“It was supposed to rain today.” The woman directs the observation at the old dog that follows at her heels.
The dog is hanging on by a thread. Its ribs and hips stick out of rough fur that has lost its velour sheen. Maybe she’s hanging on for me, the woman thinks. “Once upon a time we had kids for this watering chore, didn’t we?” The dog looks up. “You remember. We did the grand garden tour every night, the girls loved to see the flowers bud and bloom. No, wait, that was the dog before you.” She leans down to stroke its ears.
The dog doesn’t care if it was her or the dog before. She’s content to hear the woman’s voice. She circles twice and drops onto a patch of the lawn. As long as she can see the woman, she is doing her job. Protection, that’s this dog’s game. She doesn’t hunt, or fetch, or do tricks. She’s bred to guard the property, and the woman in particular.
The woman pauses a moment to think of the dog that came before. He was a big black brute, a Labrador and something. He was loud, where this dog has always been quiet. He was rambunctious and good-humored, where this dog is anxious and suspicious. He was the dog her children grew up with. She had to let him go. Just as her children were leaving for college. By that time he was old and sick. He’d done his job.
He’d been there, his thick black coat absorbing all the tears of the divorce, and the pain that radiated off of all of them during those awful months. He was solid and patient. He let the ex-husband know what he thought about this leave-taking. Every time the ex showed up to collect the kids for his allotted weekend (every other, and one evening a week – never more, never less) that dog showed his teeth. He let the man know that leaving his children to be raised by a mother and a dog wasn’t right. The woman’s lips turned up in what might have been a smile. She still heard that dog’s tags jingle in the middle of the night. She liked to think he came around to check on her now and then. Taking a long look in the rear-view mirror, she concluded that life existed on a continuum of loss.
This perspective first occurred to her when she was sixteen, as she helped her grandparents move from the Midwestern home they’d owned for over forty years. How do you pack a lifetime into a two-bedroom apartment, she wondered? The answer was, you don’t. Furniture that had been in the big house ever since she could remember was packed into her dad’s trailer. The remainder that didn’t fit in the apartment was separated for donation. Her grandparents spent their lives accumulating those items, then poof! In one weekend, all of it gone.
The grandparents died within the year. Something about leaving their house didn’t set right. They were never the same.
Her mother died young, at fifty-five. That was a surprise. “You live a golden life,” a friend once told her. She didn’t believe that. She’d lost grandparents, suffered numerous cracks in her heart. She was no different than many of her friends. Yet most of them still had mothers. Why was she different?
Over the winter following her mother’s death, she packed up her life, sorting letters, coffee cups, books, and her mother’s artwork into boxes. Each one was neatly closed and taped, with the contents written in Magic Marker on the top. Some days the packing was disrupted by an object – a hat her brother wore when he was a baby, or a drawing her sister made in kindergarten. She’d sit for hours, looking at the item, thinking about the memory, the time we did this, the spring we dug a garden, the trip to California, the home-made cocoa and marshmallows on a winter day after school. She’d look at the clock and the afternoon was spent, the box yet to be filled.
The hardest part was telling her mother’s friends that she was gone. That her mother had become sick and died so quickly. That, no, she didn’t know why Betty didn’t call to tell them she was ill. That wasn’t my job – was it? The friends always wanted to talk about her mother, her kindness, generosity, and depth of character. Who was that woman? Not the mother she knew, the mother she mourned without missing.
During her thirties the years of acquisition had arrived, the husband, the babies, the house. She was insulted when her brother called them yuppies. Maybe it was true, or maybe he didn’t know what a yuppie was. She became the woman who had the big garden, canned vegetables, and made whole-wheat bread. The family was beautiful. Everyone said so. It was a magazine ad, the active young couple, healthy children, a house in the country where the deer came to the back porch, shaded by an old lilac bush. Then it was over. She doesn’t like to talk about that period of her life. To those on the outside, it was boring, once the juicy details were known – then it felt like nothing more than whining. Even if for a time it felt like her husband’s departure blew a hole inside her so big you could drive a truck though it.
A line of darkness moved across the horizon. There was a shimmer of lightning. The old dog got up and paced restlessly. She didn’t like storms. “It’s okay,” the woman said. “It’s heat lightning. I don’t hear thunder.” The dog continued to pace. “The hardest part,” the woman continued, “was that after he left, I realized somewhere along the way, I lost myself. I had no idea who I was, or what I wanted. Well, that and losing my naïveté. The dog whined, and looked anxiously at the door.
“Maybe it is a storm,” the woman observed. “I guess I didn’t need to water these flowers. Let’s watch it come in, we have a few minutes yet.” She thought of her friend Meg, who’d been in the same boat. Her husband left too, only Meg had cancer. Even so, she was the kind of friend who saw the woman through the worst of it, solid as a rock.
Sooner or later the inevitable turns up, unwelcome, uninvited. Meg died. She’d never lost a friend to forever. “All you can do is take it minute by minute, day by day.” She’d learned that during the darkest days after her divorce. Yet losing Meg left another hole, one she didn’t want to fill.
The children departed, each excited to make their own lives, find their own futures. The house grew quiet. The solitude wasn’t so bad. She learned to live in quiet spaces, illuminated by zones of thought and creativity.
The dog barked. The thunder was audible. “I suppose you heard it all along, didn’t you? For a dog so old, you have ears like a hawk.” She chuckled at the mixed metaphor. She’d always been able to tickle herself that way. Fat drops of water splattered onto the concrete patio. “What do you think? Time to go in?” She pulled the sliding doors open. The dog raced inside and curled up in her safe spot, a corner of the breakfast nook.
The woman wandered into the sunroom and watched the rain come down in translucent sheets. A bolt of lightning lit up the sky. She counted to five and the thunder followed, in rumbling belches that vibrated through the evening air. She glanced at the tomato plants, water sluicing down their leaves, snug in terra cotta pots on the patio. She could have sworn they were smiling.
Like the dog, the woman’s father was fading away. He had lived longer than he had any right to – at least that was his opinion. The life insurance actuarial tables agreed, he’d point out. The death of his spouse, heart surgery, and now leukemia had changed his disposition. He felt cheated because he wasn’t dead yet. “I’m ready to go,” he’d declare. “I never planned to live this long.” But he hadn’t gone, and called his doctor weekly to be sure he didn’t. He wouldn’t allow any bacterium, virus, cough, or sniffle to multiply long enough to do him in. The woman didn’t want to lose him, but she also didn’t like this version of the man, more like a petulant child than the affable father she had always known. And then she realized, his losses were adding up too. On the loss scale his were profound – two wives, youth, health, friends. Time.
“What would you think if I killed myself?” he asked her.
“I’m not in favor of it. Who do you think would be walking into that mess?” He’d harrumphed at her but went on to tell her he had a pistol in the house. Fortunately, he had forgotten where he’d hidden the ammunition.
“I really hope I don’t get like that,” she told her daughter. “I don’t want you to have to deal with it.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll slap you in a home so fast you won’t know what happened,” the daughter replied. The future secured, the woman thought.
So far she had weathered the storms, some with grace, some not. Her children were healthy and had found good men. She was content. Her life wasn’t exciting. She liked it that way. “One should always expect the unexpected,” her mother used to say. Maybe the reason her mother said it was because she had grown up on a wheat farm during the Great Depression, when nothing could be considered certain, not the weather, the harvest, or living through the winter. The woman didn’t think much of that expression. Her life had been lived in a series of “what the hell, why not try this,” decisions. It was a disorganized way to go about things; it required little planning. She’d never learned to think strategically, read the tea leaves, assess the signs, or “seen that one coming.”
A few months ago, she’d lost another friend. This friend wasn’t the same kind of friend as Meg. This wasn’t a friendship born of despair or shared experience. This friend was a friend of light and growth, though no less solid than Meg had been. Her death had been irrevocably sudden, impossible to absorb. She wasn’t the kind of friend the woman spoke to every day, or met up with for coffee and a chat. Yet her presence was huge, in a way that isn’t measureable, like mortar that fills the cracks against the cold. No one notes the cement that seals the leaks and solidifies the foundation. It’s only noticed when it’s gone.
The woman wandered into the nook and sat down next to the dog. “I’ve really got to simplify. There’s just too much stuff sitting around this place. That sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?”
Scavenging through her memories wasn’t appealing. Being the author of her own loss, excising her own past with some kind of surgical precision, made her afraid. Afraid of what, she wondered? What was it they always said, “You’ll always have your memories.” But that wasn’t true. Some people lost their memories entirely. If she did, would her daughter’s long-ago Easter dress bring the memory back? Not a chance if she donated it to charity. What tethers a person to her own life if she can’t touch or see the remnants of what once was true? Then again, there were times she didn’t care to remember at all. There were no souvenirs of those days hidden away.
“Maybe it’s all about letting go,” she told the dog. “What if that’s the answer to the big ‘what’s it all about?’” The dog wiggled her stub of a tail. She had no answers. She lived in the moment.
Letting go of anger, youth, envy, regret, control, children, close friends: that’s a lot of sacrifice to get to the road to freedom. Or are we ever free? Does it all become a part of who we are, and liberation is in how well we learn to carry it?
She looked out the sunroom window to the west. The clouds were breaking up. The colors of a rainbow glimmered in the distance, not yet formed, but the promise was there. “That would be nice. You suppose I’ll get there too?” she asked the dog. She shrugged, “Time for dinner, you want some chow?”
“Woof,” the old dog remarked. In the absence of an answer, dinner would have to do.
This is very beautiful, moving, and wise.
As time goes on I crave the stories and conversation of other women my age, and I thank you for this beautiful narrative. I, too, have read Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher and found it useful.
This is such a beautifully written piece! I am moved by the writing, the content, and the wisdom.
I, too, will take your suggestion about Mary Pipher since I have recently had my own loss. Thanks.
Ms. Shipley: What a wonderful story. “Life exists on a continuum of loss”…but don’t we go on to create out lives anew?
We write our own life stories….just asking?? But I absolutely loved your story….yes I lost my husband (recently), two brothers, and my mom and dad….but my life has continued to expand and grow.
Have you read Rowing North by Mary Pipher??
Nancy, I am so sorry for your losses. It is hard, hard, hard. I wish you the best and I am glad my piece spoke to you and I am glad you have found a way forward-after all what is the other choice? It’s not attractive, I have not read Rowing North, but I will look it up.