“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day 84: Treats. Play. Love.

What is it about fresh snow and a double date between two good friends and two canine pals that makes everything right?

We break tracks on the golf course, one of us in snow shoes, the other in fleece-lined knee-high barn boots.

We discuss our day--work done, conversations had, pages written, mysterious breakthroughs and our best theories about the why and how.  A lot of this has to do with being more open.  Which gets us to our friendship and how it has evolved.

"Do you remember those dinners?  How stressed out we all were about work and how we'd wake up in the middle of the night wondering if we'd said the wrong thing?"

She remembers well.  She remembers unnecessary insomnia and unnecessary anxiety.  A lot of wasted energy.

"I think I was going through a socially awkward phase," I say.  "I was like a teenager again."

We recount some of the changes we've witnessed or lived through ourselves since we became close: deaths of family members, bereavement, professional advancement, operations, loss, dramatic familial rearrangements, weddings, babies born, success, disappointment, crises of confidence, hormonal roller coasters, travel, and more.

One thing that has steadied us through all of this time is our dogs.

My friends are noticing that I'm changing since Zoe's diagnosis--in a good way, they say.  I'm glad to hear it.  I used to think that because I was both self-critical and compassionate toward others, I had stopped being the defensive person I was as a young woman. I didn't know that compassion had to go in all directions at once, always. 

We look at our dogs and we take in this expansive field of snow: blank white pages waiting for the next chapters to be written on.  Everything seems possible.  Zoe is entirely herself: wolfy, powerful, calm, content, curious.  She is well.  The Cavalier King Charles who Thinks He's a Greyhound is nimble and fast on the trail of a good scent.

"Look at them," my friend says.  "It's so easy to make them happy."

"I know," I say.  "And that's why a walk like this never fails to make me happy.  I just have to look at them and I'm right there with them."
"Eat.  Walk.  Play," she says.  "That's happiness.  That's all they need."

The dogs run to us, pointing their snouts to what I brought with me in my pocket and looking up with that beseeching gaze they know will win me over every time.

"Treats.  Play.  Love," I say.

We agree that we like that as the title of the story of today, even if it sounds familiar.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 83: The Watched Watchdog and her Person: A Day in the Life

Chapter One: The Writing Life

Monday morning I bring Zoe into my writing studio, even though she prefers a good nap after her morning walk back in the house.  I move my laptop out of my corner so that it faces her doggy daybed.  I watch her intently, and she watches me watching her.

This goes on for a while.

I am looking for signs that she's having  trouble tolerating the drug we started her on today, and she is looking for signs that everything is okay with me, which means that everything is okay in her world.  My job is to take care of her.  Her job is to take care of me.  And for her to feel safe, and to do her job, watching the house and watching me, she needs to know I'm okay. 

So now we are in one of those feedback loops.  Can I look for signs of distress, without distressing her? 

I've never been a good actor, never been good at playing it cool.

How do parents handle this?  Gentle readers: please report.  My experience with raising children started as a stepmother when the boys were a tween and a teen, and they almost always knew what I knew when there was trouble afoot. There must have been times when I had to exude calm and ease when I felt fraught, but I've forgotten those moments entirely.  What I remember most are those instances when the trouble I sniffed out was about the mischief they were getting up to (i.e., their party when we were out of town, where someone ran over the fire hydrant and created a gushing fountain, and the police came to the house, and a certain boy had to go to court).  Showing my concern right on my face was a way to show them love, which is to say, to show them I was watching, and that they couldn't fool us again, which was a way to show them love.   Another feedback loop, I suppose. 

To prevent myself from driving my dog and myself crazy I do what I'm supposed to do on a sabbatical.  I sit and type, and try to take myself to the landscape of my novel.  Although it’s mostly set in France, the narrator is remembering a Thanksgiving trip home with her college roommate in Amherst, Massachusetts.  (See Day 77: The Friction of Cooking up Fiction.)

There’s turkey in the oven there.  The smells of pies baking.  But today, under the influence of my dog-watching mission, I find myself adding something cloying and a little sickening to the pie ingredients.  The smell of cloves, and mince.  This was not something I had planned.

A sign of nausea in a dog is excessive licking of the lips.  She has been licking her lips on and off since she came home from her walk this morning.  I watch her tongue and her mouth as  I render a scene of people licking their lips waiting for the feast to come to the table.

I watch the dog, and the dog watches me.

I write about people in distant places and try to embody and inhabit them via the the world of the senses, especially smell and taste. 

Reading and writing literature are both ways to escape and ways to move closer to urgent matters at hand.

So here I am, giving my character the nausea I don't want my dog to have.  I'm displacing it onto a fictional human being.  While we're at it, she might even come down with the flu.  It would be very awkward to be a visitor in someone's home for the first time and find oneself puking in the guest bathroom after a beautiful meal had been served, would it not? 

This makes me wonder not about the big ticket autobiographical events from author's lives like divorce, death and bereavement, marriage, and birth that have influenced all the novels I've read and been transported by, but the authors' daily lives, the quotidian: the morning drives to work, the dog walks, the lunches made for the kids, dentists visited, pies eaten at Thanksgiving.   The real lives "measured out in coffeespoons" going on day after day as page after page is written.

Now I know something I never knew before.  Sometimes you have to give your character a belly ache because it's the best way to channel your anxiety and have something to show for the day.

And it's better than hovering too close to the dog and making her wonder what she did wrong to make her person start acting so strange.

Chapter Two: After That

I go out for a two-hour lunch with my dear friend Liz and her parents, who are visiting from California.  We talk about our shared love of France, dogs, literature, and teaching.  We talk about Derrida, who did the dishes at one of their Thanksgiving dinners, and about the paperwork you need to fill out to get a dog into France (which no one looks at, but if you didn't have it, someone official would demand it of you), and of their trips to Burgundy and Paris, and about Montaigne (and how he is not taught so much now in French classes, as he once was, but is now required reading in any essay class), and somehow, by the time I get home, I have stopped being The Sick Dog's Over-Protective Headcase of a Person, at least for now.

Zoe runs to greet me when I get home and begs to go outside.  She wags her tail when she sees the treat pouch go into the pocket.  We will leave soon to walk with Milo, the Cavalier King Charles who Thinks he's a Greyhound, and his person, a dear friend.

It was raining for a while, but the sun is out now.  Zoe sits in the snow waiting for me to finish this post so we can go.  When I look out the window, she is sniffing the air for something tasty.

Sometimes it's really a good idea to get out of the house.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Day 82: On Grappling with Fear and the Nature of Impermanence

Today I woke up at 3 in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep.

That's because today is the first day that Zoe will be taking a new drug for her cancer, Palladia.  The information sheet that went with it is not reassuring.  It says, on the one hand, that Palladia "may shrink your dog's tumors."  Well, duh, that's the point. But then it goes on to list possible side-effects, which include loss of appetite, diarrhea, blood in the stool, and in rare cases, death.

This begs the question once again: Why are we doing this?

Of course, if Zoe can't tolerate the drug, we'll pull her off it at once.  And then we'll just give her the best life possible for however long she has.

But that reasoning doesn't help at 3 in the morning, when I am picturing the pill divider on the counter that awaits us--Kerry and I divvied up all the AM and PM doses of this and that last night.  With the Palladia, to fight against the bad side effects above, she will be on an anti-nausea drug, a form of Imodium, and an antacid.   She'll be taking all these on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

And as for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and the other anti-cancer drug that Alta Vista Animal Hospital was out of that we now have to arrange to buy ourselves--Cyclophosphamide: the list on-line of those side effects is even longer.

At least Sunday, which is our day of rest in this house, will be a day of rest for Zoe as well.  A retreat from the world of pharmaceuticals.

It's a lot.  At one time, before I had read anything, I had thought being able to administer her drugs orally would be so much less painful for her than the intravenous treatments she has had for the past five and a half months.

Now, not so much.  For the first time in a long time, I find myself questioning the path we're on.

Up until now, Zoe has responded so well to every single thing we've done to fight the cancer and prolong her life that it's been difficult at times to really grapple with the seriousness of what she's facing.

Yesterday we walked for 90 minutes at Indian Creek Nature Preserve with her pal, Cooper, and his person, Pat, and the radiant sky, that deep bowl of blue, and the sparkling new snow brought out the sheen in our dogs' eyes and their lovely coats.

Zoe is so strong and steady.  This picture of her, at the top of the post, captures her nature so well.

When it comes to epic things, like fighting cancer and getting home in a snow storm, she is a tree with deep roots.

She's a big baby about other things.  Whenever anyone leaves the house, she cries.  Thunder storms and heavy wind: they terrify her.
But as my husband and I fight to extend her life, I know that we are drawing much of our strength from her.

And yet, and yet: These past eight months since we noticed Zoe's limp and entered the realm of pet oncology, a place we never thought we'd go, have been, oddly, among the richest and moving and lovely of my life.

I have learned, first of all, how to be here.  In this place.  Where I stand.  Not just rooted to the North Country, reluctant to make any plans in the near future that might take me away from my dog, but rooted in my feelings, including this fear that woke me up today.

When I meditate now, I take to heart the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, below:
This is your own time.   This spot where you sit is your own spot.  It is on this spot at this very moment that you can become enlightened.  You don't have to sit beneath a special tree in a distant land.  Practice like this for a few months, and you will begin to know a profound and renewing delight.
Your True Home, The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

I understand this teaching not just in the fifteen or twenty minutes I spend sitting down in my corner and counting my breaths.  When I remember this wisdom, I understand that whatever I am doing--working on my novel, talking to a friend, going to a meeting, cooking dinner, and especially, perhaps above all, walking with Zoe in the woods near our house, is my/our time in my/our spot.  I forget this all the time too, when I'm rushed or distracted, but I do come back to this understanding.

And what I have learned about impermanence is this.  Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn't mean we have to be detached from our lives in a way that makes us feel less.  The nature of impermanence has taught me to love and live more deeply than I ever have.  We don't have a minute to waste.

But what I used to think was "wasting time" has turned completely on its head.


I'll end with some pictures of what my dog has taught me about ordinary happiness.  Let's call this photo-series the canine understanding of the six stages of Nirvana:

Do try this at home, alone, or with a good friend.

Namaste, gentle reader, and thank you for reading.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Day 81: The Cure for the Winter Blues is Winter

Yesterday I hadn't recovered from the white-knuckle drive from Canada in the winter storm, and even by midday I still felt wired and exhausted and anxious.  Zoe, however, woke up in great form to a world transformed by snow.  She ran for an hour with her favorite golden retriever, then joined me upstairs,  lounging nearby while I posted about the epic journey.  She told me by her manner, especially in the calm way she studied my face as I wrote, that I needed to move on.

At 2:30 we headed out for what I thought might be a short amble.  By the time we got to the bridge, breaking through drifts on sidewalks that hadn't been shoveled, my spirits had improved considerably and I wasn't tired anymore.  All I had to do was look at Zoe.  It was impossible not to smile.

Zoe loves winter.  She loves winter because she loves snow.  She loves to eat it, roll in it, wear it, pee in it, chase other dogs in it, or just sit in it and stare off at the river and trees exuding soulful wolfy mojo.

We haven't had much snow this winter, only ice.  In the woods we were breaking our own trail in drifts nearly a foot deep.  It felt good to work up a sweat while snow fell around me and Zoe leaped and rolled and panted with joy.

Out on the other side of these woods Zoe pointed in the direction of her friend Cooper's house.  From the street I got out my cell phone and called his person, Pat, and she invited us to come right over.

While Pat got ready to join our walk, I went to her back yard and watched the dogs race each other down the steep embankment to the river and then back up.  This is the steepest hill Zoe's been on since she became a tripod, and she bounded up nimbly through deep drifts.  When Zoe peed--she's a little alpha with Cooper and likes to spray her graffiti, her "Zoe was here" in his territory--he leaned his head on her neck companionably.  Then the two dogs kissed.  It's a little tap on the nose, snout to snout.  Like our version of cheek kisses, or a high-five.

Why, why, why didn't I have my camera with me?

And on we went, the four of us, back through the woods and up into the campus.  Pat and Cooper showed us where a fire had erupted in the chemistry lab and blew out several windows and sent smoke careening clear across the river to our street.  The campus had to be evacuated for a week while crews cleaned up the damage.  We shared stories about our own days in chemistry lab.  In high school, I teamed up with Bob Fitzer, who was the smartest boy in our class.  He did the science, and I wrote up the reports.  It was a great system as far as I was concerned, but you'd have to ask him if he agreed.  Our teacher, Mr. Leahy, never stuck around long to supervise.  He was reportedly off drinking with the janitors when he left us alone in the classroom to cook up whatever we could cook up in an hour over our bunsen burners.

We thought about the mysterious properties of incendiary chemistry, which made me think about good chemistry: about what makes two dogs click.  When Zoe and Cooper walk together, we are always on the alert for what we call the lean-in.  That's when they match each other's strides and Cooper leans into Zoe as they run.

We also enjoy the way they come together to sniff the same shrub, then part ways briefly to pursue their own interests.  It's like a conversation with pauses that no one feels anxious to fill.

For 90 minutes I watched my dog run through snow drifts, roll around, stick her snout in almost to her eyes, and listen to the call of the wild.  All the stress of the previous day melted away.

When we got to a hill where some children were sledding, Zoe even had the temerity to yell at the kids' dog.  She said, I am queen of this hill.

I rarely feel as frazzled as I did this weekend after driving in a winter storm on unplowed roads in a car I didn't truly know how to stop.  I thought it was going to require everything in my medicinal repertoire to get my balance back: a long bath, extra meditation, good wine, yoga, multiple naps, and a Downton Abbey marathon.

But after this walk with Zoe, I'm in love with winter again.  And if you still love winter in the North Country in late February, life is pretty sweet.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Day 80: The Lady and the Dog Enter New Territory, Part Two

I have to confess that for a very long time I've had a major crush on Canada.  Is there such a word as Canadaphile?

It all started, I think, when I was a little girl and a neighbor on our street, Dr. Budd, was lambasting any country that would nationalize its health care.  I instinctively knew not to trust this view, even though we liked all our neighbors.  And didn't he know that he was saying this to the granddaughter of the woman who would watch Nixon and Agnew on TV and shout, "The bastards! The bastards!" whenever they opened their mouths?  Grandma would pump her fists with so much vigor that her upper arms shook, and although Nixon did many things we consider part of the liberal project now, like funding National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts--I began to understand at a very young age that the people who did not believe in health care for all were often the fans of my grandmother's bête noir.

Then, in junior high, I found out that Canada was the birth place of my two favorite singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.  Those Northern landscapes that had inspired such exquisite melancholy and grief, sweet romance and longing, plus some spirited protest against Da Man, the whole delicious range of human experience: Canada was obviously a land of soulfulness and rare humanity.

So when I moved close to the Canadian border in the 1990s to start my job at St. Lawrence University, the fact that the nearest big airport was in Ottawa, that I would have to cross a border to fly to other sovereign nations (including, quite often, my own) and to seek out fine dining and culture and the occasional beautification ritual at the York Street Spa: these were all perks, as far as I was concerned.  And for quite a long time the exchange rate made them very affordable perks too.

I learned all the words to "O Canada."  Whenever I sing it and hear it, my eyes mist over.

I love the maple leaf.  And on a visit to Quebec City, I even tried poutine.  How can you not love a country that invented a dish that features french fries, gravy, and squeaky cheese curds?  These people know about comfort food.  I love the Bonhomme de Carnival in Quebec City, and the ice palace, and how so many children in Quebec and Ontario learn to skate when they learn how to walk.

I love the way Canada does multiculturalism, its constant festivals where former enemies from, say, the Balkan States, are invited to wear their native costumes, share their favorite dishes, and sing and dance with people who, a generation back, they would have been shooting at.

I even love the stereotype about Canadians as pathologically mild-mannered.  (People who joke this way have never walked into a pub where a hockey game is being watched.)  I hate American pushiness and love Canadian politeness.  I like the "eh" that rhymes with "hay."  And the way my friend from Ontario pronounces "been" like "bean."
So when I knew I would be driving to Canada every three weeks to get Zoe her chemotherapy, even in winter, I thought I had lucked out.  At first I had feared we'd be going down to Cornell University.  Ithaca is about three and a half hours away, as opposed to Ottawa, which is 90 minutes each way.  I could handle this.

I grew to enjoy the drive, to study the familiar markers in the transition from America's remote far north to Canada's rural south.  I loved gazing out at the desolate, open fields and old stately homes as well as squat, ramshackle houses, passing roads with names like "Hardscrabble" and "Irish Settlement Road" and towns with names like Flackville, the occasional Amish horse and buggy clopping past.  Then eventually the port town of Ogdensburg, the ritual of presenting my passport and explaining Zoe's situation to people at Canadian customs, the paying of the toll, crossing the great St. Lawrence Seaway on that high suspension bridge, and then turning onto Route 416 where, truth be told, I usually fly the rest of the way.  I am cautious by nature, but I know that highway so well I often take it at 80 miles an hour and soon I'm at Exit 57.  It's still very rural there, 57 kilometers from the U.S. border, where I make the turn, passing a farm or two, and roadside stands selling pumpkins, and get onto Prince of Wales until I reach Hunt Club Road.

If I time Hunt Club well and avoid rush hour, I can get past the six or so lights to Bank Street in about ten or fifteen minutes.  At the fourth light is the turn-off to the airport, so sometimes it's bumper-to-bumper traffic.  On a bad day, the same drive can take 40 minutes.

I drop Zoe before 9 AM, and then I find a coffee shop and park myself.  It's usually a seven-hour wait.

I could do so many things, if I wanted to, in the capitol of this fine nation.  I could get my hair done.  I could go see a movie at the Byward Market.  I could have lunch with a friend.  I thought I would do all these things when I knew I would be a frequent visitor to Canada, but the truth is, I can't make myself go very far from the hospital.  I've tried, but then I just drive back.

The first chemo day in September, that first scary session, I only traveled across the street.  I sat in a bleak Chinese banquet restaurant that smelled like the disinfectant they used to clean the tables and picked at the same three dumplings for five hours while grading a stack of papers.  The waitress was unbelievably nice about my inability to move.  Even when she started vacuuming for the next shift, and spraying my own table with the disinfectant, she said, "Take your time." 

Then I went back to the parking lot of Alta Vista and sat in my car for a couple hours like a stalker.

I eventually ventured two blocks away: to a pizza place called Gabriel's that does a nice breakfast at the intersection of Bank and Hunt Club Road.  That became my office.  The Greek waitresses there know me now and call me "honey."  The clientele--mostly quite elderly--recognize me too, and nod their heads at me when I walk in.  One gentleman and I talked about Canada's involvement in every major war since World War I and I learned a lot.  He didn't realize once--possibly because of my encouraging nods and hmms and the occasional "ey"--that I was from a neighboring land.

The visit before last I went to my favorite Italian restaurant, which is off Hunt Club Road on Riverside, and this felt like a grand adventure, that six stoplight drive.  The wait staff was so generous about my taking up a table for five hours on a busy Friday that I ordered extra food and brought it home for dinner.

The two times I was with my husband on chemo days, we actually did things.  We did some holiday shopping on the December visit, and went out for a nice brunch and took in the art museum, which is downtown, in January.  But when it's just me, I can't go further afield than a ten-minute drive away.

Usually, the Alta Vista staff is good about calling me and giving me a status report and a good guess on when I can get Zoe.  I really count on that.  But yesterday, it seemed like everyone was off their game.  I called over there twice, and begged for mercy.  A big storm was coming, and it was the talk of all the staff.  I had brought pillows, a nightgown, and my toothbrush just in case Zoe and I got stranded in Canada and couldn't get home, but I hoped it wouldn't come to that.  Since Zoe wasn't getting intravenous chemo, just the lung x-ray and blood work, I thought we'd be home before the worst of the storm hit, but I asked as nicely as a pushy American can to please bear in mind our long drive ahead. 

Finally I gave up on waiting for news and just came back and parked myself in the lobby at 2 PM.  When I finally got to see her, Dr. Bravo was very apologetic.  It had been an extremely busy day and she was the only oncologist on duty.

"It must be really hectic on a Friday, especially the day before you go on vacation," I said.  By now the storm had started and big fat flakes were falling in earnest. 

When we made this appointment, I had been told by her staff that Dr. Bravo would be on vacation the week after this Friday, which is why I didn't cancel and reschedule when I heard the big storm was coming.  I didn't want to wait too long and risk Zoe's life just because of my reluctance to drive in a little snow.

Dr. Bravo said, "Oh, are you going on vacation next week?  I just have a spring break coming in March." 

So basically there was no compelling reason for Zoe and me to be there that day.  We could have waited until better weather next week.

And then when it was time for me to get my medicine for Zoe, they didn't have half of it in stock.  Donna looked frazzled.  At first she was saying I would have to come back.  We looked outside the window as horizontal snow pelted everything in sight.  She, herself, had just decided she would have to spend the night in town and not make the drive in this storm to Cornwall, where she lives.

But I was probably more frazzled by now than she was.  "Isn't there another way you can get me this medicine," I said.  What I wanted to say, but didn't, was "You knew we were coming and would be buying all this: why didn't you have it ready?"

Then she consulted Willow, who told her that there was a way to have the Arizona drug-makers ship the stuff to our house if Donna called in the prescription.

Zoe, by the way, is totally fine.  One small nodule in one lung, two in another.  I think there were five last time, so this is good news, but the three that are there aren't smaller.  "We're talking about milometers," Dr. Bravo said.  "She doesn't feel them at all, and wouldn't feel them unless they became quite large."  And she made her usual encouraging remarks about how great Zoe looks, how her blood work is perfect, and how she is doing so well.

I love Dr. Bravo and would wait seven hours in a blizzard to see her.  That hasn't changed.

But yesterday, after all the confusion, and after setting off in the snow storm with only half the medicine I'd come for I realized something.

Canada and me: maybe we need to start seeing other people.

It's so unfair, really.  Canada never asked for my love.  Canada never has asked to be anyone's ideal.  My standards for Canada were so high that Canada was sure to break my heart sooner or later.  So it finally happened yesterday.  This way-overworked, harassed staff at a small animal hospital dealing with very sick animals turned out to be just as likely as the rest of us to screw up some stuff.  How dare they be human?

I think all would have been forgiven, if it hadn't been for the storm.

Oh, that storm.

Zoe and I set out for home at 3 PM in my husband's Subaru, which has four-wheel drive, and I realized pretty quickly that I don't really know how to drive it in snow.

When I made my first left, onto Hunt Club Road, I fishtailed wildly, and skid into another lane.  If another car had been there, we would have collided.

Then, in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, braking felt like pushing my feet through sand and taffy and broken glass.  The brakes of my own car, a Toyota, are so responsive that I've learned to be gentle on them.  My husband's car did not register the presence of a foot.  And when I pumped the breaks, the rumble and quaking beneath, as the anti-lock system locked and unlocked--I'll never understand the hydraulics of this--made me feel like Fred Flintstone.  I had the curious sensation that my feet were pumping against the road, the taffy-sticky snow and rubble.

Then the traffic just stopped moving.  In the forty minutes we sat there, I was able to call Kerry and get a tutorial.

"Don't pump the brakes," he said.  "Just press down."

I honestly didn't think I was going to be able to get us home.  Not in this car.  Not in this storm.  I thought about hotels, and my friends who live in Ottawa, but pursuing either option would still mean using the brakes and turning again, and maybe fishtailing into another lane.

But I am capable of learning a thing or two when my life (and a certain dog's) depend on it.  When I realized that riding the brakes, my normal thing I do when turning, was causing the fishtailing, I stopped.  I hooted with joy when I got to Route 416.

But then we really stopped.  The 8 kilometers between Exit 57 and Exit 49: I was there for an hour.  The snow was blanketing everything, cars were skidding then stopping.  We were going to spend the rest of our lives in this car, on this highway.

I called Kerry again.

"Can you see why there's nothing moving on Highway 416?"

He looked on his computer and there was nothing on the radar.

I imagined eight-car pile-ups.  I imagined all kinds of cars careening wildly into each other.

I did see evidence of a few accidents, including one car that had been badly rear-ended--maybe not even by someone who was using her husband's Subaru and did not know how to handle the brakes.

Finally, by 5 PM, two hours after I had left the animal hospital, the traffic started moving again.  I had traveled maybe 10 miles in that time.

And then I realized the problem, why the traffic wasn't moving.  It wasn't an accident at all.

No one had plowed the roads.

Probably at about 1 or 2 PM, when the snow started sticking, the right lane had been plowed, but not the left lane, or the breakdown lane.

This was the biggest storm to hit Canada in weeks, after a winter of very little snow, and there was no one out there to help us.

I followed along in the tracks of big SUVs and trucks, blessing them for being huge: unusual behavior, from this corner.

Meanwhile, my bladder was about to burst.  What would I do if Zoe started crying?  There was nowhere to take her.  She'd have to do it in Kerry's car.

To keep myself from freaking out, I alternately chanted "Shiva ham," the soothing mantra my meditation teacher gave me, and "Blame Canada," the theme song from the South Park movie.

(I realized my Canadian friends, had they been with me in the car, might have been singing, "Blame budget cuts," and I'll have to ask them to give me the scoop as to why a major highway in the nation's capitol would not have people out there trying to keep it safe for the many many many drivers who were out there in this storm trying to get home.)

We'd all, collectively, been going 5 or 10 miles an hour for a very long time.  Then, as traffic became scarcer, Zoe and I could speed up.  We skidded along at 25 miles an hour until we got to the bridge to the U.S. at 7 PM.

The first thing I saw in my sweet homeland: a snowplow.  I followed him across the bridge.

When I pulled up to American Customs, I wanted to kiss the guy.

Zoe relieved herself on American soil, through transnational snow, and I gave her a gold star for being so quiet and good the whole way.  I found a rest room too, at Customs.

On the American side, it was raining now, but the plows had been out in the snow, even on the side back roads of our shortcut.

Our return trip from the hospital, that normally takes under ninety minutes, took four and a half hours.  Longer than it would have taken to go to Cornell.

America, I'm back, baby.

I am still fond of Canada, and when I return to Alta Vista to get Zoe's next lung x-rays in late March, I'm even going to get my hair cut.  I'll make a day of it.

But if it's snowing, I'm rescheduling.

And between now and then, I think Canada and I need to take a break. 

This all-American pound dog endured an epic voyage that started at 7 AM, ended at 7:30 PM, and in addition to all the poking and prodding she had to experience on her own, the ordeal included her person fishtailing, chanting in Sanskrit, singing a theme song from a South Park movie, calling her husband repeatedly, breaking up with a major sovereign nation: in short, a lot of really sketchy behavior.  This dog gets many gold stars and extra purple hearts for bravery.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Day 79: The Lady and the Dog Enter New Territory, Part One

This morning Zoe and I are heading back up to Alta Vista Animal Hospital in Ottawa to begin a new chapter in her treatment.

Zoe has completed seven sessions of chemotherapy since September 15, at intervals of roughly three weeks, and has held up beautifully.  She has not complained once about those early morning wake-ups, those quick little pre-dawn walks across the bridge without her usual buddies, and those long days of fasting while she submits to having her blood drawn, her lungs X-rayed, and her veins injected with doxorubicin while she lies completely still.  She has endured all these disruptions to her routine and invasions of her body with patience and grace, and has earned the purple heart the oncology staff has given her.

She objects more to taking a bath.  Last night my husband and I got talking about the mud on her paws and she knew exactly what we were plotting.  Before I could coax her to follow me, she ran upstairs into her crate, wisely choosing to hunker down in a dog-only zone.  We had to applaud her for her ingenuity and excellent human language interpretation skills; it really was a remarkable feat.  But then we offered her a treat to come back downstairs, and she walked stoically into the bathroom and stepped right into the tub.  We didn't even have to lift her up.

Tomorrow I'll post on what we find out today.  She'll be starting some oral drugs, one of which, palladia, has only been on the market for about a year and a half, so we're really entering unknown territory.

We've been enormously lucky.  Since September, Zoe has only had two days when she lost her appetite and her energy, but even on those days she was eager for her walks and was begging for treats by the end of them.  She has been completely herself, happy and well.

photo by Tara Freeman
The night before last when she went up to bed--she has now taken over Scientist Son's room--I lay down beside her and held her close and tried to prepare her for a whole new deal.  We really don't know how she'll react to these drugs.  Some dogs have acute gastrointestinal distress.  I massaged her back and her legs, and soon she was rolling on her back, wanting her tummy rubbed.  A friend suggested I also rub the site where she lost her leg, in case there's scar tissue there, and I've discovered she loves this.  She has a furry fin where the leg would be, and it seems to sooth her to have that area massaged.  I was reluctant to do this at first as I thought it might hurt her, or remind her of what she had lost, but of course that's not the way dogs think.  They move on.  They find a new normal.  She now sits in a triangular formation and stands with her two front paws further apart than they were before, while her right hind leg has moved a little towards the center and her tail bends left, like a cane.  My friend Mary had told me this might happen; she'd had a tripod cat who reconfigured its body in this way.

It's been eight months since we first noticed the limp.  The survival rates for canine osteosarcoma are grim.  Half of all dogs don't make it to the year anniversary of the diagnosis. But these statistics don't include dogs that are taking the cocktail of oral drugs she'll be on soon.  The treatment course she will be following is new; there are many trials going on right now about the effectiveness of this next protocol, but nothing definitive has been published yet.

I read on the internet that for the protocol we just finished, only 10% of dogs are still alive two years after the diagnosis.  But also I've read that when some of the other drugs she's soon going to be taking are in the mix, the survival rate goes up.  In one study, 16% were alive three years out. 

In addition, I have read about an herb that began its life as a treatment for malaria, artemisin, that seems to also kill cancer cells, and is being used in some trials for canine osteosarcoma.  I just bought some.

Zoe and I are pioneers now.  Every time we cross the border into Canada I am reminded that the new country we are inhabiting together is a mysterious place with too many unknowns for us to make a map.  Every day I remind myself how lucky we are that she is alive and her life is so rich and exuberant and sweet.  But she will have to tell us when she is tired of traveling so far from the familiar.

The story continues tomorrow.

photo by Tara Freeman
photo by Tara Freeman

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Day 78: From Paris to New York and Back

Yesterday I was out walking Zoe on the golf course on our campus when I heard my name being called in the distance.  Anté and Madeleine were just coming outside of the senior townhouse apartments and had seen and recognized my dog before they knew it was me.  I ran over to visit with them.

"It's hard to believe we were in Paris exactly a year ago," they both said, almost simultaneously.  We thought about it and realized that yes, it was on this week of February, a year ago, that we spent six nights in the City of Light as part of our abroad program.

"Do you remember what we did on Wednesday?" I asked.

"Your assignment!" Anté said, and he groaned.

It took their prodding, but it started to come back to me.  I had required the students in my course, Americans in France, to spend all of Wednesday stalking the ghost of a literary figure.  Madeleine chose Gertrude Stein, so she found and photographed the apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus where Stein had lived for 40 years, first with her brother, Leo, and then with her long-time partner, Alice B. Toklas, and where they held their salons and had hung paintings by every modernist artist they championed, among them Picasso and Matisse.  Madeleine went looking for one of Picasso's apartments too, and although she had found it, she couldn't remember, now, the name of the street.

She also spent some time drinking espresso and writing in her journal at Café Flore, which is something she would have been likely to do, with or without the assignment.

Anté's year-ago-in Paris Wednesday had been a bit more fraught.  He and Levon, who were both doing their projects on Hemingway, went to the Ritz to find the bar he frequented when he had more cash--long after the hungry days he writes about most vividly in A Moveable Feast.  The bar at the Ritz was technically closed, so he and Levon got thrown out by bouncers at the hotel.  They tried to explain that they needed photographs for their power point presentations for class, but that didn't translate well.

They also hunkered down at the Café Dôme looking at the red ceilings and the chandeliers so that they would have details to put into their day-in-the-life stories for class.

I asked them, for the sake of contrast, to tell me how they had just spent their Wednesdays one year later here on our Upstate New York campus.

For Anté, the day was quite different.  "I took an international economics exam," he said.  "I went to German class.  At 5 I have to go to the German language lab, where I'm a CA."  He looked a bit misty-eyed and then exclaimed, "I miss Paris!"

Madeleine had woken up early to write a scene for her fiction class.  She set it at Café Flore.  Her character eavesdrops on a conversation taking place at another table that disturbs her in that it makes her think of something in her own life she hasn't resolved.  She walks through the same streets where Stein lived, looks for one of Picasso's old studios, and eventually makes her way up to Montmartre.  "I'm not sure what's going to happen in Montmartre," she said.

photo by Veronika Horvathova
A year ago in Paris, some of the other students on the program went up to Montmartre to look for a concert a friend of mine had recommended, but when they got off the metro by the Moulin Rouge area they weren't prepared for all the male attention, so they hopped right back on the metro and returned to the student residence.  I remembered hearing them talking about this foiled adventure the next day at breakfast. 

A year ago, Anté and Madeleine had enjoyed their overpriced coffees at their respective high-profile Parisian cafés, and had eaten whatever traditional French cuisine was on the menu at the cafeteria of the hotel in the 13th arrondissement where the students on the program stay.

A year later, Anté ate salad from our campus dining service for lunch, and Madeleine had a wrap sandwich.

"But," she said, "did you know that at the liquor store on your street, Natalia, they have a really nice Côte de Rhones for $12?  It's really good.  I think I'm going to go get one and maybe have a glass while I finish writing the Paris story."
Madeleine and Anté

Madeleine did an independent study with me a year ago in creative writing. We always met in cafés and depending on the time of day we enjoyed a frothy coffee, tea, lunch, or a glass of wine.

"I'll buy one too," I said.  "Then we'll have come full circle."

I'm guessing Madeleine's character made it to Montmartre last night, by way of the North Country, with or without the Côtes de Rhône.  Paris lives on in the story's author's imagination, as it will live on in her teacher's forever.

When their nostalgia for Paris is too much to bear, the two friends watch Midnight in Paris, the Woody Allen film that came out just when they got home from their shared year abroad.  I think one of them owns the DVD.

Zoe sniffed around the townhouse lawns while she waited for the three of us to finish the conversation.  She would have been happy if someone had offered her, say, some baguette and brie, but the leftovers from an American-style wrap would have pleased her just the same.
photo by Veronika Horvathova

photo by Veronika Horvathova

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Day 77: The Friction of Cooking Up Fiction

A fifth, maybe a quarter of the way into the novel I am radically revising, I realized that Anna, my narrator, needed to follow her best friend, Ursula, home.  We spend much of the novel in foreign parts, but Ursula makes a decision that changes all the characters' lives and I didn't think we would understand her as a complex character unless I dug more into her various motivations, some of them subterranean, and there's no better way to do that then to watch a character revert back into her familial role.

Up until now, all I knew was that she moved to France for love.  There's a country, and a certain young man, she is moving toward.  But was it possible, I now wondered, that there was something she was also relieved to leave behind?  Could there be an additional reason why she was willing to put an ocean between herself and her family?

While I was writing, I made a realization that surprised me.  Ursula's dad is kind of a tool.

I hadn't known this before.

As I started getting to know him this week I found out that he is the type of person who goes into a sulk when he loses a game, even with his teenage children.  He corrects people, mid-sentence.  He expects everyone to cater to his schedule.  He flies off the handle easily, and the other characters have to dance around him just to make sure that doesn't happen.

I've known people like this, so that isn't so hard to write, but then I had to wonder:  What are his redeeming qualities?  Apart from being good at his work and loving his wife and kids, what is there about him that I can relate to enough to make him real?

And then, as I started writing a scene from when Anna and Ursula are in college and they head to Ursula's home outside of Amherst, Massachusetts, for Thanksgiving, I got myself into more trouble.  I ran into the brick wall of all I don't know.

For the setting, I was fine.  I know Amherst well enough.  I went to U-Mass/Amherst for graduate school, and my sister and her husband live twenty minutes outside of this pretty college town.

We spend Thanksgivings together.  There.  So I know the weather.   The lay of the land.  I've seen the pumpkins outside people's houses, eaten pie from Atkins Farm, gone walking along damp, tree-lined streets past quintessential New England town greens and sipped fresh cider from local farms.

The problem is this guy.  He's a Dante scholar.  He collects a lot of eclectic stuff.  He's very knowledgeable about opera, Cuban cigars, former Massachusetts Governor Dukakis, and is insanely competitive when he plays Scrabble and Risk.  I've never read Dante, I've been to maybe half a dozen operas in my life but am certainly no expert, I have never smoked a Cuban cigar, and I haven't paid attention to Dukasis since the Bush Senior campaign ran those attack ads linking his supposedly liberal policies to the release of the convict killer/rapist Willie Horton and he lost the election and fell out of public view.  I never play Scrabble, because my husband is so good at it there's kind of no point, and I've never even looked at the Risk board up close, even though my husband and our sons play it once a year.  Plus the game would have to take place in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I am a little rusty on late Cold War geopolitics.

So in order to get closer to what makes this guy tick, I need to do a little research.  But I had dismantled my internet access for the three hours I gave myself to write my 1,000 words of the day.  I couldn't look this stuff up, and I sure as hell couldn't make it up.

They say only trouble is interesting in fiction, and it's the friction that makes the pearl, but my brain was too clogged up with roadblocks to cause a single little spark to ignite.

I love making lists in real life, and I love lists in literature, so I thought drafting one would help me.  I went back to Anna, my narrator, who is fun to write, and had her try to help Ursula come up with a list of potential birthday gifts for this man based on what she, Anna, (who is just as ignorant as I am at the moment, although this may change) knows from observation of this fussy man's collections.  Forgive the rough draft writing, but here was what I came up with after quite a lot of staring and frowning and wishing I could hire a hacker to undo my Google lockout:

Florentine stationary, Cuban cigars, Italian top-of-the stove espresso makers, Fra Angelico prints, every translation in every language of every Dante volume that exists, silk ties or bow ties (depending on his mood and you had to know), jade paperweights, art nouveau cufflinks, and glass figurines of dogs.

I didn't plan this list, or will it into being.  I just wrote what came to me.  So what the hell?  Glass figurines of dogs? Did he buy them?  Or maybe inherit them from his mother, who was a collector herself?

How can you not be a little charmed by someone who is supposed to be a formidable scholar and an aesthete and occasionally a petty tyrant who also collects glass figurines of dogs? So there's a side of this cultured dude that goes for kitsch?

And then I remembered that this family raises collies.

Now I know my way in.

He'll still be kind of a tool, this fictional father, but there's at least one part of him a gal like me can love.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 76: On Sister Love

On this day, February 21, thirty-five years ago (plus a tad more), long before she was known to the world as Mira Bee, a baby named Myra Jean was born.

She had an older sister who was very cute and very nice and very smart, but also just a wee bit bossy.

The two little girls had a mother, who was a musical genius, and a father who was a talented painter and novelist.

Unfortunately, the father was an alcoholic and the mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

The two sisters banded together to become their own island of girl-mightiness that could withstand the storms ahead.  They wrote stories and poems and plays.  They drew all day until their fingers grew knobby with callouses.  They climbed trees.  They read and read.  They turned snapdragons in the garden into talking creatures, and they sought out verdant places where they would time-travel back to a bucolic imaginary land and life they called Olden Times, where the older sister was always the prairie mother making them big pots of soup, and the little sister was always the dog or the horse.

Little Myra Jean grew up to be talented in too many things to list here: playing the piano, fiddle, ukulele, and harp; writing poetry, memoir, Facebook missives, radio pieces, kids' books, and short stories; speaking foreign languages (especially Italian) and giving commencement speeches, cooking all kinds of cuisine that features olive oil, gardening, keeping orchids alive, growing apple trees (the secret, she reveals, is to ignore them, but the avid orchard keepers in her community get jealous), painting, drawing, and illustration, salsa dancing, throwing a great party, making friends, being an amazing and inspiring stepmother to two lovely girls, and fixing broken stuff, including rare Italian pottery, the girls' mother's glasses, and relationships that seemed irreparable.

As a child she was an animal first--not just a horse and a dog, but the mythical beasts from Russian fairy tales and Icelandic myths, and other creatures her older sister has forgotten.  On the property of their rental in Indiana, where they lived before and during their parents' divorce, little Myra Jean found three dead rabbits and she carried them back to the yard.  Picture a small three-year-old girl like the one pictured here hauling these carcasses back to their house.  They may have been bigger than she was.  Did she want to adopt them as pets?  Or bury them?

Although she was bitten by a dog once, when she and her sister were walking to elementary school in Cleveland, she is a lifelong lover of dogs.  She would grow up to become her sister's dog's aunt.  At first she would resist referring to herself as her dog Sadie's mom, especially when Sadie's identity in the animal kingdom was unclear (some thought she was a reindeer, for example) but once she did, there was no turning back.

Like her immature older sister, she just liked watching her dog snap her head toward her in an eager way when someone said in a really sappy happy excited voice, "Where's Mommy?"

She has survived many things: her parents' divorce, poverty, her mentally ill mother's attacks, the bizarre behavior of her mother's father (hoarding, gun-worship, insults, meanness), the industrial Midwest before the Clean Air Act went into effect, the disco era, the Reagan presidency, really bad medical care that included an unnecessary lung operation and unnecessary surgery for carpel tunnel, a divorce.  She was in an airport trying to get home at the onset of the Gulf War.  She fell on the ice and suffered a concussion, then, before she had healed, she was hit by a giant truck, suffered brain trauma, had to relearn the alphabet, still has nerve pain, gets exhausted and overwhelmed, but wrote and illustrated a beautiful, heartbreaking, life-affirming memoir called The Memory Palace that is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  In the writing of that book, she helped many people face their troubled pasts.  Including her older sister.  She brought attention to the still much neglected and misunderstood plight of the mentally ill and the homeless.  She has raised money to issue journals to all the women who seek refuge in the same shelter our mother did, and her advocacy work has inspired many people to donate money and time to this shelter and probably others.  And through her blog, Mira's List, she helps people from all around the world believe in themselves as artists.
Never once through her many misfortunes did she feel sorry for herself.  Even after the accident, she would visit her older sister and offer to plant her flowers for the balcony on the studio: snapdragons, of course, were always in the mix.  She would focus herself completely on the task at hand, modeling mindfulness, even when her brain was in disrepair.

She has frequently been swarmed by bees.  We're talking a freakish degree here.  Like a biblical plague of locusts.  What do these bees have against our Mira Bee?  Do they object to the way she has used their name?

She has the sense of humor of an eleven-year-old boy.  Because her husband, Douggie Pee, does too, their relationship works.  But sometimes there are too many jokes about biological functions for the other people who have to watch.
If she and her sister had more time to spend together, they would go back to France and relive the vacation they shared there this past May.

They would eat more cake.  If fact, if it were possible to just fly there for the day, this is the place, in Rouen, in Normandy, where they would be sharing Mira Bee's birthday cake.

If Myra Jean/now Mira Bee could have anything in the world, it wouldn't be great fame.  She would like a little more wealth, but only so she can carry on as an artist and thinker and all of the other things listed above.  But beyond that, it would make her very happy to have her own baby echidna, the egg-laying mammal that people affectionately call a spiny anteater.  (The fact that something spiny that eats ants is described as such with affection is the key to Mira Bee's universe.)  Mira thinks she looks like one.  But she also thinks her sister looks like one.  She would also be happy with a puggle, spawn of the echidna.

To have a sister is a rare thing, a lifelong source of learning, a songbook, a source of shtick, of codes and private references and gags and secrets and dreams.  Her older sister is always dreaming that the two girls are going somewhere--last week it was on a rowboat to India--and that she has to protect the younger one from harm. And yet having a younger sister--this particular younger sister--saved the older one's life.

Happy birthday, Mira Bee, and happy sister love to all of you so lucky to have one!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Day 75: Formula for the Perfect Day

The perfect day, from the dog's point of view:
1.  Watch your people set the table and bring stuff that smells good out of the oven.

2.  Help clean up.
3.  Pop in on the enthusiastic boxer and his people.  While you are there, hunt down the cats.  Then pretend you understand what's going on as the boxer's people tell your people about their remodeling project, and how they have found many things in the walls, including the evidence of an occupant's drinking problem (from the late 19th century), invitations to parties, circa 1899, and a love letter written in 1962 from a boy named James to two girls named Christine.  James + Christine + Christine = hot!  Then deduce that since the letter was in the wall, the Christines were never informed.

4.  Head to the golf course with Milo, the handsome Cavalier King Charles who thinks he's a greyhound.

5.  Run into your BFF, Maya, who has found a green ball and will never give it up.

6.  Beg for treats from Maya's person, Susan.
7.  Find the North Country's scarcest natural resource this February, snow.  Then roll in it and make doggy snow angels.

8.  Pause for a moment to reflect on life's many blessings.

The perfect day, from the dog's person's point of view:
1.  Partake in 1-8 with vigor.
2.  Post about it in your pajamas.
3.  Get ready for bed knowing you will be very rested and ready to tackle all the work on Monday.

Have a great Monday, gentle readers! 
The spooky pink glowing thing is a Macpro