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.
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.
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.
Shortly after my mother’s death, about three years ago, my sister gave me a gift: a pair of earrings she had had made from my father’s monogrammed sterling silver cuff links, still nestled in cream velvet in their original oval purple velvet box. I was touched and delighted by them, excited to wear them, and to have this keepsake.
One winter afternoon, I wore them for the first time, and went shopping with a friend. We had fun, wandering from one shop to the next, and spending a fair amount of time trying on hand-knitted hats. I guess our ears were cold.
It was about an hour later that I realized I was wearing only one earring. The mood of the afternoon was instantly altered. I tried not to show how upset I was, reminding myself that it was just a thing. We retraced our steps, I went through all the hats, gently shaking them, and looking for something caught in them. I crawled on the floor of the shop. Hopefully, I left my name and number with several of the stores we had been in, but I never heard from anyone. It was gone.
I never said anything to my sister. I put the one cufflink/earring away in its ancient purple velvet box, and promised myself that someday I would have it made into a necklace. But I felt sick at the loss.
Yesterday was my birthday, and although I try hard to be grateful to be having a birthday, I spent the day fighting off a case of melancholy. I felt the passing of time, the shortening of the horizon, and a soft, persistent nostalgia for my late parents. Don’t misunderstand: there were cards, and gifts, and flowers, and phone calls, greetings from friends and strangers, a snowstorm, and best of all, an advance copy of my new novel in the mail. Nevertheless, I spent the day in an uncharacteristic lethargy, unable to accomplish much of anything.
Toward the end of the day, though, I bestirred myself to straighten our dark, cozy library for the evening. I had recently redone the room as a surprise for my husband, and had emptied the shelves and cleared all the surfaces before and after I painted. The little brass tables had gotten wiped and polished, and even the bottles on the bar cart had been dusted. I oiled the wood. On Friday, our cleaning lady went over everything again, so it all sparkled.
I lit a fire, and some candles, I put on my favorite Beethoven piano sonata, which reminds me of my father’s last days. Feeling both sorrowful and affectionate, I began stacking the week’s collection of books, papers, to make some room on the table, when something caught my eye. On the table—the table I had emptied and polished twice in the past week—was a small oval silver shape. It was an earring.
Unbelieving, I went to my bureau where the purple box was kept. The one earring was in the box. The other was in my hand.
I immediately texted my cleaning lady. Yes, she had found it in the couch, and forgotten to say anything.
But here’s the thing. In three years, the house has been cleaned many times. The couch has been vacuumed at least every other week. There is a perfectly rational explanation for how the earring got there. But it feels, to me, as if I had a visitation, and I can’t help but believe that on this melancholy birthday, as I listened to the music that brings him so vividly to mind, my father reached through the weave of time. Warmed and happier, I wore the earrings last night, ate cake, and drank champagne.
Wisdom tells us not to put too much value in things, or to choose mysticism over reason. But sometimes when we don’t expect it, everything shifts, the lines can blur, and the momentary mysteries we see instead make life’s realities both rich and beautiful.
It was a happy birthday.
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.
There 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.
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.