Most Memorable: May 2015
When the phone rings and I see Nora’s picture, I take deep breath and let go of my day’s plans.
She says, “Amy. I’m sorry. I failed the stool sample.”
I think, Lord help me, but say, “That’s alright. I was disappointed not to be a part of the poo party.”
The two people testing peach firmness look up when I say poo party and the grey haired one smiles. Probably imagines I am talking babies.
I ask, “Did you get it collected?”
She’s laughing. “Yeah, that part I managed. Lucky you. But when I took it to the lab they said I needed paperwork. I didn’t get paperwork.”
She got paperwork. The grocery cart is hard to maneuver with one hand, so I am in front dragging it over to the restroom area where talking about poo seems more appropriate.
“I think the paperwork was that green and white sheet with carbon copies.”
I know it’s green and white because I remember the moment I handed it to her.
She says, “The doctor said you had it.”
Her voice rises in tone only. “The new one. I stopped by with my stool and told them I needed paperwork, and they said ‘your daughter-in-law has it.’”
“I’m sorry about that. I’ll come right over and we’ll find the paper.”
“No one was really congenial about the whole thing.” Her voice is flat and filled with resignation. “And can you take me back to the lab?”
Customer service at the grocery isn’t too congenial either when I leave my cart full of groceries for “an emergency.” But I can understand that. It’s more forgivable than casting ire at an old lady who forgot paperwork. Just run her another damn copy.
These impatient people must think they’ll never be forgetful and vulnerable to strangers. This is the lady who, for years, kicked my ass in Scrabble. Making 60-point, four-letter words at every turn by tucking them into spaces I could never see between tiles. Now random receptionists are giving her shit about carbon copies.
But to be fair, I constantly question the way I treat her too. It is a balance of letting her do for herself versus hovering and casting a shadow over her dignity. This conflict manifests itself in odd ways. Like me waiting nervously for a full seven minutes at her front door. Not much dignity remains when people start traipsing around your house looking for you.
I give her seven minutes because I hear that is the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. She shouldn’t be smoking, obviously, but I shouldn’t be eating brownie mix straight from the bowl either.
Today, as I wait, she comes out from the shadows of a dark kitchen around the four-minute mark. After the clunk of three locks, she opens the door and a Lysol scent wafts out. She used to tell me where she’d been before she got the door – bathroom, laundry, backyard. She doesn’t bother with that now.
Instead, she says, “I have another problem too.”
“What’s that?” I anticipate disorganized medicines or an unopened jar.
“Sadie. She’s bad.”
Sadie is her thirteen-year-old dog—beagle in the front and lab in back. She has been dying of congestive heart failure, which is the exact same thing stealing my mother-in-law’s life, moment by moment. It’s too ridiculous, this parallel, so we don’t speak of it. She’s just an old dog who also takes Lasik.
“She’s back here in the office. She can’t get up.”
I follow Nora down the dim hallway of dusty family photos and her prized wall of mismatched mirrors. We shopped for them at the antique stores in Lakewood when I was on maternity leave, weaving the large stroller in and out of quaint little shops. Nora had gotten Sadie around that time. She was a sweet little pup, free to a good home because the family that bought Sadie had new baby that was allergic. Nora told them to keep the dog. Told them it would be good for the kid’s allergies. But they said they had to do what the doctor wanted.
At the threshold of the computer room, I catch my breath as I see blood and beagle splayed on the floor. The faint smell of iron is in the air. Sadie starts struggling to get up when she sees me, her tail thump thumping against the maple hardwood Nora refinished herself five years ago.
I say, “No honey, don’t get up,” and stoop down to pet her, marveling at how soft Sadie’s ears are, like fine suede. As the dog again struggles, I sit on the floor next to her and stroke her fur from neck to tail in soothing sweeps. She repeatedly licks my leg as I begin to cry.
Nora says, “Don’t you start or I’ll lose it.”
I have never seen Nora “lose it.” Unlike me, she never cries. Only dabs her watery blue eyes with tissues as she is doing now. I don’t carry tissues, so I use my sweatshirt sleeve as a face towel.
Nora says, “I should have put her down weeks ago, but I couldn’t stand it.”
I talk into my sleeve. “It’s okay. Do you have a blanket and maybe something for the blood?”
Sadie’s back paws are raw from trying to stand, for who knows how long.
Nora points to a blood soaked rag. “Back there. I’ve been cleaning it up for hours.”
That answers that question.
She says, “I’ll get a blanket.”
As Nora gets the blanket, I try and pull myself together, more for the poor dog, who must even now exude joy in contrast to a floormate who’s a blubbering downer. Nora returns with a wool monstrosity that I hope she won’t bring home from the vet and wash.
“Will you get her some water?”
She leaves again, and I try to get the old bloated gal onto the blanket. It’s a two woman job, but I’m not sure Nora can help me.
When Nora returns, she says, “Wait, jeez, I’ll help.”
And so we struggle together to make Sadie into a beagle burrito, so I can carry her out to my car. Ugh. My car.
“Can you hold her here while I clean out my backseat?”
Nora shakes her head at me, smiling. “Amy, where is she going to go?”
I smile back. “I don’t know, just keep her sort of wrapped so we don’t have to roll her again.”
On my way out the door, I hear, “I found the paperwork.”
I had forgotten. I didn’t come here for the Beagle. “Good.”
The back of my Honda is a graveyard of plastic giveaways for children, winter gloves and lunch bag leftovers. I sweep it all to the floor and brush Oreo crumbs from as many crevices as I can manage. Nora, however, will not judge me for the condition of my car. And this is one reason why I love her. We are similar. Dirty cars, dusty picture frames, and we love the same man.
Sadie is 40 pounds of bones, fur and water, but I am able to toddle sideways with her, blanket clutched in front of me, down the walk. The poor dog groans as I half heft and half drop her onto the back seat. Nora extends the stool bag and paperwork out for me to hold as she stretches her delicate body into the front.
I tamp down a strange panic as I get in to drive. Who thought I could handle dying dogs and old people? Who would ever qualify me, stressed mother of one, with such important work?
I roll down Sadie’s window. Maybe it’s those Oreo crumbs she’s nibbling, but she is able to prop herself up and rest her head on the door frame for a wind blown ride. I breathe through the glue clump in my throat and roll down all the other windows.
“My air conditioner still doesn’t work. Sorry about that.”
Nora throws bird bone arms up above her head. “I’m so upset you don’t have better transportation for me. This is just terrible.”
I love her dry humor. When she was younger everyone got it. Now they’re unsure. Not joking, she says, “Thank you for all this. I know you have a life that doesn’t include your favorite mother-in-law.”
I play it off, “Not really. Besides, think of all the times you dropped everything to get Josh for me at school or watch him during an out of town meeting. Pay backs a bitch.”
“Well, thank you.”
“No sweat. Well, there might be sweat in this car.”
Both the stool sample and the dog have an expiration date, but the stool’s seems sooner. While I drive to the medical lab, Nora calls the vet. They can take Sadie at 10:45. We have 45 minutes to resolve the stool sample nonsense.
From the driver’s seat, I can see Nora has filled out only her name on the paperwork, not her address, birthday or insurance like it asks. When we get to the lab, I stop myself from offering to take the stool or the paper for her and let her walk in first and go to the window. I follow a little to the left, tentatively, as we walk past a yellowing, plastic wall rack of tattered magazines.
She hands the lady at the desk her bag of poop bottles and her carbon copies. “I’m back … with the paperwork.”
The tan walls in here do little to tone down the glare of florescent bulbs putting us all under an unflattering spotlight.
“Okay.” The receptionist’s voice is cheery, but when she looks up over her reading glasses, she looks at Nora briefly before focusing only on me. “Birthday?”
Nora waves the woman away with a hand, as if she were a gnat, and goes to sit down. Nora tells me, “It’s 3/5/33.”
I give the large-haired blonde my flattest expression. “Did you hear that?”
The woman nods and asks me, “Is she still on Thurmont?”
“Yes.” I want to make a scene, not just grit my teeth, but this happens. Each pretty painted lady in scrubs look at me, speaks to me, and not Nora. It’s probable that the elderly woman who left the lab sheet at home can still answer questions about her birthday and address. But these folks are not patient with their patients. It is easier to make assumptions.
She says, “Okay we’re all set.”
She opens her hands to me, like a magician. “That’s it.” Her eyes are sparkling with camaraderie. As if to say, see how easy this is when you’re of sound mind? I don’t smile back. I narrow my eyes at her and turn away—willing forth a florescent bulb explosion—imagining shards of glass everywhere as she dives under the computer desk.
But there is no fanfare as I help Nora up and we saunter out through the swish of the automatic doors. The warm August air feels nice on my air conditioned arms and legs. We left all the windows down for Sadie so she wouldn’t die of dehydration and heat stroke. That would be inhumane, unlike what’s coming in the next half hour. I feel my throat closing up again.
We get into the car and ride silently until Nora says, “You know, at some point you have to ask yourself about quality of life.”
My head is starting to react to all this, pulsing slightly, as I again wonder how I became qualified for fielding painful realities.
I channel some fleeting shred of adulthood and ask, “Do you feel your life has low quality?”
“Well yeah, look at me. I need people to drive me everywhere and do everything for me. I really wanted to do this stool thing. I thought, ‘I can do this. I’ll show them.’ And then I go and muck it up. It’s just awful.”
“You’re still recovering. You just got out of the hospital a couple weeks ago.”
“Nothing is getting better.”
She’s right. She went into the hospital a fully functional adult and came out an old lady. I tell my husband that this could be his mother for the next three months or forever.
I tell her, “It will get better.”
“Well, in the meantime, I can’t do anything and there’s so much to do.”
“The curtains need washed, the laundry needs done, the floor needs refinished.”
“So, chores? Maybe it’s time to define quality-of-life beyond the number of crappy jobs you can accomplish in one day.” I am encouraged by her laughter. “You could define quality-of-life by the number donuts consumed daily.”
She’s shaking her head at me, smiling, “Well there’s that.”
I do wish she’d discover Krispy Kreme’s drive thru. She’s been losing a few pounds each week with her lack of appetite and bowel issues. Hence the stool sample project.
When we arrive at the vet, Nora stays in the car with Sadie and I go in to explain the situation, with as steady a voice as possible. But the smell of it there at the vet, the puppy in the young woman’s lap, makes my voice warble.
This receptionist is fresh-faced and kind. “When you see the Sheltie come out; come on in, and go directly to that room.”
She points to a door with a wolf poster next to it. I leave, back into the day that has the nerve to be gloriously sunny, and pass Nora who is now sitting on a bench near the entrance. Sadie is still in the car, but close by, and I take a moment to celebrate the one good thing in all this sickness: a handicapped parking tag. I also find it unbearable to talk with Sadie, and so I lean on the front of the car and watch Nora greet a hesitant terrier.
She folds her arms and leans toward the dog. “You don’t scare me. Your ears are too cute.”
His ears are cute; too big for his little narrow head. I see the owner relax and the dog relax and then the big-eared nervous nelly sniffs her leg and wags its tail as she coos, never touching him.
Finally the Sheltie comes, and Nora tousles his long mane, not knowing this is the dreaded signal for Sadie.
“We go now,” I say when the Sheltie walks off. I get our blanket dog and stumble into the office as Nora holds the door.
That same receptionist rushes to help with my 40-pound sack of dog. “Oh, you should have told me she wasn’t walking. We’d have gotten her.”
Two vet techs take the old girl from me and usher us into the room. They set Sadie down on the floor and each one speaks to Sadie and strokes her head as they rearrange her and the blanket to make her comfortable.
The tech with red glasses says to Sadie and Nora, “Everything’s going to be alright.” The vet tech turns the dog so that Sadie can see Nora. “Can you reach Sadie from there?”
“Sure.” Nora leans forward to stroke Sadie’s head.
“See. There’s your Mommy. She’s here.”
I pinch my mouth shut so my sob is silent and look only at the dog’s tail. I don’t breath through my mouth until the vet comes in and adds a clinical air to the tragedy. He ambles his six-foot man frame to the ground to pet Sadie.
His voice is timid. “Do we want to try some different medication?”
Nora doesn’t hesitate. “I don’t carry dogs out of vet offices.” She dabs her eyes with her tissue. “It’s time.”
He nods and places his hand on Nora’s knee while remaining on the ground by the dog. Although it looks as if he might be proposing to Nora, he instead explains the painless 15-second procedure. There would be cremation and a common grave.
“Is that is okay?”
“That’s fine,” Nora says.
He leaves to get the chemicals and Sadie is panting very hard, as she had been the whole time. The vet explained that she is struggling for air as the fluid creeps up her lungs. Four weeks ago they had removed the fluid from Nora’s ‘plural effusion’. Nora and I called it “water in the lung.”
The vet returns with a syringe of what looks like Windex. He stoops down, double checks with Nora and begins the injection as he speaks to Sadie.
His voice is low-toned, soothing, as he depresses the plunger. “No more struggling old girl. You can go see all your mama’s other best furry friends.”
That’s when a sob slips out of me as a gasp, and I cover my face like an embarrassed child. I knew her last three dogs and could imagine them somewhere with wagging tails. Hanging with my own furry friends. So many dead, sweet animals who deserved to live forever. It’s all too much.
I am looking at Nora’s thick-soled shoes when I stand and say, “I’m sorry, excuse me.”
I see her hand reach out, but keep moving, like the coward I am, bawling while trotting through the lobby, unaware of who may be there. I burst straight out of the office door into that rude sunshine and don’t stop until a tree is in my path. It holds my limp body as I lean and weep, remembering being little and laying in the summer grass with my black lab, petting his shiny, hot fur in the sun.
I feel equal parts ugly and ridiculous crying against a tree on a Wednesday morning. Or is it selfish? That is the word I repeat as I try and pull myself back together. Nora. Poor Nora is left alone to deal with this monstrous reality. Both she and her beloved dog of 13 years are dying of heart failure, and I am out here spilling salt water on an oak.
When I hear Nora’s feet padding through the soft grass, I madly wipe my face again with my crusty cotton sleeves. Her thin fingers press into my shoulder.
She says, “It’s okay. It’ll be okay.”
Through gasping sobs I can only think to say, “It’s unfair.” And then shake my head at my own absurd childishness.
She delicately wraps her frame around my shoulders and speaks softly into my hair, “It is what it is.”
I nod. Of course. But I hate it. I’m in a different stage of life. Denial. I pull away, finding my backbone, forcing composure. Nora looks unsteady suddenly here in the grass among the tree roots, and I see she had to travel far into the yard to get to my place of hysteria. I offer my arm and she takes it.
She says, “I wish we did this for people.”
My face contorts, and I bite my bottom lip and nod. People are not so lucky; forbidden from controlling their fate in such an easy way. Makes sense, after all. If we can’t rely on others to maintain respect for our older generation, how can we trust them to help those same people die with dignity?
I can’t speak as we drive back to Nora’s place. But by the time we pull into the driveway, I am empty: disemboweled and speechless.
She says, “Thank you. I’m sorry you had to help me do this. But I’m grateful. Will you be okay?”
I am shaking my head back and forth like an idiot. “I’m supposed to ask you that.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve put down,” she paused, “over ten dogs, easy.” She smiled then. “At least I didn’t have to shoot her like my father always did.”
She stops herself, seeing, no doubt, that I was in no condition for a dog-shooting story. My breathing was raspy.
She dabs her eyes. “It’s the silence in the house. That’ll be the thing.”
I just nod, my new method of communication. She pats my hand that is on the steering wheel. “So call me, and tell that husband of yours to come and trim the tree over the garage.”
She opens the door and folds forward in the seat to hoist herself to standing. I am waiting to make sure she gets in, but she notices at the halfway mark to the door and waves me off like a gnat. So I put the car in reverse, give the horn two little taps and force myself to drive off before she gets into the house.