As I sit here next to the pool in the Florida house that I have rented, I watch the sun ripple on the water, forming concentric light petals that look like a cabbage rose. Sun spots dance on the bottom and where the sun meets the shade, a bright line mimics the movements of a electrocardiogram rhythm…in the distance I hear church bells playing the Old Hundredth, a much loved Anglican hymn called All People who on earth do dwell…
One year ago today my sisters and I sat at our father’s death bed and held his hand until that death rattle, of which we had heard but never experienced, turned to a gasp and the life that we had known all our lives was no more.
The sea grape stalks make the kind of noise in the wind that sounds like rubber on rubber, or an old screen door squeaking open. Or maybe it’s an exotic animal, perhaps a parrot, with its strained squawking.
What a difference a year makes. The one person in the world who you knew would catch you if you should fall is still gone. You wonder where he’s gone; is it to the heaven he believed in, or has his soul gone the way of his body, to ash, secured in a beautiful oak box, inscribed with his name as well as the dates that mark his life — now in the Cathedral’s columbarium that he loved. I know that I have pictures of him in my mind and on my computer. I have saved his message to me on my answering machine. I can still hear his voice: “Ails, why the heck would you go to Florida? It’s an awful place!” (Sorry Florida peeps). He was never one for lying around…does that mean he’s busying himself now?
Driving the thousands of kilometers to this place, I listened through the music on my iPhone playlist – many that I didn’t realize were even there. One, a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, suddenly appears and I can only listen to it once as it was one of Dad’s favourite hymns – indeed, we made sure it was played at his memorial service. My sister played it for him on her iPhone in the hospital on his last days…and he sung along, conducting the music, as he always did, with dramatic arm flourishes and a smile on his face.
It is hard not to remember him in those last hours, before he lost consciousness, and while he sat in his hospital bed, deep in thought. I surely didn’t want to disturb this sacred contemplation: was he wondering about heaven? was he wondering if he had made the right choice – to turn down dialysis for his kidney failure? was he going over his life’s accomplishments? I do know he was sad to leave us, because he said so. Holding back tears, we all told him we loved him and would miss him as well. But we also felt we needed to affirm that he was making the right choice – to honour that, even though it broke our hearts.
What is love? When we are young, we believe flushed skin and passion define it. We don’t fully understand how expansive and burdensome our lives will become and how a singular love will writhe and gasp through time, forgetting its youth and rapture.
It has taken me years to understand that love can be cruel and unfair.
Love jerks and plummets, rises and rushes, and sometimes stops abruptly, as if that may be the end of you. But it is likely not the end, even though you might be deprived of oxygen. Still, you may wish it were.
Over time, love can exhibit anguish, grace, immeasurable sadness and incomprehensible joy. It can be subsumed in darkness as well as light. It lingers on your lips, at times in the form of sweat but more often, tears. It provides moments of rage, thoughts of retribution, lost days and nights that will never be forgotten or recovered. It has it’s own heartbeat and it’s own resonance. It can break you.
So can love turn to hate, you ask, or worse, scorn? What keeps us from turning away, from closing the book forever and taking shaky steps in another direction?
I don’t know. All I know is that when love becomes painful, it is time to breathe deeply and forget everything you’ve been taught about the fairy tale.
It is now time to make your own story. That life-long love may survive but the fairy tale needs to be updated.
My dear Dad died after living 100 years and 268 1/2 days.
He taught me that life was for living and to just get on with it. This was no better illustrated than the story he would often tell of hitchhiking from Ottawa down to the southern states, with nothing more than the clothes on his back. When asked if he didn’t think it would have been a good idea to take money or heck, even a toothbrush, he’d say, “Nah. I figured I’d stay at the ‘Y’ and they’d feed me and give me a bed for the night.” Indeed.
Granted, this was during the 40s when times were more innocent and you could rely on the kindness of strangers. He would laugh remembering the story of the trucker who stopped and, upon letting him climb up into his cab, asked, “You don’t have a gun, do you?” to which my surprised and suddenly anxious Dad replied, “No…do you??”
Eight days after he died, I could no longer stand the pain,
so I got out of “Dodge” myself.
Grabbing a few clothes, a toothbrush, some dog food and of course, the dog, Scout and I took off. But first, I needed a coffee for the road; this was a choice that cost me one hundred dollars before I’d even hit the highway – yes, I did park in a “no parking” zone but I was only there for a moment. Then, on the highway, not even out of city limits, my phone rang and the voice on the other end said my car was being recalled for “corrosion.” “Is that all?” I said. “I’m driving to Florida.” What’s a bit of corrosion, especially to a ten-year old car and Ottawa winters, I thought.
I had driven to Florida before but never on my own and never with this dog. This dog who had barely been in a car, or been around the block two and half years ago. But this dog rode like she’d always been my co-pilot. With a softly placed paw, gently letting me know that it was ok, and I letting her know that this long journey would indeed have a reward at the end.
Dad used to say, “Why the heck would you want to go to Florida?” The sun, sand, heat, hoards of tourists….what’s down there worth seeing? Of course, what he meant was that there was not one good antiquarian book store in the whole of Florida, unlike his beloved London or Manhattan.
My Dad never took his shirt off; well, for a shower, yes, but his default outfit was forever and always a suit, a crisp white shirt and tie. “You have to dress the way you want to be treated,” he’d say. Oh well. I guess I just wanted to be treated like a regular person.
And Dad would also say,
“Always that dog.” Yes indeed. He finally got me.
There are memories I hold dear. Like the time he told me of his own beloved childhood dog who had died and showed me that he too had lost a cherished companion. Like the time he would tell me that he was proud of me after first doubting my abilities to pursue a dream. He told me about the day he had to deliver a speech at a work conference and going AWOL from fright. I believed the story at the time he told it, but realize now that it was likely not true, but might have been what he wanted to do — it was his way of showing me he also experienced self-doubt.
To me, he rarely exhibited any kind of frailty. Even in his 101st year. As he shuffled impossibly with his cane, staying upright despite his pronounced stoop, and then with his walker (the walker I’m now selling for $125 * — a price that seems to be an insult to the man it supported), he personified strength and dignity. On the day of his diagnosis of kidney failure, he was offered two choices: pursue dialysis several times a week at the hospital or let nature take its course. He made his decision swiftly – the choice was easy. Like he always said when I wanted to buy him a new pair of socks or pajamas, “the law of diminishing returns Ails (he would always call me) … I’m too old to spend good money on.”
That damned raincoat.
I can’t tell you the number of times I took it to the dry cleaners to try to get the stains off of it: the ice cream, the chocolate, the Pepsi, the whipped cream, the smoked meat sandwiches. I do believe it was the same raincoat he wore on his honeymoon, but now with a new lining that protruded at the cuffs but held it together otherwise. I contemplated buying him a new one but it came down to finding the exact same raincoat, which of course doesn’t exist, unless you’re buying a vintage one on Etsy for a few hundred dollars. And that is what I paid for his pajamas, made in the UK and shipped by an English friend to me here. He had to have pajamas that had a drawstring at the waist; not elastic, mind you, a drawstring. I defy you to find any such thing in the colonies!
Sometimes when I came into his bedroom during the day and found his coat on his bed I’d ask, “Why is your raincoat draped over your bed Dad?” “Because I was cold,” he’d say. So I got him an electric blanket and hoped he wouldn’t fry himself.
Jack Peter Francis was a voracious reader and his books of choice never seemed shorter than 500 pages. I would order them for him on Amazon and a couple of days after they were delivered, he’d be reading them for the second time. I remember telling him once the name of the book I was reading and he seemed interested by the title, Sapiens. I bought him a copy and when I asked him a few days later how it was, he essentially implied that it was a book version of the “History of Mankind for the Simple-minded.” No beating around the bush there from someone who I imagine devoured Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in one sitting. It was a stinging review.
Jack Peter Francis was a respected and conscientious civil servant, but he was not selfishly ambitious. He always said that when he was in public service, he saw what needed to be done and simply did it. He had little patience for people who sat on the sidelines and didn’t just take the reins. I remember visiting his downtown office when I was young and being impressed and surprised by his obvious importance: outside his door was an efficient and friendly secretary. Inside was a huge desk with an equally huge chair. He had what he proudly called a “Jack Shadbolt” (before I knew what or who that was) on one wall and a fully stocked bar on the other. There was a pipe in his desk drawer which he would not so much smoke as pose with while leaning back in his chair and looking pensive. But I do remember the sweet scent of it when he’d light up after dinner in his basement study.
Jack Peter Francis was a believer in charity. He embraced good causes and practiced tithing, giving money to the church, the Green Party, his daughters … he was always offering aid but in our case, there was a catch: it was that painful discussion about investments we hadn’t made, pensions we hadn’t started, savings accounts we hadn’t opened and budgeting we never did. As a professional economist, I can’t tell you what an irony it is that his daughters inherited so little of his financial DNA. As a result, you learned never to bring up the subject of money unless you had a stiff drink waiting for you.
Jack Peter Francis was a joker. He took great relish in making the paperboy squirm, which he did at the front door by asking him in the sternest voice he could muster, which was pretty stern, “What’s the damage?” when he came to collect. I’m sure the poor kid was left imagining what window he had broken or tree branch he had mangled. I remember he had little patience reading to his children; as a result, he would embellish or even change the story. For years I recall being apoplectic when he prematurely killed off Aslan, the heroic lion in C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia — WAIT….I REALIZE AT THIS VERY MOMENT that Aslan did indeed die, by the hands of the White Witch in the first book of the series — until he rose again. The parallels to Christianity are unmistakable to me now, but of course at the time I believed he resurrected Aslan purely because of my protestations.
Jack Peter Francis possessed a fierce intellect. He would demand much but not more than he demanded of himself. He believed that you had to travel your own path, exercising your brain and keeping it well seasoned. I remember standing in front of the glass display in the British Museum that housed the Rosetta Stone when I was 18 and saying to him, “What is the Rosetta Stone?”, to which he replied, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE ROSETTA STONE IS?” and then promptly walked away. I didn’t realize it at the time, as I was too overcome with the feeling that I had disappointed him, but this tactic was meant to challenge me – to push me headlong into doing my own work. He would not spoon feed anyone, let alone his daughters. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But I craved his admiration, so that’s what sent me off to university.
Jack Peter Francis admitted when he was wrong. Mind you, that wasn’t often, but when he said that we’d have to tell the woman I’d be renting an apartment from during my first year at the University of Toronto that my roommate wasn’t white, and I said, “But why? What difference should that make?”, he thought for a moment and blessedly agreed. And if it had been up to him, he would have said goodbye to Skye-dog when she was first diagnosed with lymphoma – I never let him forget (and he relented that he was wrong) that I didn’t give up on her and as a result, she lived another 5 1/2 healthy and active years.
Jack Peter Francis was a friend, but only if you measured up, otherwise he might make small talk but don’t count on much else. Luckily I had an “in” being family, as I’m not sure if he would have given me the time of day otherwise. And when he finally realized that I was never going to become a dental hygienist, much to his dismay (we joked about that days before he died – no offense to dental hygienists everywhere), he always made a point of applauding my efforts and saying I didn’t charge nearly enough for my gardening services. He was my epic marble playing competitor, my lawn mowing teacher, my mentor in learning, my inspiration in life.
I say his name like this because I’ve learned that when someone dies, the first thing that happens is that their name is erased. Erased from bank accounts, erased from cheques, the evidence of their existence in the form of birth certificates, passports, social insurance numbers — all of them cancelled.
I know why my Dad lived to 100. You see, early in his life as a parent, he didn’t express his affection for us very openly. There were few hugs, few words of encouragement, few expressions of love. I realize now he was too busy trying to make sure we were financially secure and was too distracted first, by his career and then, by his all-consuming hobby. It took him more than 90 years to recognize what really mattered: and that is, the love of your family and that love expressed. It wasn’t until my Dad was well on in age that I began to hear “I love you” and “You’re a great kid Ails” every single time we were together. Those words will always remain with me…
He accepted his end with grace. All we could do was make sure he was surrounded by our love and that we were all there next to him, honouring his wishes. And then he said, “It pains me to leave you.”
It pains me that you’re gone Dad.
* I ended up donating his walker, not selling it, to a man who’d had a stroke and was on disability. Dad would have liked that.
When we lose someone, we lose our compass, our rudder. Up is now down, and left is right. Nothing is the same.
When we lose someone, we are in a vacuum and for the moment, time has no meaning. We think this day will never come.
If you’ve been lucky enough to have a dog who meant the world to you, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I’m sorry for you.
If you’ve had a dog who was sick, infirm or old, you’ll know that these are the times that your bond grows deep, develops extra lignin, strengthens your connection and builds a wall around you that is never breached. This is love.
I thought I’d be back blogging soon….but words seem to fail me.
There is plenty to talk about and I am keen to talk about it….but in this moment, I will simply reflect that it has been nearly a year since I said goodbye to Skye-dog and my life is slowly regaining its colour.
On February 25th, 2011, we were given the news that our beloved border collie, Skye-dog, had lymphoma.
She was 8 1/2 at the time and otherwise perfectly healthy. Despite the grim diagnosis, we elected to move ahead with treatment which meant six months of chemotherapy.
My first dog Riley died within one month of diagnosis at the approximate age of 10. She had a cancerous tumour in her chest that stimulated her body to kill off its red blood cells, the ones that move oxygen throughout the body. I knew something was terribly wrong when she collapsed on her walk for no apparent reason. There was no cure and so despite several blood transfusions and loads of love, we had to let her go.
When Skye was diagnosed, we were told that with treatment, she would probably achieve remission and stay there for anywhere between 12 and 18 months. Then we could choose to repeat chemotherapy, but each chance of remission would be smaller and each length of remission would be shorter. The cancer would win in the end and we would have to say goodbye.
Fast forward 4 years and 8 months and 4 days and she’s still here. And I have been experiencing anticipatory grief for 4 years, 8 months and 4 days.
However, last Wednesday, Skye had a scary episode of the wobbles. Her head and upper body leaned left, her eyeballs darted from side to side and she basically wanted to fall over. The condition is called vestibular disease as it affects the body’s vestibular system, which controls our balance. Like vertigo, it wreaks havoc on our ability to sit and stand without falling over and because the world is spinning, we are nauseous and if we were interested in eating, could not even be successful in finding our mouths to eat or even drink. As you can imagine, it is not a nice condition.
Having already been dealt a blow to her mobility a couple of years ago with a condition called spondylosis, the effects of vestibular disease are not at all welcome for my lovely old dog.
Hence the pee pads.
On Day 6 of recovery, Skye now trundles around the ground floor, with my help holding her up and straight, on a pathway made of pee pads, she trying to convince me that she can go outside to pee. I say “Nope, sorry. Not yet.” So we trundle out of the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen where the back door resides, out again into the front hall and then back into the living room, where she flops down on her plastic and pee pad covered makeshift bed, exhausted from the effort and I’m sure, disappointment.
You see, as a border collie, not only is she sensitive but she is also easily shamed. Training a border collie means saying something once and they understand. It doesn’t mean they’ll do it mind you, but they do understand. In their minds, they will first contemplate the universe, consider the pros and cons, and make their own conclusions. If you have created a bond with your border collie, this will all take a split second as the bald truth is, they only want to please you.
So that moment I took teaching her how to use the outdoors as her washroom has stayed with her, and she considers any deviation from that to be heresy. Hence the anxiety centering around toileting indoors, on pee pads.
……and I’m back to anticipatory grief……
We all know it isn’t forever and we all wish for our dogs’ lives never to end, but we all know they will.
All I wanted was more than one month.
I was gifted so much more.
Fearless and flawless leaping.
Traveling to weird and wonderful places …
Or not going very far at all…
Does she see what I see? A full life, a life of love and care.
1584 borrowed days. And counting. Maybe grief can take a holiday for now…
In the world of canine cancer, I had not been lucky.
My first dog, Riley, a thick-coated and majestic border collie with a tail that swept up and over her back all day, every day, unless she had no prospects or saw a bath on the horizon, succumbed to a cancerous mass in her chest at the relatively young age of 10.
As my very first dog, all of those adjectives you hear over and over again applied to us too: soul-mate, best friend, partner and life-saver. After a childhood of gerbils, lizards and fur pelts to fill the void of a lovelorn existence, longing for a dog but allowed none, she picked me at the ripe age of 33. Opening her cage at the pound, she laid her head against my shoulder as if to say, “I’m home.”
The symptoms presented as anemia, more properly something called “auto-immune hemolytic anemia”, and results in the body’s immune system attacking its own red blood cells because they sense an invader, in her case, cancer. We were on a walk and suddenly she collapsed, struggling yet unable to right herself. I rushed to her and held her down to quell her panic until she calmed and was able to stand. Once home, she collapsed again and I knew something was horribly wrong.
Treatment consists of blood transfusions to bring the anemia under control and then addressing the underlying condition. In Riley’s case, a massive tumour under her ribcage. But surgery was never an option because even with the transfusions, her red blood cell counts never normalized. We lost her within a month of her diagnosis. I grieved for what seemed like a lifetime.
Fast forward to today.
The second furry love of my life has lived beyond what anyone has expected after her cancer diagnosis.
As I told her when she came home with me from the pound at the tender age of 7 weeks, she would have some pretty big shoes to fill.
Early on I told her she may never be the “best dog”, but in truth, she is tied for best dog.
On February 25th, 2011 at 8 1/2 years old, she was diagnosed with stage III multicentric lymphoma and underwent six months of chemotherapy.
She has remained in remission since her first week of treatment and next month she will turn 13 — an almost unprecedented 4+ year lymphoma survivor. She is everything one would ever hope for in a dog — smart, dedicated, funny, loyal, loving, independent, thoughtful, sensitive, eager to please and patient. She has taught me to be honest, true to my word, consistent and fearless. And so many other things…
I’m not exaggerating when I say these two wonderful dogs have been the single biggest gift in my life. Always there, always seeing me as someone they want to spend time with …. always happy to see me.
I am so grateful for them. Whatever unfolds, Skye-dog can count on me to make sure she is treated with honour and respect …. to her last breath.