a new house with a soft blanket and no littermates to eat his dinner. He is curious about sounds. He’s not too keen on sleeping alone, but he is getting the hang of it when he has to. He likes singing: both his own and others’. He chews hair and the tassels on blankets. He chases ice cubes around the kitchen floor, and has learned to sit when he comes in the house. He’s trying really hard not to bite fingers when he plays, although I dreamt the other night that we had a pet crocodile. He has an endearing way of climbing into your lap to snuggle. He has a special affection for the big yellow blanket that probably still smells like Reggie, and from the first moment in the car he curled up in it and went to sleep.

He’s a smart puppy. Today he showed admirable, almost supernatural restraint in resisting the temptation to bite Pete’s tail as it hit him repeatedly in the face. You could see his eyes sparkling at the prospect. Pete snarls, though he is just barely tolerant, like a teenager rolling his eyes. But little by little, Moses creeps up on him. Sometimes with a paw on Pete’s paw, sometimes copying what Pete is doing, sometimes waiting until Pete is asleep to snuggle up against his back, and sometimes with an insistent puppy bark and a play bow. This morning as we walked, Moses was leaping alongside, trying to bite Pete’s floppy ears. We tell Pete that now is the time to make friends, before Moses changes his mind.

The house feels different. There is a puppy bed in the kitchen and toys on the floor, and half a dozen kinds of large breed puppy food samples in the pantry. We hurry home after work. Charlie has notions of the correct number of toys for dogs, but I just buy new ones when I see something he could handle. Moses can’t carry most of the ones you see around; they’re too big and heavy for puppy teeth.

The juxtaposition of life and death is everywhere always, but it slips in and out of our awareness, sometimes in the background, and sometimes in the front. Moses was comforted on his first nights sleeping on the yellow blanket where Reggie closed his eyes for the last time. The puppy trips along behind me to the bird feeder, and I see Reggie’s paw prints in the mud. On our visit to the vet for Moses’s shots the tech gently placed a small package on the counter, and while the staff passed around the puppy, I took Reggie out to the car for his last ride home.

Tonight we all sat on the couch together, and we had to counsel Pete to take note of the dangers of co-sleeping; Moses just barely escaped Pete’s indifferent sprawl by climbing onto my lap. Pete seems less than grateful for his new brother, occasionally snarling, and sometimes snapping at the puppy. But even so, I think Moses will win out with Pete in the end, even before he gets too big. He’s kind of difficult to resist in a force of nature kind of way.

The puppy is sleeping on the rug by my feet. He sleeps hard, indifferent to the sounds of the squirrels chuckling, the geese on the water and the cranes squawking. He has had a run and eaten as much as he can hold, dancing in excitement while he waited for his bowl. He looks so innocent lying there, probably growing as I watch. I think he’s bigger since yesterday, but that’s a good thing. He has big boots to fill. And judging from the size of his paws, they might actually fit.

Long Goodbye: Part 1

I wrote this series of essays two years ago, and I publish them here at the request of a friend who just lost her big dog. My sympathies, Anna. He was such a good, sweet boy.

I am lying in bed with 170 pounds of dog: one big, one medium. They are, I regret to admit out loud, in the same proportion in my heart. 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 7 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.
Reggie