At 11 AM on New Year’s Eve my dog stares at me, square in the eyes, from under a brow of black curls as if he wants to know. He wears a translucent lampshade on his head to keep him from gnawing the stitches in his left leg where a mast cell tumor was removed six days before. During the night he scratched so hard he pulled off the collar and his ferocious licking of the wound woke my husband. He looks sheepish and slightly absurd, those perpetually gentle eyes with cusps along the bottom rim, milky and red, as he looks up. The area above his hock is spongy, the stitches bristling, the incision bright like coils on an electric stove. He itches all over, a stealthy legacy of the tumor, said the vet, and I give him Benadryl pills wrapped in bologna. After scratching to go out, he stands under the pine tree staring blankly, severed from his olfactory reality by a good ten inches. He scrounges through the ferns like a blind man in a supermarket. At night I hear his leg drumming against plastic in a fruitless attack. I hear plastic whapping into coffee tables and chairs and brushing and thumping the carpet on the stairs as the rim of the collar catches. Last night he barked at one, three, and four AM, a piercing bark that swerved into my consciousness like a driver out of control. I tottered down the stairs and slumped at the kitchen table, blinking my sticky eyes, while he hustled outside. Through the black windows I couldn’t discern his black form at all, only the ghostly lampshade moving back and forth across the yard.
At noon we are back at the vet’s. I sit on the edge of a bench in the miniscule waiting room, and Finny quivers and leans into my knees while the vet’s pug scuttles around breathing heavily and two parrots in a cage to my left vituperate like caustic tenants at a coop meeting. It’s a small-town family operation, the large vet in jeans and his large wife in a long flowy skirt with crinkly grey hippie hair down to her waist. With her hearty arms, each bearing at least a dozen tin bracelets, she lifts Finny onto the table. Somehow the incision burst open and wet flesh like a persimmon glistens under fluorescent light. Fuck, says the vet. You’ll have to leave him here for a few hours. His Santa Claus eyes squint from his thick unshaven cheeks. The malignant cells started as immune cells to combat an allergy, he says. Now they’ve shifted allegiance and traveled to the perimeter of the battleground, possibly launching into the great unknown like pioneers looking for waterways to the west. Yet it’s not romantic. The vet prescribes tranquilizers and antibiotics and recommends we start chemotherapy at the end of the week. Since the treatment is systemic, I decide against the blood test that would reveal if the cancer has spread.
2:oo on New Year’s Eve: the woodsy smell of coffee is seeping up the stairs. My son sits at the table reading about the bombing of Syria and eating a banana muffin. Later he’ll go into Manhattan to celebrate with his friends who graduated from college last spring and have no idea what to do with their lives. They get odd jobs from Craig’s list, take kids on wilderness trips, wait tables at diners, enter training programs at investment firms, and gravitate toward graduate school where careers remain categories rather than realities.
Upstairs I dump the laundry on his bed and Paul comes up to sort and fold, separating his clothes from ours, and stuffing them into a duffel. I glance at the oak desk, the college diploma leaning against the wall, the rows of art books propped between stereo speakers, the shelves of LPs—my old Beatles albums, Cream, Doors, Temptations. On his desk is a leather pad and pen set that sat on his grandfather’s desk in his law office in Philadelphia. Every day my father would snatch his briefcase, slam the screen door, and drive to his office in his seersucker or tweeds in a quixotic foreign car. At 80 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which traveled to his once acute brain and killed him three months later.
By 4:00 my husband has brought Finny home, and he lies at my feet. “Fin, ah Feeee-un,” I say, stroking his flank. Lately he senses a new poignancy in my touch and capitalizes on it, leaning against my knees in a near swoon. But now, basking in a Jacuzzi of refracted light and still drugged, he doesn’t budge. The light reveals my fingerprints on his collar, flecks of dirt, and dried streams where water dribbled from his chin. But he’s only six.
He’s the baby, the third child, the spoiled one. More spousal fights have erupted over him than over the kids. With the latter, my husband always deferred: “Go ask your mother, she knows the rules.” Whereupon he would resume reading the Times and complete the crossword. But Fin, he knew a soft touch. Feigning sleep at my husband’s end of the table, he’d get up from time to time to check the progress on Brian’s plate, black nostrils just quivering over the table rim. A scrap of pork left, a roll. A little more time. Brian would look at him, crooning, yes, I have something for you at which point Fin’s tail would get going and low whines begin to roll from his throat ballooning into shrill outright demands just as I snap, “Don’t look at him, don’t even look his way!”
“Who me, what’d I do?”
Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, Brian was of the opinion Fin’s diet was inadequate without table food. This was a matter of sheer empathy, an admirable trait in a spouse, but Fin was on the receiving end of most of it especially when a doctor suggested Brian slow his intake of triple crème brie, the beginning of the end; soon he’d be eating dry kibble twice a day and life would not be worth living.
I rummage in a cabinet for an extra frying pan for Paul, who’s moving out. I never moved back after college, after all. God no. But my parents were old, I reason, and about as spontaneous as Kant or chicken soup. In Paul’s twenty-two years of life I should have realized he’d do something “for good,” and he’d be gone. But child rearing, from the point of view of the novice parent, is a morass of transitions— teething, talking, tooth fairies and blasted myths of tooth fairies, confirmations and graduations, lies and rebellion, new sneakers, pimples, ingrown toenails, broken wrists, pot. It’s not about ends because, like homework, there’s always more.
Or like dog walks. So far we’ve clocked 6570 circuits around the neighborhood, reversing direction every week or so for new views on life.
Or the ripple effect. Fin chewed a corner of linoleum which meant replacing the whole floor at which point sanding the existing wood seemed brilliant but once that was done the other floors looked like shit, so we vacated not to die of polyurethane fumes, resulting in a few hundred dropped at a nearby inn that wouldn’t take dogs so we paid for him at a precious kennel that doesn’t crate the dogs. Boom $2360.
Once long ago there was the eternity of babyhood. My daughter brimming with nurturing hormones at age eleven, carried her puppy in her arms upstairs and down, lifted him when a garbage truck growled too close and he froze in his little tracks, balking at her tug on the red leash. He brought out her most patient self witnessed to date when he gnawed through her fifth pair of flip flops, the thick ones, ate her cell phone, stole cookies right out of her hand, shredded her homework of course– ate my students’ homework too–and still she carried him about, his ever larger paws draped over her shoulder, his ears cocked as if posing for Puppy Vogue. “I bonded with him in his infancy,” she would later say.
While “sivilized” children were at school, Fin was out back, forelegs scrambling rapid fire as he dug up daffodil bulbs and left their brittle skins among the daisies and crabgrass; he rolled in grass seed, leaving craters of naked dirt; he scaled chicken wire and dug under a post and rail, ate a rope hammock, butter off the counter. And there was the case of the missing spoons.
Further mystery. “To my dying day,” puzzles my husband, martini in hand, peering over my shoulder while I sauté shallots, “never will I understand why Fin leaves the room while his supper is being prepared.” It’s true. At the clank of the kibble jar, he leaves the kitchen, lies in the hall, and wanders in nonchalantly once a cup of Eukanuba is dumped in a dish. Fin is a class act.
Paul, also, waits till the food is ready, but for different reasons. Sometimes at dinner he pushes back his chair and lifts Fin into his lap, this big sprawling dog with his back legs spread open, front ones flopping. For a moment he rests his head on Paul’s shoulder, then scrambles, ill at ease. Paul doesn’t have the paternal touch yet, which is just as well. He’s on the move, and Fin knows. He plops down and resumes his position by Brian’s chair, an opportunist who spreads his affection around the family, more politic than our previous dog, or Romney.
I try to exploit Brian’s newfound interest in psychology. “So why is our son dating that girl?”
“Beats me. I wouldn’t.”
There I am eyes wide open at night tracing a zigzag crack in the ceiling and wondering how that girl and I are different and how I’ll deal with her at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I’m not as politic as Fin.
The family configuration will change. I accept that in the abstract and convince myself I’m halfway there.
Around 7 pm Finny heaves himself up and sways to the top of the stairs. His front paws extend in front of him, and he dips his head in a futile attempt to lick the shaved area where the vet inserted needles during surgery. Poised like a sphinx, he stares down the stairs toward the front door, his eyes half hidden under a curtain of black curls, his white chest bright like a dress shirt, anticipating something—it’s New Year’s Eve after all—and we’re all balanced on the fulcrum between what we’ve done and what we will do.
I look back, Brian ahead. At the moment he’s staring into the screen of his laptop, as if into a crystal ball, reading about tumors. His eyes water and he claims he forgot his allergy pills. We don’t know everything yet, I say, irritated. He gets up, leans against the counter, crosses his arms, visibly swallowing his thoughts. I shouldn’t shut him down. Twenty-first century men are supposed to show their emotions and I’m usually trying to draw him out and enrich the spaghetti dinners during commercial breaks from Anderson Cooper. How do you feel about your mom’s Parkinson’s, how do you feel about your boss?
“It is what it is,” he shrugs, eyeing my plate because I never eat the last bite and he knows who will.
It’s New Year’s Eve and there will be steak scraps for Fin– fat pure and simple– unencumbered by the weight of time and assessment of accomplishments to date. Still, the extra notch of pity for his suffering is in the air, and Fin’s going to exploit it, as human males do with head colds.
Finny also looks ahead. Out for the evening walk, he anticipates the biscuit to be had on return. Once a certain corner is turned, he’s charging with the zeal of customers at Sears on Black Friday. He has honed his survival skills here in the ghetto suburbs of Westchester, something we should all do just in case.
By 10 Paul is in the city sauntering along some avenue, hands in his jeans pocket, his grandfather’s black overcoat offering partial shelter against the wind and light snow sparkling in the streetlights, drifting from party to party with people I don’t know, people I’ll never know. They listen to Jay-Z and Rick Ross and Lil Wayne. I mean, DMX is practically a neighbor with his stone house behind bars up in Bedford. One of us. So I guess Paul will be back.
“How do you feel about him leaving?” I ask, eyeing the contingent from South Dakota getting pumped on TV. A long wait in ten-degree weather for a metal ball to fall.
“It’s what he should do.”
At 11 the phone rings and I dart into Paul’s room to answer it. A gum wrapper lies on the bureau, as if he just opened it, and a scent of Old Spice snaps me into his presence as surely as the smell of certain molasses cookies reignites my childhood. It’s my brother in Wisconsin who wishes me happy New Year, prematurely, and tells me he has prostate cancer, the most aggressive kind. If it hasn’t spread, they can do radiation; if it has, there isn’t anything they can do except, says the doctor, pray, the tacit understanding between me and my brother being, no one’s doing that. “Pretty weird,” he says, “Here I am wishing I just have prostate cancer.” Pacing with my phone, eyes blurring like snow outside a dark window, I nearly trip over Finny. How could I miss him with his lampshade collar? He has rolled on his back in anticipation of a belly rub and eyes me with near disdain. You can’t deny me. And he knows I won’t. Silence on the line. I don’t know what to say. My brother. Except I can’t believe it. Survive. Don’t be anxious about what hasn’t happened yet. I squat and rub the slope of Fin’s belly from the smudgy white chest to the thinning hair near his groin.
The confluence of events is fictive. Who would believe it?
New Year’s Eve is long. What’s quick is the flick of the red clock at midnight, then a hiccup in time before we ask–where are we now?
On TV crowds are dispersing from Times Square, and a blizzard of tickertape lies underfoot. White blood cells and red, bone cells and marrow, obedient cells and cells in riot are preparing to divide.
Labor Day. Fin has dug a nice cool hole in the dirt against the wall at the back of our property. He peers at me from behind the trunk of a pine that has lost its lower branches. He watches my every move now, following me when I go inside, standing at the low window and staring out when I get in my car. He’s old. But I don’t know what he needs now that he didn’t before.
The texture of his hair has changed. It’s lighter, less curly, less black though not gray. I try Black Pearl Shampoo and Conditioner but like Shiseido wrinkle cream, it doesn’t have lasting effect. Mulch from the yard and leaves that fell early because of a draught cling to his coat and litter the house when he comes inside.
It’s been five days since the last surgery, and the lampshade lies in the corner of the kitchen. The vet said we wouldn’t need it at all this time, that Fin was so old and stiff he probably couldn’t reach the stitches near his anus where another tumor was removed. But as soon as the anesthesia wore off, he was at it, curled in a ball, gnawing at the stitches and licking with all his healing power focused in the muscles of his tongue. A fifty-pound dog with a homespun haircut, survivor of four surgeries and a month of chemo.
By now the itching has subsided and we free him from his collar. The tumor came from male hormones, the vet said, and he’d probably get another unless we neutered him. (Baldness results from male hormones too, according to my husband, but he has not taken desperate measures.) I’ve never seen the point of circumcision or any of that meddling, but I have little expertise in the matter, being female and interior and deriving femaleness from factors other than the overtly sexual. “Once he’s out,” laughed the assistant vet who had no idea of Fin’s heroic victories over cancer cells in riot, “of course we should neuter him.”
Of course? Fin tiptoes around miniature poodles. He assumes the submissive position when a terrier merely clears his throat, just as my father opted to remain silent when my mother yapped about coffee grains spilled on the counter, or his inability to fix a leaky faucet (he wasn’t one with the physical world), or his third bourbon, which she considered excessive. “I wanted him to fight back,” she later confided, “to be strong.” My father probably thought there was manliness in restraint, but he wouldn’t have articulated that.
Fin’s true love was a stalwart male boxer that snarled and charged when we approached. While I cringed, Finny pranced. He’d smell the dog a hundred yards away and dash into the woods while I sprinted behind, yelling futile commands until I found him whining and dancing around the boxer whose owner waited patiently, her dog on a leash, while I attempted to catch mine. Fin had spark, not swagger. And like an aristocrat of Ancient Greece, he didn’t split hairs about sexual orientation.
When I took Fin for stitches removal, I said, “The dog has lost his drive. He lies around all day.”
Again the upstart assistant laughed, “It takes a few weeks for the hormones to get out of the system, it’s not that.”
It’s definitely that. Months later Fin has further refined the art of immobility to an even greater extent than my father who, while still in possession of his jewels, found running depressing and considered diving into a pool and gliding to the other end sufficient exercise for the day. As the sun rages and temperatures accelerate to three digits, Fin lies on his side on the cool stone hallway and fails to respond when I put on the leash and tug, pulling him across the floor.
Once I nudge him with my foot and he realizes the inevitable (like the third alarm after you hit snooze three times) he’s up. Outside, a scent in his elaborate olfactory world captivates him and we linger while he snuffs and grunts and paws at an old clump of leaves to get closer to a trace of deer, another dog, a bit of pizza crust spilled from a garbage can at which point I try to enumerate three external stimuli that lit my world today and decide if they’re more or less ephemeral than pizza crust.
At noon the sun has topped the old oaks and maples leaning over the backyard and sunlight blares with the relentless intensity of oil trucks grinding up the hill. These are siesta hours for Fin. No meals going on right now, his primary raison d’etre like most men over the age of twenty-five.
Labor Day. All over the country men are flicking on their electric grills, pouring kerosene on nuggets of charcoal, flipping burgers, marinating steaks, swigging beer, munching chips. Even the oak leaves are heavy, sagging in the humidity and scarcely quivering when a breeze happens to pass. Hemlock limbs and the furling backs of maple leaves are as weathered and dull as Fin’s coat or my mother’s hands.
Half my family looks ahead to fall evenings that nip your cheeks when you step outside after work and it’s already dark, the other half looks back to the lassitude of summer shorts and blue hydrangea nodding in clusters over the back fence. It’s immaterial; we have to resume our drive and accelerate into real or imagined productivity, Fin excepted. There he lies in the dirt, deaf to my calls, deaf to the school busses grinding up the hill with a new cargo of kids off to meet new legions of teachers. He has retired from the long walks up and down hills overlooking the Hudson. The circumference of his world is shrinking, like my mother’s.
Last night she went to the hospital again. She doesn’t swallow well, and some bit of bread or the tip of a bean lodged in her lungs like a fly on flypaper whose waxy wings vibrate uselessly as in a dream where the will cannot will one’s feet to move. And so the lovely bit of white bread caused vomiting and a fever of 104. Years ago, when my mother’s mind was as sharp as an eagle’s beak, she signed a living will saying she didn’t’ want feeding tubes and resuscitators; more recently, in consultation with her doctor, I shakily signed a document about “comfort care” which discourages other undue intervention that would be stressful for a woman of 94. An aide called yesterday, needing permission to send my mother beyond the walls of the nursing home to save her life.
I wouldn’t have let the vet give chemo to Fin if it did to dogs what it does to humans. At some point one suffers enough. And a dog suffers without knowing why, which makes it worse, some humans think, though a dog doesn’t need to contemplate the odds of survival. Still, every day I would’ve looked at him and thought, I could be god, and decide you should live longer, or try. The first time my mother was in the hospital with pneumonia, a doctor called to ask me about ventilators. I was driving to work, speeding along a suburban street where little kids waited for the bus. I didn’t know about the living will or if I did I couldn’t think of it then. Should I say yes to breathing? Cop lights flashed in my rearview mirror and veered past. I pulled off the road, my chest constricted, head on the steering wheel. “Yes.” But then I came home and dug a yellowed document from the file cabinet and called him back.
Even so, she survived.
6 pm on Labor Day. The grill is hissing with fatty burgers, highways clogged with people heading home on the cusp of summer. I call my mother and tell her every bit of news I can think of because she doesn’t say a word unless I say, Are you still there? And then she says, I’m here, so I talk about the US Open and Paul’s new girlfriend and my new students and the tornado sweeping through the county, and even now the sun glints beneath an eggplant cloud and thunder growls far away beyond the strain of traffic on our hill, but then she falls asleep on the phone, and I sit on the back step staring at a little black screen with its connection to nothing, trying to think it’s good that she sleeps, though I didn’t say good-bye or I’ll call you tomorrow.
And there is my son, the one who left forever but here he is, home for the weekend. Paul finds Fin’s sheepskin toy lying in the dirt under a rhododendron, its stuffing and squeaker long disinterred. He waves it, and Fin prances, lifting his front paws, taking the toy and shaking it in his mouth as if it were a mouse he had to kill, but we know he has no killer instinct (especially now), and he drops the limp old thing– Paul throws it again, and Fin stares blankly around the yard till we point him in the right direction. Then he races to retrieve it and tears toward the fence, pulls a u-turn, dodges the rhododendrons and streaks across the tiny yard to the opposite side where he drops the toy and madly digs in the dirt, stops suddenly to see if we’re watching, at which point Paul seizes the toy and tosses it as he did when he was five for Fin’s predecessor, and I realize life recurs in parallel scenes more than we ever expect it to. Fin abandons his hole to race again around the yard, Paul lurching at him in a pretense of a tackle, which he would never do now since he’s four times Fin’s weight. My son left home an artist and returned a lawyer. In five minutes Fin returns to his cool spot by the back wall, panting. Paul oversees the steaks.
He used to be fast, really fast. Once Fin found a deer leg in the woods and I chased him for an hour before herding him towards the car, which he leapt into just to get a biscuit, maggoty deer leg in tow. When my mother was here for Christmas one year with her anxiety-ridden Westie, I spilled red wine on the rug, and we sprinkled some lethal white chemical stain remover on it, which the terrier ate. “Ye Gods,” shrieked my white haired mother, calling 911. My daughter held the dog in the sink, pouring cup after cup of water in her mouth while we hovered around in solicitous horror, and Fin tiptoed toward the table, grabbed the entire duck and fled.
He suffered no moral qualms. When his namesake stole a chicken now and then, he said his pap called it borrowing if you intended to pay it back. I didn’t want the duck back. And Fin’s rationale was a bit different: to him it was all in the family, and table food was his food, eventually. As Brian hurled himself at Fin with his trophy, I looked at him and shrugged: any woman blames her husband before her kids.
By 7:00 the oak branches are swirling and gray rain coats the windows on the river side of the house. I go up to get a long-sleeve shirt but stay in my shorts and flip flops. As I push aside my summer dresses I look down and there is Fin. He has found me, and I give him a quick pat on the head. He looks up from under his black curls and one eye is filmy blue like the windowpanes right now, and white pus lines the lower rim. With one pat he is reassured of whatever it is he needs now and didn’t need before. His needs are so easily met, and I wonder if my kids will have to wonder what I need to feel whole when I reach his age, which is 91 if we trust the human/dog ratio, or 94, like my mother who quietly, now, endures, spooning pureed food and dozing through time without the demarcations of a New Year or a Labor Day, joints in time that assemble past, present, and future into something nearly, but not quite, tangible.
Out the window I see the birch has already lost so many leaves, they lie around the trifurcated trunk like paper tears. One trunk stands half the height of the others, amputated in a freak snowstorm one year when the leaves were still on the trees and snow weighted the limbs till they snapped like chicken bones. Because fall is coming we’ll hustle to the train tomorrow with renewed vigor. Because my mother is ever so slowly dying, I’ll call tomorrow and wake her up. We sit down to eat as lightning flares through the house, lighting for an instant the green glasses filled with water, the swelling butter, the burnished kernels of corn, the fat veined steak. Fin takes his position at Brian’s side, pants for a few minutes then falls asleep, certain of certain scraps.