As more of us absorb the wizardry of the vaccine, where we end up might well be up to the whims of an enchanted sorting hat, just like in the Harry Potter books. Although it’s not a choice between Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin at Hogwart’s School, it’s not like we enter into the great hall of a high school gym or fairgrounds barn with much choice of which vaccine will live in us. The sentient sorting hat of our time is surely up to its pointy tip in overtime, determining whether we move to the Johnson and Johnson high rise or the Pfizer mansion.
So I started doing some research (aka making shit up), and I’m happy to share with you your horoscope for your vaccine house.*
Pfizer: You’re a person who needs to be as sure as possible, so you prefer to align with tried and true tradition and old money even if it was all tested long before current varieties of our time. You’re also quite delicate on occasion and tend to run cold, but nevertheless a strong contender. While most likely able to succeed winningly at all your endeavors, you don’t take to transitions well, particularly if you must endure heated delays of any kind. Your Achilles Heel is body aches. Your favorite color is royal blue, your most memorable meal is ice cream cake followed by espresso stored in dry ice, and your happy place is either the Arctic tundra or at a disco in Rio where the D.J. can’t stop playing Daft Punk songs. Your helper animal is either an illusive giraffe or a well-fed raccoon.
Moderna: You’re willing to be an upstart and take your chances, but you’re a product of nouveau wealth wanting the same security as the old money. You know how to make things happen quickly and how to outwit competitors, but you’re also prone to headaches and long naps more than you would like to admit. You generally like people and make friends at lightning speed. Your favorite color is dollar-bill green, you enjoy a Pina Colada (but not any songs about the drink), and your happy place is at Burning Man right before anyone has set up camp. Your animal, a de-scented skunk, travels with you everywhere you go although she has a mind of her own and often escapes to lurid night clubs instead of helping you transport your precious creations. You also enjoy long autumnal walks in New England, but only when you’re not working, which is never.
Johnson & Johnson: You’re a one-and-done maverick who’s willing to take your chances to get ‘er done quickly and easily. You’re also easy on the eyes. While you come from ancient tradition dating back to clan with names no one can pronounce, you’re not exactly a chip off the old horse even if the donkey is your protector animal. You believe in hard work and family connections, but you’re also practical enough to make a splash with doing things your own way. Your color is blood red, your bar order is either a gin and tonic or a Shirley Temple, and your happy place is at a refurbished tennis court at 6 a.m. in the Hamptons. Your idea of fun entails Lear jet flights back and forth over the U.S. while counting clouds and singing ABBA songs.
Astrazeneca: You have an international flair and a penance for adventure. Some might say you’re not reliable, particularly with younger people, but you’re a dark horse that may surprise us all. You have an amazing propensity to prove people wrong about your intentions although you do like to build followers on social media whenever you have a free moment. With a British father and Swedish mother, you know something about aging royalty, effective compromise, and also how to play multiple card games during hundreds of overcast days. Your color is orange, your favorite meal involves herring on toast, and your happy place is anyplace in Africa with a large urban population. Your animal is a happy puma.
*The first three vaccines are currently available in the U.S., and obviously there are more vaccine houses around the world to be considered, but my divination skills only go so far.
You just showed up one winter day, nose to nose with our labmatian (lab-dalmatian) Mariah, only the glass of the screen door between you. You were emaciated, sick, and shivering, and we were in a rush to get me to the airport. So Ken and I put you in the minivan, sped off to the humane society, and finding it closed, kept you for a few more hours.
By the time Ken got back to Lawrence, he was already in love with you, but for the sake of making sure someone abandoned and didn’t lose you, we took you to the humane society. There, you were — so wrong! — named Dwayne, and for the next two weeks, which was all we would wait until adopting you, I called everyday from Vermont to ask if any owners surfaced for the dog soon-to-be-formerly known as Dwayne. By the time I got home, the two weeks were up, and we raced to the humane society to bring you to your forever home.
You so weren’t a Dwayne, but since you were called that for a few weeks, we wondered about a name that rhymed with Dwayne. Shane? No, Natalie knew a Shane who was a jerk. Wayne? Cain? None of them fit you. It was Ken’s birthday the day we adopted you, so we left it up to him. He simply shortened Shane to Shay, and that’s all she wrote.
You were a character for the ages from the get-go. Crazy-handsome with long dog fingers and a beautiful mahogany coat because you were a combination chocolate lab and weimaraner (a labaraner, we told people), you were perpetually hungry and extremely crafty about the procurement of food. You could open any cabinet or drawer, and one day I walked into the kitchen to find you had opened the refrigerator and were staring into it, you head tilted to the right as you mused, “What do I feel like eating?” Another time, you were sitting with a big dog smile on you face before the lit stovetop burner, which you had turned on. You would either soon be sauteing an omlette or burning down the house, so we child-proofed everything and even put a lock on the refrigerator.
You would eat anything, and no amount of training made a dent in your constant habit of sidling up to anyone with food, your beautiful brown eyes working greatly to your advantage. One time, to teach you a lesson, Daniel poured sriracha sauce all over a plate of food, put on the floor, and you came bounding over. You ate it in one swoop, then looked up, grinning, asking if there was more. But what’s food is in the eye of the beholder, and you didn’t limit himself to animal or vegetable. You ate, over the early years, half of a pair of Ken’s pants, numerous leather belts, Bill Remmers’ favorite cap, boxes of crayons, eucalyptus-scented candles, and a big handful of coffee beans.
Most of all, you were a Ricola man. You’d do anything for Ricola cough drops, even unzipping hidden compartments in my purse, carefully extracting the cough drops, unwrapping them, and gulping them down with glee. One day I found my purse in the side yard, everything intact, but nearby, there was a stack of Ricola wrappers, and your breath did smell particularly fresh that afternoon.
You were also a wanderer at first, unsure as to whether you could and would stay with us. This wasn’t helped by your ability to open just about any door. Your walkabouts were legendary, sometimes for hours, and once for three days. The only way I found you was to place an ad in the paper after publishing your disappearance every other way I could. I drove almost ten miles to find a kindly older couple had you in their garage until they could find your owner. Somehow, after a year or so, your wandering slowed down, and you circled your wagons around our home although you were vigilant about running a wide circle in the field every night, barking away any would-be predators.
You were stunningly beautiful, the most handsome dog I’ve ever seen, with silky ears you loved us to stroke. In fact, you looked enough like a small brown horse that Daniel, in his college years, would often take you to town to walk about Mass St. because you were such a chick magnet. I’ve witnessed many a time when teenage girls and young women would line up to pet you, marveling at your friendly sleekness and shine. You especially liked when, on Halloween, we put you in your tuxedo outfit with a top hat and bow tie.
What did you love? Everyone. Only once, when someone of ill temperament, approached the house did you snarl. You greeted most people with enthusiasm, and we had to train guests to turn around if you tried to leap up to get face-to-face with them. You rolled on your back to show you were a lover, not a fighter.
What did you hate? Thunderstorms. Extensively. Even a hint of lightning was a PTSD trigger of immense proportion for you, and given that we’re in one of the thunderstorm capitals of the world, this was a hard trauma to navigate. We tried a thunder shirt and CBD oil, but nothing worked except drugging you into oblivion. The day afterwards, you were groggy and sometimes your legs shook when you stood up, but we learned this was a better alternative than you being so terrified for so long, often trying to climb onto my head for comfort. Did I mention that you were 90 pounds?
Before you showed up, we thought of getting a second dog to help Mariah, who was ancient by the time you arrived. You nudged her on and always let her be the alpha canine, walking slowly behind her slow gait. You went out when she went out, came to us for help when she lost control of her bladder or was in pain, and you mourned — sleeping for hours on the couch — after we had her put down. We’re sure your presence gave her another year or so of life. Likewise, we got Moxie, a border collie, a bit over a year ago, and she was your nurse dog, waking up to escort you outside multiple times each night, even when it was sub-zero, then waiting until you were ready to come back so she could herd you to the door.
You were primarily my dog since we were together almost all the time. With me working at home, you took up being my administrative assistant, body guard, escort for any trek — no matter how short — to the bathroom or the car, and co-worker. While I typed on my laptop, you typed in your clickity-click pacing or you lay near me, revising a piece of rawhide while I revised a poem. You were exactly the right height for my right land to land on the top of your soft head as we walked down the hall, and you were always at my side.
We also had many adventurous walks together, often with Anne, who called you Shayby while I called you Shashay. We walked throughout many parts of Lawrence and drove even more miles, the windows wide open for you to feel the wind in your fur while you leaned out to smell the world. I started using what we called a Medieval collar to control you on these walks, but long after you needed any pulling back away from speeding cars, you loved that collar, doing a little Shay dance whenever I picked it up because you knew a walk was on tap.
Somehow and somewhere along the almost decade together of Shayness, you got old. Like most labs and lab mixes, you developed wicked arthritis, your hips aching and your gait slowing. Your muzzle grayed, and over time, you started having some kidney enzyme imbalances, and in the last three or so months, long stretches of dog coughing. It turned out there was a mass, likely a cancerous tumor, at the base of your good-boy heart. You were too old and fragile — likely 15 or so years already — for us to find out more or treat the mass without likely killed you in the process, so we waited.
A dog’s demise is impossible to measure, especially since a dog like you isn’t prone to complain, just walk with more and more difficulty and pain, sleep for longer periods, and take so much longer to eat. Your eyes were glazed over, and not just by cataracts, and your hearing was going too. With the kidney issues, Ken and I became adept at leaping up from any movie we were watching to grab the mop and a towel right away. We put in a long runner of carpet to make it easier for you to navigate from your food bowl to the blue couch, where you spent most of your time.
Of course we tried lots of remedies and medications, long talks with the wonderful Dr. Bayouth, your vet, and with friends. The question of how to know when it’s time is an impossible thing to hold because with dogs, and especially a dog like you, the answer is swimming and drowning in love. You would have stayed as long as we let you. In recent weeks, however, it became painfully clear how hard your life was becoming. Each breath, each step, each awakening each morning became more strained.
“Are you miserable all the time?” I asked you about a week ago. You lifted your head, stared into my eyes, and said with your gorgeous and heartbreaking eyes, “Yes.” I then asked you if you were ready to leave us. Suddenly, you leapt to your feet and did all you could to look alive. Ken and I kept talking to each other and others, trying to discern when was when.
Then Thursday night, your coughing fits (caused by the tumor) escalated until you were coughing continuously all night. You had to go out to pee every few hours for weeks, but now each step hurt, and you were doing all you could to propel yourself forward. You were trying so hard, and you were so tired. At 5 a.m. Friday morning, all of us awake a lot of the night, Ken turned to me and said, “Today is the day.” I stayed awake frozen and scared for you and us.
There’s never a good time. There’s never a right time. Yet we have this privilege and responsibility of sorts with our pets to make a decision to put them out of their pain and exhaustion. We called the vet and set an appointment for 3:30 p.m. Meanwhile, throughout the day, I fed you what you loved most: a whole packet of sustainably-harvested smoked salmon. Chicken tenders. A can of tuna fish. You even, when I left the room, managed to snag a bag of Wheatfields bread off the counter and eat some of it, then collapsed to sleep in the crumbs. Both of our sons and our sister-in-law came over to say goodbye while Ken dug your grave for hours. By the time we left for the vet, you in your Medieval collar and us lifting you — your front half and then your back half — into the car, Daniel took over the shoveling, and we drove to town.
Your death was more loving and gentle than we could have imagined. Dr. Heeb brought great compassion into the room where she, Ken, and I sat on the floor around you, sitting on a plush blanket. She wrapped her arms around you, and you leaned into her as she gave you the first injection to help you relax. No resistance, no fear, no hesitation. As you sunk to the ground, we held you while she did the rest. Then she left us for a few minutes to talk with you, your body still so warm and your presence so palpable, it was impossible to believe you were dead. When she and Ken carried you to the car on a dog stretcher, the whole staff of the Animal Hospital of Lawrence stood and watched us, most of them tearing up as I cried and couldn’t get out the words to thank them.
We brought you to the deep hole in the field, close to where you loved to run and near our home. We sprinkled dog treats into your grave after we lowered you down, wrapped in a fuzzy brown blanket. I dropped in a Ricola, unwrapped, for you while Ken stopped Moxie dog were jumping down to steal your treats. We had a brief Jewish service, the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) and the Shehecheyanu (prayer for the season and time we’re in), plus all of us – Ken, his sister Karen, Daniel and me — saying how much we loved you.
This is a long letter to you, Shay, because I don’t want it end. I don’t want you to be gone. I don’t want your dead lovely body to be buried in the ground just beyond our vegetable garden. When I woke today at 5 a.m., the gulf you left seemed to fill the house. I wouldn’t want you suffering and alive, but it’s also impossible to have you out of pain but dead. As an Olympic medal-winner at second-guessing myself, I’ve circled through the what-ifs dozens of times, always arriving back where I started. But still.
You are one of the great loves of my life. My gratitude is bigger than my grief, but this grief is a big place of seemingly no return. Maybe I’m just having a walkabout myself through this loss, but I also haven’t gone anywhere, and when it comes to loving you, I never will. Thank you, sweet dog. Thank you forever, Shay.
“I’m here for my monogram,” a silver-haired woman told the receptionist. “Yes, your mammogram,” the receptionist answered without missing a beat. Obviously, she had heard such variations before, and this is the way of Scan Land, where many — if not all of us — go every so often to make sure there’s nothing anxious or life-threatening growing, or growing too much, on our insides.
Yesterday, I returned to Scan Land for my quarterly CT scan or MRI to ensure that no micrometastases from my ocular melanoma were taking up residence in my liver or lungs. “How many of these have we done so far?” Ken asked me yesterday as we sat in the waiting room, me sipping the iodine water necessary for my CAT scan. I counted on my fingers: at least nine quarterly scans, and that doesn’t count the dozens of eye ultrasounds (amazing how you can get used to a tiny device moving back and forth on your eyeball) and another kind of scan that entails staring deep into a machine to watch the fires of Mordor.
I’ve made many excursions to Scan Land since 2002 when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Because I’m a carrier of the BRCA 1 genetic mutation (which increases risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers) and because my dad and uncle died of pancreatic cancer, I was going annually for a CAT scan or MRI for years. With the scans related to the more recent cancer, if I could earn frequent flyer miles for all the hours I’ve spent in Scan Land, I could circle the globe.
To be honest, the scans aren’t painful, and because I’ve struggled with tight-spaces anxiety, they sure aren’t boring. But thanks to work with my therapist, meditation, medication, and if it’s a closed MRI, serious drugs, I’ve been able to get through them. That said, I’ve also experienced some of my worst panic attacks lying on a platform going in and out of a machine. I’ll never forget the 45-minute-long PET scan in a traveling scan-mobile parked outside the hospital which I hyperventilated and cried through before slowing my breath enough to see myself wandering a desert for a long night, searching for some sense of peace while reminding myself that this big, bad machine wasn’t going to hurt me.
I’ve worked through a lot of my scan issues, and yesterday, I did my first scan without any medication, and although I started to feel that rushing fight-or-flight sensation in my stomach, I remembered to breathe and listen to the song (Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” — even if it’s from a vampire movie) I always play on my ear buds. So now I’m mostly left with the end point for all who visit Scan Land: the results.
No matter what the results are, they are always extraordinary: good (thank heavens!), bad (Oh my God!) or ambiguous (Oh no!). We inhabits of the waiting rooms — before the scan and before the doctor’s visit to tell us the results — aren’t a cheery bunch for the most part, most of us somewhere between scared, hopeful, numb, resigned, sad, distracted, and freaked out. Waiting for the results is often the worst part of wrangling with cancer and other life-smashing illnesses.
Some doctors use the I’ll-call-you-if-it’s-fine-but-you-have-to-come-in-if-it’s-not approach, which makes for a terrifying drive to the doctor’s office, knowing bad news, possibly life-shortening, is about to assault us. Luckily, my oncologist has a better way: I have my scan in the morning, then go to her office at 1 p.m. no matter the results, which gives the worst of my imaginative capacities little time to get too riled up. Still, I usually have a twinge.
Then again, scans have saved my life more than once. A mammogram caught my breast cancer early enough that I could survive it. A constellation of eye and other scans led me to treatment in June of 2019 that so far (and continuing for many years to come, I hope, I hope, I hope) saved me. Yesterday was another clear scan, and once again I’m overwhelmingly grateful for my short trek in and out of this big donut-hole-shaped machine.
I remember years ago at my oncologist’s office seeing two women — one middle-aged and one older, a mother and daughter — walk in the door clutching each other and sobbing. They were sure they were there for bad news, and it was hard for them to answer the receptionist’s questions as she checked them in. Eventually, they were called back to meet with the doctor as was I. When I was checking out, they were too, and this time they were crying for a different reason. They had gotten good news, and they were so overcome with relief and joy that they couldn’t stop weeping. I had gotten good results too that day, a good day in Scan Land for us all.
“The world will never be the same,” Ken told me right after Goody Garfield’s burial service. “We were witness to one of a kind, and that’s true of everyone, but not to the same level.” Anyone who knew and loved Goody — and if you knew him, how could you not love him? — would agree. There was something about Goody that filled any conversation with marvel, humor, delight, no small stash of wisdom, and no end of winding and illuminating stories.
When I ran into Goody at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, like just about all of us, he treated me — sometimes while holding my face in both his hands — with wonder and adoration. On birthdays, he would email me show tunes with revised lyrics, like “What a day this has been/ What a carin’ mood has swept in/ Why it’s almost like falling in love.” He sent sweet missives to Ken if he saw an article on prairie plants or poetry to me mused about his latest thoughts and delights while he drank coffee in what he called the wee hours.
To say Goody was exuberant about life doesn’t begin to name his dazzling smile. When he entered a room, we might as well have blasted “76 Trombones” from the rafters. But his way of seeing and being with us was also poignantly intimate. Likewise, Shirley — his partner in crime for so many decades — also carries a depth and a glow at once. Together, they shone with enthusiasm, tenderness, wit, and they knew their way around a good story to get at some out-of-the-way but essential meaning.
If Goody was weather, he would be a windy, sunny, warm April day that charmed all the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley into maximum blooming and made strangers fall in love. No wonder then that we buried Goody in driving cold rain, the wind cutting right through our jackets, the storm soaking through our clothes. Even standing under the awning over the burial site where Shirley and their three loving children — Michael, David, and Debbie — sat near their daughter-in-law and grandson, the weather of heartbreak stormed through. The big hole in the ground mirrored the hole in our hearts.
“Goody was an inspiration. Inspiration means the spirit that he placed in other people. He wasn’t an inspiration because of what he taught; he was an inspiration because of who he was. To my mind, that’s the greatest thing you can say about anyone. ….he brings people to the good,” Rabbi Mark Levin, who led the graveside service, told us. From his bounding and boundless humor (on his Facebook page, he says he’s a retired point guard from the University of Kansas, where he was a life-changing professor of Social Welfare for years) to his fixed attention on what matters in life, he modeled inspiration as well as love.
Maya Angelou writes, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Although I hold tight to what Goody said and did, my life — as well as many of our lives — is changed by how he made me feel so loved and so alive. Although his memory is already a blessing, may it always continue to be.
“This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this,” we nervously joked with each other a year ago. We were friends, gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to see and hear Louise Erdrich, one of our most beloved writers. Erdrich had never been to Lawrence or Haskell, the only intertribal university in our country, and she rarely did public readings at all, so that this was happening at all was somewhat miraculous. While it was a first for this spectacular novelist, it was a last for hundreds of people clumping together in a big public place, even exchanging easy hugs.
I’m thinking today about the joke/no joke moment. I didn’t believe a year ago that this — a real pandemic landed squarely here and everywhere else in the world — would actually happen or that it would last more than a few weeks or months. Surely it would be over by April or July or definitely October. Of course the lockdowns would halt it from spreading. The masks I was rushing to make or buy from others sewing them would make a difference as would sanitizing the fuck out of everything that came in the door, from the mail to the avocados.
But what did I know? “Not much,” life tell us often. I went from counting weeks to counting months, and now I get it that it will be years before we’re out of the Covid woods. I couldn’t have imagined that close to 5,000 Kansans, over 500,000 Americans, and over 2.5 million people worldwide would die from this, all of them beloved by children or siblings, friends or partners, communities or families. There’s also millions who survived Covid but now are swimming through life with permanent damage to their hearts or lungs as well as asthma, migraines, and a host of strange symptoms. We’re just beginning to see more of the iceberg of this horrendous disease, including how it can twist into new mutations.
But something else has come into sharp relief through this year: just about everyone I know has spent a lot more time contemplating and savoring what matters in their lives. I have bunches of friends who walk the nearby wetlands daily, delighting in and learning about the life cycles of great blue herons and songs of red-winged blackbirds. Being home just about all the time alone or with a spouse or child brings — for the good and the bad — our relationships into new and acute focus. Not getting in the car so much or ever on the plane to flit here and there means a lot more rest is at hand, a good counterbalance at times (although not always enough) for pandemic anxiety and grief.
On a more personal level, I’m learning how much slowing down to be where I am is essential for my health and sanity. Each day, I step outside to the deck and try to take in the sky and weather of this moment. Back inside, I look at this quote from Louise Erdrich, framed and signed — a lovely gift from my friend Harriet when I was newly diagnosed with my last cancer — and nod in recognition:
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
Tonight, a year to the date I saw Erdrich, I’m going to a reading of a another writer I love but never heard in-person before: Anne Lamott. But I’ll be doing that — along with hundreds more across the country — through my computer screen. Life will and does break us, but yes, there are all these apples and sweetness right here too.
P.S. Thanks to the Raven Bookstore for helping bring Louise Erdrich to Lawrence a year ago. Thanks for Watermark Bookstore for being part of the virtual Anne Lamott reading tonight.
Last night, I found that my tinnitus buzzes and hums in the key of G. How did I find this? By singing in key with the tinnitus while pressing piano keys.
Making music out of misfortune is sometimes the order of the day, especially when I’m encased in a cocoon of hearing the workings of my own brain. That’s somewhat what tinnitus is, according to this succinct and brilliant video with Marc Fagelson, who says, “Experiencing tinnitus is like eavesdropping on your brain talking to itself although it may not be a conversation you want to hear.”
Then again, those of us (something like one in seven) with tinnitus don’t have much of a choice. How I got here wasn’t exactly by choice either, but rather a Rube Goldberg (no relation, just resonance) contraption of events. Over the last six months I’ve been immersed in the sport of extreme dentistry because the radiation treatment for my ocular melanoma wreaked havoc on my teeth. With upwards of 20 cavities, including many under caps, I’ve had close to 20 visits to the dentist, oral surgeon and endodontist. Almost all included drilling in various pitches, and yes, it turns out dental drilling can cause or worsen tinnitus (no, earplugs won’t help because the drilling is happening inside the head)
I’ve been running my own science experiment in my brain, and after each dental visit, someone turns the volume up on what was once a barely detectable buzz-hum-sing-roaring, sometimes so much that it wakes me up at night. So what’s a gal to do? Take to the internet and research the hell out of this of course, but I’ve also been telling people, which brings me a lot of stories of how people all around me have been living with tinnitus and other hearing quirks and limitations. There’s no cure, but there’s ways to make friends with this condition, which for me mainly takes the form of not storying this up with terms like “cancer’s collateral damage,” but instead telling myself tinnitus isn’t really unpleasant, and it’s more akin to be wrapped in multiple blankets of white noise. Sometimes it’s even soothing.
I’ve also recommitted to my wiggly meditation practice, changing my 5-minutes-of-meditation-when-I-feel-like-it to 18 minutes a day no matter what. While sitting quietly is a sure way to hear the loudest ocean of tinnitus engulfing me, it also gives me time to just be with it without thrashing against the walls of no such thing as pure silence. I also play music a lot, which helps somewhat mask tinnitus, and last night I stumbled upon singing along with it, then taking to the piano where I found it lived in the key of G. I then read today about how making and being in sounds that correlate to the same pitch is a practice called energetic masking.
So here I am, living life in the key of G, the letter that begins my maiden name of Goldberg but also goodness, google, God, guess, goobsmacked, Gaia, granola, gratitude, Gandalf, giving, grief, giraffe, grass, gravy, and grace. It’s not such bad company — and hey, a lot of these G’s are the very stuff of life — even if it’s sometimes a loud party of its own strange music.
When the temperature gets near or below zero, survival comes into sharper focus for us all, but so do birds and their survival without the benefit of fleece and indoor nesting.
So we feed the birds, but just as much for us as for them, sometimes hourly re-lining the deck ledge with a thick line of bird seed, emphasis on the black sunflower seeds they love so much. This smorsgasbord draws a constant wave of birds, dining side by side with little fuss, even when a squirrel joins the mix. The only thing that disrupts the long counter in Bird Diner is Mr. Bluejay, who freaks everyone the hell away until he gets his meal and departs.
I came to loving birds later in life, not really noticing them much until I had breast cancer in 2002. I quickly found out — and this has been verified so many times in facilitating writing classes for people living with serious illness — that there’s something about struggling through hard-nosed chemo, radiation, surgery recovery, or drug side effects that point our faces toward the window. For one thing, many of us in the throes of such grappling don’t have the bandwidth to do more that stare at walls, ceilings, and even better, windows. We slow way down, and voila! Were there always so many birds?
When I was tunneling through some dark stretches of eye cancer, it was birds again, but in a different way. Light hurt my right eye for so long (just months, but felt longer) that I would lie on the porch futon with a towel over my eyes and listen. Birdsong and calls, whether for food or love or territory, engulfed me. It was sometimes like being rocked in a cradle of bird sound, each sway showing me how vibrant and beautiful the world was even if I couldn’t look directly at it.
This winter I realized how much bird gazing is the best part of my day. When they meander off to roost in late afternoon, I feel sad, but when I wake up the next morning, the birds are the first view I most want (well, first checking my email on my phone, but still….). Muriel Rukeyser wrote in one of her poem, “The universe is made of turtles/ not of atoms,” and while that’s clearly true, I think a lot of those stories are made of birds, especially the winter, illness or other-time-sequestered-away (hello, pandemic!) stories.
Like right now: there’s two male cardinals, a female cardinal alighting to grab a sunflower seed, then flitting back to the branch. There’s always juncos, sometimes chickadees, an occasional goldfinch, many an adorable titmouse, little brindled sparrows, and the splendor of the flicker and the red-bellied woodpecker dazzling me, especially on overcast days. There’s the crow, solitary on the deck railing, tilting her head to the left to tune into the secrets of what gleams. Soon they should be bluebirds, my favorite of bird nirvana. And all the birds are puffed out to maximum birdness, warming themselves in their balls of feather.
Miyako the cat and I watch from the blind of the windows, me puffed out myself in layers of clothes, and her doing that crazy-cat chittering that’s almost as entertaining as the birds. Our eyes follow them away, then back down, a united states of birdland here for us all.
Thank you so much to a spectacular photographer and dear friend, Len Scotto, for these amazements in photography.
Shay the dog is an elderly gentleman with a lot of problems that could be careening him to the brink of the rainbow bridge soon. He has kidney issues and serious-bad arthritis. We recently discovered he has a mass at the base of his heart, likely cancerous, but to find out for sure (via an invasive biopsy) might curtail his life. Plus, he most likely wouldn’t survive surgery or cancer treatment at his age.
What is his age? We don’t know, but based on how old he was estimated to be when he showed up, emaciated and sick, nine year ago at our front door, he’s likely about 15 years old. He’s also a probable chocolate lab and Weimaraner mix, breeds that generally don’t live this long. Plus, his long Weimaraner legs and his problematic lab hips make him prone to fall over easily, especially when Moxie brushes by him too quickly.
So he’s living and we’re loving him on borrowed time. Yet we’re still happily palling around with him, giving him extra treats, petting him as he reclines on his couch, and walking with him as far as he can, which sometimes isn’t so far at all. We’re also leaping up to let him out when he starts pacing, having learned what the kidney issues translate into and not wanting to rush out the mop and disinfectant speedily.
There’s a common belief that dogs will tell you when it’s time to put them out of their misery, but our experience with labs especially is that dogs will hang out loving and being loved by us even if they’re in horrible pain. All we have to do is talk about whether it seems to be getting close to that awful decision, and Shay — who obviously knows what we’re saying — perks up for a day or two. That said, we know there are undeniable signs, especially if he can’t go out on his own. Shay is 90 pounds, and we can’t easily haul him around; just loading him into the car for a vet visit is a major exercise in loading half a dog at a time with great and careful effort.
Age is so much swifter in dogs and cats than in our lives, which are often three or four or more times as long as theirs. It’s hard to believe that this initial maniac of a walkabout wanderer who once raced circles in the field, barking away would-be predators, now hobbles to his feet, and later, slides his long front paws forward to get back down. However much time we’ve had with him — as any of you with pets know — is never enough.
As we watch him sleeping on his couch each evening, I think of how our vet talked with us about we should just be with him (in addition to giving him his meds and supplements) in what might be palliative care, our usual palling around, or both. Grief is pre-emptive, but love lasts way beyond death. We don’t know whether we have weeks or months, but have now, listening to his snoring at night and opening the door again in the morning for him to go out and, soon after, back in again.
On the phone with my cousin Richard last night, we talked about how life gives you materials you don’t often sign up for, then you have to figure out what to do with them. “A rabbi once told me we all get a mystery box,” he said, and my mind lit up: that’s exactly it.
My mystery box has all kinds of challenges and blessings in it that are so far beyond my imagination, yearnings, and beliefs of where I would land in this life. The little Brooklyn girl who loved to draw pictures all day, and when tucked in her bed as a New Jersey teen, would listen to Cousin Brucie play the hits on her transistor radio could never have fathomed her life decades later.
My mystery box, as I opened it to another layer, then another, revealed two bouts of cancer, one exceedingly common and the other exceedingly rare, but also three (how did that happen? Well, we know, but still….) children of passionate intelligence and daring creativity. As someone always as in love with places as with people, who knew I would end up marrying a fifth-generation Kansas, and after decades of trying to find a way, actually buying the family land to continue stewarding and protecting? Likewise, I couldn’t have known that the writing and good witnesses at crucial times that would save my life would help me pay it forward.
But perhaps it’s not accurate to say we open the box ourselves: the mystery box opens us. I used to joke with my friend Bobby that we’re here to break our hearts open, and the older I get, the truer it is. Yet what increases our ability to love — as long as we don’t choose the rabbit hole of hardening our hearts and shutting ourselves away from life — also shows us just how fragile, vulnerable, and powerful we are. I hear this in Kelley Hunt’s “That’s What Makes You Strong,” a great Jesse Winchester song. The more we dance with the contents of the mystery box, the greater our capacity to feel life with all its heartbreak hills, annoyance potholes, mercy daybreaks, and glory vistas.
I also love the idea of the mystery box because I collect wooden boxes. Why? I don’t know, but I adore the smell of cedar and other woods, the beauty of a well-crafted box, and idea that little treasures can be gathered and held in such art. Our mystery boxes collect us too, gathering all the parts of us that seemed separate (but truly aren’t) over time so that we can discover more of the whole cloth of our lives.
What we find or what finds us in our mystery box is sometimes terrifying, often beautiful, and always ours. What’s in your mystery box?
For many of us, it’s been a Wednesday onward of seemingly infinite relief as we’ve watched a new president and glass-ceiling-breaking vice president sworn in and a swirl of executive orders signed, legislation planned, and leadership installed to address the Covid crisis. As we cross into this new land, I feel such hope, but then I remember that not all of us get to cross over.
Over 415,000-plus Americans and 2,100,000-plus humans on this planet died from Covid. Many struggle for breath and life in this very minute, and many more are newly exposed or still sick. The toll is staggering — 98.4 cases million worldwide at this moment — and it’s not an abstract number to most of us anymore.
I’m thinking about Steve, a prince of a husband, scholar, and teacher fiercely beloved by his family, colleagues, and scores of students around the world. He taught history at Pittsburg State University in Kansas where he specialized in African and Middle Eastern history and changed many students lives for the better. To me, he was the husband of my friend Olive and always a gracious host, fascinating conversationalist, and man crazy in love with Olive. Steve died of Covid complications the day after Christmas, breaking the hearts of so many who loved him, including Olive, his five adult children and seven grandchildren.
I’m also thinking of Myron, an old friend of my parents, who I re-united with two years ago at the Manalapan Diner (N.J.), the mainstay diner where I grew up. We kept in touch since, and in early January on Facebook, Myron shared his best wishes for a better 2020, hopes for the vaccine returning us “to the old normal,” and a fireworks GIF. A few days earlier, he feared that thousands more would die because of the disorganized and disjointed Operation Warp Speed not getting the vaccine out. He was continually and compassionately articulate, resilient, and caring. The day after the inauguration he was so looking forward to, Myron died from Covid, leaving behind his children, grandchildren, and many friends and family.
So much could and should have been done to slow the stem of this virus, including acknowledging its deadly potential a year ago, basing messaging on science and not on what would benefit a person or party or profit, implementing a mask mandate, and coordinating federal, state, and local distribution of PPE, medication and equipment, and lately, the vaccine. We need only return to those daunting statistics to see the truth of how a county with 4% of the world’s population ended up with 25% of the world’s Covid cases.
On Wednesday in our house, we spent hours glued to the TV, sobbing into the cat, laughing at the sudden lightness we felt, and cheering on all we witnessed: Kamala Harris taking the oath of office in her brilliant purple suit on a cold January day, Lady Gaga belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Amanda Gorman talking truth to power in her inaugural poem, Garth Brooks leading us in singing “Amazing Grace,” Joe Biden speaking from heart and the the podium as the newly-minted president.
We go forth. But without Steve, Myron, and so many others who wanted to be here, whether they voted for Biden/Harris or not. We remember, a necessity for healing as President Biden reminded us on Tuesday night at the Covid victim memorial. We go on but with missing shapes, textures, and colors in the mosaic of who we are and were.
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