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Cricket Can Play!

            Cricket has changed a lot since she started taking the DES (Diethylstilbestrol – a non-steroidal estrogen medication) last winter. First of all, the incontinence problem disappeared, which was the point of the medication in the first place. She takes her pill – buried in hamburger – every other night, and she hasn’t had an accident in months. But there are other changes too. For some reason, her voice is higher pitched than before. She’s always been loud and barky and anxious about strangers, but now when she screams at them her voice gets even higher. She’s also clingier, if that’s possible. She used to make do with sleeping next to her Grandma, attached like a barnacle, but now she tries to sleep on top of her, like a cat (she’s fourteen pounds, at most, so no bones have been broken in the process). She’s been very attached to Grandma since she was a puppy, but it’s a little more intense now. She even sits on Grandma’s lap at the computer now, instead of just on the couch, where it’s easy.

Cricket, the barnacle.

            The big change, though, came up recently, when a new mini Golden Doodle puppy arrived at our co-op. Well, he arrived a few months ago as a little red ball of fluff, but he had to wait until he had all of his shots and did his potty training before he could meet everyone.

This is not Kevin, or my picture. But Kevin is this cute.

            Then Mom came in one morning a few weeks ago, after taking the girls for their first walk of the day, and she said in wonder – Cricket was playing!

            Cricket is fourteen years old and she has never played with another dog. Dogs have tried to play with her, doing their play bows and zooming around her, but she would just stand still and wait for it to be over, or hide behind one of her people, or just raise an eyebrow in disdain at the strange creature and walk away to sniff someone else’s pee.

“Harrumph.”

            Butterfly and Ellie had both tried to play with Cricket over the years, and learned quickly that she couldn’t be bothered. And when we had other dogs over to visit, or she met dogs at the dog park or in the yard, she’d just sniff and be sniffed and then look off in the distance, bored, or confused about why the dog was still there, staring at her.

This is as close as Butterfly (top) and Cricket (bottom) came to playing.

            The closest she came to playing was with her friend Teddy – a black miniature poodle she’d known since puppyhood – but they tended to play consecutively rather than together. Teddy would throw his toy in the air and zoom around the room and scratch his back on the floor, and then he’d go lie down and watch while Cricket did her own play routine.

Teddy and Cricket, tandem napping.

            But with Kevin, the five month old mini-Golden Doodle, Cricket actually went into her own version of a play bow and hopped around with him. No one watching her could believe she was fourteen years old. Ellie, meanwhile, who’d had more than enough of boy dogs when she was a breeding mama, stayed back and waited for it to be over. She allowed Kevin to sniff her a little bit, but she really really wasn’t interested.

“Ugh. Boys.”

            Kevin is a very social dog, and especially social with other dogs. He’ll tolerate a scratch on the head from a human, but he’s really dog-centric. His humans say that they struggle to train him with treats because he’s not food-motivated, but he’ll do anything for a trip outside. I’m sure Kevin’s playful personality plays a role in how Cricket is reacting to him, but I’m pretty sure the DES has changed something for her.

            The thing is, Cricket had her spaying surgery when she was six months old, so she never had the surge of hormones rushing through her body. Now, the advice would be to wait until a dog is a little older before spaying or neutering, because it’s healthier for the dog to go through a few hormone cycles, but that wasn’t the advice when Cricket was little. So when she started taking the synthetic estrogen (DES) to solve the incontinence problem, that was her body’s first real experience with Estrogen, and one of the side effects, it seems, is that she’s learned how to play.

            Cricket has had a full life with her people, and she’s had rich, complicated relationships with her sisters (Butterfly and Ellie), and she’s eaten all kinds of interesting foods and barked in all kinds of different places and sniffed a million different smells, and she chased sticks, and ran like the wind, and rolled in the mud, but I always felt bad that playing with other dogs wasn’t in the cards for her.

            I had some theories: about her being the runt of her litter and therefore under attack from her brothers from day one and therefore not trusting of other dogs; or about her being the runt of her litter and therefore suffering from an unfinished nervous system that caused lifelong neurological issues that made her too hypervigilant and suspicious to play.

            And now she’s fourteen, and she’s discovering how to play. She still has a lot of energy and, despite a number of signs of aging, she’s still young at heart, and my hope is that she’ll have plenty of years left to figure out what else these synthetic hormones can do for her and take them out for a spin.

Cricket practicing her play bow with the grooming brush.

            Every once in a while I notice those signs that she’s aging – the thinning of her hair, the age spots and cauliflower-like growths on her skin, her skinniness despite eating plenty, the missing teeth in her smile – and I feel this void readying to open up, this reminder that Cricket won’t always be here. And then she barks at a leaf and hops across the lawn like a rabbit and then, out of nowhere she learns how to play (!!!!), and, for a few moments, she’s a puppy again, or better, she’s ageless and she seems like she will live forever.

            These are my favorite moments.

Cricket is ready for more!

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Cricket and the Pee

            I was slow to notice the excess peeing. We have wee wee pads by the front door of the apartment, despite taking the dogs out four times a day, and over the summer we noticed that the wee wee pads were getting filled faster than usual. But I couldn’t determine which one of the dogs was peeing extra, and it didn’t really seem important, except for the cost of the wee wee pads adding up.

            But then there were tiny puddles, not even puddles, just wet spots really, on the dog beds, on the couch, and Cricket was licking herself clean more often, and Mom was getting concerned. So we moved up Cricket’s yearly Vet appointment from December to November and had the doctor check her out. He did pee tests and blood tests and checked her ears (both ears were infected after so long without the hair being removed) and her teeth (a mess), and her spine (she’s had lower back issues in the past). But the Vet said she was in good health and most likely the problem was incontinence related to aging. He made an unfortunate comment about females tending toward incontinence in their older years, but at least he was awkward about it.

“Rude much?”

            He prescribed a medication to help relieve the incontinence, and cleaned Cricket’s ears, and told us to schedule a dental cleaning, despite her advanced years (she’s thirteen and a half). He also told us to keep her away from the groomer for ten days, because of the medicine he’d put in her ears, even though a haircut was clearly overdue.

            We started Cricket on the incontinence meds, twice a day, and watched for any improvements, but if anything the peeing issue got worse. We finally got her to the groomer a few weeks later and by then her hair had to be cut very short, but more than that, the groomer said that her pee smelled bad and the hair in that area was discolored and it seemed like an infection. We called the Vet and he told us to switch from the incontinence medication to an antibiotic for the next ten days.

            But again, nothing improved. The pee puddles got bigger and more frequent. We were doing an enormous amount of laundry and found reusable dog diapers at Petco, but they didn’t work (the pee leaked through the hole left for her tail).

            We called the Vet again and he suggested a urine culture, more sensitive than a regular pee test apparently, once she’d finished the antibiotics. We made an appointment for two days after the last dose of antibiotics, but then the snowstorm intervened and we got a last minute appointment on that Wednesday afternoon, right before the snow was supposed to start, with one of the other veterinarians in the practice.

            Cricket was anxious in the car, as she always is before going to the Vet, and shaking, but when the Vet Tech came to get her through the car window, Cricket went without a fight. They only needed a pee sample, so we expected the visit to be pretty quick. I wandered over to the CVS next door to get some colored markers and butter cookies, to get me through the snow storm, and I was surprised that Cricket wasn’t back in the car before I was. Mom was starting to get a little bit worried about the delay, but not too worried, yet.

            The substitute Vet came to my window a while later, after the snow had started to swirl. I didn’t recognize her with her mask on, even though we’d met her once or twice over the years. She wasn’t acting like herself, though. She was sort of hysterical. At first I thought she was telling me that Cricket was a difficult patient, which I knew very well, and that Cricket had been anxious during the procedure, but then the Vet said, “I thought she was going to die!” and everything changed. She said that Cricket had peed all over the place, including all over her, and there was blood in the urine, and then she seemed to go into shock (Cricket, not the Vet) and, the Vet repeated, “I was afraid she was going to die right there!”

            I was having a very hard time following her narration, because it was out of order and unexpected, and it seemed like the Vet was angry or scared or something else I couldn’t pinpoint, and I couldn’t make sense of any of it given that Cricket had only gone in for a urine culture. She told us that they’d been sitting with Cricket in the office, monitoring her vitals, and she was going to give Cricket subcutaneous fluids, and medication for shock, and then she could let Cricket sit with us in the car, as long as we didn’t leave.

            Cricket came out in the arms of the Vet Tech, looking listless and frail. She sat on my lap and seemed to weigh nothing at all. I kept talking to Cricket and petting her and trying to reassure myself that she was going to be okay, but I really wasn’t sure. I could feel the pocket of liquid under her skin from the fluids. Mom and I went over the things the Vet had said and shared our confusion. I was on the edge of tears, constantly rehearing “she’s going to die!” and Mom was trying to keep things together and stay calm, but it was rough.

            Gradually, Cricket started to recover and look around. When she climbed behind my neck, readying herself for the drive home, I knew she was out of danger, but we still had to wait for an okay from the Vet before we could leave. She came outside as the snow was getting thicker and she checked Cricket’s gums, and looked in her eyes, and said we could take Cricket home as long as we promised to call in half an hour with an update, or else she (the Vet) wouldn’t be able to get to sleep that night.

“Grr. Times two.”

            It took most of a day for Cricket to recover from her urine culture, but she did recover. We ordered new diapers, measured to fit Cricket’s shape and not just her weight, but with the delays in shipping for Christmas we had to make do with spreading towels everywhere for a while. It took five days to get results from the urine culture – positive for two infections – and a prescription for a stronger antibiotic. There was no explanation for the episode at the Vet’s office, though. And it was still unclear if the incontinence was caused by the infections, or if the infections were caused by the incontinence.

            I kept thinking about my friend Teddy, the black miniature poodle, who died over the summer at age fifteen from a sudden onset kidney disorder. He was a little bit older than Cricket, and had a little more blindness and deafness going on, but still, his death was unexpected. I’m not ready for Cricket to be an old dog. The way she allowed me to put the reusable diapers on her scared me – normal Cricket would have tried to rip my fingers off for trying such a thing. She even let us wash her, occasionally.

Teddy and Cricket, a few years back.

            The new diaper arrived, a light pink with Velcro straps, and Cricket let us put that on her too, though she made it clear that it was not her preference. There was only one diaper in the package, instead of the three we expected, so there was still a lot of washing and drying to do, with one memorable night spent hurrying the process with a hair dryer.

            About a week into the second course of antibiotics Cricket woke up shivering one morning, similar to the way she’d done during her Vet visit for the urine culture. We sat with her and massaged her back and whispered to her until she seemed to be okay, and then we called her regular Vet. He said to take a video if she had another episode, but he wasn’t too worried. He was more concerned with her continuing pee puddles and he wanted us to start the second incontinence medication right away. Mom drove to the Vet’s office that afternoon and we gave Cricket the first dose of DES, a synthetic estrogen meant to tighten the urethral sphincter, with her antibiotic and hamburger, that night.

Within twenty four hours of starting the DES Cricket’s puddling stopped. It’s possible that the antibiotic finally kicked in at the same time, but the correlation with the start of the DES was convincing. Cricket got through a whole night with a dry diaper, and then a whole day without a diaper and without any accidents. We put the diaper on her for the next two nights, just in case, but she had figured out how to take it off and she would leave it, still velcroed closed, on the edge of Mom’s bed while she went to pee on the wee wee pad.

She’s feeling much better, and she thinks she still deserves hamburgers every morning and very night, despite finishing the second course of antibiotics. She’s back to peeing only on the wee wee pad and outdoors with no accidents. But, this was not the answer I was hoping for. I wanted so badly for this to be a one-time infection, because incontinence, while treatable, is a sign that she is really aging now. I want to celebrate and feel the relief that she is back to normal, or normal for Cricket, but I’m worried about what might come next.

Ellie has found the whole situation confusing. On the one hand there have been many more treats to go along with Cricket’s medications (hamburgers, peanut butter, chicken livers, anything to get Cricket interested), and Ellie always gets her share, but there’s also been a lot of extra attention going to Cricket instead of to happy little Ellie. For example, Ellie was very jealous of the diaper. For a while there she reminded me a lot of Dobby the House Elf, from the Harry Potter Books, desperate for a piece of clothing of her own. But then our neighbor found out that the sweater she’d ordered as a Christmas present for her brother’s dog was too small for him, and she offered it to us. Cricket, feeling much better already, refused to put her paws through the armholes to try it on, but Ellie was thrilled! Finally, a present just for her! She wore it for a night and a day and had her picture taken and celebrated with some zoomies out on the lawn. The only problem with the sweater is that it covers all of the places where she wants to be scratched and petted, and she eventually decided that scratchies were more important than fashion. So the sweater has been put aside, awaiting the next snow day, when she can wear it out in public and run around in circles and get all of the attention she craves.

“I have clothes!”

I’m sure Cricket will be fine with that. Maybe.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Old Hands

 

One night at synagogue, I was sitting behind a grandmother and granddaughter, ages 65 and 8, approximately. They were both impeccably dressed, hair specially done for the evening. They wouldn’t have been chosen for a greeting card, or a commercial, as the ideal of a warm and sensitive grandmother offering safety and sweetness and cookies to a patient loving child. They were more like an ad for a department store, selling stylish clothes for women of every age. But as I sat there, the little girl picked up her grandmother’s hand and began to investigate. There was that puffy vein on the back of Grandma’s hand and the little girl pressed on it with her thumb, and rolled it under the skin. Then she pinched, gently, some of the skin on Grandma’s hand, and pulled it up like a tent, and then massaged it back into place. Then she ran her fingers over the lines in the skin, and the bends at the finger joints.

All the while Grandma relaxed her hand and allowed the investigation to continue. She didn’t grab her hand away, or hiss at her granddaughter to stop it. There was something so full of love in this interaction, even more so than later on in the service when they wrapped their arms around each other during the standing prayer. And it all made me think. Older women are always made to feel decrepit for their aging skin. Moisturize! Try Crepe erase! Collagen, plastic surgery, face tape! But this woman’s hands were being lovingly explored, seen as one more fascinating thing about Grandma, not to be criticized or avoided, but to be touched and manipulated and loved because they belong to Grandma. As if the granddaughter was saying, these hands make me feel safe and attached. These hands belong to my grandmother and therefore they are beautiful.

Cricket and hand

Cricket and her own Grandma

We have all of these ideas about how a woman should look, and how her skin should feel, and what color her hair should be, and what size her body should be, but children know better. They believe that whatever you look like is beautiful, if you are the one they love. Everything about how you look and smell and sound reminds them of who you are, and how you feel about them. They want to touch you and see you, not a perfected image of you.

I think this is what we love about dogs too. They don’t care if our skin is tight or loose. They don’t care if we are fat or skinny or in between. They care if we love them, and pet them, and feed them. They love the sound of our voices and the smell of our skin.

IMG_1070

“My Grandma is beautiful.”

I want to remember this the next time I feel the need to berate myself for my body, my face, my clothes, or anything else imperfect about me, but I know, even as I write this down, that I am forgetting it, or forgetting to believe it.

037

“I’ll remind you, Mommy.”

How The Writing Workshop Turned Out

I was so proud of myself. I went a million miles out of my comfort zone to set up the writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I wrote a heartfelt proposal and sent it out for people to read. I presented the proposal in person in front of 20 or 30 people, and got an extraordinarily positive reaction, and six people signed up for my theoretical workshop on the spot. I sent emails and coordinated, and negotiated, and scheduled, and got furiously to work planning my first workshop session, and five people showed up – only two from the original list. But five people was good, and people talked and wrote and stayed for an hour longer than I expected. The next time there were four people, and the time after that only two, plus me.

After three sessions, I took February off from the writing workshop – because so many people were snow birds escaping the winter in New York, and because I wanted to be a snow hermit and hide in my apartment. The anxiety I felt before each class was debilitating, even though the classes themselves were a lot of fun. I could barely move on a Wednesday after a Tuesday workshop. Three naps instead of one, and a long list of self-recriminations about things I should have said, and shouldn’t have said. I spent the extra time reading for, and planning, new lessons for the rest of the sessions. I drafted and revised and cut and pasted until the writing prompts and the writing samples came together in perfect symmetry to get to the heart of a subject within an hour and a half. I talked up the workshop at the next Engaging with Aging meeting, and to whoever asked at other events.

Me, napping.

Me, napping.

Me, trying to reach out.

Me, trying to reach out.

And when we came back from break, there were three students, then two, then just one, my mom, my loyal mom. People asked for my forgiveness for missing classes, for forgetting, and overscheduling, and having bridge at exactly that time and day. Intellectually, I knew they weren’t rejecting me, or saying anything about the quality of my work or what I had to offer. I knew that I’d done a good job, planning lessons and prompts and being supportive and gentle and only pushing a tiny bit when I knew someone was ready to go a step further. But how can you be a teacher without students?

Butterfly wants to help.

Butterfly wanted to help.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

Even Cricket felt bad for me.

These are good, solid, interesting people, with stories to tell and a lot of strength and survival skills and knowledge to share. And yet, the idea of waking up in the morning and choosing to go to a class where you will have to write about yourself, as if you matter, as if someone else should care what you think, no, that they can’t do.

One woman told me that what her sixteen-year-old grandson wanted for his birthday was for her to write down something about how she and grandpa got together and stayed together all those years. And I thought, wow, what a lovely and loving thing for a sixteen-year-old boy to ask for, and she thought, Oy, can’t I just give him money?

I ended the writing workshop in April, a month earlier than expected, and people kept asking me if I would start it again in the fall, maybe on a different day, at a different time, for a wider audience. I was tempted to try again, but also gun shy. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience of sitting in a big empty room, staring at the clock, hoping someone, anyone, would show up. Maybe if I could have brought Butterfly with me, to sit on my lap and calm me down while I stared up at the clock, but she sheds, which means she’s not hypoallergenic and therefore I’d be treifing up the library at the synagogue for people with dog allergies. And Cricket, the non-shedding dog, would be barking and growling, and scaring the nursery school kids into cowering under their tiny tables in the classroom next door.

A bark to scare small children

Cricket has a bark to scare small children

All hair all the time

Butterfly is all hair all the time

I went to the next Engaging with Aging meeting, after the end of the workshop, because I’d gone to all of the previous meetings. I sat and listened as the discussion wandered and flailed. They needed some way to disseminate information, to share the advice they’d gathered from each other, and from the social worker at the Jewish Community Center. But how?

I didn’t mean to speak up. Words just started coming out of my mouth. Why not write up personal stories, about how you’ve dealt with a particular aspect of aging, what you learned, what you struggled with, where you went for help, and put it in the newsletter, or on the website. Maybe telling stories in order to help someone else is going to make it easier for people to open up. Within minutes, I had volunteered to interview, edit, and encourage people to get their stories down on paper. I’ve never been a journalist. I’ve done very few interviews. How did this happen?

So, this is what I’m doing next. I am not at all comfortable out here on this cliff, but it’s an opportunity to do something new, and something satisfying, that might actually help people. Wouldn’t that be great?

Cricket thinks so.

Cricket thinks so.

The Writing Workshop on Aging

 

I started a writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I didn’t plan to do this. I just went to a meeting on aging because it looked interesting. I had the idea that this could lead to visiting people at the hospital, or reading to patients at nursing homes, and could count on my application for graduate school. My ideal would be to walk dogs at the animal shelter, but I don’t think they’d count that as social work. I could be wrong.

So I sat in the meeting and listened. Stories flooded the room: of women at sea after the death of a spouse of fifty years; women manipulated by insurance companies while signing papers at the hospital; women looking for help for their parents; women wondering how to help their friends. The meeting was very low on men.

I took notes and listened and felt the chaos roll over me.

The decision at the end of the first meeting was to have a second meeting, and a third, and a fourth if necessary, until some ideas could start to coalesce.

I went home, exhausted, and fell asleep, and then went on with my life, writing for the blog, going to class, writing my research paper, studying math for the GRE (because not only did I forget every bit of math learned in high school, but I have even lost my short term math memory and I forget it all over again each day.)

I don’t remember looking over my notes from the meeting. I just thought about one of my synagogue friends, recovering from back surgery, and I thought about my great aunt Ellen and the interviews I did with her a few years back to try and catch some of her magic on paper, and I thought about the short memoir my grandfather started before he died, giving us a glimpse into his childhood. Bits and pieces of the stories people had told me over the past few years of Friday nights at synagogue started to bubble up. I wrote a few notes to myself about people whose stories I’d want to read, but told myself it was just a passing idea, and I’d never have to follow through and actually talk to people.

I’ve learned so much from keeping a blog and writing memoir. It forces me to really deepen into my life, to settle into the crevices of it, and not just feel like I’m a character in my own imagination. I feel like I am taking good care of myself by writing about my life, instead of letting the moments disappear into the ether. I especially like that I have a chronicle of my dogs’ lives. I don’t worry that I will forget important things about them, the way I did with previous dogs. It felt so painful to forget things about Dina and Delilah, as if I was disrespecting them, and the value of their lives to me.

Delilah the Doberman

Delilah the Doberman

Dina, pensive.

Dina, pensive.

Butterfly and Cricket

Butterfly and Cricket

I found myself writing notes for an idea of a Friday night service where people read their own stories to the congregation. And I thought about how I could make that happen, or at least help people to write some of their own stories down.

I wrote a proposal, feeling very self-conscious and a bit like I was walking into a black hole from which I would never be able to return. I would be shunned from my synagogue. They’d hate me for thinking I was so special that I could teach anyone how to write; they’d resent me for thinking I had anything to offer. I could barely breathe.

I sent the proposal to the woman who runs the aging meetings, and she loved it! And then she sent it to the social worker helping the congregation, and she loved it too. And when I read it to the group in person at the next meeting, face turning purple, hands shaking, I got applause, and six people signed up to take a writing class with me on the spot.

I think I could be good at this, but I’m still terrified. Every step forward feels like jumping from one cliff to another. I’m thinking about how to help people who have trouble seeing, or trouble with arthritis so that writing or typing is difficult. I’m thinking about how to help people who are not natural writers, but would be great interviewees. I’m thinking so much that I have little pieces of paper floating around my room like confetti. Butterfly is loving that.

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

Butterfly, full of joy!