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Physics, Metaphysics, and a Florentine Journal

ImageMaybe a week ago, I was taking books out of what had been my mother’s home office. There’s a period after a death when it seems wrong to erase the person by removing all of their possessions as if they had never sat in that chair knitting, or used the rosemary mint conditioner in that shower. Then (and it’s hard to see this coming because it comes with such breathtaking stealth), there is a time when it seems wrong to leave everything in place as if the person was going to pop in and ask for her green sweater vest. It gets a little creepy, like on episodes of CSI in which the family has preserved the bedroom of the murdered teenager exactly as it was the day he was abducted from the crack house in a bad part of town.

Anyway, it was time. So I assembled a bag of children’s’ books to distribute among deserving young friends, and noticed in the process that one book seemed to have another wedged into its printed heart. The interloper proved to be a slim, Florentine blank book. I was sure she’d bought it when we were actually in Florence, in the summer of 1977.

Let me back up a bit. Let me say that, although I haven’t been writing about it (or anything else) much lately, I am still pretty epically sad. That day, the day I found the book, I was literally talking to myself out loud as I assessed the task ahead of me. “It’s okay, bunny,” I said (for some reason I call myself “bunny” in my head when I’m trying to be comforting) “you can do this. Just take little bits at a time.” And I’d be okay, and then not okay, efficient gatherer of books and then sobbing and pathetic floor kneeler. So given all that, when I opened the little book and found that my mother had started writing in it on December 31, 1985, when she was about 6 months younger than I am now, less than two years after the death of her own mother, I decided it was a sign.

Although I did not take Physics in high school, I am told that the amount of energy in the universe is finite, that it all sticks around, and that it turns into other stuff upon its release from a given situation. (That is not a scientific explanation. I’m pretty sure that the word “situation” is rarely used by those searching for the Higgs boson particle to describe any state of matter, energy or anything else).

Maybe, possibly, the book is some of my mother’s energy in tangible form. I can’t, quite believe that she is shimmering around in a column of white light, and I’m not ready to admit that she’s mostly in the air somewhere, or in the Red Cedar River, or in the lilac bush in the yard. I can believe that she radiates from the elegant, fleur delise’d pages of this book. So I saved it for today, December 31 of the most terrible year I could have imagined, hoping for a little hit of her incredibly fine and sophisticated energy.

As it turns out, the book mostly contains quotes that she liked, copied in her perfect cursive over a decade. Many are of a spiritual nature; she copied out Psalm 139, a passage written by Cardinal Newman, and another from Thomas Moore. The words are beautiful, and I try to let them permeate me, making a sort of mom infusion in my soul. Then, there is this, from Jane Eyre:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I respect myself.

And this, from Aeschylus:

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

My mother, who was not alone or friendless any more than I am now, was grieving in the little book. She was grieving the loss of her own mother, a loss about which she was neither mellow nor philosophical. In the midst of a loving family and a sea of friends, she felt alone without her mother, making her own way in the world like Jane Eyre, growing stronger through the pain that persisted “against her will” for so many months. In my universe, as I read, the atoms spun crazily from wherever she left them and moved into my own body, joining with all that is my present incarnation.

A yellowing newspaper clipping fell from the back of the book; “For Bernice” is written in the upper left corner. Bernice was my mother’s mother. It’s a poem entitled “A Prayer for Every Day” by Mary Carolyn Davies, and my mother has copied it out as the last entry in her book. At the top of the page she wrote “For Bernice (found in a box of my mother’s belongings.” It’s kind of corny, the poem, and it probably seemed corny to my Yeats-reading mother, but she kept it, loved it, copied it out because it was a part of her mother. A transference of energy, if you will.

And so today, as the world goes into overdrive with lists and retrospectives and hats and noisemakers, I will sit quietly in the house I grew up, listening to my father sleeping the deep sleep of recovery, keeping the little Florentine book nearby as talisman. I will not be sad to see this year end, but I am certain, in some totally unscientific way, that I’ll move forward relying on the strength of my mother, and her mother.

(And your own strength, bunny).

New Mom

I haven’t written much lately. The hours of my days seem to be sucked into a vortex of duties. They are not unpleasant, and I begrudge nobody, but there are times, whole hours, whole days when I want to raise my hands palms-out and stop it all. I want to say, in the kindest way imaginable, “please just let me breathe. Let me grieve my loss. Let me absorb the continuous blows that, maybe a year ago, would have killed me but which I now accept as my daily bread. Permit me to abandon all pretense of grace and ease and charm just long enough to be the selfish beast that I am right now, the bottomless pit of need, a motherless child facing down the red and green barrel of everyone else’s Christmas spirit.” It’s not pretty, but it’s real. Right now, it’s real.

Last night, though, I had a moment. It was the kind of moment that reminds me that life is still out there bustling with promise and energy and goodness. After a very long day of work, I sat down to talk to a little girl who is a regular guest at the dinners I cook on Wednesday nights. She comes to the meals with her mother and her grandmother; her brother is in the Christmas pageant, and when he goes upstairs to the Church’s sanctuary to rehearse after dinner she stays at one of the round tables and colors with her “Grammy.”

It’s clear that she has an impairment of some kind. Although I was never sure what it was, and whether it was organic or traumatic in origin. It didn’t seem polite to ask her mother or her grandmother, and it really didn’t make any difference. I had started a Wednesday pattern of hanging out with her for a while, watching her find Waldo, or tell me about what she was drawing. She has the gentlest little voice, and radiates a kind of Buddha-like acceptance of everything around her; ten minutes with her soothed the beast within.

Last night, as the three of us talked, her grandmother volunteered the information that the girl had suffered a brain tumor, and that the treatment had severely diminished her brain functioning. As the older woman talked, I noticed that the child was drawing a rainbow with the colors in their proper “ROYGBIV” order. “How does she know that?” I asked, pointing at a rainbow-covered sheet.

“It’s something she remembers” her grandmother explained. “When you lose parts of your brain it’s hard to predict what will work afterwards.” The girl looked up from her drawing, focusing her big, dark brown eyes on mine.

“Do you have a mom and dad?” she asked. I hesitated. I didn’t want to upset her, but it would be odd to say that I just had a father without explaining the reason. I looked to her grandmother for guidance. She knew I had only recently lost my mother.

“You can tell her,” she said. “It’s very important to her that everybody has a mom and dad. We aren’t sure why.”

“I have a dad,” I told her, “but I don’t have a mom anymore. She died.”

“Your mom died?” she said, selecting a handful of crayons. “I will make you a new mom.” She started to draw. “Eyes,” she said, drawing two circles, “and legs,” she continued, adding arms and hair and other necessary mom parts. She was calm and workmanlike, as if it was no big thing to fill a gaping hole in someone’s life. When she was satisfied, she looked up at me.


“Is it okay if I take it with me?” I asked. She nodded.

“I made you a new mom” she said. I nodded again.

“Can you write your name on it so I remember who made it for me?” She nodded again. She formed shapes on the paper, in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Well, as close as she could come with the crayons at her disposal. “Thank you” I said. She was on to more rainbows, and didn’t look up.

And there are a million corny things I could say to end this – things about the triumph of the spirit, or counting my blessings, or the mouths of babes. I could say things that might make me gag a little, things that might diminish the power of a moment of true grace.

But I won’t. You get it, right?

Rolling With It

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal.  I wanted to help because the Center has been a  beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place  my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.

Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.

When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.

Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.

“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”

Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.

Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.

“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”

“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.

The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”

“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”

“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”

And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.

Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.

“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”

I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.

Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.

That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.


I am alarmed by suggestions that I am handling the loss of my mother with anything approaching grace. I worry that there may be people reading my words and thinking that they should be all philosophical, and find silver linings when they are doubled over in pain. I worry that I am, by shaping my stories to reflect the highest and most presentable of my thoughts, creating guilt in fellow sufferers.

So this time, I will try harder to tell the truth in its most raw and unfiltered form. This is just a report from the trenches. There is no tidy wrap up at the end. If you are looking for that, for some kind of reassurance, I am not your girl today.

Five weeks ago tomorrow, my mother died. Last night I found out that my father’s cancer has returned. There’s more, but the other stories are not mine to tell. These are heavy things, and by last night I was crushed by their collective weight. I went to work when I should have taken the day off. I went to work because I’m worried about losing my job, and because there is always this brisk, loud and unwelcome Puritan in my head prattling about bucking up, doing the needful, and being a Good Girl. I should have throttled her. I should have taken the day off.

So after work, physically exhausted and not really in my right mind (assuming that such a thing exists) I decided that my situation called for certain numbness. Food usually works, but I was absolutely not hungry. Besides the which, my refrigerator is filled with leftovers from Monday’s memorial service, and there was an irrational wrongness in using that food to throttle the Puritan and numb my grief. This grief, you see, refused to be contained any longer by the benisons of lovely manners and native stoicism. It leaked every time I had a moment’s pause, tears flowing, breath ragged, pulse racing.

So I decided that I would get drunk. This was problematic for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that I don’t ever drink, and don’t tolerate alcohol very well. I tried, though; I mixed myself a vile combination of Crystal Light and Jack Daniels and drank it all, remembering every story I had ever heard or read about the moment when alcoholics began to feel calm, steady, and generally better.

There was no click. I did not feel drunk, numb, or better. I felt as sad as I had felt before, with the additions of nausea and a death-dealing headache. I will tell you, because we’re being honest, that in those hours I thought about how it might be okay with me if I died. Nothing intentional, nothing that would upset my family inordinately; I would just make a mistake – take some pills on top of the alcohol and slip away from this brutal, vicious mess. I’ll tell you something else: I took one of those pills you are never supposed to take when you’ve been drinking. I took it to fix the headache. I was pretty sure that enough time had passed that I would not stop breathing and die, and I was also pretty sure that more than one pill would be required to knock off a person of my size. But I wasn’t completely sure. It was my own little game of roulette, a private thing in my head as I lay on the couch not laughing at TV comedies and leaking eyeliner-black tears.

So much for grace. There’s really no need to monitor me or send me for counseling. It was one wretched evening, I’m better today, and maybe most important of all I think that what happened was perfectly normal in the course of coming to grips with a shit storm of loss, terror, readjustment and the terrible fatigue that comes from being well-mannered and stoic when the soul requires nothing so much as an epic tantrum followed by cocoa and a reading of “Goodnight, Moon.”

(That was a really long sentence – clearly part of the revolt against restraint and convention. Next thing you know, I’ll be splitting infinitives and using “task” as a verb).

I just wanted you to know that while it often suits me to portray myself as a smooth, marble bust of Calm and Hope in the Face of Grief, I am frequently more like an abandoned scarf unraveling in a puddle of dirty water. Not smooth, not calm, not hopeful, just pathetically floundering around, not showering, watching hours and hours and hours of whatever appears on the television and eating dry cereal out of the box at 2:00 in the morning.

And if that’s where you find yourself, I’m right there with you.

And, probably, I love you. Because all of us living raw need to stick together, and make each other cocoa and read each other “Goodnight, Moon.” Because otherwise, this world is just intolerable.


The Year of All Good Things

This was supposed to be a great year. According to me, anyway. It was the year I turned 50, the year my house turned 100…what appeared to be an auspicious, glorious year of celebrations and milestones observed with love and care. Those numbers seemed to mean something, to be a sign, as if I were an ancient parsing the phases of the moon or the turning of the tide. There was some cosmic order, and as far as I could see in January, that solid and reassuring order would stand as bulwark against disorder and pain.

From January through March my father fought cancer. There was surgery, radiation therapy, exhaustion and irreparable alteration. We adjusted as well as we could. In April, our old dog died. It was not a terrible death; she died at home, where she felt safe, in my arms. We were sad, though, and there was a hole where she had been. A month ago my mother died, again, not a terrible or shocking death, but leaving an even greater hole. The night before her memorial service yesterday, we learned that the wife of my parents’ best “couple friends” had a brain tumor. Before, and in between losses there were a million tiny paper cuts of failure, injustice, and unkindness. It was just life, really, it’s just what happens, but it began to feel like we were living in a country song.

“Gloom, despair and agony are me/Deep dark depression, excessive misery/If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all/Gloom, despair and agony are me…”

So the Year of All Good Things has fallen and shattered like a cheap, plaster statue and I’m sitting at my desk listening to the saddest songs I know, worrying about what I need to glue together in the next month and a half. Like Thanksgiving. Because really, I don’t care about Thanksgiving this year, but I feel obligated to carry on. Will my father want to celebrate his birthday at the end of this month? What about my mother’s birthday on December 14th, and Hanukah, and Christmas, and why do I have to be a fucking grownup and keep everything going and be sensitive to everybody’s assorted needs and be polite and good and do laundry and peel potatoes when all I want to do is take Xanax and lie in my bed in a sort of twilight sleep, letting someone else do all the heavy lifting?

What if what I really want is to have my mom back? Because frankly, if you knew her, and especially if she was your mother, you’d want her back, too.

And of course I do, and of course this is all Normal Grieving, in the clinical sense, and of course it happens to everybody and of course no two people grieve the same way, and unfortunately I live in a culture that is uncomfortable with grief. I can get all warped and bitter very quickly projecting this dour assessment onto everyone I see: he thinks I’m milking it. She was back at work three days after her husband died. Everyone else can just Get On With It and I am some kind of immature emotional cripple who fails to process in a timely and acceptable manner, crushed by waves of sadness when I should totally be peeling potatoes.

But then there are these things, call them grace, silver lining or cosmic alignment – they are good things. Because my father was so sick in a hospital 60 miles away, I spent hours in the car with my mother driving back and forth, listening to Pete Seeger, talking about Obama’s chances, people we knew, books we had read. Because Maisy died, we adopted Guinevere who is a magnificent addition to the family. Because my mother died, I have reconnected with my only two first cousins, who I really, really like and would choose to befriend without a single blood tie. Not just in a Facebook way, but with real hugs and laughter and the promise of more. And, because they are her brother’s children, and she adored them, I know that my mother would love that.

So as I sweep up those crumbling bits of plaster, wishing just a little that I had worn waterproof mascara, I can see some gleaming patches of hardwood beneath the mess. It looks solid, and seems more trustworthy than the beautiful illusion that was The Year of All Good Things. It even kind of reflects me as I am right now: a mess, a work in progress, a woman in need of some potato peeling vigor and some twilight Xanax sleep.

A human, just another human, caught up in the irrational maelstrom that makes a mockery of our firmest plans and still offers us much that is wonderful.


It’s a familiar story: young men barely out of high school are horsing around with a car/loaded gun/case of grain alcohol/unsafe balcony or some combination thereof, and one of them ends up dead. In the local story it was two 20-year-old “men” fooling around with a loaded pellet gun and smoking synthetic marijuana four days before Christmas. One shot the other, who died of internal injuries. They were roommates, they were close friends, and I suspect that neither of them had any idea that you could actually kill someone with a pellet gun.

As the mother of a fifteen-year-old boy I read the original reports of this tragedy thinking that, given the inherent stupidity of most young men, I could easily be the mother of the shooter or the victim. My son is not of the “no thank you, Ned; if I have a drink my mum will be cross” variety. He is a full-tilt, incautious, heedless, energetic, juvenile embracer of dumb ideas, and also a person who has difficulty saying “no” if it disappoints a friend. When the death occurred, I read the news stories and imagined myself first as the mother of the shooter and then as the mother of the victim. It was not a stretch in either case. It made me weep, then, sitting on the couch in my pajamas. I wept for the family whose son was so foolishly lost, I wept for the boy sitting in jail having shot his best friend, and I wept because it is such a terrifying, uncertain thing to love a child growing up and away from the perceived shelter of home.

This morning there was a story about the sentencing in the case. The shooter was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to at least three years in prison plus thousands of dollars in restitution. This seemed fair, if somewhat sad; manslaughter encompasses causing the death of another without intention but while acting recklessly. A crime was committed, and the law of this jurisdiction requires that the guilty party be punished.

As it turns out, the shooter had a very difficult early life. He was placed in foster care at the age of 8, returned by the fostering family and then placed with a foster parent who was convicted of photographing minors and selling their pictures on the internet. This was a kid who never had much of a chance, and whose bond with the victim was probably the most sustaining and important relationship in his life. The judge, a wise woman with children of her own, gave the lightest possible sentence because in her opinion it was “what the victim would have wanted.” They were friends, they were both smoking the same stuff and playing with the same gun, and it could have gone either way.

Then there was the part of the story that stopped me cold. The victim’s mother was quoted as saying that the shooter should have received the maximum sentence, and that she had not wanted her son to move in with him because of his background. “He told me ‘he’s not that bad, mom’” she said. I got that part. I imagined my own son moving in with the kind of “sad case” friend he has been making since second grade. Would I try to stop him? I might, if I thought that there was something in the other young man’s baggage that was dangerous. If he had a record of violence, if I knew there was a substance abuse issue, or even if there was a high likelihood of appearances by sketchy family members I would try to dissuade him.

Then there’s that other thing. If something terrible, unimaginable happened and I lost my own boy in a similar accident would I want maximum retribution? Would it make me feel better for even a single second to know that some other boy was spending years in prison? I can’t know, but I’m pretty sure that retribution would not bring me a moment’s peace. I have never felt that impulse for revenge, even when I have been grievously wronged and had every right to wish for my pain to be felt by the wrongdoer. It’s not religious doctrine, or ethics that shapes my feelings; it’s a matter of hard wiring. I am a forgiver, always conscious of my own failings and transgressions. Often, in my experience, the person who harms me is driven by demons so insidious and cruel that refusing forgiveness would be both pointless and immoral. It would not hurt that person, and it would not help me to heal.

And so I can still look at this tragedy and say to myself “there but for the grace of God goes my family.” I have wept again, for the boy sitting in prison with nothing but time to think about the fact that he killed his best friend, and I have wept for the family that lost a son. I have faced again the reality that we cannot wrap our beloved children in bubble wrap and protect them from the dangers of this world. I have felt wrenching pity for a woman who genuinely believes that her sorrow would be assuaged by an eye for an eye, the lost life of another boy to compensate her for the hole in her own grieving heart. I have, I admit, judged her for failing to see that the shooter is also a victim in need of love and compassion.

It is impossible to imagine the savage pain that woman feels, or how blindly she grasps for anything that might give even a moment of relief. Perhaps, in time, she will see that there is still a boy, a living boy who has no family and whose life might be immeasurably improved by forgiveness. Maybe her heart will remain hard, and the scab of bitterness and anger will make her feel safe and righteous in a world she no longer recognizes.

I don’t understand her, but I forgive her.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Maisy at the Computer 

 As I clean house this morning, I keep finding traces of her. Clumps of her fluffy, blonde hair (she was a shedder) and a plastic food wrapper she had quietly spirited out of a trash can and into a corner for private licking. I already removed her food bowl, hung up her leash, and piled things onto the armchair in our bedroom where she always slept. I look at the remaining dog for signs that he is sad, that he needs to cry, to take a Xanax, or just more time to process the death of his “pack.” So far, he seems interested mainly in his usual business of hustling me for Cheerios and napping on the couch.

Eleven years ago, I adopted the dogs. She was the one I saw in the paper, her sweet, sad face was compelling on its own, but the shelter had, for purposes of advertising, given her the name “Katie,” the same name as my childhood Airedale. I took my three-year-old to the shelter; we adopted her and the beagle-terrier puppy that kept jumping into the air in his crate whenever we walked by. I was a grown up, I had my first real house, and no one was going to stop me from adopting as many dogs as I wanted. “Lady,” said the man at the desk, “are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

I did not. Nevertheless, Charlie and Maisy became our dog people.

Within a day of bringing them home, it became clear that she had been mistreated. The shelter worker had told me that she was brought in by a family that didn’t want her, and that they later came back, took her again, and returned her a second time. She was afraid of loud noises, and sat near a door most of the time, often whining quietly to go out. The vet speculated that she had not been allowed to go out often enough to relieve herself, and that firearms might have been part of life with Family I. (Or, as I like to think of them, the Pond Scum That Mistreated a Helpless Animal). Over the years, we loved her back to mental health. She watched us through the window when we were in the yard, as if to reassure herself that we weren’t going to leave her. She finally got to the point where she would jump onto the couch with me and snuggle, sometimes falling asleep with my arm draped across her fluffy middle. One of the finest moments of my life was when our vet told me that it was amazing how much Maisy trusted me after the cruelty of her early life. If I do no other good, that may be sufficient.

She was also, lest you should think her a fallen angel, a very naughty dog. She ate underwear and dirty Kleenex, as well as the occasional squirrel. She and Charlie ran away periodically, running wild for hours and spanning township boundaries before returning home filthy and exhausted to sleep it off. We never did figure out which of them was the Alpha – she always deferred to Charlie in matters of food, but seemed to be the ringleader and guide on the Great Escapes. Their relationship was, largely, inscrutable; whatever it was, it served them well for eleven years.

Because they were shelter dogs, we were never really sure how old either of them was – our vet guessed that when we got them, Maisy was probably three and Charlie less than a year old. She had produced at least one litter of puppies at some time in her past. About two years ago, she began to have what appeared to be tiny seizures, lasting only a second or two. Next she lost her hearing, and within the past year she began slipping on the hardwood floors, landing with a “thump” and a bewildered look. She was still eating, drinking, going outside for walks, and bringing me her itchy rump for an orgy of scratching.

About a month ago, she began to have periods where she couldn’t get up for a while, and she faltered going down the porch steps. She was going to die, she was at least fifteen years old, if not older, and it was just a reasonable time for her to begin to wind down. Our visiting holistic vet had retired by this time, and we rejected the idea of putting her in the car and taking her to see a strange new doctor unless she seemed to be in pain. If she was suffering, we agreed that we would immediately take her to be put down. Otherwise, we were going to let her be. I prayed, in my own way, for what I came to think of as “compassionate release.” I wanted her to die the way I would like to die – falling asleep in my own house in the arms of someone who loves me. No doctors, no tubes, no strangers, just a gentle, natural transition from this world to the next.

Saturday night, she refused a bite of sausage and we knew it was time. She seemed so very, very tired, and I lay on the floor and held her as she took her last breaths. I wept, of course, my tears falling on her beloved, butter-colored fur, but I wasn’t really crying for her. She was going to be just fine. I was crying for myself, already leaping ahead in a kind of anticipatory hysteria to visions of her empty chair, bowl, spot on the floor, and the absence of her face in the front door to meet us when we came home. The thing is, that it was time. “Nothing gold can stay.”

I imagine her reincarnated as a beautiful girl child born into a family that will love her and cherish her gentle spirit. I think some underwear-eating can be forgiven, in the great karmic scheme of things, if the balance of one’s life was spent giving pleasure and love with an open heart. As for me, I’m honored that I could be a part of it all.

The Little I Can Do

In order to avoid living like an actual grownup, I have made a compromise with myself about working. I have to do it, because we need the money, but I do not have to have a Real Job because my husband (who is an actual adult) has one that comes with magnificent health insurance for which I am eternally grateful. I have cobbled together a somewhat bizarre set of jobs based on my equally improbably skill set: I do legal consulting for another attorney, I do super secret work for a website, and I am the “backup hospitality provider” for the church down the street. The latter means that I mostly cater funeral receptions (since people stubbornly refuse to die on a schedule) and the real hospitality person is most likely to be unavailable for funerals because they tend to be short-notice affairs. It is a standard joke in my family that I should have a business card that says, beneath my name in copperplate, “Lawyer, Writer, Funeral Caterer.” All that’s missing, really, is “rodeo clown.”

I was asked to do the catering work because I was known to be a “foodie,” and I do love the planning, the shopping for the ripest fruit and the freshest baguettes, and the slicing, peeling, and simmering in the church’s giant kitchen. What I didn’t know I would love so much is the sense of giving something real and comforting to families that are grieving. I remember the funerals of my mother’s family, after which the ladies from the temple would “make a lunch” that was extravagant and redolent of noodle kugel and love. When a child in my son’s class died, years ago, it was the luncheon after the service that held the family in its arms after a grueling period of “keeping it together.” It was a time when the facade could drop, and where they could sink into the comfort of family and friends, with church ladies bustling around with casseroles and lemonade that were the tangible form of sympathy, empathy and faith in eventual healing.

When I have rallied the church ladies to donate cookies and time, and laid the tables with white cloths, and covered them with the best food I can make, it is not just work but real spiritual sustenance to look out across a room in which people are finding some respite from a terrible time. It isn’t a “fix,” the beloved is still gone, but it is a chance to celebrate a life and share memories in a safe, warm place. My hope is that it gives mourners something to take with them, something that may be obscured by the unbearable pain of loss for many months, but which may blossom again in memory after the worst pain has subsided.

Until now, all of the receptions I have catered followed services for elderly people. Obviously, the fact that the loss involved someone in their 80s or 90s does nothing to mitigate the loss; those people were all somebody’s father, somebody’s grandma, somebody’s brother. It does mean, though, that the death followed a long life, a life in which families were raised, there were silver and gold wedding anniversaries, and in most cases, there were peaceful retirements rich with grandchildren, travel and volunteering like raisins studding a scone.

Yesterday I got the call asking me if I could do a reception for the funeral of a young man killed in an accident. I didn’t recognize the family name at first, and then I remembered. Last summer, as I stood at the stainless steel counter of the church kitchen cutting up cantaloupes, working in the relative cool of the evening, a woman came in wearing a nurse’s uniform. She was in charge of the jewelry sale the church puts on every year during a local Folk Festival, and had come in after work to put price tags on the contributed necklaces, bracelets and earrings. She introduced herself to me and we talked.  I told her I was “really a writer” but did the catering work on the side because I loved it. She told me her older son was a writer, too. We talked about her sons, who sounded quite delightful, and I told her that I hoped my boy would turn out to be as productive and community-minded as hers had proven to be. This Saturday’s  funeral is for her oldest son, the writer of whom she had spoken so proudly.

I dreaded calling her to make arrangements; I knew that it wasn’t about me, and that it was no time to project my own love and fear about my own child onto her real and present loss. I still didn’t want to call. When I finally made myself dial, she came to the phone sounding exhausted, and subdued. “I remember you,” she said, “we talked about our boys.” I asked her questions about what kind of food she’d like, and she spoke of her son in the present tense. “He likes food from Oasis” she told me, and I said that I was sure I could get the local middle eastern restaurant to sell us humus, pita and kabobs. “He likes coffee, but with real cream. He doesn’t like the powdered stuff.” Together, we worked out a motley assortment of food that her son loved (loves) including the middle eastern food, potato samosas, trail mix and carrot cake. She asked if we could have, maybe, a casserole for older folks coming in from out-of-town who might not be comfortable with grape leaves and hashwi. I assured her that we could. It was not a menu I would ever have planned, but it was, for her, a representation of her child. It was the food he liked best, to celebrate his brutally truncated life.

I can’t decide, today, whether I love or hate this job. Coming so close to the death of someone else’s  son has pierced me to the core. I think about my own son, and I know that when her own lost boy was 13, she imagined, as I do, the unfolding of a long, rich life that would stretch out long past the end of her own. She never saw this coming. I want to fix it, I want to make it a different world in which this never happened. I want to fix it, and I can’t. All I can do is order the trays of food from Oasis, e-mail the stalwart church ladies asking them for carrot cakes and help with the reception, and make sure that the celebration of this boy’s life will ease a terrible day.

At the end of our conversation, this mother said to me “I’m so glad we talked about our boys. I feel like you know him.” I can’t fix anything, but I can pour my sorrow, and sadness and hope for her sustaining faith into every carrot I peel, and every plate I set carefully on white linen. Sometimes, there isn’t anything else I can do.