*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2014.
I stood at the end of the dirt road and tried to breathe. Posted signs on an old gate suggested potential problems, but their warnings, obscured by weathered vines, failed to clearly state their objectives: “No Dump” and “vate erty.” The house I grew up in glowed in the sunlight as if taking on the importance of a museum or a church. I felt the strange collision of time moving me forward, and memories spinning me backwards. A centrifugal force seemed to define me in this space. I grabbed a handful of dirt, and tossed it upwards into the steady Kansas wind. Dust and pebbles covered my body, glitter and gold, an elixir returning me to my childhood. I imagined my mother at the kitchen table, scratch-carving an elegant owl on an ostrich egg that had been dyed with onion skin. My father sat in his chair smoking a large cigar and drinking a beer after a hard day’s work at his café. I wanted to walk through the front door of the house and hear their voices welcoming me home. The taste of dirt in my mouth was bittersweet.
When my parents were dying, they returned to this house at the end of the dirt road in their memories. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 88. She would question me frequently to see if our stories meshed. Was the Chief, as she began to call my father, working in the field or at the livestock sale barn where our café was? She referred to my husband and son as “the boys.” She wondered what kind of pie my grandmother would be bringing for lunch after church on Sunday. Cherry? Apple? Rhubarb? Why hadn’t her sister come to visit her? How many dogs did we have now? And then one day, my mother could no longer speak. She would often wave at me upon my arrival at the memory care facility as if I might be someone she knew. Her wave reminded me of a homecoming queen in a parade. She had waved at me similarly from the platform at the train station when I left Dodge City at the age of 21.
My father’s body began to fail at the age of 92. Prostate cancer, or “prah-straight cancer” as he referred to it, became painful, unmanageable. His cocktail of cherry juice and water no longer seemed to help. Between the pain medication and dementia, the evil twins of illness and aging, he began to flicker in and out of reality. I imagined him walking in our fields, memories covering the buffalo grass and little bluestem in a silky glaze like morning dew. Although my mother had died four years earlier, she often came to see him at the nursing home he was in for the last three months of his life. He would tell me I had just missed her.
I began to tell my father stories like the one about the night we slept on the front porch: “We made beds out of sofa cushions and blankets. Mom slept inside. A small plane sliced through the stars overhead, and you told me you felt a breeze from that one.” My father smiled at me, remained silent for several minutes as if to let the story settle in the air, and then looked up at me. “I know the people in the kitchen. They used to work for me at the café.” He grinned as if this was the best day of his life. I had learned from my mother’s illness, so I did not correct him. The cooks to which he referred were once in Dodge City, and they had passed away many years ago. I wondered if he remembered selling the house at the end of the dirt road in 1992 and moving to Michigan. His world was spinning backwards, and he pulled me in, towards him, with each and every story we shared.
Before their illnesses, my parents shared stories of their hometowns as children. My mother lived in Council Grove, Kansas, and my father was raised in Bath, Illinois, before circumstances landed them both in Dodge City. They were in their thirties when they adopted me, and they moved to the small, circa-1940s farmhouse in Wilroads Gardens, five miles east of Dodge City. And yet as their memories began failing them, something brought them into a circular path of memories of which I seemed to be a part, yet from which I was always separate.
For a long time, I felt as if geography defined me, and, in some ways, I believe it does. When I tell people I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, the inference is that I am tough and could possibly outrun a tornado if necessary. For me, however, it is the place where a man and woman brought me into their home to raise. Born in the Salvation Army’s Booth Memorial Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, I was adopted at two months of age through the Kansas Children’s Service League. I have no memories of this place to which I can return. Instead, when my mind and body begin to fade into the gloaming, I imagine I will see this clearly: a long dirt road, a house, and me walking through the front door, waiting.
Growing up in the country allowed me to wander freely as long as I followed these basic rules: Stay on our property and under no circumstances cross the Arkansas River that cut behind our house. The song “Walking After Midnight,” sung eloquently by the late Patsy Cline, reminds me of that freedom to explore without fear. Although the narrator of the song is looking for her lost love, the narrator could also be someone in search of the past in order to understand its significance. Grieving for someone seems to force us into a cycle of memories and what ifs. Since my father died last year, the month of June and Father’s Day seems so bittersweet now. Some days my emptiness is as big as the midnight sky.
Last year’s June brought many changes. My father’s health had taken a turn for the worse in May, and I knew he would not be with us much longer. After my mother died in 2008 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, my father seemed to rebound, and he enjoyed his life to the fullest. He was stubborn, opinionated, and very loving. I inherited my father’s stubbornness, and I believe I inherited his kindness and friendliness. He would talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. When we camped at Cedar Bluff or the Sandpit, I could count on a lineup of people outside of our camper, formerly a small school bus, waiting for one of Bob’s famous breakfasts on Saturday mornings. He never turned anyone away.
People used to comment that I looked a lot like my father, and I always found this rather strange, since I was adopted when I was two months old. My father and I were so much alike that any slight similarity in temperament translated to a physical correlation in the mind of strangers or acquaintances not familiar with our story.
I am still figuring out my story as I discover information about my birth family, but I know that I could never imagine a life without the father and mother who adopted me. I have wondered if I look like my birthfather, but I cannot imagine a life with him even if I knew who he was. Would my birth father have allowed me the freedom to walk after midnight? To make mistakes and suffer the consequences, and still feel a father’s love even as I was being grounded for a month? Would he have allowed me to paint our camper a bright pink? Would my birth father have choked up before walking me down the aisle and told me how much he loved me? Would my birth father have held me at my daughter’s funeral as if I were a little girl again? No, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without the father I ended up with. Isn’t that the way life is? A lucky roll of the dice or an incredible sacrifice by someone that ends up being someone else’s blessing?
My birth mother gave me up for adoption: Sacrifice. That story is long and complicated, and I am working up the courage to write that story. I have seen pictures of her, and it is as if I am looking in a mirror. Lillian died in 1998, and I did not start searching for my birth parents until 2011, oddly enough, about nine months before I found out I had a brain tumor. When my original birth certificate arrived, my birth father’s name was listed as “unknown.” When I sent away for my adoption records, I had hoped to at least find out my birth father’s name, but all I learned was his date of birth and that he was of German ancestry. He was “not interviewed” for the adoption proceedings. When I asked the woman at the American Adoption Congress in Kansas why my birth father’s name was not listed, she replied that “unknown on the BC made it quicker to process the adoption at that time.” Even in 1955, expediency was the name of the game. Isn’t that what we do in life? We sometimes take a chance and do what feels right for us, but it may not be in the best interest of others. All I wanted was a name and perhaps a picture of him, but these are things I will never have.
In a way, it does not really matter. I grew up loved. My adoptive parents wanted me, and my mother reminded me of this frequently. In 1955, they had no genetic markers or family stories to obtain a sense of who I might become. I was a tabula rasa in human form. They drove from Wichita to Dodge City, Kansas, and Connie Jo, my given birth name, became Melissa Jean. Family and friends welcomed me as if they always knew I would end up as Wilmer “Bob” and Margaret Lynn’s daughter. As I grew older and began to carve out my identity, I was allowed to ride my bicycle or my horse near the river or along the roads that defined the Wilroads Gardens community.
The freedom I had to explore changed in 1965 when I was ten years old. I remember walking down the two-tracker that ran parallel to one of our fields to the river one day and sitting on a ledge above the dam. The Arkansas River flowed next to our land. I was allowed to be near it, but I was forbidden to cross it and head for Fort Dodge. Despite my parents’ adamant stance against crossing the river, my friends and I did this as often as we thought we could get away with it. But on this day, I had little time to waste because newscasters had warned of an impending flood. I wanted to see the river one last time. I looked at the small gates that were used to divert the water into an irrigation ditch, the concrete ledge that supported the gates and was the perfect spot to cross to the other side of the river, and the dirt-covered bank on the side of the river where I used to fish from. A wall of water heading our way from the mountains of Colorado would forever change the landscape.
Our friends and neighbors in Wilroads Gardens and all low-lying areas of Dodge City, Kansas, moved quickly in preparation for the flood swiftly moving towards us. My father and several men loaded our cattle and my horse into several livestock haulers. I would never see those cows or Willie again. My mother packed everything she could into our cars, and she placed what she could not take on top of the furniture we had to leave behind. After spending a few minutes staring at the river that day, I left my favorite spot and ran down the two-tracker towards home. My mother seemed relieved when I returned and put me to work.
My mother told me to pack my favorite things to take to my grandparents’ house where we would end up living for over a month. Content with my dog “Stinker” and purple Stingray bicycle, I said I was done. She suggested I pack some clothing. My mother and I drove into Dodge City and headed towards the north part of town and safety. My father stayed behind to place sandbags around our house, and then he and a large group of men worked feverishly near the dam, throwing sandbags down onto the hard ground in the hopes that they could save Wilroads Gardens from the brunt of the water’s destruction.
As we listened to the radio that night, the announcer’s anguished words described the wall of water as it rolled towards Dodge City. I imagined my father standing near my favorite spot above the river, ordering the water to bypass our house. Luckily, my father and all of the men working near the dam were warned to head to higher ground long before the churning waters roared into town. They headed to a campsite on some rolling hills overlooking Wilroads Gardens and waited.
Meanwhile in Dodge City, my mother and I waited—and worried—about my father’s safety and wondered if we would have a house to go home to. Later the next day, when my father finally called, we were relieved that he was alive as were the other men who had worked so hard to save our community. He said our house, east of the dam and south of the dike, had suffered some damage, and our fields and barns were destroyed. Everything left behind in our garage washed away, including a trunk filled with pictures of my father’s side of the family, and Willie’s saddle and bridle. If our animals had been left behind, they would have drowned as they were swept away.
According to my father, when the dike that formed a ridge on the south side of the river broke, the main current somehow turned away from our house. He said we would not be allowed to return home until it was safe, and he did not know if it would be days or weeks. After the water receded, quicksand filled our yard, and rattlesnakes crawled aimlessly through the destruction. My father sold Willie and all of our cattle. It would be a long time until our land recovered.
We, however, were luckier than some. Many people in our neighborhood had to start over with only the things they had taken with them. One of my best friends lost her house completely. It ended up in a dry river bed downstream from where it used to be. Although forbidden from entering the house, we went inside anyway. A child’s game sat in the corner, mangled and covered with mud. When we thought we heard someone coming—perhaps it was the house eerily moaning as the foundation shifted—we ran as fast as we could to escape. For the rest of that summer, we passed the time riding our bikes, playing with our toy cars in piles of dirt now covering our yards, and tried to ignore the smell that the floodwater left behind as it worked its way eastward. People in our community cleaned, salvaged, and rebuilt. My father warned me to stay far away from the dam and out of our fields. Life had become dangerous. As I climbed into bed every night and looked out my window, I could imagine the area next to our driveway where Willie used to roam and snort at me when I yelled his name out my window. West of Willie’s special pen, our field, once filled with grazing cattle, remained empty with only a border of cottonwood trees to remind us of the Arkansas River flowing nearby concealing the stories of its devastation as if a card player holding a pair of aces and eights.
When my father died last August, I held his hand as he had once held mine as a child, and I thought of that tiny farmhouse I grew up in. My parents sold the house years ago when they moved to Michigan. I wish I could see that house again and my father standing by the back door asking me where I had been. I would like to thank him for everything he ever did for me. Father’s Day is going to be tough this year, and I know I am not alone in my sadness. Perhaps I will take a walk after midnight if only to the water’s edge in front of the house I live in now. I will close my eyes and remember the house I grew up in, and a river that could not wash it or a father’s love away.
In early September, I joined four women at Chicago O’Hare International Airport as we all flew in from our hometowns. LouAnn Law, Amy Hall, Audrey Lewis, and Julie Bowline had devised a plan for us to meet and surprise Sybil Benson for her 50th birthday. These women are sisters and the daughters of my late mother’s brother. My cousins wanted me to be part of the Great Reveal.
Bryan Benson, Sybil’s husband, had been part of the plan from the beginning, and he picked us up at the airport. The ride from the airport to Libertyville where Bryan and Sybil live passed quickly. We were eager to change our clothes at their house and prepare for surprising Sybil.
Bryan drove us to Mickey Finn’s in downtown Libertyville. As we walked into the bar, we turned quite a few heads. We weren’t sure if it was our good looks or because we were very loud. It could have been because we were all dressed in black, wore buttons with Sybil’s pictures at various ages, and draped mourning veils over our heads. If I had realized wearing a mourning veil into a bar was such an attention-getter, I may have tried it when I was young and single.
We engaged other people at the bar and told our story. Not only were we anxiously anticipating Sybil’s arrival, but so were the people in the bar. When Sybil headed in from the rear area of the bar, the bartender raised her hand in a silent signal. As Sybil began walking towards us, she looked confused as she stared at her husband sitting at a table with “five orbs,” as she would refer to us later. When we burst into song, everyone in the bar joined in as we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. After explaining to Sybil all of the preparations that took place to pull off this caper, we settled in to share stories. As one of the bar patrons, a man around fifty-years young, exited the bar, he stopped by our table and spoke directly to Sybil: “Hello, I am English John. The good news is that I am not the stripper.” If English John ever mentioned what the bad news was, we were laughing too hard to hear him.
Stories…we had so many stories to share. With the recent death of my father, sharing laughter, love, and stories was just what I needed. I felt as if I had been transported out of grief and into a space of jubilation. Later, we returned to Sybil and Bryan’s house and settled in. We used Skype to connect with other family members until late in the evening. We talked about my parents, their father, and the loss of our mothers. Before my father died, he knew I was going to Libertyville for the Great Reveal, and I know he was very happy for me.
On Friday, Bryan went to work, and the six of us hit the road. We started our day at a fabulous restaurant in Libertyville before heading off to Oak Park. We toured the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and his Oak Park home and studio. I was fascinated with our journey, and as we walked past the houses, and later throughout his studio and home, I kept thinking what a lucky person I was to have such amazing women in my life. Months earlier, my cousins had decided that I should be the sixth sister, and they introduced me as such everywhere we went. This act of love and kindness created a strange sensation in me.
As someone who had grown up as an only child, I imagined how my life would have been different had I been surrounded by sisters. When I was very young, children in school made fun of me for being adopted, and I would go home crying. Although my parents tried to comfort me, the string of words I heard on a regular basis stung. When I was older, I wondered where these children learned this behavior. What were their parents telling them about what it meant to be adopted? Although some of the children I went to school with from kindergarten until 8th grade never let up on the fact that I was supposedly different, most of them gave up their bullying routine as we grew older. Some became close friends. My cousins, however, always treated me as if there was nothing different about me: I was just Bob and Margaret Lyn’s daughter.
In the essay “Modern Friendships,” Phillip Lopate suggests that the “Friendship Scene” is “a flow of shared confidences, recognitions, humor, advice, speculation, even wisdom.” Here was a group of women who had known me long before I knew myself, and they had loved my parents deeply. Since it had been less than two weeks since my father had died, I felt myself climbing into a box of memories of him, always knowing how much he cared for others, and how much he valued his family and friends. After so much loss in my recent past, I finally felt as if something was opening up for me with this group of women; something I had not planned on, and nothing I could have expected.
On Saturday, we walked around Independence Grove, a beautiful area near Libertyville. We eventually worked our way to downtown Libertyville and an art fair in Mundelein. We were just killing time until the main event. Yes, the “Great Reveal” had been an event to remember, but we had also planned to incorporate the past into our weekend.
When we were young, our grandparents went on a cruise for their wedding anniversary. I am guessing that my mother and my aunt had gotten together and decided we should all dress up and put on a little show for our grandparents bon voyage party. Since Sybil wasn’t born when the original picture had been taken, we had decided to recreate the moment of our Hawaiian luau from so many years past, so that we could include Sybil in the picture.
As we dressed up in hula skirts, small silky tops, pearl ankle bracelets, and leis, and put flowers in our hair, we laughed until we cried before heading to the basement. We posed for pictures, and Bryan snapped photos from dozens of angles. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to share those photos with anyone outside our families. My cousins/sisters were adamant that the photos stay within the family. Apparently they believe little girls in grass skirts and crepe-paper bras are much cuter than grown women wearing grass skirts, spandex, and silky material wrapped around our cleavage. Although I am willing to share photos on Facebook or with anyone I can find, I will stick to my promise. Well, unless someone offers me a great amount of money.
I realize now that friendship and family are sometimes two very different things, but we shouldn’t always be so eager to categorize. Throughout my life, I was always labeled the adopted child or the only child. Is everyone supposed to fit into one category or another? I have friends who are like family to me, although no familial ties bind us. With my mother and father now both deceased, I seek stories, advice, and wisdom from my friends and family. The people in my life who blur the lines between friendship and family are the ones I can count on, the ones I will always make time for, and the ones I would do anything for.
I have learned many life lessons since I found out I have a brain tumor, and I thought of a lesson I had learned when my daughter, Nicole, died in 1988. There are people who walk away from us just when we need them the most. They retreat from us slowly, or sometimes in a moment of anger accusing us and judging us for things we say or do when we are knee deep in sorrow and despair.
And one morning you step away from your sadness and start focusing on people in your life who embrace you and listen to you as you try to negotiate through your pain. They surround you with love, listen to you as you tell your stories of unconscionable grief, hold your hand when you weep from sadness, and laugh when you find something you can once again joke about. The Great Reveal reminded me of all of this, and now my work is cut out for me. I want to be that person who listens to my friends and family when something causes them pain. I want to be someone a person can count on during a period of grief or sadness. Most importantly, I will be present, and I will listen.
Couldn’t Stand The Weather
The cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s album Couldn’t Stand The Weather shows him playing his guitar as a tornado approaches him. Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Vaughan seems unconcerned with the approaching storm, seemingly playing through the twister as if his guitar will protect him from danger and potential death. Sadly, Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of 35. I was 35 at the time, Matt was 8, and Jim and I had celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary the day before Vaughan’s death. From the moment I first heard music by Vaughan, I was hooked. In 1988, his music became a talisman for my broken heart.
There were no signs of my brain tumor in 1988 when my daughter Nicole was born and died four days later. She died of anencephaly; her brain did not develop fully. A line in Vaughan’s song “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” seemed to speak directly to my sorrow: “Like the train that stops at every station, we all deal with trials and tribulations.” Was this my trial in life? In 1988, the answer was yes, and despite watching my mother die of Alzheimer’s in 2008, and finding out I had a brain tumor in 2011, the answer to that question is still yes.
Parents expect to outlive their children. That’s a basic fact. Peggy, a very dear friend of mine, learned this cruel twist of fate when her son Johnny died on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003, when he was twenty-three years old. Not a day goes by that our families don’t think about our children. I know many other parents whose children have died, the reasons vary, and when I hear someone ask how one gets over the loss of a child, I say: “You don’t get over it; you just learn to deal with it better.”
As I began researching information on meningiomas, I couldn’t help but think of the connection between my mother, my daughter, and myself. Even though my mother is not my biological mother, I started asking myself: What the hell happened to our brains?
Since Nicole lived for only four days, I can only imagine what she might have been. For my mother, I watched her slow decline into something unimaginable as she changed from the loving mother she was into someone who would not recognize me towards the end of her life. My mother the prankster and storyteller slipped into the land where memories and words no longer existed.
My father is now slipping into the land of dementia. Even though he lives in a nursing home not far from me in Michigan, his mind seems to have erased the past years where he and my mother lived in Michigan after moving here in 1992. He is convinced that people he knew in Dodge City are running the kitchen and working the night shift at the nursing home. Most of these people he refers to are dead. I pretend they are alive.
One night I dreamed that my mother called me and needed help. She said: “Your dad and I are in danger. Help us.” When I woke up, I told my husband about my dream, because it was so upsetting. I also wrote about the dream in my journal. Later that day when I visited my father at the nursing home, he said: “What does your mother think about me in the nursing home?” My father had not brought up my mother’s name since mid-April when he was still in the land of memory and remembering she was dead. My response to my father: “She is concerned about you.” As I walked out of the nursing home, the dream seemed like a snake crawling inside my skull, warning me of danger, but for whom? Was the dream purely for my father? For me? For the family?
In “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” Vaughan sings “Ain’t so funny when things ain’t feelin’ right; daddy’s hand helps to see me through.” What would I be like without my father when he could no longer help me as if I were a child? At Nicole’s funeral, I remember leaning into my father, sobbing, holding me as if I were the child, not the almost thirty-three year old daughter. When my father learned I had a brain tumor, he was supportive, caring, and came to the hospital to watch my Gamma Knife surgery on a closed-circuit television. The memories of that seemed to have disappeared now, and he no longer asks me how I am. He’s more concerned about his checkbook and escaping the prison he thinks I have placed him in.
I have heard from quite a few friends of mine that they admire my positive spirit through my losses in life and dealing now with my brain tumor. What choice do I have? We all deal with things in life, and I am no different than anyone else. When my beloved dog died recently, I had a moment where the pity party in my brain began its full dance again, but, as typical for my blessed life, my family, my cousins, and some very dear friends did the one thing that seems to get overlooked in times of grief, of sadness: They listened to me.
If I look at the big picture, I have to say I am damn lucky. I have lived a life full of adventure, have a wonderful husband and son, have grown up with some wonderful cousins who are like sisters to me, and met wonderful people who became my friends. So whatever ride I am on now with my father and his fading away, and the brain tumor that radiation has hopefully begun its magical shrinking act, I’m facing the storm like Stevie Ray Vaughan did. I’m slinging my guitar like a talisman around my body, and playing my songs no matter what is headed my way.
I saved Woody from a fire once, but I couldn’t save him from kidney failure and old age. As I watched Woody struggle as he walked and moan as he climbed into his bed each night, I realized that I had to do the right thing. When Woody stopped eating, I knew it was time.
On January 14, 1997, my friend Vicki called me and said she knew of a dog I might be interested in. SOS Animal Rescue in Midland had found Woody at a pound after someone had dropped him off. Woody was currently living in a house about five miles from me, and I made arrangements to meet him. The minute Woody came bounding up the stairs from the basement of the house in wild pursuit of a cat; I knew I had to adopt him. I left the house with Woody in my arms, and surprised Jim and Matt when I walked in the door. Woody didn’t bark for two days, and I wondered if he had ever learned how. I was wrong. If he had been a singer instead of a barking dog, he could have toured with Johnny Cash.
Woody’s original name was Buster. He was no Buster in my eyes; He was Woody. I saw nothing wrong with renaming him; after all, my mother and father renamed me after they adopted me at two months of age. My birthmother named me Connie. Jo. My mother renamed me Melissa Jean. The name Melissa was based on a relative my mother had known when she was young, and my middle name was my mother’s sister’s name. From the moment I picked Woody up and drove him home, we became kindred spirits.
Woody soon began to be in charge of the house and our lives. He slept when he wanted to, ate when he wanted to, and he spent an enormous amount of time wanting one of us to play with him and his stuffed animals. We soon learned that Woody hated water, and when we first brought him up to our old cottage at Higgins Lake, he barked at waves. Woody loved to sit on the dock with me, but I had to forget about the notion of spending quiet time on the dock if waves were rolling in, their smacking noise steadily beating against the dock and boat. Eventually, he would give me a look that let me know he was worn out, and it was time for him to go in for a nap.
Woody loved to dance when he was happy. When I arrived home from work, or even if I had been out running and only been gone for 45 minutes, Woody would dance with joy at the sight of me coming in the doorway. He squealed, he twirled in circles chasing his tail, and then he would twist the other way around, squealing, suddenly stopping and waiting for me to pick him up to give him a hug. He was always happy to see Jim and Matt, but he typically just gave them a little twist and shout and not the full-out dance routine. If you have never seen a twelve-pound dog do the twist, you are missing out.
Woody envisioned himself as a lover boy. Despite the fact that we had him neutered a few days after we got him, Woody thought he was a love machine. He tried to make love to any dog that happened to come near him. Gender didn’t matter, and he didn’t have a species requirement either. We were once at Peggy and John’s house with their menagerie of dogs and cats, and Woody chased Brutus, a twenty-one pound cat, around the house constantly. He eventually caught up with Brutus and tried to do what we referred to as the mumbo-jumbo. Brutus didn’t seem to mind, but we did break up the action much to Woody’s disappointment.
In December 2004, a fire broke out in our house. The men who were refinishing our wood floors happened to leave their sander next to a large container of polyurethane in our laundry room. They had been gone for about twenty minutes before I heard a pop, ran to the other end of the house and saw the fire. To make a long story short, I grabbed Woody as I called 911 and got us out of the house. We ended up watching the action from the across the street at a neighbor’s. Luckily the fire damage was small compared to the severe smoke damage. The stuff we lost? I really didn’t care. I had Woody and that is all that mattered.
In the summer of 2005, our vet told us Woody had cancer in one of his legs and sent us to a specialist in Rochester Hills. My friend Patti went with me to the clinic. It was a very sad place. The vet at the cancer center said they had also discovered a tumor in Woody’s lungs. The bottom line: for about ten grand, we could have Woody cut open, take out the tumor, and then he could start chemo for his leg. Woody looked at me as if to say “I don’t think so,” so I said, “I don’t think so.” He never complained about the cancer in his leg, and he still barked at waves, squirrels, chipmunks, and us if we were too slow in doing what he wanted to do.
Last year, Woody’s vet said Woody kidneys were failing. I figured Woody could beat this diagnosis. Woody was our wonder dog. He seemed fine, a little slower when running and jumping, but he seemed okay. At the vet’s recommendation, we began feeding him special dog food, and he adjusted quickly, although he occasionally let us know he preferred steak and chicken. He still followed me everywhere, always wanted to be the life of the party, and slept on the floor next to me in his little bed.
A few months ago, we began to see a change in Woody. He still greeted us at the door, but the rock-and-roll dance had become a slow waltz. He no longer barked at waves, he no longer wanted to make love to dogs or cats, and he ignored his beloved toys. My heart began to break slowly, because I knew I was going to have to make a decision. I did not want Woody to suffer.
I learned a lot from Woody in the sixteen years we had together. Years ago, my friend Helen pointed out that Woody didn’t take crap from any dog, large or small, waves, or anything else he considered trouble. Helen told me I was a lot like Woody. By coincidence, I happened to listen to a Sheryl Crow song on my way to work every morning to pump myself up to deal with administration bureaucracy and students filled with excuses: “I ain’t takin’ shit off no one, baby, that was yesterday.” For my office, I bought a painting of a dog with tattoos and lots of piercings. He wore a t-shirt that said “Bite Me” and was called “Mad Dog.” I imagined Woody in this outfit, and I realized I was the human version of Woody/Mad Dog.
Mornings are most difficult for me now. I hear Woody waddling down the hall towards my office looking for me, his eyes filled with cataracts, his nose guiding him as if he were the great hunter searching for truffles. He lies down next to my chair and waits while I write.
Later, we will go to the end of the dock, and wait for the waves to roll into shore. He will look at me as if to suggest his barking days are over and indicate, by the turn of his head, that it is time to return to the house. As I carry him, I can feel him slipping away from me. Inside, we both take a drink of water and head for the couch. I lift him up next to me, and he snuggles in and falls asleep while I wait. I imagine the cycle of life, spinning loved ones towards me, but also away from me, and wonder where I am in the continuum.