When I walked into the Merc Co-op today, I spied Ardys. After talking a little through our masks, she leaned in to bump elbows. “You vaccinated?” I asked. She was, so we flung our arms around each other and held each other tightly, laughing hard and not letting go. It was the dazzlement of my day.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been hugging more than the usual household suspects. On the corner of Massachusetts and 7th streets, between eating a delicious Leeway Franks hot dog and the slice of Ladybird strawberry rhubarb pie, Alice came round the corner. Before I knew it, I was hugging her as if my life depended on it too. When in Arkansas a few weeks ago, I leaned over from the stage where I was giving a poetry reading to hug an old student I hadn’t seen in years, both us near happy hysterics. When I saw my brother-in-law after two years, I hugged him too.
I can’t imagine what it’s been like for those without people or animals in your household to hug (my beloved and dearly departed dog Shay was a great hugger). I know I’ve been extremely lucky to have Ken and every so often Daniel to hug through the pandemic, not to mention Miyako, the cat who hugs in her (and our) sleep. But now, here we are — and if we’re all vaccinated and comfortable enough with the concept of stepping toward another person and throwing our arms around them, and if there’s mutual consent (something I never had to think much about when considering a hug before), the sky’s the limit.
Still, I’m taking it slow, or rather it’s taking me slow because, like all of us, I’m out of the hugging habit. Sometimes I just bump a shoulder into someone. Sometimes I feel strangely shy about suggesting a hug, a little like wondering if I should say, “Hey, want to grab a bite?” Then again, there’s also the possibility of eating together. In restaurants. And not just outside. Then back on the sidewalk, right before heading to our cars, hugging. As if it’s perfectly normal or normally perfect.
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.
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?
Sometime in my early teens, I discovered Carole King’s Rhymes and Reasons, and like I had done with Joni Mitchell’s Blue (was there ever a more perfect album?”), I listened to it over and over, embedding every nuance of note and syllable in my psyche, especially replaying the lyrical and gorgeously orchestrated “On the First Day of August.”
That song grabbed me from the core of my yearnings and dreams because, more than anything, I wanted someone to love me. To be honest, that was probably my biggest dream of all, even more than holding my first book of poetry in my hands or strolling up to the glittering stage to collect my Oscar (although I had my speech well-rehearsed).
I was a late bloomer when it came to the boyfriend game. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my inability to act like I didn’t care and my propensity to put myself out there like a labrador retriever puppy wiggling on his back didn’t win me dates except for mismatched matchmaking forays with boys so geeky they ignored me to read Dune. My step-sister devoted herself to finding me a date for the senior prom, which turned out to be a disaster, but I appreciate her persistence in asking so many guys. College, on the other hand, was better, but also worse because while everyone seemed up (more or less) for sex, few wanted anything beyond that (which brings to mind another Carole King song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”).
I accumulated little badges of heartbreak like an Eagle Scout, and by the time I was 23, I felt too old for love. Then I hit the jackpot: meeting, getting involved with, marrying, having kiddos with, and now about 38 years since we were introduced, growing old with Ken. Which brings me back to “The First Night of August.”
In some of Ken and my early camping trips, often illegally setting up a tent in some hidden Kansas field or Colorado forest, it seemed we were always sleeping under the stars — aka in sudden storms that soaked us and almost blew away our tents or in the midst of a million mosquitoes with a mission — on the first night of August. Sometimes I would sing this song to him or at least hum it repeatedly in my head. As our camping trips expanded to fly-ridden yurts with three children who were fighting with each other over who wanted most to go home (although they say now they *ahem* loved those trips) or throwing up on each other from altitude sickness), I would still sing that song each August 1st, usually while walking to the car to get more blankets or see if I could find someone’s glasses.
Now — so far away from the days of taking a big vacation without fear and precision-planning, and so long after those toddlers and babies we camped with raced through campgrounds in their underwear — the song returns to me along with August 1st. The piano opening — each note ringing through my upstairs bedroom facing the backyard in Manalapan, New Jersey when I was 14 years gold and crazy-lonely — also rings through this surprisingly refreshing breeze on the porch as I watch the swaying hosta blossoms, the sleeping old dog, and Ken’s car, surely still under attack by packrats (another story). I sing along with King, all these years held in this song holding me:
“On the first day in August/I want to wake up by your side/After sleeping with you on the last night in July/In the morning/We’ll catch the sun rising/And we’ll chase it from the mountains to the bottom of the sea.” Listen to it yourself right here.
Whoever you are, I hope that something — if not someone — holds you in your dreams this first night of August.