Thanksgiving for Eight Kisses In her journal The House by the Sea, May Sarton describes walking with her friend Judy and dog Tamas to the Maine shore in early December: “How glorious it was! Fifty-mile gusts of wind driving the waves … Continue reading
A Dog Story, Nice Ending
Layla is a lunk—there’s no other way to put it. She is eighty akimbo pounds of yellow Lab who bounds onto your lap and noses her way past your face and into your soul. My grand-dog is frantic with affection.
Since April Fools’ Day, when our second grandson Killian was born, wife Kathy and I have been dog-sitting. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt are rightly afraid that Layla might lick the skin off our newborn’s hide, accidentally trample grandson one, toddler Cole, or bowl over Matt, who recently broke his leg. So with the exception of a couple of trips home for good behavior, Layla has lodged at the Coleman house.
Last night she flopped beside me in front of the television, spent after a day of urgent missions only she understood. I ran my hand over her closed eyes and soft ears and said, “You’re Pop’s good pup, aren’t you? You’re a good girl.”
She was at ease, but nobody can bliss her out like Matt. And if any dog needs some bliss, it’s Layla. All it takes to reduce her to hours of trembling is a balloon. A couple weeks ago Kathy and Cole were in the basement popping leftover birthday balloons, probably a dozen of them. Later I found Layla in our mudroom, quivering and cowering.
Lots of dogs get panicky on July 4th, but why would loud pops unhinge a pup for a whole day? That’s how long it sometimes takes for Layla to stop shaking.
We’re pretty sure of the answer. On August 19, 2013, her owner, Dean Haggerty, was shot to death in his Summit Township mobile home. Dean’s daughter and son were there, as was Layla. Dean’s fiancé Kristina had pulled the trigger.
As one of Dean’s childhood friends, Matt gathered with the Haggerty family. The dust hadn’t even begun to settle. What exactly happened? Good Lord, the kids! And, oh yeah, what about the dog?
One room can contain only so much shock and uncertainty. Numb silence. Could anyone take in Layla? More silence.
Matt hadn’t seen much of Dean in the months before the shooting and had never laid eyes on Layla. But when he realized that his dead buddy’s dog might be homeless, Matt’s yes came out by its own volition. He hadn’t consulted Elena, who was seven months pregnant with Cole, or thought things through. In that moment, his love was like Layla’s, reckless and snout-first.
How old was Layla? Nobody knew, but she was clearly in the mad dash of puppyhood. That first night with Matt and Elena, she paced and whimpered. In the small hours of the morning, she finally fell asleep on the couch at Matt’s feet.
Over the last couple of years, Layla has become family. Early on, she ducked when I reached out to pet her. Was she fearful by nature or treated harshly? Again, nobody knew.
Today, Layla doesn’t look over her shoulder much. Family and friends have nosed into her vulnerable spirit and earned her trust. If the world would quit popping, her peace would be complete.
Layla must be at least four, but she hasn’t received the memo that she’s not a puppy anymore. The relentless K-9 energy sparking in Matt and Elena’s house can be overwhelming. When visitors get welcomed within an inch of their lives, Elena makes fists, squeezes her eyes shut, growls “Layla,” and then laughs and shakes her head. Charged with minding a toddler, an infant, a temporarily gimping husband, and a joyfully insane Lab, Elena deserves sainthood.
And Layla deserves her home and most of all Matt, a patient, insightful man. When she pins him down with kisses and army-crawls into his soul, he welcomes her in.
I never realized how much Layla loves Matt until recently. Pop will do in a pinch, but only one lap is home. Before family dinner one evening, Matt sat in my recliner, his cast resting on a pillow. Layla climbed aboard and settled in.
She hadn’t seen her master in two weeks and was finally home. No gunshots. Just a goofy dog and a man who said yes.
I couldn’t help taking pictures. Such good feels. Honest stories have flawed endings. Friends die. Balloons explode. But once in a while a last page sings out the possibilities of reckless love. It convinced Layla that she’s a good girl, and maybe, one dog and human at a time, it can also heal the world.
My stride has been ragged lately, my groove flummoxed. As the poet said, “Nothing is plumb, level, or square.” Or the politician: “What a terrible thing it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”
Joy is largely to blame. Wife Kathy and I had friends over the other night to catch up. When eyes turned toward me, I said, “I’m happy,” which took some explaining. During the last couple of years, though surrounded by more love and support than anyone deserves, I have been tired and stressed. Maybe burnout is the word. Against all worldly good sense, Kathy and I raided my retirement funds and bought a hermit-sized home. (“You might come to regret that,” an old colleague said, and I couldn’t disagree.) I left a fourteen-year, full-time pastorate and accepted a part-time call seventy miles south of Erie, right through the region’s snow belt. Oh, and we haven’t sold our big house yet.
We Colemans have either lost our minds or found them. It could be that you have to lose one mind to find another. Since gladness and good sense seldom form right angles, I’m not surprised that my stride and groove—constructs of a neurotic brain—are stepping lightly these days.
I didn’t use these words exactly to unpack “I’m happy” for my friends, but they understood. Forced to choose between weary, anxious circumstances standing in crisp formation or calm ambiguity weaving like a drunkard, I’ll take the latter.
That is to say, I have taken the latter and am learning to embrace uncertainty and surprises. Lately sleep has been whimsical. A new work schedule has taken issue with my long-standing afternoon habit of napping. Like an AARP veteran, I’m reading in bed at 8:30 p.m. and surrendering by 9:00 or 9:30. The result: I wake up at 2:00 a.m., float to the bathroom, return to bed, and abide in a space that is to sleep what free association is to therapy.
Neither refreshed enough to get up nor drowsy enough to disappear, I breathe. Deep breaths, yes, but not those of my past, taken to lift a burden just enough to endure another hour or hush a remark that can’t be retrieved. If insomnia is an enemy, my peculiar wakefulness is a bearer of gifts.
Darkness is upsetting if you’re trying to find something, but it’s a gentle companion if you’re waiting to be found. A few nights ago snoring found me, not my own, but wife’s and dog’s. The sounds, joining for a moment then going their own ways, were blessings. Kathy has been swollen, weak, and achy for the last couple of months, and neither we nor the doctors know why. No matter what noise it makes, her sleep is medicinal. I welcome it. And Watson has weeks rather than months to live. The fatty tumor on his flank is getting hard. The growth on his forehead pains him more by the day. I now hope to come home and find that he has slipped away while dreaming that he and I are going for a run like we did years ago. His snore means that we don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. God bless his kind soul, even our walls and floors will miss him. I think now of his eyes, alive and expectant when Kathy and I left him this morning, and am close to undone.
The first decoration I nailed up in the Coleman’s new home is wisdom from a rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“Just to be” in a warm bed next to Kathy; “just to live” one more day with Watson: these are the teachings of wakefulness. My chest rises and falls, each in-breath a blessing, each out-breath sacred.
But my darkness isn’t deceptive. It would never say to a lost soul, “Just to be is a blessing.”
Instead I hear, “One corner of your joy will always be uneven, cracked with grief. Whatever mind you possess, it will never be satisfied.”
In this moment, I close my eyes to learn, invite the 2:00 a.m. wakefulness, and hear the rabbi more clearly. Breathing is grace. I survive on love. And I pray: “When my dog dies, Holy One, please help him not to be afraid.”
The Coleman family’s black Lab-terrier mix Watson is getting to be more of a jalopy every day. It’s hard to believe he showed up at our house twelve years ago in the arms of a neighbor and slept peacefully and without piddles between wife Kathy and me his first night with us. Now he has fatty tumors everywhere (one the size of a Florida orange morphing into Nebraska on his flank), a gnarly-pink-jelly-beanish growth on his gums, arthritic shoulders and hips, two blown ACLs, and a metal rod in one leg.
He may also have hearing loss. He has never been tested, but he talks as though we can’t hear him. A noise outside or anybody’s arrival warrants hoops and hollers ascending in pitch and volume. His request for Senior Milk Bones is a single, soul-piercing bark. Most of the colorful language in the house is in response to Watson’s loud barking.
I ought to be more disciplined about giving the old boy treats, for three reasons: 1.) More treats lead only to more barking. 2.) He is gaining weight. And 3.) Senior Milk Bones give him gas, which he most often shares during our afternoon nap.
We have a ritual. Watson hobbles after me to the bedroom, his nails dragging across the wooden part of the steps. I set my alarm for one hour in the future, put my head on the pillow, and he plops on the floor. After five or ten minutes, he walks around to the other side of the bed and stands there as if to say, “This is going to hurt.”
I say, “Come on up, Watty. Get your spot.” Kathy and I love him so much we removed the bed frame to make it easier for him to get up. “Come on,” I usually have to nudge. “You can do it.”
He hops up, presses his nose against mine, and looks me in the eye—no kidding.
I scratch his jowls, receive a lick on my snout, and tell him, “Okay, buddy, it’s nap time. Lie down.”
He spins twice or thrice and lands in a heap, usually with his bum inches from my face. Twice a week, I’d say, the fun begins right here. I’m not sure what it was about yesterday’s treat allotment, but that mutt stung my nostrils.
For fifteen minutes afterwards, Watson’s flatus molecules clung to my cilia. His oblivion spoke like film’s Rain Man to his brother in the phone booth: “I don’t mind it.”
This coming Saturday morning, Kathy and I are taking our pal to Union City, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes from Erie. We hear a veterinarian there has unorthodox methods that restore broken-down pups. All Watty’s barks, infirmities, and air bagels aside, his death will knock the wind out of us. He is unconditional love in a loud, lumpy, smelly package.
A couple months ago Kathy and I closed on a house less than half the size of our current place. We want to hose the material excess and crud from our lives, but a benefit to having everything on one floor is that our gimp won’t have to climb stairs. We’ll move soon, but I looked at Watson the other day and thought, “Oh, buddy, I hope you get to spend some good time with us there.” You never know when.
I’ve always said that Watson is as dumb as a turnip, but as I make my way toward needing senior biscuits, I’m learning that intelligence isn’t all about brain cells. In fact, I would argue that wisdom generally has to overcome gray matter. My dog taught me this a couple days ago. Here’s the chronology:
- I got home from work, put down my satchel, slung my coat over a dining room chair, held a couple of Senior Milk Bones out to Watson, and put little kitty treats on the counter for Shadow Cat and Baby Crash, who were trying to hypnotize me with their stare.
- I made a quick visit to the bathroom. As is his custom, Watson heard the flush and remembered where the coldest, most refreshing water bowl in the house was. Ugh.
- I sat down in the living room for twenty minutes of prayer-meditation. My Zen bell had just sounded when I heard Watson labor upstairs. A few seconds later he thumped back down. My eyes were closed, but I could feel his doggy presence beside me.
- He had retrieved his biscuit ball, a heavy rubber toy with holes on each end that you stuff broken bits of Milk Bones into to occupy your dog. For once he didn’t care about treats. He wanted to play fetch.
I’m not a fetch kind of guy. I enjoy a good laugh; beyond this I’m not much fun. Occasionally I’ve explained this to Watson: “Now look, you know I don’t play. I cuddle. Your mother plays, right?”
Two brown eyes can teach a lot, even if there’s not much between them. “Hey, Dad,” my dog said, “what’s your life worth if you can’t spare enough time to throw a ball ten times? You know that’s as much as I can handle these days.” Seriously, that moment with Watson, his eyes pup-clear and that purple toy sticking out of his dopey mouth, goes into my spirit’s photo album. My brain cells are always crowding out wisdom. My old friend clarified a lot for me.
Pray or play? A whisper came from inside: “Why not both, busy, neurotic, fragile man?”
“Okay,” I said and sat at the end of the dining room table. I threw the ball all the way to the kitchen counter, fifteen feet, if that—field enough for a twelve-year-old. He rumbled to fetch it and limped back. On maybe the fourth toss, he turned the wrong way and walloped his head against the refrigerator. After recalibrating, he got the ball and sat down beside me as if to say, “What the hey? What just happened?” Thankfully, his head is mostly bone.
But he was right. After a few more trips, he was done.
Replaying fetch in my head right now, I think, “Watson, who will remind to play when you’re gone? Who will look at me in love and help me say to myself, ‘John, stop living in compartments. Always pray. Always play’”? Maybe he’ll stick around long enough to teach me a few more times.
This morning Kathy got up before I did, so Watson took her place. For once getting out of bed wasn’t a chore, but I stayed a couple of minutes. I rested my face on his side and talked to him: “You know I love you, right? You know you’re a good boy? You know I love you?”
He stretched his head back, put his cheek against mine, and snorted—just the answer I was hoping for.
Blogger’s Note: If you read my last post, “Why Babies Fill Us with Longing,” you’ll appreciate daughter Elena’s description of what grandson Cole does when he’s not busy being cuter than a bucket of Shar Pei puppies. Enjoy!
Dear Mom and Dad,
It’s been a funny morning. Cole soaked through his diaper onto the bed (my bed, ugh). Then when I took his diaper off he peed on his own face! So I decided to give him a bath, but the washcloth I had over his bits didn’t hold the explosive poop that is all over my bathroom.
Thank God for dogs.
If it weren’t for the semi-good night sleep I probably wouldn’t have found it so funny.
A couple years ago I read somewhere that human beings are wired to be bi-phasic sleepers. Our bodies want to have one long stretch of sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon. In recent months I’ve morphed into a tri-phasic creature with the following pattern: 1.) 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., solid sleep; 2.) 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., resting wakefulness and occasionally prayer; 3.) 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., first nap; 4.) starting between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. depending on commitments, second nap.
My early morning wakefulness has taken on a routine of its own. Kathy is on one side, curled on her side and facing away from me, and Watson is on the other, facing away. My choice, then: spoon with wife or spoon with dog. Resting on my back isn’t an option because they leave me with about eight inches of mattress. I could shove Watson to the floor, but I have a weird impression that sharing my pillow is “I love you” in dog language.
So I sling my arm across Kathy’s waist, rest my face close to her hair, and wait for my left arm to go numb. Then I pry myself loose, hold myself aloft with one arm, flip my girth to the other arm, and with boxers and t-shirt a twisted mess, lower myself as if with a hydraulic jack. “Hi, Watson,” I whisper, kissing his soft ear. “I sure do love you, old buddy.” He responds with a long snort. Eventually I can’t get my right arm comfortable and reverse the process. Adding panache to this deal is cat Baby Crash, who’s generally curled up on the bed’s southern hemisphere.
And so it goes until my first nap arrives at 5:30 a.m. The temptation is to get frustrated, but that only insures that sleep will never return. My hour awake, then, has evolved into a session of drowsy mindfulness. Just seven hours ago I gave thanks for Kathy, how loving and skillful she is with her cancer patients, how she’s content to put a roof on our house or remodel the bathroom while I cook, how she loves me even though I can be a bummer to live with. I gave thanks for Watson, too, my faithful napping partner.
This morning was routine, with two exceptions. As usual I woke up wedged in at 4:17, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel the weary anxiety behind my sternum that’s been plaguing me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to smile at their non-toothaches. (Translation: You don’t appreciate being pain-free until your molar’s screaming. So why wait? Enjoy your non-toothache now.) So I smiled at my calm, for however long it’s going to last.
And I was entertained by a snoring concert in surround sound. Kathy and Watson were both in fine form. For minutes at a time, they snored in call and response. Each brought her/his own talents to the pillows. Watson has a lot more nostril to work with than Kathy, an advantage he uses to full effect. When he inhales, a rattle starts at his cold nose, reverberates up his boney snout, and echoes in his throat and sinuses. The result: you’d think a couple thousand lions are gnawing warthog carcasses in the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kathy has lip dexterity on her side. This morning—and I swear I’m not making this up—she had one exhale that went wee-wee-wee-wee-wee. “How the hell did she do that?” I wondered from my wee portion of the bed. Another exhale was so surprising she heard it herself and woke up briefly. If you were to have a snoring competition, Kathy would have won first place in the Dainty Division. The very tips of her lips fluttered together, making polite raspberries—like a little bitty car with a rusty muffler.
I couldn’t help laughing. “Are you kidding?” I said.
Her groggy response: “Yeah, it had to happen.”
Umm. Okay. Go back to sleep, dear.
Eventually Kathy and Watson settled into the sighs of deep sleep, and I floated toward a last hour of oblivion before my iPhone’s Goldberg Variations alarm started the day. The last thought I remember was of grandson Cole, my present blue ribbon of gratitude. He reminds me that no matter how often I stub my emotional toes on standard upsets, I’ve no excuse to complain. I’ve lived long enough to be a grandparent, had the chance to rest my lips on that baby’s head and breathe in his pure, fragile life. That’s grace enough for one lifetime.
I’m not sure how long my eccentric body and neurotic mind will go with this tri-phasic sleep plan, but as long as it lasts, I intend to receive it as a visitation. Before dawn I smile at what peace I have, breathe in more blessings than I deserve, and wait for my own snoring to return.