Old Gal, Young Dog

I’m writing this standing up at the counter in the kitchen.

My new dog, Romeo, known mostly at Romy, is sitting on the rug behind me waiting for me to recognize what a good boy he’s being by not attacking the very senior dog, Minnie, that is his housemate or, as the Humane Society labeled her, the ‘resident dog.’

Over the past few days, the resident dog has been getting mighty irked. And because she is a torn ACL survivor and old as the hills, she can’t abide leaping and jumping from some shelter puppy, an Alabama cur, no less, that the people decided to bring home one day,

So far, ignoring Romy while he sits quietly behind me waiting for me to turn around to give him a piece of kibble is working. He’s gone from mad attacker to mellow fellow in about ten minutes. I just have to keep standing up and having kibble in my pocket – a lot like having a baby around holding life ransom for some Cheerios. I know the drill.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman with a beautiful German Shepherd, the one whose name in Lakota meant ‘Soup Dog’ and she mentioned that she intended to adopt more dogs – but only senior dogs – because, you know, we’re seniors. That seemed wise enough – old people, old dogs, everybody resting and reminiscing. And I liked the idea of it. Until we went to the Humane Society and Romeo sat there wagging his hacked off tail.

We could have shuffled with another old dog on long walks around the block, administered meds every morning and night, and been regulars at the vet. Hospice care, we would’ve been fabulous hospice care folks, kind of greasing the skids for our own inevitable slip and slide out the door. On the job training.

Having a very young dog is taxing.

This morning he chewed through his leash while he was tethered to a loop on my jeans while I cooked breakfast. Then he bit through the back-up leash after a stint at the dog park. He is very busy, galloping when a trot would do, being too much a lot of the time like people can be too much without having any self-awareness. He throws himself into his kibble, the car, other dogs, and people. Last week he took a running leap into the lap of a stranger at the dog park, a guy who just seconds before was drinking coffee and chatting with his friend on a park bench.

But he is sweet and loving in that way that rambunctious kids can be – taking a bite out of your shoulder because they love you so much and then being surprised because you find it distressing.

So I have cast my lot with this young crazy dog. I aim to make him mine or die trying.

Pray for me, though, because it can get wild around here.

Sallie’s Funeral

I went to Sallie’s funeral today.

It was in a very old Episcopal church downtown, the kind where you need to leave your coat on because the heat, what there is of it, will rise to the very top of the vaulted ceiling and leave you there like you are sitting on a park bench.

The hymnals were from 1984 which is fine, really, because how many hymns change? Hymnals are timeless, I guess, it’s only the bindings and the pages that wear out. I didn’t sing from the hymnal but I held it open against my chest, held it close to me as if it was very dear.

The man at the door handed out programs along with a small card with a picture of my friend as she looked recently – 84 years old – long white hair pulled back – and the slightest of smiles like she’d just gotten done shaking her head about something – the border, the war in Syria, homelessness. On the back was a photo of her as a beautiful young woman wearing a dancing outfit with a lot of flounce and fluff. She could sew, Sallie could, and I bet she made that outfit.

Two pews ahead of me was a young woman holding a baby. The baby was a little girl, maybe six or seven months old, and she peered over her mom’s shoulder at me and other folks and you could feel the pings of envy from everyone – wishing they had a baby or were still a baby. She had bright blue eyes and a soft open mouth that sometimes looked smiling. She grabbed the gray hair of the woman next to her whom I figured to be her grandmother mostly because of her indulgence and lack of aggravation like she had waited years to have that tiny hand pull her hair.

Sallie would have been pleased that a baby was the focus of my attention. She would have liked the other babies letting out accidental yells; she would have enjoyed the squirming of toddlers, the dad standing up to hold his one-year old daughter dressed in a fancy white dress with what we used to call crinolines underneath, she looked like a doll from the Civil War she was that grand. All of it -the jostling and moving about -Sallie would shake her head and smile and then move the chairs back so the babies could have the center of the room.

I used to spend time with Sallie but that was long ago. I sat in her kitchen many times while she cooked and talked about revolution. For a time, I picked her up before dawn to stand against anti-abortion protesters bused in from out of town to harass local clinics. I remember standing with her one morning, our arms linked with others in a long line with a protester just a few feet away yelling, “Baby killers!” at us and Sallie, looking him right in the eye and saying, “Why don’t you just shut up?” I loved her for that and for standing for choice even though she would never, ever make that choice herself. She just believed in people’s freedom was all.

Sallie and I weren’t close but we had shared history, too complicated to explain, so it was important to me that she died, that she wouldn’t be on the earth anymore. That she was gone made me think about everything while I watched the baby and I was filled with sadness and melancholy about my entire life. The people I know are dying. And the relentlessness of age and passing made me want to zip my coat up and go outside in the driving rain. The wind nearly turned my umbrella inside out.

99 New: Animal Planet

There were really only two options. Weird, because I have a lot of underwear, practical stuff, not fancy, I’m all about comfort. So there was the black cotton underwear which kind of choked off circulation to my legs the last time I tried them and then there was the giant leopard print ‘briefs’ as they are so oddly called, bought when I was a lot heavier chick. I was going to the dermatologist for a whole body skin check so she was going to be peering into my underwear. I should make it easy for her, I figured, so I put on the leopard granny pants, jeans, and a hoodie and set off.

The nurse handed me a robe, reminding me to take everything off except my panties. Not sure if my leopard print number qualified as panties, shouldn’t panties be silky or lacy or scanty? These panties could be used to wax the car.

She turned to leave. “And oh, I should tell you. Doctor has a scribe training with her today.”

“A scribe?” Who has a scribe? Ben Franklin? Did Ben Franklin have a scribe? Or was he a scribe? What did he do before he started working his way up?

She cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. “And, he’s a man.” Oh great, a man scribe is going to be joining us. Saying no seemed older than my pants. So I did as she said and sat on the examining table to wait.The doctor knocked and came in first. She was young, blond, wearing a lab coat and sneakers. Her scribe followed, clad in a plaid shirt and dark khakis. He could have been a clerk in a sporting goods store.

For someone poking around people’s bodies with a magnifying glass, the doctor was surprisingly jolly. She started with my scalp and worked her way down, dabbing a searing concoction on all the little pre-cancers she found, two on my eyebrow, one on my arm, a tiny one on my chest, and then she dropped the front of the gown and lifted each breast up. The sun never shone there I wanted to tell her but she lingered not. The scribe, sitting behind me at the little doctor desk, could be heard tapping a keyboard, making note, I guess, of the location of every errant spot.

The doctor was a great chatter. She joked about needing to use her bare hands to feel where cancers might be starting even though her husband urged her to wear gloves. Seems she once examined a guy with syphilis and accidentally touched his sore or rash or whatever it is, something she said had never before happened in the clinic, and then her husband got all weirded out and wanted her to wear gloves. I don’t know if that was all the time or just in the clinic.

Anyway, she continued onward or downward actually, checking both legs next and then when she was finished thigh to toes, she said, “Okay, get up and stand facing that wall.”

As I did, the robe, left untied in the back as instructed, unfurled. I stood still while the doctor took her magnifying glass first down one leg and then the other. And it slowly dawned on me. The scribe is looking at my giant leopard print underwear. 

I kept my dignity though. Not everyone would, but I did. Because, you know, I’m a person of substance, never mind my underwear. But I won’t forget that a scribe saw my panties, as they say, and I bet he won’t either.

99 New: A Stroke Short

I was in the kitchen finishing the dishes, my daughter was washing, I was drying, and we were both listening to the conversation in the living room.

My sister had flown in late from the west coast for my mother’s burial the next day, having missed the visitation because of weather or something, it wasn’t clear. She always gave off the air of needing to stay out of the sun and so it seemed natural that she was sitting in the recliner in the living room while we cleaned the kitchen after the meal we’d made and put on the table. I wasn’t resentful, just observant.

My sister was telling my father it was time for him to sell his home in Michigan and move near her and my brother in Oregon. She pressed her case. He was alone now. There was no reason to stay. He would enjoy the better weather. He’d be safer there, there would be people to take care of him.

He waved her suggestion away with his right hand, the one with the crooked little finger that he’d broken somehow fifty years before. My sister was undeterred. It was as if she’d plotted this gambit with my brother, who was sitting on the sofa but silent. I could hear him nodding though and waiting to make his move.

“She’s right, Dad. You’d be a lot happier.”

Now they were double-teaming him. He’d listen for a few stanzas and then do his wave.

“It’s not for me. I’m staying here.”

He had a lot of patience. It surprised me. My sister took up the fight once again, listing on her fingers all the reasons he should move. He was old, he could fall, he might get sick, he should come live with them.

And then he shut her down. “You know how they tell an artist to stop one stroke short of what he thinks will finish the painting? You’re a stroke over.”

I thought of my dad today and my sister’s arrogance in telling him – a grown, self-sufficient, intelligent, but very old man – what he should do. I thought of the presumption of privilege, that moment when a child somehow believes she should become the parent, and I admire how my father kept his life in his own hands until his hands fell to his lap one day in August while he was watching C-SPAN. He was a role model in a lot of ways.

 

99 New: The Sunday Obits

The world is full of dead people. Especially so on Sundays. My dad always joked that everyone seemed to die on Sunday because that’s when the paper would be thick with obits. The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News would have pages of dead people, tiny, grayish print, you had to squint to make out people’s lives. My dad would read each one; he said he had to check to make sure his wasn’t there.

In this morning’s paper, a young woman had two obits. Same woman, two different pictures, and two slightly different obits – one emphasizing her military career and the other her education. Had there been confusion about whose job it was? Was there an argument about what to include? Neither obit told us why she died which is really what everyone wants to know.

Sixteen years ago, I sat with my father while he wrote my mother’s obituary on his ancient Underwood typewriter, the same one that now sits on the bookcase in my office. He distilled her life into two or three clipped sentences, the name, rank, and serial number of an 84-year old woman to whom he had been married 64 years. I wondered why he couldn’t think of more to say, you know how people talk about their loved ones being terrific gardeners or loving spending time with their grandchildren most of all, that kind of thing. But it wasn’t my place to be disappointed in his postage stamp size bio of my mother. I remember him always saying, you don’t have to say everything you know, which is advice I’ve given to myself many times since, and I bet he’d decided he shouldn’t start in on saying what he knew about her or the obit would never end.

That might be why so many obits sound alike. People can’t really choke out any words so they just choose from the list of popular obit words, like the way brides land on the same five or six pieces of music for their weddings. So beloved, courageous battle, gone to join, reunited with, and loved spending time with family and so many other words and phrases show up like rearranged Scrabble pieces. It’s the rare obit that really stands out. Many years ago my daughter wrote one for her grandfather that started out referencing how much he enjoyed chocolate pudding in his last hours. It was a surprising and unorthodox obit, for sure, but true to the essence of his personality. She knew, knowing him, that Scrabble words wouldn’t do.

I don’t worry what will be said in my obit. It’s out of my control. And it’s not as if an obit is etched in stone unless it’s a particularly memorable one like my daughter’s chocolate pudding gambit. Today’s obits will be in the recycling bin by tomorrow replaced by a new set, smaller because it will be Monday and not so many people die on Monday as we all know. Monday is a slow day for death. It’s Sunday where the action is.

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99 New refers to my commitment to write a new piece every day for 99 days. This is Day 70’s piece.

99 New: The Memorial Service

This morning I went to a memorial service for a woman who went by the name Shorty though her given name was June. She had been homeless many years when she died although it probably wouldn’t be fair to say homelessness caused her death but surely sleeping outside on the ground night after night, year after year, hadn’t helped her many chronic health conditions.

Shorty was extremely small, wiry, very animated. She moved with a group of friends who came together into the warming room where I volunteered last winter. I steered clear of her, like I did almost everyone, still being so much inside myself about my hearing issues and unwilling to risk mistakes. I kept to myself and my morning task which was gathering and folding blankets that had been slept on the night before in the cavernous gymnasium of a Lutheran church.

The service today was in the same Lutheran church. I had never been in the church’s sanctuary before; its lobby was mid-century modern, angular with square-cut sofas and glass partition, the sanctuary was sweeping and majestic with all the light centering on the urn containing Shorty’s ashes and an array of red and white flowers. The pastor had already begun, his voice loud because he was using a mic, but mashed a bit for me, the words often lumpy and indistinct. I watched him hard with all my heart. I wanted to know what he was saying and be completely present in that moment.

Everything about the service would counter what you might think about people who have been homeless a long time. Her friends, homeless themselves, described Shorty as generous, kind, and stubborn, so stubborn, the most stubborn person I know, one said. And I remembered being told she had refused an offer of supportive housing because her dear friend couldn’t come with her. Those of us out here, in the housed world, probably think that’s crazy. I would have thought so a year ago. But I don’t anymore.

She loved her friends and didn’t want to leave them. And it was clear today that they had loved her; they’d created a family that was probably as strong and resilient as any family living on this block, this street, this town. They sure seemed to grieve as deeply as any of us might if our own kin died.

The memorial service was arranged by Street Angels, a group I work with and a group that knew Shorty well from years of interacting with her, bringing her meals and hand warmers, and spending time getting to know her. I envied them their knowledge of Shorty and her life but realized I’d cut myself out of knowing much about her because of my own stubbornness. Shorty was the second woman from the warming room to have died in this past year and I hadn’t let myself know either of them. I regret that.

I am glad that I went today. It’s a good thing for people who’ve lost someone they loved to turn around at a funeral and see people who cared enough to show up. I had nothing to offer but being physically present and listening. And I listened hard, as hard as I possibly could.

99 New: Oxidized

I sometimes feel myself having such wild affection for people I knew when I was younger as if we shared some important secret of triumph that we never divulged to anyone else, held this knowledge to ourselves unconscious all these years while we went about other things more mundane, and I want to take their faces in my hands and say, remember, remember, when we did this or that and we were so certain we were right and we were stronger than anybody and never thought we would be old looking back on days that are now rusty and golden at the same time.

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Photo by Colter Olmstead on Unsplash

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