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by Lisa Lanser-Rose
“It’ll be another day or so.” The hospice nurse clicked her pen. “He wanted to sleep through it. He’s sedated. Come with me.” She took us into the bedroom where John lay on his side, back to us. She showed us the medication and explained how to keep him asleep while he died. “Remember, he can hear you. Right up to the end.”
She left us standing beside John. We heard the front door open and close as she let herself out. John faced the window, away from us, sleeping heavily. I remembered him saying, I keep hoping, ‘This is it.’ Then I wake up, and I’m still here.
I said, “Is this it, then, John?”
“This is it,” my mother said.
We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We went out on the patio. The ravens, whom my mother had named Edgar and Lenore, floated down and hopped along the fence. “They’re looking for sandwich crusts. I leave some out this time of day.” She went back inside the house, came out with an English muffin, and laid pieces of it on the rail. “They have one fledgling this year,” she said. I took some muffin and helped her. I could smell the pitch in the wood, feel the heat of it under my fingers. I had kicked off my shoes; the gravel in the garden hurt my feet.
Listlessly, we stood unprotected from the sun and searched the curled leaves of the oak for the youngster. The leaves looked dusty. The relentless summer sun had disintegrated everything, but the birds still had fight in them. Off to one side stood the bluebird box on its pole, with the bright red umbrella John mounted to give shade for the chicks. The two bluebird parents darted back and forth so fast that we had no will to watch them. We retreated into the shade and sat ourselves on the swing once more.
“It is what he wanted.” My mother turned up the hem of her shirt, found a small factory sticker there, and pulled it off. “He wrote emails to his doctor begging him for help with the pain.” Her fingernails were as smooth and perfect as the halves of tiny eggs. “He never could get ahead of it. He’d ask the hospice nurses to kill him. He wanted me to move him to Oregon where . . . He begged . . .”
The ravens croaked over the muffin bits. Their claws scraped the wood, and the stiff oak leaves clattered in the breeze. I said, “How awful for you, Mom.”
She sighed. “We need rain.”
A person who’s entered “active dying” lies inert. Perhaps it’s called “active” because activity surrounds the patient: self-conscious prattle directed at the dying person, pointless bustle, frequent checking for the passive signs of active dying, and horrid jokes, such as, “I wish the nurse had fitted him with a pop-up timer.”
Everything about my own father’s death came back to me: mottled feet and hands, long pauses in respiration, slack mouth, a rattle in the throat. The suspense is brutal, the agitation intolerable, but on this way-station satellite, an hour, a day, has no meaning. Time doesn’t hurtle as it does on Earth. We became timeless women who pinched John’s toes like Hansel’s witch. Into the oven I’d throw banana bread, propelled by the notion that John had been waiting for it for twenty years. It couldn’t be too late.
“I have an electric mixer,” my mother said.
But I needed to mix it under my own effort. Beating the dough with a wooden spoon kept me upright. I had two recipes open on my laptop—one for banana bread, and one for active dying. We did not Skype Delaney. If we saw her seeing us, the spell might be broken.
As I slid four pans into the oven, my mother said, “What are we going to do with all that banana bread?”
“There’ll be lots of people.” We avoided each other’s eyes. My teeth hurt from clenching.
“It’s time for another dose.”
We did as Janice had instructed. The house filled with the aroma of banana bread. Delaney called on the phone, but we didn’t talk long.
“I’m going to take Casey outside to play Frisbee,” Delaney said.
Funny to think that was my former life—a place with an outside, where Frisbees could be tossed to a Border Collie I loved. I no longer knew that yard, that young woman who was my daughter, that old dog. I understood, logically, that it was awful not to know them, but I didn’t feel it. I paced. I needed something to do.
“I wish I knew how to knit a shroud,” I said to Delaney, but, unlike my mother, she didn’t get the joke. After I hung up the phone, I went looking and found my mother sitting on the hospital bed next to John. ”
The bedroom was crowded with oversized solid cherry furniture: bureau, nightstands, sleigh bed, armoire, and beyond it all lay John, silhouetted high against the sunlight by the sliding glass door. The previous day, hospice had called six firemen to move John into a hospital bed to ease his breathing. They had positioned and raised the bed too much like an altar. Head elevated, he lay upon it on his side, just as Janice had arranged him, facing the sliding glass doors that opened onto the patio.
The sliding doors made a glass wall from which we could see almost everything John had placed in his garden. Beyond the dappled shade and flowers ran the wood fence upon which my mother and I had laid muffin bits for ravens. Along that fence John and my mother had trained six different kinds of table grape vines. The vines thrived and my mother fretted there was no one to help prune them. I said I’d do it before I left.
At one corner of the yard John had set up their busy bluebird box and sheltered it with its cheerful umbrella, the one all passersby commented upon. To the right muscled the monstrous fig tree that we all climbed when the figs were ripe so that we could take them, still warm from the sunshine, and eat them with a tiny pat of bleu cheese. Beyond the fence ran a steep slope, a stream that pattered with frogs, a walking trail, and a nature preserve, in the canopy of which the two ravens raised their yearly brood.
When she heard me enter, my mother turned her head. “I was just reminiscing with John about Yosemite. It’s his favorite place on Earth.”
I sat beside her. “Yeah?” It was important to keep talking to John, saying pleasant things. I couldn’t feed him banana bread, but I could keep the woman he loved talking about his favorite place. “So why does he love Yosemite so much?”
Together we staged a cheerful interview about Yosemite National Park: the soaring vault of Half Dome, the unthinkable view from Glacier Point, the summer snow, the sound and the scent of mist at the base of Bridalveil Falls, and the cry of coyotes echoing against the valley walls. Behind John, the breeze tousled dappled shadows and light over the glass. Everywhere the confetti of flowers flew. Bluebirds and goldfinches sailed, blue and yellow, to and fro.
My mother said, “I think he’s on his new planet now.”
We waited. We stared. John’s side didn’t rise. It was so.
Mother, Daughter, Dog
by Lisa Lanser-Rose
For twenty years, I meant to head west. When we got to California, we could live the way human animals were meant to live. Blood relatives would belly up to our Thanksgiving table, wink, and joke that they didn’t feed my dog underneath. Women with my eyes, cheeks, curls, and hips would push grocery carts alongside mine. When my daughter walked on stage for a school recital, she’d look down into the eyes of kin looking up. They would single her out and smile–because she was theirs.
Even though I suffered the absence of kin as a kind of chronic illness, I had turned my two-human, three-species household into the happiest life I’d ever lived. I had about three weeks of it left when my mother called and asked me to come to California. She needed help taking care of her husband while he died.
She’d never asked me for anything before, so I said okay.
That meant my daughter and I scrapped our big plans for the last weeks of our last summer together before she left for college. Instead she’d spend that time at home alone with no one for company but our ill-tempered cat and our creaky old Border Collie, Casey. It hurt. Delaney and I were tight, the way some single moms are when they have just the one kid. Now our intrepid duo was coming to an accelerated end that I couldn’t picture for myself. I could picture it for Delaney—she’d order cheap pizza with her college roommate, pull all-nighters, plan flash-mobs on campus, lug clothes and quarters down to the laundry, screen zombie movie marathons in the common room. I’d made sure she had all the pencils, pajamas, and posters she’d need. As for me, after I helped her move into the dorm, I had nothing on my calendar.
After six o-clock on a Friday evening, Delaney scooted aside so I could lug my suitcase past her. Casey, who used to rocket out ahead of me, lumbered behind me down the stairs. Delaney’s laptop lit up her face with the bright gray light of a hurricane sky. At eighteen, she was beautiful in the way of great beauties—her face had the most beguiling ratios of cheek-to-chin, eye-to-nose, and brow-to-lip, the kind that not only made people stare, but made them blurt out, “I’m sorry, but I can’t stop staring.” She looked nothing like me.
“We’ll Skype,” I said. “We can text while I’m at the airport.” I rolled my suitcase to the door. Casey came with me.
Casey’s pedigree said she was my dog, and so did she. For fourteen years I fed her, I trained her, I threw her Frisbee, millions upon millions of times. Casey was mine. If we ever did battle for custody of Casey, Delaney could’ve introduced into evidence a home video: four-year-old Delaney stands holding a puppy in her arms, whom the record will show was Casey at eight weeks. In it, you can hear my mommy-voice utter the incriminating line: “How do you like your new puppy?”
I gave Casey to Delaney because I wanted a daughter who wanted a cool dog like Casey as much as I did. That’s because when I was a little kid, even as young as four years old, I would’ve done anything to live side-by-side with a dog like Casey. But maybe Delaney was too young, or maybe Casey came too easily, or maybe Delaney’s brain was wired for feline. To her the dog was more conflict and competition than companion. A dog like Casey was in her way. A dog like Casey was my way.
And Casey knew it. While Delaney was growing up, Casey chased her and her friends through the backyard, staggered around the house wearing a princess gown, and let herself be tucked into My Little Pony bed sheets because I willed her to do it. Casey “keeked,” a term Donald McCaig picked up in Scotland from a shepherdess named Viv Billingham, “Tell me, does he turn his head back to you, looking for instructions? Keeking, we call it.” Casey keeked not to Delaney but to me, as if to ask, “You want me to wear this tiara? Oh, okay. I’d rather not wear a tiara while running a lawn-chair obstacle course with the kids, but if you want me to do what the kids want, okay.” If I’d beckoned, she’d have bolted to my side.
Every night when Delaney was still little, I pointed to the end of her bed, and Casey pointed at the door. She glanced back at me, not keeking but negotiating for a promotion—bedding down in my room. Resigned, she curled on the end of my daughter’s bed, always slightly panicked to see a door close between us. She’d lift her head one last time and then lower it, as if to say, “You sure? Okay, one more night.”
Finally Delaney grew into a teenager. “Casey bugs me jumping on and off the bed while I’m trying to sleep.” And so Casey got her bedtime upgrade.
A family counselor would say the three of us—mother, daughter, dog—were “enmeshed.” Casey was the closest thing to a sibling my only child ever had. I had a lifelong case of dog-aholism, and the three of us were deeply co-dependent—or is that “co-reliant?” Not a competitive sort, I didn’t see Border Collies as tickets to big sheep-trial purses, agility trophies, or rescue-network sainthood (even though I secretly craved and liked to think myself capable of all three). Nor was Casey the object of my otherwise unspent maternal excess—she was just my dog, which for most of us should be enough of a mighty thing.
If neuroscientists ever studied Casey’s brain and mine, they would find mental fusion, mirrored neurological roots and branches twining and grafting. My brain had a caniculus or a “little dog” of Casey like the homunculus or “little man,” the neural map of my own body. After fourteen years of bonding with that dog, the Casey-region of my brain was especially large—never mind the Delaney-region. That was probably an entire continent.
In the foyer by the front door, I tried to slide a couple keys off my key ring without breaking a fingernail or bursting into tears. I said, “I can’t believe I’m leaving my girls.”
“The last three weeks of my last summer at home too,” Delaney deadpanned, without lifting her eyes from her laptop.
“Thanks, kid. That helps.”
According to my flight itinerary, I’d be taking the red-eye alone to California and returning in three weeks. The oncologists had given my stepfather two.
“Here’s the car key,” I said, even though Delaney didn’t have her license yet. “Just in case. The little one’s the mailbox key.”
Casey wagged her tail and with her eyes tried to bore through my brow the command, “You’re taking me with you.” She couldn’t read the tickets through her cataracts, and even if she weren’t deaf she wouldn’t have listened to my rationalizations. Suitcases triggered rapid-cycling manic-depression in her—maybe adventure awaited! Maybe abandonment. Her tail popped up, ears forward, toes tippy-tapping, then her tail tucked down, her ears flattened back, her feet rooted in front of the door. She blocked my path in an unspoken demand that I could feel in my bones. The Casey region of my brain busied itself trying to figure out how to take her with me after all. I opened the door, knowing she’d shoulder it shut—
But this time she clattered sideways and fell over. When she tried to sit up, her head seemed to swing loose on her neck. I thought, “She’s having a stroke!” I was so scared, I could’ve picked up and thrown the whole house.
I dropped on my knees. “Casey!”
At the bottom of the stairs, Delaney hunched over the keyboard engaged in a battle of wit with an invisible someone, someone she’d probably never seen, someone unrelated to us. She machine-gunned whole sentences and smirked.
“Laney! Something’s wrong with Casey!”
“Oh, my God,” she said. She kept typing.
Head dipped to the right, Casey’s eyes shifted back and forth, faster in one direction, as if watching someone swing a cat. “I’m serious, Lane. Something’s wrong with the dog.”
Delaney put down her computer and came to see for herself. Her eyes widened. “Are you still going to go?”
My mind scrambled over the grown-up calculations we hesitate to share with our children: how much would it cost to reschedule my flight? How much would it cost to see the vet on a Saturday? How much do you invest in saving the life of a fourteen-year-old dog? How sick can she be when two months ago the vet said she was healthy enough to live to be twenty? How often do vets lie to pet owners to let them enjoy happier last days?
My Casey-dog was dying, just as my father had died, just as my stepfather, John, was dying. Should stay with my daughter while our dog dies? Should I keep my promise to my mother and help her shepherd her husband to his death? What good would I do here? What good would I do there? How should I decide?
My shuttle was late.
Safe and Loved
by Terri Florentino
I must admit I felt a connection with Wyatt. He’d look at me with those big, round, dark brown eyes as if he saw and loved my very soul. I had tried not to give him too much of myself, knowing he couldn’t stay. After all, now that Tulley had joined our family, I knew too well that six dogs were our limit.
At this juncture neither Karen nor I were convinced that Wyatt would make a suitable companion for their family. We all went back inside together and discuss Wyatt’s training and feeding and sleeping schedule. While we decided his fate, he trotted through the house, following Morgan and inspecting her every move. Morgan talked to him, “C’mon, Wyatt. This is a stuffed-animal tea party, and you can be our guest.” Wyatt hung on her every word, which pleased the little girl mightily.
As we talked, occasionally Jim knelt and called to him. Wyatt dashed over and wiggled as Jim ruffled his fur all over. Finally, Jim turned to Karen, “I say let’s give him a try.”
Lost in her play-pretend, Morgan had seemed oblivious to the adult conversation, but right on cue she piped up, “Oh! Can we keep him, Daddy?”
Jim and Karen blurted, “Yes!” Then Karen added, “If Wyatt is happy, we would love for him to stay.”
“Wonderful!” I said, but my enthusiasm sounded a bit forced. Puzzled, I looked at Wyatt anew—could it be this was good-bye? What in the world had I expected?
Knowing how intuitive he was, I tried to conceal my sorrow. “Do you have that crate we talked about?”
“Yes,” Karen said.
“Put him in the crate and don’t let him out until after I’m gone.” I managed to hold back my tears. “I don’t want him to see me leave.” Just then, Wyatt walked over and slid his head onto my lap. I cupped his face. “You’re a good boy. . . . I’ll always be with you.” Everyone began to sniffle.
Ed stood up. “Okay, let’s go, honey.” I let him guide me to my feet and put his arm around me.
Karen escorted Wyatt to another room and the crate. At the door, Karen embraced me—no words, just strength, trust, and love.
Karen emailed me often. Morgan loved Wyatt from the start. He joined in many a tea party, fashion show, and Disney-movie reenactment. At first, he didn’t know what to do with himself, which was saying a lot, because Wyatt had a big personality. With so much attention from a family so happy to have him, he acted like a kid in a candy store. Overcome with glee, he’d race through the house and leap from couch to chair to chair. They realized quickly how right I was about his need for training, and they diligently obliged.
Wyatt was a counter-surfer, and for this, Karen asked my advice. I replied, “Don’t leave things on the counter to tempt him, and he may forget to surf.” That cured it, but one St. Patrick’s Day, Wyatt had a little lapse. Karen had made corned beef and cabbage and left it to cool on the counter. A half hour later she returned to find the entire meal had vanished. Wyatt had sprawled himself out on the kitchen floor, lounging with a look of self-satisfaction. He practically shrugged at her, as if to say, “Hey, you obviously didn’t want it. What’s the problem?”
At first, Wyatt was haunted by old fears and anxieties. Whenever he rode in the car with Karen and she stopped at the supermarket or strip mall, he’d panic and try to keep her from getting out, as if remembering the day his first owner gave him up in a parking lot. Eventually, he learned to love car rides, but it took time and a lot of reassurance. Summer storms frightened him; sometimes they’d find him hiding in the clothes dryer. When left alone for long periods, Wyatt scratched up the furniture, the floor, the doors. Karen used Rescue Remedy or Anxiety Relief drops, and Wyatt learned when he felt his fears coming on to go to her and sit obediently, as if to say, “Please, please, please may I have a few drops of the stuff?” He’d lift his lip and wait for her to squeeze the medicine into his mouth. Over time, he learned he was well-cared-for, and his fears subsided.
Last fall, while Morgan was asleep in bed and Jim was outside spotting deer, Karen decided to make a cup of tea before bed. Her heel slipped off the top step, and she went skidding down the wooden stairs on her tailbone. There she sat at the bottom with a dislocated shoulder, a concussion, and a likely broken coccyx, so painful that Karen heard herself wailing in a way she never had before. Wyatt dashed over and ran his eyes and nose all over her. Then he rocketed up on the couch in front of the picture window and barked and barked and barked. Jim was was spotting deer about thirty yards away and heard Wyatt’s bark. Afraid Wyatt would wake up Morgan, he came running to scold him, but instead found Karen injured and badly dazed.
Wyatt and Karen had grown very close, in part thanks to the three-and-a-half-mile runs. At one particular point halfway up a hill, Wyatt would stop dead in his tracks and sit right in front of the “SPEED LIMIT 25 When Horse Rider Is Present” sign. He refused to budge. Karen spoke firmly and tired to get him to heel, but nothing worked. Karen stood there thinking, “Seriously? Just move your tush up the hill. This is not hard!” She usually had to get back home to get Morgan on the bus and Jim off to work. Finally one day, as Wyatt sat by the sign like a cement statue, she leaned down, patted his head, and said in his ear, “Everything’s okay. It’s all fine. You’re safe, and you’re loved.” He relaxed, he wriggled all over, and then zipped up that hill like an Olympic athlete.
Wyatt still oversees all the movement in the house, off to work and school, over to the barn, out to bound in fresh snow, and up to bed, when he listens attentively to bedtime stories and often stays to sleep in Morgan’s room. Whatever’s going on, Wyatt is happiest when the family is all together.
Karen works from from home, and every afternoon like clockwork, Wyatt comes to her and whines. Engrossed in her work, she tells him to hush and lie down. He settles for a moment before fussing again—right around the time Karen looks up to see the school bus coming down the road. The house sits almost 800 feet from the road, and he starts to whine and pace about five minutes before she even sees the bus. Karen still can’t figure out how he knows Morgan is on the bus and it’s time to go get her.
Karen emailed me the other day, “I just said to Jim tonight that we’ve had Wyatt longer than we’ve had any dog. Hard to believe he’ll be ten years old in a few months.”
So many things had happened since their dear Raine had died. The whole world had changed for the mean dog who had become our own dear, old Tulley.
Karen wondered, “Where does the time go?”
I believe that there is an explanation for everything, so, yes, I believe in miracles. ~Robert Brault