Saturday, March 26, 2011


At dinner with A . . . our memories of our husbands are part of our lives, so something might come up about J . . . and then she may say, if only I had known . . . I would have . . . or, they didn’t tell me . . . I should have . . . 
J died almost 7 years ago. 
I understand. I was haunted by remorse after Dan died—horrified by what I hadn’t realized, what I hadn’t known, and how my stupidity and lack of information might have affected his care, his last few months on this earth. 
I would remind myself that I had done a couple of things right. I persuaded the oncologist to let me bring our dogs, two basenjis, to the hospital to visit Dan, even though they weren’t official therapy dogs. I made sure he always had the window bed, a constant struggle for three months with medical personnel who seemed to consider their patients not people but pieces of furniture.
But if only, if only . . . I should have done more research, I should have done this or that with our money . . . I should have . . . 
And then, three months after Dan died, I got a mailing from the local hospice agency. In general I had found hospice too little too late for him, but I didn’t blame them, I blamed me, I should have told them this or insisted on that; exhausted as I was with trying to deal with bureaucracies, I should have made one more Herculean, or Debbyan, effort for him. 
And in general I found hospice literature a little insipid and perhaps more helpful to those without a religion or spiritual practice. But writers are readers. I pick up all the free newspapers, I read ID tags, and if the diner placemat has ads on it, I probably read them. When hospice sent me something, I would read it, before throwing it away or filing it so carefully that it was permanently lost. 
Now hospice sent me a brochure that was going to tell me how I would feel the first year after the death of my loved one, and I said humph, but eventually I sat down to read it. 
One of the first things it said was that feelings of remorse were natural and normal and most survivors felt them. 
Oh, I thought, they do?
And hospice said yes, they do. Perhaps you’re feeling guilty or sad about the last months of your loved one, but the fact is, you did the best you could. It is not your fault . . . don’t beat up on yourself and if you can’t stop, talk to someone about it. 
To learn that remorse was normal, not unique to me, was a new concept and a great comfort. 
I had done what I could. For three months I made the 45-minute drive to the Albany Medical Center every evening after work. If I had known that Dan would live for only three months, I would have taken an unpaid leave from my job, but he was so strong, and so stubborn, I figured he would last for as long as he wanted to. I didn’t know if I could afford our house by myself, and I certainly couldn’t without my job. 
I should have done more research, found someone who would have given me a realistic assessment of his chances and made me listen to it. I should have organized our money better . . . 
See how it happens?
It’s over, that horrible three months in the hospital, and it was a relatively short time on our continuum. In terminal illness, you take your good fortune where you can find it. The light rises, then fades. The dogs curl up on the bed. Now he rests in the wooded cemetery at the Zen Mountain Monastery. In the trees, birds rustle; down the road, the traffic hums, so he doesn’t forget us. 
Dan and Cooper were readers too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Scary Thing #5

Back to 10 Scary Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died. Remember, each new thing is scarier than the last. 

5. Put down his dog. 

I’ve known that phrase forever, since I was a kid in Schenectady. Or, we put the dog to sleep; one didn’t use the more polite euthanized. You may say I killed the dog, but the vet who had known Cooper since he was a puppy said, “People wait until their animal is in pain. You don’t have to do that,” and that was my guiding principal. 

He never trusted our driving.
When we got Cooper, a purebred basenji, he was four months old; riding home, he peed on me. We understood each other, Cooper and I, but he bonded with Dan. The first time a friend came to inspect Cooper, the dog sat between Dan’s feet; years later, when we finally gave up and let the dogs sleep on the bed, Cooper took an outside position next to Dan, the first line of defense between us and the bedroom door. Dan was our alpha wolf and Cooper his canine lieutenant. Bambi and I just tried to keep up. A year after Bambi died, at 15, the indomitable Lulu joined us. Cooper, then 14, spent the last two years of his life looking beleaguered; a photo records Lulu sitting on his head.

Cooper was 16 when Dan died in August, and the winter afterward he was either asleep or bumping into things. Coming in from errands on a Saturday and finding Cooper comfortable on the couch, I would think Dan must have stopped by and put him there

At a demo in D.C.
In January I made an appointment with Dr. T., hoping he would give me some clear direction. Cooper wore his cobalt blue storm coat with the Thinsulate lining and looked quite the gentleman. In the chilly waiting room, he sat in my lap—and Cooper never sat in my lap—and let people admire him. Not pet him, but praise him. 

Dr. T. declared Cooper physically all right. The $150 a month I spent on medications and supplements was keeping him functioning. The med that he’d been taking for what Dr. T. kindly called “cognitive dysfunction” was no longer effective; Dr. T. was pleased that it had worked for six months. 

I took Cooper home, hoping he might reach 17 in June, and have some time on the deck in the sun. 

In March, I realized June was too far off, that I was pushing him onward, keeping his physical systems running, but nothing else, perpetrating mild torture on both of us. Did he miss Dan? More the sense of something “off,” in his alpha wolf, who then disappeared, leaving him with two females he couldn’t care for. 
Table dog, with Bambi and Debby

I called Dr. T’s office. Maybe he was away on a long trip. “I think it’s time for Cooper,” I said, “and I’d like Dr. T. to do it.” 

The receptionist was kind but firm. “He can do it Monday,” she said.

“OK,” I said, thinking, I can always cancel, I can not show up, they can’t drag us out of the house. 

Feeling like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, I fed Cooper his favorite dinner, chicken and rice, during his last weekend, and gave him half a Dentabone every evening. In bed at night, he curled next to my heart. 

On Monday I went through with it. Remember, I had already driven Dan to Albany Medical Center ten months before. I was beginning to realize, that winter, that in some bizarre way we had been fortunate, Dan and I; if he had to die, at least he went quickly, without months in a nursing home that he would have hated. Loss is sad, but sometimes death is not the worst thing.

In Dr. T’s examining room, Cooper sat in my lap, snuggling into me, his nose under my arm. 

“Time for Dan to take care of Cooper again?” said Dr. T., and I nodded, unable to speak, tears on my cheeks. Cooper went without protest, seconds after the shot. Dr. T. left us and I sat holding Cooper. Bambi, the dog love of my life, who I had rescued from an unhappy home, had died here after surgery, in a place she hated, alone except for a kindly vet who stayed with her overnight. Cooper died in my arms.

I sent an e-mail to friends reporting that Cooper and Dan could again take their walks together. 

“He can see again, and think what he can see!” replied B. “The celestial boulevard has never seen anything like those two,” wrote P. I was comforted.

I managed that winter by imagining lives beyond my own. People of limited means would find Dan’s beautiful sweaters in the thrift shop and give them as holiday gifts to other people of limited means. Dan had “only gone out ahead of us . . . “ It was a beautiful day, wherever he was, and we would find him there. 

Now imagine holding a dog, trying to hang onto him when he sees something you can’t, and he wants nothing but to run to it. 

You let him go. 

He charges away. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


A month after Dan died, I set off for Cape Cod with our two basenjis, keeping our reservation for a week in Provincetown. The night before I left, I dashed into Shop Rite for supplies. Food prices at the Cape had always made me swoon, and I didn’t want to spend my time there grocery shopping in any case. Pushing my cart through the coffee/tea aisle, I noticed a sampler box of tea. I reached out, picked one up, read the label. 
Dan had preferred loose tea, had, indeed, bought us a new glass teapot less than a year before, during our last trip to the Cape, over Christmas break. He was very fond of this teapot, with its inner column for tea leaves, visible through the glass, as he was fond of all kitchen gadgets. I was finding loose tea for one a nuisance and needlessly messy (just like the rest of cooking). 
I mulled the selection offered by this tea sampler, packaged in the name of a faux-British tea company, just a step above Salada.  Dan would probably consider it poisonous. (So might you.) But half of the teas in it were unfamiliar to me, and by buying this box I could try something new, without a huge commitment of time or money, while I vacationed in a familiar place. I tossed the box into the cart. 
And I did try the teas, a different one every night that I was at home in Provincetown. I wasn’t home every night—I discovered that I could walk everywhere, including the movie theater, so I saw whatever it was showing. I sat through Sweet Home Alabama, learning about another culture. Similarly, I looked forward to The Fast Runner, highly recommended by a movie-loving friend, which proved unsuitable for this recently bereaved dog lover, unable to spend three hours watching freezing Inuits being cruel to their dogs. I made myself give it an hour before I went home, brewed a cup of tea in the one-person pot I had brought with me, and sat on the couch with my dogs. 
One day a young man on a bicycle stopped to admire the dogs as we walked on Commercial Street, and he gave me a ticket to his improv show that night, so I went. It wasn’t particularly original or funny, but it was live, and he had created it, and I was glad to be there. 
And one of the new teas was a real discovery—a slightly sweeter black tea with a silly name that I liked a lot and still drink today. 
Months later I began to attribute to that box of tea—little packets of glossy paper in bright, varied colors, holding new flavors—the start of my restart. Another woman and I were perusing the two-dozen boxes of high-end teas at Random Harvest, the seasonal grocery story. Can’t have too many teas, she mused. No, I said, it’s like socks, and she laughed. 
The world shifts. You start to right yourself. You notice something new, reach out, try it. Freed from my total focus on illness, I began to look outward again, to discoveries near and far, tiny and huge.