Vat am I to do?

A David Hockney-esque collage of vignettes, some forty-eight hours out.

At the dinner table, cradling my son in the crook of my left arm, looking half the time at his latch on the bottle of expressed Mama milk, half the time at the vast gulf of emptiness just beyond his head, the spot where Maxi would be, should be, even at her sickest, begging for food.

Blinking away the natural result of that realization, remembering the quiet, expedient management of uncontainable grief, a lesson learned thirteen years ago after the death of my mother.

Turning my attention back to the little peanut, who goes through a wincing pain from his vaccinations earlier in the day, and then smiles broadly at me from behind the nipple when his eyes meet mine.

The fey Grampy is in town — in fact, cooked this meal, and is at the table — and so I indulge in a little audience-appropriate cultural reference, and begin to sing, in a bad pseudo Cherman accent, in my worst approximation of Marlene Dietrich: “Fallink in luff again… vat am I to do/ kaaaan’t help it.” Because, as I look into the little peanut’s eyes, it’s true, I am falling in love again, despite the empty gulf just behind him.

Grampy then recounts a little about an octogenarian Marlene in Vegas, videos of which performances he has watched (but of course). “Her face pushed back up to here” (he gestures with palms clapped onto face, pulling back, approximating a scary plastic surgery job), “but she was still tremendous.” Then he launches into a rendition of her sung-spoken version of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” which she evidently performed in all seriousness. I ask him, did he think she was in any way being campy about it? “There is no irony in Vegas,” he says, and then tucks back into the stir-fry.

My eyes are drawn again to the empty gulf still hovering just beyond my son’s head, and there, too, underneath the table. Empty empty empty empty empty.

Later, I am changing the son’s diaper while the beloved is putting the daughter to bed and Grampy is cleaning the dinner dishes. The beloved comes in to say that the daughter has asked after me, and I manage the Herculean task of waiting a few minutes, so as to enable her to (possibly) fall asleep before I get there. Herculean because I am directly requested some 35% of the time, as compared to Mama’s 65%. Not that I’m counting.

I scoot into her room just in time to find her in that sweet liminal state between asleep and awake. Her evening lullabies are still playing on the CD player: Jane Siberry’s Hush. Long ago we succumbed to a sleep consultant (money well spent, people!) who advised, among many other very specific suggestions, that we play the same music every night when she went to sleep. This would (a) help establish a Pavlovian association with the onset of sleep, and (b) enable us to parse out time with her when she got verbal and we began to need to bargain with her (“I’ll stay, sweetie-pie, but only ’til the end of the next song.” “Okaaaaaaay.”) When it came to choosing the music, we weren’t about to torture ourselves with Barney or Elmo. So we used something we could bear hearing over and over. If you go for this nighttime practice, I can recommend this Jane Siberry album with confidence, since it has held up to hundreds, if not thousands of repetitions as of this writing.

What’s playing, as I enter the darkened room? “Pontchartrain,” a song that always takes me back to September 2005. I would hear it, over and over again at night, when we were first trying to ease the lil’ monkey into a regular sleep pattern. I would hear it, and all I could do was think of a childhood memory of the long, low drive across that lake, its steely water, the Mississippi Delta into which it flows, and then my dear friends now living in New Orleans, and the images I saw and the scenes I read about that post-Katrina September, the most indelible of which was one of a mother, found in her attic, clutching a child whom she never let go of, not ever, and she had clung so tight that the rescue workers who found them days later were hard-pressed to separate the bodies from one another, long after their souls had left them.

It is with this image in my mind that I sit myself down on the edge of my daughter’s “biggirl” toddler bed, and stroke the strands of hair from her face. We live in the self-same world; the self-same nation, even, as that Ninth Ward mother and child. Irreconcilable. My daughter says a few nonsensical things to me, and then we settle into quiet, Jane serenading us. I leave my left hand beneath her face, and slowly, as she drifts to sleep, her head heavies, until by its weight I know she’s asleep.

Just two nights ago, this is how my dear, dear, I will never, ever know a sweeter being than her dog left her body: I was holding her from behind, and after the sedative went into her veins, she turned her head into my left hand, where it had been stroking her neck. Two old, familiar gestures, mine and hers. Moments later, by the weight of her head in the palm of my hand, I knew she was gone.

These juxtapositions might seem exceptional, but they’re not. They are perfectly ordinary, they are (to one degree or another) the bread and butter of everyone’s daily lives. They are why people are right about life, when they describe it thus: it is like licking honey off the edge of a knife.

13 thoughts on “Vat am I to do?”

  1. Dogs give us such unconditional love and they break our hearts when they go. Even though I know I will cry I come back each day to read your new entries. I know that some day this day will come for me, with luck it is years away. But it doesn’t matter. Knowing that it will come doesn’t make it any easier.

  2. LD, I read your first post last night and I delayed commenting because my brain was fried after a long day and I wanted to collect my thoughts. And then today I see this one, and I’m still not in an articulate place, especially as your post today is so very beatiful and complex.

    But that really doesn’t matter. I’m so sorry for your loss. Losing a beloved pet leaves things lopsided, I know. They are such pure beings, they leave a distinct hole behind where they used to be. I know the actions you took were difficult to go through with-just remember it was part of your unconditional loving and caring for Maxi.

    I have a very young dog and a ‘mature’-but-not-yet senior dog and they both drive me absolutely nuts at times. They can each be demanding and aggravating in their own special ways. But none of that matters when they do one of a hundred things they do to express their unconditional love for me. When the puppy- all 40 plus pounds of him tries to cuddle in my lap, or when the boss dog comes up and just lays his muzzle on my knee, I realize how what a privilege it is for those of us lucky enough to have these beings in our lives.

    Your post is a gorgeous piece of writing. Thanks for sharing all of this.

  3. Thank you, each.

    I dreaded the loss of her as of the first day I joined Maxi’s life to mine, since she was a coda to loss, or my attempt at its antidote. At the time, I had vowed not to love anything so much that its loss would buckle me. I had to make an exception for family and friends whom I already loved, of course. But Maxi was going to be the only thing I would choose to love, for a very long time. And she had to last as long as it took for me to be able to bear her loss. I think maybe maybe she has. She now leaves me with a pack of three, where before there were none. May I be so lucky as to see this pack through many decades of jorneying, intact, ’til I go.

    The love of a companion animal is unique in the pantheon of loves we know. Even when one’s aware of the dangers of anthropomorphising, or of underestimating the opportunism that is present in the relationship (in both directions), still, all of us who experience this love knows how powerful it is (hell, so mighty an intellectual as Donna Haraway wrote i>The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, Humans, and Significant Otherness). There is nothing like the completed circle we provide for one another, and, with dogs, the unlikely mixture of our being both protected by them and responsible for them at one and the same time.

    From so many people’s kind notes, I know how widely shared this love and sorrow is, and do hope that sharing Maxi and this process helps us all in some kind of way. I know I appreciate the company.

  4. Oh Polly, I’m so sorry.

    I have recently learned as well, that the holes they leave in our lives are as big as the wonderful spirit and devotion that they share with us.

    Right now there should be a little orange tabby kitty butting her head against my hand and telling me to stop typing and pet her.

  5. Beautifully put. My heart goes out to you.

    [And a note of coincidence: my Max, Jr. was named after a little orange tabby kitten (who retroactively became Max, Sr.). He went missing the summer before I lost my then-sweetie (to another), followed closely my mom (to cancer). The little orange tabby Max was a harbinger of what was to come, a snowflake before the storm. So the dog took his name, to honor him (and to hopefully cork up the loss for a while). Since every cat she met was the boss of Max, I can assure you that if they cross paths wherever they are, my girlie will only wistfully look at yours (and ask: “Gonna eat that? Gonna eat that? I’ll eat that.”).]

  6. Oh Polly,
    Just catching up on your blog to read the sad news about Maxie, which I cannot help but think of as an inseperable part of you and your wonderful home. And inseperable is what she must and shall remain.
    Lots of love,

  7. I’m so sorry you are going through this. It’s never easy.

    I lost my big lab, Aegis, back in the beginning of January. He was my right-hand dog in so many literal ways. I had a lovely little preemie goat born in the midst of it all. She died six hours after I brought Aegis’ body back home. I buried them together since he always loved looking after the goat kids. You are so right. The honey and the edge of the knife.

  8. Sigh. “Sirius, the dog star, the brightest star in the heavens.” I always think of that series of words in a clump, maybe because that’s how my mother delivered them to me as we looked up at the night sky.

    What a beautiful name, Aegis. Endorsement, guidance, protection.

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