Monthly Archives: January 2019

Art & Grief: Finding the Perfection in the Imperfect

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What is that odd-looking, white object in the picture? What does it have to do with grief or art? What have grief and art to do with each other and why am I writing (struggling to write) this at this moment?

That object is a biscornu which, if I recall correctly, is French for “quirky.” These objects at this size are mostly used as pin cushions and the one in my photo is indeed a pincushion made using traditional Norwegian Hardanger embroidery techniques (as opposed to modern techniques).

As to what it has to do with art and grief:

A few months ago, I struggled with my writing process and wrote about it here. You can see in some truly helpful comments that it was suggested that I exercise my creative mind through other art forms. I thought this an excellent idea although I am the furthest thing from creative in any other way other than writing. I can’t draw a straight line, I failed miserably at the various doodle crafts, and I have long since given away my sculpting supplies because I would have to invest in learning how to do it rather than winging it. I do, however, love to do Hardanger embroidery. I thought I could perhaps design my own.

I can’t. So, I gave up.

2018 waned and my writing continued to stutter like a lawn mower in overgrown St. Augustine. The holidays arrived along with the U.S. government furlough including much time for my husband and I to spend together. I decided to try “new to me” traditional Hardanger as a creative endeavor and to make a Christmas gift for someone, the above biscornu.

Through all of this, the Big Blind Dog was lumbering through his days and nights, taking his medications dutifully, eating heartily, begging for scraps always, peeing the Niagara (diuretics), and growing that snore-and-sniffle inducing lump on his cheek without complaint. He and I sat on our couch together, tv on and spewing the horrors of Investigation Discovery or tv off and only the Gulf waves in our heads. Occasionally my husband left his cave, poured a soda, gave the old gray snoot a pat and a biscuit, gave me a kiss, and wandered back into his hideaway.

I stitched.

I stitched and the dog snored and life was sweet and warm. I finished the biscornu and in all those stitches and waves and snoring came words for the page and these pleasant, if bittersweet, blog entries here and here. Writing was a thing again.

Then I looked at the biscornu and really saw it. I’d failed. While it was pretty, it was wrong. Something I’d planned from the beginning that could not be undone was a major flaw within it. Others couldn’t really see the flaw but I knew it was there. It ate at me.

Finally, rather than wrap it with other Christmas gifts, I decided I would keep it. Better to make a better gift for that person later—something not so obviously flawed, even if only to my eyes. I left it on my desk with a mix of sadness and disgust.

We packed up and went to see family out of town and had a perfectly nice visit.

And on the morning we were to return home, we awoke in our usual hotel room and our beautiful, sweet, old Big Dog with his one great flaw, his useless eyes, had left us.

Somewhere in his dreams, he decided he’d had enough of being lifted and guided and medicated and diapered. Somewhere in his sleep he’d decided those last pets from family, the last sniffs of our granddog, the last bites of Woody’s barbeque beef, and his favorite dog biscuits were a good note to end on.

So it goes.

Twelve and a half of his thirteen years.

And a five-hour drive of tears and emptiness and silence.

And furtive momentary pats to the still form in the back seat as if he would miraculously come back to us.

When we arrived home that evening and I walked into our office, there was the biscornu, that silly, imperfect thing, and I realized why the Universe had me keep it. Nothing at all to do with its imperfection—an imperfection I no longer see—and everything to do with the fact that it is a symbol of those long luxurious days next to him, his paws pressed against me. Of those last few days when he’d taken to lying with his head on my leg as he had when he was younger, as if he was trying to tell me goodbye. I wondered then, but had chosen not to be certain.

I am grateful for that time.

I am grateful for that quirky object I kept that had a major flaw, like the flaw of the Big Dog’s blindness. Flaws that are visible but meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Now, the biscornu is perfect in that it reminds me of him. He was perfect in his love.

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Our Beautiful Yao Ming. Big Dog. Boo Boo. Young and happy.

The Joy Between Naps: facing mortality.

When you walk beside someone daily, you don’t always see the subtle changes in their bodies and faces as they age. Perhaps, now and then, you take a step back and look critically and realize they’ve put on ten pounds or they’ve developed lines around their eyes or their hands are age-spotted. But you don’t typically pay attention to these details day to day when you love someone. It’s a human trait, this blissful blindness to the truth about aging. We are all young in the Garden forever—until we aren’t.

It’s no different with our pets; we might see them slowing down, sleeping a little more, playing a little less if we really stopped and thought about it. But most of the time we still see the young dog we’ve seen since we got it past the “destroy everything in the house” stage or the playful cat we have cuddled since we convinced the rescue kitten that humans weren’t all bad.

I have watched our Big Dog (BD) age and been aware of the little things: the scars from this scrape or that, the increasing number of skin tags, the thinning fur. His muzzle has been graying since he was five. He has lost muscle mass both due to age and due to decreased mobility caused by his heart condition, but I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought. Then some months ago as we drove down the interstate and the old boy slept soundly in the back seat, my husband said, “He’s looking old.”

I hadn’t noticed up to that point. More accurately, I had chosen not to notice.

I take pictures of Big Dog several times a week, desperately trying to capture him in these waning months, and I had not registered any significant difference in appearance in the BD of that day versus the BD of pre-heart disease. Slower, yes. More confused, definitely. But “looking old”? No. He was still my puppy. He would always be my puppy—the boy we brought home at nine months, healthy, happy, playful.

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Almost two and “helping” Daddy plant a new flower bed. (Spring 2007)

A few days later, I screwed up the courage to look at him with the eyes not of a person in love but a person who admits that pet dogs don’t usually outlive fifty-four-year-old owners.

I saw the sunken temporal area above his eyes, the crown of his skull turned pointed and prominent, the spreading gray, (endearingly, even on his hindquarters). There is less and less muscle on tired old bones. His coat has become rough and wool-like in spots rather than the smooth, soft fur that it once was. I also found a lump on his left cheek (we later learned this is a tumor that can’t be removed and continues to grow into his neck and ear).

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Big Dog at just under thirteen years old. (Summer 2018)

What I didn’t see that is common in large old dogs were callouses on elbows or knees. The boy has had a pretty cushy life. Or should I say, “cushiony”?  He’s always had at least one good bed wherever we lived, yet usually sleeps on the couch. We have loved and spoiled and medically cared for our dog with as much compassion (and dollars) as we would any child. Some might argue, more so.

About thirteen months ago we almost lost Big Dog to congestive heart failure. The kinds of heart medicines that have been developed by researchers (like those I used to work with developing medicine for humans) saved him and have kept him not only alive but happy. Then as now, we don’t know how much time we have with him.

This time with loved ones is always an unknown and this year that has been made excrutiatingly clear to me with the death of a beloved human sister. Now, perhaps because that loss remains so raw in my heart, I’ve begun to see, every day, these incremental changes in Big Dog as he walks into furniture, stares at walls for long moments as if they contain answers, and follows our voices in the wrong direction.

He is not ready to leave yet. He bounces and woofs when he wants a treat and gets excited about his nightly apple bites from Daddy. He still enjoys exploring the edges of the dunes and the street in front of our house and he delights in sunbathing on the deck on a warm day. There is still joy between long naps.

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I am happy to see him enjoying such seemingly small things without the anticipation of his own mortality.

I am sad for us and our keen awareness of it.

The fruit of the tree of knowledge, were I a believer in such a thing, surely held that we are all finite creatures and our “downfall” was that we would forever struggle against that limitation, unlike our pets that simply love and live.

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Still beautiful to us, Old Man. We love you.