The Beginning of the Long Goodbye

Greta
James and I came home from the college at almost two o’clock, and the dog was not downstairs. I found her snuggled into the extra blanket on my bed.

Mark had texted at noon, “Dog seems fine but I can’t get her to go downstairs.”

I lowered myself gently onto the bed next to Greta. Her head rested between her paws, and she rolled her eyes to look at me. Her tail thumped slowly. I stroked her silky head, gently rubbed her back, and I felt her little heart pelting frantically against her rib-cage. Her back legs were tucked beneath her.  She turned her head to lick my hand.

“Want to go downstairs, pup?” I asked her, and she sighed gently and laid her head back down between her paws.

***************

We got Greta at the Animal Shelter a few months after our beloved Holmsie died. We missed that sweet presence so. The house seemed empty.

“Never again,” we’d said, grief tearing us. But one Sunday, the car turned in at the shelter, maybe of its own accord.

Just to look, we said.

All of the dogs were named for celebrities. In one kennel, Roseanne, big and fluffy, bounced and crashed, barking for attention. In the kennel right next to her, Greta huddled in the farthest chain link corner, tiny, shivering, wanting to be alone. She was brown and black and white–there was a beagle among those terrier forebears–and her eyes, like Holmsie’s, looked as if they’d been outlined in kohl.

“Look at this,” I said, and Mark and Jim turned away from frolicking puppies and crouched with me by Greta’s cage.  She inched over; she licked our hands through the chain link. A volunteer appeared.

“She’s never done that before,” she said. “This is the first time she’s shown an interest in anyone.  Would you like to see her?”

Keys jingling, she went to let the little dog out of her pen.

“Yeah,” Mark said later, “they probably tell everyone that: oooh, she really responds to YOU!” But it didn’t matter: true or not, the imprinting was done. Greta was our dragon. She came home to stay about two weeks later, after a rigorous home visit and the requisite surgery.

**************

I could count on Greta’s routine. When I got up in the morning, she got up, too, marching to the back door and waiting while I turned the coffee on. I’d mix her food while she ran into the backyard, took care of urgent business, then stood at the door quietly until I let her in.

She’d wolf her breakfast greedily, then trot back upstairs, snuggling into the still warm spot I’d vacated, nestling behind Mark’s knees. I’d shower and dress, and when I was done, she would follow me back downstairs. She’d curl up under the chair at the head of the dining room table, sighing in that little cave, while I wrote my morning pages. She was waiting,–hoping, I always thought, that there might be some sort of breakfast meat.

That happened every day, a regularity since we’d moved into this house. But then suddenly, recently, everything began to change.

****************

We got Greta almost thirteen years ago, and the folks at the shelter weren’t sure how old she was. One vet guessed seven months. Another thought she was much older than that, maybe as much as two years old.

What the shelter people knew was how she’d arrived: a projectile heaved over the ten foot fence by someone who burst out of a running pickup truck, threw the dog, and left. A male volunteer, new to the work, ran to get her. When she wouldn’t budge, he slipped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she whimpered, across sixty feet of gravel yard.

By the time someone ran out to intervene, her head was permanently turned away. And she definitely did not want to deal with men.

*****************

This spring, Greta started reacting to storms very differently. She had never liked thunder, but usually we could tuck her up next to us, talking to her soothingly, and she would settle down. But now she could not be comforted. She shivered violently. She panted. She followed me from room to room, tight at my heels.

Soon, thunder didn’t have to roll to bring on this response. A hard soaking rain was enough to send the little dog into hours of frantic shaking.

We tried a thunder shirt; she tolerated it, but it didn’t quell the tremors or the panting. The vet prescribed a pill, which seemed to work. But once the shaking started, we could not get the little dog to open her mouth and swallow the tablet.

We tried a blue gel, squirted between cheek and gum. She squirmed and struggled. She had a blue grin for days afterward.

Then she started rousing us every night, storm or no storm. I would startle awake, the little dog’s face pushed up next to mine. As soon as she knew I was up, she’d pace over to Mark’s side of the bed, and wake him, too. She panted, paced, and shook, until finally we got her settled between us in the warm bed, shivering into slumber.

Two hours later, her snout would be next to my face, jolting me awake.

I’d read somewhere that, in elderly humans, urinary tract infections produced symptoms that looked like dementia. Maybe dogs are like that, too, I thought. Maybe this is all Greta’s kidneys talking. I brought a sample in and had it tested. The dog’s kidneys were fine.

The vet prescribed different medications–some zonked Greta out completely during the day; she refused to eat or sleep, but by nighttime, the panting would resume. One pill made her nasty and snappish, not unknown behavior for a dog who didn’t much like visitors, but never before had she bared her teeth at us.

We were frazzled from lack of sleep; we were concerned for the little dog’s health. The vet did a complete physical and finally prescribed Prozac.

When she came in to talk with me after the battery of test results were in, the kind, compassionate vet sat down on her bench and sighed.

“Physically, it all checks out,” she said, and she paused. “This is all,” she said carefully, “consistent with what we sometimes see in elder dogs: early signs of canine dementia.”

Greta pushed her head beneath my knees and shivered.

Oh my, I thought. I took the dog, and her big bottle of Prozac, home.

**************

Greta circled us warily when she first moved in; we could see her tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for…yelling? Violence? We didn’t know. When we reached to pet her, she flinched.

She followed me throughout the house, avoiding the boyos.

She dragged her food dish underneath the kitchen table. She would only eat when no one else was in the room. She did not want to be combed. She would tolerate only a certain amount of petting. She was wary, on guard, waiting.

Then one day, I took her out into the side yard with me. I was weeding, kneeling on a little cement walkway. It was late spring; there was a warm sun. The air was pleasant and the concrete radiated sun-baked warmth. The dog sat, alert and watching for a few minutes, then she lowered herself to the cement warmth. In a few minutes, she had surrendered; she was sprawled and sleeping–sleeping deeply and heavily–the kind of sleep one is drawn into, the kind of sleep that, like seawater, closes over your head when exhaustion has reached its very peak.

I swear that, when she woke up from that deep bout of sleeping, she was different. I swear that, after that, Greta knew she was home.

*****************

The Prozac helped the dog make it through the night; she would wake us only once, and then she’d hop up into the bed, circle and sigh, and settle down for the rest of the night. And so we could sleep too, a very good thing.

But the changes didn’t stop. She was slowing down, and now we saw–the loving time-filters peeled away,–the pure white muzzle, the cloudy eyes. The toes bent and twisted by arthritis. Greta sighed when she heaved herself up after a long rest. She didn’t always run to get her dish when dinner was served. The mail would fall through the slot–an occasion that had always brought her, barking and challenging, right out of a full, deep sleep. But now she’d perk her head up for a moment, consider, and sigh herself back to snoozing.

I’m sure the mail carrier was relieved, but grief settled into our awareness.

********************

We thought, in those early days of Greta, that if we just loved her enough, treated her kindly enough, that she would morph into the friendly, wonderful sort of dog her predecessor had been. We noticed enough to suspect former abuse. She tensed at men with facial hair, growled and threatened and ran to hide. She went into full alert-mode when sharing a couch with someone and that someone lifted the TV remote. We imagined the back story there.

It took her months to realize no one was going to steal her food.

And she did settle in. She would jump into our laps in the evening when we gathered to watch TV; she would nudge our hands to pet her.

We went for long walks. We would take her, on weekends, to an enclosed ball-field at a nearby park. We would unclip the leash and yell, “Go go go!!” She would explode into movement, streaking around the base paths, a tiny blur.  She would run and run and run.  But she always came back; never once did she attempt to break away, to get shet of her restraints. The safety of family seemed much more compelling than the lure of freedom.

But she never opened up to other people. I remember my friend Kim, a true dog-whisperer, working with her gently, coaxing, narrowing the gap between them, until finally it reached a point past comfort and Greta turned and growled at her.

Kim was startled. “Animals LIKE me,” she said. “I’ve never had an animal I couldn’t win over.”

Greta was the first, stubborn and untrusting.

I talked to the vet, who sighed. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s because of the abuse, and you can work, gently and patiently, and the dog might blossom, might accept new people. Sometimes, it’s just who the dog IS, a wary, suspicious little being. And you can do your best.

“And sometimes,” the doctor said slowly, “sometimes you’re dealing with the effects of abuse and neglect on a little creature who’s wary and shy to begin with. And then it’s really, really hard.”

She paused and looked at Greta, curled up under my bent legs, her back firmly to the doc who had poked and prodded her. “I think,” the vet said slowly, “I think, you’re dealing with both.”

***************

I couldn’t talk the dog downstairs. Her tail thumped when I talked to her, but she didn’t budge. I hated to leave her upstairs alone (What if she DIES? a panicky little voice entreated in my mind), so I pulled out my cleaning tools and attacked the bathroom. I scrubbed and sprayed; I threw towels and rugs down the laundry chute. I swiffered the floor.

I could hear the dog sighing.

I opened the closet door to put the mop away, and I saw the vacuum. Ha, I thought. That will move her. I plugged the machine in, and I pulled it out into the hallway and turned it on. I pushed and pulled down the hall, getting closer, watching the dog from the corner of my eye.

I wrestled the vacuum into the bedroom. She opened her eyes but didn’t budge. I circled around the bed, giving her a clear escape route, but she stayed, immobile, a stubborn little lump. I finished cleaning, shut off the machine, emptied the dust bucket, and went downstairs to get my book. I snuggled in on the bed with the dog, reading, her silky head under my hand.

Soon we were both snoring gently, enjoying a mid-afternoon nap on a cool spring day.

She finally went downstairs while I was in the bathroom, and she waited for me at the bottom of the stairs. She went outside agreeably, and she ate half a bowl of food.

In the evening she curled up on the carpet while we watched Doc Martin, and she climbed the stairs willingly to go to bed. But we knew that we had turned a corner.

Something had changed, and a new era had arrived.

*****************

Some days, now, the dog stays upstairs long after I’ve started the coffee and poured my cereal. Today is a good day: today she came downstairs with me, trotted right to the back door, ate her breakfast greedily. She’s sleeping now, Greta is, in her special corner of the couch. She is interested when the mail arrives. She rouses herself to sigh at the boy when he comes down for breakfast.

But an ominous countdown has begun in the back of my mind. The changes happen quickly. Our little dog, loyal and skittish, anti-social and demanding, is failing. The tethers begin to slip.

The rhododendrons have come back strong this spring; the little rosebush is covered, already, with buds. The Whomping Oak in the backyard released, quite suddenly, its winter load of old dead leaves and burst immediately into green-leafed glory. The birds are raucous, and there are three bunnies that meet to munch on clover in our backyard early every morning.

It is a spring when new life pushes boisterously. It is a spring of  last days, too, a spring, we realize, a spring when we begin to say the long goodbye.

*******

Here’s one source on canine dementia: https://www.thespruce.com/senior-dementia-in-dogs-3385016

 

This is Major Pam to Ground Control

We roar, with the rest of the audience, when he ambles onto the sparsely set stage–there’s a fancy wooden chair with velvet cushions, a carved side table with a cut-crystal water pitcher and a gentleman’s cigar smoking paraphernalia. Ten feet away or so from that stands a wooden podium, also ornately Victorian.

He wears the cream-colored suit and the crazy white wig that brand him Mark Twain. And he greets us nonchalantly, picking up a cigar, trimming its end. Then he launches into a caustic tirade about politicians in Washington, DC.  He is bitterly funny.

In the first act, he wanders around the stage and from subject to subject. Tucked into the pocket of his creamy vest are half sheets of neatly folded paper; I imagine lines and columns of tiny cramped writing, etched in fountain pen. Sometimes he will meander to the podium, pull out the sheets, flatten and rearrange them, harrumphing.  We hold our breaths. Is this part of the act? Or–has he just simply lost his place, befuddled?

But he juts his chin insouciantly at the audience, clears his throat noisily, takes a big swig of whatever is in that cut glass tumbler.  And then he embarks on a tirade about Presbyterians. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, if that little blank space was a personal lapse or a character-driven moment.

After the intermission, he picks up one of the old books from the stack on the table, strokes it fondly, and talks about his writing, and then launches into recitations. By the end of the show, he IS Huck Finn, twelve years old or so, shuddering with sadness on stage, fighting back the tears, torn between his duty to convention and his care and compassion for his friend Jim.

With the rest of the crowd, we jump to our feet and pound our hands when he is finished, roaring in appreciation for the show put on by Hal Holbrook.

Who just turned 91.

**********************
Sometimes, I will wake up in the morning, totter into the bathroom, and surprise myself by my reflection in the mirror.

“Holy shit,” I will think, startled, half-awake, into vulgarity. “You’re OLD!”

I am not quite sure how that happened so quickly, but random aches and pains, the crepe-iness of skin in certain geographical territories, and the unwarranted deference of youngsters, support the fact that indeed it has.

I have spent the better part of the last thirty years thinking, “Okay. When we just finish THIS episode [when the degree is earned, or the program identified; when we find the house or settle into new jobs, or when we do whatever]–when THIS brouhaha all calms down, THEN I will….”  I have a whole series of endings for that sentence, including organizing every cluttered space and thing in my extremely cluttered life, writing a book, learning to sew, and digging my paints back out of the plastic bin where they are buried in the basement.

Suddenly I realize that if I don’t DO those things now, I maybe–or probably–never will.

Life looks a little different through 61-year-old eyes.

***********************
This morning, I am having coffee with my friend and colleague Jeannette and Jeannette’s mother, Mary. I’m writing a story about Mary, who is 83, for a paper called Senior Times. Jeannette happened to mention, recently, that her mom went for a plane ride with our young colleague Phil last weekend. As the story unraveled, I discovered that Mary is a pilot. In their yard back in Kansas, back when Jeannette and her sisters were growing up, there was a dirt runway. That accommodated the four or five planes Jeannette remembers Mary having, the planes that she remembers skidding to stops on the gravelly dirt strip—just a fact of their lives in Kansas. An airstrip was to them like a driveway is to us: just the place you park your everyday transportation.

What the heck, eh?

Now Mary, who takes commercial flights quite often, who lives by herself and has a sweet little fur baby and goes on cruises and audits college classes and reads history voraciously, is losing her sight. And she mentioned to Jeannette that she’d probably never get back up behind the controls of a personally-piloted place, never again see the blaze of changing trees, the rivers twisting through our town, or the corn turning gold from the air.

Phil got wind of that, and up they went, he and Mary and Jeannette’s daring seven-year-old granddaughter. Despite disclaimers and denials, Jeannette is pretty sure that, for a significant part of the flight at least, it was Mary who was flying that plane.

***********************

I think about some other folks I know.

My widowed mother-in-law, Pat, has embraced the independent life thrust upon her in her early 80’s. She has fixed up her house and taught herself to use technology, and she just recently got a laptop so her computing could go mobile.

Wendy’s neighbor Joan just turned ninety. She showed up for her party with hair died a bright magenta. Why not? she asked the applauding crowd–Joan has a lot of children. And she ruminated that now, when things are finally starting to settle down, NOW would be a good time for her to start to do some traveling.

Larisa’s mom turned 90 this week, too. She celebrated the passage with a tasteful tattoo. She thinks she might just get another.

*********************

And think about this. There’s a tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara–Christopher McDougall made them famous when he wrote about them in his book, Born to Run. McDougall was searching for ways to become a runner who didn’t endure various, constant injuries. He found the Tarahumara, who, often barefoot, just keep running. This people, an article on a site called Before It’s News tells me, are unconcerned with aging.

Or maybe no one ever told them they were supposed to slow down when they get older.

Some of the best Tarahumara runners are in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Certainly, they don’t stop just because age encroaches.

**********************
Oh, all this consideration of age makes me ponder; it makes me ponder and search, English teacher-y, for a metaphor. And so I think that maybe, for women at least, aging is like the stages of a rocket-ship and its journey.

Childhood is assembly time: we gather our parts together, constructing ourselves, getting ourselves into working order. The chemistry of our compounds and the dynamics of our daily lives mold and shape us.

As teens, we launch, blazing, into a dense, thick atmosphere, where the friction of our frantic flight shapes us for the journey ahead. We jettison unnecessary parts. Some trappings of childhood fall away and burn to ash in an incendiary atmosphere.

And then we reach Space, where, after taking the time to calibrate our instrumentation, we insure the path chosen is the one we’re ready to take. There’s orbiting involved here. There are bold adventures into places, too, where no woman has gone before.

There are times when being beamed up becomes a necessity.

But it’s a rich journey, and its adventures are unexpected and enlightening in so many ways. We travel. We adjust. We encounter challenges and wonders.

And then one day we careen around an unknown planet and we can’t decide if it’s beautiful or frightening.

‘What IS that place?’ we ask our version of Bones.

‘Why, that’s Menopause,’ she answers in surprise. ‘You’ve been plotting this course for a good while.’

And we travel on, but something has changed; the urgency to explore is ebbing. Instead, we feel a need to go back to a safe, quiet place where we can spread out the treasures acquired, the lessons learned, where we can sort wisdom from folly and make sense of it all. Slowly but inexorably, we head for the re-entry that is the years of aging.

Like launching, re-entry burns things away.  We jettison, again, things that are extraneous: we need our lightest possible load for the return journey.

The long trip doesn’t always leave us intact. We may have glitches in our systems–they may be minor, and we may be able to ignore or accommodate them. They may be major and irreversible, and they may derail our re-entry plans.

Our computers, our brain centers, may have been affected or impaired. We call in every damned Scotty we can think of. We fight to maintain.

And sometimes we make it through, battered by our travels, but ready for the next stage that life affords us. A journey is not complete, after all, until the destination is achieved. Until it’s been examined and assessed.

****************************
Oh, ours is not a culture in love with old folks.  Sometimes they are discarded, ignored, or dismissed as ineffectual.  And yet.

Yet, there is Pat, sharing posts on Facebook, sending greetings to grandchildren whose lives have taken them to far-flung points on the map.

Yet there is Mary, flying over the golden fields of corn. I picture her dipping a wing, saluting something that, while still there, has quietly grown and changed.

There is Hal Holbrook, his talent and his memory bank crammed with wit and message, and the ability to enthrall and entertain still strong.

There is a 90-year-old woman with magenta hair, dancing. There is a tattooed great grandma, drawing her family tightly around her.

I think of these people, alive and making an impact, and I know it is no time pack things in.

*****************************
And there is stuff to be done. We do not know the number of our days, but we know what we should be doing with them.  And I know, waking to being in my 60’s, that there’s no point in waiting any longer.  THEN has now arrived.

Today, I think, I’ll get started on sorting a little of that clutter.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Vet’s Tonight

the-great-gretzky
I am perched on a little bench made for much shorter people to sit on. It’s so low to the ground, my knees form a roof peak. Tightly wound beneath them shudders my little dog, Greta, who is huddled and pressed and quivering uncontrollably. We’re in an immaculate green-tiled room room that is rimmed with locked cupboards. A metal topped table sits center stage.

A hum of voices, barks, and howls filters out from beyond a swinging door at the back.

We are waiting to see the veterinarian, my terrified pup and I. The kind, sweet vet tech has been in twice and taken Greta away, to be weighed, to have blood drawn. Both times, Greta went willingly enough, looking over her shoulder at me, making sure, maybe, that I wasn’t leaving her.

To her, this is a place where we leave her behind, in the care of strangers and the company of crazy companions, when we go away. This is the place where needles shine in fluorescent light, where harsh metal clippers make fast work of her nails, where a man with a shaved head pries her lips open and studies her teeth.

For me, this room provokes layers of memories. I have sat in examining rooms much like this one with other dogs, aging dogs; I have prayed, in those rooms, for miracles, or at least reprieves. Sometimes those have arrived, and a loyal friend has bundled back into the car with me. Going home: home to try the new medication, the rub, the bath…the thing that we hope will make life comfortable, livable, longer for the pet who has come to be a beloved necessary presence.

Sometimes the visit ended in harsh reality, in bowing to time’s inexorability, in knowing we could not subject our liquid-eyed dog to a life of unending pain.

Greta looks up at me as I rub her silky, bony head. She shoots one message from her big black eyes: Homehomehomehomehomehome…

“You’re not staying tonight,” I murmur, soothingly.

Then I hope I’m not lying. The tech, Melissa, says the dog has lost four pounds. Suddenly, Greta empties her big water bowl every day. At night, she wakes, panting heavily. Her scratching shakes the house.

I have found a lump on her back; there’s another on her belly. When James and I took her out to the car, she had trouble, my nimble little hound, jumping up onto the seat.

I am confronted with the reality of time’s relentless march.

***********

Cleaning files the other day, Mark found our adoption papers for Greta. We looked at the date–2005–and looked at each other and shook our heads. Eleven years.

An eye-blink.

We got the dog at the animal shelter. Something pushed us, almost physically, to stop one Sunday afternoon. It was spring, and still cold; the death of our beloved Holmsie was not that far behind us. We weren’t sure we were ready for another dog.

We’ll just look, we said.

The kennels were full; volunteers were bringing food around, and big dogs were jumping against the chain link walls joyously. Little dogs were running in circles and yipping. Puppies were tumbling obliviously.

But Greta–she was huddled in a corner of her kennel, quiet, sad, so very alone. She had the brown and black and white markings that belied a beagle ancestor. Holmsie, too, had been a beagle descendant; she also had a strong German Shepherd strain–she was big, solid, a rock.

Greta must have had terrier forebears; she was smaller. She was quivering.

“Look,” I said to Mark and Jim who were laughing at the antics of a fat, woolly beast whose name tag read, “Roseanne.” Roseanne was jumping against her cage walls to get the volunteer’s attention, then dropping down to the ground to preen and flirt.They came over to where I knelt by Greta’s kennel, and the little dog crept over to see. The boyos knelt down too, and the pup put a paw on the chain link, stuck her snout through the metal to try to lick Jim’s hand.

A volunteer, crepe-soled, stood suddenly behind us.

“I’ve never seen her be so interested in anyone,” she said. “Would you like to meet her?”

And in that moment the die was cast.

We had to wait, though, for shots and neutering. We had to be–no pun intended–vetted by the staff; they wanted to know our house was clean enough, our yard was fenced, we had no toddlers. Greta was not a dog for a toddler household. We waited several weeks in a cold, wet spring, when Mark would toss at night, and murmur, “Do you think she needs a blanket?”

The staff brought her home to us, watched the interaction, watched her settle in, and finally, satisfied, they went away, and Greta was our dog—our twitchy, nervous, sensitive, ill-treated dog.

The staff had told us stories about her origins. How they found her huddled in a corner of a kennel–someone had apparently driven up, after dark,and lofted her, dirty and flea-ridden, over the ten foot high fencing that kept the dogs from bolting. How the former volunteer who’d discovered her had clamped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she wailed and whimpered and resisted, across the pebbled driveway to intake. How after that, she turned her head away and didn’t want the company of human or beast.

Until we came. It felt like she was always our dog. It felt like if we just loved her enough, we could heal the wounds and bury the memories and make her over into a loving, trusting pup.

The first night, she paced and searched. She dragged her tupperware bowl of kibble under the dining room table and huddled over it. She didn’t eat the food during daylight. When we got up in the morning, the dish was empty, and the dog was quivering under the table.

We cooed and held out hands to sniff. That afternoon, I took her out into the fenced in side yard with me, company while I was weeding.  She paced and prowled as I inched my way down a wild, weedy flowerbed. She wandered over to the sun-warmed cement sidewalk  three feet from where I worked. She circled and sat, and suddenly, I realized she was sleeping–deep and urgent, sleeping as if she had never slept before. And I thought that finally, finally, the little dog felt safe.

She came to love us, Greta did, sometimes treating Mark and Jim like they were annoying brothers. I was always, to her, the alpha dog, the center of safety. Often, she followed me around the house, upstairs and down, just staying by my side.

We took her out to fenced in ball fields and she would soar around the base paths, running and running until she ran herself out. She always came back; this was not a dog we would ever have to worry about wandering away.

We took her for long evening walks.

We bought her toys. We realized she had no idea of how to play.

She settled in; our home became hers, but she never got comfortable with visitors.  No matter how much we loved her, claimed her, kept her safe, Greta was who she was: a nervous dog who didn’t much like change or company.

************
She moved with us, five years ago, settled into a new home after some days of consternation, but changed her nighttime place. Greta had always snuggled into a corner of the couch to snore the night away. After the move, she slept with us, starting in a cozy dog bed we bought for her.  When we woke up in the morning, she’d be snuggled between our feet.

She was never sick. We took her in for yearly visits, practiced flea and heart-worm prevention, walked her in our new neighborhood. The only time she needed doctoring was the night she greedily swallowed chunks of pork bone, which lodged in her intestines, making her feverish, taking her to the animal hospital for three scary nights.

We bought soft food instead of kibble for the healing time; she refused to eat bare kibble ever again. She gained three pounds.

They started calling her a ‘senior dog’ when she turned eight, and we snorted: Greta was still spunky and nimble and anxious, each night after dinner, for me to get the leash and head outside to wander. We didn’t register the facts of age.

***********
But sitting on that bench, I had to face the truth. We don’t really know how old she is. One vet guessed that Greta was eight months old when we adopted her; another was sure she was at least two years. We settled for the younger age; we gave her a birthday in May.

So the truth is that the little hound is at least eleven. She’s 77 in dog years–and maybe more than that.

The truth is, that she has moved from ‘senior’ to ‘elderly.’

The truth is, she will not be with us forever.

**************
The nice vet, the young man with the shaved head, wearing his green polo shirt emblazoned with the name of the practice, came smiling in to see the little dog; she turned and hid her head beneath my legs. He coaxed her out with gentle hands; he stroked her head and examined her lumps and he searched for anything internally that might alarm.

The lumps, he said, were harmless cysts.

She had, he surmised, a UTI.

Her lower back was raw from some sort of dermatitis.

And it was true: arthritis is setting in.

He sent us home with shampoo and pills–antibiotics and anti-itch pills. And when those are done, we can start the anti-arthritis pills; those are pills she’ll take now, forever.

*************

Oh, it could have been much worse.

I didn’t lie to my little friend; we will go home and start the medication regime, and maybe, tonight, she’ll sleep better than she has in a long time.

But time’s drumbeat is louder to me now, like that moment when the background noise–the thrumming of the furnace, or the backbeat of the band from the bar down over the hill–rears up and becomes the prominent, important sound. My little dog is entering those last days. I hope there will be years full of days in this era.

Our time with her will never feel endless again.

************

Once, jokingly, a few months after we got the dog, when she’d bared her teeth as he playfully tried to steal her rawhide bone,  Mark said to me, “Tell me why we felt compelled to get this nasty little beast!”

I was stumped for an answer. Why do we invest so deeply in these furry friends, these emissaries from another land, who change our lives and shed in our houses and demand our love and care and time?

But we do. On sad days when the house is empty of the tick-tacking of unclipped nails, the residue of hair on the couch, then we wander and we grieve.

“Never again,” we say, “never again. This hurts too much.”

And then the car stops, of its own free will, it seems, and the little beast comes to the fence…

I cannot find a reason; maybe this is one of those things that goes deeper than thought or practicality, some kind of inherited need to which we willingly accede.  For we need her just as much, I know, as she needs us.

**********

This time, I  clip the leash on and take the dog out to where young James waits. Greta looks at him, sniffs, and raises her snout snootily in the air; Jim has been petting the fluffy, caramel colored cat that prowls the practice. Greta is not amused at this defection. But she lets him take her outside while I pay the bill and gather the pills and head out into a sunny, cloud-scudded autumn day–a day when I’ll take my dog, healthy for the most part, home.

Ride a Painted Pony

Bugged Babe
“You gotta see this,” says Jim, coming in from mowing.  He is not a nature boy.  His voice is a little shaky.

I follow him out to the front yard.  He mowed the patch beneath the big tree, and, grass cover gone, exposed thousands of cicadas. These are the old brown exo-skeletons–they look like a dense field of peanut shells–shells with legs and heads and antennae.

Mark goes out that night and finds the same tree covered with live insects, crawling upward.

The cicadas inhabit the front yard.  They hang under leaves.  The live ones are shiny, black and purply with gossamer wings.  Very occasionally I see one execute a clumsy, chittering flight.  More often I see them squashed and flattened on the driveway.

Babe the stone pig has a live cicada stuck to her nose and one dry old carcass clinging to her shoulder. Empty husks speckle her gravel.

It’s an infestation, almost; it’s a visitation that seems dramatically overdone, and biblical, and portentous.

I worry that this is some sort of global climate change effect (I worry about that with lots of nature’s phenomena, these days), so I head to the Internet and find http://www.cicadamania.com.  I learn that this is the peak of a long, long cycle–that we are meeting the citizens of Brood V, who emerge, this spring, when the soil reaches 60 degrees Fahrenheit. (Colder, more northern climes in our ‘cicada zone’ still have the emergence to anticipate.)

I learn that the females of the species lay their eggs on tree limbs, in grooves; hatched, the babies eventually fall to the ground and burrow, feeding on roots, actively, in the case of OUR cicadas, for 17 years.

Seventeen years underground! And then, something calls them out. They surface as ‘nymphs’–although they are not at all the picture of mythic nymphs I hold in my mind.  They ditch their exoskeletons, leaving them for Jim to find moldering under the tree…or on the front walk, or in the carport.  Or stuck to Babe’s front quarters.

Then, once their wings and skin have flushed into health, the cicadas go looking noisily for love.

And the whole cycle begins again.

It gets me to thinking.

************
Because, of course, the cicada cycle, unfolding so loudly and dramatically in Year Seventeen, is not the only cycle in place.  There is the cycle of the seasons, with spring and the cicadas rolling in tandem right now, two big heavy juggernauts lumbering through time, feeding each other.  The warmth of sun-warmed soil wakens the cicadas, the growing trees lure the mamas, on their quest to find a safe spot for their eggs, up the rough and peeling bark.  These two cycles are in tune, aligned; an athlete could jump on top, put a foot on each, dance to their rolling.

At least for a while.

There are other cycles swirling, though, that slant into these, that spin perpendicular, and that jut and jag into others.  There are lifespans and the cycles of friendship and revolutions of job growth and learning. There is leadership chaos in a country and in an organization; there is war and peace and the turmoil of seeking acceptance for disenfranchised groups. In some ways we are all tumbling in a great washer, all thrust and chugged, round and round, by the same cyclical forces of nature and culture and society.

In other ways, we are like the characters in climactic scenes of action movies–trapped in the workings, say, of a great and relentless clock tower.  The wheels and the gears move into and around and in spite of each other. These are specific, unshared turnings. It requires a seasoned stunt actor to hop and dance and stay safe, to avoid being sucked into the powerful workings of one great wheel or another.

I have to be alert, I think. I snooze,–I hibernate–and I wake abruptly to the fact that Greta is now a senior dog, with a white snout and a back leg that trembles, and that she doesn’t need the same kind or amount of food I’ve been used to feeding her.

“When,” I lament, “did the young dog years slip away?”  But I was there for that unfolding.

Perhaps with my blinders on.

Mark will mention something about the prosecutor’s office, and I will smack into the fact that the law school cycle is far, far behind us: the lodestone that was our goal and beacon for such a large and long chunk of years has been reached. We passed on by.  Cycle completed; other goals rise up now on a new horizon.

One son, this year, turns forty; another puts down his thoughts of school and steps into the world of work.  Grandchildren grow and one will graduate, and, oh, the little one now has double digits in her age.  We kick the outgrown plushies down the stairs, load up, instead, on fancy polish and nail decals.  And I say, “How did this happen?  She was just a  baby yesterday!”

And the dog comes and rests her white-rimmed snout on my leg and rolls her eyes at me.  She IS a nature baby; she’s in tune with all these cycles, has seen and read their daily approaches, knows about their advances.  She may not like them, but she accepts them.

I need to do the same.

And this is the season to help me read the signs. We plunge into celebration: shiny-eyed graduations, rueful rites of passage, joyful welcoming of new babies. Nuptials. Explorations into the realities of impending retirement.  Maturing of friendships. Deepening of understanding.  A time, I think, when spirituality sheds its New Age sugar-high and becomes something else entirely.

I am tempted to look at the cicada cycle and draw comparisons, to talk about my burrowed years as if it had been necessary for me to bury my head, ignore the passage, hunker down and take care of just that one essential thing.  But I know that as a cop-out: awareness is always essential. To be mindful is to be as much alive as possible. All I can do now is stay awake and pay attention.

**************
I do not like all the things these revolutions are bringing me.  I do not want the news about the report an oncologist carries to one dear friend, or the fact that another has reached the time of no more treatments. I grieve to learn of a shattered relationship, of two people, sundered, moving away from each other, hurting and confused. I do not want to see the cloudy film softly shading the crazy little dog’s eyes.  I do not want to accept that launching into life is going to mean falling, failing, tender young people getting hurt…and toughening.  I look at those young ones, poised and excited, waiting for just this one moment before they leap, and I want to run out with a giant trampoline, to make sure they bounce, and when the bouncing’s done, to drag them back inside to have some cookies.

To keep them safe.

But that part of the cycle is gone; the wheels have turned. Dancing here on my own, self-chosen set of gears and cogs and turning things, I can see them, those young leapers, but these old feet can’t move fast enough to go and synchronize their revolutions with mine.  I have to leave them alone.  I have to let them figure out their own crazy dance steps.

Sigh.

I do, however, have good company. Mark’s dancing right beside me, new knees making him ever more nimble, on a very similar round. And friends and family members share the passages.  Wheels turn and bring smiling, loving faces close for a time before spinning them out to the proper next phase, and the sharing of those moments is essential.

And there is much yet to be discovered, a whole new phase beginning.  Time, perhaps, for a new dance: I can’t let the fear of learning the steps cause my feet to falter.

***********
Today is the first day of a four-day weekend, Memorial Day, a weekend when we remember, when we rest, when we make plans to move forward. So I gulp down the last dregs of morning coffee, and I trail through the house, de-cluttering. Jim gets up, and we plan for the day.  We’ll be meeting some wonderful life-friends for lunch. I put a load of laundry in.  I lift the last cookie bars from the tray–leftovers from cookies made for a bake sale at one place of work and a farewell luncheon at another–and I swirl hot soapy water to clean the pan.

The sun, despite dire predictions, warms the morning.  I go outside and take the push broom from its car-port nook and I sweep those crunchy brown carcasses away from the back door.  I move them off the driveway.  I clean the dead cicadas from Babe’s cement hide.

I see a prowling cat on the ground and I see a hummingbird high above, and I find fresh traces telling me some deer friends spent the night. A mallard duck couple has been calmly working the neighborhood yards this week; I’m hoping they have a taste for cicada. The purple flowers are blooming; the last creamy-white iris has shriveled and gone.

Life may be built of cycles–like a turn-table, like a merry-go-round; like interlocking gears stuttering and catching–but that means the circle turns and returns.  There’s comfort in the image; there is knowledge and sureness. And there is the next revolution to anticipate.

I wonder briefly what life will be like seventeen years from now, in the spring that the new-laid cicada eggs surface to mate and reproduce.  But who’s got time, really, for long pondering on things we can’t control?  There are things to be done, and there people to talk with; there are passages to celebrate, right here in this arc of this fine revolution.

I put the broom away and go inside to get started.

Up Before the Others

It is 6:54 AM, and the clouds are rimmed with a special shade of insistent pink that only happens right here, right now, in this burgeoning time of day, at this spiked and waiting time of year.  The trees limbs, mostly bare as yet (budding coming soon) stand out against that color in crisp, dark, stark relief.

Below that pinkening sky, the junipers that line the far side of drive and the shaggy hedges on the closer edge are sprinkled with a consistent dusting of snow.  It’s almost like some careful child with safety scissors neatly cut two photos from a magazine and glued them together. The brightness of the spring sky, the coldness of the white-dusted evergreens: they just don’t go together.

I have been sitting here pondering the world outside the window–and the other, weirder world inside my head–since just after 5 AM, when my bladder and my buzzing thoughts propelled me out of bed. The little dog came downstairs too, of course, tippy-tapped down after me, waited at the back door to be released and then charged back in, hell-bent on her breakfast bowl and her “Good girl!” goodies. And then she curled up in the embrace of the couch’s cushioned arm, snoring softly, while I grabbed my binder and my special pen, to spend an hour or two releasing all my brain-buzzing .

I love the early quiet. I love to be alone with my thoughts in a sighing, contented house–with the hum of the fridge and the chug of the furnace and the knowledge that the boyos are fast asleep upstairs.  I love the opportunity to open up the hinged lid of my head and spill its contents, ramshackle, wholesale, unsorted and unscripted, onto college-ruled, blue-lined paper.  I love the opportunity to sort through those thoughts and see if there are any little nuggets gleaming, keepers among the dross–things to scavenge; seeds, maybe, to plant for future growth.  Or embers that might need immediate fanning.

The sudden dawning moment comes; the pink is washed from the sky by the pale golden sun, the clouds are backlit and empty, and I realize my early hours are up.  Mark will soon be, too; I’ll pull the breakfast bake from the refrigerator, get the oven heating.  I’ll set the second pot of Seattle’s Best to brewing.  The day will begin, and I’ll be a little more ready for its challenges because I’ve had that solitary writing time.

It wasn’t always thus.

*****************

I think about the way we remember people from our halcyon days.

“Oh, she was the one with the funky hats, right?” we might say, or, “Oh, he had that hair! Remember his hair???” And then we meet the primly suited, carefully coifed professional she’s become, or shake the hand of a burly man with a bald and shining pate, and we ponder how we change.  I suspect people might say of me, “Oh, yes: she liked to nap!” because sleep was a state I was always, as a young person, seeking.

I couldn’t wait for work to end, for classes to be over, for the visiting people to go home, so I could grab a blanket and close my eyes for, oh–just twenty minutes.  The twenty minutes would, of course, become two hours; the appointment might be missed, the event completely scotched.

“She’s sleeping,” my dear ones might say, and then they’d roll their eyes.

There was work and there was school and there were other obligations–things I’d signed up to do, books that needed taking back, chores and projects, parties to attend.  The parties might have been a big part of the problem, bleeding into the wee hours, offering lubricated socialization and the illusion of wide-awake, wee-hour wittiness.  After a party, I was always catching up.

‘Morning’ to me meant eleven AM; getting up early meant eight o’clock–and I would not be happy. Three or four o’clock in the afternoon were perfect times for napping, but I could also grab some shut-eye while studying in a library carrel, head cushioned on a stack of books, or sitting in the car outside the pharmacy waiting for my ride to pick up her prescription. Or after dinner, in front of Jeopardy.  Or in the midst of grading a batch of sixth grade essays.

I remember one weekend in a college summer, when I was working the graveyard shift at an ice cream factory, a job which sounds a lot more idyllic than it was.  I arrived home after the sixth day of work–we always worked six days in those hot and busy summers–put away the ice cream treats I brought home for the happy family, washed the fudgesicle residue from my person, and crawled into bed.  When I rambled downstairs at 3 PM, I was shocked to find it was Sunday, and I had slept through the Saturday night bacchanal–and my mother had let me sleep through church.

“Oh NO!” I thought, mourning the potential adventures I had missed, but feeling, too, for a rare and memorable moment, completely rested.

I drank so much coffee in those days that I think it had the opposite effect–it pushed me from jazzed-up into sleepy. My psych prof told me that was exactly the philosophy behind giving kids with ADD big batches of caffeine.

I poured myself another cup and pondered my next nap-time.

After college, I always had two jobs.  When I taught sixth grade, I also worked retail, and I would careen through the weeks, niche-ing lesson planning, paper-grading and bulletin board creation into nooks and crannies of time: the thirty minutes before I ran off to the department store’s lingerie department, the ten minutes before I left for school.  My friend Joan called me, every single morning, making sure I was up and out of bed–I slept so hard and so desperately that sometimes my blatting alarm clock didn’t wake me.

Start the coffee!  Hit the shower! Let the craziness resume!

Once a month or so, during those teaching days, I would grab an early Friday night dinner, then curl up on my bed with an aghan at 6:30 or 7:00, and sleep right through till Saturday lunch.

“Sleep debt,” people told me.

“Slow down,” some advised.

“Nap time?” I asked hopefully.

Then marriage and children. No one tells you what happens to sleep when you have kids, do they?

*************

Mark was a single, custodial dad when we got married; Matt was seven.  And Mark, who’d been Matt’s primary care-giver for almost four years, slept the light sleep of the parent-on-call: one ear always open.  Matt would roll over in his trundle bed down the hall, and Mark would bolt up, head-cocked, listening.

Within one week, I swear to you, one WEEK of being married, I was the bolter-upper, and Mark was snoring through my 3 AM conversations with an inquisitive second grader.  How does this happen? I pondered.  Is it some lady-gene?

And how do people with kids ever catch up on sleep?

On weekends when Matthew stayed with his mom, his newly minted step-mother stayed in her bed, resting up for teaching and for Sunday re-integrations.

And then, seven years later, along came James, a rollicking bundle of joy.  And here was the thing: I was going to be a stay-at-home mommie, at least for the beginning.  I gathered up my baby books, reading everything from T. Barry Brazelton to What to Expect During the First Year.  And this is what those books promised me: the baby will sleep. A lot.

Get yourself a hobby, they advised.  Take naps yourself.  Use the time to clean your house.

Oh, I had visions.  There I’d be: the perfect mommy, rested and beaming, carefully coiffed, with a  smiling infant, a gleaming house.  And drawers full of hand-knitted gifts for the holidays.

James arrived in the wee morning hours of a snowy February day; the timing was a portent I failed to read.  The only time he slept through the night in his first year sent me into a panic:  My God, he must be ill!

My house was a mess; my HAIR was a mess.  My infant was often crying.

Of course, we didn’t realize then that Jim’s brain is wired differently; he was never a napper, and his night sleep never capped out (still doesn’t, I suspect) at more than seven consecutive hours.

WHERE’S MY NAP TIME????? I demanded of the authors of those books, but they turned their backs to me, mute and shuttered.

So I gave up and threw myself into the vortex–going to grad school, working at a college, embarking on the path to law school with my husband.  We sent one boy off to the Navy and the other to classrooms where his connection never quite clicked.  I had classes to teach and advisees to see and parent conferences; we planned trips out of state to visit law schools. There were counselor appointments  and there was baby-sitter searching. We had households to move, and move again.

Gradually, sleeping ten hours became a nice but distant memory; afternoon naps were rare twenty-minute luxuries.  Our bodies change, accept reality. Our minds accept reality too: our needs grow different as we age.

Life, I have decided, is like a big swim in pounding surf: I flail and fling myself against the waves, practicing my imperfect crawl, fighting the undertow, pushing against the current.  And then suddenly, here I am, spat out upon the rocky beach, wondering what sharp object it is I’m sitting upon.  Thinking, “Hey. I don’t need no stinkin’ sleep.”

And enjoying the peace and the treasure of the early morning.

*************

Mark, in his fuzzy bathrobe, has shlupped, yawning, down the stairs.  The dog, who came to beg a chewy bone, now sits growling at my feet (WHAT?? Do my feet seem hungry? Do they twitch as though they might steal that chewy???) I pulled the breakfast bake from the fridge, replaced its plastic lid with a cover of aluminum foil, and put it in the heating oven. I ground the beans and brewed the second pot.

Today I have floors to clean and papers to grade and calendars to calibrate, the week ahead to envision. Jim and I have an entrepreneurial project that needs some shaping before we meet with experts who can help us achieve the dream.  There are meals to plan and reservations to make; there’s a cookie jar almost devoid of its pathetic store-bought cookies.  I have a stack of books to read and I have clothes to iron and there’s a craft table in the basement that badly needs sorting. There are letters to write and there are bills to pay.

But we’ll sit and have breakfast first–pour juice, make plans, portion out the day’s to-do’s.  Once, I would have been buoyed by hours of sleep; now I am buoyed by hours of quiet, time to settle into self, to lighten my thoughts while the sky does the same.

How we change, a wry, amused voice in my head murmurs. How we change. 

*********

But maybe, this afternoon, I’ll take a nap.

Tales Told By Friends

February stumbles into March. Things are up, and things are down.

Sunday afternoon, the sun shines. It’s 60 degrees; we shed our jackets on our walk.  Crocuses bloom and daffs push up, and the world seems washed and ready for newness.

The next day, the sky pushes close, gray and glowering, and snow begins to fall. The heat churgles back on, the heavy coats come back out, and it feels just as though an opened door has abruptly slammed shut.

Then there are changeable days of pouring rain, of gentle shine, and of wind that rattles the stubborn brown oak leaves.  It’s an unsettled time, and it’s a time of concern. People are sick.  Deadlines loom.  There’s stress, and there’s pressure, and there’s uncertainty.

And then, into this uncertain, late-winter mix, slid beneath the doorway of fret and worry, three stories arrive.  They are stories from friends:

–Linda–a friend from the early times–all the way back to grade school and high school years.

–Sharon–a friend from the after-college days, those heady days of young adulthood and claiming identity.

–Larisa–a friend met through the place I work now, and a friendship forged through such adventures as trudging half-marathons together.

Their stories speak to me of  bravery and endurance, of answering calls for help even in the darkness, of the spirited embracing of life. Their stories ground my thoughts and remind me of things that are important. Linda and Sharon and Larisa are generous with their stories, and I know this: these stories are things to be shared.

***********

Linda’s Story: Al’s Boots

Al's boots

Al went through a lot of steel-toed boots, Linda says, during his years with the railroad.

He was only 22 when the railroad took him on. They must have been glad to get him: a big strong kid, a hard worker. And, young as he was, a family man.  Al and Linda–she was such a pretty girl: red-haired, bright, and lively–got married in 1972, the year he graduated from high school. Their daughter Tracy was born in March 1973; Linda picked up her high school diploma that June.

They lived in Dunkirk, their hometown.  Scott arrived in October of 1975. The next year, Al laced up those steel-toed boots and joined the railroad. They hired him as a laborer; he’d barely worn out his first pair of boots when they made him a welder.

The railroad moved Al and the family to Geneva, Ohio, in 1978.  He broke in another pair or two of boots before the railroad made him a foreman.

Linda turned her gift for nurturing into a vocation; she provided daycare for other families’ children in her home.  She was good at it, and popular, and, in 1986, she and Al became the proud owners of We Care Day Care.

Linda ran the business for seven and a half years; Al traveled for the railroad most of that time. His boots touched down in a lot of different places, a lot of different states.  He rode from Boston to Chicago to Miami, and to a lot of less well-known places in between.

The railroad made him a supervisor. He went through more pairs of boots. He worked a lot of 16 hour days.  He took good care of the gang he supervised; they knew they could count on Al having a bagful of roasted shelled nuts for them and a cooler full of drinks and snacks.

Al talks about watching Amish children playing in green fields as the train sped by; he remembers street corner entrepreneurs hawking their wares.  He ate at a lot of mom and pop diners and restaurants.  He had a lot of rich and interesting conversations with strangers; he met a lot of strangers who became his friends. He remembers those he worked with, the people who worked for him, with a great deal of fondness.

The railroad made him a manager.

Kids grow; boots wear out; careers careen in unexpected directions.  In 1999, the railroads merged, and CSX sent Al and Linda, empty-nesters now, to Scherville, Indiana.  They stayed there for two and a half years…long enough, just about, to wear out another pair of boots.

Al bid out in 2003, and, writes Linda, “We say we’ve come full circle.” They moved back home to Westfield, New York.  Their home town, where they graduated from high school, is about 15 miles away.

When Al retired, he took off his steel-toed boots for the last time, and he told Linda to throw them away.  He went out and got himself some comfortable gym shoes and he started wearing those.  He even, recently, bought himself a pair of walking shoes, and when the western New York snows melt this spring, maybe he and Linda will go walking on some of the local woodland trails or explore some of the tree-lined streets.

But Linda couldn’t bear to throw the boots away.  There has to be something, she mused to herself, some way to use them.  And–gifted with taste, and an unerring eye–she found just the thing.  When they celebrated Al’s retirement, those boots held place of honor, filled with flowers: a steel-toed tribute.

How do you show the measure of a man?  Maybe using boots that symbolize his dedication is not such a bad way.  During his years with the railroad, Al and Linda raised a family, moved that family, and worked hard for their family.  Al grew into management.  He grew into manhood.

You know the times weren’t always easy, but Al and Linda were not the ones to give up, to wish for the easy way out. The boots wear out, you get a new pair.  You lace them up and you get out there and you work.

It’s what Al did, Linda says, every day of his life with the railroad.  He laced up his boots, he showed up, he did more than a day’s work, and he did it unfailingly well. And he did it healthy, and he did it sick, and he did it even when he really didn’t want to leave his family and his warm home.

All those years, says Linda, and never, not even once, did Al miss a day of work.

***********

Sharon’s Story: The Curious Incident of the Whisper in the Night-time

It is 3 AM [Sharon remembers], a deep November night, and she is suddenly–as if summoned–wide awake.  She lifts the shade of her bedroom window, and sees that, in the pouring rain, some sort of large animal prowls the backyard. ‘Coyote!’ is her first thought, but this wet beast is bigger.

She pulls on a robe and hurries downstairs.

Sharon manages the estate of a well-known Harvard professor. She lives in a jewel-box of a home on the grounds.  From her front door, she can survey the pool and the rolling yards.  There are security lights that shine all night long.

The pool at night

She watches the animal approach in the glow of those lights.  When it gets close enough to activate the motion sensor on her porch, more light floods on. Sharon sees this is a dog–a big dog–one with a collar.

She tries to decide what to do.  I could go out, she thinks, and bring it in out of the rain, make some calls, and try to find its owner. 

But this is a strange, large dog.

It could be mean.

It could be rabid.

While Sharon ponders, the dog explores the edge of the pool, which is coated, in that November darkness, with fallen leaves. In the slickery rain, those leaves may have looked like a solid surface for walking.  The dog puts out a paw, shifts its weight, and falls abruptly into the water.

Sharon is galvanized.  She calls 911 and she grabs her raincoat and a flashlight. She runs out to the pool where the dog is thrashing and crying–really, heart-breakingly, crying.  And Sharon knows that she has to go into the pool and get the dog.  By the time helps arrives, it will be too late.

She says a prayer, and she is in the water.

She grabs the dog’s collar and then it’s like unseen hands are helping. Sharon feels as though the dog, which stops thrashing, is LIFTED from the water.  It puts its paws on the pool’s edge; Sharon pushes gently. The dog is out of the pool. It shakes itself off, and it follows its dripping savior gratefully into the dry garage. Sharon rubs it down as best she can, and she discovers the trembling beast has tags with not one, but three, phone numbers to call if found. Someone, she thinks, really loves this animal. She reassures the dog that all is well.

Sharon leaves the dog in the dry garage, and takes her flashlight out to the top of the hill to flag down the police.  They arrive quickly; they call the owner; they bundle the shivering dog into the back of the patrol car.

Sharon–soaked and freezing–hurries back into her house. And she thinks: What woke me at that moment in the middle of the night? 

*****
Another minute, the next day, and Sharon would have missed her.  The dog’s owner pulls into the long drive just as Sharon is leaving. She is, the owner, a middle-aged woman with an armful of flowers, two ecstatic cards declaring Sharon a hero, and a special needs son, waving from the car. The dog is the little boy’s devoted companion. The dog, the owner tells Sharon, is a rescue dog itself.

There are teen-aged siblings in that household; one, the mama thinks, left a door ajar, and the dog was just bound to explore.  There are busy highways to cross on the route it must have taken to get to the pool by Sharon’s home. Something kept it safe. The next thing it knew, it was five miles from home and drowning.

Except that Sharon heard a voice in the night, and she listened to its call.

A rescue dog, a child in need: Sharon figures a whole army of guardian angels were at work that night, and one of them woke her up.  That angel must have known that Sharon would not hesitate; that angel must have known she was another rescuer waiting to help that child, ready to save that dog.

************

Larisa’s Story: Mimaw Gets Some Ink

Larisa, the youngest of nine grown siblings, balances between two dear women at thresholds.  Her mother, Janette,–she’s Mimaw to the kids–,will be 90 this year.  Larisa’s daughter, Cassie, just turned 18.

They are close, Cassie and her Mimaw, who now lives in an assisted living situation–a nice place, but not the family home where Janette raised and launched her brood.  Larisa and  her husband Aaron built their home right next to Mimaw’s.  Their kids were in and out, every day.

Janette misses that.

But they visit, all the time.  When Cassie comes, she and Mimaw talk about birthdays, and Mimaw wonders what special thing Cassie would like for her special day.

Cassie confides that she wants a tattoo–something her parents have told her could only happen when she turns 18.  Mimaw gets interested.

When she sees Larisa alone, she confides that she’d like to be a part of that.  Maybe, suggests Janette, she and Cassie should get tattoos together.

WHAT?????

Larisa is shocked at first, but the idea flutters down, settles gently in, and takes root.  Maybe, thinks Larisa, they could all get tattoos.  But first she calls her mother’s doctor, who is intrigued.  Ninety-year old skin IS different, the doctor agrees, but it could work.  The artist would have to thoughtful and gentle and observant.  The design would have to be simple and monochromatic.

Larisa calls her siblings.  Some share her shock, at first, and some seem disapproving, and Barb signs on to get a tattoo, too.

They research designs and take them to Janette, who selects a simple heart that weaves into the word, “Family.”

They research tattoo artists and find Six, a local legend (Six is, students tell me, the rock star of tattoo artists in our county.)  Six is not fazed; he has known older folks who wanted tattoos, and he knows how to proceed.  They will do a test dot first and see if Janette’s skin will take the ink, or if the ink will run or smear. Or–it might just hurt too much. If any of those things happen, Six assures Larisa, they will abort this mission.

There are four of them at the tattoo shop that day, and the thing goes off without a glitch. The four women leave the parlor with tasteful hearts on their arms, permanent reminders that family is what’s important.

The staff at the assisted living facility waits for Janette to return from her foray to Six’s domain.  Many of those caring souls have ink on their arms, too.  Janette, on her arrival home, gets a standing ovation .

But Larisa worries about healing, so she visits the next day.  Everything is fine, her mother says, and she’s glad she got the tattoo with Cassie as her granddaughter celebrated her 18th birthday.

Now it’s time, Janette tells Larisa solemnly, to think about her own milestone, that birthday coming up in a couple of months.  She’s thinking another tattoo might be in order.  What does Larisa think about…hmmm…maybe a butterfly?

The artists and his subjects

*************

I think about the different kinds of bravery owned by these three women I’m lucky enough to call friends.

I think about Linda and Al, and their dedication and devotion.

I think about Sharon’s unflinching response to a mysterious, inconvenient, challenging call.

I think about Larisa, the connecting link in a chain forged by love of family and a spirit of adventure.

Gratefully, I take their stories and I hug them close, and I push, past puddles skimmed with ice, out into this particular March morning.

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

They hadn’t been to church in over a year,–so long that their church of tentative choice had a new minister, for heaven’s sake–but something nudged her that Sunday.  Her husband reluctantly put the New York Times aside and accompanied her, although she assured him it wasn’t necessary. But it was good, they both felt, to see friendly faces; and the cadence of the liturgy, the swell of the organ, the smell of the candles, soothed and inspired.

After the opening prayer, the children were called to the front, and a talented mom shared an abbreviated story of Jonah. The small heads leaned forward avidly.  Refusing to do what you’re told!  Trapped in the belly of the beast! VOMITED out and repentantly, belatedly obedient. Now there was a story.

The pastor, in his sermon, took up the thread of Jonah. “Let’s talk,” he said, “about answering God’s call.  What’s God calling you to do?”

She almost laughed out loud.  She was 63 years old–63!–and suddenly it seemed like the concept of vocation was stalking her.

A little child–a blond, solemn boy of maybe three and a half, four years–in the pew three rows ahead, was playing with a wooden Johnny Jump Up toy, his back to the altar, staring, unseeing, right at her.  She closed her eyes to concentrate better on the pastor’s words, but the wooden click-clacking intruded.  It sounded familiar, she thought; it conjured a long-forgotten sound. It was the sound that wooden rosary beads made as the Sisters of Saint Joseph navigated her grade school classrooms.

In third grade it had been Sister Mary Agnes who rustled and clacked up and down the aisles of the Perpetual Life schoolroom, placing thick packets of official-looking paperwork on each child’s desk. Some of the nuns were rough or stern or abrupt; Sister Mary Agnes was quiet, kind, encouraging.

When she reached forward eagerly to read the instructions, Sister put a gentle hand on her head and urged her to wait.  They would discover this together, as a class.

And it was something to discover.  This packet, Sister told them, was an APTITUDE inventory.  The questions it contained would cleverly worm their ways into each child’s special core of being, winnowing out and revealing the talents and leanings each child had.  Revealing vocations–God’s special call to each one. For each, Sister Agnes assured the third graders, had a special call.  It was their lives’ work to discern what that call was.  Sister searched the faces of her charges, her eyes, lashless behind un-rimmed spectacles, were hopeful but realistic; some, she said, might even have the special vocation for the religious life.  Although, Sister acknowledged sadly, that call seemed to come less and less, these days.

It was 1960.

The children took up their sharpened number two pencils–each had a spare, just in case; there would be no talking, no asking a neighbor for help if a pencil point broke during this exercise.  Take your time, admonished Sister.  Give honest, thoughtful answers.  The results we’ll receive could truly plant the seeds that shape your lives!

At last she could begin.  What interesting questions,–things like, If I had free time, I would choose to…a.) play kickball b.) read a book c.) play with my dog d.) take a walk. Oh, that was hard–would there be friends over?  Would her father be able to play in the yard with them?  Or would it be during a rainy summer afternoon when chores were taken care of and the house was quiet? No questions were allowed, and she wasn’t sure if she could just choose a scenario.

What would be the most likely thing? she asked herself.  She thoughtfully, carefully, bubbled in her answer and moved on to the next question.  They were all like that, boundary-less; she had to decide what the background was to respond.  The room was silent save for the scratching of pencils as the children blacked in their answers. They considered the questions–these little bundles of words that might magically change their lives–for two full hours. When Sister picked up each packet and carefully stacked them on her desk, the children were ready for lunch, ready to run out onto the courtyard and stretch their stiff and twitchy legs.

It was two long weeks before the results came in.  She’d walk home from school, in the interim, imagining what hers might say.  Something interesting, she hoped–maybe something ladies didn’t usually do–like exploring or being a white-coated, beaker-wielding, scientist.  She was a little worried about the whole religious thing; in first grade, when she had Sister Mary Theresa, who was young and beautiful with finely arched eyebrows and porcelain pale skin–Sister MT was what she thought of when she heard the term, “A bride of Christ,”– she had been sure she had the Call.  She wrote to different groups of sisters–orders, her mother called them,–and got responses with glossy brochures and programs of study, picture of missions, letters admonishing her to pray very hard for her vocation.

She also, that year, wrote to the New York Yankees and got autographed flyers from Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.  But she wasn’t going to be a baseball player.

And she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be a nun, either.  But, she thought uneasily, what if the Results said she should?  Could she run away from God?  Look what Sister said had happened to Jonah when he tried that little trick.

Maybe she could be a writer, and maybe she could draw pictures for children’s books. Maybe there was a job for her she’d never even dreamed of.

The day the results arrived, she hurried home; Sister said to open them with a parent when there was time to sit and discuss. She hoped her mother would be ready.

Luck ran her way. Her mother, tall and thin, with a long mop of glossy auburn hair, was languidly running the feather duster around the French windows that enclosed the staircase; she stopped to look at the packet.

Oh, it was exciting, the moment before knowing!  She held her breath, sitting at the big formal dining room table, as her mother slit open the big envelope, pulled out a stack of papers, and took a long pull on her Lucky Strike.  Then she flipped open the official letter.

There was a pause,–ah, a breathless, fraught moment. And then her mother snorted.

“For Christ’s sake,” she said.  “Just like your brother!  They think all the kids outside the city are hicks!”

Her mother slapped the paper down on the table, where she could see it. “Your scores indicate,” read the printed form, “that    FARMING    would be a good match for your aptitudes and skills.”

“Farming!” she gasped, looking at her mother in despair.

Her mother laughed and reached a long, slender hand over to ruffle her hair. “You’re no farmer, kiddo,” she said. “You don’t like dirt and you don’t like animals.  You’re gonna have to figure it out yourself, just like the rest of us.”

Oh, it was disappointing.  But the concept that she had a vocation, a special role to play, never really left her.  She tried on different roles all the way through school–for a long while, she was captivated by the idea of working in a shoe store (oh, the leathery, promising smell of new shoes! And the happy faces of children picking out a wonderful new pair!)  Her brother pointed out, though, that she would have to touch stinky feet, maybe even diseased feet.

She set that idea aside, picking up new ones–waitress, nurse, rock and roll diva.  Reporter.  Designer.  Artist.

She still had no idea when she got to college so, loving books and enjoying writing and research, she took an English degree.  An advisor told her vaguely that employers cherished the ability to communicate. Those words were not entirely true, she found when she started shlepping her degree around, looking for work.  She worked for a dentist, training in the office to be an assistant, holding the suction, helping people to spit.

She liked the hours; the money was decent. But, oh, she was bored.  She went back to school for her master’s, and she vowed that she would figure out what she should be doing, only determined, in those Seventies days of exhilarating feminism, that she would neither teach nor type for a living.

And she wound up, of course, doing both–there she was, aged 26, in a middle school language arts classroom, coaxing seventh graders to write thoughtful essays, enticing them to read an abbreviated form of the Odyssey, a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet.  During breaks, she typed graduate school theses for extra money.

She hated herself for it, but she loved teaching.  She moved and married, moved again, and in each place she found a little bit better job, but always in the education field, always involved with students. She took time off to have her daughter.  Teaching, she liked to say, stalked her.  Jobs came and found her, even when she wasn’t ready to be found.  She moved from classroom to administration, and from middle school to high school.

Although she didn’t track it down, didn’t figure it out, she realized somewhat belatedly, that education was, for her, a vocation.She moved, finally, to the College level, and now, here she was: the Dean.

That was the pinnacle, and she thought suddenly, as the pastor’s thoughtful words sank like rainwater into the thirsty soil of her soul, that she was done.  Sixty three.  THIS career: over. Time to move on.

She laughed a little and her husband looked at her a little oddly, gave her a mild stink-eye, and she wondered where the pastor had gone with his sermon–oh, was she laughing, maybe, at the description of ultimate sacrifice?  She coughed lightly, patted her husband’s arm, returned to a contemplation of the pastor’s words.

Until she started thinking about the workshop she’d gone to recently that talked about continuous growth: sometimes, the speaker said, we need to make a drastic change, move to a new field entirely.  That week she’d picked up a book about ‘finding your hedgehog’ at the library–the hedgehog being that thing that one is really, ultimately, meant to do.  TED talks popped up on the subject of vocation; her daily devotionals urged her to discernment.

Sixty three! she reminded herself, standing there in the church she’d been neglecting, a smear of yellow light from the amber glass in the window staining her cheek. A little old for new careers, new choices, don’t You think?

As if in response, excitement leapt in her stomach. Finding something new. Something completely and surprisingly different.  What IS it? she thought.  She grinned at her husband, who tried to look at her in mature disapproval, but caught in the rays, he grinned right back.

The service moved toward its conclusion; music swelled. She thought about moving forward, too; she would pick up her Julia Cameron book and start doing her morning pages, walking meditation, artist’s dates. She would pray for discernment.  She would go to the women’s workshop her cousin had been urging her to attend. Something’s coming, she realized: a change, a lift, a whole new role.

They shook the new pastor’s hand, affirmed that they would see him next week, stood and talked with friends for a moment, leaning on their car in the parking lot. They climbed in the car–his car, the Sunday car, a long, sleek sedan–and drove home.

She stared out the window at houses with lovely gardens, fluttering ‘Welcome’ flags, planters burgeoning with beautiful blooms. She didn’t know what the next step was, only that there would be one, and it would be exciting.

But–she thought of the tiny terrace on their condo, with the dead flowers in their expensive container pots, and she knew this one thing for sure: Farming still wasn’t her answer.

Drive By Sightings

…around the curve and down the hill on Adams Lane

July

Little brown children
–cute as cartoons;
wet as otters;–
inflated wading pool,
rainbow umbrella,
July blue sky
scudded with clouds.

Their father, laughing.

August

Every Saturday at 7:45:
She’s in her scrubs, carrying a solid-looking sack
(Gallon of milk? Carton of juice?
Did she stop at the convenience store
for cereal after working
the graveyard shift
at the old folks’ home?)
Her tiny frame leans tightly, one shoulder up.
Her hair, hacked blunt, is light and clean and flying.
The sun blinds her glasses.
She walks gingerly, as if her feet are tender, on the very edge of the road.
She is always smiling.

September

She opens her car door into traffic
and heaves herself out of the dented SUV.
Slams open the back door
and drags out a brimful basket of folded laundry.
She is large and broad,
tautly T-shirted, and her unrealistic
blonde hair, pulled tight,
hangs in one long hank
down her back.
He jumps out the passenger door,
gleeful, impish,
a leering large-grown leprechaun;
he grabs the crotch of his baggy jeans and jiggles,
dancing as he flaps his lips.
(Oh, very NICE, mutters my disgusted son)
She doesn’t even look at him,
just hefts the basket and trudges.

October

A tiny man with high-belted pants
and a jaunty straw fedora.
She waits, even tinier,
at the passenger door of the giant gleaming
car. He shuffles around to get her door, then takes his time,
getting to the driver’s side.
He opens the door and suddenly, inspired,
he does a happy little dance,
leans in to mention something, listens;
laughs and climbs on in.
The door slams shut and the car ignites
and eases slowly–
oh, so slowly–
down the neatly sealed driveway.

Let Go, Let Go, Let Go

 

 

I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat.  Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.

“Come on, baby,” I say.  “Let’s go meet the other kids!”

“No, Mama,” she whispers.  I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat.  She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.

Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance.  Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.

We are early, but other children are already there.  The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room.  There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books  on each of the small round tables.

“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”

“No,” she says into my neck.  A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.

Miss Betsy comes over.  “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”

“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up.  “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.

Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.

“Goodbye, Ella!” I say.  “I will see you at 11!”

I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.

***************
I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she says.  She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building.  I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.

Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do.  The other girls have very similar outfits.

“We walked this out,” I remind her.  We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.

We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.

Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.

“You can do it,” I whisper.  “You’ll be great.”

She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door.  Head down, she scurries up the walk.  At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle.  She turns to look at me pleadingly.

She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge.  She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.

“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily.  Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.

I sit there for  moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers.  She’ll be great, I think.  I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.

****************

As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in.  There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.

A coffee maker;  I’m learning to drink it!

Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends. 

They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.

They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.

Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.

This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year.  She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman.  And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree.  She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer?  Can I do both???

She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.

But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly.  I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.

We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night.  They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.

I pause in the parking lot  as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up.  Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.

You can do it, I mouth.  She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.

*****************

I love Andy; he loves Ella.  He is kind and good and smart and hard-working.  She glows when she looks at him.

She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy.  But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.

I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.

She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.

It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.

*********************
They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital.  Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.

She breathes like they taught her: Huff.  Huff. Huff.

Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs.  The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.

She cranes her head around, looking for me.  There is panic.  I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.

You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.

****************************

Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.

“Oh, my God,” she says.  “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.

I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee.  I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.

“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little.  And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.

I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.

I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when  the stitch is pulled.  Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body.  But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb,  a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.

I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.

I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama.  She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong.  And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.

If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom!  You were GLAD when I was gone???

I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own.  Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh.  It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.

Parsing the Puppy: A Tale Told to Family

Image taken from open Internet source
Image taken from open Internet source

By the time the day—lazy hours on the beach, chasing kids in the water; late afternoon browse through the shops; a long walk with Martin; and then dinner at the restaurant,–had wound itself into almost sunset, Dell was beat. The family had spun off into single cells; she could hear her daughter-in-law Jillie bathing Shaylynn, a raucous, splashy event. Nessa was out for a walk with her aunts and the girl-cousins. The men, Martin included, had scattered.
Maybe there was a game on, she thought. In the quiet of the kitchen, sifting through the debris of five families bunking in one big rental house, Dell found a clean glass, loaded it with ice cubes, and poured white wine over the top. She found her Louise Penny mystery and, cradling that and her drink, she stepped through the sliding doors to the deck.
She slid into a comfortable Adirondack chair. There was a breeze; she felt deliciously cool after the heat of the day, a degree above goose bumps. She put her feet up on the little metal table, testing its pebbled glass top. The water shimmered, sooshing softly. On the horizon, the sun limned clouds with the special rosy peach glow of setting sun. Her brother Kevin, alone on the beach, stacked wood for a fire.
Dell opened her book, took a long, sweet sip of wine, and, savoring the quiet and the opportunity, began to read.
She was two chapters in, the sun just poised to dive, when she realized suddenly her solitude was busted. A little face peered up at her, framed by a fuzzy glow of fine blonde hair, rubbed dry and flying, staticky, fresh from a bath.
“Tell me a story, Grandma Dell?” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled the sweet smelling three year old, toweled and jammied, onto her lap.
“What story would you like?” asked Dell, and Shaylynn, whose current passion was puppies, replied immediately. “Tell me the time Grandpa Joe brought Pantry home.”
“Oh,” said Dell, “that’s one of my favorite stories, because I was there, and Pantry was my best buddy for a long, long time.
“It was a crisp Fall day, and I was four years old, just a year older than you are now, punkin pie. Just before dinner, my mom–your great grandma,–called us all into the kitchen. We were watching TV–the Three Stooges, I think–and my brothers–those are your uncles Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony–thought she wanted us to turn off the TV and get ready for dinner. But instead, here’s what she said:
“’Your dad is coming home in a few minutes, and he’s got a big surprise. A big surprise that’s kind of little.’”
Shaylynn sighed contentedly, and Dell saw Martin rounding the corner of the house, swinging his espadrilles. With him were Lyle and Anthony; her son Nathan’s infectious laughter followed them. They stopped at the beer cooler, and she heard the ‘cha-chooch’ of bottle caps turning; then the men settled onto the bottom step of the deck where they could watch the sun take its plunge.
“Well, imagine,” Dell continued. “We were all in a tizzy. We begged and begged for her to tell us what she meant, but she just said it might be a good idea to get the table ready for dinner so we didn’t have to worry about anything when the surprise got there. So you bet we set that table as fast and as nice as it’d ever been set. My job was to put the silverware by each place and I made sure the knives and spoons were neatly and nicely on one side, and the forks lined up straight as soldiers on the other.”
“Huh,” scoffed Lyle. “I don’t remember you having any jobs.”
“And we hadn’t any more than gotten done than Grandpa Joe’s big blue Buick pulled up the long driveway, crunching on the autumn leaves,” Dell continued.
“Dad had the woody wagon that year, not the Buick,” said Lyle.
“Shush!” warned Shaylynn.
“We all yelled, ‘Dad’s home! Dad’s home!’ [“We didn’t ALL yell ‘Dad’s home!’” said Lyle, darkly] and Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony, who had their sneakers on, went flying out the back door. I was in my stocking feet, so I stood by the storm door, so close my breath made steam clouds on the glass, and waited anxiously.”
“I believe,” said Anthony, “that Little Joe was out delivering papers that day.”
Dell sighed. “Grandpa Joe climbed out of the Buick and your three uncles were bouncing all around him. He took his time; I could see him putting his hands out like this” (Dell extended her arms, palms out flat, and made a puzzled face) “and I knew he was saying, ‘Surprise? What surprise?’”
“He was saying, ‘Get your little asses out of my way,’” said Lyle.
“Lyle! Hush now,” said Mary Rita, his wife, who’d just come out on the deck. She settled in on the step behind the men. She poked her husband in the back.
“Anyway,” said Dell. Shaylynn was glowering at the interrupters. “He bent over to reach back in for his battered old black lunch pail, and my brothers had their heads every which way around him, trying to find the big surprise that was little. But they couldn’t see it. They clustered around your Grandpa Joe as he walked across the yard, through the late afternoon sunlight, to get to the back door.”
“Wasn’t it winter?” asked Anthony. “I believe there was snow on the ground.”
“I held the door open for him and he tousled my hair and leaned over and kissed my mother.
“And we were all clamoring: ‘Where’s the surprise? Where’s the surprise?’
“And my father looked all surprised himself—“
“–Make the face, Grandma,” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled on a mask of comic shock and stared down, wide-eyed at Shaylynn, who mirrored the same exact face and stared back.
“…and he said to my mother, ‘Claire, was I supposed to bring a surprise home?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, you remember, Joe. The big surprise that is very small?’
“ ‘Oh. Oh, THAT surprise,’ said your Great Grandpa Joe, and he said to Little Joe, ‘I think I put it in this pocket.’
“Grandpa Joe had on his big working coat, a kind of golden color, so thick and hard that it could stand up by itself in a corner if my dad forgot to put it on a hanger in the back hall closet.”
“Oh, now,” said Anthony. “That’s not right. He had a blue denim jacket. Remember that, Lyle? It was a long denim jacket with a black corduroy collar.”
“The pockets,” said Dell firmly, “of the gold jacket were big and deep and your Uncle Little Joe reached into the one my dad pointed to, but all he pulled out was a balled up plaid handkerchief.
“‘Uck!’” said Little Joe, and he threw the used hankie down the cellar steps toward the washing machine.
“‘Huh,’ said Grandpa Joe. ‘Not there, eh? Try this one, Lyle,’ and Lyle reached into a chest pocket, and all he found was a stinky old pack of Camel cigarettes.
“‘Bleahhhh’, said Lyle and he tossed the pack on the table. Our eyes were all on my father, not missing a blink.”
“Another piece of revisionist history,” said Lyle.
Shaylynn sat up, extended her arm, and shook her stubby forefinger. “SHUSH!” she said.
Lyle tilted his beer and drank.
Dell continued. “‘Well,’ said your Grandpa Joe, thoughtfully, ‘I only have one pocket left, Anthony.’ And Anthony reached into the other big, deep pocket. His expression, first all excited and wound up, kind of melted into a sweet surprise, and he left his hand in my dad’s pocket for a long moment. We were holding our breaths, and finally Lyle said, ‘Come on. Come ON!’
“And Anthony slowly pulled his hand out of Grandpa Joe’s pocket and there, curled up like a little furry ball was a tiny little puppy dog.”

“What color was it?” asked Shaylynn sleepily.
“It was black and white with tiny golden brown spots. The tip of its tiny black tail was white,” said Dell. Shaylynn sighed and snuggled deeper, having nailed down this important fact.
“The brown spots,” said Lyle, “didn’t show up until later.”
Shaylynn growled, deep in her throat.
“‘Put him on the floor, Anthony,’ said my mother, and Anthony lowered the puppy to the floor. The little thing just wobbled there for a minute and then it seemed to find its legs, and it scrambled around in circles.
“‘What will we call it?’ asked Little Joe, and my mother said we’d have to start thinking of a name, and we all sat and watched the little mite explore. It went this way and it went that way.”
“Was it a BOY dog or a GIRL dog?” asked Shaylynn, prodding, reminding, the arbiter of essential detail.
“Thank you, darling,” said Dell. “It was a girl puppy, and it skittered around and then suddenly it made a straight little bee-line for the cupboard we kept the canned goods in, the cupboard we called the pantry.”
“It didn’t make a BEE line,” said Anthony. “It came to me first, and I POINTED it toward the pantry.”
“That dog,” said Lyle, “didn’t even LIKE you, Anthony.”
“The hell you say!” said Anthony. “That dog LOVED me.”
“BOYS,” said Mary Rita.
“‘It’s a PANTRY dog!’ I said, and my mom said, ‘Maybe we will call her Pantry.’ And we did.”
“Oh, so YOU named the dog?” said Kevin, helping himself to a beer.
“Shut up, Kevin,” said Anthony. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“Did you FEED it?” nudged Shaylynn, and, “We did,” replied Dell. “Your Grandma Claire poured a little saucer of milk and put it on the floor and that hungry little puppy did an about face–she knew that milk was all hers–and she lolloped over and put her tiny little head down, and she drank every single bit. She drank so much, her tummy got so full her little legs couldn’t touch the floor. Grandpa Joe had to pick her up and put her softly into a little nesty bed of newspaper and a soft old rag, and she curled right up and went to sleep.”
“And did Pantry have to pee?” asked Shaylynn.
“Oh yes,” said Dell. “There was pee-ing and there was pooping and all of that stuff, and she had to be trained and walked and cleaned up after, but she was a good, good dog, and she lived a good long life. She was 16 years old and that’s a very long time in dog years. She went from a tiny puppy to a grand old lady dog.”
“And we have pictures,” said Shaylynn.
“Yes,” said Dell. “We have pictures. And it’s time for a mama to put a sleepy little girl to bed.” She planted a kiss on the cotton candy hair and boosted the snuggly little body to Jillie, waiting patiently.
Jillie hefted her daughter and turned to head back into the house, but Shaylynn’s sleepy voice made her pause.
“Grandma?” asked the little girl.
“Yes, darlin’?”
“Did they live in your same house?” asked Shaylynn, jutting her chin toward the uncles.
“Well,” Dell said slowly, “not always and not exactly. They lived in a place called Silly Uncles Fantasy Land. But we let them come to visit once in a while.”
“Okay,” said Shaylynn. “GOOD.”
Jillie maneuvered the sleepy child through the sliding door and into the dark, quiet house.
The sun plunged. The water was glints in the darkness; Kevin’s fire snapped and shimmered on the beach.
Lyle and Anthony both opened their mouths. But before they could speak, Mary Rita put a bare foot on the small of each back. She rocked backward for traction, and then she kicked them, firmly, onto the sand.