We used to have a flock of turkey vultures who nested a couple houses down from us. They would send their young to flight camp, and you'd see them running drills above our yard, doing laps, crazy eights, letting an air current carry them up before they practiced the dive-bomb. Zoe, as a puppy, would see them up there and look at me, her face a grimace of doggy worry. "Can those big birds get me?" she wanted to know. "No way will I let them get you," I always told her, but until she weighed about thirty pounds or so, too heavy for a raptor's talons, I would take her in the house when they got close.
My neighbor Betsy thinks the vultures now have moved a few blocks over, to Cleveland Street. Her friend has woods behind his house that the big birds prefer to our block. Cleveland: the name also of the town I grew up in. At the Chautauqua Writers Festival a lot of the writers attending were from Cleveland. One woman asked me to sign my memoir, and she asked if it was true, the sad epiphany I come to in an end chapter, that Cleveland holds too much pain and sorrow for me and I'll never go back. I told her that as soon as I left the conference I'd be getting together with the girls I grew up with in Cleveland, for a reunion we call Camp Baker, and that I would have been heading to the city itself as well for my third trip there in three years but I couldn't prolong the vacation because Zoe wasn't feeling her best.
Trouble flies by our houses like a big black bird. If you peer into those glistening obsidian wings you can always see the reflection of your own face. Best not to look too closely.
There's a lot of sickness suffering and death around us these days.
A close friend, a breast cancer survivor, has, since I began writing this blog, undergone surgery and radiation to remove a small tumor from her brain, and she's now contemplating chemo as the cancer claims a toehold in her lungs. But she meditates for an hour each morning, tends to her garden, and finds ways to know peace. She is, in fact, a very steady, calming presence.
A colleague known for her fierceness and fearlessness and tough mama love died of brain cancer last week. I still can't quite believe that she's gone. I didn't know her well, but I will remember her as a fiery spirit: the sun in the solar system of her family and circle of friends.
Wednesday night a close friend's mother-in-law ended up in the ICU when her heart stopped beating. The family is reeling while they wait to see if she'll pull through.
We all want to draw some kind of wisdom from these illnesses and losses and shocks but when trouble like this looms large, flapping its big dark wings at us, language usually fails us. Fails me, anyway. For me, it's best to be soft and tender around grief. This morning I'm looking around here and I see that my plants need watering. I'll do that in a minute. Add some walnuts and goat cheese feta to the beet salad I made last night. Put the clothes in the dryer. Find some Miracle-gro for the pansies and snapdragons, which are looking more dessicated by the minute. Pet the dog.
Pet the dog! Honestly, when I went to bed Monday night I did not think she would live to share another Sunday morning with me. And here she is, watching the river, turning now and then to gaze at me. At acupuncture yesterday Amy Thompson said that Zoe's pulses were twice as strong as they were on Tuesday. Last night Danielle told me she thought Zoe seemed like her old self, and even her coat was shinier than it was when the week began.
But I know this is just a reprieve. Zoe pants harder now.
Today, on this warm but cloudy Sunday morning, there are so many things I'm grateful for. I'm glad, for one, that an insistent wind showed up on Friday and Saturday when the temperature rose. When we began doggy hospice week it was cool and rainy, Zoe's kind of summer weather, and when I heard that it was going to hit 86 degrees on Friday, my heart sank. I thought, my dog will be doubly miserable. Most days this week, we watched the wind. It rocked the willow tree, sent flower petals adrift as at a wedding, and it cooled us down when we sat in the grass.
I'm grateful for my friend Pam who told me not to try to do anything ambitious right now. To just sit with Zoe and breathe. Normally at this point in a project I would be working around the clock. The novel will be my solace in grief. Discipline and hard work are not difficult for me to manufacture. What's always come hardest to me--and what my zen-master with a tail has taught me--is to simply be present. To sit and be still. To notice the small things happening around me, like the robin that has claimed a spot in the grass near the hammock.
Zoe is moving around up here on the deck, looking for a spot to get comfortable. She needs something from me, and I wouldn't be here to help her if I was hidden away in my corner with my pile of books.
Yesterday our neighbor, Betsy, was out in her yard and Zoe barked hello. In my normal working-around-the-clock point of a project, I would have seen my neighbor and only waved. Instead I invited her to come up the balcony for a cup of tea. She's leaving soon for a trip to see her family. She loves Zoe and would not have had the chance to say good-bye to her.
On Friday when the local Reiki master watched Zoe's gaze drift to our neighbor's yard and then the river, she thought at first that Zoe was seeing entities that we couldn't see, like doggy ghosts. I said, "Well, there was a little dog Zoe used to play with. A cute Chihuahua who who was hit by a car when Zoe was still a young dog." I told Betsy that story, and she talked about how much she had loved that cute little dog. We shared a moment of missing him and I could picture him again, that cute little brown pup half the size of Zoe's head jumping on her and asking to be chased.
And we talked for a long time about the power of this week's wind. Zoe's and my solace this week was not such a great friend to Betsy. She had decided to de-clutter her house and she'd piled up some things of her daughter's that she wants her to take to her own home, or chuck. And then she took out archives from her own life: the photograph in the newspaper in North Carolina announcing her wedding engagement. The clipping of the photo from the wedding itself. She even had a clipping from O: The Oprah Magazine of something I wrote and published in 2001 about being a stepmother. She remembered my older stepson from a school group she led. At any rate, after she'd gathered up her life-in-clippings, and took out her daughter's box of mementos, she left to go on an errand, and when she came back she found out that all of these documents from her life had scattered to the wind. She found the engagement photo in her neighbor's shrub. She patrolled the nearby yards and salvaged what she could find. And then she had a good long laugh at herself. This is as an object lesson, she thought, but she wasn't sure what the lesson was, exactly.
My friend whose mother-in-law is gravely ill--as is her dad, and maybe her sister too--found a minute to read my blog this week. She's like that: no matter how hard things are in her life, she thinks of others. She wrote me an e-mail to say that she finds it moving to watch me try, with Zoe, both to hang on for dear life, and to let go.
I'm wondering if that's how we're supposed to live all the time. To hang on by loving fiercely, and not holding anything back. And to be ready at any moment to let everything go.
Pema Chodron talks about living in uncertainty. She says it's like being at sea on a raft, and then the raft disappears. The local Reiki master who has now worked on Zoe twice visualized Zoe's voyage from the earth as a ride on a raft down the swift-moving Grass river, the river she gazes at for most of every day.
Above us, the clouds are clumped into a quilt that says nothing, that makes no particular shape I can read things into as I'm often inclined to do, but is doing its job by keeping us cooler than we would be otherwise. Zoe is panting anyway, and I need to check her out to see if something new is wrong, or if this is just her new normal. Love binds us now, as we breathe together, and will bind us still when she's gone. I feel the sun and wind and look above at the clouds and beside me, to this dog I love so much, and I feel so thankful to be part of all of this. All of it. Even the things that scare me, the things that I continue to hope will skip the house and fly by on big wings toward the clouds.