Sketching is one of the ways I process grief. So. Uncle Stan.
Uncle Stan never really understood that his movies had become cult classics. Friends of mine, meeting him for the first time, would fan-boy over Ice Pirates or Krull, and Uncle Stan would just… kinda nod and smile and move on. Or look confused.
After a holiday dinner one night (I want to say it was Passover, but can’t swear it) we somehow got onto the topic of Ice Pirates. Probably me trying to convey to him how many people loved it (even though it was cheesy).
Uncle Stan: Ice Pirates… I think it had a different name once. What was it…?
Me: The Seventh World.
Uncle Stan: Wonder why I named it that?
Me: Because, back then we still considered Pluto a planet, and if you were coming into our solar system from the outside, earth was the seventh planet in.
Uncle Stan: Huh. That was clever of me.
This is Gracie, our latest foster. She’s about 3 months old, fearless, wriggly, happy, and absolutely determined to pounce Ragnar at every opportunity. She hides under the coffee table and waits for him to walk by so she can nip at his feet. At which point he, of course, flops down on his stomach and lets her chew on his ears and try to fit her mouth around his skull. She fails at that one, but they both seem delighted by it.
I… am feeling overwhelmed. Not by the puppy. A few weeks ago my primary care doc noticed something funny when I swallowed a sip of water. So she sent me to get an ultrasound of my neck. Which took a rather long time. The impression I got was that it was longer than it should have been, but I don’t know how long these things normally go. I knew better than to ask the technician what she saw; she wouldn’t be allowed to say, anyway. And the results came back. And I saw them before my doctor’s office called. Because I’m the kind of patient who *always* logs in to PAMF’s MyHealth Online service. And I saw that there were a lot of nodules. Which worried me.
But it wasn’t until the nurse called to tell me I needed to set up an appointment with endocrinology to get the nodules biopsied that I really started worrying. I think it was her tone of voice. She sounded very uncomfortable. Very solemn.
It could just be that she’s used to patients freaking out at all sorts of things. I don’t know. I’m not prone to freak outs when discussing medical things. I think my father would have disowned me if that were the case. Well, not really. But I’m his kid. I’m not afraid of needles, I want to see everything (like my tonsils once they were removed–they were each the size of a golf ball–or my intestine pictures after they did the celiac biopsy), and I don’t freak out at test results. Also…. I have a spreadsheet where I’ve kept all of my test results going back to 1984. Which, let me tell you, sure helps with getting a diagnosis. I’m the gal who, when the ER doc asked me, “I don’t suppose you happen to know what size your ovaries normally are?” said, “Oh, yeah. This is how big they were when I was 19, and this is how big they were when I was 25, and this is how big they were two months ago.” And I showed her my spreadsheet.
So I have a bunch of nodules in my thyroid. Both sides. Both have a large main nodule. One side also has a lot of smaller ones spread throughout. People can get nodules in all sorts of places. Most thyroid nodules are benign. Even most cancerous ones aren’t a huge concern when it comes to the thyroid. When I talked to my dad his mode of reassuringÂ me was to say, “If you have to get cancer, thyroid is the one you want.”
And maybe, at a different time in my life, it wouldn’t stress me so much. But in a year when Jay died of cancer, when my mother is still recovering from the chemo she got for her breast cancer… And I feel guilty for not doing enough for either of them… Some lizard brained part of me feels like that would be appropriate punishment.
I get that I shouldn’t be thinking that way. I get that it’s superstitious and counter-productive and my guilt has little basis in reality. But. Yeah.
I am stressed. A little scared. A lot overwhelmed. I go into shutdown mode when that happens. Kinda numb. Flat affect. I see the endocrinologist next Tuesday. It’s an hour long appointment and they’ll probably do the biopsy right then.
And I keep thinking about that Edna St. Vincent Millay line. “It’s not one damn thing after another, it’s one damn thing over and over.” And I’m very glad I have a puppy around.
One of the things that infuriated me when Carolyn died when I was a kid was the feeling that everyone else had forgotten about her. Within weeks, days.
We don’t actually forget that quickly. Not those who were close. Not those who cared deeply during life. The ones who forget are the ones who didn’t know the person. Who didn’t know Carolyn, who didn’t know Jay. When they express grief, it’s real enough. But it’s at a remove. The grief they’re feeling is for us, not themselves. They didn’t have a hole ripped in their life. They didn’t have a part of their soul torn away. Their world didn’t change. But they know ours did.
So they offer sympathy. It’s what humans do. We see another person in pain and our mirror neurons flare and we offer what comfort we can. And if those people move on and don’t remember the loss next week, that’s fine. That’s normal.
But those who grieve… we often do ourselves a disservice. We become silent after the first few days. The first few weeks. We become silent and grapple with it alone. PerhapsÂ because we feel there’s nothing else to be said. Perhaps because we don’t want to intrude on others and keep repeating ourselves. Perhaps because we measure our grief and think it must be so much less than that of others… wife, husband, child, sister. But it doesn’t matter.
We leave each other alone when we’re least capable of handling it.
I haven’t forgotten. I think of Jay every day. I think of the Child and Lisa and Jay’s parents (all three) and Mother of the Child, and Jay’s sister, and Ken and Jen and everyone else hurting. I don’t want to force my grief on them. I don’t want to drag them back into pain if they’ve managed, even for a moment, to forget the hurt. I just want to say I remember.
I remember Jay. I remember what you’ve lost. I remember you.
I’ve had writers block for seven years. What I consider writers block. I realize others have different definitions. But. Largely, the joy had gone out of it. Writing was like pulling teeth. I was still good enough at it to make a living, but… My relationship with my writing had become adversarial. And I figured out why a few months ago.
Writing = Death
Oh, it doesn’t, really. It’s not a logical belief. And, when I go back and examine the events that lead me to this belief, I can even see that it doesn’t make sense. But. My internal mythology is that Carolyn’s death is what gave me my writing.
The first play I wrote was about Carolyn. It got produced. It won me awards. And all the plays that followed after–they got me the scholarship that let me go to Scripps. Hell, my career as a video game writer came out of my playwriting.
But the myth was that the price of my writing was Carolyn’s life. That I never would have written otherwise. Which isn’t true. And I can go back and look at my writing from before then. It mostly sucks, but what do you expect from an 11 year old? The play I wrote about Carolyn, yes, that may well have been my first *good* writing. Because I cared. Because I bled on the page. For the first time I was writing about something gut wrenching and emotional.
But you know what question I used to ask myself? If I would give up my writing to have her back. Because kids ask themselves stupid questions like that. Because they assume it’s their fault.
At first the answer was yes, but as time went on it began to change. And I was ashamed that I didn’t know. The more my writing became central to my life, the more ashamed I felt. And two decades after her death… there was a day when I finally realized that no, I wouldn’t give it up. I was no longer capable of giving it up…. and I stopped writing.
I neverÂ gave upÂ on writing. I just stopped being able to do it. Self defense. If me writing means people I love dying, well.Â It isn’t logical. No one person has that kind of effect on the world around them. But logic has littleÂ to do with fear.
I went onÂ a writing retreat years agoÂ with Jay and his then girlfriend, Shannon. I remember an evening talking with them about my block. And Jay telling me it was a matter of getting out of my own way. I was holding onto something, and he didn’t know what, butÂ it was keepingÂ me from writing. I just had to figure out what it was and let it go. And I remember, also, that nightÂ crying while they lay on either side of me, holding me.
The last few weeks, I asked myself that stupid, awful question again as Jay was dying. Would I give up my writing if it meant keeping him alive? Yes.
But he died anyway.
I think he would take a certain satisfaction in knowing he’d been right all along, that I was holding onto something and getting in my own way. And I think he’d Â be delighted he’d helped demolishÂ that myth of mine. But, oh, I wish he hadn’t.
I would like a year with no more cancer. No more friends, family, or coworkers getting frightening diagnoses, or dying right as they were supposed to be getting better.
No more unexpected emergencies for supposedly run-of-the-mill intestinal problems, that turn a half hour surgery into a four hour series of surgeries and require a second surgical team. No more lost sounding text messages from dad as he ends up spending his day in the waiting room, worrying, and the best thing I can do is send him pictures of puppies.
No more putting beloved pets to sleep because of money. Because the surgery that was supposed to fix the problem (and wiped out all of your savings) only bought you another two months.
No more convoluted wills designed to set all beneficiaries at each other’s throats. No more reassuring the rabbi that I really don’t give a fuck about grandma’s money and think he earned it by putting up with her for 15 years. No more talking to the rabbi. At all. (Unavoidable, though. I still need to deal with the household items she left me. Reminders that neither of us were ever what the other wanted, and her desperation to make me into what she thought I should be. Reminders of her need and loneliness… And my desire not to be dragged down into it.)
No more curses you can’t undo, left by grandfathers you never knew…
Let 2013 take those things with it.
Or at least, thatâ€™s what heâ€™s trying to do. But Iâ€™m not going to let him. And Iâ€™m asking for your help.
My grandmother died in March, leaving her rabbi & tenant of the last 15 years as her primary beneficiary. Which makes perfect sense; he was her family. She left him lifetime tenancy in her house, $50k a year that will likely last him the rest of his life, and two small dogs.
When I first spoke to her lawyer, he told me the rabbi was unhappy about having the dogs and that he was worried the rabbi would put them down. At the time, I thought my parents or I could take them. But Iâ€™m a freelancer and currently I donâ€™t have a gig. My savings were wiped out when my cat needed an emergency surgery and I already have three rescues. I canâ€™t afford it.
Weâ€™ve also learned that my mother needs to have a surgery soon, which will require roughly two months recovery time in which my father will be taking care of her. Â My parents canâ€™t take the dogs.
I explained all this to the rabbi a few weeks ago. I pointed out that my grandmother, in her will, specifically left the dogs to him; clearly she expected him to care for them. I thought it was settled at that point.
Yesterday I received an email from the lawyerâ€™s office telling me the rabbi is going to have the dogs put down. They argued with him, trying to convince him to at least take the dogs to a shelter where theyâ€™d have a chance. Or put up a notice at the vetâ€™s office saying the dogs were up for adoption. He seems to have agreed.
He also left me a voicemail saying that if I want the dogs put down, heâ€™ll do that but he obviously canâ€™t keep them. Heâ€™s trying to put this on me, to salve his conscience, but itâ€™s his responsibility. Itâ€™s his choice. He *owes* my grandmother this.
Heâ€™s right, though. I wonâ€™t let him kill her dogs.
Within two minutes of searching, I found a no-kill shelter not far from the house. The dogs will be going there. But I would much rather find a home for the both of them. Which is why Iâ€™m asking for your help. Give this a signal boost. Maybe you know someone who would want them or could offer suggestions.
Iâ€™ll post a picture here of the dogs as soon as I can get a hold of one.
The dogs are in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A mini-dachshund and a terrier mix.
When we bring him home the first day heâ€™s covered in dirt. I carry him past mom and into the bathroom to wash him while Dave runs interference. We werenâ€™t supposed to get a puppy, we were just supposed to look. But really, send Dad and Dave and me out to look at puppies and expect us not to get one? Losing battle, that.
Washing him has the unexpected side effect of arousing momâ€™s sympathy. Wet bedraggled and bewildered puppy is apparently one of her triggers for mothering.
My brother names him Orion.
Soon enough Orion loves everyone. He spends his first hours with us trying to lick our noses. Our older golden retriever starts drooling uncontrollably; her anxiety response. Eventually she decides Orionâ€™s okay. Heâ€™s remarkably tolerant of her drooling on him.
Six months old and Orion is limping. He can barely walk. Both front legs are having problems. Watch a six month old puppy try to play and stumble because his legs wonâ€™t hold him.
Osteochondritis Dissecans. Congenital problem with joints and cartilage. Dad calls up the breeder and chews him out about faking the health certs for the parents. The breeder offers to take Orion back, which we all know would be a death sentence. The man would just put him down.
Mom and Dad comb through the budget to find the money for surgery. It will cost 2k, and they can only scrape up 1k. Uncle Stan gives us the rest.
Orion goes in for surgery on both shoulders. Heâ€™ll need to stay at the vet for a week after surgery. The receptionist calls to tell us what a wonderful dog he is.
He canâ€™t go up the stairs, so Dave brings his sleeping bag downstairs and camps out on the living room floor next to Orion for the next several weeks. Dave is Orionâ€™s person.
Dad and Uncle Stan drive Orion back for a follow-up at the vet. Orion is so terrified, he shakes the entire hour long ride there. Uncle Stan holds him the whole way there. Orion will be the first, possibly the only, one of our dogs Uncle Stan bonds with.
Orion heals and no longer limps. He never stops being a puppy, though, as the years pass. Heâ€™ll look at you with complete adoration, like youâ€™re the best thing in the world. Half an hour later youâ€™ll catch him giving the same look to a sprinkler head.
Orion sleeps on Daveâ€™s bed with him every night up until Dave leaves for college six years later. Then he sleeps in Mom and Dadâ€™s room.Â .By this point neither Dave nor I live at home. Gaia, our older dog, passes away suddenly. No warning. Orion is the only dog now.
Dad and Dave and I get sent off to look at puppies again (youâ€™d think Mom would have learned by nowâ€¦). We commit to a pup, though sheâ€™s still too young to bring home. When we finally bring her, Orion bounces.
Even though heâ€™s six, he acts as young as she is.
The two of them become best friends, curling up to sleep together. Where he goes, she follows. Sienna. She is frightened of everything, and he is her brave older brother. Even though she eventually comes to weight 15 lb more than he does, she always believes heâ€™s bigger.
Mom gets diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment leaves her bed-ridden for the better part of a year. Orion and Sienna are her constant companions. They’re gentle with her. They know sheâ€™s sick, and sheâ€™s lonely, and they donâ€™t mind when she needs to cry and hold them. Without them, she would be completely alone most days. For the first time since Bryse died more than 20 years ago, Mom truly bonds with a dog. Orion.
Likewise, Orion doesnâ€™t mind when Dad falls apart and holds onto him and cries. Because Dad won’t let himself cry in front of Mom.
Orion has bonded with every single one of us. Dave, Dad, Mom, Uncle Stan, me. The only one of our dogs to do that.
Dave and I come home for Thanksgiving, and Orion is limping. He can barely use his front legs. But heâ€™s excited to see us. Dad buys a vest with a handle on the top of it for Orion, so we can help take some of the weight off his legs when he goes upstairs. Sometimes Dave just carries him up. Orion is tired, and in pain half the time.
Mom and Dad sit us down. Heâ€™s not going to last much longer, they tell us. Which we all knew, but no one wanted to say. So, they tell us, you should probably say your goodbyes now.
Weâ€™re all crying. Dave lets me hold him while his shoulders shake. Mom holds Dadâ€™s hand.
We donâ€™t want him to suffer, Dad says. We wonâ€™t let what happened to Spock happen to him. No long and painful decline. No dying alone in the veterinary hospital.
When I arrive, heâ€™s so excited that he gets up and limps over to me. Stumbling. In that time heâ€™s lost even more muscle mass. His left front paw is useless. He canâ€™t go up the stairs.
So Dave gets out his sleeping bag and sleeps on the living room floor.
When afternoon comes we walk him out to the car, and heâ€™s wagging his tail and it feels so wrong, because weâ€™re taking him to die. Dave holds him the whole way there.
Orion canâ€™t get out of the car; I carry him. When we get in the door the vet tech helps me carry him the rest of the way.
Heâ€™s trembling. We all gather around him, petting him. Each one of us touching him and trying to comfort him. His trembling seems to go away. The vet gives him a sedative.
A few minutes later, when Orion is calm, the vet comes back. Itâ€™s an extremely high dose of an anesthetic he tells us. Orion wonâ€™t feel anything. His body will twitch, but thatâ€™s not him. Thatâ€™s the body trying to stay alive. He wonâ€™t be aware of it.
And it happens just like the vet says.
And Orion is gone.
Death sets a thing significantThe eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly
To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With “This was last her fingers did,”
The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then ‘t was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.
A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him,–
At rest his fingers are.
Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.– Emily Dickinson