Learning to Wait: Walking the Dog as Contemplative Practice

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Norval takes a rest.

This is pretty much how our outings go. I move, Norval doesn’t. If he’s not sniffing, relieving himself, eating sticks, or barking at Gus the Goldendoodle, he’s most likely defying me. He knows he gets rewarded for “good walking,” so when he loses the mood, and he doesn’t see me reaching for the treats in my pocket, he simply plants himself. Dog as immovable object.

“No peanut butter crunchies, no walkie-walkie, Lady Who Thinks She’s in Control,” he seems to say.

“Spoiled,” offers a friend.

“Stubborn,” declares Precious.

Just as with some other concerns in my life, I need to adjust my thinking about this daily routine. For if I continue to focus on my frustration, we’ll never make any headway, the dog or me. If I see only what’s going wrong—dog not training as fast as I would like—I won’t notice what’s going just fine—dog making some progress and spring on its way.

Lately I’ve been feeling put upon, what with Precious being sick, and my books not being published. Granted, I haven’t written them yet, but several authors just had readings in town and I’m hooked on the acclaim and the accomplishment, not the hard work and the hustle.

So this morning, while Norval splayed himself on the pavement, I listened to the birds and admired the trees about to burst. I gave thanks to God for the progress Precious is making with his cancer treatments, and for my writing that has been published. I waved at the new neighbor, and wandered down memory lane upon seeing the forsythia on the corner, as that particular yellow always takes me straight back to Grandmother Lyles’ house on South Ninth Street in Oxford, Mississippi.

These are simple things, and they may sound hokey to you. But such small shifts led to my looking heavenward and saying a prayer, instead of cursing under my breath. They reminded me how adorable Norval is most of the time, and what he means to Precious and me. They convinced me that pulling on the leash was not the answer. Waiting was the answer. And so I did.

Eventually, Norval deigned to move, and we made it back home at our own pace, one paw in front of the other, with our behavior, and our gratitude, intact.

“Her Name Is Martha” {A Prayer for My Mother}

MarthaI type these words as I email my prayer request to some folks at church, people who might be aware my mother is still living but who don’t necessarily know her name. They might even have a vague recollection that she’s in Mississippi, but they can’t know that we used to dance together in the living room to “I’m a little teapot,” or about the memorable conversation we had while riding the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard, or how she used to sign her letters “Love, Me.”

“My mother has been hospitalized with pneumonia,” I write. “She is 93 and has dementia. I worry that she’s afraid. Her name is Martha.”

We hate this for her, my sisters and me, her body being subjected to multiple injections and further indignities. She’s had breast and colon cancer; blood clots in her lungs; gallbladder surgery; Crohn’s disease. Hasn’t she suffered enough? I pray for her not to linger, and wonder if I am trying to outmaneuver God.

“Do not be afraid.”

This is what I would whisper to my mother at her bedside, but my sisters tell me not to drive the 400 miles south toward the town of our births.

“She’s stable,” they say. “We’ll keep you posted.”

We’ve been at the brink a couple of times, so close that my sisters and I once gathered in the hospital lobby to go over our notes about what Mother said she wanted at her funeral and draft her obituary. We sometimes pretend we are prepared.

Several days after penning that prayer request, my mother was released from the hospital. She does not remember what was done to her, or why. And maybe that is for the best.

So we continue on, grateful for today, and trying not to borrow trouble for tomorrow.

“Do not be afraid.”

Love Affair, Interrupted: The Ones Left Behind

He looks like Grandmother Wilson,” I said, remembering my paternal grandmother, who died in the early 1980s.

Yes,” said my mother. “He does.” She took a shallow breath and then, “Why did this happen?” Mother stared at Daddy and I patted him on the shoulder, which seemed to make me feel like I was doing something helpful.

“Would you like to go ahead and take his jewelry with you?” asked the nurse.

His wedding ring and class ring (University of Mississippi, Sigma Nu, 1948) came off fairly easily, but the watch was harder. His hands had always been big—something I inherited from him, along with his sensitive skin and his tendency toward impatience—and it seemed his hands and wrists had doubled in size since he’d been in the hospital. Watching the nurse struggle became too painful. “Greedy daughters take jewelry off dead father. Film at eleven.” In reality, we were simply clawing for any piece of Daddy that we might keep, anything that might outlast death.

“I’ll get that off for you later,” said the nurse.

Mother cradled his wedding band in her palm, and I slipped the class ring on the thumb of my right hand. It was too big, even for my pudgy fingers, but I wasn’t about to let go.

“Sometimes I like to pray with the family,” said the nurse. “Is that all right with you?”

Who knows how each of us prayed silently as the nurse spoke, her voice soft and clear and sure as she asked for the emotional healing of my family. Her short hair and wire-rimmed glasses gave off a certain air of efficiency, but it was not just about the job for this woman. It was about us, too, the ones left behind. The ones she could still help.

As for me, I thanked God for giving me such a fabulous father. And then I bawled like a baby.

 

Love Affair, Interrupted: “Just Like That”

Reservation Confirmation for Martha and Earl's Honeymoon in 1948

“The obituary pages tell us of the news that we are dying away while the birth announcements in finer print, off at the side of the page, inform us of our replacements…”—Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell

As my father drew his last breath, he did not rise up to confess the name of an unknown love child or reach out to my mother to proclaim his love one more time. He simply died.

“Is this it?” asked Mother. At 78, she looked like a child who had lost sight of her parents in a crowded shopping mall.

“I think so,” I told her, crying, searching the nurse’s face for a signpost of my own. She nodded.

“Yes,” I said to my mother. “I think this is it.” She climbed onto the hospital bed and lay down beside Daddy, cradling his head in her arms and whispering into his right ear. She was wedged between the side rails and her soulmate. My two sisters and I huddled around the other side of the bed, taking turns telling Daddy good-bye. Later we discovered that Ann and Mother were begging him to stay, while Ginny and I were telling him he could go, his work with us was done, he had done it well. We did not know if Daddy could hear us, and in light of the conflicting messages, maybe it’s best if he didn’t. It’s a good thing Daddy always knew his own mind.

It became obvious rather quickly that my father was indeed dying. Numbers dropped on machines, glowing lines lost their arcs and veered toward flat. I know you’re not supposed to be able to hear hearts break, but I swear I heard something, loud and clear. After twenty-four hours of his head swaying back and forth, his face obscured by an oxygen mask, the first love of my live was gone.

The nurse moved to turn off the machines that accompanied my father from this life to the next. Despite her best efforts, she could not get one of them to stop beeping.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” More beeping.

My friend Mary said when her sister died of skin cancer—she was only 35—there was a death rattle, sort of a guttural sound. All I heard, besides the beeping, was absence. Ann, Ginny, and I helped Mother down from the hospital bed. We gathered ourselves one into the other and moved around the room as a single unit, a glob of grief, not knowing where to go or when to stop. Occasionally one of us reached for a tissue or glanced out the window at the skyline of the city that had served as our family’s backdrop for more than half a century. But mostly we drifted around Daddy’s bed, first one side, then the other.

When Mother sank to the floor in a heap, phrases that didn’t begin to do the scene justice came to mind: thought I might die; took my breath away; hit me like a ton of bricks; I was beside myself. I kept looking for the just-right cliché, but I did not find it. As a daughter, I was speechless. As a writer, I was at a loss for words.

When a doctor entered the room, my mother looked at him square in the face and wailed, “Why did this happen?”

“Blood vessels get weak over time,” he said. “There was nothing we could do.”

“She thinks she might have done something to save him,” I said, softly. “She thinks it’s her fault.”

I was pleading to a stranger for some remnant of reassurance. Anything. The last family member to arrive at the hospital, I wasn’t introduced to the doctors, wasn’t allowed to view X-rays my sisters saw, pictures that convinced them our father could not be saved.

“We’ve already told her it wasn’t her fault,” said Dr. Meany Pants, curtly, before leaving the room. “Your mother knows better.”

Note to self: After suitable mourning period, confront people who piss me off during the process.

The curtain that separated us from the rest of the world, the world of the living, made a slight shushing sound as it came together behind the doctor.

“Wow, the color sure goes out of you fast,” I said to the nurse, as my father faded to white from his head down.

“Yes, it does,” she replied.

Did I just use the word “wow”? Surely something more meaningful was in order.

“How long can we stay?”

“As long as you like.”

“We might be here a while, then,” I said, but I did not know how long would be long enough. I did not know anything.

I asked the nurse to remove Daddy’s oxygen mask and take out his mouthpiece. The minute she did, I was almost sorry, because then I could really see my precious father’s face. I was reminded this was not some sort of terrible mix-up, like when surgeons remove a kidney instead of a lung or amputate the wrong leg (you read about that all the time). Daddy is dead. Repeat after me.

I made my way toward him—it did not occur to me to say, “the body,” for even without breath, he was still my daddy—and smoothed his bushy eyebrows. In doing so I accidentally raised one of his eyelids and saw into the nothingness of his eyes, eyes that used to light up when he saw any one of his girls come into a room. Always a believer in another world beyond this one, I saw for myself, in that very instant, that something separate from our skin and bones, something apart from our organs and tissue, makes us who we are. Call it spirit, call it soul, call it whatever you wish. Whatever it is, it no longer resided inside my father. Just like that.