It’s possible to name everything and to destroy the world.
– Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity
automatic fired echoes
silence bubbles where
freeze frames split
reality’s horror into
of flight-not-fight hope
where once the twang
of vocal chords unified
a flock now scattered
feathers hovering in
midair spots where whole
beings once stood-smile-
confusion, echoing off
networked nodes pinged
answers tailored to
eyes and ears trained
to see-hear the
bloodying the homeland.
A bullet for every baby.
An invoice for every death.
I am eight. It is 6 days before Christmas. Night time, I think. My father returns from the hospital, wakes me to tell me my mother has died. My half-asleep response: “OK.” What is there to say? He hugs me. I hug back. The entire world, aside from my bed and father, has just been sucked into a blackhole. I wonder if a dandelion feels this way when yanked from the earth roots-and-all.
I had been warned. There were signs. I believed them. He told me she was sick and there was a chance “she might not make it.” I confessed to him I didn’t know how upset I’d be because you’re supposed to be upset when your mother might die. I wasn’t. I didn’t want her to die, I just didn’t feel like I’d miss her because she’d turned mean the last few months. The results of a second, failed kidney transplant: depression, impatience, anger. She kicked me once in the ass on our way in the house from the car. I was in the way, struggling with the metal garbage can and she was carrying heavy stuff. I knew I was supposed to feel upset or sad and I knew my feelings didn’t match.
My father told her this. That she was pushing me away. He wanted us to come together again. To be whole. So one of the last messages she got indirectly from me was that I wouldn’t miss her or didn’t love her. Perhaps that’s why I still can’t go to sleep when there’s an apology to be made, a peace to be negotiated.
A few years later, while my father was showering, I sat on the closed toilet and told him it didn’t seem like such a bad thing to die. Like maybe it was preferable to living. Why wait for the inevitable. I could see his blurred form through the frosted shower glass. He continued washing as he said God forbids it. My life was not mine to take. The response was either the surest example of faith I have ever experienced or the absolute limit of parental hubris. Things can be both, I suppose.
I’m still here. My mother still is not.
I’d been putting off returning to the veterinary office to pick up a replacement memorial certificate and name plate for our dog (they reversed his name, Scotch, with our surname on the original materials). It’s a final administrative gesture. Perhaps that finality had me dragging my feet. A phone call reminder prompted me to just get on with it. Twelve minutes in the car, I pulled into the parking lot, took a deep breath to prepare for that sympathetic look with which the well-intentioned staff would smother me, and strode up to the door. It was locked. I just spoke with them 20 minutes ago—how could this be? The sign on the door: “Closed for lunch 1:30-2:00pm.” The time was 1:38pm. Do I wait? Do I try to maximize my time? Do I… ?
“Just take a walk.” An impatient voice in my head directs me. There’s a park across the street. The weather is overcast and edging on more rain. Strange utility poles jut up high into the grey skies. I’ll try and take some interesting photos. I’ll just pause and enjoy being outside. Like the dog would have. Explore. Sniff some things.
I cross Good Luck Road. In my head, I’m hearing that edging-on-lunacy laugh that erupts from Arya’s character in Game of Thrones when she arrives at her aunt’s castle hoping to find some family and safety after a long, dangerous escape only to be informed that her aunt died three days ago. I skipped lunch, which means every partially introspective or maudlin thought turns into a depressive, the-world-is-ending mental digression. I miss my dog. I wish he was here to piss on things. To talk to.
I seem to be expecting some sort of comfort in nature. A respite in this park. It’s a rough, gravel parking lot. Trash shrewn around the periphery. Locked gates prevent access to the grassy playing fields. The outdoors made uninviting. I take some photos of an electrical structure—a towering pole topped off with rectangular panels like a Brutalist/Cubist sculptural mash-up. I wander along the edge of the woods. My throat constricts as I come across a deer carcass. The head is turned back at close to an unnatural angle. The area where a white tail once was now devoured leaving a meaty window into the beast’s insides. Life is brutal. Or, rather, death prevails. Everything is wet, leafless, and steps away from winter. Solace. There is no solace. Am I being mocked by nature itself or has my blood sugar just dropped enough to turn everything into some sort of melancholic sign? I clench my jaw as if to bite down while swallowing the message: He’s gone.
I leave the park and walk along the shoulder of the busy road. It’s an unwelcoming road for a stroll. The shoulder is ample, but it’s not the type of road pedestrians frequent (no sidewalks). A single lane in each direction with cars whizzing by at 40 mph or so. Mostly, or so. I pass under a bridge. I considered the dog one of my closest friends. A good listener. Always curious. Excited upon my every return. A companion in the late hours of the night. A constant adversary in the struggle for territory in the “big bed.” I think about how Scotch approached the world. Enjoying the simple things: a meal, a nap, a walk. I’m taking myself for a walk. I explore with my eyes the way he would have explored with his nose. Fast food wrappers, barren shrubbery, a used condom. No solace. I should take myself for walks more often, I think to myself. I wish I had taken Scotch for more walks. I think about how I have no “bucket list.” There are endless things I want to do and experience, but nothing that makes me feel my life will not have been full or fulfilling should I miss it. It feels like I’ve been out here for at least an hour, but a glance at my phone when I get back to the parking lot reveals a mere 20 minutes passed.
The front door opens. A kind, familiar face greets me and I wait behind one other customer, a man trying to get an instant appointment for a friend’s sick cat who is minutes away from arriving separately. I ask for the memorial certificate—I look it over together with the woman at the front desk. All is correct. It means nothing to me, but I’m glad it’s correct. That it’s over. I’ll slide the envelope under the decorative box holding his cremated remains at home. I’ll try to live a little more like a dog. In the moment. But moments without him.
Seven to ten days before Friday: Tasha is having trouble moving about the house. The right leg that has steadily been failing sometimes operates like a limp, crooked costume tail lifelessly dragging behind. This is the point she has to stop going for walks as the dragging of that back leg looks like it might snap a joint given some of the awkward angles it occasionally rests at. Limbs bent at unnatural angles elicit my gag reflex. The big, trusting eyes and face of a 10 yr. old boxer looking up at you with the will to go for a walk but not the mechanics elicits my tears. It is easy to anthropomorphize the creature. I do. And during our last attempt at her most beloved activity, she peers into my eyes wordlessly saying: “I’m trying. I really want to go for this walk. But… But I can’t.” How confusing and frightening it must be for every creature that loses its mobility or the means to feed or clean themselves. This is the tipping point. We knew it was coming. It actually came slower than expected. She got in more walks, more treats, and more naps than the odds predicted. Beating the odds is a rare thing.
Friday: Decision day. Thankfully, degenerative myelopathy is mostly a painless process. As it has progressed, the dog has adapted to each new setback. But the setbacks are coming quicker and progressing geometrically. A simple limp from the bedroom to the kitchen exhausts her. She sometimes spins halfway around (“like rowing with one oar” as my wife says). Her back left leg is now starting to give out. Her behavior is changing. She seems confused. Forgetful even—thinking it is mealtime almost immediately after eating. The night before she broke into a bag of dog food on the floor while we were out for two hours at an event. She has never attempted anything like this before given ample opportunities in the 11 months we’ve lived together. Uncharacteristically, she peed in the house. She almost falls over when trying to “do her business” outside. It is painful to watch. Watching something you love die is always painful. My wife calls the vet and requests an appointment for Monday to euthanize the dog. My wife will spend the next few hours questioning and agonizing over this decision even though it is the right one. She always makes the right decisions—she has a sixth sense about these sorts of things. I cannot be trusted with such decisions lest I search for one last miracle or duct-tape “solution” (I would have loved to be a neighbor staring out the window watching me try to salvage Tasha’s quality of life in a vain attempt to make walks still possible. On our last outing, I tried to tie the back right leg up to her mid section with an ace bandage—my weak attempt didn’t hold for more than a few seconds and even the dog looked at me with a WTF expression. My attempt to squat behind her and move one back leg at a time with my hands around her ankles must have looked equally strange or comical. Thanks to my upbringing, I have no issues with making a fool of myself—it comes in handy in loving and caring for others.) It will be a long, emotional weekend.
Saturday (4:30am): Already she has woken up several times to go out and had loose stools. Hard to say whether this is a result of chowing down on nearly a pound of her younger canine brother’s dry dog food two nights ago or part of her degeneration. Having not bothered to get on the bed (a favorite resting spot) the previous day she does so around 2a.m. to wake my wife from whom Tasha seeks and gets the reassurance and comforting she needs. Near 4:30am, she pops her head up from the foot of the bed again. I take her out back. I walk outside wearing only boxer shorts intending to help her should she have trouble with her footing. She looks at me like I’m crazy. I back off. We come back in, limp back to the bedroom, and she stares at the door again. I take her back out and realize on our just-finished trek back to the bedroom that she had diarrhea on one of the rugs (our upstairs hardwood floors are covered with a hodge-podge of runners, welcome mats, and carpet remnants so she will not slip on her way to eat or go out). She finishes up outside. I soak some paper towels with warm water and wash the shit off her back right “elbow”. I pour some baking soda on the carpet. I wait for the offensive spots to dry by writing about how my dog is dying. By trying to accept her impending death.
We adopted her from a local shelter knowing she didn’t have much time left (as much as anyone knows such unknowns). But the averages would never have predicted what a pure and gentle spirit we would discover in Tasha. She immediately became an integral part of the family, a loyal companion, a delightful distraction from our current houseboundedness, the most excited front door greeter you’ll ever meet, and a moderate annoyance to our existing dog, an 8 yr. old Shih Tzu, not given to acts of charity, who has waited out Tasha’s stay with reluctant acceptance and small Machiavellian maneuverings such as his blocking access to the bed or stealing her bones.
There is no easy way to say goodbye.
That’s why death is so unfair–everything else we lose, we always have our bodies left, the palms to sob into, the thighs to hold us nobly upright on our hard chairs. Then death takes nothing but our body away.
– Queen of Terrors, “When I Think about You”, Robert Kelly