Remember What Has Passed Between Us

“Remember what has passed between us.”

Jacob Marley to Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, 1843

My dog died yesterday, and part of me died with him. I never realized how much warmth he added to my life until I had to end his. I never thought about being without him until he suddenly had to leave me. He was pure love; a kind, gentle soul with an endearing personality that you couldn’t help but admire. He was so sensitive that if he picked up on the slightest hint of anger he would leave the room.  If I sighed in disgust at something or, god forbid, had an emotional reaction while playing cards (I’m a poor loser), off he’d go. I don’t know how to make sense of my world without him.  Yesterday was the hardest day of my life.

It was a tough week. Marley’s downward slide started abruptly a few months ago. All along I believed he would get better, or at least not get worse. He had a cancerous growth removed successfully, and was fine afterward. Then, a few weeks later, he started to have trouble walking. A dog of his size who can’t walk is a definite problem. After many tests, the doctors weren’t entirely sure what the trouble was. They put him on medication, and with this he managed to get around alright, with occasional help from me. Some days were better than others. Occasionally we could take our long walks like we used to. He liked that. I’d listen to a Dickens audiobook, and he’d smell everything along our path. There is a big open field down the hill from my house that he loved, and we’d walk up to the gate of the nearby water treatment facility. He would wait at the gate, as if expecting them to let him in. There was a surveillance camera overhead, and I often wondered what anyone watching thought of him standing there. On the way back, he’d insist on lying in a patch of grass to contemplate life, and I had little choice but to join in. It wasn’t my usual style to just be; he had to teach me.

A few weeks later he started developing mysterious symptoms that caused him to lose his appetite. More tests, more drugs, more uncertainty. He started to lose weight, the walks became impossible, and he seemed to lose interest in just about everything he formerly enjoyed – rides in the car, trips to Grandma’s, playing with toys, even his favorite food – Frosty Paws frozen dog treats. He had stopped greeting me exuberantly at the door when I’d come home. But after another vet visit and better drugs, I had reason to hope that he’d recover and have some good months left in him (I had at least accepted that he likely wouldn’t have years, yet still avoided thinking that through to the inevitable conclusion that slapped me in the face yesterday).

The final week he lost all interest in food, something that, as a Labrador, he always loved. Eventually he wasn’t even interested in water. I  couldn’t get him to take his pills. I’d put them in his mouth and hold it shut for a long time, rubbing his throat gently, and he still wouldn’t swallow. I felt awful doing it because it scared him, but I knew he had to take his pills or he’d surely get worse. He spent much of the week crying while I was trying to sleep, and while I was usually able to comfort him, it would begin again an hour or so later. It was unbearable. Part of me felt angry with him because I needed my sleep, but I always had one ear open for his cries because I didn’t want him to be lonely or afraid. I felt guilty for feeling angry. I was frustrated at not being able to help him, even though I had run up over $5000 in medical bills trying to do so.

I’m not sure when it occurred to me that he might not recover. It was somewhere around the last few days when he just didn’t seem interested in living any longer. His eyes looked distant, pained. He wasn’t the same dog I knew. Something had stolen that dog from me, and I was left with the poor, fragile, tormented soul before me. He looked so sad. We said our goodbyes many times those last few days. When I left for work at night, I was never sure what I’d find when I got home in the morning. That last night I cried on the way to work as Barry Manilow crooned on my stereo: “This one’s for you wherever you are / to say that nothing’s been the same since we’ve been apart . . .” I commented to coworkers that I was afraid he’d be dead when I got home in the morning. But when I opened the door apprehensively, I was relieved to see that he had hung on, perhaps just for me to get there. It was his last day on Earth.

His breathing was heavy and he looked distressed, sitting in the middle of the living room and panting. It was Friday, and I knew my regular vet would be unavailable over the weekend. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer any longer. I was being selfish, keeping him alive for me. There was no hope. He was giving up, and I finally had to also. I made the decision I thought I could never make. When I phoned the vet, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. When I finally found my voice after a long pause, they understood instantly. Was 1:30 OK?

Three last hours together. There’s something very unnerving about a scheduled death, and I couldn’t help but think of a prisoner execution. The only thing that kept me from feeling like a creep was his very palpable suffering. I couldn’t bear to see him in pain. I tried to comfort him in those last hours. I said more goodbyes that felt real this time. I thanked him for loving me when I wasn’t so lovable; for always forgiving my faults; for teaching me to be more human, to care for someone and something. I had named him Marley for this very reason – Jacob Marley fulfilled the same role for Ebeneezer Scrooge. While I wasn’t as miserable as that fictional character, I definitely needed some warming up. I told him what a great dog he’d been, and that we would all be following him soon. In fact, my one comfort was in knowing that we are all going to die, which made Marley’s death seem less unfair. It was just an issue of timing. We all have our turn at bat, but no one can stay on the bench when it’s time to go.

It was the hottest day of the summer as we left the house together for the last time. Getting him in the car was very difficult, both physically and emotionally. I was afraid I’d hurt him, which, in hindsight, was a rather unnecessary concern. I wanted him to be comfortable, yet the heat was no doubt adding to his discomfort. Jekyll and Hyde personae argued in my head: “You’re killing your dog!”; “No, you’re doing the hardest thing that love demands – letting go.” It was only a few minutes to the vet’s, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad. As I was driving, I tilted my rearview mirror, knowing that spot – his spot, the entire back of my SUV – would soon be empty.  Gone were the days when he would be standing right there over my shoulder, looking eagerly out the front window. It was starting to sink in that I would never see him again.

Thoughts ran through my mind of when I first chose Marley. My friend and I were giving him the “dominance” test, turning him over on his back to see if he would tolerate a submissive posture (he did). The old 50s song “Walk Like a Man” was playing on the radio. I sang along to the high-pitched refrain, and whenever I did, Marley immediately stopped exploring and cocked his head to the side as if trying to understand me. That sealed the deal.

The head cock

Once we arrived at the vet’s, the tech, Kathy, helped me get him out of the car. We took him to relieve himself (again, perhaps pointless, but it seemed important to me), where he promptly peed on my shoe because he couldn’t stand up. Normally fastidious, I didn’t care. When we got him inside, we went right to a room we had been in many times before, where they spread out a blanket for him. He was lying in the “play bow” position, with his front paws straight out in front of him. As the tech wrapped the catheter around his left paw with surgical tape decorated in whimsical pawprints,  I saw that she was crying. As hard as this was for me, I wouldn’t want her job. How I got through the next ten minutes, I don’t know. It had to be my concern for him, that he not suffer any more. I tried to get him to look into my eyes, to connect, but he was too distressed. I felt helpless, and that he didn’t know I was there.

When the vet came in, she assured me I was doing the right thing and explained to me what would happen. She would give him a sedative first to calm him down, then a heavy dose of anesthesia, which would end his life. There might be involuntary muscle movement, but this does not indicate suffering. His bowels may let go. His eyes would probably not shut. Did I want her to shave off some fur as a memento? Any particular spot?

The first injection calmed him quickly – shockingly quick. I was gently stroking his rear leg, the one that gave him so much trouble. Was I ready?  It was almost too smooth, too serene. In a matter of seconds he passed from life to death without so much as a sigh, and just stopped moving. That his life could be extinguished so suddenly was disturbing to me, yet I was thankful considering the alternative. Part of me was still pretending that he came there to get better, not to die. In a way, he was doing both. His eyes were still open, but vacant and empty. They used to be so expressive, so full of love and inquisitiveness. It was a haunting image that I’ll never forget. The doctor put a stethoscope to his heart and lungs. “He’s gone.”

I was allowed to stay in the room for as long as I wanted. The quiet was deafening. I put my hands on his head and held them there for a while, a final transfer of love and energy, a recognition of what he had meant to me, and hopefully I to him. I kissed the top of his head. I didn’t know what else to do. I’d have stayed longer, but the stillness was too upsetting. My dog had left me, and now I had to leave him. I picked up his suddenly useless leash and pelt of fur, and left the room alone.

Why do we have to die, I asked myself. Flowers, people, helpless animals. Is it because this forces us to appreciate them, to appreciate life? Would eternal life engender familiarity, boredom, even callousness? Would everything then have no meaning? Is that any way to live?

My favorite movie is Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis, the real-life Christian apologist – one who attempts to explain why God allows suffering in the world. Lewis gives fancy speeches on how suffering is God’s wake-up call to an unappreciative world, but he never really experiences suffering personally. Then he falls in love with an unconventional woman who opens him up to life and love, only to lose her to cancer. He is beside himself with grief. She tells him that “the pain now is part of the happiness then” – that love always brings pain in the end. You can’t have one without the other. It’s part of the deal. To avoid pain, we attempt to live in the “shadowlands,” a fantasy future, always hoping for the next best thing around the bend but never really experiencing the present. A life wasted in anticipation. Thoreau put it this way, saying he wished to avoid, “when I come to die, to discover that I had not lived.” Death is part of life. Without it, life would lose all purpose. We don’t want it to end, but it must. Eckhart Tolle, when asked the meaning of life, said that life has no meaning. We bring meaning to it.

Marley knew how to live. He didn’t dwell in the shadowlands, but always stopped to smell the roses. He knew that the best things in life are not a good job, a fancy car, or a big house. They’re the simple things: going for long walks, lying in the grass on a sunny day, being exuberant about life and people, good times with friends, getting lots of rest, being endlessly curious; always forgiving wrongs, always extending the benefit of the doubt; remembering that life is short and you must live and love while you can – savoring the moments, because everything will surely pass away. Didn’t the Spirits warn Scrooge of this?

Accountants talk of business entities as “going concerns,” meaning there is an assumption that the business will continue for the foreseeable future. Life, however, should not be viewed as a going concern, but a temporary one. It will end, and should therefore be enjoyed while it lasts. It has been my long habit to dwell on past woes and thereby not enjoy life out of distrust for its pesky unpredictability. It’s not going to catch me with my guard down. Marley tried to teach me otherwise, both in life and death. This is his legacy, his gift to me. I will miss him. We were constant companions for eleven years, sharing the tears and the laughter. He used to come to work with me every day, and all my customers knew him. This morning, I came home to an empty house strewn with evidence of his former dominion here: the toys, the uneaten bowl of food, the phone message saying his prescription is ready. Caring for him this last week had bonded us even further, and I was beginning to think I was getting good at it – so much so that many times this morning I forgot that he wasn’t here. I still expect him to come up to me with that eager, expectant look he got whenever he wanted something. Sometimes, before he got ill,  I made him wait if I was busy, but now I’d give anything for his chin on my leg and that look of innocent expectation.

I was closer to Marley than I have been to any human being. As a card-carrying introvert I was never very good at relationships, but with dogs you don’t have to compromise on where to go, what to do, or negotiate space needs. You have all the control. This works for me, but you can’t practice it on people. I’ve tried. It’s not even very fair to dogs, but they are long-suffering and adaptable. I did eventually learn to surrender to Marley’s needs and abandon my selfishness, because I loved him (and, honestly, who can turn away such pure enthusiasm?). When he wanted to go for walks in the morning after his night of sleeping and my long night of third-shift work, I took him. In spite of my weariness, his need seemed quite reasonable and I came to enjoy fulfilling it for him. This shows signs of sacrifice and selflessness for someone you love. Marley knew there was hope for me yet.

His favorite bed

From Shadowlands:

“Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” 

Some of Marley’s ashes will be sprinkled in the field he loved to explore. 

The meaning of life

Socrates

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein

I’m currently taking a philosophy course, which, of course, involves pondering the big questions. Some people don’t concern themselves with such things (they’re the ones blathering on cell phones in the checkoout line). Me, I’ve always pondered life pretty heavily. It’s my nature, and I like it. Sure, it can make me seem a bit arrogant at times – and I suppose I am to a degree – but things have to make sense to me. It’s a classic trait of those with my personality type (“INTJ” on the Myers- Briggs scale, a topic for another time). If it doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t get behind it. This is no doubt why I have so much trouble at work, following the often non-sensical dictums of a corporate retail giant that often doesn’t have a clue as to how things go down in the real world. But I digress…

I found myself criticizing the arguments of Socrates in class this week. Yes, the Socrates, the founder of philosophical thought. The one so famous that he can go by one name, like Cher or Liberace. Everyone in the class was kissing Socratic butt, yet I was finding fault with him (so like me at times!) I figured either I was a genius, or a moron, and the professor would either love me or hate me. But something about Socrates’ arguments just wasn’t making sense, and I don’t care who he is (ha! that’s so like me, too: question authority!).

He was on trial, at age 70, accused of “impiety” (denying the gods of Athens) and of corrupting youth by teaching blasphemous things (like encouraging them to ask questions and not believe everything they’re told). So far, so good. Bogus charges. He mounted his own defense in the courtroom, though many were already against him. You see, he had a habit of going around asking lots of questions that made people really think about their beliefs, convictions and assumptions. Often, this had the unfortunate result of making them look stupid (and Socrates look smart). Not a good way to win friends (the arrogance factor). Yet Socrates was the first to admit that he really “knew” very little, but that he was smart because he was aware of his ignorance while many others were not. Hmmm… OK, that’s a good first step on the road to knowledge, I guess.

Where I started to have trouble was in his claiming one thing, yet seeming to act in a way that suggested he believed something else. He claimed to have no fear of death, arguing that while many see it as a “bad” thing, there is absolutely no evidence of this (something I also have often considered). It may be, he argued, the best thing since sliced bread (which they didn’t have in 400 BC). Yet he was in court defending himself to avoid death (which was the penalty he knew he would get if convicted). So, apparently he was uncertain, which is one reason I didn’t believe his claim to not fear death, or to not be a super smartypants, or several other arguments he made.

Apparently, the jury didn’t believe him either, because they convicted him. He was indeed put to death. This was over 2000 years ago. And at 70, he would have died soon anyway in an age when the life expectancy was much lower than it is now. This got me thinking about the importance we place on things. I used to have a fortune cookie fortune taped to my desk at work that said “will it matter a hundred years from now?” No. It gave me perspective on the dozens of things I could stress out about daily at work. In a hundred years, nobody will remember you or I (well, maybe me, because I’m arrogant and will make something of myself). Seriously, the things we worry about today will not matter one whit in a hundred years, or ten, or even one. Do you remember what you were worrying about a year ago? If you do, does any of it matter now? Probably not – at least not in the same way. Everything is subject to change. Even the thought that any of us “owns” anything is absurd. The possessions you see around you will all likely be gone a hundred years from now, and the ones that aren’t will be “owned” by someone else. Nothing is permanent. “Heaven and Earth shall pass away,” as the good book says, just as everyone who has ever lived has, or will. Personally, I find this quite comforting. Because what we’re all really afraid of isn’t death, but of being alone in it. And you couldn’t ask for more company than the billions of people who have already died ahead of you. If you don’t find that comforting, well, maybe I need my head examined. But FDR was right, you know. About fear.

But this post was supposed to be about life, not death, you say. Well, it is. They’re very related. Did you ever wonder why a baby cries when it comes into the world? I mean, hasn’t that ever struck you as odd? If the world is so great, why come into it all upset and ornery? What kind of way is that to start out the journey? People don’t leave the world making a big fuss like that. No, I think there is something much better outside this realm we call life – always have. I’ve never believed in the concept of hell, except that maybe we’re living it now compared to what lies ahead for us.

There is a teaching at the beginning of “A Course in Miracles” that explains how nothing has meaning in and of itself. Everything in your life – from objects to people’s actions to your dinner last night – has only the meaning you have ascribed to it, and this meaning is based solely on your experiences with those (and other) things. They may mean something totally different to someone else. So, what I’m getting at is (and here we get back to Socrates): ask questions. Examine your beliefs about things. Why do you believe these things? Just because you believe them, does that make them true? What would happen if you believed something else, how might your life and attitudes change? (according to your belief, so be it unto you). Are you even aware that you always have a choice what to believe about things and people (remember, they have no independent meaning, just what meaning you give them). In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet comments to his friends that Denmark is a prison. His friends strongly disagree with his assessment, to which Hamlet replies (and this beautifully illustrates my point here, and is one of my favorite quotes) “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Act II, Scene II). How easily we forget this; that we have a choice how we see things. Even death, the ultimate “bad.”

Which brings me full circle to my stated topic, the meaning of life. My favorite spiritual teacher is Eckhart Tolle, who wrote a most amazing book called “The Power of Now,” a work so profound that I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. Every other sentence was packed with such wisdom and mind-expanding thoughts that I had to sit with them for a while. In that book, he says that life has no meaning. We bring meaning to it. This is just like we discussed – things have no meaning in themselves, even life. We give them meaning. That is our power. We are the spin doctors of our lives. Perception is reality. So why are we so nearsighted most of the time?

Alex, could I have “Create Your Own World” for a hundred?

Being lost is worth the coming home

Today would have been my older sister’s 50th  birthday.  She died three years ago, officially from her alcoholism, but, in my opinion, from her despair.

Cindy had a crappy life. As a child, she had severe asthma and was often hospitalized in Boston for weeks at a time. I remember many frantic late night rides to the doctor’s office when she couldn’t breathe. In those days, the doctor would actually get up out of bed to treat her. To me, as her four-year-younger brother sitting in the back seat, it was pretty frightening.

I don’t remember a lot about our younger years, except that we fought a lot, as brothers and sisters are wont to do. I was told stories as a child of how one time my sister dislocated my elbow trying to lift me, and another when she accidentally smothered me in baby powder. I also remember her hurling a TV Guide at me once and wounding me in the eye. These things aside, I think she really did appreciate me, as later years would bear out.

I can’t say that we were particularly close in the way some brothers and sisters are (there were only the two of us), but there was a bond there just the same. She moved away to Florida when I was in my late twenties, after the start of her drinking problem and long string of boyfriends who weren’t good for her. She had very damaged self esteem, something her and I shared, and I believe this was the root of most of her problems. She never overcame it. We would talk about it on the phone many times, always amazed at the many quirky similarities we shared. The difference was, I had the good fortune to enter therapy and stay there for twelve solid years. She didn’t have that luxury, so I shared with her what I could to try to help her. It ultimately wasn’t enough.

I visited her in Florida several times, and she always tried to make sure I had a good time. She even took me to see Neil Diamond once in Tampa, which is about the best thing anyone could do for me. She was supportive of my being gay, in spite of having been the one to out me to the family after putting two and two together after seeing me with a boyfriend. It was a conflicted relationship, ours was, but caring just the same. It was incredibly frustrating trying to help her during her alcoholism, including the times she pleaded with me for money.

She met someone in early 2003, and felt it was the first healthy, adult, balanced relationship in her life. She was very happy, staying sober, and had a very good job in which she was continually promoted. She finally seemed content. Then, as often happened for her, everything fell apart. She discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her, and since she and I never dealt well with hurt, disappointment or betrayal, she couldn’t handle it. Not sober anyway.

While working at my business a few days before Christmas in 2005, after not having communicated with Cindy for a good number of months, I got a phone call from a Pasco County Florida sheriff asking if I were her brother. While I tried to ring up a customer, he told me that they had found her dead in her home. She was 46. He wanted to know how to get in touch with my parents, which I asked him not to do until I had a chance to call and tell them myself. My initial reaction, aside from the shock, was to feel guilty for not having been in touch with her recently, and anger that she couldn’t do more to help herself – and that I couldn’t do more to help her.

I don’t think Cindy wanted to live any more, I think she was tired of life and of struggle. I can’t blame her for that, as I’ve been there like I have with so many of her other demons. She and I had one of those “at a distance” connections that they talk about in quantum physics, where two entities can be connected without being in physical contact, whether they be atoms or people. This may explain why, two years later when I was trying to give a speech at my parent’s 50th anniversary party and attempted to mention my sister, I burst into tears in front of a roomful of people.

I just opened my folder of Cindy’s emails, which I haven’t done since she died. The very last thing she said to me in her very last email was this: “Thank you for your words of wisdom the other day. They really helped. You are absolutely the most insightful person that I know, and I am very grateful that you’re my brother.”

There’s a song that makes me think of Cindy because of its lyrics. It’s called “Stones,” by Neil Diamond. It’s the only song that he refuses to sing in concert, saying it is too painful for him. Pretty painful for me to listen to these days, also.

Stones would play inside her head
and where she slept, they made her bed
and she would ache for love and get but stones

Lordy child, a good day’s comin’
and I’ll be there, to let the sun in
and being lost is worth the coming home
on stones

You and me, a time for planting
you and me, a harvest granting me
every prayer ever prayed
for just two wildflowers that grow
on stones

Rest in peace, Cindy. Happy Birthday.