life and death


You have to understand: my mother wasn’t the sort of person you could imagine ever turning eighty years old. She was blond and beautiful and so sure she’d always be young–and she was so disappointed as each sign of aging came to her: the arthritis, the wrinkles, the thinning hair, the watery eyes. I mean, no one likes that stuff, but she seemed shocked that such things could dare to happen to her. Shocked!

“How can I get so old?” I remember her asking me one time when she was probably 50. “How can I ever not be pretty?”

It’s a little sad to think of, I suppose–someone who was so taken with looks that the thought of them disappearing made her feel as though nothing at all would be left of her. Wasn’t this the same woman who had told me when I was 10 years old that it was important to develop a personality because cuteness just wouldn’t see you through?

When she went to hospice four years ago at the age of 76, the nurse told me she was the first nursing home patient they’d ever had who insisted on wearing a toe ring.

And we laughed, my mother and I, because, as she put it: Cancer takes so much from you. You don’t have to give up your TOE RING to it, too, do you?

I’ve been through several deaths with people, but none quite like hers. When my father was dying, he simply got more and more quiet and introspective, stared out the window for longer intervals, whispered his requests for songs he wanted to hear on the CD player, and occasionally he’d rouse himself to try to make pleasant conversation about the cardinal outside at the bird feeder, or just who I thought might win the World Series.

My grandmother told me three days before she died that she’d be coming to my house in the spring–a fact I knew was untrue since she was in a hospice, hooked up to feeding tubes, with a terminal diagnosis. When I tried to talk about actual endings, she shushed me. “I’m going to be fine,” she said.

But my mother talked about it.

She’d call me in the middle of the night and say, “Where do you think I’ll be when I die?” and “How can I just not exist? What do you suppose that’s going to feel like?”

My uncle, her brother, was planning his wedding for the summer, and she and I would sit outside in the late May warmth, watching the azaleas bobbing in the breeze, and she’d say, “It’s the weirdest thing, talking to him about the wedding. I won’t still be alive then.”

“Maybe you will,” I said.

“No,” she said, and she wasn’t even particularly sad when she said it. “I won’t.” She was the one who had heard the cancer diagnosis, the prognosis, and then marched over to the phone, called hospice, signed the papers, and even joked with the startled, soft-voiced man who was being so delicate and careful. She was facing death head on, unflinching.

But now she looked out at some children playing across the street. “I just can’t picture how it’s all going to happen.”

I was worn out with grief and regret and arrangements, and I didn’t know quite how to be with her. I sat next to her for hours on end and let her talk. It was all I could think of to do for her. It’s sad now, thinking of her imagining not existing–sitting there so alive, so full of opinions and thoughts and regrets and remarks.

“I like this toe ring a lot,” she said. She and her toe ring. They were going to part ways.

She and I were going to part ways, too.

“I’ll contact you if I can,” she said one day out of the blue. But it wasn’t out of the blue, not really. It was just that we’d been at that moment discussing the banana pudding in front of her, pudding that she was pushing away from her. She had stopped eating by then. She was preparing to go, and she was sure it was coming soon.

When they called me at 6 a.m. a few days later and said she had died, I wasn’t surprised, of course. She and I had talked about this moment so much. I went to the hospice and sat with her in the room for a long time, or the part of her she’d left behind that really no longer seemed much like her. I couldn’t figure out if she would want me to see her like that or not. Maybe she would want me to turn away.

I knew she wanted me to take the toe ring, and so I did.

She would have been eighty today. She always said she hated growing old, but maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. She could have gone to my uncle’s wedding that summer. She could have seen her first great-granddaughter born, could have met the two great-grandsons who were newborn infants when she died, infants she never got to see.

I don’t know where she is, but sometimes I still feel her around. I know sometimes what she’d say in situations, or at least I’m pretty sure I know. I can summon up the sound of her laughter. Is that just a memory or is it the same as her contacting me?

I’m not sure. She would have been eighty today. Would that have been so bad?

I have barely gotten used to the idea that the leaves on the trees are turning from green to yellow, haven’t even let myself take in the fact that they are going to, you know, FALL OFF the trees and then we’re going to be back in Stick Season again…and then, for no good reason at all, SNOW started pouring from the sky today.

Snow!

And not just a little bit of snow either. Not just snow as a nice decoration. This was BIG. Huge, fat flakes of snow—honestly the size of baseballs—blowing so hard through the air that they flew  sideways. They were mesmerizing, actually: the kind of snowfall that makes you feel you’re looking through a kaleidoscope of changing shapes, with pieces flying in from all over.

It would have been nice, if—hello!–it not been OCTOBER 18th! This is the time of year when a person is still strolling through apple orchards and bringing home a bushel of Macouns to make apple crisp. We’re still supposed to be picking the very last of the really great tomatoes off the vines. In fact, until last week, I was still going to the beach, and calling it nature’s hospital!

I take this kind of weather personally. I’m from Santa Barbara, a place where the weather knows how to behave year-round, where the earth doesn’t ever give you the sense that all of nature has gotten tired and is heading into darkness. In Santa Barbara, you just know that it could always be 72 perfect degrees outside…and that you yourself could stay young and firm with just a little bit of extra effort. It wouldn’t even be that hard, Santa Barbara whispers to you.

But of course that’s not true. Now that I live in the world of seasons, I have gotten used to the idea that things really do change, that life goes through cycles, that the light green of spring has to become the yellow of autumn, and then has to turn back again. You know, the dark and the light. The great circle of life.

Outside the sky is getting darker earlier every day, and the sunsets are brilliant crimson with huge purple streaks. Eight of the trees in our front yard are already bare, while the dogwood tree in the back yard has turned a lovely copper color and is dropping bright red seeds on the ground. The air smells crisp, the evenings are cool. Some nights lately we’ve made a fire in our fire pit, and sat outside looking at the stars, shoving our hands down into our pockets, pulling our hoods a little tighter.

Our lovely next door neighbor died after a summer of illness. My daughter’s college-age friend is battling cancer and has decided to forego further debilitating treatment now that her tumors have recurred. Another friend is in the hospital awaiting the results of tests. He sits in a room overlooking rooftops and tries to make sense of his symptoms.

I stand and watch the snow falling on the still-green leaves, coating the last great tomatoes.

And slowly, slowly I think I might know what the snow is trying to tell me: Pay attention. Hold onto the moments. Breathe deeply. Look around you. Learn to savor.

And try to remember where you put the mittens at the end of the season last year. 

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Ack! I am no good at this, I realized yesterday. Saying goodbye to friends. Even on the phone–I have trouble. I find myself taking up new topics when it comes time to hang up, making new plans and arrangements to get together, as if saying “goodbye” is just the very hardest thing. I do this even when I’m the one who wants to end things, even when I’m late to something else, even when I’m going to see the person soon.

It’s kind of a curse.

And so I have been good friends with this dog for twelve years and nine months. We got him when he was nine months old, a darling golden retriever puppy who had flunked out of championship school due to a bad hip, and was just looking for some family to play with. He immediately showed himself to be a lovable clown, tracking down dirty tissues in the trash, going completely bananas with exuberance whenever we would come home, taking us on fun, highly aerobic, merry chases/hikes through the woods. He was a snuggler who just had to be on the couch with us, or finding his 75 pound way onto our laps, unlike our previous dog, who didn’t much want to be in the same room with us. And he was, as somebody described him, “drop-dead gorgeous.” And so lovable and calm and kind that my nine-year-old called him “Jesus in a dog suit.”

Yesterday he came to a calm, quiet end. After an illness that left him dizzy and blind, lame and weak, we had to take him to have him put down.

You never know when the right time for this kind of thing is, I realize. I went on the internet and typed into google, “How do I know when it’s time to put my dog down” and there were hundreds of stories of people grappling with this problem, and all kinds of opinions. The one that guided me the best was from Jon Katz, in a column he wrote in Slate, which was subtitled: “How to make a decision you never want to make.”

Among the wrenching stories, was this bit of wisdom:

It is the nature of dogs to live much shorter lives than ours—just eight years, on average—and it has always been my belief that to love and own a dog is to understand and accept that along with loyalty, love, and devotion come the ever-present specters of grief and loss. This is as integral a part of the dog-loving experience as going for walks.

There’s no Idiot’s Guide for this question, no handbook. The many points of view are strongly held. One vet I know says a dog should be euthanized “when it can no longer live the life of a dog—and only the owner knows when that really is.” A breeder says she puts her dogs down when “their suffering exceeds their ability to take pleasure in life.” A trainer I respect believes her dog should live as long as it can eat.

Another friend and dog lover says she always knows when it’s time: “when the soul goes out of their eyes.”

I looked over at my poor dog, who had not ventured from his bed in hours, who stumbled and fell and bumped into things whenever he tried to get up, and whose eyes were cloudy and filled with pain.

He was not living the life of a dog. And his suffering clearly seemed to exceed his ability to take pleasure. As far as the soul in his eyes, I wasn’t sure about that. He always had a soulful look about him.

A week ago, a friend of mine, a hospice nurse who lost her golden retriever years ago and still gets all teary when she thinks about him, said to me, “You have to consider if you’re keeping him around just for you.” She said it was okay if I was, no one would fault me for that, she said, but that I should start to think about letting go a little bit.

I cried.

Yesterday, though, was the day. I spent the day with Jordie. He slept most of the time, and I sat beside him working on my novel and talking to him. I listened to music, he slept. At dinnertime, I gave him cream cheese (his very favorite thing) and he licked it off my fingers and then, even when the cream cheese was gone, he licked my fingers for a long, sad time. When my husband came home from work, we took him outside and let him go to the bathroom, and then we put him in the backseat of the car, on his favorite towel. I petted him while we drove to the vet.

It was quick and calm and peaceful. The worst part was that he had to be at the veterinary hospital, a place I imagine that he does not like much, even though he never reacts one way or the other. We carried him inside, and we and the vet and the assistant all petted him and talked to him, and then they gave him the injection while my husband and I cradled him, and I watched as he gradually just relaxed his body and all the tension went out of his face, and the vet said, “He’s gone.”

My friend Lily, who writes the wonderful blog, Bloglily, wrote to me in an email the other day something that I read again when I came home yesterday afternoon with my heart just so full it felt as though it would burst apart:

The thing about 

being a dog owner is that they never become independent of you, and 

that you care for them through every phase of their lives, including 

almost always, their deaths and it is the hardest thing humans have 

to do, I think, to bear that with their beloved dog and to make the 

difficult decisions about this, knowing they will be separating 

themselves from all that love because it is the right thing to do.  

It’s the last gift you give to your dog, that kind of caretaking, and 

it is heartbreaking to have to do it.  But it is fair and right, 

given what they mean to us.

And that is what is getting me through. So, please. Go kiss your doggies for me.

100_4869 We got him when he was nine months old. He had been destined to be a wonderful show dog, being the grandson of a proud Champion Golden Retriever, King of All the Dogs or something like that.

He was ready, too, to meet the bright lights and the big cities. But then x-rays showed that he had a very slight hip dysplasia–just enough to keep him out of competitions, but not enough to keep him from being an enthusiastic ball-chaser.

His breeder said he needed a family, and we were a family in need of a dog–and so we joined forces, and he proceeded to clown his way into our cat-loving hearts. We named him Jordan. Some days he was like a big Muppet, and other days he played the role of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. He wagged us and licked us and knocked us over, brought us endless dirty Kleenexes out of the trash, did ceremonial barking when the doorbell rang, sat by our sides when we were sick, stole treats, cheered for the Chicago Cubs with us, romped with us on hikes through the snow, sat next to me through the writing of six books even though he was always thinking that it was time to stop for the day and go play…everything you could ask of a companion.

But, somehow when we weren’t truly paying attention, he got old. Really, really old. And yesterday, at the age of 13 1/2, after going outside with me to take out the garbage (and experimentally pretending he just might like to rip open the bags and strew the garbage all over the driveway, which has been so much fun for him in the past), he dutifully wagged his tail and followed me inside when I called him. He was sleeping in the sunshine when I left the house…and when I returned two hours later, things were not at all the same.

He’d been sick all through the house and he was lying down in the sunshine, looking dazed. I petted him and he tried to stand, but his head was tilted at a funny angle, and he couldn’t even get to his feet. We sat there together for a while, and I petted his muzzle, which is what he wanted. He kept licking my hand whenever I would stop, and trying to look at me. But he could barely hold his head up.

He feels the same way about hospitals that I do, but it seemed clear that we were going to have to go to one. So my husband came home from work, and lifted all 75 pounds of him up and we drove him to the vet, a wonderfully compassionate man who came into the room, saying, “Oh, no! What has happened to our friend Jordie?” He examined him and then explained that he’d had a “vestibular event,” whatever that is. It’s very common in old dogs, apparently, and it is one of those terms that simply means that something has gone terribly wrong. He’s come unbalanced and now he’s nauseated and unable to stand up, because the world has taken to spinning around in front of him.

“Some dogs recover from this and some don’t,” the vet said. It’s harder, of course, to predict what will happen when a dog is so old. But meanwhile, he said, Jordie shouldn’t come back home; he needed to be given drugs for nausea, and to be kept in a quiet, dark place, where the pain of the light and the spinning of the room wouldn’t make him worse. He promised that a legion of dog-lovers would wait on him hand and foot and pet him and keep him warm and comfortable…and then two attendants came in and put him on a stretcher, and he looked over and licked my hand as they took him away.

Today the vet called and said he was a tiny bit better this morning, but that he still couldn’t stand up and couldn’t walk without being supported by two people. His head was still so tilted to the side that he couldn’t eat out of his dish, but he would eat when people hand-fed him. He mostly slept all day.

So I went to visit him.

I guess I expected that he would be lethargic, and that I would sit by his crate and pat him while he slept. I would be very sad, but I would know it was the end of his long and happy life; I would be sad but at least I would see that he was peaceful and calm.

Oh, but it was far worse than that. In fact, he was so happy to see me that he kept trying to stand up, but then he would fall down again. When I opened the crate door, he leaned way over and kept licking my hand and wagging his tail. He tried to slide out the door of the crate and nudge the two of us over to the door. You could just see he was thinking, “Let’s make a run for it. Come on, there’s a door right there, and we’ll be out of here before they even know we’ve gone!”

But no. He cannot come home. They want to keep him for a few more days and see what happens. He can’t walk, he can’t climb stairs (of which we have many). He can’t eat or hold down food. Maybe he’ll get better, the vet said today, but chances are this will only happen again. In a few days or a week, or at best, in a few months. He probably won’t ever be able to do the stairs anymore. Or roam alone outside, like he loves to do. And when there snow and ice outside, how will he manage to keep from slipping–a dog who is too heavy to be lifted and carried around?

I stayed for an hour, and then I tucked his paws back inside the crate and swung the door closed and latched it. He slumped against the side when I turned off the light and left.

It is such a sad night here, with all these questions. I want to be philosophical about it all, to let him go if that’s what needs to happen, not to ask him to remain here to suffer the indignities of so many limitations. 

But there he was, wagging and licking. Wanting just to go home one more time, so sure he can tackle one more garbage bag and bound up and down the stairs just the way he could do yesterday morning when everything was right with the world.

I am sorry to have to tell you a sad story about pie. I know you have your own troubles, and you don’t need to worry about pie.

But we all need to band together to stop the declines wherever we find them.

Here’s the thing: last week I had to drive out to Essex along the shoreline to do an interview with a woman who had redone her house. I am fine with people redoing their houses. I can stand around and look at celery green walls and new wallpaper swatches with the best of them, and then crawl home to my mismatched dishes and old Turkish rug that lives in the kitchen because it can’t go anywhere else…and never again think about what color my walls SHOULD be, unless I get in one of those moods.

But I was excited because…because…well, to drive to Essex means that you get to go through Old Saybrook, which is the home of a tiny little farmstand right out of the 1940’s. I swear, this place has vegetables that just call out your name, they are so fresh and round and plump and delicious. But best of all, while you’re there, you start to sniff the air and by god, you’re right, it’s the unmistakable fragrance of…PIE!

And in the back of this falling-down little farmstand, a woman in an apron is manning a rickety little oven running on extension cords, an oven that couldn’t possibly hold more than two pies at a time, and she’s pulling them out of the oven, so golden brown and crusted with sugar…and OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO GIVE ME ONE OF THOSE PIES I WILL DO ANYTHING YOU SAY ONLY GIVE ME THAT PIE.

If it’s early in the morning, chances are you can actually have one of those pies. It’s blueberry and she just made it, and it’s still warm in its little pan, and it’s all you can do not to just sit in the car and eat it over the steering wheel.

Believe me, all summer there have been mornings when I have awakened and thought: OK, should I jump out of bed and drive 25 miles with gas being $4.39 a gallon just to see if I’m early enough for one of the fresh blueberry pies, or should I go to the gym and then come home and write my novel and behave like a responsible citizen?

I am ashamed to tell you that I have always chosen Box Number Two, and so I have had no pie. THAT is how overdeveloped my sense of responsibility has become lately. A tragic turn of events.

But then! Then! I get to legitimately drive to Essex, on account of work and all, and yes, it’s a little bit early, but not really, really early but maybe the fates will smile on me, and I will get a pie.  I am salivating as I head out of the house.

And yes–the farmstand is still there. Young boys in jeans are dropping off piles of corn on the cob into a wooden bin. Fat, red tomatoes with no diseases are glistening in the sun. And omigod, I ask the young woman behind the counter if she has any blueberry pie left, and she gives me a funny look and says, “Sure.”

I exclaimed to everyone in the place how they had to buy a blueberry pie, too, on account of these being the best blueberry pies anywhere on God’s earth…but then it was weird, because the lady working there kept giving me quizzical looks, looks that say, “Who IS this crazy woman?” and “Are we going to have to call the authorities?”… and then when I went to pay for it, she said, “You know, we’re getting more in tomorrow and they might be better…” and you guessed it. When I got to my car and opened up my bag, inside was just a plain old ordinary, garden-variety, anybody-coulda-made-this blueberry pie with the machine-fluted crust, packed in a PLASTIC DOME BOX–something you could have bought at Stop & Shop–NOT the spectacular homemade pie with the little broken-off pieces of crust. 

And I hate to overdramatize this or anything, but I think we can see this for what it is: evidence of a further decline of civilization, as far as I’m concerned. When I told my friend Tammy, she said it is just one more thing that George W. Bush and this administration are going to have to answer for. We don’t know how or why, but I’m sure there’s a connection somehow, and Tammy is going to be looking into it to see if civil action can be taken.

First they do away with the fourth amendment, and now the fresh blueberry pies from farmstands.

Meanwhile, I am simply going to have to make my own blueberry pie. Which probably isn’t such a TERRIBLE thing to have to do, but it’s hot in the house, and my blueberry pies…well, they’re just not as good, frankly.

Does anybody have a great recipe for blueberry pie to pass along?

Summer writing is very different from winter writing, I’ve found. This summer I am stationed out on the screened porch…which looks, I know,  like a very calm and placid world. I mean, as long as it’s not raining, of course.

I sit out here and work on my novel, drink iced tea, and every now and then jump up and spray soap solution on my plants. (That plant in the picture, for instance? The one that looks so lush with its purple flowers? It’s currently a patient in  my special Soap Hospital for Plants and has about a 50% chance of survival, I’d say, due to an infestation of aphids that I am every day at war with.)

But my main job, now that I am out here on the porch viewing nature’s ways first hand, is as a nanny to a family of cardinals who are living in the bush that is just on the other side of the screen on the upper right of this picture.

I have always been partial to cardinals due to the fact that my father loved birds, and when he was dying, nearly 20 years ago and I was sitting at his bedside, one of the last conversations we had was about a male cardinal who kept coming to the window and looking in at us. It was one of the few times I saw my father smile during that last horrible illness–kidney cancer–and so I have always associated his memory with those beautiful birds. It’s amazing how many times when I’ve been in a tough spot, I look up and there’s a bright red cardinal just flying close by, and I can’t help it, I always feel as though my father is looking in on me, making sure I’m okay.

So this year a couple of cardinals chose to build their nest right on the other side of my writing porch–and believe me, I got the message. These were birds sent by Dear Old Dad just to keep me working at my novel.

After a rather impressive time of building the nest, the female cardinal sat there for day after day, all by herself. She looked in on me as I wrote, and I kept watch over her eggs when she had to fly away for a few minutes. I felt we were creating a bond somehow. She didn’t even startle when I would get up and head to the kitchen for more iced tea, or when the dog would wag his tail against the screen. Clearly, we were friends.

I was puzzled as to why her husband never had to take a turn on the nest—I mean, fair is fair!–but one of my kids told me that I shouldn’t make too much of their domestic arrangements. “Every species makes its own deals,” said my son.

One day she left the eggs for quite a little while, and a bunch of cowbirds came flocking by, hopping up branch by branch, getting closer to the nest. Really? I thought. Am I going to have to police this nest? But just as I was getting up to go have a stern word with the cowbirds, the male cardinal, in all his splendorous red-itude, came charging into the tree, chirping and chattering and sending those cowbirds packing. It was quite an impressive display of fatherhood, let me tell you. 

And then last Sunday, just when we were all exhausted with the waiting–baby birds hatched!

We porch-dwellers were elated.

(I took this picture of them with their little beaks in the air, and you will see why I have to write novels for a living. I am clearly no nature photographer.)

UPDATE: right now, as I’m writing, both the mother and the father cardinal are on the nest, feeding the babies together. I am pleased to say that the father and mother cardinals are turning out to be exemplary parents, flying in and out at all times of the day, at least 35,000 times during my writing hours here, bringing worms and other delectables…and that the minute there is any kind of danger of other birds moving in, the father swoops down from out of nowhere and chases off the intruders.

He seems to be a good protector, and I notice that he brings by some pretty heft worms, too. So maybe he had it written into his contract that he wasn’t responsible for the egg-sitting stage.

That’s the father, there on the left, peeking into the nest while the mom is away…she probably had to run down to the Save & Discount for some Worm Helper…and on the right, there’s the mother, having returned.

It’s astonishing how much drama there can be on a summer day on screened porch in essentially the middle of Nowhere, Connecticut: epic warfare with aphids, the domestic lives of birds playing out before me, and…oh no! Now a cowbird has taken to flinging itself against the screen multiple times, clearly exhibiting bird psychosis. OMG, now it is lying on its back on the porch ledge, legs in the air and feathers all ruffled up. Perhaps this is a bird death scene (a swan song, as it were)…or merely a temper tantrum over not being able to get at those cardinal eggs.

But no. Now the cowbird flies away, the mother and father cardinals go off to dig up more worms. Little bunnies are hopping around in the garden, and a nice breeze is riffling through the screens, making the dog lift his head and smile.

Except for the busy aphids, all is well on the porch. Back to the novel, where things need to have their own dramas.

I rarely take on issues in this blog. Mostly it’s just me, talking about my own life, showing pictures, going through the throes of writing and parenting, and talking to my friends about both of those things.

But today I got a comment on a post from Mother Pie, and since it’s always so much fun to meet new bloggers, I went over to her blog and read a few of her posts, which were wonderful…and then I came across this one, a post from a soldier in Iraq, who has been writing a blog for the past five years for the Rocky Mountain News.

Andrew Olmsted lived constantly in the presence of great danger, and so he wrote a very thoughtful, heartbreaking post to be published in the event of his death. Aside from the political ramifications of the war in Iraq (which he asks us not to use his death to talk about), there is something so poignant in being able to read a man’s honest and forthright look at his life. Without even a trace of self-pity, he talks about what he would have done differently and what he will miss and the people he wished he could have met, and then he tells us about his wife and what he hopes for her future. He tells about his feelings for the job he was doing and his country–and says that if he had to die there, he hopes we will all spread the story that he must have died liberating a village and saving innocent women and children, though he admits that probably isn’t the way he died.

It is a beautiful look back at life. And I’ve been sitting inside today, typing away while it is nearly 60 degrees outside…and, well, I just think I’m going out for a walk.