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To Be Real

Oct 26, 2013

Every day for months now I’ve told myself to do it: write something real.

But where to begin? I’ve asked.

Begin today. Start with what’s right in front of you. I’ve replied.

But I can’t see what’s in front of me! I’m in a fog! I’ve complained.

Then write about that. I’ve answered, being reasonable, and mostly patient.

But I haven’t done it.

I haven’t written more than a perfunctory paragraph, a serviceable description sufficient for a Facebook post, of the garden or the weather or my journeys throughout the county delivering vegetables. Each sentence completed in a kind of breathless horror of all the unwritten words, ghostly visages emerged from the fog, pressing hard against the two-way mirror of my mind. Go away! Shoo! To write anything at all has been to risk this close encounter with the unwritten, an encounter I’ve imagined ever more terrifying and thus necessary to avoid.

Until today.

Why break out the essay today, after an eighteen-month hiatus? Maybe because fueling the “beyond this point there are dragons” terror of addressing the events of the past year and a half suddenly seems to require more energy than actually facing the dragons. Maybe because I’ve grown bored of a self-imposed silence that feels, all these months later, more shameful than noble. Simply put: I am alive. It does no honor to the dead to act otherwise.

It’s true: the past 18 months have been fraught with sickness, death, and profound upheaval. I have walked in the valley of the shadow of death. I have strayed into the holler where the sun never breaches the overhanging shelf of limestone. I have sat there and shivered. For weeks and months on end, I have sat there in the gloom, fog so dense around me I could barely see my own hand in front of my face.

Seems to me now, today, that it’s time to get up, ever-so-slowly (goodness knows my bones are stiff) and walk out of the shadow, feel my way toward that ray of sun dappling down through the laurels. To stand right over there, on that tuft of green moss, just below the quivering copse of beech trees with their bright yellow leaves that hang on tight after almost all the other leaves have let go. To stand right there in the sun and tell a little bit of truth.

******

Months ago, in early Spring, I let Buddy out into the frosty air to do his morning “chores.” Buddy is the black lab mix who joined our family in November. Just two years old at the first of January, he has the body of an Olympic sprinter and the heart of an Ethiopian marathoner, combined with a preternatural capacity for deep stillness. There’s not a nervous inclination in him. Unburdened by any doubt that another chance to run will come, Buddy is content to wait. Serenely sphinx-like, his long front legs stretched out in front of him, the bright white stripe down the center of his glossy chest glowing like Oreo cookie filling, his agate-brown eyes track my every movement. Until I speak the magic words: “You wanna go out?” Then he leaps up and side-to-side, his whip-tail spinning like a propeller, his paws tap-dancing on the rug in a doggie dressage complicated enough to make any Just Dance player jealous. He does all of this without uttering a sound. Our Buddy might not be much of a singer, but the boy’s got moves Jagger never dreamed of.

It was just days later that I stood at the sunporch door and looked down at Buddy, who looked up at me, his tail wagging so fiercely I thought it might lift him off the ground. I smiled at him in that way one simply doesn’t smile, every day, many times a day, when one is not living with a dog. I smiled at him without reservation, my whole body and mind engaged in the smile. I smiled at him thoughtlessly and mindfully. “Go do your chores.” I touched his head. When I opened the door, he leapt forward like a racehorse out of the gate.

I watched Buddy’s sleek black form dash down the driveway and cut a sharp left into the copse of spruce and fir on the edge of the ridge. He peed here, sniffed the ground there, and peed again. He stopped suddenly, nose held high, reading the news in the air just as contemplatively as a broker might read the Times Square ticker. Then he sprinted down the slope of the ridge toward the Spring Road. My eyes moved ahead of him, to Cosmo’s grave, where a stone angel glinted white in the early sun. I smiled even as I felt the sharp burn of gathering tears, the welling tightness in my chest, my heart an overfilled balloon. Buddy crossed into my field of view, entering the Spring Road at Cosmo’s curve, and bounding along it, toward the apple orchards and out of sight. “Thank you, Cos.” I said aloud. I took a few gulps of winter air, wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my robe, and went back inside.

Saying “thank you” to Cosmo, the canine love of my life, a Bernese Mountain Dog who died last September, has been a daily devotional these past months. He died on the sunporch, a compromise of sorts. Or, perhaps more accurately stated, his last purely selfless act for Dawn.

Three days before his death, Cosmo wandered into the forest and made a bed under a favorite hemlock where he’d been known to “season” (bury, dig up, and bury again) his favorite treat, rawhide bones. This being too far away to suit me, David and I coaxed his cancer-ridden body home. He agreed to lie on the sunporch floor, but refused with all his formidable will to enter the house proper, drawing a line I was too blinded by grief to fully acknowledge. The next day, while the sunporch door was propped open, Cosmo managed to get himself not just up and out the door, but under the deck, into what we’d long-ago dubbed the “dog cave,” a limestone-lined lounging area he’d dug-out years ago as a cool retreat from the sun. But even this was too far away to satisfy me. Somewhat less than half-rational at this point, I wanted him closer. If not in the house, then at least on the sunporch, where I could stroke his head and whisper in his ear, if nothing more. David and I crawled under the deck and maneuvered his ravaged body onto a drop cloth, dragged him out and carried him onto the sunporch, where I brushed and stroked and whispered to him. Where he died in the wee hours of the morning before the vet was scheduled to arrive and put him to sleep.

That early morning, I lit a candle on the sunporch. The candle burned all that splendid, clear-blue fall day. As we lifted Cosmo’s body into the truck bed, and drove down to the curve in the Spring Road, and used pick-ax and shovel to move the rocky Allegheny dirt aside to accept him and then used our hands to plant him snug as a sapling in this place he loved so well.

For weeks after, I lit a candle every evening. I stood on the sunporch and thought of him, the weight of his head in my lap, the always warm, comforting length of him against my back, the silky mass of him under my feet beneath my desk, the sight of him sliding downhill on his back, headfirst—one of his favorite and goofiest occupations. So many memories, so many sensations from Cosmo’s brief eight years of life flashed through my mind as I stood on the very stones where he last lay and looked toward his grave. I cried. I laughed. I told myself to pull it together and go inside and make dinner. And I did—both. I gave myself permission to be with Cosmo, to indulge myself in being with him, day after day, even as I told myself to do the next thing that had to be done.

Buddy, as it happened, became my guide, a psychological Sherpa on the trail out of the valley of the shadow of death. Impatient with my slow progress, he’d often run ahead, disappearing for minutes or even hours, testing my capacity to live fearlessly in the present. Always returning at the precise moment when fear that he wouldn’t flooded my body like water flooded a closed room. I can’t love another dog and lose him. That’s when I’d look ahead, or look behind me, or look out the kitchen window, my heart surging with adrenaline, and there he’d be, staring back at me as if to say: I told you so. Now, when are you going to believe me?

It has taken me almost a year. Most of the time now I do believe him. And most of the time now, Buddy, like my own four-legged Mr. Miyagi, seems convinced of my faith, and less interested in testing me than delighting in my company. As my grip on him has loosened, his attachment to me has strengthened.

Are you Cosmo’s angel? I’ve found myself asking him lately when this once preternaturally reserved dog does something particularly Cos-ish, like slip out of the sunporch with one of my shoes in his mouth. This was one of Cosmo’s favorite gambits for getting me out of the kitchen or away from the computer. Enough work, Mom! Let’s play!

As Buddy has taught me to let go of my fear of losing him, my love has become something purer than what I had for Cosmo. Less about my needs and more about his. A more mature, full-bodied love, of a kind I’ll never know if I would’ve gained the wisdom to share with Cos, had we more time together. While that was not our temporal journey, our spiritual journey continues. Thanks to a black lab mix that arrived unbidden, the ideal teacher of a lesson I didn’t know I needed to learn. Perhaps not the traditional definition of an angel, but I can’t imagine a better one.

******