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What My (Expletive Deleted) Problem Is

I see it now, as clear and bright as the crystalline drops of rain dotting the red berries outside my window. They hang there, brighter, smaller ghosts of the vivid berries, disappearing if I squint. They are, however, there whether I focus on them or not. Equally present is my anger, a constant companion of late, obscured by the busy-ness of full days and my tendency towards stoicism, but there. Always there.

I was going to beat Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There was no denial, I was not angry, and “bargaining” seemed silly – my mother was dead, and besides, with whom would I play “Let’s Make a Deal” to get her back? I would go straight to “depression,” hang tough, and swan into “acceptance” like a champ. People would marvel at my equanimity, my grace, the fact that I could endure her death, my father’s illness, my husband’s illness, and the trials of daily life without missing a beat. I confided in a few, selected and trusted friends, and when I felt completely broken I would consent to lie on the couch and watch HSN while my husband made me Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and went, on his own, to buy a Christmas tree. Because that is what People do when they are mentally healthy and having a tough time; they acknowledge the leaden weight that holds them beneath the surface and let themselves float until they can swim to the nearest raft and pull themselves up onto the solid wooden slats.

Last night, though, I could not even float. After the macaroni, after falling asleep with a dog curled at my feet, I awoke gasping with panic. I needed help, air, the promise that my heart would stop its wild beating in my chest and that my throat would allow me to suck in a slow, sweet breath. It seemed to come from nowhere. I had brought my father back from cancer surgery in much better shape than his doctors had predicted, and he was safe in his own house with his beloved dog, ample pain medication and a great sense of reprieve. I had only one real work obligation left before the holidays, and I was prepared. “What,” I said to myself at 2:17AM “is your fucking problem?”

I was not kind to my panic-stricken self, and I realized that I had not been feeling particularly kind for a few days. I hated pretty much everybody. I had a list in my head, a growing list, of every slight, every failure and every disappointment perpetrated on me by the universe. I am reading Mary Karr’s memoir “Lit,” which is brilliant and fascinating and written so well that I want to weep with envy. Also, I am bitter and angry about the fact that she writes of finding her way out of dysfunction and alcoholism by praying, “falling on her knees” and, eventually, becoming part of a Roman Catholic church community.

As I flip the virtual pages of the Kindle book, Karr grows stronger, happier, better in every way. She prays and surrenders and things begin to fall into place – a car, a book contract, the courage to leave bad relationships and parent her son with wisdom and love. I wish Ms. Karr no ill, but it seems grossly unfair to me that she, so much more damaged than I am, found a way to be functional. I liked the book better when she was a mess, sitting drunk on her back stoop and listening to music through her headphones. That, I understood.

Because I am a mess. An angry, false-fronted mess. Two days ago, I was at the hospital in Ann Arbor where my father had his surgery. I had not been there since January and February, when he had his first surgery for the same cancer. On those trips, I brought my mother. I pushed her in a wheelchair across acres of shiny floors, maneuvering her in and out of small waiting areas and on and off of elevators. I took her to the cafeteria and plied her with bagels and hot tea, trying to distract her from legitimate worry about my father’s prospects. On this week’s trip,  I entered the hospital through a section she and I had never visited, but when it was time to leave, I found myself walking past a waiting area where we had, literally, spent hours together. I was so tired, and as I caught the first glimpse of red carpet and cozy seating arrangements, I knew I couldn’t look at it, couldn’t think about it, had somehow lost my protective bubble.

I began to walk fast, looking straight ahead, and ran into a group of large women blocking my path. They were probably lost, and maybe another time I would have tried to help them, or smiled winningly and apologized for the glancing blow on the left arm of the one in a Lion’s starter jacket, but I didn’t have it in me. I said “sorry” as I altered my own path, trying to maintain my pace and get around them, away from the treacherous waiting area and into the next part of the building.

“What the fuck is your problem?” One of them said.

“…owns the fucking halls” I heard as I walked even faster. I had this impulse, then, to go back and fight with them. I wanted to tell them what the fuck my problem was. I wanted to get right up in their broad, bovine faces and spit words:

“My problem is that my mom died, and I’m exhausted, and something made me sad and I don’t want to cry in public and look ridiculous, and there is nothing that makes me feel better and people who stop suddenly in a spot where people are walking are fucking stupid and it’s their fault if someone runs into them.”

I remembered that, last night on the couch, and I remember it now; time has not mellowed my uncharacteristic anger. I am only glad I didn’t go back and fight with them, because there were four of them and they were very large. My uncharacteristic anger is, as it turns out, characteristic. At least for right now. The list runs through my head like ticker tape. I am angry at the people who said they would “be there” for me, but really have neither the time nor the energy to be there unless they have some unexpected swathe of leisure time during which they can make themselves feel better by checking on my welfare. It isn’t that I necessarily even want to hear from those people; it just seems particularly careless to offer a conditional lifeline to an unconditionally drowning person.

I am angry at myself for dumping my feelings onto the faithful friends and family who are there for me because I worry that I will wear them out if I do not parcel out my grieving among them in palatable portions. I am angry about the shooting in Connecticut, because the unique and unimaginable grief of a community is being co-opted and exploited by everything from news broadcasts and political squabbles to well-meaning Facebook posts. I am angry that the first Rite-Aid doesn’t have the right antibiotics and I have to drive across town to get them. I am angry that I don’t care about Christmas this year, and that everything about it reminds me of my mother, and that in the midst of the ads and the cards and the trees and the parties I am just gritting my teeth and waiting for it to be over.

That, in an enormous and wordy nutshell, is the answer to “what the fuck is your problem?” Kubler-Ross wins. I’m angry. I’m irrationally, painfully, angry and bitter and spoiling for the kind of cathartic fight that might act as a release valve. I can’t fight with Mary Karr, or strangers at the hospital, or pharmacists, and I’m still compos enough to get that it’s wrong to turn my wrath on my innocent husband and son (even though I know that they would still love me). Instead, it squats hideously in my chest, just under my sternum, rattling me awake and pumping enough adrenaline that I could probably fight five women at the hospital complete with uppercuts and roundhouse kicks.

So, Ms. Kubler-Ross, this is normal, but what do I do? You are precisely no help, being dead and all. I have this great plan about taking a hot bath and burning lavender incense, but there isn’t a full-sized tub in this house. Or, for that matter, any lavender incense. So maybe this: a brisk walk, a hot shower with sandalwood incense (which I actually have), a little Hildegarde of Bingen on Spotify, no newspapers, no TV, probably a good cry. Less junk food, more vegetables. I don’t know how to stop being angry because I’m usually not, but maybe taking care of myself is a start.

Maybe, first, I stop swearing at myself, treat myself like a person I care about, teach myself to channel this anger into something that won’t leave a mark when I move on to the next stage.

Maybe.

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.

Image

“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.

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.

Forgiveness

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.

Paradise, Lost.

The first time we went to St. George Island, Sam was only two. Rob couldn’t get away, and so I flew from Lansing to Tallahassee with the diaper bag, the purse, the umbrella stroller, and the Terrible Two-year-old who threw his sippy cup at the besuited businessman who had the misfortune to sit next to us.

I wasn’t sure about the whole Florida thing – I associated it with idiots from high school who drove down in caravans over spring break so that they could get sunburned, drink too much and have sex with strangers. I knew about Miami from watching TV, the Everglades from watching “Gentle Ben” as a child, Disney because I was a human being living in the world, and West Palm Beach because my in-laws lived there. Mostly, it seemed too glitzy for me (except for the Everglades) and I really don’t like to be hot very much. I don’t like summers here, so it seemed strange to pay money to travel someplace else to be hot and sweaty. It was, however, my parents’ money, so I agreed. They loved St. George. They said it was like the Maine of my childhood summers. I packed up my baby and flew.

Sam and “Papa” flying kites on the beach, their shouts reaching me as I sat on the deck and read. Putting on shoes and running down to climb the tree and rescue the kite, clinging to the prickly branches with one hand while cutting the string with the other, separating kite from tree. A hero’s welcome on the ground from my father and my son, and who knew I could climb a tree?!

They were right, it was magic. Remote, unspoiled, reachable by flying into Tallahassee and driving West, through the town of Apalachicola, across a bridge, and onto St. George, a barrier Island in the Gulf of Mexico. There is no nightlife, aside from a couple of restaurant bars, at least not in the winter. When we visited the Island, every year for ten years, it was too cold for the folks who visited from Atlanta and Memphis; they didn’t come until later. For us, arriving from a place where it was 12 degrees and snowing when we waved farewell to Daddy, it was perfect. No hotter than 70 in the daytime, cool in the evenings, with a variety of sunny and misty days. we didn’t care; we headed to the beach regardless of the weather, collected shells and beach glass, rode bikes, played ping-pong, flew kites,  made sand people on the beach, scrambled up the steep rocks of Bob Sykes Cut, and fished. We threw our windows open and left them that way the night we arrived, anxious to hear the waves and feel the moist air after months of dry heat. Sam got a boogie board and paddled into the waves, astonishing passing Southern types who couldn’t believe anyone who “go into that freezing cold water.” We took pictures of sunsets, and called Grandma to the window when a school of dolphins swam past, leaping into the air and seeming to stay long enough for her to see them, every single time. Many times, we saw no one else on the beach, and sometimes we saw a lone dog out for a run, or a fisherman heading to the Cut to try his or her luck.

We went into Apalachicola often, making the half-hour trek across the bridge to eat out, shop at the Piggly Wiggly, or browse the tiny but well-curated bookstore. We ate fried everything, since that part of Florida is really The South; we ate fried Grouper, and fried shrimp fresh from the water visible at the end of the street, and french fries and the ubiquitous hush puppy. I learned to eat oysters there two years ago, and it was a consuming passion for me to try them everywhere we went, fried, raw, in stew and any other way they were offered to me. We were aware, always, of the poverty just around the edges of the upscale restaurants and shops; we saw the oystermen coming into the Piggly Wiggly, dirty and exhausted after a day of tonging in the bay. We saw the affluent folks who sold real estate to other affluent folks, the bankers, and the people wealthy enough to own property where they could live as “snowbirds” and we saw the children in ragged clothes on the playground outside the local elementary school.

Walking down to the beach the minute we had our bags inside the front door, before we even checked out the house. Walking carefully on an unfamiliar path, flashlights in hand, following the sound and smell of the ocean. Flashlight beams catching scores of tiny, white crabs scuttling on the sand, fleeing into holes we had never noticed. A new tradition: going out at night to spot the crabs, careful not to trample them.

We took it all in; we talked about it. It was not a resort, but a place where people lived, and worked and sometimes, suffered terribly. We talked to Sam about it as he grew older, talking freely about the tension between the desire to keep the area unspoiled, and the need for people to have work to do to support their families. After Katrina devastated the area, we drove past the shattered and shuttered remains of homes and businesses along the water on Route 98; within two years it was mostly rebuilt, although the slow flow of promised government aid had frustrated and disappointed many, and caused some to leave the place where they had planned to stay forever. We talked about a lot of things, the four of us. It was time out of the busy-ness that regulated our life at home, and there was a shifting of time and roles as I became my parents’ child again, watched my father fly kites with Sam or work with him on the giant jigsaw puzzle that was begun every year. Sam learned about the Island’s lighthouse, about river conservation, about commercial fishing and about the riggings and sails on the boats docked in the harbor at Apalachicola. He learned about cormorants, pelicans, herons and the lowly gull. On the years we drove home with my parents, he visited Civil War battlefields, learned about historic preservation in Franklin, Kentucky, ate at a Waffle House, and saw Confederate flags flying.

Three years ago, my mother, not in good health to begin with, fell ill and went to the hospital in Apalachicola. She spent the rest of her stay there, in a hospital that serves the poorest of the poor, and has none of the modern, shiny accoutrements of the hospitals we know around here. No fancy equipment for tests, no Kleenex, no padded armchairs for my father to sit in during the hours he spent by her side. There were discussions of driving her to Tallahassee or Panama City by ambulance, and a relative with “connections” offered to send his private plane to fly her wherever she needed to go. in the end, they were able to stabilize her and send her home, but there was a dark question hanging over all trips thereafter. What if it happened again? What if we couldn’t get her treated in time? It was an Island, after all, an Island without so much as a Redi-Care. Two years after that, she tripped and fell coming out of a restaurant. we were back at the hospital, her wrist was broken, they thought; they thought maybe she should see a specialist when she got home. Pain meds and a sling for the long drive North.

Sam carrying a bag of stale bread to the beach, siting regally on the sand with a cloud of gulls hovering overhead. They follow him wherever he goes; he throws pieces of bread to those he deems neediest. He misses his dogs, I think. He does this every year, and every year I think I shouldn’t let him encourage the gulls, that he might be bothering the rare “others” on the beach. It makes him so happy, and I let him.

Last year, a beautiful visit. No hospital trips, lots of sun, many oysters, a house at the perfect location: the point where the beach met the Cut that marks the passage from the bay to the open ocean. Sam climbed the rocks of the Cut while I combed the beach for perfect pieces of glass, shells that caught my eye, and perfect moments of transcendent peace that I seem to find only on that beach. Trying to balance my love of the place with the understanding that it wouldn’t last forever. My parents are old, my mother isn’t well, and it just isn’t a trip that we could afford to make without their help. I tried not to cling, but to enjoy everything fully, to make it a part of me from the salt-freshness of new oysters to the sheer joy of Sam running into the cold waves. Last year, as he paddled out on his boogie board, a school of dolphins came as close to shore as I have ever seen them, their flippers and benign smiles visible without binoculars. They were so close to Sam, that if he had wanted to, he could have paddled out further and joined them in their revels. Maybe they knew; maybe they wanted us to have something wonderful to remember.

This year, the house was selected and reserved, I picked a week to travel, and I fixed the ocean in my mind as the reward for the harshness of winter, of too much bill and not quite enough cash, of struggles with homework and family disasters. Yesterday I got the call from my mother saying that she hadn’t been feeling well, and that her doctor thought it was better if she didn’t spend six weeks on an Island with no decent hospital nearby. I heard the regret in her voice, the sense of losing control over everything because her body refused to support her plans; I could only say that it was okay, that I understood, and that we would try again next year. I knew it was over, that there wouldn’t be a “next year,” that St. George was forever a place in my memories, like my grandparents’ houses in Ohio and Rhode Island, long ago sold to other people, filled with strange furniture, inaccessible to me. I told Sam, who was as mature and understanding as I could have hoped, seeing a part of his entire remembered life slipping away.

In my office, in the dark, I cried. I cried for the ocean I might not see again, the lost possibility of finding peace as I measured my small problems against the grandeur of the eternal ocean, the time spent out of real life with my parents and my child. It’s nobody’s fault, I knew it was coming, but I’m just damned sad. My comfort, at the moment, is that it’s all still there, whether I see it or not. How long can I be sad in a world that has such beauty in it?