“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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Part II: Day 64: More Inter-Species Encounters

On Wednesday, Zoe met a local Reiki master and shaman and photographer who poses by daytime as a bank manager.  In true North Country fashion, this woman has at least four strings to her bow, and she also lives on a hundred acres of land in a landscape that some would describe as the middle of nowhere but is truly the middle of somewhere alive and wondrous, full of creatures with tails and plants that sometimes murmur advice.

My friend Sandy did some Reiki on Zoe at Camp Baker and I saw how Zoe both perked up and relaxed as my friend opened up the energy between Zoe's heart and head and hind.  She looked both startled, as in, What is this odd, cool thing?, and relieved, as in, I was wondering when you were going to figure out that I need this.

Zoe leans right into the local Reiki master the instant they meet.  My shy girl presents herself to this woman fully, but with one exception.  She won't let her touch her throat.  I wonder about this.  These are the muscles on Zoe's neck that she uses to hold her head so high, earning her reputation as a regal dog, but perhaps it's with these same muscles that she braces herself and hides the pain.  The local Reiki master finds the pain anyway.  It's mostly in her hind quarters: the torqued hip and leg.  We'd been noticing how that back leg seemed weaker lately, and the local Reiki master thinks there's a hot spot there.  I wish I'd been getting Zoe chiropractic adjustments all along, since she became a tripod, like James and Glenn did with Milo.  The Reiki master works on Zoe's heart and lungs and feels the congestion there, but tells me that even though Zoe has to work hard to breathe in certain positions, she is not feeling pain in that region.

She closes her eyes to listen to Zoe.

A minute later, she says: "She loves you.  She doesn't want to leave you."  We talk about how I can find ways to communicate with Zoe to let her know that I'll be sad when she's gone and I'll miss her, but she is free to go whenever she needs to, and that it would make me much sadder to see her suffer.

"But the other thing is, I think Zoe likes it here a lot right now."  It's true.  We've had one of the best weeks ever.  And while we're having this conversation, Zoe and the local Reiki master can smell the lamb Kerry is roasting.  Later, Zoe will lick her plate and ask for seconds.

On Thursday Zoe fulfilled her lifelong dream to sniff the butt of a kitty who didn't retaliate by scratching her eyes out.  She even kissed the cat, both on her nose and on her ribs, but unfortunately, neither the cat's person, Rebecca, nor I had our cameras at the ready to film the closest of these inter-species encounters, so you'll just have to take our word for it.

I wasn't sure if Zoe would be up for this visit.  On Monday and Tuesday we'd walked through the neighborhood and she'd tugged hard, asking to go over to Rebecca's, but by Wednesday we were confining our walks to the acre we live on so as to conserve her strength.  But I just looked at Zoe and said, "Do you want to go in the car to see Rebecca and the kitty?" and she hopped in.

I think Zoe prefers the push-pull of the chase than to have the object of her obsession offered to her directly, as Rebecca was doing.  This fearless cat the size of Zoe's head loved provoking Zoe by scrunching down to places under low tables that she knew were too small for Zoe to follow her into, and Zoe loved provoking the cat by squeaking her mouse toys.  The truth is, Zoe is still a little afraid of this cat.  This was evident in their staring matches, which Katniss always won. (For back story on Zoe's relationship with Katniss, go here.  For more on Zoe with Rebecca and her cat, Webster and an evil cat Zoe met on the island of Corsica, go here.)

Zoe begins each visit to Rebecca's by devouring a greenie

Are you seeing the scale differential here between species?

I see you!

Zoe and Rebecca and the fearless, freakishly calm Katniss

Try getting under here with that big bootie of yours!  Ha!

Do you think they're going to make us pose with funny hats for a greeting card?

It's a dance

The kitty's paw eventually was draped along Zoe's head, but my camera was in the case then

But finally, after they'd been in close(ish) proximity for nearly two hours, the two creatures were friends.  I think if we'd had more time a bit of snuggling might have ensued, but a sniff and a kiss were such milestones that it would be greedy for any of us to ask for anything more.

Zoe celebrated this inter-species love-fest with ice cream at Morgan's.  Afterwards, she walked around the park, marker-peeing and saying to anyone who was interested that she was having a great day.

Last night the local Reiki master came over again, and this time she worked on me for a few minutes first and taught me some Reiki moves I can use on Zoe myself.  Zoe ran right up to her when she arrived, picked a spot in the shade for us to begin, and waited while we talked, announcing her interest in the action to come by chewing a stick.

"She feels good today," she said.  "Definitely no worse than Wednesday.  She's tired, though."

"I don't think she's sleeping deeply enough," I said.  "It's hard for her to sleep on her side now, whether it's the aching hip or where the lung mass is located, and when she sleeps on her side she sleeps her deepest and best.  It's the only time she completely surrenders."

Toward the end of the session, Zoe was looking off toward the river.  "It's either like a portal for her, what she's seeing, to the beyond.  Or she just wants to go down to that river and get her feet wet to cool off."  We followed Zoe's gaze.  Later the local Reiki master suggested that I explain to Zoe that leaving this life will be like floating on a raft down that river she loves so much.

But here's the thing:  I believe what the people who can talk to animals tell me when they say that Zoe is afraid to leave me, afraid that I'll be heartbroken, and that it's my job to tell her she's free to go.  But at the same time, whether it's the prednisone giving her a last boost, or the fact that our days this week have been so peaceful, she has seemed very happy lately and still her same old graceful, haughty, dignified, occasionally cuddly self.  She is living her life exactly the way she wants to.  On her terms.

And besides, there's meat.  Last night Kerry cooked three rib-eye steaks for dinner.  Zoe was in the grass and we were on the deck, and she whined and cried until we invited her to join us at the table.  She ate more steak than I did, with asparagus and chard, and I swear to dog I've never seen her look this ecstatic--not since she caught and ate the bunny.  Afterwards she wanted to run down to the river she'd been staring at earlier, and while Kerry and I stood on the flat rock together and hugged, she leaned against us.  Then she went in to cool down her paws and get a drink.  I wanted those few minutes to last forever.

I always want our moments together to last forever.

I forgot to say that just when the session with the local Reiki master had ended, Zoe took a nap.  She slept on her side and slept deeply.  And last night I woke myself up a few times to watch her sleep.  She usually is aware of me no matter how quiet I am but last night she only got up once when I did.  I scooted over to the wooden floor to lie beside her, and a minute or so later she was asleep again in that position of surrender.

This morning since we climbed the balcony we've seen the robin patrolling the yard looking for seed, and a squirrel, and then a moment or two ago the great blue heron swooped down to say hello.  There's so much life around us and we have the best seat in the house.

Am I bribing her to stick around a few more days with steak and ice cream and cats?

Don't feel compelled to answer.  I'm working this out myself.  But I will say this: for whatever reason Zoe has rallied these past few days (and the prednisone is magically playing its part), she has blessed me repeatedly with that eager look I've known and loved these past nine years.

I will never think there's enough time.   But trust me, I'm content hanging out here with my dog right now on our back acre in the here and now, and when she says it's time to get on that raft, I'll find the strength to help her go.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Part II: Day 63: Her Way

I remember when I was contemplating getting a dog I thought at first that I would find the right one by reading up on every breed and blend and then carefully picking the one best suited for my temperament and our lifestyle . . . in other words, when I was a completely different person, I thought there was a science to finding the right canine companion.

I did worry sometimes that I'd be too much of a pushover and that the dog would not learn his or her manners and people would dread coming to my house because there would be this spoiled monster ruling the roost, jumping on the table, snatching ham sandwiches right out of people's hands, humping their legs, then chewing up their Italian leather shoes, perhaps with their feet still in them, peeing on their leather handbags, leaving her mark on the Persian rug, with me just leaning back saying, "Isn't she the cutest?"

I got really lucky with Zoe.  It took me two weeks and two nights to train her to tell me, reliably, when she had to go.  She had arrived in our home in May to a glorious verdant late spring and she relished all that time we spent outdoors during housebreaking.  After that, the only accidents we ever had were when I failed to hear her, when I didn't listen to her message, and those incidents were rare.  The rest was, I see now, bizarrely easy too.  She had sit and stay and heel down in a nanosecond, and we were soon ready for the world.  She was never a chewer, she's never taken food from low tables, or gotten into things in the house that she shouldn't.  She didn't jump on people when they arrived, and although she barks when anyone drives up to the house, she makes them feel welcome once they show her the proper respect and let her know that they understand she's in charge of this residence.

But it became clear to me early on that Zoe would follow the commands I gave her only when the intellectual rigor of these games appealed to her.  When she got bored, or when there wasn't anything in it for her (treats) she would come when she felt like it.  We've rarely been in a situation where her being a haughty, independent, strong-willed dog has been a problem.  She has never been skunked.  She has only terrified me by running into the road to meet another dog maybe three times total in our nine-plus years.  And when she wants to go a certain way on a walk, I follow.  She is always good about heeling; I think she takes pride in it, now more than ever, especially since, as a tripod, it has been harder to go slow than to go fast.

The Monks of New Skete warned against letting the dog think you're its butler, and that notion has always made me smile.  I am not just Zoe's butler: I'm also her chef, nurse, workout buddy, traveling sidekick, health advocate, and now, increasingly, I hope, her confidante.  She is my muse, and that's a lot of pressure to put even on a working dog, but other than turning away rather disdainfully sometimes when I try to take yet another picture of her, she has borne her lot in life with me with good will.

So now we're trying to do things totally her way.  I am hearing Frank Sinatra in my head: you know the song.  She said no more chemotherapy drugs and we said, fine.  Before that she said no more hippie-dippie raw food diet with Chinese herbs mixed in, and we listened.  She wanted to see what regular dogs ate and we tried that for a month.  This Monday she said no more dog food, I want only what you're having, especially the lamb, and now we just cook up three serving of meat and vegetables and try to take Sheri's advice about going easy on carbs, and she licks her plate and asks for seconds.  I should have been tipped off last week at the lake house when Pam brought us moussaka and Zoe ate more of it than anyone.  I'm still learning.

hello there, you
Zoe eating with gusto fills my heart
I don't have a lot of time left to become a good listener, but I'm trying my best.  We still start our days on the balcony, and she takes pride in mounting those stairs, stopping to look at me en route for my praise.  It winds her, and she pants afterwards, but then she finds a cool spot on the wood and rests her head on the rail and she's there.  I sit with her, I post, and I even bring my meditation blankets out here and find a spot near her to do the honors.  A little into the morning I make her breakfast, preparing the food I think she wants, and she eats with gusto.  When the sun hits the balcony, Zoe wants to retreat to the shady spots of our yard.  She picks where to be, and I sit a few feet away with my laptop or a book, but mostly I just sit.  I pet her, then I give her space.  The novel I've been revising for the past five months will be there when I'm bereft and need a new purpose in my life.  So will the books I occasionally open and consider reading.  Instead, I watch the breeze stir up the flower pots and notice when a pink snapdragon opens.  I pay attention to birds.  A lot of robins are in our yard these days.  Now Zoe and I are watching Jeff do some sawing on our deck for the construction project.  He just put in a new window that brought more light into the mud room.  She won't be here when this job is done, but the fact that she's sitting a few yards from where the work is going on helps me believe she's still having her say in how the house shapes up, and that some proprietary part of her will still be sitting out here when the work is done.

When I went to the Potsdam Humane Society in May of 2003, thinking I was beginning a systematic search for finding the right dog, I didn't notice Zoe at first.  Most of her seven litter mates came up to the end of their cage to climb up and say hello, but Zoe stayed back resting with her head on her outstretched paws just as she is doing now as I write.  She was known as the shy dog in the pack.  The mellow one.  The philosopher.  I fell in love with her at first sight, but I also thought I had to rescue her because the people visiting would be wowed by the other cuddly, vivacious pups and would not give an aloof dog like her a second look.  I found out later that two other people asked to have her right after I put down my name, and if I hadn't walked into the pound on that very day, at that very minute, I would have missed the chance to be her person.

She was a little bit melancholy.  She had trouble trusting.  She didn't make eye contact easily.  And my oh my, when she did finally look directly into my eyes, I was a goner.  And still am.

I told myself I was channeling the Monks of New Skete by picking a shy dog.  I thought it would be easier for me to be the alpha pack leader with a retiring little pup who sat off to the side thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life.  But actually, I learned, she was simply demonstrating her independence by separating herself from the crowd.  She's not a follower.  She is her own brand.

I love being her butler, chef, attendant, nurse, companion.  Today, when I brought Zoe out a bit of Poly-MVA (known to shrink tumors, but at the least, to boost energy and the immune system; as you can see, certain old habits die hard) with a smoked salmon chaser, my husband and I were just finishing lunch on the deck.  I said, in mock culinary speak, "The dog will start with smoked Wild Alaskan salmon in a light broth of Poly-MVA" and Kerry said, "The real question is this: is the broth frothed?"  No, but the dog was salivating when she saw it, along with the tastes of pâté and goat cheese I brought her on a plate as a midday snack.

So here's where we are.  We're at peace.  We're content right now, this dog and me.  My job is to just sit beside her and listen.  That's painful sometimes because her breathing is getting labored.  She has trouble getting a deep breath sometimes, like all our human friends with asthma, but then she's okay again for a while.  Watching her breathe and listening for when it gets too hard is my only job at the moment.  The prednisone is helping open up her lungs a little, and helping her find one last blast of energy and appetite to fortify her for the journey ahead, but it won't do its magic for long. 

Right now she is watching Jeff carry out a ladder to the side of the house and she's smiling.  "This is our house," she seems to be saying.  "We're glad you are here to be part of things."

And so we sit and watch the world go by and breathe together.  She's in charge.  She's always been a dog who did best when we did things her way, although sometimes I have forgotten and imposed a few elements into her regime that I thought would help her live longer and better.  But from the moment we met, I've been her person and serving her has given me more joy than anything I've ever done in my life.

She'll be in charge of when she leaves this house and goes out into the universe.  Until then I'll keep sitting beside her watching and trying to learn all I can to do right by her.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Part II: Day 62: Visitors

It starts Monday afternoon.  Erin comes over to say good-bye to Zoe and me.  Erin and her family are off to the cottage until August and in our ideal world their sweet dog, Max, would still be alive to run on the beach with them, and Zoe and my husband and I would join them.  We would eat watermelon on the deck and spit seeds at each other, and we would all swim, and Zoe and Max would compete for the sticks we'd toss, but they'd sometimes swim to shore together with the same one in their jaws.

Instead we humans have to make do with a good talk and a cup of dandelion tea.  But it's enough to lift our spirits, and not long after the visit, Zoe wants to walk, and eat, and tell me a thing or two about how she'd like things to be run around here.  This visit marks a turning point.  We started this day with such sadness, but after Erin's visit Zoe understood that we had heard her and we kind of eased into this new phase of our life together with grace.
Zoe adores Erin.

Eve and Blue arrive on Tuesday afternoon at 3, around the time we'd normally be thinking about a long walk along the river.  Zoe is so excited to see Blue that she chases him downstairs and back up again, and that's how I first hear and witness "the cough," the dreaded sign that the mass in Zoe's lungs is interfering with her respiration.  Well, we knew this was the case a few days ago when Zoe started stopping en route on walks a few times to pant and catch her breath when she went uphill, but now we're onto something bigger.  But our vet tells us a couple hours later that this doesn't quite mean The End.  When Zoe coughs like that when she's at rest, doing nothing at all, and when the cough interferes with her sleep, we'll know.  Plus, Zoe took those stairs to greet her old friend like she did as a pup. She was so happy to see him and his person; her mad tear up and down the stairs to herd Blue was her version of dancing a jig.

Here's how it is for her: It's like she was an Olympic runner and all at once she woke up with the lungs of a two-pack-a-day smoker, and she's just trying to learn how to move again.  Later I will tell this story to Danielle and Steve and Steve will say it's like when Lance Armstrong first got on his bicycle after chemo.  He'd think he was pushing hard, going as fast as he could, and then "a little old lady would fly right past him."

Danielle and Steve and Milo, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who Thinks he's a Greyhound, pop over just after Amy Thompson has finished giving Zoe acupuncture.  Milo has a hard time finding a comfortable place to rest in my studio, and Danielle wonders if he senses that things have shifted for his friend, the big black dog with the wolfy face who used to herd him: if he feels the impending loss.  Zoe is sleepy from the acupuncture so she elects to go out to the balcony to rest.

My husband is having hip replacement surgery on July 10, and Danielle offers to come over sometime after that and make a nice dinner for us, partly in honor of Kerry's birthday which is later in July.  Danielle is one of the best cooks we know.  We were originally going to go to dinner at her and Steve's house on Saturday but now we just can't make plans, and before we could even tell her this she sensed it.   Normally when we go to her and Steve's house she has a bone waiting for Zoe, and all the dogs lick our plates.  Now it seems unlikely that Zoe will be up for leaving the familiar, the comfort of her domain, so the party will come to her--but only if she's up for it.

I feel so lucky to have such kind friends.  And it lifts our spirits, Zoe's and mine, to have visitors.  Zoe snuggles against our friends, or offers them a paw,  and the presence of others lets this sweet dog know that there's still a world outside our house and yard even though, since yesterday, she hasn't been up for heading out there.  I like to think it lets her know that her people won't fall apart.  That she can go when she has to, that she doesn't have to stick around just for us.

Last night my husband said to me, "Would you like to go away for a few days if  . . when . . ." and then the sentence trailed off.   It was such a kind, sweet offer.  We're both kind of tapped out financially now.  He suggested a couple places not far away, one that we've been to in Essex, Vermont, that is connected to the culinary institute, and do you want to know, honestly, my first response?  Before I could say it, I was thinking, 'That's a good choice.  They take dogs."

I'm going to have my work cut out for me.

But I don't have to do it just yet.  For now, Zoe and I are camped out on the balcony watching the river.  The fat groundhog mama just visited, although she thinks of himself, I'm pretty sure, not as a visitor but as an inhabitant.  A hawk swooped above us last night and did a few loops around the yard and we were enthralled.  And although we're all just visitors to this planet, I feel very lucky to have claimed this particular spot on a cool morning in late June with a smart, sensitive dog whose snout reaching over the rails picks up the scent of every creature in our vicinity, and whose big, tender heart keeps teaching me more ways to love her even now.  She's snoring, and that sound as she visits the land of dreams is as comforting to me as the sound of the river flowing past.

Another day.  How lucky we are.  The gift of another day . . .

Blue and Zoe

They have been friends ever since I took Zoe home to live with us

Zoe and I were so happy to see Eve, and I was happier still to see Zoe this happy

When I first brought Zoe home, Eve bought me a pet advice newsletter and was my go-to person on all kinds of pup matters.  She and Zoe have always understood each other.
photo of Milo and Zoe taken by Danielle Egan; I didn't have my camera out to capture their sweet visit on Tuesday

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Part II, Day 61: A Pretty Good Day, Considering

Amazing how the new normal can be a peaceful place after an attitudinal adjustment--or two, or three.  So Zoe spoke on Monday and we heard her.  No more anti-cancer drugs, no more walks at set times, no more dog food, no more activities that Zoe doesn't choose.  That's our non-plan of a plan, and we've eased into it and set up camp there.

Kerry and Zoe
She perked up in late afternoon and asked for a stroll.  My husband and I put her on the leash and headed off in our usual direction, and even though we always think she has more fun off the lead, she seemed delighted to be out there in the 'hood with us, observing our neighbors' lives.  She marker peed on various shrubs and lawns, delivering her triumphant, alpha Zoe-was-here graffiti with gusto, and as usual she wanted to pull her way up to Rebecca's house to play hide and seek with the kitties.  When we steered her right on State Street instead of left, she wanted to stop in to see her friend Milo, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who Thinks he's a Greyhound, but his people's cars weren't there and we told her she would just have to make do with us as sidekicks.

On the way back down Riverside we passed the house where after an ice storm that became a blizzard this winter we saw a woman outside shoveling snow so her husband would be able to get their truck up the drive.  We'd all lost power that day and she was staying warm by keeping her driveway clear, but she was worried about her child and their cat in the cold apartment.  If the power didn't come on again that night, they'd be in trouble.  Even with all her worries, she had stopped to pet the cute three-legged dog and admire her dexterity in this crazy winter weather.  Now she said, "I remember how much energy and strength your dog had that day, the way she plowed through feet of snow and wouldn't stop.  The way she walked confidently through all those snowdrifts.  She was the most powerful thing out in the world that day."  It was such a kind thing for her to say, and now she and her little boy were patting Zoe, doing their own version of a laying on of hands, wishing her some good last days.  (I wrote the story of Zoe's first encounter with this woman in January in a post called "A Meditation on Power," which you can see here.)

Afterwards our vet, Amy Thompson, came by to see her and to drop off pain meds for when she needs them, if she needs them.  Zoe barked and wagged her tail and followed her into the house with great purpose.  Amy said, "Well, she may be putting on a show for me, but I think Zoe still has lots of Xi in her--a good, strong pulse."  We made plans for her to come back on Tuesday and treat Zoe with acupuncture needles: the first time she would ever be doing this solo, without the Vermont Dr. Thompson. After the visit, Zoe ate for the first time that day.  I think that once she realized we really got the message that the anti-cancer drugs were getting hard on her stomach, and she understood that we've ditched them, and that we'll give her whatever she wants, she was keen to tuck in.

Tuesday morning Zoe opted to hang out on the deck watching the house instead of walking with the gents, but then we took a stroll in late morning around the backyard, startling the groundhogs, admiring the wingspan of the great blue heron, playing a slow-moving kind of hide and seek in the tall grass by the river.  For most of the day afterwards we sat on the balcony together except for when rain chased us inside.  She ate a late breakfast of browned hamburger (organic, local) and grains and watched the river flow by our house while I brought my laptop out there and sat beside her.  When the rain came, we went back in and had a long and very honest conversation.  I lay down beside her and she presented me with her paw, as in, Nice to meet you again, as in, We've done okay, you and I, as in, We can do this part well too, we really can, as in, Thank you.  For a long time it was a contest to see who would break the gaze first.  Her stare is very intense and in the first round, she won, but in the rematch we tied.

Dr. Amy T and Zoe
I talked to Dr. Bravo in Ottawa, her oncologist, and she faxed over a prescription of prednisone to my vet, which many advised is good for the last days because it gives the dog a last boost of appetite and spring in her step and joie de vivre before it's time to say good-bye.

At five o'clock Zoe enjoyed another stroll through the neighborhood.  She met a young chocolate lab on the corner of Riverside and Prospect and it was such a sweet encounter.  They stood a few inches apart from one another wagging tails for the sniff-fest, and then they gently tapped snouts.   Later, Amy came over with the prednisone and her acupuncture needles and Zoe relaxed into a good session on her doggy day bed.  She looked content and peaceful when the needles went in, and afterwards she napped out on the balcony.

I think, from Zoe's point of view, the best part of this new phase is getting to eat what she wants.  We cooked her lamb chops from 8 o'clock ranch and served them on her organic grains mix and some wild rice with beet greens and she devoured every bite. We've got wild salmon from Alaska in the freezer for her, and tonight she'll get what we're having on a plate.

This is our office now
So now it's Wednesday morning and we're on the balcony together, where we'll be all day today when we're not taking a leisurely short walk in the yard or in the 'hood.  When she looks up at me it's as though I were her sculptor and she were posing, or maybe she's the artist and I'm her model.  We know each other's every expression, every head tilt and tone of voice.  She clearly knows we've moved on, into uncharted territory, but I think she also understands that even as I sit a few feet away from her, with every gaze, with every breath, and now, with every stroke of my fingertips at the keyboard, we're together.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Part II: Day 60: Slowing Down

A few people along the way have warned us that Zoe's decline could be swift.  We think that's what's happening now.  At Lake Finley she sometimes planted her paws and did her "hell no, I won't go" early on a walk, but it was 95 degrees and we were in a place she didn't know.  "The real test," I told my friends, "is how she is if/when the weather cools down.  If she's reluctant to walk far on the gentlemen's walk, we'll know that she's slowing down."

We noticed as soon as we got home that her breathing was getting more labored when she ran up a hill.  She is panting now for much of the day.  And although yesterday she ate seconds at breakfast and dinner, when she woke up today she went on a hunger strike.  And when Kerry drove her out to the join the gents for the morning constitutional, she said quite firmly that she would prefer not to.

And then the good news: when she came home from the walk, she ran to the door to my studio and asked to be let up.  It's a steep walk up many stairs, but she wanted to be up there on her post on the balcony watching the river flow by.  She still seeks solace in nature, and in stillness.  And whenever anyone walks up to her and she's awake, she wags her tail.

We think it's time to think about palliative care.  Doggy hospice.  I don't want to leave the house or do anything other than sit by her side on the grass when she's awake.  But even then, I don't want to overdo it.  Sometimes another's intense love is a burden, isn't it?  She's such a brave, resilient, strong-willed dog, and I don't want her to be afraid to go because she thinks it's her job to look after me, her person.  Kerry and I will have to make her as comfortable as we can and then let go.

It's been a year since I came back from India and noticed that she was limping.  A year of long walks along the river through summer grass and fall leaves and snow and ice and trillium and now more summer grass.  A year of morning meditations on the balcony, of romps through the backyard, lovely get-togethers with friends, and the writing of countless dogcentric mini-essays, journal entries, blog posts.
Yesterday Zoe and I sat together for a long time on the balcony at first light.  We saw a doe run to the river to drink water and cross over to the other side.  Today the groundhog babies did a kind of shuffle across the lawn, not concerned at all that we were above them looking down on their shiny brown heads.  And now as I write the wind rocks the maple tree at my window, keeping Zoe cool as she rests in the grass.

I look out the window and she looks back up at me, entirely herself, queenly and cuddly at once.  And so I'll end here because she's awake and I want to sit beside her for a few minutes on the cool grass and enjoy hearing what she has to say while I still can.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Part II, Day 59: A Dog at Camp Baker

It's soupy-hot as we make our way to Lake Findley for the girlfriend reunion, otherwise known as Camp Baker.

Sandy and Stephanie and Herta come running out to greet us, and Zoe snuggles up to them right away.  It's a relief to see her wagging her tail, eager for the next adventure.  We worried about this road trip.  Five weeks ago our oncologist gave Zoe a prognosis of one month to three.  When she survived the month-mark we still thought it might be hard on her to be in a car for six hours, then shuffled between hotel and lake house with all those stairs and all those new people in hot weather.  She's always been a good traveler, but on the last car trip we took, a month ago, to my sister's--the Memorial Weekend Meltdown one week after the sad oncology visit--Zoe cried the whole way there, and I wanted to.

But she sat in the back seat as my husband drove her to Chautauqua with nary a whimper.  She was feted at the Chautauqua Literary Festival, roamed and swam, and now she is making fast friends with the girls of Camp Baker.  She's our mellow, cuddly girl this week--no signs of being stressed. She's just hot--we all are--and would just like some cool water and a bit of shade.

Herta, I think, was the one who named our summer get-aways Camp Baker.  This is because we were all classmates at Newton D. Baker Junior High, in Cleveland, Ohio, then lost track of each other after high school.  When each of us wanted a pal to nudge under the table because someone in our vicinity--in Minnesota, Indiana, Delaware, Seattle, Massachusetts, or Cleveland--was saying something that reminded us of, say, the art teacher who used to intone, about magenta, "Some people like it, some people think it's kind of wild" we had only our own shins to kick.  None of us stayed in touch.  When we graduated, most of us broke our ties with the past, even the ones who returned to Cleveland to work.  When one of us recalled the time Herta and others (I think Sandy and Pam were both in on it) wrote "This School Blows" on the back of my sister's campaign buttons when Mira ran for class president, and Herta almost got suspended, and had to get on the P.A. system to apologize and tell the whole school that her mother was punishing her, big-time, by having her scrub all the walls in the house, we had to tell the story to civilians without assistance from the team.  (This was a symbolic punishment, akin to washing out one's mouth with soap and water, we were meant to understand; although Herta did not know what "blow" meant yet, our principal told her and her mother that the word was "pornographic.") Now that we are reunited we each have our own details to add to the saga.

This is the third gathering of Camp Baker--my second because I was in France with Kerry and Zoe for the first, in the summer of 2010.

For Pam, who arrives later with her tasty homemade moussaka and marinara sauce, it will be the first.  Herta was the last to see her--in the early 80s.  I don't remember seeing Pam after 1974, when she had piled up enough AP credits to graduate early, as did Herta.  Herta worked for a while as an air traffic controller.  Pam became an engineer.  Before that, when Pam married at 19 the same guidance counselor who tested all of us in grade school to determine if we were smart enough for "major work," Cleveland's answer, circa 1970s, to enrichment programs, those of us who knew about it were worried.  Now it occurs to me that whether we liked and trusted him or not, this man was the reason we all became friends.  When kids seemed bright, their teachers referred them to him.  He was the one who tested our IQs.  If we scored above a certain number, we got put in these great classes where we began studying foreign languages by age eight and nine.  We went on field trips to the Cleveland Art Museum and got tickets to hear the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.  Our art and music classes were among the best in the state.  I don't want to sugar coat anything about this confusing era--Pam reminds us how parents in most houses she knew were taking Valium, and only Sandy and Steph knew just how severely ill our mother was--but it's an odd moment for me to realize that one thing we all have in common is the recognition by this one particular individual that we were smart enough to earn the keys to the kingdom.  It's a direct line, one could argue, from that test in a guidance counselor's office when I was eight, to the ten trips to France I've made since grad school, including the one with my husband and Zoe that lasted seven months.  We all remember seventh grade French class and the chic, gamine young French girl with the Vidal Sassoon haircut who assisted our teacher.  Sandy and I invited her as our guest for the home ec Bring Your Teacher to Brunch.  She sat at our table and ate the coffee cake we'd baked.  When we made skirts in home ec (I got a D--sewing was never my forté), we wanted to design outfits like our French role model's.

These days, most public schools don't start kids on foreign language until eighth grade or so--far too late for the kids to become bilingual.

Rosemary is coming, also for the first time.  She lived on Grapeland Avenue, the street my sister and I passed when we walked to elementary school--a street that I still see in my dreams although in them the houses look bigger, as they did in childhood, and the trees are taller than they ever were.  She is not a Baker babe, as we call ourselves; she went to St. Mel's, the Catholic school in our neighborhood that we all called Saint Smells, right through the eighth grade. We were in the same high school junior year, but that's the only time our paths crossed. 

But here's the miracle: Rosemary knew our mother.  Not only did she remember her from the neighborhood, but as a nurse practitioner committed to serving the poor, she helped found the homeless shelter our mother sought refuge in for the last decade of her life.  When Rosie thought of treating street people, helping ease their mental and physical suffering along with providing them a safe bed for the night, my mother was exactly the kind of person she had in mind.  In later years she saw our mother at the shelter.  She made sure she was okay.  (For more information about my sister, Mira Bartok, our mother, and the memoir about our childhood my sister wrote, The Memory Palace, go here.  To learn more about the women's shelter that was later renamed for our mother, go to a post I wrote in January, here.)

And when Sandy committed her life to treating at-risk babies, children of drug addicts and of the mentally ill, she says she often wondered what it was about my sister and me that allowed us to thrive.  She is now the acting director in her unit at the county hospital--the same hospital where my sister and mother and I went for our health care: i.e., the place that took Medicaid.  Sandy remembers wheeling me out of that hospital, drawing on her old candy striper skills, after I had surgery there the June after we graduated from high school.

Steph and I met when we were six.  She lived across the street on Triskett Road, and all through grade school we spent all of every summer day together.  We rode bikes, played Cold War-inspired spy games, and ran back and forth between her house and our apartment and our grandparents' house a block and a half away where we would climb fruit trees, run in the fields behind them, put on skits for the neighborhood, and play School--with me as teacher: my warped idea, then, of fun, and neither she nor my sister had the heart to unseat me from my dictatorial pedant's throne.  Steph indirectly led me to yoga when she taught me all the stretches she was learning in gymnastics class.  I loved her dachsund, Penny, and she loved Ginger, our collie/shepherd mix, the recipient of all my secrets.  Steph was tiny and nimble, with hair long enough to sit on, and when she moved to Strongsville, Ohio in high school my sister and I never stopped missing her.

Herta and Sandy and Pam went to a different elementary school, and when we all met in seventh grade in our A.P. math and science and English and dreaded home ec classes, I thought they were the coolest girls in the world.  They had better taste in rock music than I did.  They knew about Crosby, Stills, and Nash, whereas I was still stuck on Neil Diamond.  They had boyfriends before I did. Herta would pay us to eat gross stuff we mixed up in the cafeteria--jello, mystery meat, orange juice, milk.  She was funny and smart, an inspiring public speaker, and should have won the all-school competition for poetry recitation with her rendition of Poe's "Annabelle Lee" but some boy we didn't know won instead.  She was robbed.

Cathy, my sister's best friend, has just retired.  In the thirty years she taught special ed, and then fourth grade, she affected the lives of some of the toughest families in the city.  These were kids who had been abused.  Kids with special needs and not enough resources in the school budget or in the home to help them achieve.  A product of a great public school education, she witnessed its starvation due to budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level: she was in the trenches through its slow decline.  She survived No Child Left Behind and all the crazy rounds of tests and testing and more until she finally had enough.  She hopes she'll find a new career to take her into the next stage of life.  She's thinking about doing something at a park.  Something with trees and creatures instead of children who are suffering.  She wants to sleep through the night and see what that's like.

When I reminded Steph how our teachers would write our IQs on the roll and that I checked once, and hers was the highest of all the girls in sixth grade, she said, "Then why didn't anyone say to us, you're going to go to college.  I wonder what I would have become if my parents had told me this and said, we're going to pay for it."  She got a nursing degree and was married and working by 19.  Now she's ready to find out what else she can do.  Like Cathy, she's thinking of finding a job in a park.  She is an amazing gardener, and has done the flowers for her kids' weddings.  Her kids have doctorates, and she could too, but no one told her that was an option for her.  Not in Cleveland, circa 1970s, even in our excellent public schools.  We may have learned French, French impressionism, and seen George Szell conduct Mozart and Bartók at Severance Hall, but Cleveland was slow to catch on to the women's movement--at least in our little corner, on the West Side.  Our sex-segregated lunch line at Newton D. Baker Junior High was a case in point.  The boys ate first, then filed out of the lunch room, and we marched in while the assistant principal patrolled the halls, checking the lengths of our skirts.  Home ec was sex-segregated too.  No girls took woodworking.  Mrs. Fields, who taught clothing, was a Stepford Wife with helmet hair, and we knew only that we didn't want to be her, but not who we wanted to become.

We went to a skiing lodge in the hills of Western New York for a walk.
So here we are now.  Two nurse practitioners, both of whom love their jobs, have major managerial responsibilities and work thirteen-hour days; a ready-to-retire nurse in search of an epiphany; the department coordinator of the classics and history department of a well respected liberal arts college; a retiring elementary school teacher; a disgruntled engineer who has been laid off more than once in the economic crisis and is afraid that she won't be able to finance her health care as she ages.  Plus there's this dog and her person who loves words.  If they wanted to, the medical gals could be physicians, but they are way more excited about the way their field is going, and how soon there will be a doctorate degree in their nursing specialties.  As recognized experts, they'll be teaching the teachers.  The department coordinator could be department chair but she's busy conducting her own history project--interviewing her aging father about his life before and after World War II.  The engineer could be an executive at Boeing but she's more interested now in the career of her gifted college-age daughter.  They're all bright and accomplished, highly competent women, but what matters to them most are other things: social justice.  Their kids.  Their gardens.  Their health and the health of their siblings and their surviving parents.  The state of our nation and our world, which they all find shaky.  The nurse is going to Nicaragua soon to volunteer her services at a health clinic.  She's ready to do more than what she does now, which already sounds like too much.

Big paws up to Pine Junction, a Lake Findley restaurant that let us bring Zoe to their outdoor patio for dinner.  She helped the non-vegans in the group eat their burgers and fries.
In this crowd, Zoe basks in love.  She laps up Pam's moussaka and asks for more.  Baker Babes scratch her belly and her ears.  They tell her she's gorgeous and good.  "Such a good dog!  Such a great dog!  So mellow!  So tranquil to be around!"  They sit beside her in the shade and tell her she's the most beautiful and wise and sweet dog in the world, even though some of them have dogs waiting for them at home.  We take her on slow walks around the lake houses, eat with her on the deck, watch the flying squirrels and hummingbirds flit around our heads, and meanwhile, in Camp Baker form, we seven catch each other up on the last thirty-some years.  We drink and we laugh.  We share book lists and health tips.  We exalt in the miracle of just being in one place at one time.

Pam will write me a message when we're both back.  "I can see how Zoe grounds you, and you ground her.  How lucky you were to find each other." 

It's true.  We have had a great life together.  Zoe has slowed down considerably in the past two weeks.  We don't have much time left.  And now that I understand that this trip to Camp Baker was our last vacation together, ever, I'm so glad we got to visit these wise, compassionate women I knew in a time and a place when even though we weren't encouraged to take over the world, we found power in climbing the fruit trees in our yards, with another herding dog nipping at our heels, urging us to climb higher.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Part II: Day 58: The Literary Dog Gets a Gig

Zoe in front of the Athenaeum Hotel, Chautauqua, with her male human
For the first time in known history, Zoe has been granted entry to the Chautauqua Writers Festival.  She has a room that she shares with her two human attendants in the Victorian hotel, the Athenaeum, on the first floor, across the hall from a student in her person's workshop--a young woman who, like her instructor, sees metaphors everywhere, even in the parking lot, and is writing an essay about a wasp that terrified Darwin because it laid its eggs inside a spider's abdomen and the creature was churned inside out.

When things that belong on the inside are outside it gets scary: ulcers, skin ruptures that look intestinal, parasites, alien embryos, intense emotions--like the kind that a memoirist relives, never exorcising them completely, through writing.  

At the picnic before the reading a clump of admirers have gathered on the grass to love up this dog.  They praise her beauty, her sweet ways, her proffered paws, her polite begging technique, her lean-in hugs.  After her person gives the dog bites of pulled pork and chicken, the nonfiction festival director takes care of dessert.  The lovely tattooed poet who is writing about her relationship with Rilke gets teary-eyed talking about her writing mentors, including this festival director--how they not only nurtured her muse, but how they also found her and her small children a place to live and gave her the will to live when she was in the lowest place ever.  Zoe's person's eyes fill too, and Zoe notes that this is a place where people really share things, essential things, life-affirming things, and not just pulled pork and pie.  The tattooed poet has lived with cats but is drawn to Zoe, she says, because she can see something special about her, something soulful and wise in her eyes that transcends speciesdom.
Zoe with Diana Hume George and Traci Morell

Erica Sklar and Zoe are in love
One of the student interns, a talented nonfiction writer, has veterinary science training.  Zoe's person took to her at once, and Zoe adores her so quickly, so instantly, that it's hard for anyone else to get her attention.  The two submit to a photo shoot, but would rather just commune without all the fuss.

Zoe has a lump on her neck that is seeping.  It was the size of a golf ball before the road trip began, but it's shrinking.  Her people keep patting it down with disinfectant, but then it bleeds.  Even though an oozing growth isn't easy on the eyes, the writers pet her anyway, complimenting her on her lustrous black coat, shiny after being groomed, although one poet at the barbeque suggests that it might be a good idea for her person to wash her hands before she goes to the podium because there's blood on it, which is probably also metaphorical, but not in a good way.  Because Zoe looks so good it's hard to believe that something deadly is growing inside her.  These lumps are the internal made external, even if they aren't harmful--her local vet doesn't think so, but really doesn't know--so they are the focus of her human attendants' administrations.  It comforts them to help make something shrink when other things are so beyond reach.

At the podium, before her person reads, she tries to explain to the audience how Zoe came into her life, how this dog's cancer has changed the way she thinks about time, and how she expected to fall in love with her dog but not like this-- so deeply, completely, helplessly.  She says something about how when humans adopt dogs they risk their hearts because they know they are devoting themselves to a creature with a lifespan that is normally much shorter than theirs, and when that lifespan is limited even more by a disease . . .  Around the room, a few people, she will find out later, are thinking about their own pets and trying not to cry.

Zoe is seated in the back row of this crowd with her male person.  The two humans have wondered how Zoe will comport herself at this event.  This dog is fabulous at parties and weddings.  If people are speaking, delivering toasts, reciting vows, promising to love each other in sickness and in health, feeding each other cake, opening champagne, dancing to bad Eighties music, she is the perfect guest.  Retirement dinners are okay too.  She likes listening to embarrassing tidbits about the retiree's thorough e-mails, idiosyncratic office attire, and generous deeds at the copy machine.  But if it starts to feel too much like a classroom to her, she whines. 

Case in point: her person took her to the final day presentations at the Adirondack Semester in December and at first she thought it was a party and did what she does: quietly made the rounds, leaning into the people who clearly needed to snuggle.  But when the talks went on for just a tad too long, or the blue sky beaming into the window lit up the spot where she stood, she decided it was time to play in the snow.  Her sighs went stereo.  They could be heard in every corner.  She was like the kid with ADD who taps her foot and sighs extravagantly when her person delivers a lecture.  "Gee, I'm sorry.  Was I boring you?" said person is always tempted to say.

Zoe's person tells the assembled that it could go either way depending on what Zoe thinks is going on here: party or school.  This is, of course, a great challenge for a writer at a reading.  Well, it's both, one wants to say, if the purpose of literature really is, as Horace once told us, to delight and instruct: plaire et instruire.  Can you say the same thing about a blog?  Can a blog be held to the same standards?  We don't know.  This is the first time Zoe's person has read something that hasn't been published, let alone shared the posts from this corner in the oral tradition.  It's a little scary.  Like wearing something that belongs inside, outside.  Underwear, say.  Or maybe a nightshirt, like the one with down dog paw prints that her friend Rebecca gave her one year for her birthday.

When she hears her name, Zoe whines audibly.  All human heads turn to look at her again. What has she decided?  Does she want to stick around?

She does.

It doesn't hurt that all the people smell a little like pulled pork.

Although Zoe's person rehearsed and timed her reading, and was able to get through five posts in her allotted 20 minutes when she practiced in her room, when all is said and done, and done and said, and heads have turned to admire the dog in question again, and again, the writer in this corner only has time for three posts: Under Wild Apple Trees, Bark and Soul, and Which Way Do we Go? She wanted to end with Pink Twilight Sky, but hey, the clock has ticked.  There is never enough time. 

Zoe listens respectfully to the whole thing, never making another sound, and for a mad instant her person wonders if the two of them might be able to take this show on the road.  Maybe they could stop at other dog-loving literary venues.  Maybe other dogs could come too.

Then it's over, and the amazing, dog-loving Puerto Rican-American poet, Martin Espada, is coming to the podium.  He will rock and sway, sing and chant, performing poems about immigration, and childhood, and his childhood muses, and the staff at Windows on the World, many of them undocumented workers, who lost their lives in September 11th, and no one will be the same afterwards.  It's going to be one of the best poetry readings this dog's person has ever attended.  Just before he goes on he'll tell Zoe's person that he lost his dog to cancer last year, and he and his wife still haven't gotten over it. 

And Zoe will miss every minute of it. Someone will leave the room and Zoe will tug at the lead to follow.  She's had her fifteen minutes of fame and now it's time to stalk the other Chautauqau dogs out for evening strolls along the lakefront, rest beside the fountain, and lap up a drink at the Victorian hotel.

She's been inside among warm bodies for too long, and the outside beckons.

Kerry Grant, Natalia Singer, Zoe, Kristine Newman, and Ruby at Chautauqua, photo by Diana Hume George

P.S.  The dog's person would like to thank the kind and generous Sherra Babcock and Kristine Newman and Diana Hume George at the Chautauqua Writers Festival for opening all these doors to Zoe and making her feel so much at home.  Kristine even brought her dog over for a play date and swim to tire Zoe out before the reading, and gave her a toy.  These dog-lovers are beautiful humans and Zoe and her person are grateful to have them in the pack.

Chautauqua is supposed to be about the life of the mind, but for this dog, it's the life of the body.  And in particular, the head scratch . . .

Friday, June 22, 2012

Part II: Day 57: Summer with Zoe

The first official calender day of summer was on June 20, and on that day Zoe watched my friends and me do yoga on a boat launch deck at Lake Findley, New York.  She thought it looked like a lot of work for such a hot day, so she napped in the shade. 

Zoe is back to watching the house, barking at the wandering hound who just roamed past the house as I began this post, swimming in the Grass River, and enduring my endless photo shoots on the lawn.

In the past week Zoe has:

eaten barbeque at a picnic for writers at Chautauqua, where she was cooed over by poets and memoirists and novelists and fed bites of pie by an essayist and literary festival director;

attended a literary reading for which she was the subject;

watched a wedding procession accompanied by Scottish bagpipes at the Anthanaeum Hotel;

strolled through pre-season Chautauqua paths and bridges and grasses;

met six women who spent time with her person in elementary school, junior high, and high school in Cleveland, were well-acquainted with her predecessor, Ginger, the family collie/shepherd mix, and know where all the bones and bodies are buried, what books were read, which teacher had eyebrows like caterpillars, which ones were in the closet, which ones made sexist remarks, which ones made us want to learn, how weekends were spent and what music was playing--think Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young--and who kissed which boys and when, where, but not always why, definitely not always why;

dipped her paws into two Western New York lakes;

witnessed the dare-devilry of flying squirrels;

dined out at in the outdoor seating area of a restaurant, reliving her glory days in France when she was served water before her people got their drinks;

illegally entered a rest stop in the Finger Lakes because her person had to pee and thought they both should get ice cream and was not going to leave her in the car in 93-degree weather;

was discussed, petted and admired by many.

The stories and blog posts continue tomorrow . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Part II: Day 56: Watch the House!

When Zoe first came into my life I got a lot of my first lessons in dog parenthood from Doug, my sister's husband.  He could tell from looking at Zoe, even when she was only a little twelve-pound bundle of tail and paw, that she had a lot going on in her head and that she needed a job.

"When you leave the house, just say, 'Watch the house,'" he told me.  The implication was that when I left her to go to work, I wasn't leaving her for long, and I was entrusting her with an important job.  The implication was that I'd be back, that this was just a brief good-bye.  "Dogs have separation anxiety or they get destructive when they're left alone for two reasons.  Either it's because they don't get enough exercise, or it's because they don't feel needed.  Working dog breeds like Zoe need both."

Zoe's main job is to watch me, just as my main job is to watch her.  But she is possessive of our house, and when I'm not around for her to manage, this work distracts her, I hope, and gives her a sense of purpose. 

We never asked for a watch dog, never felt the need to scare people away from the house, but we like that Zoe feels useful.  She sits at her post outside the door and supervises the construction project going on there as men work on our house.  She rests under the deck when she needs a nap or it gets too hot, then bolts out like a shot when another dog saunters past her domain without her prior authorization.  She alerts us to the presence of groundhogs, porcupines, and foolhardy cats.  We know when the UPS guy arrives or a friend or the pizza guy because she is always on the job.

So now I have to be away from her for three whole nights.  The kind people running the Chautauqua Writing Festival were willing to break the rules and let Zoe be there with me the entire time, so at first my husband and I thought we would attend the conference as a trio.  But I am going to be working all day until bedtime, and we decided it would be better for her if she sticks to her routines at home for a few days longer.  She and my husband will arrive on Saturday.

I'm planning to drive away this morning while she's on the gentlemen's walk because it's so hard and painful to say good-bye, even for only three and a half days.  But if I'm still there, packing, I'll say, "Watch the house!  I'll see you soon.  Watch the house!"

Zoe says, I don't remember authorizing this random person and dog to shuffle past our domain

I look forward to meeting you in this corner again soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Part II: Day 55: Beauty and the Beasts

The gardener has summoned me: it's peony time.  We have talked about my taking a tour of her sumptuous gardens for weeks, but this visit cannot be postponed.  Nature waits for no one.  And these peonies . . . You will see yourselves, gentle readers, but my camera (well, the human being behind this camera) cannot do them justice.

I bring Zoe to save time--the woods near campus where I'm taking her on today's walk are halfway to the gardener's house--but I realize it's a mistake as soon as I pull up to the wrong house and call my friend to get her house number.  Zoe is whining.  She's whining as she does when I've altered her routines and she's afraid she'll be left in a ditch on the road, or in a lab where people in white coats will perform experiments on her--she's whining in the way she does when any of us leaves the house without her permission.

I can see this patch of enchantment before I see my friend standing outside waiting for us.  We pull up and I'm so blown away that I can barely speak.  How many words are there in the English language to say, "wow, beautiful, wow, that's gorgeous, wow, these plants are happy here, wow, look at that color!"  I'm always humbled by the limitations within the medium I've chosen for making my own kind of beauty.  Words can paint pictures but the things themselves--these radiant flowers--point to nothing beyond themselves and need no signifiers: they are just busy being themselves, because that's their job.

My friend thinks the gardening bug came to her through a great-grandmother, but she and her sister only developed it in their middle years.  What is perhaps just as beautiful as the hot pink peonies, red peonies, pale pink peonies, and while we're at it, the irises and bleeding hearts still in fine form (my friend thinks that the house she shares with her musician man-friend is just higher enough in altitude to delay the demise of our favorite May flowers)--is the smile on my friend's face.  These lovely gardens surround the house, one after the other, and lazy me can't help but think with horror of all the hard physical work and time that goes into them, hours and hours of it every day, but the contentment and satisfaction this labor gives my friend that she carries in her arms and shoulders is very moving to behold.  Being beauty's architect is soulful work.  It takes a lot from the body, and from the earth (although speaking of earth, her mulch from the top-secret location is one of the secrets of her success) but it gives back with gusto.

a neighbor's cows trim their fields beyond the gardens
Zoe runs around the house as I meet each patch of flowers and learn the story behind each one.  This one was moved here because the sun was better.  That one didn't like that spot but thrived here.  This one is new.  This one volunteered and arrived unexpectedly like a stray cat.

There are many cats that have "volunteered" in these parts as well.  I count four in the stories my friend tells me, but I may have missed one.  Zoe whines to go inside and meet one, and we oblige her.  I have to say that in all my travels, I have never seen a more pronounced display of Cat with Hackles Rising than in the moment Zoe runs into the living room.  There is a beauty to this tableau as well: Curious black dog barking at Gray Cat.  Gray Cat Saying Back Off, Beast.

Zoe cries to be inside near the cat but when we go outside, she cries to come back out.  She cries to go in again when she spies the gray cat through the window and thinks that meaningful contact will now occur.  We can tune it out, sort of, until we arrive at a moment that my friend knows will appeal to me in a Secret Garden kind of way.  She tells me how her prize peonies have come to her courtesy of the hidden peony patch her 90-year-old neighbor told her she could transplant on one of the days when he remembered her name.  When we cross the road so she can show me the mother load--it's just a few yards across the way--Zoe's cries through the window are so piercing that if an animal-lover heard her they would think Zoe was being abused.

"Next time, this dog is not coming with me," I tell my friend.

But my friend is very patient.  She says that she understands that Zoe is a member of our family, just as the cats are for hers.  And one of the most deep and satisfying relationships she has in her life is with her horse.  "There's so much to see when you look into a horse's eyes," she says.

She's still upset by something terrible she witnessed earlier today.  She was at Agway and a boy ran in, distressed because his beagle had jumped from the car when his stepdad parked in the lot, and now the dog was running around out there.  When the stepfather found the beagle, he beat her.  He beat her again when she was inside the car.  We are sitting on the front porch of the house as she tells me this, admiring the beauty of the gardens, the bouquet of peonies she has picked for me, and this story has us both on the verge of tears.

"Some people shouldn't be allowed to have pets.  Or kids.  Or any living being under their command," we both say in our own way.

We talk about the intelligence of animals and how people still have a long way to go to understand the range of talents and ways of knowing and sensitivity the creatures we both love possess.  My friend volunteers at the local stables as part of a group that leads children with cerebral palsy around on the horses.  The more gentle, patient horses are picked to do the honors.  They are the ones who understand what this encounter is all about.  Her horse is one of them.  Her horse understands that this is not going to be a vigorous ride, and that the rider is not going to be alpha and predictably dominant, but is not necessarily afraid either.  Her horse understands that what happens in these "mixers" is just a sweet inter-species exchange that helps the riders find joy in their physicality, in the moment, in encounters with other sentient beings.  "My horse just kind of gets it," she says.  "And really likes it."

this stuff is like gold
But not all of our animal lovefest is about their high emotional IQs and spirituality.  Zoe needs grooming.  I need to wash her butt and now and then I get a whiff.  I mention this to my friend, but she has seen it all.  Our tales about animals move on to the grotesque.  A white cat runs off after word gets out that a dog is on the premises.  When my friend rescued her, this kitten had severe frostbite.  My friend took the kitty to the vet when she thought its ears and tail smelled bad.  The vet just tugged on the ears and they  . . . fell right off!  He told her that the dead part of her tail would fall off too, in its own time.  One morning my friend saw her cat in the kitchen playing with something: her own amputated tail.  The cat was fine with this new development.  She hears and navigates perfectly--enough so to fly out of town when a dog comes knocking.

Meanwhile, my dog eats all the cats' food before I can stop her, then stares provocatively inside the screen door to Gray Hat with Hackles.  In an earlier post I gave the various animal characters lines from action films.  Now I imagine that white cat saying to Zoe, before it headed to a distant pasture, "Want a piece of me?"

It's time to go home for dinner.  I carry those gorgeous hot pink peonies in my lap all the way back in the car, careful not to squash an iota of petal.  And then I find a place of honor for the vase in our kitchen.

How can I begin to describe the magic of this peony?


Feline hackles, as art form.  Feline hackles as performance piece.  Feline hackles as architecture.

The cat is looking at her from the other side, saying "Ha!"

I carried them home on my lap and now they are in the kitchen
To see more photos of these peonies, taken by the gardener herself, go here.

Namaste, gentle readers.  Even if you don't have a green thumb like my friend does, I hope that you have at least one person close to you who is an architect of beauty, and you can schedule a visit soon.