…To write… is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally, material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down… Virginia Woolf 
Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. Virginia Woolf 
My heart is like an artichoke. Each year I have plucked off one leaf (how many leaves are there on an artichoke, has anyone counted?). It took almost five decades to get down to the fuzzy stuff. I am now working my way through the fuzz, trying not to choke as I pull each dandelion-like seed from around my heart.
Almost five months ago, I turned fifty. The sun has risen and illuminated so many days, endless days. The seasons have turned so many times I cannot count, from winter to spring to summer to fall and back again to winter. Elongated purple buds like jalapeno peppers, bursting forth into leaves like tiny tender salad greens and finally, in the heat of late spring, into large banana-leaf green until they fall into Halloween oranges, yellows and reds and finally into barren branches incapable of birth of any kind, stretching up and out, altogether leafless. Branches later laden with snow, snagging down toward the earth as if the snow were highways of melons.
Turning fifty coincided with what I decided to do for my birthday and wanted as a gift from my significant other, to go see a play at Shakespeare & Co., not a long drive from where I live in the foothills of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. The play was called Ice Glen. If you didn’t see it, you missed something extraordinary. The writing, the story, the acting, the setting for the performance. All extraordinary. In the play, set at the turn of the century in the Berkshires, a young woman gardener writes poetry, prolifically, in the barn. She is brilliantly alive, in love with nature and the animals, solitary, hermetic, vibrant (beautiful like a wild fawn is beautiful). She has only shared her poems with a few chosen intimates. The play opens with the poet’s somewhat bloodied encounter with her adored black bear friend, an animal who she nursed as a cub, who has returned to the wilderness most of the time, and who “…does not know the strength in his own paws.” (An apt metaphor for the poet herself!) She has only come away with a few minor scratches but those around her use this as an opportunity to chastise her for her encouraging visits from the black bear.
In the meantime, through a series of actions of which we, and our poet, are unaware, her well-known literary neighbor, Edith Wharton, has sent a couple of our poet’s poems to an editor in Boston. He travels the long journey to the then remote Berkshire Mountains to seek her out. He knows her poetry is extraordinary. And he has, more or less, fallen in love with this poet through reading her poetry. (If it were only so easy, right?) The tension in the play is between the desires of the editor of this renowned Boston poetry journal to publish this woman’s poetry and the poet’s unwillingness to allow this individual to even read her poetry, no less publish her. She writes for herself. She is angry. She is free. She rages against inequity. And she is afraid. She is afraid of making her art into a commodity. Of removing it from herself, her embodied self. Of coming in from the world of her beloved plants and animal friends to the artifices of humanity. She is afraid of sharing her private and intimate feelings, thoughts, and experiences with the world. By the end of the play, the editor has won the tentative friendship of this brilliant, creative, extraordinary, passionately alive poet. She still will not necessarily let him publish her poetry. But, he has become someone she trusts and she is willing to read him a couple more of her poems. We, the observing audience, are left feeling the poet will, perhaps, one day, publish her poetry, but in her own time, at her own pace. And so ends this heroine’s, and this fascinating play’s tale of the (artificial, imposed, cultural) division and conflict between animals, the natural world, solitude, love, creativity, privacy, intimacy, art, responsibility, relationship and community.
Getting to where I am today was like stripping layers of paint off a piece of furniture two hundred years old with only a small piece of sandpaper. Like the Polish poet, Janusz Szuber, who had been “writing for the drawer” for twenty-seven years and was not published until he was forty-eight, I have been writing since I was thirteen years old, for the drawer. Maybe a better way to express this is that I write because it is how I understand myself and the world. I write because if I didn’t I would be mad. Like Tillie Olsen pointed out in her landmark 1965 feminist book, Silences, and Virginia Woolf so many years before, in 1929, in the phenomenal A Room of One’s Own, I have, against odds so many women still face, finally, sometimes succeeded in quieting the endless barrage of mundane daily noise, and salvaged, out of my life, a small room of my own in which to write (literally, a small room up on the third floor of the house in which I live). I have spent most of my life, into my mid-forties, swimming in an ocean of lies. Lies I was told about myself, about girls and women, about society, about history, about politics, about the world, about the psychology of the human psyche, about family, about love, about sex, about the soul. Writing is how I make sense of it all.
Alas, how many of us are brilliant? Still able to claim we are embodied in a beautiful visage, with the glow of youth we all have only when we are in full bloom? (As mostly anyone over their mid-forties knows, the time for picking the plump fruit is short.) Writing is my second (sometimes I think first) nature. I am in love with the animals, with what is left of the natural world, the flora and fauna, the creatures of the forest floor and trees and skies and seas. I almost always do the opposite of what is expected from me in the world. And, for years now I have struggled inside myself with the idea of publishing. Over and over again I have decided not to do this. Ignoring the intense nagging sense — as I finished poems, one after another, printed them out, and stuck them into a drawer — that what was being sucked into its dark tomb of my desk might, just might, be shared with others who would perhaps appreciate the reading!! Isn’t this at least a part of what people write for? To hope others will recognize themselves, their own lives, thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears, in our work? To help create a way back and forth between the solitary churnings, the deep difficult-to-articulate soul, and that same place in others who read our work? So as not to fall prey, one day, stunned and paralyzed (why me?), like a field mouse in the talons of an owl, to be caught unaware, the “I” and five other incidental travelers, as we plummet off the ancient Peruvian bridge into the rushing river chasm far below without life having been purposeful? (Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is a book never to be forgotten.)
While I sat in the theater, seeing this play, Ice Glen, at Shakespeare & Co., this past July, on July 14th, my 50th birthday, so thrilled by seeing the passionate aliveness in this poet, identifying myself so strongly with the exuberant soul of this woman, I wanted to leap down into the stage and merge with The Poet. For a few precious transcendent seconds all boundaries disappeared. I felt she was me and I was her. I decided in that moment, pretty much on the spot, it was time to consider putting my writing self out into the world, the world wider my small hermetic life, my personal social sphere. I could not ignore the nagging voice another year or this neglect could easily continue the pattern repeated all of my life thus far, for the rest of my life.
A Room of One’s Own!!! As if the concept had not been entirely revolutionary, considering women had only been granted the right to vote less than thirty years before Virginia Woolf wrote this book. (A writing woman had only stopped being profoundly frowned upon by most men in Woolf’s time.) But, I wondered, aside from taking the very tiny room for granted, in which women can maneuver almost eighty [?] years later and across the ocean from the soil which inspired Virginia, how many people have read this book??? I decided to read it again recently. It is a one hundred and twenty page (in the trade paperback version), part-poem-part-essay stream of consciousness with some of the most brilliant and beautiful writing ever done in the English language. The now infamous Mrs. Dalloway (thanks to novelist Michael Cunningham), was fabulous, but A Room of One’s Own? Well, to read this book is to be awed, humbled, to prostrate oneself in veneration to the mind of Virginia Woof, her insights, her enormous and profound wisdom, her brilliant writing, from the pen of a genius, each sentence like a morning glory and by the end of the each page one has a morning glory garden in one’s lap. In this book, each sentence is a day and night of the soul.
Meryl Streep playing a lesbian in The Hours was like seeing the angels of heaven with horns calling in the new day. A day of equality, humanity, kindness, the articulation of suffering, and healing, healing into life, and healing into death. Who didn’t fall in love with Nicole Kidman, with her prosthetic nose, playing Virginia Woof? To imagine – as is more or less well known these days in circles of writers aspiring to publish – that the world would never have known Virginia Woolf if she and her husband, Leonard, had not begun a small press with the intention of printing Virginia’s work. It is unfathomable!! As unfathomable as it is to imagine Virginia Woolf walking into the River Ouse, pocket laden down with a heavy stone, that fateful morning on March 28th 1941 as England stood on the cusp of a possible Nazi invasion.
The Talmud says there are 903 kinds of death in the world. Death sits on all our shoulders. No matter how old we are. No matter how physically well. No matter how many edifices we have built in our lives to pretend otherwise. No matter how much material gain or wealth we have accumulated. Alas, I have felt death on my shoulder for many years now. I suffer from a rare degenerative disease with no cure short of transplant, which is not always possible. The clock is ticking loudly in my ear! Fifteen years ago, an esteemed Boston liver specialist told me, ludicrously, I thought, to “sit tight and wait for your more sever symptoms to manifest…” Ten years ago, my local gastroenterologist with a couple decades of experience under her belt, said to me “Susan, you will need a liver transplant in ten years.” I might not have another decade to continue to hide my poems in the drawer. I know the specter of death is with us all every moment of our days and nights but there is something terribly haunting thinking you might really have only have so many more years to live. We all might be saved at the last minute by a miracle, but miracles are out of one’s control, aren’t they? No one can will a miracle to befall. So, while catastrophic-oriented-short-sighted allopathic physicians tell me to wait for disaster to come knocking, my Eastern medical practitioners and I have tried to tap into that indefinable essence that embodies all living beings and facilitate the trillion of magical mendings of which our bodied are capable. We are oiling the ancient chains of Qi and hoping to outwit the dire predictions of Western medicine, still in its infancy. So far so good. I for one can tell you we can find joy and beauty and spiritual revelation along the path toward disintegration and death. I think with wisdom and some help we can turn the tide, even given the most dire predictions, from disintegration/dying to integration/living. The key is to always remember that death is not failure. It is just the end as we know it.
I began writing in a diary when I was seven years old. Journaling metamorphosed into letter writing at some point in the 1980s, numerous intimate literary correspondences in which I engaged in for many years much like the letter writing of old and in which I took great pride. I began writing “poetry” when I was fifteen. Terrible stuff. But the impulse, the desire, was what mattered. The rare prose, memoir, polemic, and short story began to emerge at some point in my 20s. Over the years since I first began writing, no doubt, I have surely written more shitty pieces than not. No one taught me how to write. I had a great English professor in college, the first encouragement I had as a writer. He became a mentor, friend, and died tragically in his early 40s.
Learning how to write on my own has its advantages (no boxes, no rules) and disadvantages (lack of social legitimacy, isolation, uncertainty, self doubt, etc.). My writing teacher in college believed in me in ways impossible for me to imagine at that time. After he died, he disappeared from all but my dream life. But there, in my dreams, David has lived all these years, a nagging voice in my head, in my heart, in my soul, that I am a writer, that what I have to say, or moreover, how I say it, is important. And, sometimes, enough of the time, how I say it is sometimes even beautiful. As beautiful as the hummingbirds I adore, as the trees swaying in the rain outside my autumn windows today, as a rain-soaked bear ambling up my driveway, a buck leaping across the drive in one jump. As beautiful as a woman who helped me give subcutaneous fluids to my sick dog this past summer every third day while my partner was out of the country.
One of the biggest problems in my life, until I decided to turn it into a career (I recommend this to everyone!), is that from the time I could walk I wanted to know what people really feel and think. I hate artifices, artificiality. I hate the production mentality of our societies. The fact we are frozen in time. Objects to be admired. We ALL shit and piss and vomit. We all cry and laugh and struggle. We all suffer and die. We all fart. We all smell. If all those people who think they are somehow superior to animals pissed in the yard next to the place their dog peed, for a week, and then went out to try to figure out whose stench was whose, it would be sobering. If some God-like being with superior power and control put a bowl of food in front of us, a couple of more or less arbitrary times each day, we would eat like wolves alongside our dogs. We are all filled with self-doubt and contrariness. Ambiguity and bravado. We are all, in the end, hypocrites.
I write poetry in two vastly different ways. Sometimes a shorter poem comes through me more or less whole. In these cases, I have the distinct feeling of being a conduit for something much bigger than me. It is an extraordinary feeling. Like giving birth when one doesn’t even know they are pregnant. Much more commonly, I begin one poem every three or six or twelve months, which I then spend endless hours working to refine and refine and strip down to the essence of exactly what I am really feeling and thinking. Sometimes this takes years. It is very very hard work. Much harder than one would think, to get to the essence of what I really feel, and what I really think, about something. It is very much like sitting at a meditation retreat. I “sit” with my words on the paper for a very long time, days into weeks and weeks into months and sometimes months into years. I allow my dreams to illuminate crevices and corners, waiting for all angles to emerge from the shadows of my unconscious mind. Writing poetry is about diving deeply into my own psyche and in this diving, moving past my self into the psyche of the collective consciousness. Something much bigger and more interesting to me, than me.
One Year Later.
Before I had a chance to pick out my poems to send to The Sun, catastrophe!!! Our dog, our beautiful adored brown-eyed white-and-gray furred (with black tipped guard hair down her spine as if she was a carefully painted canvas), Alaskan Malamute, Cheena, stopped breathing. Suddenly, inexplicably, one thickly humid night after coming in from the screen porch to have her dinner (chicken, rice, carrots, garlic), she collapsed on the floor, gasping, foaming at the mouth, her tongue turning purple (for lack of oxygen), having lost control of her urine and bowels. Somehow we got her out the door of our house, down the stairs, into the back of the car and drove her the hour and fifteen-minute drive to the veterinary ICU. My partner drove. I lay in the back of my Subaru stroking her dazed face, telling her to keep breathing, begging the universe. We put on the air conditioner in the car. We shivered and our jaws trembled but the frigid air clearly helped our dog to breathe. At the veterinary ICU they sedated her. Put her in an oxygen cage. And we began our immersion into a universe about which we had no knowledge and no experience. She had something we had barely heard of: laryngeal paralysis. The arytenoid cartilage, which function as doors to the rest of the larynx, doesn’t open. The CAD muscles that pull them apart are paralyzed and stop being the hinge to this door during inspiration. Oxygen can’t get past this point, to the windpipe (trachea), or into the lungs. The animal or person (yes, it can happen to humans as well), begins to suffocate.
I sort of knew we all have tracheas, just like before my dad’s stroke I sort of knew we had something called “brain stems.” But who thinks about these things until they come crashing down on our lives? Our bodies are a trillion magnificent miracles happening every moment almost all of which we are completely unaware.
Maxine Kumin wrote the following, in her 1978 poem, “The Retrieval System,”
It begins with my dog, now dead, who all his long life
Carried about in his head the brown eyes of my father,
Keen, loving, accepting, sorrowful, whatever,
They were Daddy’s all right, handed on…
I saw my father’s eyes in this dog, the sorrowfulness, love, watchfulness, struggles to understand, upon first meeting this dog, in a cage, on the floor, at the MSPCA. I saw my father’s eyes immediately. And I saw God’s eyes. (Where did I read that Dog was God spelled backward? Was it in The Sun?) I fell in love with this dog at first sight. She was two years old and brought by her first person to the ASPCA because someone in his family had cancer and had come to live with him and it was no longer possible to raise a still adolescent 80-pound Alaskan Malamute with a mind like Einstein’s, and care for his sick human family member. In the years since we adopted her, she had stopped, finally, doing things like chewing the windowsills in our rented turn-of-the-century duplex. I moved into that place as much for the fact of the mahogany railing from the first to second floor, which reminded me of the railing going up the marble stairs of my beloved grandmother’s rented second-floor apartment in Brookline during the years she lived there when I was a child, as for the incredibly cheap rent and spacious three-bedroom interior. The day she ate through the wooden fence we used when we went out to keep her and the cats separated (blood splattered kitchen), was a distant memory (she didn’t hurt herself, somehow, miraculously). The times we left her at kennels to go away for a couple days and came back to find her voiceless from incessant barking, or her toenails ripped raw from digging at the steel fence and cement floor. We learned quickly if we wanted to go away, it would be as a threesome: one for all and all for one! We taught Cheena to lift her paw and lay it on top of our two hands as we said our newly minted motto.
This is a stunning and extremely intelligent animal we are talking about. I am not sure I understand the human drive to recreate the beauty and architecture of the natural world in art when we close our eyes to the endless and phenomenal beauty of nature and the natural world all around us. No human could ever duplicate a being as beautiful, as embodied and full of spirit, as a Barred Owl, a black bear, a hummingbird, a milk snake, my Alaskan Malamute. For eleven years I have photographed this dog, wrote poems about her, unquestionably fell head over heels in love.
Anyone who has ever been in love with a dog (or other companion animal) will understand how our dog being unable to breathe could be a catastrophe. A catastrophe that would then keep us awake night and day, make us keep the windows open in our house through the entire northeastern month of December (again, cold air helped her breathe) until we could find a surgeon willing to operate on our dog. A dog that not only had LP but who also had megaesophagus (which makes dogs regurgitate food and water if not fed in a certain way, and sometimes even if). And then again, anyone who has ever been in love with a companion animal will understand how, for months following her surgery, we missed endless days of work and uncounted nights of sleep to save her life. After the surgery, pneumonia almost killed our dog and us, for lack of sleep — holding up her frail, sick body while she profusely vomited for half the night, applying cold compresses to the bottom of her paws and ice cubes to her gums when her fever was 102, 103, 104 — somehow, with her endearing help, carrying her to my Subaru wagon and heading to the vet. How many times? Too many times. We lived in constant post traumatic stress waiting for the inevitable middle-of-the-night emergency when she couldn’t breathe, her fever spiked, her vomiting became profuse, or the drugs they gave us to keep her from becoming terrified when her throat began to close before the surgery (the fear makes it much worse for them), almost killed her. All together, we lost about four months of our lives, my partner and I, due to our commitment to seeing this dog through being so sick. Two months of sitting down to dinner, taking one bite, and leaping up to hold up our dog while she vomited, so the vomit would not go down her esophagus and into her lungs. Throughout these months I would sometimes think about how my grandfather had spent a year dying on the living room couch with three school-age children bearing witness. Thinking about what we once naturally did for people we loved. How that day in 1948 when my grandfather died in bed hiccupping, his wife, three children, friends and extended family gathered in the apartment with him to wait it out together. (We are born into this life in the presence of others, and so it seems, to me, important we should take our last breaths accompanied.)
You can be assured I did not write a word that was not doggie medical notes (which we kept extensively), on a doggie medical chart, or an email to a veterinarian, during this arduous time. I was barely able to work.
I don’t want to make comparisons. To the sickness or death of my human loved ones. To sudden car accidents that change one’s life forever. To fires that rip through houses, streets, and cities and change lives forever. To the devastation of war, murder, rape. She was just a dog, as so many people like to say. But anyone who has loved a dog knows, just a dog is about the biggest insult anyone can say to a dog lover. And as I have told many people in my life as they stare at me blankly or argue the point, this dog TOLD me, one day, in a particularly empathic, clairsentient and clairvoyant moment, when she was about seven years old, that she was going to live to be sixteen. (She will be fourteen soon and was twelve the night she stopped breathing.) I am not crazy. I am psychic in a multitude of ways in life. But I know that look of disbelief when you tell someone something a bit off kilter ( from beyond the five senses), and they look at you struggling to comprehend. I am extremely clairvoyant and frequently dream people into my life. In terms of being clairsentient or empathic, more often than not I know what someone is feeling, even if they don’t. This dog came to me in a series of vivid dreams a couple weeks before I got a phone call from the ASPCA saying they had just gotten in a dog I should come take a look at. When I talk to more mainstream people about all of this, I frequently get that same look an acquaintance, Dave, gave me last fall: “How do you know she is going to live to be sixteen, Susan? I don’t know how long I’m going to live.” I thought it was a reasonable response, certainly. So, I thought, I do not know how I know. I only know I do. Of course, the issue has been, my whole life, how to distinguish psychic sensibilities from fear, need or desire. This is always really hard.
I do not want to end without mentioning that my dog also lived equally in other senses and awarenesses. And I am not talking about what we usually think of as “animal senses” (or am I?) Not only was she extremely intelligent (I always like to say she had the intelligence of a four year old), with her fifty-nine-word vocabulary (we listed the words and counted in bed one night when she was about six years old, before falling asleep). This dog didn’t get excited when you went to go get her leash, or change your clothes for a ride in the car to the park or the lake, she got excited when you thought about changing your clothes to go to the lake or thought about going to get her leash for a walk. So, when I told Dave that I didn’t know how I knew my dog was going to live to be sixteen, I knew the internal clicking clock in Cheena’s soul thought this too.
Of course there is always the possibility I made this up. I am big on denial. I am not sure I could get by in my life having the illness I do, without denial. Denial serves as a Band-Aid we all put on the fears, and sometimes the wounds, of our soul. I’m pretty sure none of us could get by in this world without denial. So many people dying, so many creatures suffering, so many acres of land being destroyed, so many plants and animals, reptiles and insects, becoming extinct, each week, so much suffering and loss every second of every day, and death always sitting on our shoulder. And, what about the future of our planet? The prospects are grim. If we wrapped our minds and hearts fully around the suffering that resulted in the food we place in our cart when we go to the market, the clothes we buy, turning on our heat, pumping petrol into our vehicles, cash a paycheck, how would we go on? How would we sleep at night? How would we keep from becoming mad? So, it could just be my fear of death and of losing those I love to death that put those words into my head. Maybe my dog will just die when she dies. I try to reason: we cannot control death. We cannot presume to control The Angel of Death, no matter how creative our imaginations nor the depth or longevity of our intuitive sensibilities. These mental constructs give us no more power over death than the architectural or physical edifices many people build around them in their lives to insure their mortality, do they?
What have I learned from this experience? One of the most joyful things in life is coming downstairs in the morning to a fat dog with a cold wet nose! Never to be cocky, or brag. Almost every time I did this, about Cheena getting better, she got sick again. Our inflated egos, or pride, need as many “sits”, and “downs”, as our dogs. And patience is the blood and bones of the life of the soul. It is a wise thing to learn how to wait graciously. To wait for the moment to pass, as the Buddhist’s say, as it always does. To sit with it and know that everything always changes. That eventually the pain will pass. One will feel better when one is sick. Eventually feel a glimmer of hope again when one is despairing. It is so hard to wait but where are we all rushing to, after all? What is the end of all this rushing? Some momentary swiftly passing addictive pleasure? A “work” deadline? A meal? Bed? A shower? A nursing home? Our last breath? The grave?
Our lives are train wrecks waiting to happen, as my brother liked to say for a time a few years ago when he was feeling particularly frustrated by events unfolding in our elderly parents’ lives and how little control he had about any of it. Frankly, I think all of our lives are train wrecks waiting to happen. It just matters when we crash. And that we learn how to live fully through the darkness and light, the dawns and dusks of our lives (not overwhelmed with anxiety, anticipation, and fear), during the hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and for some of us, a century, before we crash!
It helps realizing and accepting this early on. It is hard to be Jewish and not have this sort of comprehension. It swirls though most of our genes along with our blood and lymph. But, this is about the cultural legacy of trauma we all have, all humans. The challenge of living with this knowledge more or less every minute of every day but also having optimism. How can we be incredibly aware and fueled by hope and optimism within whatever cages we find ourselves in life?
It is many months later, now. It is spring instead of late fall. Just as I was about to finish and send off this letter turned memoir/essay, a year after Cheena stopped breathing, almost to the day, my mother was seriously injured (an eighty nine pound eighty eight year old woman), by a negligent wheelchair van driver, on the way home from a doctor with my wheelchair bound father. She spent a week in the hospital and a month in a rehabilitation/ nursing home and I spent six weeks traveling the hundred and twenty miles back and forth. Half the week there and half here. Again, the poems I had planned to send to The Sun Magazine receded into the back of my mind. How to keep my mother alive under the life threatening irrational barrage of psychotropic medications they were forcing into her in “rehab”, where my mother became, in less than a week, a completely demented stranger who did not know what year it was or how to pull the emergency string in the bathroom if she needed help. We live in a shameful era in which old age – particularly for women – is treated as if it is an alphabet noodle soup of psychological diseases. So, each day I spent hours on the telephone to Boston battling this out with incompetent nurses and doctors “in charge”of my mother’s “care”. Each day was about how to keep food purchased and prepared in our own and my father’s refrigerators; how to keep laundry done in both households; how to keep Cheena from getting pneumonia; and under the weight of all of this, how to keep my own health from deteriorating beyond repair. It is not, dear reader, as if every hour of every day of my life is not about this infinitesimally difficult tightrope walk anyway. For those of us who live in the world of chronic illness and/or pain, life too often hovers in the wake of forces beyond our control, which determine on any given day and often in any given hour our “productivity”. Of course (is this a feminized thing a control thing an anal thing or do as many men struggle with it too?), it is always a battle (guess which wins out regularly), between taking our precious energy and attending to the trillion of endless domestic chores of daily life or working on ones writing. (I still have a phone message on my answering machine from my brother left two years ago “Susan, are you ever ever going to answer your telephone again?”) It is just that, unless I am in the middle of a personal prolonged medical crisis; normally, in my life, I can, at least, on good days, see the shadow of myself there on the ground as I walk along. At least I sort of know “I” am still in there somewhere. During this crisis with my mother, I had no shadow.
This will have to be another story. In a month, I will turn 52. Is this how fast our lives go by? The older we get, the faster each year passes. Our lives are a journey to find the right path for the soul that resides within our bodies. For some people this is relatively easy. For others it is a long perilous path.
I wake from a dream I was walking down a road in some Middle Eastern country with some friends and was kidnapped. I was being held captive and there was no escape and no way to communicate with the outside world. There was no telephone. There was no computer on which to send an email. I was forced to be a slave to these strangers. I know I had this dream because of the interview I listened to on Fresh Air, last night, with Yanar Mohammed. It was stunning to me, in its horror. Here, I, we, so many of us, are having these personal lives. We think about our work, how much we accomplished on a given day. We think about what time we have to get up tomorrow morning. What we might eat for dinner. We struggle with our work, relationships, loves, hates, desires as if they are demons. All the while, as we churn self importantly about in our little lives, in so many places in the world, people, families, entire villages are being snatched away like feral cats.
If it weren’t for my dog, I would just print this out unfinished and put it in the drawer along with all the others. Maybe I would just leave it on my computer desktop until one day my computer crashes and all is lost. But, I owe it to Cheena to finish this story. I have to finish it for her. First, I want to tell you that I still believe this dog “thought” she was going to live to be sixteen. I think she was as completely stunned as I was when this did not happen. I think this was why her body seemed so alive during the 24 hours she laid in the back of the station wagon waiting to be buried. And, even when we buried her, in retrospect, I think she hadn’t left her body yet. As Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek says in Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation, “ …the body is dead, but consciousness may remain because internal separation has not yet happened…One can see clearly in this phase that although the person’s heart and breathing have stopped, they are still in their body. There is no sign of decomposition and the skin has a normal glow…”
It happened again. The medical emergency nightmare. It was my fault. I made a stupid medical decision for my dog. A decision born from total and utter exhaustion. Again, Cheena had become sick. Again weeks of no sleep. (Always a nightmare of suffering and illness for me.) It could have helped her, as had the two thousand other medical decisions I, a layperson turned overnight into barefoot veterinarian, had made over almost two years. Except this time it didn’t. And the emergency vet who was so devoted to our beautiful dog and had bestowed upon us endless acts of kindness and veterinary expertise and whose name reminded me of the lovely little teal parakeet my brother and I had as a child, Kiki, wasn’t at the helm. The emergency facility had shut down and our emergency vet was now working over a hundred miles away. On call this day at the new veterinary emergency facility, which had opened near us about a year before, was a very young vet recently out of medical school. Someone who did not know our dog. Did not know this dog’s will to live. How much she still wanted to live! Did not know the pleasures she still took in life. She didn’t know our dog was The Miracle Dog. That in the past almost two years she’d been to forest, field, mountain, glen, lake, harbor, bay, sandy beach and rocky northern crashing sea. That we’d all danced (okay, Cheena in her Eddie’s Wheels), smiled and woofed together at the full moon. Post LP tieback dogs can’t really bark. The sound you hear instead is just the sound of air passing through their throat. A sound like the wind rustling in the tops of the trees.
Young healthy people lack the wisdom of their elders. They too often do not know that even when the body is failing, when we are very sick, or very old and infirmed, even as we are decaying, life is often still worth living. Even though our bodies might be ninety years old and our spines like snow-laden birch trees in winter, life is loved. So, this vet saw an old sick dog she did not know in a moment of crisis, and not the fourteen and a half years leading up to this moment. She saw an old sick dog she convinced us (herself?) was dying and she could not save and veterinary protocol that makes euthanizing animals a simple choice. A simple choice in the same country that makes someone who helps to end the life of a suffering human being who is dying in acute relentless pain, a criminal. So, as my dog died by lethal injection, I stroked her head and gazed into her eyes, watching the life force depart. Like all of us, I have had my share of loss and death, of suffering and grieving, but this was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
I’ve never been good with endings. Is anyone? Beginnings are so easy. We leap, fly, fall over our feet to begin. But how do we end? Perhaps every moment holds the potential for endless new beginnings when we cup the seed of life delicately in our palms like a baby bird.
In a couple months, I turn fifty-three.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Wolf, 2012