Thursday, March 22, 2012

Caterwaul, continued

In the hospital you are lying on a cot in a cubicle near the Emergency Room. 

A woman in a smock patterned with songbirds hands you a telephone; it’s your brother. 
       Hey, he says, what’s happening. 
Beats me, you say. 
You’re OK, he says, bruised up, but nothing broken. 
Somebody in your office called him, he says. Found his business card in your Rolodex. He has talked to the hospital. Because you’re on a blood thinner and live alone, they will keep you overnight for observation, making sure, he says, that if you bleed to death, you will not be alone. 

A woman in a flowered smock hands you a horizontal scrap of paper, something torn off the bottom of another sheet. Three words: Cynthia has LuLu. You like this misspelling of the dog’s name, with its second capital L. You find your purse, on a stand next to the cot, and put the scrap into it. 

The rector from your church is sitting in a chair by the cot. He is wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. He has an ID on a cord but no clerical collar. Someone in your office also called your church, knowing you are active there. Because people were setting up for tomorrow’s fair, they answered the phone and called the rector, who tries to take Fridays off. 
This is very hard to forgive, you tell him, referring to the accident, and he nods. 
Yes, it is, he says, in such a way that you know he’s not asking it of you.

Another woman—teddy bears on her smock—hands you a yellow Post-It. LuLu—Rhinebeck animal hospital, it says, with the vet’s number and Cynthia's cell phone number. Something must have gone wrong. Terrified, you find your cell phone; afraid to call the vet, you call Cynthia. 
We just took her to Rhinebeck to make sure she was all right, says Cynthia. Now she’s curled in a circle on the dog bed in your office and won’t look at any of us, but she’s fine, stop worrying about her. I’ll take her home with me tonight. 
You thank Cynthia, who has a small dog kennel where Lulu stays when you’re away. Later your coworkers will tease you about your multiple calls that day, worrying about the dog. You were really out of it, they say. You do not think this is funny and change the subject. 

You’re feeling a little better, so call you call your friend L, just to let her know where you are. I’m on my way, she says; no, that’s all right, you say, I’m—but she is gone, on her way. Now you feel bad, dragging her from home at whatever time it is—you are having trouble reading your watch because, you realize, a lens is missing from your glasses—can it really be four o’clock? But it will be nice to have her to talk to. Putting the phone away, you notice that the word besenji is written on the back of the yellow Post-It, your dog’s breed with one wrong letter. Someone was curious. 

L arrives with the Friday Times, which you like for its movie reviews, and a package of six butter cookies. She’s bought the last Times in the hospital gift shop and someone has stolen the movie review section from it, but it’s hard to read anyway. You will look at the pictures. And you do not eat butter, but you eat cookies and you’re starving, so you eat them. 

L is sitting by your cot telling you about her day when another woman appears within your view, the one who gave you her business cards while your car was washed up in someone else’s front yard. You think it’s nice of her to visit, but you don’t know her that well and wonder why she would drive half an hour—she lives down the road from the accident—when she lets you know, in an indirect way, almost impossible to parse, that she was the one driving the black pickup truck, twice the weight of your white Honda, she was the driver who floored it to get across the two-lane road for whatever reason you have never understood, and, because you jammed on the brakes, she was the one who struck your car left front fender, instead of dead on, so to speak, into your left side. 
You know it’s brave of her to visit you—certainly, in her place you would not have that courage—but you wish she would go away, and L looks uncomfortable and says she’ll go down the hall for a few minutes so T can sit. She leaves you with this person who, you learn later, is known around town as a terrible driver and not always sober, though at 9 a.m. that Friday she was. You wish the priest were here to talk to her, or L, or a nurse in a smock with devils on it, but no one is, so you have to talk to her. 
No fault. She says a couple of times that no-fault will take care of everything, and you think but I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was just driving down the road.
She wants to know if she can do anything, is your dog OK, and you say yes, the dog is OK. You realize that maybe if you give her something to do she will go away. I have no idea where my car is, you say, could she find the car, and she seizes upon this, saying yes, she knows the volunteer firefighters who were first on the scene, she will find the car.
She finally leaves and L comes back. Weird, L calls it, and you agree on its weirdness, that T, who at one point you thought was pretty cool, would do any of this, including take up the time that L had to visit. She leaves soon afterward, and you wish you had someone to talk to.    

A man in street clothes comes by and wheels your cot into the hall. They need the room, he says, putting your purse  onto the cot. A fresh accident, you think. The hallway isn’t bad; easier here to watch what’s going on, which reminds you of your husband; mildly demented with brain cancer, unable to speak, he liked to sit in the hallway of the hospital and watch the brisk comings and goings of women in patterned smocks, men in scrubs. You wonder if you’ll spend the night here in the hall, which would be bearable; more important, you wonder if you’ll get anything to eat, since despite the six cookies, you’re famished. 

A man walks by and says, is your dog OK? Should I know you, you ask, keeping your voice gentle, polite. He was the X-ray technician; you had an hours’ worth of X-rays that you never, ever remember. You were really worried about your dog, he says. 

A man in scrubs, with a cloth mask hanging on his neck, comes by and says you do not need surgery. 
Dr. P is a very good surgeon, a nurse says later. He stayed late to read your X-rays, she adds, as if you should be grateful, and you do feel a tiny bit important. When your husband died, you liked getting flowers; it was August, the flowers were gorgeous, and after a grueling summer, with only shreds of good news that quickly dissolved, you liked the attention. You put the flowers all over the house; someone knew you were there.

*                                           *                                         *

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Caterwaul, cont'd

You do not, ever, recall the impact of the accident. Later you remember screaming in utter fury at the black pickup truck on your left, you remember jamming on the brake to try to avoid it. But when the loop of your memory starts again you are sitting in the car, off the road. 

Your first concern is for the dog, who is still on her feet and likely to bolt if someone opens the door. You feel around the passenger seat, the floor, for her leash, aware that if you have broken your neck you are consigning yourself to a lifetime of paralysis. But what seems absolutely crucial is not the future but the now, which is leashing the dog, who is jumping back and forth, without stopping, between the back and front seats. You catch her in the front, click the lead onto her collar. You try to speak softly to her; your voice is raspy, your throat raw from the scream. 

A woman with a cell phone appears at your left, at the driver’s side window. She has called 911, she says; do you want her to call anyone? You ask her to call your coworker, the one you phoned earlier, and ask him to pick up the dog. This sounds pitiful to your ear, but there is no husband anymore, no lover at any level; your capable siblings live hours away, and you are afraid that a stranger will take dog somewhere, and you won’t be able to find her. 

A man asks how you feel and when you look left to respond to him, he says don’t do that, just look straight ahead, so after that you never see anyone you’re talking to. People come and go, men and women; a man’s arm—broader, hairier than a woman’s would be—reaches in the open window on the passenger side and removes the folder containing the car registration from the glove box, and later, you think, he returns it. 

Someone else—or the same person—takes your wallet from your purse for your driver’s license, and you’re aware again of how much trust is going on here. Your coworker arrives and takes the dog without your seeing him; you have to trust that it’s actually he who takes her, but you hear his voice, and one tiny bit of your brain feels safe. He’s a cat person, not a dog person, but your dog is cat-like, and you have overheard him sometimes in the office, speaking gently to her. 

Another woman comes by whom you know slightly, who says she is terribly sorry about the accident, here are a couple of her business cards, call her if you need anything. You put the cards away in your daybook— no one has told you not to move your arms—and you become aware of an odd piece of cloth on the steering wheel, ugly tan, cheap-looking, a piece of cloth you would never be associated with. Your airbag went, says a male voice. 

All of this seems to take a long time, during which you realize your car is sitting in what serves as the front yard of the house on the southwest corner of this intersection. The car is headed in the direction you were driving, but it’s facing the door of the house. You wonder how it got here, and you feel bad for the people who live here. This close to the intersection, they have nothing but a dirt yard, and damaged cars wash up in front of their porch. 

Finally the EMTs are sliding you out of the car onto a board, because you have asked them to be careful of your back, All of your caution, about the dog, your back, stems from accidents you’ve witnessed—a dog put into a windowless room because no one knew what to do with it—or stories you’ve heard—a college friend saved from paraplegia by a cautious EMT. Getting onto the board hurts—ow—but finally you’re lying on a cot in an ambulance. You have the presence of mind to ask them to take you not to the nearest hospital, which would put you an hour south of home, but back north to the hospital in your new city, where your doctors are associated. 

And you never remember this, but maybe you asked them not to scissor your new T-shirt, because while the pale green hoodie is cut in strips, transformed into something for tying tomato plants to stakes, the T-shirt remains intact and you wear it the whole time you’re in the hospital. 

* * *

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


You decide on the jade earrings, the ones you bought in Hong Kong last fall. They’re set in gold studs, and you seldom wear gold, but the earrings themselves are small ovals of a soft, creamy green, a spring green that echoes the pale green of your “dress” hoodie, appropriate for the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in an office on a college campus. You have put the hoodie on over your new white T-shirt and a pair of ancient, lightweight pants, dark green, witty pants patterned not with flowers but with tiny wooden chairs. 

You add your coffee, in its thermos, and your lunch, ready in the refrigerator, to the multi-striped tote bag you carry daily and you call to the dog, who is allowed to come to the office. The dog is tired of coming to the office and runs away, and for a second you think about leaving her home, but the house is still new to both of you, you moved here almost exactly two months ago, and the dog will be happy once she gets to the office, so you remind her, again, that it is Friday, the last day of work before a three-day weekend during which she will not have to get into the car if she doesn’t want to. You talk often to the dog, who has an intelligent, fox-like face, so that she, and you, will hear a voice in the house. 

You call a coworker and leave him a message that you are departing now, at 8:15, but you have a couple of necessary errands to do on the way to work and probably will not be in until 9:30. Then you relax. You take the dog on her brief morning walk, pack her and your gear into the car, and drive off. 

The first stop is the post office, where you buy 40 postcard stamps and put them on the last of the open house invitations that you’re mailing. This process pleases you: seeing once more the names of people you hope will come to your new home, and the invitation itself, which was designed by a friend, again a sample of the wit of your world, with photos that show you and the dog, the car and the house, everything you have, really, all of which fits onto one postcard. 

Next you go to the dry cleaner and discuss with the proprietor the black silk man’s robe, lined in midnight blue, that you want to donate to your church for its silent auction, which is tomorrow. You had meant to take care of this business earlier, but in moving two months ago you lost track of the robe, and before moving, you had not been able to give away the robe. You had given it to your husband for Christmas one year, and he wore it at dawn each day when he meditated. 

In your previous home, the one you and your husband had shared, the robe hung in a storage bag with a few other items of his clothing—the London Fog burnt-orange jacket that he wore when he went off to college in 1964, a wool pullover he bought in Mexico in 1992, another jacket he’d been awarded in 1987 for winning a footrace—clothing you had no use for but which you simply weren’t ready to give away. After you moved, you decided that you didn’t need to keep the robe anymore, that it would be perfect for the silent auction, displayed dramatically on a horizontal bar hung on the wall. 

Now the dry cleaner is concerned because the collar is frayed, and after a brief discussion the decision is just to press the robe. You promise to pick it up this evening or first thing tomorrow morning and you make a mental note to call the organizer of the silent auction when you get to work and tell her that this donation is in process.

Then you drive toward the office, pleased with the morning. Your coworkers know where you are and you will indeed be in by 9:30. You talk to the dog, listen to the car radio, and when the radio becomes boring, switch to a CD, solo guitar, that you bought yourself the weekend before.

As always, you know that by changing some mundane detail of your schedule, you may have altered your life. This is seldom active knowledge—you don’t tend to be a worrier, or fearful—rather, an awareness that behind the ordinary minutiae of yours or anyone’s day lies a potential caterwaul of tragedy. This haunting does not stem from the death of your husband, four years ago this summer; that bad luck was some combination of genetics and environment, not an SUV in the wrong lane. Rather, this awareness is part of your ongoing curiosity about the achingly ordinary, necessary details. 

You refuse to let yourself dwell on this kind of thing because you are equally aware that any change in your timing—the extra two minutes at the dry cleaner, or earlier, inspecting your eyeglasses and deciding that they absolutely must be washed today, not tomorrow—either one or both of these decisions, any seconds of alteration in your routine, could also save you, from the deer that chooses run across the road with the perfect, split-second timing required for you to strike it broadside. 

At the last four-way intersection just north of the college campus you see the black pickup truck at the stop sign to your left, and you are aware, again, as always, that every yard you drive is based on trust—that the other driver is awake and sober, that any hill you crest will present you with a clear lane, not the grille of a minivan. 

And you know that the dog should not ride loose in the car, but her crate fits awkwardly in the back and she hates it, and your philosophy, which you have actually said out loud, is that if you were in an accident, you would both wind up as sushi anyway. So you continue driving: the truck has already stopped at the intersection, you do not have a stop sign, and your white car is visible in broad daylight on the two-lane road. 

                      * * *

Thursday, March 1, 2012

10 Dumb Things, continued

Last November I started a new list, 10 Dumb Things I Have Done Since My Husband Died. Response has not been overwhelming, but while I’m working on a more difficult post, I’ll put it out there again. 
#1 for me was that I stopped reading the mail from TIAA-CREF, my pension fund, because it made me nervous. 
I think I’m on the road to recovery here. The other day I opened half-a-dozen things I had received last year from TIAA-CREF. I set up a new filing system for all the paper they send me, and I filed the mail. 
Yes, they would love to send me everything electronically, but then I would never, ever, read it. 
#2. Buying 30 pounds of dry dog food for a basenji who eats half a cup of dry dog food each day. You do the math. 
Lulu was 11 when I bought that bag of food, and I had resisted such a dumb purchase for her entire lifetime because I knew 1) it didn’t make nutritional and financial sense and 2) I had nowhere to keep such a large bag of dog food. 
But  it was Lulu’s brand, it never goes on sale, and, a true American gal, I can be a sucker for a sale. At least I held off on “buy 5 pairs of cashmere socks and get one for free” because I realized that with shipping and tax I would be spending over $100 on six pairs of socks. 
Anyway, Lulu is 12 now. She has dogfully eaten her way through 29.5 pounds of dry dog food that went out of date a month after I bought it and she has lived to tell the tale. The rest goes in the garbage; she has a fresh five-pound bag of food. 
                          * * *
You don’t have to be a widow to add to this list; there’s a lot of flexibility on 2becomes1. 
Here’s a more important dumb thing, from L, which many of us may recognize:  
Living in the country. Thought I'd spend all my winter days writing poetry in the a.m. and quilting in the p.m. and in the summer writing in the a.m. and gardening in the p.m. Forgot how much I need other people.