Excerpt from a work-in-progress on this National Mutt day for my most beautiful mutt.
I hear, tonight, no distant thud-drone of a beach goer’s car
No shore break. No train.
Seagulls sleep silent in the spring cool.
Your breathing, ended forever, opens a gulf of aching peace.
I want my disturbed sleep back—my dreams punctuated with mumbling monsters that sounded oddly like wet, canine snores. I miss 4 a.m. earthquakes as you threw yourself against the bed to wake me for urgent backyard trips. I want to trip over the dark hulk of you lying curled on the floor next to my bed, your musk gathering on my heaped winter clothes.
It’s a fact that only you can truly fill this dearth of dog.
Your grumbling groans. Your dreamy sighs. Your shifts and turns and the tick
shish tick shish of claws on tired old limbs as you shuffled to your bowl in
the early morning dark for a sloppy drink from crockery.
It’s a fact that though there will be another furred friend, loved, adored even—you are a piece of my soul like no other. There is no Big-Dog shaped peg left in this universe. You were the one and only. I waltz over a shadow in the dark—your pillow, so dense with you—and moments later return and spin, sink into my covers, embrace the silence—and sleep.
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 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.
My dad, my favorite amateur (as in, non-professional) grammarian, died last week at the age of eighty-six. Dad could, in one breath, chide me for ending a sentence with a preposition and quote Winston Churchill’s famous comment on pedantry. From my father, I learned both the love of language and the frustration of perfectionism.
As a child, I imagined myself to be more like my father than like my mother. After all, I had his big, dark eyes, his patrician nose, and sturdy, rectangular German face. I saw him as analytical, brilliant, and in his silence which I reflected much of the time, distant. He was affectionate and protective with me, but he was a man in his own head more often than not, a trait he passed on to his children.
Although Dad was always in thought, that didn’t prevent him from holding me next to him while he watched the BBC or Cronkite then later carrying me to my room and tucking me into bed. He was no “sit down to a play tea party” dad, nor did I want that, as I was the child that stayed in my room and listened to my 45s and read books or played alone most happily.
In my teens, this kind of arms-length parenting continued but I never felt unloved. I admired him and wanted all the more to be like him. I was going to be a scientist like him (with writing on the side). I was going to do it all right. I was going to make him proud of me.
You can see where that’s going, right?
I got pregnant (magic!) at eighteen and Dad and Momma were none too happy, but they gritted their teeth and we all got through it. On the other side of the turmoil was an amazing little girl with whom he immediately fell in love. (Look dad! No preposition.)
The shift in him, from man in his head to the man interacting with the world was subtle but visible. After my first husband and daughter and I moved home for a short time to get on our feet, Dad and Momma developed a strong bond with their first granddaughter and Dad softened. On one occasion, my older brother dropped by for a visit. Dad stood up, strode to my brother, greeted and hugged him for the first time in possibly years. My brother and mother stood with mouths agape.
Later, when I remarried, he not only accepted but loved and respected my second husband. In the long run, he respected my late-gained degree and would ask me biology and medical questions.
Another expansion of his awareness occurred years later, when my niece’s son was born and survived a harrowing birth. I spoke to him not long after. With a trembling voice, this longtime avowed agnostic told me, “someone or something kept [his great grandson] with us.”
Daddy spent sixty-four years with his one great love. After Momma died, he shuffled around the nursing home where the two of them had shared a room for some time. He died a little more than two weeks before the anniversary of Momma’s death.
Over the years, I have evolved to be more like my mother in many ways, both emotionally and physically: more chatty, more approachable, more padded around the middle. Yet I carry much of my father’s skepticism and contrariness with me. Over the years, Dad had evolved in many ways but toward the end he retreated, understandably, back into his own head where, I imagine, he and his wife were whole and happy again. When I spoke to him last he said, uncharacteristically for that curmudgeonly old grammarian, “I love love you completely.” I knew what he was telling me. That he was probably saying goodbye for the last time. I just thought he was mistaken.
I love love you completely, Dad. I will miss you always.
As I drove to the store on December 30th, a woman in a fancy pickup (oxymoron on wheels) rode my bumper despite the fact that I was exceeding the speed limit by several mph. She passed me as soon as she saw the smallest gap, got one car ahead, and pulled into the same parking lot I pulled into seconds later. I daydreamed of asking her, as she picked through the produce section, if she had an emergency salad to get to. In my part of the world, however, such smart alek words can get you shot. I don’t say that lightly.
I decided at that moment that I wasn’t going to rush anywhere the rest of the day. I’ve never believed that there was any place I needed to go that was worth risking my life or someone else’s though I get impatient, too. The passage of time has weighed on me lately, but time on my mind doesn’t mean time to kill or be killed.
It’s true, the way we mark time is largely a human construct: days, weeks, hours, minutes. But months, seasons, lifetimes: Nature has foisted those on us. Since my mother’s death, the passage of days has been, well, a daily thought. An internal battle, even. It began during our time together in a tiny nursing home room those few days before she died.
We had some sweet, gentle moments: laughter, bad puns, a lot of hand holding. I’ve always been amazed by my mother’s hands. No matter the weather, the wrinkles, the dish loads, her hands were like the finest, lightest silk. Now they are ash and it is hard for me to grasp that. I sigh—she would have chuckled at that unintended pun. It’s what we do as a family: make bad jokes. It’s part of what makes us such a close family.
There were moments during which I allowed myself unpleasant thoughts. Cynical, I suppose. “Is this all there is? What did she get for all she did for us?” thoughts. Of course, that’s the angry view, the grieving view of the end. I had been grieving for much longer than the many months Momma had been suffering from dementia and a bad fall. I’d been grieving since she left Texas some seventeen years prior. I knew there was much more—more joy, adventure, choice—to her life than I was allowing. But in grief, those things look small while the hurts loom like dragons and disease. Thankfully, those thoughts were brief and mostly I reveled in my precious time with her.
I admit I’ve nursed those hurts all year. A digit change won’t fix that but perhaps Christmas Eve at Munger Place Church and time with my daughter and her family has planted a seed.
I struggle with faith daily. Again, I don’t say that lightly. Each prayer, even “grace” before a meal, is an argument with this “creator” some people call God. At the same time, I can’t free myself form my belief that some sort of divinity has had major influences on my life that coincidence can’t explain.
Christmas Eve service at Munger was, no surprise, beautiful. Kate Miner’s love for her God poured out of her with each performance and I used up all my tissues dabbing my eyes. I know I seek that moment when in “O Holy Night” I will “fall on [my] knees, o hear the angels’ voices” and it was at this point in the service that I felt a weight lifted from me after almost a year of anger. Not because a divine presence came upon me. Not because I was suddenly healed. There was nothing magical there (except Kate’s voice). Instead, I realized I cannot stand up and be who and what I need to be without first kneeling and being humble to what I have been given. I must work with what the universe/life/God gives me rather than argue with those gifts, even when those gifts seem like curses.
What cemented this feeling was the remainder of the visit with my daughter and her family. After the service, we drove around to look at Christmas lights in the more affluent Dallas neighborhoods. In front of one house was a life-size, longhorn steer sculpture decked with holiday finery. Someone said, “I wonder where they store that in the off season.” My daughter said, “I think that’s a permanent cow fixture.”
It struck me as funny. Okay, adorable. At 32 years old, she’s still adorable. She’s always been beautiful and gentle like her grandmother. Time with her is so precious and like the rest of her family, she has the sharp and dark humor that binds us. I love every minute with her.
Two days later, December 26th, a horrific storm system struck the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We huddled in my daughter’s house where we lost power and listened to the tornado siren. Two major tornadoes struck and lives were lost while we had only some wind and scary lightning. Eventually, the power came back on, our adrenaline tapered, sadness set in, and we went to bed.
On the 28th, my husband and I returned to the bayou and a couple of days later, my daughter sent me a picture of the steer.
I thought it rather sad—frippery and wealth completely unscathed while there was so much destruction in a small town of apartments, trailers, and tract homes not too many miles away. The events of this Christmas came as yet another reminder of the very lack of permanence, the randomness, the brevity, fragility, humor, unfairness, beauty, and preciousness of life.
Fall on your knees.
Here’s a link if you feel inclined to help the folks in North Texas: How to help.
Momma and Me (and my daughter). Galveston West Beach, 1983. Seeking and finding shark teeth.
My daughter had a lovely idea given that we were unable to have any kind of funeral or memorial for my mother. She suggested we have a memorial tribute to Momma in Galveston at the beach.
I let my daughter plan the event. She’s a great event planner. Not something she learned from her mother or her grandmother, mind you.
She made paper butterflies (Momma loved butterflies and hummingbirds), and wrote a beautiful remembrance for her grandmother which is not mine to share here. What I can share is a couple of pictures relevant to the trip.*
My mother also loved poetry. She loved my poetry, even though I am not a poet.** Not just in that “unconditional parent love” way. She genuinely connected with my writing in a way no one else did. She’d get excited and show my work to my dad and her appreciation fed my spirit.
To prepare for the memorial, I looked around my house and tried to reconnect with my mother in a house she’d never physically inhabited. I dug an old crocheted afghan blanket out of my closet, smelled mothballs and time, and sat down to talk to Mom about it.
I didn’t sit down to write a poem but to write a letter. As the image of her patiently, meditatively, lovingly creating this oversized blanket perched in the back of my mind, the letter transformed.
It’s not Charles Wright or Maya Angelou even on their worst days, but Momma would have liked it.
It was when my daughter was in her most rebellious stage that I called you beyond tears, beyond rage, exhausted and hopeless. I apologized on behalf of myself and my siblings.
“For what, honey?” you asked.
“For all the crap we ever put you through–all four of us. Every stupid, selfish thing we ever did.”
You chuckled and told me there was no need to apologize. You said as you had said before, that you had always wanted to be a mother and you and Dad knew there were certain things that went with being parents.
I listened, shaking my head the whole time, and restated my feelings. “I know, Mom, but still…I’m sorry.”
You thanked me and assured me that the tough times would get better.
Of course, they did. Of course, none of the crap my child put me through changed how deeply I love her. In the years that have followed, she has matured into a woman of strength and compassion who mirrors her grandmother much more so than does her impatient and cynical mother. Apparently, certain genes really do skip a generation. It helps that my daughter spent a good deal of time in her formative years in the bright beam of her grandmother’s heart. She was exceptionally fortunate in that regard.
I don’t know why I didn’t benefit to the same degree that she did from your guidance except for the plain fact that you were, by necessity, tugged between four children and a spouse and all the stresses of modern life in mostly foreign lands. I did benefit nonetheless, such that when my child was born, nothing mattered more to me than protecting her. As she grew, I tried to follow your example where I could.
You left us on Thursday the 29th of January of this year. On Friday morning, I slept in as I often do. I dreamed one of my typically vivid dreams. In it, I drove the old ’78 Buick through flooding rains, narrowly missing several wrong-way drivers until I finally came to a safe stop at your house. I walked in to find you sitting up in bed, looking twenty years younger, healthier. You were singing to a young child who was both my daughter and my granddaughter. You waved your hands joyfully to the tempo of the girl-empowering Disney-esque song. You turned and grinned at me as I greeted you.
I awoke and felt held and loved and at peace.
So many times in my life you comforted me when I was in pain. When I was small and awkward and bullied. When I was struggling through my first marriage. When the Girl was in her I-know-everything-you-silly-parents stage. No small wonder you were there to comfort me Friday morning after you had to say goodbye.
I’ve been grieving since Monday, August 11. In this time, I’ve written and rewritten a short-short ghost story, but the ending eluded me. Without an ending, there really is no story. I don’t mean putting it in a nice box and with a bow; I mean just giving it words that inform the reader, “This is all I have left to say.” I couldn’t find those words no matter how hard I stared at the two pages of story, or meditated on it, or lay with eyes closed trying to picture its scenes. Nothing said, “Here! Right here! These are the words for which you are looking.” So I put my story aside and wallowed in grief some more. I watched some wonderful old videos and some bad, distracting television. I did some hardanger. I tried not to think about those two pages.
Wednesday night Husband and I went on our nightly two-mile walk and I asked him for input on the story. He talked about the ghosts in the story and how sometimes ghosts haunt people “in a positive way.” That didn’t help me directly but I liked the theory. I’ve certainly thought about it plenty of times and I’ve written stories in the past that have drawn on it though I’ve never made much of those stories.
We arrived home and I took one last look at that danged short-short. As I read it, I thought of Husband’s comment and of a “good haunting” and thought how I hope Robin Williams could look down now and see that thousands of schlubs like me thought he was amazing and inspirational. I carried these thoughts in parallel as I read through those two pages, thinking of ghosts and death and trying to find the clue in my piece to finish that damn story.
Suddenly it was there.
Two or three words in the piece jumped out at me and I knew how to end it. They had nothing to do with ghosts or haunting (or comedy) but were entirely independent of those thoughts. I raced to get a pen, scratched the ending on the page and set about cleaning up for the night.
I was struck, however, by the strong sense of not having found the ending but having it presented to me.
It isn’t a new or unique idea, the thought that when a person dies, their energy goes out into the world. Different belief systems have embraced it for centuries. As I got ready for bed I had to ask, why not? Why couldn’t the energy of someone brilliant be making its rounds throughout the world, touching the fevered creative minds of those trying to paint pictures, sculpt forms, write plays or books? Why can’t that energy be a catalyst in the universe: a spiritual butterfly effect in which it bounces off one particle in space and from there spreads out and makes its way to League City over three days where a struggling writer says, “Damn, I’m going to miss that guy. I wish I had one-tenth of his genius. Maybe then I could finish this damn story.” Poof! That particle tweaks a neuron where the idea has been hiding and the neuron fires and the idea is ready to go on the page.
Why the hell not?
About twenty more pages of thoughts followed from that thought but I will spare everyone. Besides, as I said, these are not new ideas: positive thinking, getting back what you put into the universe, blah blah blah. Much of it is just downright controversial and I’m no philosopher, just a writer thinking about how I got my story ending.
Well, I have my ending. I had, I know, Husband’s help most of all. Perhaps I also had a stray subatomic particle that leapt from the bounds of that wild, brilliant soul and, in a roundabout way, struck a nerve.