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Goodbye, My Friend

Teddy

            A good friend of mine died recently. He was a black-haired, gentle-souled miniature poodle named Teddy and I miss him very much. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but just knowing that he was still there, still climbing through his doggy door and sleeping on his Mommy’s lap, was reassuring and made the world feel whole.

            He was fifteen and a half, I think, two and a half years older than Cricket, my cocker spaniel/miniature poodle mix, who adored him from the get-go. He was long-legged and skinny, with hair that quickly covered his eyes between grooming session. He could leap like a ballet dancer, pointed toes and all, or just race full steam ahead to play with a toy. He was full of joy, and love, and seriousness. He was a gentleman, in the way he held himself and in the boundaries he set around himself. If he could have spoken, he would have had a faint French accent, nothing too broad, more like the head waiter at a high-end restaurant.

Gentleman Pose

            Over the past few years he grew blind and deaf, relying on his younger sister to alert him to noises he needed to respond to, and by the end, to alert him to meal time as well. He had been slowing down for a while, but took great joy in his resurgence on CBD oil, it gave him a zest for life and an appetite and the energy to be his athletic self once again. But his final illness came on quickly, shutting down his kidneys. Treatment only relieved his symptoms temporarily, and when the symptoms inevitably returned he was even more confused than before, and unable to feel like his true self. When he stopped eating, his sister stopped eating too, to keep him company, to express her grief at what she instinctively knew was coming, and because when your loved ones are in pain, you feel the pain too.

            He died with dignity, in a way we don’t often allow our human loved ones to do, surrounded by love and by the knowledge that he had lived a full life, a generous life, and a satisfying life. I imagine that when he crossed the rainbow bridge he did a few leaps and arabesques and then raced towards his two golden sisters who were waiting for him on the other side. He would have had so much to tell them about the world they’d left behind, and they would have had so much to tell him about what comes after.

            We tend to think that our role models and teachers will be human, but Teddy was one of my best teachers, and he was truly, and fully, a dog, in the best possible way.

            Teddy was my therapy dog. Not only because he was my therapist’s dog, but because he offered his own version of therapy: a nonverbal, relationship-based therapeutic technique that they don’t teach in school. He modeled for me how to respect your own emotions and your own boundaries even while reaching out to others. He modeled how to be fully yourself and respectful of others at the same time. He, like Cricket, taught me that there is no shame in speaking up when you feel strongly about something. And that there is honor and strength in accepting your own limitations and not forcing yourself into situations where you don’t feel safe.

“I want out!”

            He was a picky little man, with specific tastes in food and people and dog friends, and he chose me. He trusted me, and I felt the honor of that deeply. Teddy taught me that it’s not arrogant or selfish to hold your own views, or to love only who you love. He showed me that you can have those preferences, and know yourself, while still being respectful and polite to those who don’t fit for you – unless they scare you or piss you off, and then you can scream.

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”

            He showed me that you can express your fear and pain, and if you express it fully and truthfully, there is then room for other feelings to come in. He taught me that there is no shame in asking for affection when you need it, and he taught me that there are people, and dogs, who will be honored that you’ve asked for their affection.

            His acceptance of me, his love for me, and his trust of me, was healing on a very deep level. He reflected me back to myself as I really am. He told me that I am kind, I am trustworthy, and I am loveable. And I believed it, from him. I think the fact that he could never communicate in words, which are my stock in trade, also played a role. He reached the parts of me that can’t speak and they heard him and felt comforted by him.

            I know there were times when it wasn’t easy being Teddy. There were a limited number of people that made him feel comfortable, and when he couldn’t be with those people he suffered. I can relate to that, completely.

            He stayed with me a couple of times, in the period after Butterfly died and before Ellie arrived, and after a short period of vocal grief and longing for his Mom, he settled in with us. He set his boundaries with Cricket early on, and she respected those boundaries, and appreciated his respect for her space too. They went on walks together, and ate dinner together and took naps together peacefully, as long as I was there to referee. By the time he had to leave Cricket was forlorn, sleeping in his makeshift bed until the scent of him dissipated.

Teddy on his bed

            The most important lesson I learned from Teddy is that love is a gift. His love for me was a gift. And the love I felt for him in return made me feel strong enough to raise Cricket with love, and then Butterfly, and now Ellie. He taught me that having enough of what you need makes you feel like you are enough.

            Dogs, maybe because they live such short lives, focus in on the most important things: love, food, joy, and safety. They don’t get distracted by appearances or wear the masks we humans wear to get through our days.

Cricket and Teddy napping with Grandma

            I will miss Teddy, but I will also keep Teddy with me, as part of me, for the rest of my life, as a guide, and as a source of energy for the lessons I still want and need to learn.

            Goodbye, my friend. May you feel all of the love you have inspired throughout your short life, and find peace and community on the other side.

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?

A Greek Orthodox Funeral

 

A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral at a Greek Orthodox Church. The death was expected, though still sad. I’d kept in touch with one of my clients (from my senior center internship), visiting and calling her on a regular basis for the past two years. She had been actively dying for at least fifteen years (from cancer), and inspiring everyone with her persistence and her capacity to live fully within her limitations. But for the last year, things were slowly coming to an end and we talked our way through it together; coming to peace with her death, as much as that’s possible.

The funeral was open casket. Jewish funerals are, traditionally, closed casket, so this was not something I was really prepared for. Even from my seat six rows back, I could see her head clearly (they cranked up the bottom of the casket, with an actual crank, to make her visible during the funeral, and then cranked her back down at the end so they could close the lid). I think I was the only one in the room who didn’t go up to talk to her. They had dyed her hair, and put on makeup, so she looked sort of alive, but not really like herself.

The only people I knew at the funeral were from the senior center, and a few family members; everyone else was a picture I’d seen, or a story I’d been told (she was a great story teller). She told me, often, that I should write her life story for her, and I told her, just as often, that I wanted her to write it for herself. But she never did. I know there are rules about this in the social work code of ethics (avoiding dual relationships), but also just for me, writing her stories would have felt like stealing.

I didn’t start crying until the eulogies started. The director of the senior center talked about my former client as if she was right there in the room (she was!), and I used up all of my tissues within minutes, and had to reuse them, until I was basically wiping my face with snot (don’t judge me, I was desperate).

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The saving grace was the distraction of the Greek orthodox rituals. I could focus on my curiosity and hold the grief at bay, just a little bit. The sanctuary had a domed ceiling, and gold painted apostles on the walls, and hidden doors where the gofer (I’m sure there’s a more dignified title for him, but I don’t know it) would sneak in and hand one of the clergymen something they needed. One clergyman was dressed in all black and stood in front of three microphones. The other one wore dramatic white robes, with an overlaid floor length scarf, and had a microphone attached to his head so he could walk through the room and swing incense around the coffin and down the aisle.

They both kept talking about how my former client had “gone to sleep” (at least in the English, I can’t tell you what they said in Greek or Latin). And with the raised pillows, and the hair and makeup, you could almost believe she really was just sleeping. The fact is, she would have loved to have been there, just to hear what people were saying about her, and of course, to critique all of the performances.

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As they wheeled her (now closed) coffin out of the building, the crowd followed her out through two enormous steel doors into the fresh air. Everything about the setting was so dramatic and impressive. She would have loved that.

I knew she was ready to die, and that her body had been ready for even longer than her spirit, and I was relieved for her when the end came. But she took up such a big space in my heart – as one of my first clients as a social work intern, but also as a friend. And I miss her.

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It was a hard day. I sat with my former supervisor afterwards, both of us trying to absorb the loss and put it into some kind of safe, protected place where it wouldn’t leak out into the rest of our lives. But grief doesn’t really work that way. I remember everything: the times when my client was heartbroken, and enraged, and confused, and as lost as a child. The times when I couldn’t wait to see her, and couldn’t stop laughing, and the times when she cut me so deep I could barely breathe.

The idea that social workers can have a full caseload of clients and not be impacted by them, and not care about them, or miss them, or hate them, or love them – is crazy. We’re human. Yes, we have to choose how to behave, given those feelings, and follow our codes of ethics as far as we can, to make sure we are doing no harm, but the connections are real.

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My former supervisor goes to a lot of funerals. That’s what happens when you work with seniors as your life’s work (and maybe why I’m reluctant to follow her down that path, even though I really like the population). You meet people and make connections and do as much as you can to help them, and then, often, you watch as they slip away. Seniors are just as complicated and troubled as everyone else, but maybe more so because they are usually more aware of death, and sometimes that makes them angry, or depressed, or desperate to fit as much as possible into each day, and it can be hard to live up to their needs and expectations.

The funeral did what it was supposed to do: it let me grieve, and it let me say goodbye. But I feel sad that I never wrote my client’s stories down. Even in my progress notes, I didn’t quite capture her voice, and that feels like a loss. For me, for everyone who didn’t get to meet her, and for everyone who did. But I will always remember her, and that’s a good thing.

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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?

 

Olivia

 

According to the New York Times, Olivia Cole died a week ago Friday, on January 19th, which was only a few days after the last time my Mom had spoken to her on the phone. At first, we weren’t sure the news was real; maybe someone had confused her with her mother, who died this fall. But her mother had a different last name, and lived in NY, while Olivia lived in Mexico, and the news stories had that detail right. And then we saw a quote from her agent, and too many more details that made it all sound true.

Olivia was dead.

Olivia is dead.

Oivia & Mom stacked

Olivia and her Mom

It still seemed so unlikely, though. She was just in New York in December, traipsing across the city by foot, despite her rheumatoid arthritis, because she didn’t like spending money on taxis. She even refused to take a cab when she had to be at the airport at five o’clock in the morning, and instead chose to wear most of the clothes, so she wouldn’t have to carry them, and take the subway at three o’clock AM, in the middle of winter.

Mom was worried about that trip back to Mexico, with twenty four hours in transit, and called Olivia a number of times to check if she’d made it home safely. Olivia had a landline, but no cell phone, or email, or even a computer, so when Mom didn’t hear back, so she emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel and finally heard that Olivia had made it home safely. It still took a few weeks for Olivia herself to call, though. She didn’t like to use her phone for international calls, so she would borrow her friend’s computer-based phone system, on Mondays, to make her calls. She called on MLK day, and the two old friends talked about the need to take care of oneself, and about the foundation Olivia wanted to build, to help finance early education for children of color.

Olivia was one of my mom’s lifelong friends, from their years in the drama club at Hunter High School, and she would pop in and out of our lives every few years, sending tickets to plays she was in, and visiting when she came to New York to see her Mom. The first time I met her in person was when I was eleven, when she played Mama in A Raisin in the Sun at the Roundabout theatre in Manhattan. Seeing Olivia on stage was just like seeing her in real life: she was a character. She was larger than life. She was stubborn and opinionated and fiercely intellectual, delving into the Shakespearean canon for life lessons in even the most obscure of areas. She loved acting, and reading, and opining, but she didn’t like fame, or compromise.

Then Mom received the email, this Thursday, from a high school friend, with the attached announcement of Olivia’s death in the New York Times. The article said that she’d died of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she’d lived for the past thirty years. Mom called to me from the living room, sounding odd, and the only word I understood was “Olivia” and I thought, that’s weird, Olivia wouldn’t call on a Thursday. When I reached her and she repeated “Olivia’s dead?” as a question, I was sure it was a mistake. Yes, Olivia was 75, and had rheumatoid arthritis, and no sense of her own limits, but she took good care of her health and went to all of her doctors on her most recent visit to New York. She hadn’t mentioned any heart issues to my Mom, but then again, she wouldn’t. She was full of plans for the future, and still full of piss and vinegar, never changing, and never really aging.

 

Norah Olivia and me

Three old friends on a recent visit

Since we were still not quite believing the news. Mom emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel for confirmation. The email came back, yes, Olivia was found on her porch, sitting upright in a chair, reading an old article about Barack Obama. Friends hadn’t heard from her in a couple of days and decided to check on her, and they found her there on the porch. The comfort for the people who knew her is that this is exactly how Olivia would have wanted to go: reading and thinking and full of hope for the future.

I had to go to my internship soon after the death was confirmed, but Mom’s high school classmates stepped in, sending messages on their class listserv, offering memories and kindness and compassion. These New York girls grew up knowing that all that mattered was how smart you were, not the color of your skin, or which neighborhood you lived in; and a woman could become anything she wanted to be: a lawyer, a doctor, a mother, a teacher, a writer, or an actress.

There’s a sweet coda to this story. We had a visit from a bird last weekend, two days after Olivia’s death, though we didn’t know that at the time. The bird stayed in the apartment for a while, resting in the quilting closet, and on the vitamin bottles on the entertainment center, and then in the light fixture in the dining room. The bird seemed to want to stay with us, fluttering from place to place indoors, even though the window in mom’s room was wide open. Looking back at that visit, after the news of Olivia’s death, Mom is convinced it was Olivia, saying goodbye. Because that would be a very Olivia thing to do.

 

bird in the fabric closet 2

The Waves of Kindness and Grief

 

I want to thank all of you for your wonderful words of kindness and support since Butterfly’s death. It feels like you came to virtually sit Shiva with me this week, to mourn for the loss of Butterfly, and to celebrate her life. My rabbi even dedicated a poem to Butterfly at Friday night services, two days after she died, about the sacred nature of animals and our great good fortune at having them in our lives.

I wasn’t sure, when we first adopted Butterfly, as an eight year old rescue with heart problems, if I would be able to bond with her, or if I was just going to take care of her in her old age and learn generosity of spirit. But she became my baby, my heart and soul, my inspiration to become a better person, and a person more capable of joy.

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I still have an essay about Butterfly’s last illness, and the roller coaster of doctor visits and hospital stays, but I haven’t been up to editing it yet. The first draft was written before she died, when I expected her to recover, and figuring out how it needs to change, now, has been too hard.

Cricket has shifted in some essential way, internally, as if she needed to make room for part of her sister’s soul. She snuggles with me more than ever before. She eats enough kibble to rival her sister’s moniker of the super pooper. Just this morning, Cricket left two pieces of kibble of the rug again, right where Butterfly would have put them. She’s even giving licks, on occasion. And a brown and yellow tortoise shell butterfly has taken up residence in our bathroom, one of Butterfly’s favorite places to hang out, do her bathmat art, and find peace. Mom set out a cap full of water and a piece of kibble, just in case.

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I don’t usually, or ever, advertise products or companies on my blog, and that’s not my intention now, but I have to tell you a story. The day after Butterfly died, a bag of her diabetic dog food arrived from Chewy.com. We had a regular order with them, every few months, and it was already on its way when Butterfly died. Mom wrote to them right away to cancel future orders, and explained why, and they immediately sent us a condolence note and refunded the cost of the last bag of food, telling us to donate it to a local animal shelter.

A week later, we received a bouquet of red and white roses from Chewy.com, and Butterfly’s ashes from the clinic, on the same day, at the same time. I had forgotten about the ashes. Mom couldn’t even open the shipping box through her tears, so I put on my bravado and opened the box, removed the paperwork, and then the paper bag with the order form stapled to the front. The process became harder with each step. There was a white box inside of the paper bag, and then gold tissue paper wrapped around a decorative tin with flowers painted on all four sides. This was the end, inside of the tin were the ashes. The decorated tin reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle I once had, stored in a similarly decorated metal tin.

I was overcome by the reality of Butterfly’s ashes, devastated by it, really. We’d never asked for ashes of a pet, or a person, before. It seemed right on the day she died, when the clinic offered us that option, but seeing that tin made me feel sick, and overwhelmed. I didn’t want to scatter her ashes in the backyard, the way we’d originally planned. The idea of it turned bitter in my mind as soon as I saw the tin, as if we would be throwing Butterfly away.

The only comforting thought I could muster at the time was to bring her to my grandfather’s grave, and let her rest there with him. Because they would have loved each other.

We still need to put the bag of dog food in the car and schlep it over to the shelter – which will be hard. And then make the journey to my grandfather’s grave as well, which, for now, feels impossible. The ashes sit behind Butterfly’s picture, which is surrounded by condolence cards, and those red and white roses. And this is where they belong, for now.

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Goodbye, My Butterfly

 

Three or four hours after Butterfly’s death, Cricket did something she never does: she brought a mouthful of kibble into the living room, dropped the pieces onto the carpet, and ate them kibble by kibble. Did she mean to mimic Butterfly’s favorite way of eating? Was she consciously honoring her sister’s memory? Or did Miss Butterfly find a way to join with Cricket for just a moment to visit us and say goodbye?

I don’t know.

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Cricket and Platypus, after.

I didn’t expect Butterfly to die, not yet. I counted her age from the day she came home, almost five years ago, and tried to ignore the eight years in the puppy mill that came before. Yes, she’d been in the hospital, but she was getting better. She’d coughed a bit the night before, but no more than was usual for her over the past year. Her bark was strained, yes, but I thought it was from a sore throat and it would pass.

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Miss Butterfly

Mom came into my room at 6:30 in the morning, carrying Butterfly in her arms and saying, she’s making strange noises. Just the way Butterfly was limp and awkward in Mom’s arms told me that something was very wrong. She made some sort of wet hiccupping noise as Mom put her down on my bed. And then blood poured out of her mouth, and her eyes rolled back, and more blood poured out of her nose.

She was gone, but I couldn’t believe it. I checked for her pulse and couldn’t feel anything. Mom said she could feel a faint movement in her chest, and then nothing.

I kept my hands on Butterfly, petting her, only because Mom told me to do it; I couldn’t think at all for myself. I could see Butterfly’s hair move as I rubbed her back and I thought, she’s not dead. If I just keep contact with her I can keep her from leaving me. Her pulse is just hiding. It was a lot of blood, yes, but she has more. Doesn’t she?

My mind was split in pieces as I sat there watching her die. No, she was already dead, but part of me didn’t believe it. And part of me was trying to come up with a to-do list (laundry for the bloody sheets, go to the clinic to have her cremated – but she’s not really dead! How dare you even think of killing her! There were all of those meds we hadn’t given her yet, and the diabetes testing supplies, and the diabetic dog food, and the doggy steps next to my bed. She would need them.

I couldn’t move forward in time. I just stayed in that loop, sobbing, and hoping, for forty five minutes. Time was barely creeping by, but then each time I checked the clock, time was galloping past me.

Cricket hid under my bed. Even when Mom went to talk to her, to console her, she hid further under the bed and growled.

I asked Mom for a wet wash cloth and washed Butterfly’s face, but I didn’t want to push too hard, and hurt her.

We put her in her doggy bed on the living room floor and covered her with a piece of soft gray fabric from Mom’s stash. I wanted Cricket to have a chance to say goodbye. It took Cricket a while to come over and sniff the hidden Butterfly, though. I lifted the blanket so she could see that her sister really was under there, and she looked at her face for a moment and then ran under the couch to hide again. I could understand that; I felt the same way. But I re-covered my baby and lifted her bed onto the dining room table, with a towel underneath because the bed had become damp. Mom said that the body lets go of its fluids after death, but I couldn’t think about that. I couldn’t think that she was dead. If I only looked at her back, her tail, her paws, she could be sleeping. But if I looked at her face, I knew she was gone. And I kept reliving that last moment of terrible release, her twisted tongue, her blood flowing onto my bed.

We had to wait until nine o’clock in the morning to call the clinic and ask them what to do, so in the meantime I stripped my bed and took everything to the laundry. I needed something to do, something practical and concrete.

When we went to the clinic, I stayed in the car while Mom went inside to make arrangements. I sat in the back seat, next to Butterfly, and uncovered her tail and her back. Her hair looked normal. As long as I didn’t look at her face it was alright. But then a vet tech came out to the car and reached in for Butterfly. She picked up the doggy bed like a folded piece of pizza and I wanted to yell at her, that’s my baby in there! But I couldn’t speak.

I spent all day Wednesday reading the beautiful comments left on the blog, honoring Butterfly’s special soul and her ability to reach out and spread love wherever she went. All day I forced myself to remember that she was gone. She didn’t need her doggy steps anymore. No more blood tests and insulin shots. No more pills wrapped in peanut butter. No more barks of outrage in the morning when she wanted to go out. No more sous chef resting her chin on the tile leading into the kitchen.

But I didn’t really believe it. She would come back. The clinic would call and say that we made a mistake, Butterfly was awake and needed to be picked up. I didn’t care what was real or possible, I just wanted her back.

I feel like I failed her, like there was something else I should have known to do for her. But most of all I miss her. She brought out the best in me, the kindest, warmest, most compassionate parts of me. I liked myself more when I was with her. I liked everyone more, because I had her with me. And I want her back.

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Hershey is Gone

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Hershey, the last feral cat at my building, has died. I wanted to believe that I was overreacting to her symptoms, especially when I saw her meandering around the property for a couple of weeks after she’d first seemed sick, but I was right to be worried. I started to count days, since the weekend, that I had not seen her around, hoping that I just wasn’t looking closely enough. But then I saw her outdoor house, a box covered in a blue tarp, removed from the alcove next to my neighbor’s apartment, and wrapped up to be taken away.

I asked the maintenance man, sitting on the steps at the last building, if he knew why Hershey’s house was wrapped up, and he said that Hershey had died, and my neighbor had asked him to pack up the cat house because she wouldn’t need it anymore, and maybe because she didn’t want the reminder.

I started sobbing as soon as I got into my apartment. But I was also very, very angry, at my neighbor for not seeking medical help for Hershey when her symptoms began, and at myself, for not confronting her or trying to trap Hershey myself to get her to the doctor.

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I’ve been told that there used to be fifteen feral cats on the property, and the lawns were dotted with dead mice (and these are the same people who are worried about my dogs peeing on the grass?). One of my neighbors was proactive about trapping the cats, to get them spayed and neutered, and intervening with new litters as soon as possible to get the kittens adopted out if at all possible. He supports a group called Alley Cat Allies based in Washington, DC that advocates for trapping and neutering programs, and helps fund one nearby. He also personally rescued cats that could not survive the feral life, and sought medical care for them whenever possible. Maybe it was all of his work, or just a change in the neighborhood, but by the time Mom and I had moved in, there were only two or three feral cats left. It was hard to tell, actually, because a bunch of my neighbors had indoor/outdoor cats as well, and left front doors or window open for the cats to go wandering on their own schedules, but eventually there were just two, Gimpy and Hershey.

And now there are none.

I’m supposed to be grateful that Hershey lived as long as she did, and as well as she did, as a feral cat. I’m supposed to be philosophical about her death. “That’s nature,” the maintenance man told me, with a shrug. “She wouldn’t have been able to tolerate a visit to the vet, or the medical care required,” another said.

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I worry that Hershey caught whatever illness killed Gimpy (the second to last feral cat, who died a month ago, at age thirteen), or that, even worse, someone put out poison that killed both cats, and my dogs might be vulnerable as well.

Before the blue tarp-wrapped cat house was removed from the lawn behind the building, the girls had a chance to sniff their goodbyes to Hershey. They took a long time, checking each crevice, seeming to recognize her smell, and her story, in each corner.

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“Hershey has to be here somewhere.”

There are still squirrels, and raccoons, and birds and, of course the dogs, around the place. But there is no more Hershey. I’d gotten used to having her around, and spying her through the greenery of the retaining wall. I’m not used to her being gone. I keep looking for her, everywhere.

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The Day My Grandfather Died

I was eight years old and we’d just gotten back from visiting him in the hospital the day before. Memorial Day weekend. We’d stayed at a campground near the hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, as if it was just another adventure, not pancreatic cancer.

I think we were only there one night, and then visited him in the hospital in the morning, but I don’t remember much. It was the phone call the next morning, as the bus was arriving for school that stuck with me.

Mom answered the phone on the wall in the kitchen, next to the yellow and orange wallpaper that was starting to peel. The skin around Mom’s eyes turned dark purple and if she said anything I don’t remember it, but I knew that Grandpa was dead.

I was in a fog. My grandpa was the first of my four grandparents to die, and the one I needed the most. He was the one who loved us. He was the one who could fix everything, or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. His death meant that we were on our own.

We had to go to school anyway, me and my brother. He was ten years old and I was eight, and he didn’t talk to me on the bus or in the hallway at school, ever. My friend Alex noticed that I wasn’t my usual self in the one class we had together, art. He chatted to try to get me to smile, and listened when I remembered how to talk, but mostly he just watched me, to make sure I was okay and not shattering into tiny pieces.

My parents picked my brother and me up from school at noon, and took us to the deli where our father picked up too many sandwiches, and chatted with the counterman, and drank Dr. Brown’s celery soda, (really gross), before we drove up to Westchester to see Grandma.

The funeral had to be planned. Relatives had to arrive. Decisions about the future had to be made. But I just remember sour pickles and pastrami sandwiches and the utter emptiness of that house without Grandpa in it.

My grandfather was my idea of God – a little bit frail and not especially powerful but full of love and joy. I knew he loved me, and my brother, and my cousins, and I knew there was enough love for all of us. My grandfather was the only person in the world who seemed to have power over my father, though he rarely used it.

One of my aunts spoke at the funeral, but I don’t remember much about that day. A lot of funerals seem to mush together from those years: the funeral parlor, the pine box, the black ribbons, the cemetery, the prayers, and all of those grey stones. What stays with me is the grief; the void of no-Grandpa that we were left with after that.

I don’t remember Delilah, our Doberman Pinscher, being a part of things. Did she come with us camping that weekend? Did she sleep on my feet after the funeral? Was she there in the kitchen when the phone rang? I don’t know. But I do know that I would have talked to her about all of it, like I learned to talk to Grandpa after he died, and like I used to talk to God. I never considered it talking to myself, because I always knew that someone was listening.

Delilah.

Delilah.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

And Delilah, who loved me in her own quiet way, was always willing to listen.

Delilah's favorite form of listening.

Delilah’s favorite form of listening.

Mourner’s Kaddish

I have felt, for a long time now, that I have mourning to do, without the rituals with which to do it. My grandfather died when I was eight years old and I was not required, or even allowed, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him. I have lost dogs, but there is no ritual of Jewish mourning for a dog. There is also no mourning ritual after a betrayal or divorce. There are rituals for birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, but there are more events in life than that.

Delilah at the beach.

Delilah at the beach.

IMG_0547

Dina loved peanut butter.

The Mourners Kaddish is not actually about death, it is about reiterating faith in God. The prayer is mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. I never studied ancient Aramaic, so I only really understand this prayer because of the English translation. But the sound of the words, sung or spoken, has power, maybe because it sounds different from the largely Hebrew prayers in the rest of the service. It’s almost like the words have magic because of their otherness, as if secrets are hidden within them.

My favorite line of the prayer is a long list of the types of praise we offer. From the Artscroll Siddur: “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed is He beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”

It sounds better in the Aramaic, but it’s this long list of the ways we express love. And yes, we say them about God, but I think of them as being about us, about each other. These are all of the ways we experience and express our love for each other – with glory or comfort, with praise or song, and yet we can never capture all of that love in words because it is beyond the words we have available to describe it. So, yes, we are being reminded to have faith in God at our lowest moment, when we might feel as if God has forsaken us, but for me, it is a moment to acknowledge the love we still feel for the person we have lost, and for the people we still have.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

The Mourner’s Kaddish can only be said with a quorum (ten Jews, some congregations still count only men) as part of the service. People who would otherwise say a hasty version of their morning prayers at home before work, will, for the year of mourning, make a point of finding an early service at their own or another synagogue, and hope that at least ten people will show up in time.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is said at the end of the service, not at the beginning, and I can think of a couple of reasons for this: one, so that the mourners will stay for the whole service in order to maintain the quorum and allow for all of the communal prayers to be said; and two, because there is healing energy in being there for the regular daily prayers, with your community, and in deep mourning you may not be able to believe that and choose it for yourself if it were not required.

At my current congregation the custom is, basically, for mourners to stand and the rest of us to sit, for the Mourner’s Kaddish. But over the years the instructions have become more convoluted and the rabbi has had to come up with a paragraph-long list of instructions: if you are in a period of mourning, or have a yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death of a loved one), or are supporting a friend who is in mourning, or think this is a good time to stand and remember…

Earlier in the service, a shortened version of the same prayer is sung, rather than spoken (as it is for the Mourner’s Kaddish) and the feeling is more joyful and light, with the same exact words. It seems to me that using the same prayer for both purposes is a way to gently remind mourners that they used to sing this song, and some day they will again. Until then, they will speak the words with the community, be part of and apart from them, and know that they are seen and that they are not alone.

Most of Jewish ritual is meant to be practical. When it’s not practical, it is either out of date for its original purpose, or the practical purpose is a little more hidden and requires some time and repetition to discover. So I wonder what the ancient rabbis meant by leaving other losses unritualized and unmourned. Maybe some of the prayers just didn’t make it into the canon, or were lost along the way. Maybe one day there will be an excavation of a little town outside of Jerusalem, and inside of an ancient stone dog house they will find the lost book of prayers for how to mourn a beloved dog. I think a lot of people would appreciate that.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

The Dina Years – The End

The Shadow

Dina’s Shadow

When Dina, my black Labrador mix, was fourteen years old, she started to lose her hair. The clumps of hair were like little bushels of hay, black at one end and white, with flakes of grayish skin attached, at the other. I relished pulling out clumps of hair and dropping them into the growing pile on the floor.

Dina had been with me since I was sixteen years old and we accepted each other. She accepted that I was afraid of loud noises and strangers and telephone calls. And I accepted that she was afraid of children, other dogs, thunderstorms, and walking across wooden slats.

Dina never had Cancer or Diabetes or Parvo or heart disease, but by the time she was fifteen years old, she was dying. First it was her kidneys. Then there was the arthritis. She began to trip over her feet, and then her hips dropped. Defecating was too hard of a job to do while standing. Her legs shook and she fell and squashed the pile of feces under her folded tail. Her legs splayed in splits on floors that had never before seemed slippery to her.

            She paced from room to room, up the stairs and back down, endlessly, as if she didn’t know where she was or that she’d already done the route ten times in a row. She peed indoors, mostly, by the end. She couldn’t remember what the need to pee felt like, and even if she could, her urinary tract was completely befuddled. When I asked her if she wanted to go out to pee, she would lift her head, consider, and more often than not, go back to sleep. I didn’t know that dog. My Dina heard the word pee, or walk, or go, or leash, and ran down the stairs panting in desperation.

When she was younger, Dina could walk for an hour, to the point of utter exhaustion, and still want more. And the drool! Long strings of white, bubbling drool would hang from her mouth and she’d shake her head and the strings would paste themselves to her neck or her chin and her tongue would be heavy with sweat and her eyes shining. And she would sing. Whenever we sang high enough notes, she’d warble along and howl like a wolf. But now I had to inch her food dish closer to her feet because she couldn’t eat standing up or even squatting. She sat like a child with her useless legs splayed around the bowl.

Dina's favorite activity - eating

Dina’s favorite activity – eating

            The doctor kept offering us medications to cover her symptoms: an expensive drug to make her less senile, antibiotics for the endless urinary tract infections, Pepto Bismal for the diarrhea. I wanted the doctor to be compassionate and tell me that it would be okay to put Dina to sleep, but he didn’t. And my mother wasn’t ready to let go. Or, rather, she wanted Dina to decide the day; to walk off into a field and choose the moment to die.

And then Dina’s hair stopped clumping. Her body was covered with a fog of loose hair at all times, no matter how often she was brushed.

Dina died on a fuzzy blue blanket on the floor in the vet’s office when she was sixteen years old. I sat against the wall, petting her back. My mother sat under the examining table, petting her head. And we stayed with her through both shots, knowing it was time to let go, but still not ready.

I imagined Dina running into a field of roasted chicken growing like wheat from the ground as far as she could see with her eyesight fully returned. I saw her galloping, unable to decide where to start, unable to believe the joy ahead of her, that she could eat a whole chicken and never worry about the bones sticking in her throat, and splintering through her esophagus like a broken needle. She could eat without end and without rice as filler!

But she’d never learned how to make friends. She depended on her people for company and communication. What would she do in heaven without us? Who would laugh with her and at her and scratch her belly and pull on her ears in that way she hated so much?

            Would all of that chicken really make up for being alone?

When we got home, we packed up her left over pee pads and pee absorbing powder and anti pee spray. We packed her food and water bowls and her collar and her leash and her brush. But we couldn’t throw any of it away.

            I had to put away the scarlet bathmat she used to sleep on. She liked the ray of sunlight from the bathroom window and the softness of the mat. The bathroom was her favorite place and I had to fight with her constantly to get her to leave so I could pee in private. As she aged, it only got worse. The slow aching rise of her elderly body onto shaky feet, one long stretch where she tilted and threatened to fall, and then the drippy-eyed stare as she stood two feet from the door asking why this horrible exodus had come upon her and who was I, what fresh evil was I, that I would make her flee her home, however slowly.

            Dina took up so much space and sound that her absence was profound. I felt the silence deep in my body; it reverberated. No jangly collar, no tap tap of uncut toenails on hardwood floors, no scrape of food bowls against kitchen tile.

            Her hair was everywhere in the apartment, cropping up under chairs, in furniture crevices, trapped in corners of the floorboards.

            I cleaned every surface in the apartment, scrubbed the walls and the floors until my hands were raw and my knees ached, but her hair still lingered.

            When Cricket came home, Dina had been gone for nearly eight months, but the smell of her was still in the apartment, especially on the small rug in my room where Dina did a lot of her napping.   Cricket could smell her big sister in the floors and behind the furniture, and I think they had talks about how to handle Dina’s people. Sometimes I could even see Dina, like a mirage, sleeping on the floor, opening her eyes for a second to check on me, and then falling back to sleep.

Dina's smile

Dina’s smile

Samson and Why I Hate Halloween

 

When I was six years old we had a dog named Samson. We adopted him as an eight week old puppy from the shelter. We were used to more aggressive or standoffish dogs, but Samson was a black Labrador mix and had the Lab personality through and through. My brother and I would race off the bus from school to see Samson and play with him. He was the happiest dog we’d ever had and we loved him.

It could just be that he was still a baby, and hadn’t settled into dogdom yet, or maybe he just didn’t have time to cause trouble before he died.

We only had him for two months, until he was hit by a car, on Halloween. I’ve built up a long list of reasons why I hate Halloween: monster movies scare me; I had to touch peeled grape “eyeballs” in the dark at a Halloween party; I don’t like knocking on strangers’ doors; I prefer to choose my own candy; and I have PTSD, so every time someone knocks on our door or rings the doorbell to trick or treat, I feel like hiding under the bed.

I sound like the Grinch who stole Halloween, I know.

But the bottom line is that Samson was hit by a car on Halloween, and the two events have always been paired in my mind.

Mom’s not sure how he got out of the house, but she blames herself. She thinks she must have left the door open when she took the garbage out. When she realized he wasn’t in the house, she ran outside to look for him and a group of kids told her he’d been hit by a car and they’d carried him to the side of the road. His body was still warm, but starting to get stiff by the time Mom brought him up to the porch. I don’t know why he ran out into the street. Maybe he was following the trick or treaters. I don’t know. I was already in my pajamas and probably asleep.

My father insisted that my brother and I not be told that night, so we found out the next morning, after they’d already buried him in the backyard.

Something about the Samson story still feels unresolved, like a haunting. And I don’t know what it is. The traumatic event happened off screen. I didn’t see him getting hit by the car, and I didn’t see him die. I worry that Samson could have been saved if only I’d known that he needed me. I don’t have many narrative memories of him, just a feeling. Not so much a body memory as a soul memory. I feel, in some indistinct place in my heart, my face, my hands, that he was a joyful place in my life. And he was fleeting.