“There’s not a lot of Rocky left of Rocky anymore,” the vet says, before I’ve even explained why we are here.
His eyes, all I can see of the face behind his mask, are kind. “I just want to prepare you for what’s coming.”
I realized recently that every morning, when I go to wake the dogs, I am holding my breath just a little. I don’t exhale until I see their blankets move, relieved that I will not start my day with death. So, I know what’s coming. Knowing doesn’t prepare me for it, though.
Last weekend Rocky woke up a little after midnight, barking. He never does this. I got up, let him outside. Put him back to bed. He barked and barked and barked. I thought about letting him sleep in my bed with me, but I didn’t want to inadvertently reinforce this behavior, dooming myself to nights of enduring either a barking dog or a dog in my bed. It occurs to me today that I don’t have to worry about that the same way I worried about, say, the way the kids conditioned both our dogs to beg for food while we eat, a behavior I’ve tried for more than a decade to change.
There won’t be years’ worth of nights to endure of anything with Rocky.
Rocky is one of two “divorce guilt dogs.” That’s what my daughter dubbed them when she was just a tween. She was not wrong. She knew the score. In less than a week she will be returning to this country from Sweden, where she’s been since early March. She will fly to DC, where she will pick through the physical stuff she’s accumulated over four years of college, performing a kind of material triage to determine which things she will put on another plane and which she will leave behind forever. Perhaps this will distract her from thinking about the scattered friends she never got to say good-bye to. She’s leaving behind her first real love, too, and although they have plans to reunite in Sweden again this fall, well…we’ve all seen what happens to plans, haven’t we? Plans are merely hopes, now more than ever. Then she will arrive here, her home but not her home, where we will figure out how to quarantine her, and how to live together again, for we don’t know how long.
A friend, one who has lived through catastrophes the likes of which I can hardly comprehend, tells me I should drive across the country to get her and drive all of her things back here, to spare her the trauma of going through such an experience alone. I am dumbfounded.
“I can’t just drive across the country,” I say. I sputter about work, risks of infection, lock-down orders, quarantine.
“Honey,” she says, as if talking to a child, “we’re all going to get it. You know that, right? You don’t really think you can avoid it, do you?”
The vet manipulates Rocky’s feet, turning them under as he props him up on the exam table, to see what his legs will do. After a pause, they move. A little. He says something to the tech making notes on the computer about nerve function. The vet’s eyes and mine meet over our face masks.
“His nerve function isn’t what it used to be. He’s having trouble knowing where his legs are in space.”
I’m having a harder and harder time with work. Technically, I am a teacher. I work under a teacher contract, but I don’t belong to any one school; I belong to ten of them (which feels like belonging to none of them). I am a librarian who serves those who serve the students directly. More and more, students feel more abstract than real. I know they are real–I hear about them from those who see them in Zoom meetings, I know they are muddling through this pandemic in varying states of wellness and distress, I know many are living in a purple zone of the infection map–but I haven’t seen any student faces since March 13, and I can’t feel them in the same way. I never understood, before, how simply seeing and hearing them grounded me in my work, in the world.
The only faces I see are those of other adults. They all look weary through my screen. Sometimes, not in our large group meetings, but in smaller ones of two or three, some of us share with each other how it’s really going, how we’re really doing.
“I’m trying to let go of things,” I tell someone I trust. “I’m trying to let go of things I know I can’t really affect.”
“Yes,” says the face on my screen. “I am, too. But there’s a difference between letting go and giving up. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m giving up.”
I think maybe I know a little bit about how Rocky feels. Sometimes, when he is walking, his stiff back legs that don’t really bend anymore skidding on the wood floor, something gives and he is suddenly on the ground, flailing, paws paddling in air. He reminds me then of a turtle on its back, the way he is unable to right himself.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the kind vet says. “Does he still like to eat? Is he still drinking water?”
I nod, hoping he’ll think that my glasses are fogging from the breath trapped in my face mask. That could be what it is.
“Yes, he still loves to eat.”
Daschunds are famous eaters. They will eat and eat and eat, going as long as the food lasts. When he and Daisy, the other divorce guilt dog, were younger and had teeth, I left dry food out in bowls to let them eat on demand. I was lazy. Or stretched too thin. Or both. I let them turn into fat, roly-poly pups who loved to lounge in patches of sun and sleep on our laps and burrow under our covers.
Neither dog has any teeth left (Daschunds are also famous for dental issues), and meals are now soft food given three times a day. Their need to eat might be providing the most consistent structure in my life now. Daisy is still soft, a round, warm bundle of fur and fat, skin and bone. She leaps vertically up and down while I scoop her food, often reaching nearly the height of the counter, whimpering and whining with what sounds like joy. Rocky stays grounded, usually putting one paw on my foot, his whole body quivering. He is not soft and round. I can count the vertebrae of his spine just looking at him.
The vet runs his hand over Rocky’s bony body. “There’s not much Rocky left of Rocky,” he says again, still kindly and gently, as if he knows he might need to say it more than once for his meaning to sink in.
Lately I’ve been unable to keep my mind out of the past. I long for my grandparents. I long for the beautiful, pain-free bodies my cousins and I once had, and for the summer nights when our strong, lithe legs gathered and tangled beneath our grandparents’ kitchen table. I long to feel again how I felt then.
In a phone conversation I try to tell my son, the Marine I don’t know when I’ll see again, how the world felt to me when I was growing up in my working class home. Although some definitely had more than others of us, I don’t remember any of the kids I went to school with worrying about food or living in cars or surfing for sofas to sleep on, the way so many do now. In my memory, almost everyone looked down upon racists and fascists and censorship and monopolies and religious zealots, and it was socially taboo to openly express that some of us were lesser than others of us–because we all knew such a belief was wrong. The people I knew respected science and education. We knew there were problems (racism, sexism, all the -isms), but there was such surety in our elders’ belief that we were forever on a march forward, that each generation would do better and have it better than the ones that came before it, their belief felt like fact.
No one I know feels that way now. “I’m worried for our kids,” we say to each other, not in large groups, but privately. Guiltily–not only for not passing on the same prospects, but for having had them when others did not. For not understanding, earlier, that not everyone had them and that others were working to strip them from many of us who did. For wondering what else we might not be seeing now, because having been profoundly blind once, we can surely be as blind again.
My son and I catalog all the ways in which his grandparents and I had it better than any other generations of Americans (including his), which, perhaps, makes us supremely unprepared for this time. “I feel soft,” I admit to him.
“I don’t want to go back in time,” I tell him. I don’t want to go back to an incomplete understanding of my country, or to a time in which so many people like me didn’t understand that only people who looked like us had the kind of security we took for granted. Still, I want my children–everyone’s children–to have what I had, and in profound ways they don’t. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” I say. “We could make so many things better for everyone.” I wonder if my belief is naive, as little tied to evidence as any faith.
“It would be nice in some ways to have lived when all of you did,” he says, “but I think I would have hated not having the internet.”
“No,” I say, “you wouldn’t have hated it.” I try to tell him, ground him in a concrete memory: “When my grandma would come home from a late shift–she was a Fred Meyer cashier–we’d sit at the kitchen table, my cousins and me and her. We’d play Yahtzee or cards, and eat ice cream, and watch Johnny Carson. We’d talk and laugh.”
I miss those people and that time and place so deeply, my eyes fill as I try to make him understand how it felt. I know my memory feels unremarkable to him. It’s hard to see what’s remarkable for what’s not in something–fear, anxiety–rather than for what is. “You would have liked it,” I say, knowing that I can’t make him see or feel it. You had to have been there.
I’ve brought Rocky to the vet because I’m afraid that he’s been in pain. He’s been acting the way he used to when his teeth would get bad: clingy, barking, weirdly stretching his jaw after meals. I’ve been giving him more lap time, as I’m able. Every night we watch something on TV together before bed. He’s sat in on a few Zoom meetings in recent weeks, and sometimes I reach over his body sleeping on my lap to work at my keyboard. There are no more teeth to remove, but he has a nasal fistula, a hole in his mouth that leads to the nasal cavity. I have been worried about infection. When I heard that vets are open for non-emergency visits, I called the same day.
“We need to think about his quality of life,” the vet says again.
Rocky’s always been an anxious animal. We learned early on that he couldn’t be trusted around toddlers; he’d chase them and bark and jump on them. One of his ribs juts out at a funny angle, and if a foot ever brushes the middle section of his body, he shrieks. We don’t know what happened to him before he came to us, but he’s never been easy in the world.
He spends most of his hours in sleep, now. He and Daisy share a basket during the day, one I used to carry my preemie babies around in when they first came home from the hospital. It has a soft cushion in it, with a furry blanket for burrowing into. They each have their own bed at night, but most mornings I find them curled into each other in just one bed. Sometimes when I see them there, I think of my children, twins who spent the first months of their life sleeping within reach of each other’s limbs and breath.
What is it that we need for a quality life? Food, drink, a comfortable bed. Safety and security. Love and connection.
I think of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings, which hang as posters on the wall of a local coffeehouse, Bipartisan Cafe. Used to be you could never get a seat there if you went too late on a weekend morning. I miss going there on weekend mornings or in the late afternoons. I don’t drink coffee, but I love the smell of it, and the hissing and clanging of the espresso machine, the low hum of voices, the sun streaming through windows, the sound of chair legs scraping against worn fir floors, the crust of their banana cream pie.
I miss a lot of small things. Estate sales, busy parks, food cart pods with picnic tables and twinkle lights.
I miss the sound of Rocky’s nails clicking on the floor as he ran to chase a toy thrown by one of the kids, back when he could run the way I could when I was a teenager, with a smooth, swift stride. I miss sitting down to eat dinner with my daughter and son every night. I miss my grandparents, who I will never see again, and my parents who I cannot know when I will see again. I’m planning to, but you know how hopes can go.
Yesterday we got take-out pastries and took them to a park. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. When a loose toddler veered too close, I tensed up. When a runner with no face mask passed us on a path, I wondered if an invisible cloud of disease trailed him, and if we were walking in it, breathing it in. “Let’s go home,” I said.
I miss feeling hopeful.
I miss freedom from want and fear.
“Rocky still has some life in him,” the vet says, “and it could be a little while yet, but I want you to be prepared for what’s coming.” I nod.
“I know,” I say, thinking: How do any of us prepare for what’s coming, really?
“His quality of life is OK for now, but it could change quickly. And when it does, it could go downhill very fast.” His eyes are still kind, but solemn, and I press what’s left of Rocky to my chest, nodding my head again, and I keep him close to me for the rest of the day after we return home.
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A country that showed the world how to defeat polio now promotes quack remedies involving household disinfectants from the presidential podium.
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A country that sent George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower to crush the Nazis now fights a war against a viral killer with Jared Kushner, a feckless failed real estate speculator who holds power by virtue of his marriage to the president’s daughter.”
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The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying: “The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence.”
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Do Animals Get Dementia? (yes)