“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

Friday, May 25, 2012

Part II: Day 43: Sweet Things

After hearing bad news on Friday about Zoe's lung x-rays, I have made it a point to make note of something sweet or unexpected or lovely that happens every day.  I just don't want to miss the good stuff because in many ways, this is a very rich time.  So this is my version of a gratitude journal, an inventory of the little things that can buoy up a gal's spirits--this dog's person's spirits anyway--in a time of difficulty and change and impending loss. 

Saturday, May 19:

As I mentioned in "The God of Dirt," this is the day I planted flower boxes for Zoe's balcony.  And even though the sweat bees did not want to give up their dirt and moss for these pink snapdragons and purple pansies, when I woke up the next day, they were gone.

I’d read that to expel the bees I would need to dowse their dirt with three treatments of some poison that I don’t want around these parts at this time.  These guys just took the hint and took off.  I guess they weren't attracted to the smell of my sweat. I don't take it personally. 

Now Zoe and I start every morning out on this balcony together.  I've moved from my meditation corner inside to a spot beside her overlooking the river.   

Sunday, May 20:
Graduation.  One year it was so cold at this time of year that it snowed.  There we all were, outside in our folding chairs, the outgoing president of the board of trustees was speaking, and down came the white stuff on our mortar boards and laps.  The graduating women still had the pretty sundresses, bare legs, strappy sandals and new pedicures under their gowns that they'd planned on wearing in February: why change the plan?  The faculty were wearing sweaters and long johns.  The families had raided the bookstore for sweatshirts and hoodies and fleece jackets and when I looked out at them it felt less like a graduation ceremony than a hockey game, minus the ice, the athletes, and the jeering: go Saints.  A few days later it was summer.  The fact that the year’s honorary degree recipient, Bill McKibben, is an expert on climate change wasn’t lost on us. 

This year it's so soupy-hot under those robes I am dripping sweat through my underwear.  And before I walked here, I forgot to put on sunscreen.  But it's one of the best commencements we have ever had.  In addition to the cheering thoughts of one of my favorite students, Mike Petroni, who guest-posted here a week ago, I especially like the speeches by Garry Trudeau, who talks about the importance of really seeing, not what we agreed or expected to see beforehand, but what is right before us right now, and Martha Swan, an area teacher who hosted a lecture series a few years ago called John Brown Lives! who speaks about bearing witness to both the beauty and pain in this exquisite, broken world.

I was/am very close to many students in this graduating class.  Some I met in 2008 in the course I co-taught with Jon Rosales about Thoreau.  Others I taught in France.  Others came on the study trip to India.  Others have walked with Zoe and me many times through the woods on campus.  So the good-byes take a bit more time this year.  Former students and I linger in the sweltering sun posing for picture after picture, and no one seems to mind the way we all smell. 

The best part of the day, though, is what happens after the good-byes: coming home to the house and running through the yard with Zoe down to the river.  The best part of going anywhere is coming home to the sight of her.  I want to savor every single homecoming because I know that not so long from now, returning to an empty house will be one of the hardest parts of the day.

Later we walk through the woods and run into Zoe’s best friends Maya, Harry Beagle Bailey, and Cooper.  While we fan ourselves and avoid mosquito clouds, we four women talk about nothing much more serious than the heat, and it could be any summer day from the past nine years.  How lovely it is sometimes just to move along, try not to get bitten, and talk about which of the dogs has the muddiest feet.  Sometimes the ho-hum normal is the sweetest thing there is.

Monday, May 21:
vanilla soft serve for dogs: what's not to like?
We decide to have our usual three-course Sunday lunch on Monday because we are free for the summer, because we can.  Is this legal?  It feels so decadent and summer vacationy.   I work on the novel all morning while Kerry cooks up a pot of rabbit with bacon and white beans and mustard sauce with local, farm-grown Swiss chard, and Zoe licks our plates.  We polish off the better part of a bottle of wine before 3 o'clock.  Afterwards we take Zoe to Morgan’s for ice cream—her third trip for ice cream in one week, but since we aren’t trying to preserve her girlish figure, why the hell not?

Then, Monday night, still a little full, I toddle into Sara’s kick-ass ashtanga vinyasa yoga class.  Tonight there are only four of us students here and I know all of them, so it feels like a few friends doing some pretty intense yoga together: a gymnastic girls' night out.  I love these women.  There’s mega-limber Linda, whose son went to school with our boys.  Then Val, who has been my massage therapist for over fifteen years, and before that, when she was a farmer who made her own yogurt, my students and I would interview her for class projects on the back-to-the-land movement and homesteading.  And then there's lovely Jane, an art historian-in-training who sparkles with vivacity and wit and kindness. 

At one point Sara has us do a dog down chain.  Trust me, it's both the loveliest and funniest thing, ever.  One person assumes the position, the next goes into a kind of handstand and rests her feet on the original person’s lower back, and on we go.  When we finally have all five of us joined and down doggified in a row, something gives way and I hop off, breaking the chain, taking everybody down with me, and we collapse in a pile of laughter.

In yoga sometimes, when I think about Zoe, I cry.  But I do it really quietly with my eye pillow on while we're supine in relaxation pose, and no one knows.  With all the laughing going on tonight, no one suspects a thing.

And sometimes laughing and crying within the same 90 minutes, along with all that marvelous strengthening and limbering and breathing, is a great workout for the heart.  It's all a matter of balance, isn't it?

Tuesday, May 22:

I wake up profoundly sad about Zoe.  This morning, nothing we put in her bowl tempts her.  Not even bacon.  When bacon doesn't appeal to my dog, the world has shifted on its axis.

If she won’t eat, we can’t feed her the Chinese herbs and the Poly-MVA which we hope will keep up her vitality and energy and immune system while she handles both the cancer and the hard-core drugs.  And of course she needs to keep up her strength.

We're scared about how she's reacting to this new medicine, Kinavet.  I'm still waiting for the oncologist to call or write me back with answers to all my questions.

But then Kerry remembers something.  On Sunday, Zoe disappeared for a little while in the woods.  This is what happens to Zoe when she eats a dead old maggoty critter: she's very pleased with herself at first after she lands this prize, and she struts around in pride.  But then for 48 hours she is like someone hungover after a binge who says never again.

You don't want to hear about what she poops the day after one of her "snacks."

Thoughts of Zoe's nasty foraging habits give me peace of mind today.  How's that for a twist? Since when would realizing my dog ate a carcass give me something to ease my worry.  I plan to take her to the vet's later this week to test for parasites.  Maybe it's not just the new drugs giving her digestive system a shake-down.

But the new drug still scares us, and we don't know what to do to make her eat, or what to give her to help her feel better.

Fighting tears, I drive out to Potsdam to the dentist.  A few days before Zoe’s checkup last week, I broke off a giant chunk of a molar in a well-traveled place.  I lost so much of it and underneath it was such a huge filling that I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep the tooth.

Okay, most people would not include a dental appointment to get an expensive crown on their inventory of sweet blessings from the week.  But here’s the thing:  I have always had a terror of dentists.  This dates back to when I was eighteen and I went home to Cleveland for Christmas and my mother took me to the younger dentist who had replaced the old guy we used to see and I went from having 0 cavities to 12, just like that.  That old dude I'd been to as a kid was either going blind or else, after my first semester of college, and all the gum I chewed while I studied, I had wrecked my teeth.

Young Dentist did all dozen fillings in one appointment.  It took hours.  Every now and then he'd come back and shoot me up with more Novocain.  My mouth was so swollen I couldn’t close it.  My tongue was like a waterlogged towel.  My speech impediment lasted for so much of the day it threatened to become the new normal.  Plus, the Novocain hadn’t worked uniformly everywhere.  I kept thinking of that 1976 movie, Marathon Man, with Dustin Huffman, where the Nazi torturer has a dental drill and keeps snarling, “Is it safe?”

Then for years I went to a dentist who did excellent work, but his personality type did not mesh well with mine.  That is, he was Type A, and I was a melange of Type Scared to Death and Type Feels Shame, Due to Childhood Woes, for Having Basic Human Needs.  Basically, it went like this:  He always had four or five people he would work on at once, and I always felt bad that I was taking so much of his time.  So when we were almost done, and it was time to adjust the bite, I would let him rush off because I could see him tapping his foot, looking around, wanting to bolt.  I broke five or six different teeth over a period of three years because my bite was always off, and he prescribed root canals for most of them.  So I dreaded going in there, knowing every visit would lead to four.  I started needing laughing gas every time, even for tiny fillings.  After I put this man’s children through college I decided to switch to someone a little more relaxing to be around and I found my dentist, Dr. Carvill, in Potsdam.

This man is so nice--I actually have fun on my visits talking to him and his various assistants.  This time they complimented me on my beaded necklace from Goree Island, in Senegal, and this got us talking about the horrors of the slave trade, and a novel that all three of us absolutely loved called Someone Knows by Name, about a slave who later becomes a speaker in the abolitionist movement.  The author, Lawrence Hill, came to St. Lawrence University to read a few falls ago.  Okay, it's not like it's fun to talk about one of the single most horrific chapters of American--and world--history, especially when you're about to have your mouth clamped open for a couple hours.  But I've never had rapport with a dentist before.  I've never been to one I could talk to about literature and history.  Plus, he's a fan of Jon Stewart.  He's a big-time NPR-supporter.  Do I need to say more?

I don't clench anything when the Novocain needle goes in and the drilling starts.  Dr. Carvill and his assistant take pictures of my tooth and design it on the computer and it's made and cooked up there while I read O magazine--the one with Oprah on the cover with four puppies.  The new crown fits perfectly.  I won't have to come back until my cleaning in July.  Some problems have easy solutions: isn't that a marvel to behold?
When I'm leaving, Laura, who handles the billing, and I have a long talk about our dogs.  When I tell her about Zoe, she tears up.  She lost a dog this year.

To get competent health care of any kind in this era is not something I ever take for granted.  Especially when I’m so uncertain of the path we are taking for Zoe. It's so liberating to lose a fear that once bordered on phobia. 

I laugh at myself on the drive home.  Going to the dentist cheered me up?

I mean, am I just scraping the barrel here looking for things to be grateful for?  No, I don't think so.  I honestly think I've changed because of Zoe, my furry guru.  I used to set such high standards and conditions for my happiness.  If such-and-such happens, I would tell myself, I will be happy.  Achievement almost always had to be in the picture.  Now I know that yes, it's really nice to accomplish what one sets out to do, but happiness is something else entirely from, say, getting a story published, or taking a trip to a beautiful place that only a depressive couldn't find enjoyable.  Yes, those things are wonderful, but happiness, like peace of mind, doesn't have an agenda.  It just is.

Later, the person who goes with the King Spaniel Who Thinks He’s a Greyhound drops by to give me a book about a dog that comes back again in another life as a puppy to the person he was assigned to, and we both hold onto each other and cry.  Her husband had surgery today, but she took the time to bring me a little gift to cheer me up.  This is the kind of person she is. We sit down on one of my Indian rugs on the floor because every surface now is covered with books and notebooks and maps that I'm using for my novel, and time seems to stop while we catch up on all our news.

Just before she came, I had turned on the computer and was reading the most heartfelt lovely messages from a number of friends.  A former student wrote something so achingly beautiful and sad and kind that my friend and I agree that it's probably the nicest thing anyone will ever say to me anytime in any context, and I need to save it for posterity.

Then a miracle happens.  I vowed this week to try not to spend another night of Zoe's life away from her.  A trip I was supposed to take to India for work got postponed.  But I didn't think I could do anything about the four nights I'll be teaching creative nonfiction at the Chautauqua writing conference that starts three weeks from now.  Then I thought, well, there's no harm in asking.  Without having any expectations at all, without the usual tight stomach and anxiety I have when I ask for something out of the ordinary, I wrote the organizers this weekend about what is happening around here and--I couldn't believe it--they got the people who run the conference hotel to let the Z-girl come with my husband and me.   I don't think they've ever made an exception, ever.  But these women are animal lovers.  One was leaving when I wrote her to go to the memorial service her daughter-in-law was holding for her dog.  The other was in the process of finding a home for a poodle that had just appeared on her farm.  Team Zoe, as they called themselves now, had formed, had moved mountains, and now our girl has an invitation to a lovely conference center on a lake.

If she's well enough to travel in three weeks, of course.

And from there, if all is well, Zoe and I are spending a few nights at a house on Lake Findley with some girlfriends I grew up with in Cleveland, and this is a house whose owners never ever allow pets.  My friend Sandy, who runs a hospital wing for at-risk babies, performed this magic.  This shows you how much my friend is trusted and revered--that the owner made this exception as a favor to her.  And it shows what happens when you (Zoe and me) are surrounded by good people, when the pack of humans is the best it can be.

I will book Zoe to get groomed the day before we leave on this vacation so that she can put her best paw forward.

On our walk in the woods later she takes a liking to the new treats I bought for her when I was coming home from the dentist's office.  Salmon-flavored little bone-shaped wonders. Feeling her snout reaching for them as we walk through the woods is the sweetest feeling in the world.

Then in the evening, I have yoga class with Alison.  Hearing this woman's voice, alone, is like taking a bath in lavender oil.  I just walk in her presence and feel myself begin to release the tension I came with.  And by the time I get home, Zoe feels a tiny bit better and wants to lick our dinner plates.

Wednesday, May 23

Noon:  I take a break from my work and look down from the deck to this sight of my husband and Zoe snuggled together like this in the yard, just chillin'.

I think the fact that I only took two pictures of these cuties proves that I am capable of some restraint.

3 PM:  Is there anything sweeter than watching dogs on a meet-and-greet sniff-fest?
the turtle was digging a hole to lay her egg
I drive to Indian Creek where we meet up with the shaman poet and her two dogs, Kole, the black lab mix, and a 13-month-old golden doodle whose name is—are you ready?—Zoe. 

Actually, it’s a little confusing for two dogs with the same name on a walk.  When we call for young Zoe to come back from her hunting expedition—she’s tracking a bunny—my Zoe sits by our side waiting to be rewarded for coming, even though she never left.

Indian Creek Nature Preserve
On our walk we see: a painted turtle and later, a snapping turtle laying her eggs; a frog frozen in a game of Statues who won, big-time, but still won’t move; a beaver swimming; our dogs jumping in and out of swampy water, the kind that will make them smell like they’ve been to a hot springs or a mineral bath.

Zoe after a 90-minute walk
How lovely it is to walk with my friend, talking about the things we care about most—our animals, our book projects, her health, and how the things we’re each dealing with are opening our hearts—and to watch Zoe run and play and hold her own with a couple healthy junior dogs.

And then, in the evening, I go to meditation tune-up class that is taught by the compassionate and inspiring yogini, Rebecca Rivers.

She has given us a mantra, but I think it’s a state secret. You would have to corner me in a scary dental office with a drill to get me to divulge it to you.  That's not only because I'm now in the more advanced meditation training, and the teacher who gave my teacher this mantra has established a certain order of things one needs to learn to do first.  It's also because I can't remember how to spell it, let alone pronounce it, even though I chanted it in my mind for twenty-five minutes.

But here's something I won't ever forget: As I meditate in this lovely studio, night falls.  My spine creeks as it straightens, but the sound outside of night birds and crickets enters me and creates a kind of opening.

And the color I see as I close my eyes is the amber of my sweet dog’s eyes.


  1. Natalia,

    Inspiration from Zoe and your story is what draws me to your blog every evening.  Love of dogs and the dreaded mortality started it all, but inspiration is why I return.

    Pink twilight left me speechless,  flailing around aimlessly for words that might ease your mind.  Knowing that nothing could, but hoping that a kind word might, just a bit, for a moment or two.  I think the sweet things that you can take notice of, or recall, are the only defense in the face of sorrow.

    Friends of all sorts are thinking of you and Zoe...and all the sweet things you share with us here.

  2. Dear Dan,
    Am moved to tears here by your kind and lovely message. Have no words to tell you how much I appreciate your sentiments.