On Guard

It is Wednesday at 5am and my husband Jon is already talking.  In whole, long sentences. I wait for him to take a breath, then I slink out of bed, as usual, to make coffee. It appears to be a wifely, domestic chore but really, it’s my escape to six minutes of solitude. But on this morning neither the quiet, the sun rising on the water, the rooster’s crow from the farm across the creek, or the gentle putt of a crabbing boat’s departure fail to clear the swirl of smoke over my head. My mid-week slump settles over me like skunk mist. These are the stay-at-home days when I am irritable and inconsolable.

Exercise often eases my angst, so I put on my Asics and trot out for a run. I chat with neighbors. I ogle dogs. I arrive home feeling a bit lighter. Still there is an inexplicable foggy residue. Perhaps some downward dog breathing and stretching will loosen this grip of grayness. I grab my yoga mat, my mediation book and my glasses, then head to our rickety dock, confident that this next act will sun salutate me through the wet blanket of my isolated mascara-less existence. Striding down the three deck steps toward the pavers which lead to the rear gate, I am closer to recovery. My glance falls to the ground, off to the left, and there alongside a large decorative rock is a thick, slimy snake.

Namaste.

I reverse scream, (which is when you suck in air loudly, rather than expel it) run back into the house, drag Jon from the shower to the window and yell “LOOKIT!” I Google “Maryland snakes.”

What is it doing here?

But I already know.

It is here for brunch.

On the Sunday before, we’d returned from a three-day weekend of hiking and relaxing in western Maryland. We’d let Lillian and Delilah out of the car so I could lead them into the yard. I’d swung the gate open, and there feasting in our bird feeder, were two fat rats. My reverse scream almost sucked my husband’s hair off.

Now, there is a reptile, one which must be permitted to sunbathe, thrive and dine in our beautiful rose bushed and mulched yard—our sanctuary, our COVID safe place, our stay-at-home get-away.  I want to throw up.

My refuge is ruined. I can no longer read, lounge, sip coffee, watch my dogs frolic or do anything which requires me to close my eyes, in my own back yard. I am vigilant. I am anxious. I am jittery. I am scared to death of bird feed.

I am uncomfortable.

And then I think: is this what they are talking about? Are there people in this country, black people, who always feel this way, this wary, this edgy, just walking around?

I happen to be reading a book of Rebecca Solnit’s essays right now. She says, “Comfort is often a code word for the right to be unaware, the right to have no twinges of one’s conscience, no reminders of suffering, the right to be a ‘we’ whose benefits are not limited by the needs and rights of any ‘them.’”

We’ve called an exterminator to rid ourselves of our temporary discomfort. The snake  will politely dab at his lips with his napkin and leave on his own. Good snake. But what can I do to help exterminate the discomfort I may cause others?

My long-time friend, Greg, who is black, referred me to Emmanuel Acho’s new video series, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.”  (@thEMANacho)

Acho says we white people are the ones who have to solve the problem.

Greg suggested I start by engaging in uncomfortable conversations with my fellow white folks. I began with a family member. Yep. It was uncomfortable. It gave me the willies. Was it as bad as rats and snakes in the yard? Nope. And I think it was the right thing to do.

I understand that my duty as a very white chick is to listen. But I’ve also decided to borrow the TSA motto, See Something, Say Something, (they’re not using it much right now anyway) and when I see something that is clearly hurtful to others, especially to black people, I’m going to say something—without being righteous or indignant.  I’d like to simply make a  point. Do I think my comments will change anything? No. Not singularly. But it’s possible that others might join in. Then it’s a chorus, and then it’s a song. And maybe not everyone’s singing but deep below the skin, there’s a vibe and everyone just might nod along.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stick a Bonnet On It

It is the fourth week of our forced isolation and I’m just back from a legal field trip—I’ve been to the grocery store. My two washable, reusable bags are lumpy and overstuffed, one hanging from each shoulder as I negotiate my way through the front door and between two Rhodesian Ridgebacks who smell meat. As I hoist the bags to the kitchen counter one falls open, revealing its coveted contents.

“Hey, you got toilet paper!” my husband exclaims, dancing about like a Charmin bear.

Suddenly I am “Ma” from Little House on the Prairie, who’s come home from the mercantile with a piece of cheese.

I smile victoriously, pulling my sweat-soaked makeshift mask up from where it’s slid around my neck, and use it to dab at my forehead. There’s one more bag out in the covered wagon so Pa goes to fetch it. Alone for a precious 17 seconds, I do a quick inventory of things lying around the house that I might wrap up and give him for his birthday, which is next week. Nothing seems appropriate. What would Ma do? I glance outside. An acorn, perhaps? Maybe a stone from our abandoned pond? Half-pint would have been happy with that. She would have carried it around in her apron for the rest of her life.

We are living in simpler times, but the vestiges of our former lives remain.

Currently, my husband derives untold joy from running to the mailbox as soon as the mail delivery person drives away. I suspect Pa was much the same when the Pony Express came by. Simple pleasures, right? But in much the same way, it’s ill advised to step between my husband and the mail’s modern upgrade, an Amazon delivery, lest you be trampled. Thus a modern solution to the birthday present problem, Amazon, meets simpler times: deliveries are big doins. I cannot prevent him from intercepting his own gift.

We all can recall what harried frenzies a morning work meeting could incite. A 9:00 am meeting was the worst. There was the whole getting out of the house on time thing, followed by the commute thing, complicated by the traffic thing, planting oneself at the meeting table thing (shall “I Lean In” today, or oh f**k it, I’ll take a chair by the wall) then remembering when you’re supposed to talk and when to  shut up.  The online meeting solves so many of those dilemmas. The automobile situations are obviously eliminated (unless the only quiet place you can conduct a call is from your car) but perhaps not as obvious is the equalizing nature of The Zoom. Everyone has their own box in which they must stay. All boxes are the same size and appear in no particular order.  And everyone talks out of turn and over each other anyway, no matter who’s got rank. (Ma would have shushed everyone.) Particularly delightful is that no one can see if you are writing “good idea!” or “Nellie= ASSHAT!” in your notes. In those ways, Zoom technology is actually taking us back to simpler, less frenetic times. Those who would complicate things, however, are beginning to flood our inboxes. I cannot for the life of me discern what it is about the blouses Ann Taylor is marketing that will look better on a zoom call than anything else in my closet. (Please, not a return to the Pussy Bow!) And Facebook keeps trying to sell me hair color. As a professional video-ish-type person, I can tell you that the proper backlighting will eliminate not only the appearance of your blossoming roots but will render the tired details of your whole face equally undiscernible.  The bottom line is that no one looks good on a video call. NO ONE. Ma would just stick a bonnet on her head and get on with the butter churning. So be Ma. Use the technology at hand to simplify.

Lillian, like Ma, is simplifying

It’s nighttime and Jon and I are getting ready to turn in. As I turn out the light, Jon tells me that due to several factors I’ll not get into here, there could be a shortage of meat. I spend the next few hours staring out the window, wondering how unhealthy we will be when forced to live on pasta and baked goods. How mortifying it will be to have to phone Russia for a delivery…to stand in line with our plates while the local farmers peel rabbits. It’s been a source of pride for me that we’ve remained healthy eaters and exercisers through The Covid and in fact, Jon has lost about ten pounds. (As head of the food Gestapo I am taking partial credit for this.) We have relied heavily on protein. Good, yummy protein, not the shit of nutrition bars. This is my anxiety. I can stand strong in the face of a scratchy throat, a canceled graduation and all of the personal career and mid-life crisis threats that come with a weakened economy. Meat, apparently, is my trigger.

On “Little House,” Pa would say something disturbing about a bear or Mrs. Oleson just before Ma blew out the candle, triggering Laura to express her anxiety by asking a bunch of dumb questions. “Do bears eat people?”  or “Why does Nellie act so mean?” Mostly, she got a lot of trite answers, but finally Pa would say, gun in lap, “Do as you are told, and no harm will come.” The simpler living lesson here? When asked, “Is it okay if we go ahead with the Maypole licking contest this Saturday?” Dr. Fauci simply channels Pa. “Do as I say. Keep your distance.  Don’t lick things.” And maybe you’ll be okay.  Unfortunately, and maybe like Fauci, Pa would crawl up on the roof during a cyclone to nail on some extra boards to save his family, but in the end he wouldn’t be able to save himself. Only time and tweet will tell. Maybe one of those Michigan protestors should send the doctor some ammo.

Many of us are triggering all over the place. (Another of mine was the positive tests on lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo—which snowballed in my delicate mind to a ban on dog snuggling.) I am reminded of that meme, something about not knowing what another person is going through except we do know and it’s The Covid. So we need to take it easy. On ourselves. On others.

So onward. Stop checking your stripe in the Zoom square, throw on a bonnet and head on up to the roof with some nails. Slice yourself a nice piece of cheese and enjoy the view. You’ll see that some things are better at a distance.

Brooching the subject…

Madeleine Albright was wearing her customary brooch on her left shoulder. I stared and squinted, trying to figure out today’s selection, but I was sitting too far back in the audience of the Washington Post’s “Securing Tomorrow” program to see it clearly. David Ignatius, who’s been covering the president and foreign policy, was the Q part of the scheduled Q & A.

I don’t often write about, or even refer to, this president.

Albright, you’ll recall, was Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. She’s written a few books, and she was there mostly to talk about her new one, “Fascism: A Warning.” When told that the title seems alarming she says, with characteristic Albrightism, “Good.”

When asked what advice she would give this president regarding his, as of this writing, on again, meeting with Kim Jong-un, she pointed out that the North Korean leader has spent his life studying for this meeting. He is technically adept and smart. He is his father’s son. Albright met with Kim Jong-il in 2000 and was surprised at his note-less grasp of information – or propaganda – depending. She had been briefed by many experts. She was prepared. Her suggestion (which she joked she might tweet) to Trump: Don’t be extemporaneous. It came across, less as a piece of advice, and more of a punchline.

Being a one-time refugee from Hitler’s Europe, she calls herself “appalled” by this president’s stance on immigration, recalling that when she became an American citizen, while she was at Wellesley College, she was encouraged and felt welcomed. She says empathy is an essential part of presidential leadership.

She recalls Putin as “cold and reptilian,” and an “expert” at weaponizing information. He is intent on separating other world powers from the US. He is so passionately trying to restore Russia to its previous strength and status, he is willing to infiltrate American elections.

Then, she talked about Hitler.

She says Hitler rose to power as the division between the rich and the poor deepened.

There was disagreement over who were the true victims of war. Mussolini exacerbated the situation by promising to “take care of” his supporters. Both promised people things to the exclusion of others, then created scapegoats. Scapegoats who needed to be eliminated. The German business establishment, by most accounts sophisticated and schooled, initially dismissed Hitler as a lightweight. They hoped and figured he would go away. But he appealed to those who felt ignored, outweighed by the culturally elite.

She says her Republican friends are also dismissive of their leader, hoping this president, who promised to “Make America Great Again,” just goes away. Immigrants have become scapegoats. This president works to pit American against American. Albright reminds, “Good guys don’t always win, especially when they are divided.”

She understands this president’s motivations. She calls him the “most undemocratic president” in American history.

Albright says this president’s disrespect of the press is “outrageous.”  This is when my stomach tightens. Like it did when, earlier this month, he threatened to revoke the white house press credentials of those who his administration deemed “unfair” to him. He may be planning, via limited access, to censor the news.

Fascism occurs step by step, says Albright. She says it all makes her very nervous.

I wanted to stand up in the audience and yell, “What can we DO?” I am wary and frustrated. “Calling my Congressman” feels, at the moment, tantamount to “Thoughts and Prayers.”

Ignatius’s last question, appropriately, came via Twitter, from an Albright fan, asking which brooch she had selected for today’s program.  She revealed that she’d worn it for David and for his colleagues at the Post, in honor of their profession, their commitment to journalism and to the truth.

It was a feathered quill pen.

I haven’t often written or referred to this president. I’ve been mostly sticking to a cute puppy picture posting policy, hoping that he just goes away. But what truly has made America great is speaking out, and writing, responsibly, against what’s wrong.

Thank you, Madam Secretary.L&D wearing brooches

Delilah and Lillian sport brooches in support of the former Secretary of State.

Waypoint

girls doing dishes

I am not working so I’m pulling at this heavy, gold bedspread. It has a seam that needs to align with the top of the mattress. Once I heave that into place, I cram two pillows under one side of the fabric which folds back from the top. I do a lap to the other side of the king -sized bed and cram two more pillows under what I think is brocade but I don’t really even know.  The overall overwrought nature of the thing is nothing I would have voluntarily invited into my life. But I am not working. Therefore, it is mine to tug at.

There are some business-y things to do. But laundry left in the dryer seems more immediate so I fold it. After all, there is no arrival or departure time. Therefore, I am available to tidy up.

Lillian and Delilah have been romping around in their new waterfront yard. But they’re staring in the window now, wondering how I could possibly come home from my morning run, to this beautiful place and be crabby. Their puzzled little mugs at the window make me laugh and I let them in and feed them.

After that, I empty the dishwasher.  The pit in my stomach returns.

I’m stacking cups and I can feel the little black swirl forming over my head. I try to breathe it away. But it is determined. It sees the reality. It knows I am available. It knows that I am repulsed by my own being. It knows that I am becoming a housewife.

It’s dinner time and I’ve made us a healthy meal. I ask Jon about his day negotiating with real estate owners, sellers and buyers. He tells me what went on in the office. He makes it all seem easy.

He asks about my day. I wrote a few emails. A heron landed in the yard. The girls have been chasing bunnies. They ran circles around the pond then ambushed me when I walked out on the deck. I don’t like that gold brocade bedspread. I hear the words coming out of my mouth. How did I go from, “I interviewed Colin Powell today,” to doing play-by-play of my dogs’ antics?  I think that I am not the woman he fell in love with, nor am I the person I used to like.

How in God’s name could this have happened?

If I give myself a break for a second, I know exactly how it happened.

It happened like this. I was working on my own as a writer/producer, running my own company. I met Jon.  I had a weak financial moment and took a full time corporate job, rendering me unable to keep up my own business. Jon and I got engaged.  In just six months’ time the corporation decided to “go in another direction.” I went back to my own company, which now needs re-building.

We bought a house. Somewhere between combining households, planning a wedding and starting my business almost from scratch, I lost the person who once silenced a room full of Marines with a single phrase, the person who chased an ambassador through the lobby of an embassy, who – long ago – asked then-Senator John Edwards to declare his presidential aspirations to me, on camera. It was a Sunday and I was severely under-dressed. “C’mon, declare your candidacy to the girl in the shorts and the t-shirt,” I said. At least he laughed.

I pray that this house-wifing is only a phase.  If you were one of the people annoyed by the Hillary Clinton “stay home and bake cookies” comment, this probably irks you. But know this: I am very, very bad at baking cookies. House-wifing is just not me.

Colonel (ret.) Greg Gadson starts talking about stepping into the unknown.

I hear Greg say this because I am transcribing interviews I did with him and COL (ret.) Chuck Schretzman about their longtime friendship. About how Chuck supported Greg when he lost his legs in Iraq and now Greg is in the rock position, while Chuck learns to cope with a horrible diagnosis. I am typing and typing and it feels futile because this project – this supposed, eventual documentary – has no funding and few prospects. It is labor intensive with no promised reward. It is a great story. But we don’t know, exactly,  how it ends.

Greg talks about searching for a “waypoint,” following the loss of his legs.  Chuck calls his diagnosis an “opportunity” to say goodbye properly. To do it well. They each have received gifts, they say.

I reach down and scratch Lillian’s head. Delilah gives me her signature poke in the shin.  The typing makes me have to stretch my legs. I walk into the bedroom. The gold brocade has vanished.

My gifts, my opportunities, are more subtle, I decide. I have been given love. I have been given time. As I wrestle each to its unfamiliar core, I struggle to pin down the possibilities.

I go back to my desk, and settle into my own unknown.

Moved to Tears

cross-wide

 

Delilah weaved her way through the towers of boxes, looking for her bed.  Her nose stopped where a cardboard corner met the floor. On the side of the box was scribbled, “dog beds.”  She sighed.

“Sorry girl.  I’ll get them out for you tomorrow.”

She curled her tail under her bottom and paced a bit.

I understood just how she felt.

Moving is hard. It’s worse the longer you’ve stayed. This is the only home my girls have known. It’s been mine, solely mine, for 16 years.  I worked hard to buy it.  Now I was working on letting it go.

It was getting late in a long day. Lilah, Lilly, Jon and I found a path to the stairway and headed up. I’d saved a few of their beds for them to sleep on one more time before the dirty, hairy, duck- taped and drooled-upon cushions would be chucked to the curb in the morning.  We all settled in and quickly nodded off.

I lived on the water for some of my growing up years, and have dreamed of it ever since. My second apartment overlooked a section of Toledo’s Maumee River.  In suburban Detroit, it was a small cottage on Walled Lake. In Miami, it was the Inter-Coastal Waterway- if you stood on your tippy toes in the kitchen, you could see the ocean.  Now, Jon and I had found the perfect spot on the West River, near the Chesapeake Bay. It’s beautiful. We ordered a pretty, Ridgeback- proof fence.  Jon secured the garage for our bikes and boats. The outside was ready.

On the afternoon of the first delivery of Jon’s belongings, the mover arrived at the door holding an ironing board.

“Oh Lord,” I said, having no immediate notion where to put it.

“Ma’am. You’re going to have to pull yourself together,” the mover deadpanned.

That make me laugh pretty hard.  He had no idea how right he was.

As my beloved’s belongings began piling up in our new space, it became clear we had different notions of how it would look inside. I like my wood floors exposed.  Jon likes his Persian rugs. They landed, rolled up, in the middle of the living room floor. Elephants.  We stepped over them for two days. They are now in the garage.

I have an antique kitchen table. It has cool fold-under leaves and, like me, thick, hardy legs. It sits along the waterfront windows, displaced in the breakfast nook by a nicer, more appropriate dark wood table of Jon’s.  It has a date with the rugs.

Moving is hard. Moving in together is harder.

Come the morning of my move, I’d been vigilant enough to keep coffee and filters handy but hadn’t wrested the coffee maker from the fast hands of the packers before it wound up buried in cardboard.  Jon went out to get coffee around 5am.  I cuddled with the girls, smooching them on their puzzled little foreheads. Something shiny caught my eye in the darkness.

Somewhere in Texas I’d picked up a small silver cross.  I loved it because it was engraved with a sun rising over a field. It had hung over my bedroom door for years, absorbing my problems, and my hopes and my dreams. The movers had over-looked it. Perfectly.

I’m not a particularly religious person.

But I’d asked the cross to watch over me often. I’d begged it for work, for my health, for my safety and for a good man.  Most often, it delivered.

This morning, as I hugged the two loves of my life, and waited for the third to arrive with coffee, I thanked it. It had kept us all well and warm. I reached up and easily plucked it from its watch, held it to my lips and asked it for its continued service.

Jon came in with two large, steaming cups of java. I told him about the cross. And I told him that he was its best delivery ever.  And then, I had a good cry.

I cheered up as we talked about how much fun it was going to be to set the girls loose in their new, bigger yard which includes lots of geese, fish smells, and even farm mules across the creek.

A few days later, exhausted from the undoing of all that had been done, Jon and I collapsed in a new bed, in a new room, which had a new, beautiful view.  We discovered that we could see stars from the high windows, and the gleam of moonlight on the creek. And once again, something silver caught my eye. There was the cross with its sun and field hanging over the doorway. Delivered by its own best delivery.

We are home.

cross-cu

Collared

girls-with-collars1-2

It’s about fifteen degrees outside late on a Sunday afternoon and we’re giving the dogs a quick run in an open field behind the local high school.  We’re heading back to the car when both Lillian and Delilah run into the woods.

“Girls, come!” I yell, holding a chunk of cheese.

Lilah runs toward us immediately, but Lilly does not.  I call her again. I feel the cold metal parts of her leash burn into my fingers. The sun is close to setting.  It’s going to be a damned long, cold night’s search in the woods if she does not come back, I think.

And suddenly there she is, bounding toward us.

“She would have had to find us in the car,” Jon comments, reading only parts of my mind. I would never have returned to the car without her. Truth be told, he wouldn’t have either.

I may be the only person in the world who thinks the romantic comedy, “Must Love Dogs” wasn’t enough about the dogs. If the plot of the movie had been true to its title John Cusack would have fallen in love with Diane Lane and Mother Teresa, which was the name of the Newfoundland she was sitting. Mother Teresa needed a bigger role. Any single female dog owner knows this.

Lillian and Delilah have squatting rights, which have less to do with their potty training and more to do with their time in service.  It was they who kept me safe, loved and warm through many a lonely weekend. They are the ones I struggled to train. I am the one they struggled to teach.

Jon understands this.

Here is how I know:

One September evening, I was very late for our dinner date. There were several complications. I’d been delayed leaving work, there was an accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and I’d just had a dysfunctional sweat gland removed from the bottom of my foot, (yeah I didn’t know there were any there either) making it really uncomfortable to walk. All of this culminated in a plan for me to drive my Volkswagon to the top of the Naval Academy Bridge and pick up Jon, who had gone for a walk, rather than sit at the bar waiting.  As I pulled up he motioned me to get out. Which I did, under protest. It’s a busy bridge. But it’s a beautiful view.

We gazed for a minute over the Severn River and beyond, to our beloved Chesapeake Bay. Then Jon dropped to one knee and asked me to marry him. It wasn’t like this thunderbolt thing. It seemed a natural, wonderful step in our exciting new journey. The ring fit perfectly.

 

 

 

Happily coupled and full of our great news, we went on to a long celebration dinner, then home to call my mom.

But before I picked up the phone, there was one more thing Jon thought to do.

He reached into his bag and pulled out two collars, each embellished with a bit of bling. And he kneeled down and buckled them around each furry neck- Delilah in hottie red, Lillian in a sleek black number.

We are what Verizon refers to as a “bundle,” and what car sales people say “comes standard.” My girls are the batteries that are included. And we have gotten incredibly lucky.

So far this blog has been mostly about our encounters in dog parks, visiting elderly people, and generally getting into trouble. It’s been a lot about what my girls have taught me about other people and about myself. I’m counting on them through this next adventure.

Dogs and One Man in Particular

I’m leashing up the girls, who are dancing.  Lillian flails into the air like Eddie Van Halen while Delilah trots around the living room.  I work the clasp on Lilly’s collar, but it’s challenging because her tail is wagging her head. Delilah runs under the kitchen table. I coax her out while Lilly noses through the closet apparently choosing her morning pooh bag. I finally get them each assembled and head for the door. But I have a small pit in my stomach.  It’s been a while since I’ve done this alone.

Said the single girl.

I hate to suggest that my big bundles of hairy joy are anything other than angelic, but in the face of a squirrel, cat, or bunny neither voice- command nor leash is reliable. I worry that I can’t keep them entirely safe at worst -at best, at least out of trouble.  What works best is a one person per dog situation.

I’ve managed to duck this topic for a while.

I have a boyfriend.

His name is Jon.

He helps with the girls tremendously. He helps with my whole life tremendously.

It’s comforting. And it’s terrifying.

Because I think I may be losing my single girl life skills. I may be getting SOFT.

The girls and I had been a pretty tightly knit threesome for the better part of four years. We went to school, the park, on visits and occasionally, on dates together. And I managed. It was not always well-choreographed, but we generally got in and got out.

That rather sums up the way I’ve lived.  I purchased my home alone. I chose and paid for my automobiles by myself. When I turned 40 I went to Wyoming to see the Teton mountains, solo.

Now Jon and I are home shopping together. He helped me pick out Betty Blue Bug, my cute new Volkswagon.  He tends to make the travel arrangements – I pretty much just get in the car.

He makes everything so much easier. And still it’s so hard to let go.

What if I forget how to buy a home, purchase a car or get on an airplane by myself?  What if I forget how to be alone?

I’d become so good at filling my Sunday afternoons with single silhouette biking or kayaking. If I don’t have a friend at an event, I make one. I’m an expert at walking into parties unaccompanied.  I’ve fixed toilets, pumped out my flooded the crawl space and hunkered down in power outages with only Home Depot to back me up. I’d even convinced myself that my life was better that way.

One day last summer I was lamenting out loud my concerns not only about my hollowed out checking account, but my career which was swirling down the toilet.  Jon reached over and took my hand.

“I’m here,” he said quietly.

It was nice to hear, but honestly, how could I ever really expect another person to take me on.

Last weekend I had the occasion to visit the Emergency Room at Anne Arundel Medical Center, and then to spend about a day and a half in their care.

I’m fine.

Jon spent those 30 or so hours sitting in a chair in my room and running back and forth from the house to get me things and check on the girls.  About the first thing we did once I was sprung was “suit up” (Jon’s words) Lillian and Delilah and head out for some playtime. It was a beautiful day and we’d heard the Quiet Waters Park dog beach was re-opened.

Jon got ahead of me as we walked down the asphalt path, Lillian on one side, Delilah on the other, both spread the length of their leashes. He looked like a dog-plane. A happy, bouncing dog plane.  We stepped onto the beach where the girls started their sand spin, Lillian quick to violate the park boundaries and Delilah soon splashing in the stagnant seaweed.

We laughed and called them to us. They sweetly obeyed. I breathed in the South River air. And then. I let it go.

jon-with-girls-on-jetty                         Lillian and Delilah enjoying some bonding time with Pappa Jon.

Promises

Families gnaw on pizza crusts. Heavy doors slam visitors in with their loved ones, while smokers head out for sustenance.  Teenagers throw fastballs in the common room. Their forced, irreverent laughs bounce off floral upholstery. Hospice nurses move about, mission- focused. They are lenient with those who are grieving.

Lillian and I stop short in the foyer as we hit the din. The end, the fast- moving part of dying, is sucking up the serenity that normally lies like a fog over the Mandarin House.  It seems tonight, there is more than one patient calling it quits.

Lilly, who normally wags her way around Hospice of the Chesapeake, lets out a single, puzzled “woof.”

A staffer looks up, frowning.

“You have to go outside.”

“Of course,” I answer, sinking at the notion.  Woofing is not allowed.

Cricket whirrs past us, looking up but barely meeting my gaze.  “It’s just so busy tonight,” she says softly.

She whips her tiny frame into the office. As we turn to go, a familiar, dark- haired woman comes quickly around the corner, looking past me. “He’s gone,” she says, beating us to the porch.

We join her, because this was where we have to go.

“Would you like us to sit with you for a moment?” I ask.

“No.  My husband just died.”  And then I remember.  I’d seen them, two weeks before. He’d been doing well, fully dressed, sitting up and ready to go home.   I also remember he’d enjoyed visiting with Lillian, but the woman didn’t like dogs.  Feeling helpless, I move on to my car, Lilly jumping in the back.  I walk back in, wondering if there was something I can do. Cricket passes me again, this time grabbing me in a brief, tight hug.  “Thank you.” She says slowly, so I’d hear. Then she moved on.

I’d done exactly nothing.

Sometimes you can just feel the good.

I met Cricket early on in our visits.  It was a much quieter night, and Lilly and I visited mostly with her and the other nurses. She told me she used to be a post-op nurse for joint replacement and spine surgery patients. Born in Incheon, South Korea, she was adopted by Caucasian parents when she was three months old and raised in Middle River Maryland. And she told me about Barney McLovin’, her Great Dane.

He was a Blue Mantle Merle and weighed 179 pounds. “I could walk with him at midnight through the mall parking lot. No one would bother us.  He stayed right next to me- I didn’t even use a leash.”  Not that a leash would have helped. Barney clearly more than doubled her weight.  She showed me pictures. His big, spotted, debonair face charmed the Facebookery.

“He died when he was only four and a half years old,” she told me through tears. “We tried everything to save him.”

She scratched Lillian’s neck. Be the Barney, I think.

I also noticed on Cricket’s Facebook page, a man in a wheelchair. She tells me that’s her husband, Dean.

Cricket believes God brought her to Hospice because she was going to need some practice at losing people.  Her elderly parents were beginning to fail.  There was Barney.  Her best friends are between 50 and 70 years old.

And there is Dean.

It happened when he was young, one summer day in 1983.  He was swimming with his brother and dove into shallow water.  He’d done the same thing the day before but the tide had gone out.  He’s been a paraplegic ever since.

They met online.  He is 20 years her senior.

“I just fell in love with his eyes,” she told me.

I just cannot get my head around all the caretaking.   

They’ve been thinking of getting a Ridgeback. Lillian knows and flaunts herself whenever she sees Cricket.  I tempt her with pictures of Lilly and Delilah together. But she says they’re waiting, because of her parents’ declining health.

And then suddenly her father died.  He was okay that morning. He died that night.

I asked if she was right – if Hospice had helped prepare her to lose someone close.

She said he was battling cancer but died suddenly of a heart attack.  So while she was somewhat unprepared for the moment, she’d had important conversations with him – like about taking care of her mom if he died. She told him to not be afraid of dying – Hospice taught her that death is “a new amazing journey into incomprehensible peace.”  She said, “God promised to never forsake us and bringing me to Hospice was His way of keeping His promise.”

But the way I see it, The Big Guy isn’t just keeping his promise to Cricket. He’s keeping his promise through Cricket- to her dad. And to Dean. And to Hospice. And to Lillian, and Delilah and me.

 

Cricket with her dad and husband.

Cricket, Dad and Dean

Dogleg

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I am not overweight. But I have potential.

I weeble between sizes, threatening to burst some, to swim luxuriously in others.

I am a triathlete. I exercise maniacally. This does not cause me to lose weight.

I struggle to understand how my thick-skinned, saddle-bagged, slightly paunchy and mostly menopausal body can fight off the need for a new wardrobe.

This just isn’t fair, I scream silently at the closet.

This evening we are getting ready to go to Hospice. I throw on a comfortable skirt. Lilly puts on her “Caring Canines” vest. Delilah dons her pink pirate collar, ready to stand look out. Both are trim and clean and cut like body builders. Sometimes I check under their bed for free weights.

Lilly and I chat with a bunch of folks outside, then head to the dementia wing. There are a few live ones in there tonight. There is one man who worked at the Department of Defense who clings to a notebook, babbling about filling out forms. He keeps pointing to lists of nonsensical things. I think, It’s not the dementia.

We make our way into the next room where we meet Ron. He shifts restlessly in his chair behind his tray table.
“Can you see the dog, Ron?” I ask.
Ron looks down, pleased. He reaches to pet her. He surveys her four, then my two.

And he says,
“You have some REALLY nice legs!”
“Oh, well, thank you, Ron.”
“Really HEALTHY looking! I bet you can really RUN on those.”
“Uh, well, I do run.”
“I bet you DO.”
“I like bike riding too,” I offer.
“Yeah, I bet you can REALLY get up those hills. I bet you can really PUMP up those hills!”

I laugh and we move on. We make a lot of folks giggle, Lilly passing out kisses and nosing about in crumb-carrying crevices.

Then, as we walk to the car I feel my stride. It is strong and bears the weight of determination and hope. It has held and trained 190 pounds of Ridgeback. It has climbed the mountain of network news, rounded the cones of overbearing bosses and skated to the edge of unemployment. It is entrepreneurial. It is resilient. It is aging and fighting and girlish and confident.

It is mine.
#######

The “No” Room

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“Laugh Louder”

Huh. This was today’s message in the little flip book my friend, Jenn, gave to me. The book has one positive encouragement written per page, so it sits on my window sill above the kitchen sink and each morning I flip it. Today’s suggestion seemed off.

Well, it’s just a book.

I settled into my days’ work: looking for work. Unemployment is a full time job.

I sent off a proposal I’d been working on all week. There were more emails and unanswered queries. Soon it was time for Lillian, Delilah and my daily “off-leash.” Today we went to the little beach in our neighborhood where we ran into our neighbors and their very well-behaved dog, Sampson, who was on his leash.

Maybe it’s a form of dog bullying. Lillian and Delilah set about demonstrating their comparable freedom.

“Lillian DROP IT.”

Chew.

“Lilly DROP THAT!”

Defiant head toss. More chewing.

I’d identified the object as a small turtle carcass.

“LLLLILLIANNNNN DRRRROP IT!”

Swallow.

UK.

Delilah wagged her on.

Lillian then bounded across the street, into a yard, and began peering into the front windows, taunting what sounded like one of those small, hairy dogs inside.

“Lilly come.”

She ran to the rear window.

“Lillian! COME.”

It felt like shotgun territory.

“LILLIIAAAAN COHUUUM!!” I pleaded, following her, armed only with cheese.

I was not laughing louder. I was yelling louder.

Sampson was nonplussed. If Delilah had pom-poms, she’d have been shaking them. I’m pretty sure she mouthed the words, “You go girl.”

Lillian skipped back out to the front yard and bounded toward the beach where her sister was now swimming. Delilah then rolled in the sand. Lilly pounced her approval.

I finally herded my naughty, dirty crew into the car and we headed home for baths, and perhaps a swig of Listerine. It was Hospice night and I worried that Lillian was in much too brazen a mood to visit.

Clean and dry we arrived at Hospice and I clutched Lilly’s leash. Earlier, on the phone, my mother had advised that I give her a “good talkin’ to.”

“Alright young lady,” I started…

She sat, angelic and wide-eyed. Then I walked. And she walked alongside. Like a ballerina. She knew it was time to stop screwing around. Well, mostly. She greeted the chaplain with a nose-up-the-skirt. The back of her skirt. Luckily, dog is occasionally this chaplain’s co-pilot.

“Room number one will definitely want to see her,” said the nurse. “And room four will too. They like dogs. Room two is a no.”

We chatted for a while in room one with a woman who used to have a Boston Terrier, and another woman in four, who’d owned every sort of dog ever bred. Lilly was oooh’d and aaaah’d over like a pageant dog. She kissed and cajoled and – well- she just really enjoyed herself. She is beginning to love this work as much as I do, I thought.

We were wrapping things up when I heard singing, just one woman’s voice. I looked into the “no” room and saw the chaplain singing hymns to a woman in bed. The sick woman’s husband sat, entranced. His wife was slipping away.

“There’s a dog,” he said.

“Would you like to see Lillian?” the chaplain asked.

We went in, stepping gingerly. We may not have “drop it” down entirely, but we do understand “no.” At least my part of us does.

The woman’s eyes were closed. Lilly nosed her knuckles. The woman, who’d been unresponsive, moved her hand around as if to pet her. I marveled at the power of the pooch.

“Do you like dogs?” I asked the husband.

“I LOVE dogs!” he rather yelled. He was hard of hearing. Lilly went in for a full frontal face cleaning. He began to giggle. She crawled up his lap and loved on his whole head. The man threw his head back, howling with laughter. She put her paws on his shoulders. He leaned back in his chair and guffawed.

His daughter walked into the room, smiled at us, and put her hand on her mother’s head.

“Did you make my daddy happy?” she called to Lilly.

Her daddy was still laughing. Louder.