Medium 9780253017192

Leave the Dogs at Home: A Memoir

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Claire and Jim were friends, lovers, and sometimes enemies for 27 years. In order to get health insurance, they finally married, calling their anniversary the "It Means Absolutely Nothing" day. Then Jim was diagnosed with cancer. With ever-decreasing odds of survival, punctuated by arcs of false hope, Jim's deteriorating health altered their well-established independence as they became caregiver and patient, sharing intimacy as close as their own breaths. A year and a half into their marriage, Jim died from lung/brain cancer. Sustained by good dogs and gardening through the two years of madness that followed, Claire soldiered through home repairs, career disaster, genealogy quests, and "dating for seniors" trying to build a better life on the debris of her old one.Leave the Dogs at Home maps and plays with the stages of grief. Delightfully confessional, it challenges persistent, yet outdated, societal norms about relationships, and finds relief in whimsy, pop culture, and renewed spirituality.

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18 Chapters

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1 The Fullness

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1

The Fullness

We didn’t live together until Jim started dying, but that wasn’t the plan.

It was unseasonably warm for November; the first icy fingers of winter 2004 momentarily unclenched when I took the final turn of my long commute onto the southern Indiana country road. It was dark already, and I’d been focused on taking off my pointy-toed shoes, heating up the pot of chicken vegetable soup, and prioritizing my weekend chores when I saw an unexpected bright white light shining through the pines. I turned in to the driveway to discover the glaring halogen spotlights mounted on the front of the pole barn shining onto Jim’s pickup, which was backed up to the pale blue metal building. Every light was on and intensity spilled into the night through the two open overhead doors.

Gawking as I slowly drove by the barn, I pulled into the garage. As I got out, our black mutt dogs, Lila and Diggity, burst in from the night to dance dog hellos and to pull me across the broad, black asphalt lot to the pole barn. My tight suit and heels wanted to go the opposite direction, toward dinner and house slippers, but that would have to wait.

 

2 Survivor

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2

Survivor

Unable to sleep, I sat in the darkened house until the middle of the night with Cirrus in my lap. The dogs had given up on me and wandered off to the bedroom. I was unable to imagine clearly what might come, my Jimless future. The last few weeks churned before me in the hushed house.

Jim had hid his lung cancer from me for months. The spot on his lung, mistaken at first for a blood clot, had been found in July. He confessed to me in October. He probably would have never told me, except the surgery to remove his lung would be too hard to hide.

Once Jim told me the truth about his summer and fall of lung cancer – his initial misdiagnosis, biopsies, scans, and slow-responding doctors, of the plan to saw his ribs off to get to his lung, his uncertainty about the choices – I offered to search for a better option. He welcomed my help. I squeezed time into late-night hours to sort through a muddle of online information. I gave him stacks of printouts to read, including the biography of a surgeon at a teaching and research hospital in Indianapolis who had an impressive track record in cancer cures.

 

3 Waterloo

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3

Waterloo

By the February following Jim’s surgery and his move into the house, we were in our regular places at the oncologist’s office at the hospital. Jim was sitting upright on the exam table. I was in the little plastic chair, jotting down notes and making sure we covered everything on the Questions for the Doctor list. Jim looked like a concentration camp prisoner – bald, sunken eyes, cheekbones prominent – and I felt like one, after a long, clamped-down chemotherapy winter.

The doctor sat on his examining stool across from us. I took comfort in the smoothness of his creamy coffee complexion and poised manner, the flawless crispness of his white lab coat. He was listening carefully as Jim recited his problems – chills, fatigue, memory loss, diarrhea, confusion.

“These things will linger and then mostly fade after this last chemo treatment,” the doctor said confidently. “We will follow you, take images, and hope your lungs are still clear in six months. In the meantime, enjoy your life, don’t start smoking again, and eat a healthy diet. If this comes back, it likely will kill you.” My gut contracted as the 17 percent dice rolled invisibly in the small room.

 

4 Terminal Restlessness

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4

Terminal Restlessness

It was a bland, colorless February afternoon. Elvis Presley was singing Don’t Be Cruel from a collection of CDs we’d ordered from an infomercial on a long-ago Saturday night.

We were having fun, singing along, almost forgetting that Jim was dying, when suddenly he couldn’t breathe. Open-mouth panting, panicky crossed eyes. His inhalations rattled. I quickly turned on the floor fan as hospice had suggested and kneeled next to his chair, taking his hand in mine to get his attention.

“Breathe with me. Inhale through your nose. Wait. Then exhale through your mouth.” After all these months he still couldn’t remember to do this; he still needed me to show him, to do it with him. It only took a few rounds for his eyes to stop rolling and his alarm to melt away.

It was up to me to keep everything on an even keel. I did it by being in do-mode. Do this, do that. Do-mode was the only place left for me. I was fueled by the buzzing that now penetrated to my cellular level like an endless caffeine high.

 

5 Buzzing

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5

Buzzing

I hadn’t planned what I would do in the moments after Jim’s chest quit moving, in the hour before the mortuary men came to collect his body. And I didn’t realize how quickly he would change from being Jim to being a corpse.

My first instinct was to get him untethered from the catheter. Lucky for me, Pauline was around to remove it. After that, I wasn’t sure of the protocol. Should I put pennies on his closed eyes to keep them from springing vacantly open? Should I pull the blanket over his face? Wash him? Sing songs or read prayers to help his soul cross over?

But his eyes appeared tightly closed, and it didn’t seem like Jim needed any help getting out of this world. If there is any truth to the belief of spirits departing, I think he left right after that last look I had missed before he slipped into unconsciousness. Stopping breathing was something his body did, not something he did. What was left on the bed was not him. It was a dead thing I hardly recognized with ugly, purple blood pooling under the skin on one side. While the acrid smell of his fear and urine still hung in the air, there was no rising specter, no lingering spirit. Just a void and a body. I knew that Jim would want his body to go to the cremation fire fuss-free.

 

6 Line of Salt

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6

Line of Salt

I needed to catch my flight and was late for the ferry. Driving alone and fast in an open-air Jeep, under a grimy, crumbling, rebar-exposed concrete overpass by a dirty river. I knew I’d taken this route before with Jim to go scuba diving. I was wearing his red-and-white-plaid flannel shirt.

Then the Jeep quit running. A leering, watery-eyed guy in a farmer’s cap gave me a ride in his pickup. He pulled up to a big ferry landing. When I tried to pay him forty dollars for the ride, he took out a pistol. I wasn’t worried; I knew he wouldn’t shoot me, because he never had before. But he shot me dead.

Jim strolled up with a wide smile. His jeans, T-shirt, and plaid flannel shirt hung loosely on his rangy frame. He looped his long arm around my back and pulled me to him, “Hey, babe, what’s new?”

“I’m dead,” I said, still surprised.

“I know,” he said. “I’m here to save you.”

“From what?”

“Yourself,” said Jim with an irresistible Street-Car-Named-Desire-Marlon-Brando sultry smirk. Hand on my elbow, he steered me to a bar in a low-slung, pale, concrete block building in the vacant, littered riverfront. A glowing red neon Budweiser sign over blacked-out windows. A heavy door with a porthole window. Inside, grinning, yellow-toothed hellos from all the hard-living boozers we had known who died young. Some gaunt, some burly. They hung lazily over worn wooden tables, empty beer cans askew, ashtrays overflowing with bent, snubbed-out butts.

 

7 Drainage

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7

Drainage

Normal. All I wanted was to get back to normal, and I was sure I could find some of it hanging with my shovels or maybe in the drawer with the frost-proof netting in my potting shed behind the house. At the first brief spiking of late March temperatures, I kicked back the heaved-up mud from the bottom of the shed’s heavy door and banged upward on the metal hook holding the latch until it gave way. The door swung open, and I was greeted by a hint of pungent spice, warmed in the unseasonable heat, from the forgotten, twine-tied bundles of sage and lemon thyme hung from the dark green rafters last fall.

Through the slanted southern window of the cold frame, I scanned the bare woods beyond the pasture for signs of spring. It was too early. Flaccid spiderwebs hung across the corners of the glass, and the wooden frame was askew and slightly buckled. An early wasp darted in mild menace, protecting the beginning of a geometrical nest tucked behind the antique hand scythe on the wall. A winter’s accumulation of grime and dead balls of roly-poly bugs littered the top of the potting bench. I loved the colors in here – the dark green bench and the creamy mint-green walls, softened in the light coming through the slanted opaque roof. My glance moved from a small puddle of water to a wet seam where the skylight roof joined shingles. I made a mental note to caulk the roofline.

 

8 Consilience

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8

Consilience

I invited the bug exterminator sales guy into the workshop as part of his introductory tour to look for signs of varmints in the house and the outbuildings – scatterings of mouse turds, mudded-over tunnels of termites, tangled telltale webs of black widow spiders – and that’s when he started getting under my skin.

First he told me how grateful I should be for the discount he was giving me. I was willing to let that pass; he was just starting his new business and we knew each other, so maybe he really was giving me a discount. But right after that I got insulted.

“This kind of organization, this is what guys do,” Mr. Exterminator said condescendingly as he stood before the tidy shelves of screws, nails, spray cans, paint cans, stains, drills, screwdrivers, hammers, and widgets of every sort. He pointed to a tube of Liquid Nails in the white plastic bucket of caulk guns and said, “Jim’s.”

I shut my mouth to be polite and escorted him to the garden shed at the back of the property. If I had opened my mouth, I would have said, “Who the hell do you think you are? You hardly even knew Jim. If you had known him, you horse’s ass, you would know that he never used Liquid Nails. Jim was a real nails and screws man. I’m the wimpy one who uses Liquid Nails. What fucking right do you have assuming that an orderly workshop and Liquid Nails are here because of a man who died six months ago? I am not a witless inheritor of Jim’s workshop.”

 

9 Balancing Concentrate

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9

Balancing Concentrate

“Momma, just relax,” Emily instructed me over the phone. “There’s no reason to get all stressed out. I’ll be there on Sunday night. On Monday we’ll get up, have coffee, go into town, get massages, and have lunch.”

“Massages? Lunch?”

“Yes, I booked massages for us. To set the tone for the week. Let’s just have fun.”

I tapped my mechanical pencil on my calendar in displaced irritation. The week I’d taken off work was blocked off with her name written across the days. “That leaves us just four days to do everything. Your wedding is Saturday.”

“You think I don’t know that? Chill out; everything will be fine.”

Monday morning found us in a row of plastic chairs by metal lockers in the backroom maze of a hair salon.

“This isn’t very spa-like,” I said to Emily, pointing to a dirty spot on my terry-cloth robe. “They need to wash these between customers. Aren’t we supposed to be lounging in bamboo chairs next to a gurgling fountain, not in a locker room?”

 

10 Swoop

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10

Swoop

I stared at the willow basket filled with oversized fiber and wood balls on my young boss’s credenza. It was a safe, nondescript place to rest my eyes during the most horrible performance review of my life, worse than the one I’d had the previous February just days before Jim died.

“It’s not that you don’t know marketing,” she said as I continued to avoid making eye contact with her. “You probably know it better than anyone on the team. You could probably write a book on it, and maybe you should.” She cleared her throat, and I stirred myself to look up. “It’s just that you don’t fit into our culture. I can’t put my finger on it, but for whatever reason, people just aren’t comfortable working around you. They feel intimidated. Truthfully, I really enjoy the work we do together, but the team – it’s just not working. And we’re a team here. We have to fit together. You’d probably be better in upper management, but there are no positions there.”

Since going back to work, I’d had all the symptoms of a daylily with root-knot nematodes, a disease that strikes field plants transplanted to the suburbs – a loss of vigor, slow deterioration, poor growth, a yellow cast, and wilting. The best option in this situation is to choose plants that are not susceptible to this disease. And just two weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of Jim’s death, I was being uprooted for better stock. I had to admit, my young boss was right.

 

11 The in Between

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11

The In Between

Jim and I were driving by an old railroad station converted into an antique shop. I wanted to stop. He didn’t. I insisted. Once I got inside I remembered that I lived in the shop and had been rearranging all the antiques. I wanted to go down the path that I knew was out back. It was a smooth concrete walkway that wound through twisted, aromatic red cedars and beautiful boulders. Jim said no, he didn’t want to go, he’d already been. I went without him, running dangerously fast, or maybe I was on a bicycle. Judges sitting at a table awaited me at the base of the hill. They showed me my new house and congratulated me on writing my book. One judge said he was my coach. He held out a red jacket with gold tassels, saying it was my reward, but I couldn’t put it on yet. “Once you have finished the conversation and heard your final guidance, you will know to put on the red jacket.”

I awoke feeling warm and safe and approved, even if I didn’t have a new house or a finished book.

 

12 The Point of Surrender

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12

The Point of Surrender

It was a July summer day spent timelessly in the garden, wandering from bed to bed with a general, but not strict, vegetative agenda. Following narrow leaves and stems down to root clusters, I untangled and pulled thin, weedy grass from the clump of bronze ajuga and lemon thyme that was planted around the blue and yellow flag bog iris. The light citrus smell of thyme drifted upward.

This kind of delicate weeding always links me back to the eons of women with their infinite tasks of details – weaving, berry picking, stitching, sorting grain. There’s a concentration to it that hushes the constant patter of the brain and moves one into a timeless zone. Scooting along inch by inch on my butt, I separated leaves, carefully uprooting only the grass. How expertly the grass wove itself into the roots and stems of the ajuga and tiny-leafed thyme – as if it knew it had a better chance for survival if it was complicated, perhaps thinking I might never get around to such a meticulous task. Unlucky for the grass, this bed was one of a few places I kept weeded. Mostly things were jumbling into one another in the gardens.

 

13 The Shitty Truth

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13

The Shitty Truth

The sun crept through the blinds as Lila’s eager black nose nuzzled me awake. I snuggled against the comfort of my grandmother’s flower garden quilt, glancing at the clock. The rich, dark greenness of the white pines tossing in the wind against a clear blue sky filled the bedroom windows. Then a Diggity dog nose. Cirrus romped across me. I was up.

It would be a busy day. I had a deadline for a website project, but more important, I needed to get to the Monroe County Health Department in town to pick up my copies of the septic field plan before they closed at four o’clock. And I was meeting Carole mid-afternoon on the square for coffee.

The septic system had always been a little mysterious to me. It’s one of those things about country living. You have one, just like you are forced to either have an electric stove or an ugly propane gas tank in your yard.

The previous owner had proudly toured one side of our giant front lawn with us, talking about how big the septic field is now, pointing this way and that as he and Jim matched manly strides. “Since we replaced it, you’ll never have the problems we did,” he’d said. Following behind, I made little cryptic notes. Listening to their discussion, I jotted down numbers and notes to accompany a loose drawing on a tiny scrap of paper. I’d given this paper to Jim. He was the guy, and septic systems are a guy thing. In our new shared-house ownership, he was the one who called for the honey truck; I was the one who planted a patch of blue lyme grass around the access hatches to the tanks and considered my work done. Septics weren’t a guy thing for me anymore.

 

14 Fumes

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14

Fumes

The blocky woman stuck out her hip between the man I was watching and the row of wooden baskets. He smiled and stepped back to give her room. She solidly established her squat body in front of the bushel of small sweet onions. He had already given way to a determined woman with a huge baby stroller, her clay face puffy beneath the eyes from lack of sleep. But he wasn’t impatient; he simply let the moments stretch. Maybe he loved the push and shove of these women shoppers, their own barely discernible pungent smell a good companion for onions.

Still, you could tell he wanted his turn at the onions. I had been watching him for a while from my sideline seat on the curb. I waved a distant hello at a woman I’d met in the writing class and lazily swung my view around the farmer’s market, a Saturday event that was partly about vegetables and mostly about Bloomington’s social scene. It was in high style on the sultry morning I stood watching the onion shoppers. The market was full of the August harvest of Flamin’ Fury and Redhaven peaches, Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, Red Knight and Early Sunsation bell peppers, Silver Queen and Ambrosia sweet corn, and Swedish Peanut Fingerling and Adirondack Blue potatoes.

 

15 Finding Boxerwood

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15

Finding Boxerwood

The sign at the bank shimmered 99 degrees in the sweltering sun. Parked on a side street in tiny downtown Lexington, Virginia, I picked up my laptop from the passenger seat and shifted the glossy screen back and forth, dodging the persistent reflection of my sweaty face, bangs plastered and wilted like hydrangea leaves in the ruthless August sun. The poor dogs panted open-mouthed in the backseat. What I wanted was simple: to see the map to Boxerwood Garden. Was it too much to ask?

The cute hand-drawn map, hard to read in the daylight, was a digital file I had downloaded the night before at the B&B in Hot Springs. The dogs, who had to sleep in the car overnight, barked at every sound in the small parking lot. I’d gotten up early to steal away before the glares of fellow guests made for an uncomfortable breakfast.

Now here I was, stalled, trying to figure out how to get from this narrow street around the corner from Stonewall Jackson’s house to Boxerwood Garden on the outskirts of town. Of course it would have been easier if I had remembered to print the map out before I’d left Indiana. Or if I had thought to write the directions down last night.

 

16 Crabbottom Grits

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16

Crabbottom Grits

I took the curve slowly around the tip of Jack Mountain and down through steep stands of oak, hickory, and red spruce forest. We had just finished taking a break on the border of Highland County for some leashless romping in the cool mountain laurel thickets. The dogs, happy, paws pungent from leaf litter, smiled in the rearview mirror.

Most people know this road as Route 250, but a zoom-in on Google had showed that it is also Hanky Mountain Highway, or Shenandoah Mountain Road. I wanted these names, instead of 250, next to the bright yellow triangle warning signs with pictograms of semi-trucks pointing at dangerous downhill angles over the words NEXT 2 MILES. Some sense of place instead of clear direction.

From the Virginia map calculations I had made at the B&B the night before, I knew there were three mountains between Monterey and the big Shenandoah Valley. First Shenandoah, then Bull Pasture, and now Jack. At the center of this Appalachian geologic uplift, where some 480 million years ago the earth folded and buckled like pie crust, Highland County calls itself Little Switzerland, although it is really defined not by the elongated mountains and scattered knobs, but by the tabletop valleys in between. You won’t see such valleys in the young, spiky Rocky Mountains; this is the stuff of old mountains.

 

17 Peripheral Vision

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17

Peripheral Vision

The next time I found myself sweltering hot for days at a time it was January, and I was dogless, in a place that couldn’t be more different from Virginia, or from Indiana for that matter.

I was alone and slowly limping down a side street near Khao San Road, the gritty, crowded, budget-backpacker ghetto of Bangkok, with fifteen crippling blisters on my feet. Every inch of my body was dripping in sweat even though the cruel midday sun had long passed. There are two temperatures in Bangkok: hot and hotter. I was there during hot, and I couldn’t imagine how hot hotter was.

Over my head was a beautiful paper parasol, more Japanese-looking than Thai, painted with white dancing cranes, bonsai-like pines, and round red suns. I’d bought it from a street vendor outside the high walls of the bedazzling Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. But the stench of uncured varnish on the paper umbrella, heated in the unrelenting sun and mixed with the thick, ochre pollution in the air, was anything but beautiful and it had teased up a slight headache. My lower gut was threatening to explode, again, and I nervously wondered if I might have to find another filthy pit toilet, hopefully without a line of tourists.

 

18 Six Years Later: New Tricks

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18

Six Years Later: New Tricks

It’s a gorgeous garden under these weeds, packed under this layer of dense grass sod. I can feel it in the rich, black loam. Neglected for a decade or so, this plot, once a productive organic vegetable garden, is hungry.

It wants to grow tomatoes taller than me, bending with the heavy weight of heirloom crimson-fleshed globes. It wants Italian zucchini to cast giant palms of leaves over the ground to hide squash so that they can become the size of footballs. It wants rows of rainbow chard with stalks of hot pink, electric yellow, and flame orange next to crisp cucumbers with tendrils reaching for the sky. Dangling green beans that must be picked every day.

It wants bone, blood, shit, and ashes. Nitrogen, phosphorous, digested organic matter, and calcium potassium in less personal terms.

Crumbly dirt sifts through my fingers as I break up clods, toss stones out into the alley. I drag myself up from the duckwalk squat I’ve held for too long and shove the spade into the ground. It goes in deep before dead-walling into the clay. I can feel the spirit of the gardener who worked this land before me. His dogged persistence, his arrogant righteousness, his abstract passion, his wry humor.

 

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