No Such Thing As Just a Dog… (8 years as Tillie’s mom)

Baby Tillie

Tillie turns eight today.  Over the last six weeks , we’ve gone through a health scare with Tillie. It began with a painful sore on her bottom that was not healing, despite two courses of antibiotics. The third trip to the vet revealed a growth just inside her bottom. Her vet suspected a tumour and refered us to a specialist in Cork.  Once the referral was made, all we could do was sit and wait.

I’m no better than Tillie at sitting and waiting. The vet had already warned us that colon cancer in dogs carries a pretty grim outcome. My internet searches confirmed this. Most dogs will die within three months of diagnosis, even with surgery and treatment. And those three months are excruciatingly risky and painful for the dog. Large dogs and dogs between the ages of seven and nine make up the majority of those that develop colon cancer. Tillie was just shy of eight. She’s a big girl at thirty-three kilograms. She ticked all the worst boxes. My sweet girl.

My Furry Buddah

Now I am generally a glass-half-empty type of person. Hope terrifies me because, historically, dashed hopes have knocked me hard. Let’s just say, I have issues. Looking at Tillie and thinking to myself ‘This could be our last week together, our last month, three months’ whatever the case — ‘our last time‘ felt tangible and near, inevitable, unavoidable and unbearable. I could not look at her in the present moment without simultaneously seeing her vanish. Anticipatory Grief. I know it well and fall down that rabbit hole so effortlessly, with such familiarity. It’s like my true home. I had to consciously pull my head out of my pre-grieving ass and be present with the living, breathing, loved and lovable, tail-wagging dog standing in front of me, wanting attention, love, contact, and my presence. Tillie was giving me a masterclass in living in the here and now. She deserved and deserves nothing less.

The next week as we waited for her appointment in Cork I probably watched Tillie closer that ever before — I mean really watched her. It was obvious that her bottom was uncomfortable, but her appetite was as good as ever, her eyes were bright and she was as happy, playful and energetic on our walks as ever before. Hope was nudging at me. I’d cuddle her, breathing in her doggy smell and whisper ‘stay with me’ into her fur.  But driving to her appointment apprehension had my stomach tied in knots. I couldn’t manage a conversation with my partner at all — my head was full of Tillie.

The specialist looked her over thoroughly. He commented on how well her colour, coat and skin looked. He told us her heart sounded very strong. More hope seeped in. Questions about her history, her general health through the years and her current problems were asked and answered. He told us we could collect her later that day and he’d phone us with her lab results in about a week.

At this point Tillie was on her third course of antibiotics and pain relief. She had to wear a donut collar to keep her from licking the wound, but she was coping really well. She seemed her usual happy, hungry self. My own mood began to shift as well. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I felt very hopeful. I started allowing myself to imagine that she’d be fine and we’d have much more time together. A week later my hopes were confirmed. She doesn’t have cancer, just a nasty infection that will take a bit more time to heal.

A few weeks later and today we celebrate Tillie’s birthday. She started her sixth course of antibiotics today, but the wound is healing nicely. We’ve had atrocious weather all week, so we haven’t had much outdoor adventure time, but Spring will happen and our adventures will begin again. This is our eighth year together. This episode with her illness taught me so much about myself, about my relationship with Tillie and my history and relationship with loss and grief. It’s also taught me about gratitude, love and commitment. Tillie came into my life at a time of enormous loss. She is the baby of my grieving widowhood. She was the new light shining in a dark moment in time. She continued by my side through additional losses — my sister, my father, my two older dogs — the dogs of my marriage and that other life that now seems centuries away from where I am today. Through all of that, Tillie has had that uncanny ability to redirect my attention to the now. The drumming of her tail, the swagger in her gait, her gentle, sleeping snore restore me again and again to the present moment. She is a gift that I very likely do not deserve, but am lucky enough to have anyway. I love her and I’m so grateful that I have more time to continue loving her and making her tail wag. 

Six

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.  

William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act 4, Scene 5

 

Six years.

Eoin O’Nuanain. !Presente!

eoin and ciaran

Eoin (right) with his brother, Ciaran. In Derry, 2006

 

Six months.

Leslie Marie Jones. !Presente!

10362798_10152158215537734_4093155703758732041_o

Leslie (left) with my son, Alex. In Austin,  2008

The Thing is

“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”

Ellen Bass, from ‘Mules of Love: Poems’ 2002

Thank you for this, Professor J.

Writing the middle aged body

no makeup

“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”

— Helene Cixous, ‘Laugh of the Medusa’

When my sister died at the age of fifty-three — too young, too unexpected — my body marked my grief.  I visibly aged, with lines deepening upon my forehead, changes to the texture of my skin, and a ten pound weight gain that sent me into a ‘vanity panic’, the likes of which I had not experienced in years.  I want to say I’m over that now, but I’m not.  I do try to work through it; to change my way of thinking about my body as something beyond a visible surface or structure.  I try to imagine it as something more fluid that melds with, and is part of all of me — my thoughts, intellect, temperament, tastes and such forth — without specific lines of demarcation.  My body-as-me is in mourning.  The aching in my bones, the lump in my throat, the anxiety — even the clumsiness — are the physical manifestations of my grief.  All that I experience, whether it be grief, pleasure, fear or a sudden flash of brilliance, my body experiences.  Why on earth would I castigate this part of myself for something as natural and reasonable as aging and weight gain?

We (women) are judged.  We feel judged.  In turn, we judge ourselves and others. That is the message my sister shared, again and again, through countless telephone calls of self-denigration, always directing the conversation to the weight her body carried.  Always making apologies for the appearance of accumulated fat, as if the space she took up in the universe presented a repellent offence to the imagined order of the world’s landscape.  Leslie went far beyond feeling ‘dissatisfied’ with her body; she loathed it.  Adjectives Leslie used when describing her body:

Disgusting

Flabby

Huge

Enormous

In her rants (for they were rants) she chided herself for having ‘let herself go’.  She blamed her boredom, her isolation, the lack of support from the people in her life.  She talked of her hurt feelings, in particular the pain inflicted by our father’s scathing comments and judgement, and the pressures (all our lives) to conform to his (and society’s) idealized version of what a woman should look like.  She was right about all of it — the pressures, the boredom –all that was real.  She was wrong about herself though.  By medical standards Leslie carried too much weight.  That, however, did not make her ‘disgusting’, ‘enormous’ ‘ugly’ or whatever negative adjectives she used to describe her physical appearance.  Leslie’s body, in all its variations of shape and size throughout the years, was Leslie. Leslie was loved.  I loved her.  Many people loved Leslie.  And Leslie was beautiful.  Always.  I wish Leslie had lived long enough to accept herself and her beauty.  I wish she were still here to love herself fully as herself.

Leslie was wrong about herself, but she couldn’t avoid it.  Most of the women I know worry and complain about their bodies and their appearance.  The ideals and expectations of what women’s bodies represent, what they mean, how and for what purposes they are valued, detach and alienate women from their bodies and condition us to scrutinize our own and other women’s bodies in the service of an impossible and thoroughly arbitrary standard.  If, for instance, the current ideal of female beauty is a genetically blessed, slender, perfectly proportioned seventeen-year-old, possessing  the valued skin tones and facial features of the day, then even the rare few who meet that standard are already doomed to failure, regardless of their efforts to maintain it.  Bodies change, and to some degree, so do standards.  At any given time, conventionally beautiful women are like billionaires (only with less long-term security).  Sure, they exist; but not as a statistically significant representation of human bodies.  So why buy into such a ludicrously impossible standard that wrenches us away from appreciating and nurturing the bodies that we have and are?

So in the spirit of Cixous, (and no doubt to the horror of Leslie in heaven), I (im)modestly present my presently middle-aged body.  Some of its original parts are missing — a couple of tonsils, a molar, a kidney — but it seems reasonably intact.  I am blessed with strong and healthy limbs that function efficiently, if not always gracefully.  My immune system serves me well, and though as I’ve aged, I find myself less tolerant of wheat and dairy products, I have a healthy appetite and no significant digestive complaints.  There is nothing wrong with my body, yet if I stand before a full length mirror (clothed or otherwise) in less than thirty seconds my eyes will start clocking flaws.  Hereditary flaws, age flaws, bruises, bulges, bumps and my much maligned stretch marks.

new stretchmarks

And here’s the thing: It is not so much having these particularities on and of my body, but, rather, that my eyes register them and my brain interprets them as ‘flaws’.  In that instant I dupe myself into validating the fabrication of a standard to which my ‘flaws’ are measured; a standard that annuls all bodies of their particularity.  Hogwash!  If I faithfully wrote my middle-aged body, its story would have little to do with the inertia of standardized beauty, its flaws instead marking segues and ruptures in its (my) half-century’s journey in this life.

A scar on my upper lip marks my first encounter with stitches, and evokes the memory of playing ‘Batman’ with Leslie, tearing through the living room in the first house I remember living in, and splitting my lip on the coffee table.  It also reminds me of my father telling the story, again and again, of watching the emergency room doctor stitching me up, and how my eyes crossed as I tried to watch the process.  I love the scar because it is the conduit to a memory I treasure.  So too, the freckles on my shoulders — the result of a second degree sunburn acquired on a hiking trip with my father, sister and my sons.  My flesh is a travelogue of mundane scars marking clumsy accidents and a surgical one that tells of surviving cancer.  These stretch marks that I’ve vainly tried for so long to hide, reduce and wish away, merely record that  my belly had once stretched to full capacity to accommodate my first son.  Laugh lines, worry lines, loosened flesh — the body of evidence that I have lived, loved, lost, learned and experienced.  My flesh never abandoned or betrayed me.  It has faithfully transcribed my fifty-two years with an accuracy that words cannot.  Indeed without this body I could not write or speak any words at all.  I simply would not be.

So, while I wont be stripping naked and charging down the High Street to proclaim and celebrate the wonder and beauty of my body — I will give it a ‘thumbs up’ for sticking by me and being of me.  And, finally, in honour of Leslie, who left too soon to make peace with her own body, I endeavor to retrain my eyes to register stories instead of flaws in all bodies, not just my own.

The dark haired poet

writer
She’s been writing all morning.  She has a story niggling at the back of her curly head . . . Something about knee caps and shards of broken glass . . . a re-imagining of another (true, sad, painful, personal) story she heard once before.  A story told, in hushed confidence, by someone she dearly loved and sorely misses.  And though her heavy paw has hovered above the keyboard since she rose this morning, she cannot compose that first sentence.

She experiments with different styles; stream of consciousness, prose, iambic pentameter, free-verse … she tries a haiku.  Delete, delete, delete them all.  She grunts and closes her eyes for a minute.  She runs downstairs for her kitty-cat egg timer.  She sets it for five minutes and free-writes.  Here is what she comes up with:

I’madogwhocan’tsit still.  There’s a cat onmywindowsill.  Mommytookasleeping pill. Here is the page that I must fill.   Look! I found the space bar! I should be out chasing a car.  Broken glass Broken glass.  The ginger cat fell on his ass.  Broken glass.  Knee caps. Stop gaps.  Thin skin.  Embedded shards.  Permanent scars.  Symbols.  The dance of veils as  shards emerge through the years each representing a time and place locked away in her head.  It’s out. It’s examined.  It’s remembered, re-membered, removed and moved to that other place.  each time another shard, another moment.  a betrayal an argument a loss a replacement and she grows and grows and grows.  Like a puppy.  a Brown puppy. I was a brown puppy.  I’m getting off track. what about the glass?  the knee cap?  How did it happen. can women fly?  time does not.  How many minutes left.  Done.

She yawns and shakes out her curls.  The dark haired poet looks over what she’s written.  Perhaps a short nap, a ride in the car, a romp in the park, a poop on the grass will bring the story closer.  With her fat paw-pad, she presses ‘save’, then shuts down the computer.  She completes three circles at the foot of the bed and lies down.  Shiny shards of broken glass dancing inside her curly, dreaming head.

I have no photos of Leslie…

I cannot recall a time she did not torment me.  When we were children she tortured me; tore the heads from my dolls, took sides against me with our playmates, tattled on me and hit me so hard, to this day, I believe I saw tiny birds flying around my head, like the ones in cartoons.  Once she even knocked the wind out of me.  It was terrifying.

My sister was a weightlifting, bare knuckle punching, tomboy and I was a baby doll clutching priss.  But there are always so many stories behind stories.  Leslie is no stock character.  She suffered from an almost crippling guilty conscience and confessed to all her imagined sins, so earnestly and tearfully… how could I not want to lift here back up — tell her she was normal, that she was clean, that she was a good girl; even if she did torment me.

The way I see it, despite her propensity for bullying me, all her life Leslie strove to be a good girl.  Good girls are clean, thin, straight and traditional. They are a curious mix of conservative in theory, yet apolitical in practice.  Good girls don’t make waves, and for all that sublimation and self-effacement, they are rewarded with approval, acceptance, security and love.  But it didn’t work that way. Instead she just struggled. She struggled through and out of a violent marriage, through and out of a terrible addiction to amphetamines (all in a quest for slimness..), and more recently, through isolation, agoraphobia, depression and her old friend, guilt, who’s always nearby to kick the living shit out of her over her past drug use, her first marriage, her childhood, and the everyday navigational problems of modern life.  Good girls have it hard.

We are middle aged women with years and an ocean separating us.  We talk on the phone, mutually disapproving of each other, nitpicking, arguing, but in the course of the same conversation, we turn to jokes, reminiscences, and laugh til our sides hurt. We always say ‘I love you’ before we hang up.  We fall out, we come back, fall out again and the cycle continues on and on, like it has for decades.  She’s my sister.  I love her and she loves me.

Just over two weeks ago Leslie contracted the H1N1 flu virus.  That virus rampaged through her body like Conquistadors on crack. Within days she was giddy with fever, as the infection seized her lungs and morphed into viral pneumonia.  January 24th was the last time Leslie was conscious.  That night they moved her to the intensive care unit, where, for two weeks, she has been heavily sedated, on a ventilator, a catheter, an IV drip, a feeding tube and assorted other devices inside and upon her body.  I cannot see her.  I can only imagine her, still as a stone under white sheets, with the sounds of blips and beeps and the in and out pumping of the vent.  I can only imagine the terror in her eyes, on those occasions, when the bliss of sedation weakens, and just for a moment, she swims up from wherever that place is that the Leslie in Leslie is currently deferred.  And in that moment, I wish so badly that I could be there to hold her hand and tell her it’ll be ok, I love her, and she’s a good girl.

I am four thousand miles, give or take, away from my sister.  Lack of money, lack of a dog sitter, a cat sitter and all that ordinary everyday shit of living, keeps me tethered here in Ireland, as she lies tethered to tubes and gadgets in Nebraska.  The distance is painful.  This evening I realized that I have no photographs of Leslie, even though I saw her only two years ago, at a time when it was our father lying in ICU.  She would not allow me to photograph her.  She is self conscious about her weight and does not want to see it duplicated in a digital image.  I do not know if having a photo would make the worry and sense of helplessness I feel tonight any better. Probably not.

She and her husband had planned to visit me here in March.  The last time we spoke on the phone she told me how she had been looking up places of interest in Wexford.  We talked about all the places she wanted to see, about the pubs, the seafood … perhaps a day trip into Dublin.  I would have taken her picture.