Monday, April 30, 2012

In Memoriam: How I Found Her

It was four years after I was diagnosed with CFS, and I was still mourning the professional life that the illness had forced me to abandon.  I wanted to do something meaningful, to make a mark in the world, no matter how small.  And that is how I conceived the idea of getting a dog--not a dog from a breeder, but one I would rescue from a shelter and rehabilitate.  A female, preferably of a large breed.

Why rescue a dog instead of, say, tutoring school children?  A dog, as I saw it, would not involve specific time commitments like most volunteer activities.  I would work with her at home, on my own schedule, as my symptoms allowed.  I could space bits of training throughout the day, and even on a bad day, we could practice down-stays.

I thought I could help some neglected, frantic girl dog become calmer, better behaved, more secure around people, happier.  I could see myself welcoming the poor wretch into my peaceful home, introducing order and structure into her life, grooming her and feeding her properly.  I would take her for walks, to obedience, and to play dates with other dogs.  As a result of all this mental stimulation, her natural intelligence would blossom and she would bond to me in gratitude and affection.  I could see her in my mind's eye, shining with health and vitality, going everywhere with me—the perfect companion of my lonely days.

I called the animal shelter and told them what I was looking for.  They said they would keep me in mind and give me a call if any prospects turned up.  I didn't have to wait long for the phone to ring.  A man who fostered dogs for the shelter was bringing several of them to the nearby pet store for an adopt-a-thon the next day.  Among them was a four-month-old sable German Shepherd puppy.  A female.  Would I like to see her?

That morning I used my newly-acquired smattering of meditation techniques to prepare myself for the encounter.  I thought that if I met the puppy with a clear mind and a spacious heart, the right decision might become obvious.

It was a Saturday morning, and the store was teeming with people.  I found the man with the dogs.  Like a salesman inviting me to take a used car for a spin, he handed me the end of a leash and said, “This is Lexus.  Why don't you walk around while I take care of these other dogs.” 

“Lexus?” I asked.

The man rolled his eyes.  “The kid who had her was really into cars,” he said.

Even on a temporary basis, I refused to call any dog “Lexus.”  Instead, I patted my thigh and said “Come on, puppy.  Let's go for a walk.”

 When she heard me talking to her, she looked up into my face, and I got my first good look at hers.  It was a clever little face, well marked with a dark muzzle and Nefertiti eyes, a black widow's peak and big, upright, bat-like ears she'd have to grow into.  Her body was compact, and her cream-colored hind legs did not have the exaggerated angulation of American show-bred German Shepherds.  Her tail, alas, curved energetically up over her hips.

I mourned the tail's departure from the breed standard (German Shepherds carry their tails low), but was taken by the puppy's intelligent, intense look.  She was by no means leash trained, veering from one side of the aisle to the other as the smells of kibble and treats and toys called out to her, but whenever I spoke to her she would look at me.  Underneath that puppy craziness, I felt, was a really good dog.

That afternoon, the man brought her to the house.  He told us that Lexi (as I had decided to call her) had been picked up by a teenage boy who lived in a cabin with his parents, somewhere in the Maryland woods.  The puppy had spent her life outside, by herself, not abused but hardly clasped to the bosom of the family who, when they had to move away, surrendered her to the shelter.

My first memory of Lexi in the house is of her jumping all over the furniture. I left her with my husband and went back to the pet store to buy a large crate, which I put in our bedroom.  Lexi slept in it uncomplainingly that night, and for the next few days, whenever I left the house, I put her in it.  It soon became obvious, however, that she didn't need the crate.  She, who had never lived in a house, house-trained herself instantly—I can only remember a single accident.  As for jumping on the furniture, I only had to mention it once.

The hard part was taking her places.  The combination of manic excitement on the one hand and lack of exposure to cars, trucks, bicycles, strollers, skateboards and roller skates on the other, turned Lexi into a whirling dervish—an alternately frantic and cowering dervish—whenever we left the house.

I knew that this lack of exposure was the major problem with her upbringing, and it was my job to fix it.  This was, after all, the challenge I had been looking for, the service project that would make my life feel less of a wasteland.  Dutifully, every day or so I would put Lexi in the car and drive to a nearby mall.  There I would walk her around the outside, encouraging her to follow me past noisy trucks, allowing her to go up to people of all sizes and colors to make friends. 

It was daunting, and exhausting.  Even at just forty pounds, she was a powerful dog, and I, with my CFS-impaired balance, was not too steady on my feet.  A couple of times she was startled by a passing car and wrapped the leash around my ankles.  The next thing I knew I was picking myself up off the sidewalk while she leaped around me, excited by the view of my face at eye level.  It seemed to take forever, but the day when I finally got her to hold a sit-stay next to an armored truck, I knew we were making progress.  (To be continued.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Last Day

I knew last night that today would be her last day.  I made the call first thing in the morning, to get it over with.  I showered and dressed and didn't dry my hair.  My spouse unfolded the ramp for the last time, and I put on her old leather leash and the collar with the "canine good citizen" tag and led her up the ramp into the back of the station wagon for the last time.

At the vet's they'd worked us in from sheer kindness, and we had to wait in the parking lot a while.  Every few minutes I'd look in the rear-view mirror hoping that she'd fallen asleep, but I could see her German Shepherd ears still sticking straight up, like the bell-towers of Chartres. 

I'd not had time for my morning meditation at home, so sitting behind the wheel I put my hands on my knees, breathed, and watched my thoughts and my heart twist and swirl with sadness, fear for what was soon to come to Lexi and eventually to me and to my loved ones, guilt that I was doing this, more sadness.  Then I tried to visualize a kind of golden glow inside the car, enveloping both Lexi and me.  (Here I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have worked to bring Buddhist meditation to this  frantic land.) What can I say?  It kept me sane.

My dogs never will expire peacefully at home.  For the last four, I have had to make the decision, the appointment, the drive.  I have held them to the last, stayed with them to offer the last comfort I could, but also to expiate my guilt.  Why should I feel guilty about putting an end to the misery of a terminally ill dog?  Because of the immense relief that comes as a result of this action.  Nothing makes you feel free like getting rid of an old, sick dog.  No more calling in vain;  no more endless waiting at the door;  no more struggling to brush coat and file nails;  no more cleaning  up the rug....

The vet came out shivering--it was sleeting--with a needle in her hand.  "I'll give her a sedative first.  It usually takes about ten minutes to work.  Then I'll be back."  I held Lexi while she got the shot.  Then I crawled into the back seat and reached over and rubbed her third eye the way my husband used to rub our babies to put them to sleep.  She kept sitting up, looking more and more crumpled, and I thought maybe I would have to help her lie down.  But she finally did it by herself, and I kept rubbing and stroking and not talking because I didn't want to make myself cry.

When the vet and her assistant returned, I held Lexi's head, and she never felt the needle going into the vein.  Over the next few minutes, very gently, she subsided.   The vet listened to her heart and said, "she's gone."  I closed her eyes and we slipped a pink blanket under Lexi and carried her inside.

You'd be surprised what an empty space a dog leaves who's been mostly asleep for the last three years.  Wolfie--who learned from her how to be a good dog, who never once tried to mount her but kept all other males away from her, who used to wait by the door for her to return from her aimless wanderings in the yard--has been staring out the back door a lot.  When time came for the afternoon feeding ritual, I didn't quite know where to place the two remaining bowls.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Zen Buzz

The rain came Saturday afternoon, and it was welcome after this Mediterranean-dry spring.  While the sun was still out that morning, I walked around and discovered that the side yard has been taken over by my former nemesis:  ground ivy, with its pretty scalloped leaves, its tiny purple/blue/lavender blooms, its disgusting smell, and its stems that break compliantly when you pull on them, all the better to keep the roots spreading below ground.  But this time I did not wish I had a canister of Agent Orange at hand, for  at that moment the ground ivy was literally, totally, covered with bees.  Honey bees.

Do you know how extraordinary that is?  Honey bees are far more endangered than elephants, and more crucial to our survival on this planet than any animal you can see with the naked eye.  They are dying by the zillions of unknown things which are our fault.  In the seven springs I have spent on this hilltop, I have never seen more than a single bee at a time.  Yet on Saturday before the rain, there they were, hundreds of them, feasting on ground ivy.

The stories I hear from local beekeepers are almost uniformly tragic.  For example:  three years ago, one woman's single hive gave eighty pounds of honey.  In the last two years, having received the same care and attention, all her bees inexplicably died.  You can see why those hundreds of bees on the ground ivy seemed like a miracle.

I  found a bee-free spot and cautiously knelt down. There were a couple of red and black butterflies with white dots on the wings, and some bumblebees flying around.  But mostly there were bees, fat, honey-colored, hovering not more than an inch above the ground, diving head first into the tiny flowers, and singing softly.  "This is what 'a-buzz' means," I said to myself.

I thought I would kneel there and become immersed in the motion and the buzzing and the bee-ness--an outdoor Zen moment not marked by electronic chimes.  But whom was I kidding?  Before a minute passed, I was fretting.  Just around the corner of the chicken house, the "Liberty" apple tree was blooming its little heart out, but the only pollinators on it were a couple of house flies. What were those bees doing loitering in the side yard?  The rains were supposed to last a couple of days, and pollination doesn't happen in the rain. Time was of the essence. Could I somehow scoop up some of those bees and deposit them on the apple tree? A chime went off in my head, signaling the onset of craziness.  I got up from the ivy, and left the bees to their work.

My attitude to nature, at least the nature around my house, is anything but Zen.  For the last couple of weeks, I have pruned everything in sight, covered trees with sheets at night, uncovered them in the morning, planted seedlings prematurely in the vegetable garden and watered them one by one, clipped the spent blooms off the Pasque flowers, espaliered the apricot tree, planted boxwoods, apples and blueberries, transplanted rhubarb and astilbes, and generally interfered with everything.  Why can't I just leave Nature alone?

I come from a pruning, espaliering, pollarding people.  In my corner of Catalonia, every cubic foot of earth has been plowed, planted, manured, watered and harvested, turned over and over by the human hand for six thousand years.  It's no wonder I can't let go of that.

Now at last the rain has come, and I'm forced to keep away.  I can hear everything outdoors--the bees, the ivy, the seedlings, the apple trees--heaving a sigh of relief.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Right outside my window, in the little nest box that in past springs has sheltered families of wrens, a pair of bluebirds are building their nest.  Blue, orange, and white he perches, exuding authority, on the little apple tree whose leaves are barely unfurling, while his paler, browner wife thrusts beakfuls of stuff into the box.

(Photo:  Ed Cobb)

On the other side of the glass, I talk on the phone with my sister.  We are discussing whether to put an IV into the arm of our dying mother, to hydrate her.  I Google "hydration for late-stage dementia patients" in hopes of guidance, but that girl bird keeps stealing pieces of hay from the blueberry mulch and stuffing them into the nest hole, and I keep looking up from the screen to watch her.

I find the following and cut-and-paste it to my sister who, unlike me, is on the scene:

"Patients at this stage often refuse to eat or drink, even though they are offered food. This is due to the patient's sense of hunger and thirst diminishing as dementia advances. Once families realize that the patients with Alzheimer's Dementia (AD) often do not experience hunger or thirst, they may be able to remove the guilt they feel associated with "starving them to death" and accept the natural progression of end-stage AD. It is also important to explain that patients with poor food and fluid intake who become dehydrated typically do not express pain or discomfort. It is generally believed that dehydration in end-stage dementia is not painful."

Old Lexi limps into the room, dragging her hind legs, and laps at the water bowl.  At least she's not  dehydrated.

Bluebird of happiness, you ornithological cliche, could you have picked a worse time to visit?  Those little brown wrens in their modest clothes would have been far more appropriate for this season.

And yet, the breeze is cool, the air is clear, the evening light is bright.  For an instant, the bluebird is happiness. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Old Ladies

One is ninety-four.  The other will soon be fourteen.  One is my mother;  the other, my dog Lexi.

Every time I step over Lexi's recumbent form on my way to or from the kitchen, I think of my mother.  And often, as I worry about and mourn my  mother, my thoughts return to Lexi, lying on her spot in the middle of the kitchen.  Both my mother and my dog amaze their doctors and vets, respectively.  "Her vitals are better than mine!"  the nurse practitioner at the nursing home exclaims about my mother.  "I can't believe she's still walking around," the vet said the last time she saw Lexi.

Both, at their advanced age, look forward to their next meal, and instead of shrinking are putting on weight.  For a long time I kept Lexi skinny because of her arthritic hips, but for the last several months I've let her have (almost) all the food she wants.  Why deprive her of her one remaining pleasure?  Since her bout of encephalitis almost two years ago, my mother has been immobile.  Lexi too is practically immobile, though she does still manage to get to her outdoor bathroom.  I used to think that lying down for months on end spelled doom for man and beast.  But apparently there are exceptions.

Their minds are fading, along with their sight and hearing.  For a while this meant that they gradually and gently withdrew from reality, my mother into a place that held her long-dead husband and parents, with whom she would have long chats, and Lexi into wherever old dogs go to remember.   For a long while, things were peaceful in our kitchen and in the room in the nursing home in Mobile, Alabama.  But that has changed.  Now we give Lexi Valium at night, so that she won't spend it in anguished, wheezy, endless barking.  My mother has become aggressive towards the people who take care of her, and is having to be sedated.

Sedatives seem to take the edge off mental misery.  They also keep my  mother's caretakers safe from her teeth and, I hope, more disposed to treat her kindly.  But sedatives are not good for the body, and the pace of her deterioration is increasing.  Are we, her family, by condoning the use of these drugs allowing a kind of gradual euthanasia?   If Lexi's dementia were to take an aggressive turn there would be no doubt as to the next step:  we would take her to the vet who would gently and quickly put an end to her distress.  But there is no such clarity where humans are concerned.

Through all this, some shreds of their former selves still cling to my mother and my dog.  In the last photo of my mother, her mouth looks oddly crooked, and I worried that she'd had a stroke.  "No, no," my sister, who took the picture, said.  "She told me that she didn't want to smile because she was afraid she had food between her teeth." 

On her part, Lexi still reigns over an invisible territory that the other dogs dare not cross.  If I call them and they don't immediately appear, or I hear them whining in the kitchen, I know that it's because they're stuck behind Lexi, and I have to go liberate them.  "Lexi, I'm watching you," I say, and they sprint past her.

But lately her domain has been shrinking, and Wolfie and Bisou can get past her almost any time they choose.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Gothic Fantasy

Among the countless delights of my daily existence, one of the latest is my rediscovery of needlepoint. 

I was skeptical when the urge first hit me.  O.k., I said to myself, I'll get back into needlepoint, but I won't go whole hog.  I know all about my sudden urges, many of which--such as the one to carve wooden spoons--fade as quickly as the morning dew.  Others, like the desire to keep goats, come and go through the years.  The urge to write, that moaning continuo of my life, is one of the few that have stuck around.

By not going whole hog, I meant not investing major moneys on exquisite needlepoint kits reproducing entire medieval tapestries.  Instead, I went to a local shop, bought a harmless flowery pillow design, and went to work.  Or rather, play.  Or, perhaps, meditation.

But I found that struggling with the stiff canvas in my hands distracted me from my bliss, so I returned to the shop and bought a stretcher frame, and tacked the canvas onto it.  That was somewhat better, but not really what I wanted.  My heart's desire was a needlepoint stand, a contraption that sits on the floor and holds up your work so you can sit and embroider and feel...what?  Medieval, that's what.

The root of this desire probably lies in children's book illustrations of ladies in in wimples and long garments embroidering by Gothic windows, a troubadour at their feet, strumming his lute.  The embroidery stand by the broken-arch window, the lady and the troubadour, have been staples of my imagination ever since I can remember.

I went searching on the web, where the usual Aladdin's cave awaited me.  There are needlepoint stands out there that are works of art in themselves, mostly early-American and Victorian reproductions in walnut and cherry, and selling for thousands of dollars.  But as usual, if you look diligently, you find dark corners in the digital cave where even the humblest needs are met.  And so was mine, for well under $100.

Yesterday afternoon I set my needlepoint stand by the (non-ogival) porch windows and sat in an old straight-backed walnut chair, the basket of wools by my side.  It was raining, a gift in this odd, dry spring.  While the dogs napped on the floor around me, I threaded the needle with white for the background that would set off the central bouquet.

I put on Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, it being Palm Sunday, and embroidered my way through the whole thing, listening, in my barely-there German, for the words (the kiss, the cock's crow, the vinegar-soaked sponge) that elicited the old story.  Listening to Bach's dissonant chords, which seem to me the very sound of sorrow.
When it was over, I stood up and stretched, put the frame against the wall, and, feeling sorry for the house-bound dogs, took Wolfie and Bisou for a walk.  Even in the drizzle, a bird was singing, and I saw that the front field is almost completely green.