Sunday, September 21, 2014

The End is in the Beginning and Yet You Go On

Maybe it's my largely Irish gene pool that stirs me to write when death has come. On Friday August 29th the end came for my dear father who at 77 had been fighting the effects of Alzheimer's Disease for several years. My father is the reason we nearly always had a dog in the house growing up. There were spots of time in my youth when there wasn't a dog but they seem brief as I think back on it. The nuts and bolts of my childhood seemed always accompanied by a family dog. There was Buddy, a shepherd/hound mix who I remember only in flashes as being goofy and fun loving. Sadie, a flat coated retriever mix who probably suffered the most for my ignorance. A spectacularly cute puppy, she lived with us until she bit the paperboy. A vicious dog hearing followed, then she was sent off to live at a no-kill shelter in Sutton, MA, or so my sisters and I were told at the time. Finally, Meisha, a spirited Lhasa Apso came into the picture near the end of my parent's marriage. That year saw a new house and a new car as well. While my understanding of the more noteworthy events from that year have grown more nuanced with time, these acquisitions would form the basis for a vague sense of dread and foreboding. I'd said to a friend at the time, "This will all be over in a year." It wouldn't take that long. These various offerings would be for naught. My family as I'd understood to be, would come to a dramatic end one summer evening in August 1984. Meisha would be sent off to live with a retired former drill sergeant. A good call for his well being at the time but I remember resenting that he'd been cast off like old luggage. He was not treated like family as he should have been.

Many years have passed since then and while my Father would really only have one other dog, a sweet black lab who passed too soon, my sisters and I seemed to always have them. What's interesting in retrospect is also one of the personality traits I see so frequently in dogs, a gentle outpouring of affection towards people who are struggling with something. Of course this is not universally true but it does seem to dominate my anecdotal landscape and it most certainly held true when it came to how the family's dogs behaved around my Dad. All of our dogs were drawn to him these last few years, each of them exercising what in some cases (Miles) was uncharacteristic gentleness, unbridled kindness. I'd like to say I could ruin this entry with the sound scientific principles that explain this phenomenon, however I am blissfully ignorant of them and content to admire what I've seen at face value.

Young Addie with my Dad for a ride in the car.
The family closed ranks to be at my father's bedside every day of what would be the last week of his life. My sisters Meghan and Sheila took charge of his comfort measures. The rest of us did what we were told and tried not to screw things up. Sheila's dog Katy clung very close to my Dad, often on his bed lying next to him, getting off to check in with everyone, get a scratch, lick your face. It was good, it was very good. Katy was something of a life raft with her agenda-less routine of checking in to see if everyone was alright. When he passed that Friday evening she appeared to share in our grief, going from person to person as if unsure of what exactly had happened.
Katy at my father's bedside
I'd wondered for a time whether to write about this here. The big question, "Is this relevant to dog owners?". I don't know if I'm being honest. I may come back to this and wonder if this wasn't something best left in a personal journal. There was one dominant theme that came up frequently in that last week however. Something my sister Meghan would whisper into my father's ear as he lay, seemingly unconscious. "We're all here for you Dad. You always talked about family being the most important thing and now we're here for you." In my father's version of Maslow's Hierarchy he would finally emphasize that above all else. And while getting there left many missed opportunities and not a few questionable decisions, he was not wrong. In the end he was not wrong. This man, whose self-effacing nature and gift of gab have been a model for me in my adult life, would come to the end of his with a vocabulary so diminished by the effects of Alzheimer's he would hit his head as if to jar the words loose. What will never leave me is that the words he clung most desperately to, the ones he would not relinquish to this pile of shit disease were the ones needed to express unconditional love. "You're Great!" "I Love You" "You're Beautiful" and the last words he said to me as I walked down a hall with him at Jordan Hospital. Smiling at me he said, "You've got me".

Dad, his wife Marcia and my sister's dog Lila
I am agnostic, I think it's my nature to be but I cannot deny the need to look for meaning in all of this, to try to make some sense of it following the obligatory Kubler Ross 5 Stages of Grief. Then, this past Friday another gut punch came as Louie, my beautiful 18 year old Min Pin made it clear he too was at the end. Applying the common sense approach Sam Simon takes with his rescue dogs, he knows each of their three favorite things. When they can no longer enjoy two of them, it's time to say goodbye and so he too, Louie, my Big Lou would let loose this mortal coil. It's hard to extract some greater meaning from the pain of loss. Hamlet, pondering suicide asks, "To sleep, perchance to dream. What dreams may come?" Is there peace in death? I don't know, I hope so. If I've found some meaning in the last several weeks it is a renewed appreciation for the value of kindness. My father's passing brought us together for a common cause that's left me changed. I've never been so proud of my sisters. Louie, who throughout his long life was kindness in canine form. His life spanned nearly two decades, nearly all of the years Sue and I have been together. Over the last three weeks I've been reminded how lucky I was to have them both in my life for so long. I will miss them both for the rest of my years. And of course my friends are right, I have been lucky.

Louie at his most content wrapped up in warm blankets out of the dryer.