Archive for the ‘Long essays’ Category

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Unexpected lesson

November 12, 2007

 

“Unexpected lesson”

 

3,401 words

 

Clinton Colmenares

 

Oct. 7, 2007

 


            It’s not yet seven thirty on a frost-bitten November Saturday morning in Nashville, 2002, when men start filing into what used to be called the Workhouse, an old red-brick building where misdemeanor criminals once made amends. Now the Metro Sheriff’s Training  Center, it’s a labyrinth of corridors and dark, dungy rooms. A female deputy sits in a secured booth inside the door giving the same directions over and over with an amused smile. “Uh, huh. End of the hall, to the right.”    

            Through a steel-bar gate, past doors without windows, all the men follow the signs tacked to cheap paneling — “Johns School” — finally arriving in what must be the largest, darkest, dankest room in the place. This is where the men, all of them convicted johns caught soliciting prostitution, will spend eight hours listening to a parade of people preach to them about the laws and illnesses associated with their proclivities.    

            Local TV news has been sharing with Middle Tennesseans a series of raids on massage parlors, the embarrassed faces of half-dressed men and the angry, defiant faces of the women paid to service them flashing across the screen amid a swarm of plain-clothed cops. The newspaper has also covered the raids and mentioned the Johns School. The well-planted stories are a front-end deterrent of the Metro vice crackdown while the Johns School is post-arrest aversion therapy. The men caught in the stings, who either missed the news or whose temptations trumped the threat of arrest, find themselves here with men who had been shopping for street prostitutes, and in this dark, dank room, they will continue to support the type of women they wanted to employ in the first place, but the $5 trick has cost them several hundred, and most of it will help women get off the street and dry up the supply the men so eagerly demanded. The irony of the program piqued my interest.      

            The johns’ faces are young and old, poor and middle class, bored and anxious. They’re the everyman. All of them grew up down the street from someone, maybe you; went to high school with someone, maybe your sister. You see them in restaurants, stand across from them when you fill up at gas stations. You work with them.  I stick out because I’m carrying a pen, a notepad and a tape recorder, and that earns me several wary looks. But I know these men better than they think I do. If they’re the seedier side of society, I met them long ago, thanks to my sister.

 

            My sister was born into misery, the result of our parents’ affair, in 1955. I was born thirteen years later, the third child, when our parents’ marriage finally tore asunder. I have very vivid early memories — of a party for my third birthday, a house my grandparents rented before then. But I never remember my sister living at home. My first recollection of her is on a Christmas morning. I awoke and ran into the living room, eager to open gifts. “Shh,” my mother said. “Your sister’s home. She’s sleeping.” I rushed into the bedroom to pounce playfully on her, and she said, “Shut up and go away.” It’s a phrase I would hear regularly.

            Our Houston neighborhood was sliding from its middle-class roots into homes for the working poor. Drugs were rampant. My brother was regularly threatened at his junior high school for his lunch money. My sister seemed to be in the middle of it. I was told that she was a run-away, a juvenile delinquent, a drug addict. Her friends were to be held at arm’s length; they didn’t join us for Sunday dinner. Most of them, like the johns, appeared normal, at first. Two of them, a white guy and a black girl, both teen-agers, stood in our driveway one day and threatened to kill my sister for a wrong she’d done them. I’d never seen them before, but it was apparent, and puzzling, that these people, not my family, were who my sister spent most of her time with. Other friends were regularly stoned, some were grungy, tired-looking, walking around in the same kind of hollow skin that often cloaked my sister.

            My sister’s life — whatever it was — fueled an ongoing fire between she and my mother. I watched and listened as the sparks roared into flames. I remember, at least once, riding in my mother’s truck when she was arguing with my sister. My mom slammed on the brakes, pulled over to the side and kicked my sister out. I stood on the seat and looked out the back window at a sad, aimless kid, cursed out of our lives for the time being.

            When she blew back in there was always caution in the air. She regularly terrorized our brother, a child caught in the middle of a family’s beginning and its end. When she left, our whole house bobbed and gasped and struggled for a breath in her wake.

            Through all the screaming and yelling, all the anger, my sister was my heroine, a tragic figure, but one who spoke up for me, one who introduced me, in very small doses, to her world. Once at a bowling alley, when I was about five, she and her friends laughed and joked as I sipped their beers.

            My sister usually carried a guitar or two, although she couldn’t have afforded them. Her fingers danced over the strings like the long slender legs of a garden spider, and when she sang I heard the cigarettes she smoked and the bus-station phone calls she made, asking to come home, from Kansas or Alabama or a small West Texas town. I could hear how she was never completely rested.   

 

            Each town has its dark side. I’ve seen them everywhere I’ve lived: Montrose in Houston, barrios in south San Antonio, projects in Montgomery, Ala. In East Texas, where I lived from second grade through high school, there was a part of town called The Front. Any white man seen in the front was either buying drugs or women.

            In Music City, where I moved in 2000 to work for the daily newspaper, Dickerson Road was a dark, broad avenue lined with pawn shops, hourly-fee motels, tire stores and worn, tattered retail space that lay dormant for thirty years. It was on the northern side of the Tennessee River, across from the famed music row and glitzy tourist traps.

            In 1996, Nashville was an upwardly mobile city, its previous reputation as a hamlet for vagabonds had been polished by then-Mayor Phil Bredesen, now Tennessee’s two-term governor. But prostitution continued to plague Dickerson road, so the mayor created the Working Group on Prostitution to examine the issue.

            Rosemary Sexton, a lawyer in the district attorney’s office and a member of the working group, says street sex was getting out of hand, hitting close to schools like Shwab Elementary. She often tells the story of “the twelve-year-old girl who was walking home from school when a fifty-year-old man asked her for a blow job.” She pauses for effect. “How would you like that to be your daughter?”    

            Public health was also at stake. In 2000, Metro Nashville had the highest syphilis rate in the country. Housewives in the city’s classy Green Hills neighborhoods started worrying, for good reason, that their husbands were visiting ladies on Dickerson Road and bringing home more than the  bacon, according to another working group member.    

            The good people were complaining. Something had to be done. But the jails were already crowded, and expensive. In 1996, it cost $245 to keep a prostitute for the mandatory seven-day sentence, and these weren’t Miss Kitty’s saloon girls. A survey of thirty-eight women incarcerated for prostitution found that every one was addicted to cocaine, forty percent tested positive for  HIV and ninety percent had a past STD. They turned tricks for an average of fifteen johns a day (one reported twenty-five) for about $15  each. The women had sex for the first time at an average age of eleven. Jail also lacked rehabilitation. Some of the women were arrested hundreds of times, and the working group reported that “A return to prostitution is inevitable.”     

            Another key finding of the group’s research: “Women were getting jail time, and the guys were walking away with nothing,”  Sexton says. So the group suggested a direct-to-consumer approach to law enforcement and the county’s public health blight. The state  had passed a law making solicitation of prostitution within a mile-and-a-half radius of a public school — just about everywhere — a felony that carries a $1,000 fine and a week in jail, with a maximum of eleven months, twenty-nine days incarceration.    

            The working group crafted the Johns School as an option for first-time offenders. Instead of paying $1,000, they can pay $250 for the day-long school, get six months’ probation, get tested for STDs and, if they behave, have their records expunged. The money, kept separate from municipal fines, goes to Magdalene, a residential drug and prostitution rehabilitation program started by Nashville’s Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal minister, wife of a successful song writer and shepherdess to former women of the night.

 

            By eight a.m. the line to get in has gotten longer. Ultimately, fifty-three men will assemble, the largest group Kenneth Baker remembers. Baker runs a company called Behavior Intervention Programs that contracts with Metro to counsel the fine, upstanding citizenry arrested for spousal abuse or domestic violence. Every six weeks he runs the Johns School with a cognitive behavior-modification tack: make the johns aware of what they’re doing, tell them it’s bad, that it’s illegal and that it has consequences. This is a new concept for many.

            Baker sits at a table and checks the men’s names off a list from the district attorney’s office. He asks for proof that they were tested for STDs and collects $250 in cash. One old man shuffles in wearing bib overalls and tells Baker he has Parkinson’s. One young man arrives with two older women, maybe his mother and grandmother; he doesn’t have enough cash and quietly sends the ladies, who seem kind and embarrassed, to get more. About 20 Hispanics show up. They’ll eventually huddle in a corner listening to a female translator.  

            At the end of the line is a figure whose fingers, wrists and neck are weighed down with gold. He yells, “I got framed! I’m starting a lawsuit! There wasn’t even a  woman in the vicinity!” He’ll repeat his claim, loudly, throughout the day, and nobody will seem to care.

            Around eight-thirty, Baker starts class by explaining his “bucket of shit” philosophy.    

            “The world is like a checkerboard,” he tells them. You move to a certain square “and a bucket of shit falls from the sky. Even being near one of those squares, you get hit by a bucket of shit. You ever been hit by a bucket of shit?”    

            The crowd offers a collective, “Uh-huh.”

            The buckets are more likely to fall at strip clubs, on Dickerson Road, renting porn or going to a massage parlor,  Baker calmly explains. Then his voice rises a little. “You have to go to court, hire a lawyer and waste a Saturday. And,” starting to yell, “if you  still don’t understand after this, you know what you are? You’re just plain stupid!” A calming pause. Nobody voices disagreement. “And possibly sex addicted.” Beliefs, he tells them, cause behaviors. “We do what feels good,” he says, then he introduces the first speaker.

            Jim McNamara, a public defender, begins by dispelling the fallacy that a cop on a sting has to admit to being a cop if someone asks. “That’s entrapment, man,” the gold-clad one says, and mumbles about his constitutional rights. “They’re allowed to lie to you,” McNamara says. They can also make the first move. And they only have to establish that men are soliciting, asking or engaging in some sort of negotiation, he says. “And one-hundred percent of the time they wear a wire.” Then he dispels another myth. “The life of a prostitute is hard,” McNamara says. “The decoys the cops most often use are the most beautiful women on the street.”

            Next, Brad Beasley, an STD surveillance officer with Metro, steps in and passes out envelopes, results from the required STD  testing. The room goes quiet. Then Beasley walks around showing photos of active syphilis and  herpes in various locations on the body. Everyone’s disgusted. He tells them about gonorrhea of the eye. Later, Beasley and his coworker, Dederick Yeargin, tell me that very few of the johns test positive, mostly because they use condoms, but also because they only hire a prostitute’s hand.

            At eleven a.m. Regina Mullins, a rather large, young black woman who turned tricks for a dozen years, addresses the crowd like she’s at a twelve-step meeting. “Good morning. I’m an addict recovering from drugs, alcohol and also prostitution,” she says. “I came this morning to give you some hope for your life.”

            When she was desperate for money a friend convinced her to be an escort, an idea that seemed exotic. “What started as a $300 date without sex turned me into a $5 ho,” she says. “Most of you guys come out power trippin’ and you would rape me. You’d take what you want, my dope, my sex. A lot of girls have gotten smart,” she says. “You can find yourselves being raped or robbed, or getting an STD … then you take that shit home to your girlfriend or your wife. They don’t know you’re fucking off. You can put it back on them.”

            The cycle of prostitution, she says, runs from an anxious addict eager for money to one who’s depressed and apathetic, and finally to a woman bent on revenge, armed with syphilis or HIV. “My thing was to get y’all (with a disease) before you got me,” she says.

           

            I like Mullins instantly. She’s sure of herself, both where she was and how far she’s come to be clean, and she seems intent on not going back. Listening to her story I start to wonder about my sister, and how much of Mullins’ story could be hers.

            After I was in my 20s I learned through a half-brother that my sister had overdosed several times, attempting suicide. She tried to kill herself twice when I was in high school; once with a gun and another with pills. What else had she done? What else had she been through? I suspected Regina Mullins might know more about my sister than I did.

 

            Mullins softens and tells the johns how their money is being spent at Magdalene, how she got off the street and has been clean and legitimate for three years. She works 20 hours a week as a weekend manager in the program’s group home and volunteers at the hub of  Magdalene operations, in the St. Augustine Episcopal Chapel on the campus of Vanderbilt University, where program founder Stevens is the residing minister.    

            Stevens, in her early-forties, seems both intensely passionate and carefree. She has a runner’s build and an activist’s simplicity of fashion. Sitting in her cramped church office she explains that Bredesen was in favor of the Johns School if the fines went to help women. All of the speakers volunteer their time, and the money represents about one-sixth of Magdalene’s operational budget. Last year, Magdalene started Thistle Farms, a cottage industry operating out of St. Augustine in which the women make and  sell fragrant potions that soothe and heal; bath salts called Lot’s Wife and an ointment called Balm of Gilead. “Thistles are the gangly weeds that grow along Dickerson Road,” Stevens says. But the weeds have beautiful flowers. Magdalene has helped 100 “drug addicted, streetwalking women,” according to the reverend. The first step, she says, is breaking a chain of  hard-headed myths — that women want to be prostitutes, that they’ll never change, that prostitutes can’t be raped. (Eighty-seven percent of the women who have gone through Magdalene are clean and are not working as prostitutes, a statistic twice  the national average, Stevens says.) “Prostitution is not the oldest profession. Sex abuse is. To heal that, we have to heal the  men as well as the women,” she says. She has sympathy for the johns, but adds, “When you disregard the humanity of  another just to get your needs met at the most basic level, it’s sick.”

 

            After a lunch break, Baker explains to the johns the term “activating event.” Something happens, he says, that leads men to believe, “‘I’ve got to have some.’ It’s the same thing in domestic violence or alcohol abuse. You didn’t get your way. But what if everyone in this room had stuffed their feelings of horniness? You wouldn’t be here.”

            Another speaker, Dr. Reid Finlayson, a Vanderbilt University psychiatrist, describes sexual addictions and passes around a list for people to sign if they want to be considered for an addiction study.  Several sign up. One is James, who says he’s in the restaurant business. He’s married and has children, and says he’s been  going to prostitutes for 18 years, “at least,” to get away from his problems. “I never realized that it was selfish indulgence. They made me realize the actions of one person go a long way.”

            Bill, 49, graduated college from Lipscomb University, a Church of Christ school in Nashville that prohibits drinking, profanity, pornography, sex and other behaviors, on and off campus. Bill was married twice, was a Church of Christ minister, sold men’s clothes and most recently worked for the state in human resources. He’s been on disability for bipolar disorder for almost a year. He knows he’s an addict. Several years ago he started visiting a porn store near his home. (One prominent building in downtown Nashville is the Southern Baptist Convention’s publications headquarters; another is a large sheet-metal building along the Interstate 35 called “World’s Largest Sex Store.”) “I kept them in business. I’d go two or three times a week and get three to four [videotapes] at a time.” Soon, he says, “I had to reach out to something more exciting.” He trolled for women. And then a different woman each time. He didn’t consider their looks. Over the course of a couple of years, he spent several thousand dollars on his daily habit, one so automatic, he says, “I didn’t even think about getting in my car and heading [to Dickerson Road].”

            After the class, the men file out slowly. The one with the gold chains leaves surprisingly quietly. Mullins had caught a cab earlier. Bill and James say being arrested was the best thing that could have happened to them. They’re being evaluated for Finlayson’s research and hope to turn their lives around. Bill’s in therapy.

 

            I hadn’t come with my sister in mind, but I leave thinking that I had just witnessed part of her mysterious life as a kid, a stray wondering Houston. I think the worst thing that might have happened to her was a desperate decision to trade sex for money, for drugs. Had she been abused and beaten, raped, exploited, like Mullins described? Probably. Maybe by women, too, by people who looked as typical as the johns. She survived, but not like Mullins, with the help of a program like Magdalene. She survived her way. She married twice, has two kids and she’s a grandmother. She keeps a job, a house, for a year or two, then tosses it all out and tries again. She has a partner. She turns 51 this year.

            Sometimes I wonder if my sister might have turned out like Stevens — smart, attractive, settled and comfortable, her life put together and working toward an end — if she’d been born into a kinder world, if she’d made better choices, had better friends. It’s almost like wondering what she would have become if she hadn’t died.

            I hear about her now and then from my brother or my dad. It’s been 10 years since I’ve talked with her, or heard from her. Our lives have grown too far apart, and she still produces a powerful vortex; I’m not strong enough to be near it without being sucked in. I know of no balm for my sister’s life, no Saturday antidote.

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Projections

February 7, 2007

I’ve been avoiding this post. That usually means something’s trying to come out, and I should just settle down and let it come.

One night last week Myowndaughter had a difficult time going to sleep. It was different from her usual recalcitrance. She was crying, but not out of fear. She was in pain. Believe it or not, dads can also distinguish their children’s cries. I shouldn’t be suggestive; this is something I was surprised to learn about myself, that I could be so emotionally attune to a little person so as to read the subtleties of similar sounds.

Sexymom was already with Mod, but I went into the bedroom to see why my baby’s cries communicated urgency and pain, and fear.

I was having a Tobin moment.

Myowndaughter’s knees were pulled up to her chest and she clutched her stomach. She wouldn’t stop until her mom picked her up and held her. She might have had gas, might have eaten something that didn’t agree with her, maybe she was feeling a pain for the first time and couldn’t understand it.

But in the first few moments, in the dark room, seeing a beautiful, energetic, sweet little child in pain, I was carried back to a hospital room in San Antonio in 1998. A 2-year-old little boy named Tobin was dying of cancer, a neuroblastoma. I was a medical reporter, and had found Tobin’s story while mining for a Christmas feature about kids in the hospital. I was freelancing, but I had a regular gig with the Express-News, and my editors quickly latched onto Tobin. I was to take as much time as I needed. They would play Tobin on 1A in several stories, first an introduction, then a New Year’s day story about the bone marrow transplant the boy would recieve from his brother on New Year’s Eve, then follow-ups about the boy’s progress.

I wrote three stories. In the first story I introduced South Texas to the family — Tobin, a sweet little boy with a big round face; his considerate, mannerly older brother, all of 8; their infant sister, curly blonde; the dad, big and sloppy, cheerfull, loud and always smiling; and the mother, small, quiet, attractive. The family had just moved to town from Southern California so the dad could take a new job. They had never even been to Texas, they hadn’t seen house they were moving into, they knew nobody. Somewhere along New Mexico Tobin started crying. Crying in pain. The next day he had a lump in his belly. They stopped at the first doctor they could find, out in the West Texas plains. The doctor urged them to hurry to San Antonio, where there was a children’s hospital and two cancer centers. Scared out of their wits, they drove non-stop, pushing the U-Haul to its limits, and arrived at the children’s hospital.

Tobin’s tumor was deadly, but only because of the very short window of time in which it appeared. Neuroblastoma is a common childhood cancer; children who are diagnosed with the mass recover quickly, sometimes almost spontaneously — if they’re younger or older than 2. For reasons the oncologist could not explain, the 2-year mark was an especially vulnerable time when the cancer wreaks havoc. Informational sidebars explained the diagnosis and treatment.

The second story was to run on New Year’s day, the least-read paper of the year. I didn’t know that at the time. I was a young reporter and excited to be given a shot at the front page. At 7 p.m. on Dec. 31 I went to the hospital, donned scrubs and went into the OR. Two physicians inserted large-gauge needles into Tobin’s brother’s hips, one on each side, and plunged out deep red marrow. One doctor stood on a stool for the extraction, to get better leverage because he was short. The collected stem cells went right into an IV drip threaded into Tobin’s arm.

Around 10 p.m. I went to the newspaper and wrote probably the worst story I’ve ever written. Over the past few weeks I had gotten to know this little boy and his family, the oncologist and several of the nurses. I stood at the bedside while his brother gave of himself — and had volunteered to do it — to save his brother’s life. Inside I was an emotional wreck, but I didn’t let that spill out onto newsprint, and it showed. The story came off as cliche, simple.

To be brief, Tobin’s body didn’t respond well to his brother’s marrow. He underwent radiation therapy, which is designed to take the entire body as close to death as possible in order to kill the raging cancer, a physiological battle of attrition. I visited Tobin often. On one of his worst days he lay on the bed in an isolation room, naked because his skin was so tender, literally burned a deep orange color, that to clothe the child would have been to inflict wounds across his body. He was heavily sedated. His mother was stoic. His father was in pieces.

Weeks later, I wrote a story about the boy’s funeral, about how the hospital staff and new-found friends, strangers even, had pitched in for a small casket and the use of a dimly lit room at the back of a church in a poor part of town. The father never started his job; the family was almost penniless. Afterward, everyone walked outside and released balloons. The piece ran on the local section front, under a story about the livestock show and a photo of a boy with a pig. A few weeks later I went to dinner with the family, now just four of them. The dad was a loud, emotional, trying to come to terms with his son’s death. We drank Scotch far past my limit, and I smoked his cigars, and I said good-bye to them; they were going back to California. I went home and threw up, purged myself of the experience.

Reporters have tremendous opportunities to view people’s lives as they’re being lived. It’s a voyeuristic profession, to be present during the most vulnerable moments of someone’s lives, then tell millions of people about it. I cherished the opportunity, and at the same time it’s a responsibility that weighed on me.

There are times when I can’t shake the visions that I wish I’d never seen Tobin splayed out in that hospital room. I wish I couldn’t remember how sweet he was when I fist met him, how he talked about “HoHo” at Christmas. I wish, sometimes, that I’d never met that family or written those stories. I wish I’d stayed away from the funeral. Tobin’s death brought to life in me emotions that sometimes still feel raw. I don’t remember ever hearing Tobin cry, but the sound is familiar.

Sometimes my wife doesn’t understand my reactions, doesn’t understand how these memories awaken deep empathies, or personal fears. I don’t, either. The lessons I learned from Tobin and his family I couldn’t have learned from anyone else. Amost 10 years later I’m still parsing the details. Some are just now making sense as my life evolves, and new dimensions are added, like having a daughter. Some lessons might remain mysteries, or never surface. But they’re there, whether I’m conscious of them or not. I’m getting better at recognizing them.

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Jumper

January 13, 2007

Abby, oh Abby. How to explain Abby.
She’s the product of a broken home. She lived with at least two families before Trish, the missus, adopted her at only 4 months old.
Abby is a nervous dog.
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She’s adopted some weird habits, like clutching a fleece blanket with her front paws and sucking on it for hours. When she gets really excited she holds said blanket, sopping wet with slobber, in her mouth and dances around in circles, wiggling her body and whipping her tail around so viciously she almost takes her own eye out. She looks like a bug of some kind doing a mating dance. She snorts — since the slobbery blanket blocks her airway — wrinkles her snout and curls her gums so it looks like she’s trying to laugh. She’s a black lab-hound dog mutt, with big floppy ears, a little head, chicken-bone legs over wide, webbed feet, and a penchant for barking. She’s not a slim girl, either. Abby’s got a big ol’ butt, oh yeah! She tips the scales at close to 70 pounds. She’s a wiggling, snorting, snarling, laughing, slobbering, ridiculously happy bowling ball on four legs with a tail. She’s a canine semi, fishtailing.
You can see why she’s my daughter’s favorite of our three dogs; the other two, a border collie-husky mutt and a stubborn golden retriever, who both passed AKC good citizen training, aren’t nearly as amusing. I’m afraid this is foreshadowing my daughter’s tendency to gravitate toward the “bad crowd.” Abby’s always the one getting into trouble. Maybe it’s because her name is yelled and muttered so frequently that it remains one of my little girls favorite words, a full year after she started uttering any words at all. “Abby” substitutes for almost anything — verb, noun, vegetable or mineral, person or thing.
“Why are you taking your diaper off?”
“Abby abby.”
“How ’bout we go to the playground?”
“Abby!”
“What do you want for a snack?
“Abbyabbyabby!”
“Time for a bath!”
“Abbyabbyabby.”
“Who colored the new tile floor with blue Crayons?”
“Abby!”
Abby is also a paradox.
Trish blames Abby’s weight on being “fixed” too early. Removal of the dog’s — whatever vets take out of female dogs to prevent the formation of other dogs — has created a permanent, insatiable appetite. One time Abby snatched a loaf of bread off of the kitchen counter, and in no more than four seconds devoured all the bread, leaving a small hole in the plastic wrapper, with the twisty thing on. The other day she ate a ham hock — a whole ham hock — out of a neighbor’s trash can. Who throws away a whole ham hock that’s not turned utterly nasty? If we don’t stand guard at feeding time, Abby would eat her serving of premium-brand dog food, then eat Tiger’s and half of Duke’s and beg for more. We’ve had her on diets — less food, reduced-fat food, even a green bean diet — one can of green beans a day to create “bulk.” The only bulk it created was left in wet messy piles all over the back yard. Still, she gains weight.
But she’s not the kind of overweight being that lolls around all day. Oh, no. She’s the kind of big girl who’s light on her feet. She’ll fetch the tennis ball until my arm wears out. She’s quicker than a greyhound at the sight of a cat. She’s caught squirrels, actually chased them down like a lion taking down a wounded baby wildebeest. When she barks, her front legs come off the ground.
But it’s the fence jumping that’s most amazing.
It started not long after I moved in, come to think of it. Trish and I joke about creating a blended family, like the Brady Bunch — I had the two boys, Duke and Tiger, she had the girl, yada yada. Yeah, I know it’s sappy. We’re nearing middle-age, we’re allowed to be sappy. By most accounts we all got along great, right off the start. In fact, Trish and I owe it to Abby for finally bringing us together, in a romantic way, because I helped take Abby to the pet ER late one snowy night in my SUV after Abby ate rat poison. And Trish was so grateful … but that’s another story.
Anyway, long story short, Trish and I date, I move in (hey, she had a house, I had an apartment, it was an economy of scale), suddenly there were three dogs in the backyard, not one.
We started coming home and finding Abby on the front porch, just lying there with a leash beside her. How the hell did she do that, we wondered. There’s a good fence, there are still two other dogs in the yard, what’s going on? A neighbor told us she had seen Abby trotting along her yard, headed back to ours. She had gotten out, gone halfway around the block and made her way to our front porch. Presumably she pulled one of the leaches off of a post where we kept them and stayed on the porch until we got home. This was summertime. In Nashville. It was 90+ degrees. She left the backyard, where there was water, where there were already cool holes dug in the flowerbeds, to sit on the porch, pant and wait about nine hours for us to come home.
We knew her route, but we couldn’t figure out how she busted out. So we spied on her. We actually told Abby goodbye, got in the car and drove away, except when the car was out of view of the backyard I got out and sneaked back into the house. Trish staked out the corner. We had to do this more than once, because the first couple of times Abby got out before we could get into position. We honed our plan, like a SWAT team, and one day, sure nuff, within 10 minutes of our pulling out of the driveway Abby scaled the back fence. It was a wire fence, a hog-wire fence for those of you with farm experience. She put one paw over the other and flopped over the top.
I erected, in one of my fool-hardy, single-man projects of the kind most engineer-wannabes perform on weekends, a huge privacy fence. It stood 10 feet tall on one end and, because of the yard’s slope, more than 12 feet at the other end. This was more than a fence. It was the Berlin Wall constructed out of Home Depot’s finest cheap pine treated wooden fencing.
Didn’t work. She kept escaping. She was Steve McQueen’s character, Capt. Hilts, in “The Great Escape,” continually breaking out of the compound, only to be stuffed back in with a stupid ball to chase.
So, we moved out of town a little way, to a house on an acre lot. The back yard was massive! Surely she’d be happy.
She wasn’t.
She jumped the fence I spent about $800 and many sweaty hours installing.
So, we moved again, this time to Maine.
Well, there were other factors involved with moving 1,500 miles from our homeland to frozen Yankeeland, besides our dog getting out of the yard, but I actually thought Maine would do Abby good. Cold, crisp, clean air, the no-nonsense of New Englanders to impress upon her the impracticality of getting out of a perfectly comfortable backyard. … And with all the snow we’d be getting, we installed a five-foot chain-link fence. With a regular old four-footer, like she was used to, and a foot of snow, why she’d just walk over the damned thing. That probably would have ruined her pride. But five feet to scale, and a few extra pounds I tried to pack onto her by fudging on her serving sizes, no way she’d get out. We even had a mild winter; no more than 8 inches of snow accumulated at any one time.
She got out.
She’d wedge that tiny little head between the frame of the gate and the fabric (that’s what all us guys accustomed to talking fence construction call the actual fence material), lean into it with all her weight and push her way through. Then she’d walk to the front porch and sit there.
We put her on Prozac. We bought a bottle of pheromones that plugged into an electrical outlet and released good karma all day.
Didn’t work.
So, we moved again. To North Carolina.
Yeah, sure, again there were other circumstances at work, but I thought, hey, back to the South, where she’s comfortable, she’s not getting any younger, or thinner, surely she’s ready to retire. If not, the long, hot, humid days ought to wear her down. We moved into a new house in a Planned Housing Developments, one of those Poltergeist neighborhoods that’s sprung out of a cow pasture, where all the fences have to be the same damn thing — scallop-topped privacy fence. This means it’s five-feet high at the posts and swoops down to four-and-a-half feet in the middle. On one side of us there are huge, intimidating German shepherds — no way Abby’s going over that side. Along the back there’s new construction and a bunch of men every day talking foreigner with screaming loud tools and swinging big sticks at a house; she ain’t going there. In front, ah in front, a quiet cul-de-sac, with only four of the nine houses, other than ours, occupied. It’s boring out there. The back yard is big, with a rare cluster of big mature trees that weren’t bulldozed. And there’s a deck that sits off the ground, and under the deck is cool, cool dirt. She should be happy there.
She’s not.
Within a few weeks we started coming home and finding Abby … you guessed it, on the front porch.
By now, after three cities in three states in five years, she’s 7 years old and turning grey.
She is also very determined. She is undaunted.
By now, at least, she doesn’t care if we see her escape or not.
The architectural requirements in the hood call for the fence to stop at the back corner of the house. We have a gate there. We also have a big window in or den looking at that gate.
Abby’s amazing. She jumps to the top of the gate — four and a half feet high — clutches the gate cross bracing with her back claws, hooks her front legs over the top of the gate, pushes, pulls and scrambles over.
She amazes our neighbors. They think it’s a really neat trick.
I think it’s a pain in the ass, because at this house her blanket and the leashes were locked away in the garage. So, maybe to satisfy an oral fixation, maybe because she’s a little over protective of Trish and Ella, who are home all day, she bit the man from the electric company come to survey the house next door. Bit him good, too, drew a drop of blood.
It’s bad enough that we’ve knowingly broken a major covenant by having more than two dogs, albeit with the developer’s written blessing.
But biting? That shit’s not funny. She’s done it before, when she’s felt threatened, or when she’s felt that she needed to protect Trish. But that shit’s going to get us thrown out of our new house on all of our asses, and it’s going to drain our bank account to pay legal fees, and we’ll have to sell our paid-off German-built station wagon and Japanese-built SUV and buy a beater Geo and a used, two-toned double-wide, circa 1982, and fill our pantry with Ramen noodles and Vienna sausages. Our kid will have to wear generic diapers and drink generic-brand purple kool-aid stuff out of ancient McDonald’s Grimace glasses we bought at a yard sale. She’ll learn how to pick the food out of the trash cans that hasn’t been eaten, much. Trish will lose her nursing license (I don’t know why, just because) and she’ll have to go to work emptying medical waste at the free clinic two towns over. I’ll of course loose all dignity, all self-confidence and I’ll spend the days watching the Game Show Network (of course we’ll have DishTV and a 42-inch LCD TV), drinking warm Miller and waiting for the government check. The dogs will probably be happy with this arrangement, because they’ll have to stay inside all the time (can’t afford no fence) and they’ll take over the mix-matched Goodwill sofa and loveseat. The boys, that is. Abby, well, Abby went to live on a farm where she can chase rabbits and swim in creeks all day. That’s what we’ll tell Ella. Oh, we’ve starting lying to Ella to mask our pathetic reality.

Still, it’s pretty amazing, the way Abby clears that gate. And she’ll do it again and again and again. She jumped out about five times one day, within an hour, before Trish started making her jump back in and she finally tired out after two or three more of these futile exercises. Last weekend, I was upstairs, in our bedroom, which is on the end of the house where this gate is, and I hear paws scraping and clawing over the gate. I opened the door, shouted “get back to the yard!” and looked down to see her stop, turn around, hang her head and wander back to the gate, then scramble back over. And getting back over has to be a lot more difficult, and it must require a lot more effort, because she doesn’t have the benefit of the gate bracing, which she uses as a kind of 2-by-4 platform, because it’s on the inside.

Oh, I’ve had my run-ins with Abby. We have the traditional step-relative relationship. She’s messy (she poops as close to the house as she can, she doesn’t go out into the yard like the boys), she tugs on her lead during walks, she darts after cats and squirrels, she’s an obsessive eater and blanket sucker (has to be fleece, too) and she’s a pain-in-the-ass escape artist with a mouth that’s a legal liability and a nightmare of the poorhouse waiting to happen. I’ll yell at her, and play up the alpha male bit to intimidate her. I’ll curse her and wonder why, oh why didn’t she eat just a little bit more of that yummy warfarin.

And then I’ll come home from work and listen to Ella tell me that Abby went to the grocery store and bought strawberries, and Abby painted a blue picture, and Abby Abby Abby. This dog is my little girl’s heroine, most beloved animal in the world and maybe her best friend. No matter how many people Abby bites when Ella pulls her tail or squeezes her ears (which we strongly discourage) she barely winces. And then I’ll walk into the garage (Abby’s solitary confinement), and that nasty dog will grab that stinking old scrap of fleece and prance around, and swing that big ol’ butt and whip that tail.

h1

The reality of life

January 9, 2007

The reality of life

May 17, 2006

It’s twelve-thirty in the morning. I’ve spent the past hour going over in my mind my wife’s death, as she lay beside me, warm and soft, and very much alive. I’ve reviewed her final moments, her final few breaths. They won’t be in a hospital, not if I can help it. They will be at home, in her beautiful sleigh bed, its mahogany warmth curling around her, nestled in her pillowy down duvet. Where should our daughter be? Should she be beside her, snug against her breast, as close as she could physically be to the one thing in her world that has most signified love and life? Or would it be more appropriate for her not to be there, but at one of my wife’s friend’s, playing with our friend’s children, removed from her mother’s struggle to avoid dieing and be left with remembrances, though they may be vague as she grows older, of her mother’s very vibrant life? Where will I be? Will I be strong enough, emotionally put-together enough, to be close by? Will I have to be far removed, insulated physically and, with a few valium, chemically?

Trish, my wife, is not dying, not in the sense of an impending doom, not in a way that wouldn’t naturally and slowly exhaust her life in another forty-five or so years. She is the epitome of health, very seldom sick and never complaining of an ailment even if she is ill. But she’s fourty-ish, and a week ago she went to have a mammogram.

She dreaded the procedure, the indignity of having a stranger cup and shape her breast into a cold, mechanized, painful eye, scanning her for signs of physical failure, cellular invasions against which she is largely unable to defend herself, and utterly, and perhaps blissfully, ignorant of. Until that machination of man’s inquisition suggested otherwise.

I was home from work that day and we — our daughter, Trish, who is eighteen months old, and I — dropped Trish off in front of the hospital. We waved goodbye and went to Home Depot to kill time. When we returned, the radiologist had finished early and Trish was waiting for us. It had not been too uncomfortable; the clinic had a new machine and the technician was kind. But there was a lump, a cluster of calcium that the digital camera detected. It was probably nothing. Benign lumps are not that uncommon in women, and the new highly sensitive imaging devices detect the smallest distortions, often leading to unnecessary, but still worrisome, false positives, things that need to be checked out through what medicine calls “invasive” procedures. Trish hadn’t felt a lump. She’s a nurse, has been for twenty-two years. She knows her body well, and takes good care of it. I’ve worked in or around major academic medical centers for eleven years, as a newspaper reporter and in public relations. We both were aware of the commonality of diagnostic anomalies.

Today, the clinic called. The lump needs to be biopsied. Trish called me at work to tell me. She sounded worried. She’s known several women who have had breast cancer. My own brother’s wife battled the disease a few years ago. But in plenty of women, calcium deposits are normal and harmless. Lumps are benign. I reminded her of this. “Yeah,” she said. “Angela has had to have these biopsied many times.” But she wasn’t thinking of her best friend, or other women she knew who didn’t have cancer. She was, uncharacteristically, thinking of herself, and she was afraid. Trish is usually a very positive person. It’s me who worries, who stays awake nights fretting over insignificant details about work or whether or not we should paint the den. The clinic could take the biopsy Monday morning, almost a whole week away, she said. Trish awoke from a nap, and Trish ended the call.

I tried to file the information at the back of my mind. It was no big deal, this happens all the time. I let other tasks fill in my forethoughts, busied myself with work. But where some people have water-tight valves in their consciences to regulate the flow of uncertainties, I have a tired, rusty faucet, letting doubts and fears seep around the seems and dampen otherwise blissful days and nights. What will I do if the calcium turns out to be cancer? Just eight months ago I had uprooted us from our home in the South and moved us fourteen-hundred miles to small-town New England so I could sail on a new career tack. Now we’ll have to move back to the South, closer to Trish’s family in Kentucky, closer to her friends, where she would be comfortable. (My mind was off and running, skipping over the imagined hurdles on an unrealized track.) We would have to find a small house, something affordable, because I couldn’t spend a lot of time working. I would call an old boss and ask for whatever job was available. Trish would die, and we would have enough money from insurance and from her investments, to sustain us for a while. I wouldn’t remarry, I’d be a widower dad, a bachelor father. But how do I take care of my daughter, alone?

In the course of the afternoon, between phone calls and setting up appointments, and answering emails, I had fast forwarded through my wife’s cancer surgery, chemo, radiation, her death and the funeral and wound up taking my then five-, eight-, ten-, twelve-year-old daughter (I played this out like a disaster drill, preparing for all possible scenarios) to soccer practice by myself, cooking her dinner by myself and then sitting myself down beside her at the kitchen table to do homework, surrounded by photos of Trish. It’s been a tough struggle, but we make out okay; we’re happy, we have each other. This gets me through the afternoon.

But tonight, in bed, I couldn’t bypass past the maudlin thoughts to a happy time. I rolled over and put my arm around my wife, placed my hand on her small belly, made soft from pregnancy. We’ve been married only four and a half years. She waited until late in life to marry; I waded through a first marriage and a divorce and dating until I found someone I fit with. Trish loved our wedding. And she loved becoming a mother three years later. Becoming pregnant had been a dream of hers, since she was a little girl. It didn’t come easily for us. After eighteen failed months of fertility, we had given up Trish. We took a vacation and, like so many other stories we eventually heard, nature took its course once we relaxed enough to let it. Trish’s lean body gradually plumped. Her small breasts grew round, filling out shirts she never had before, much to her — and my — delight. Her stomach had been taught, toned, a flat stretch of muscle and skin any image-obsessed Hollywood actor would kill for. It grew slowly, oblong lengthwise, from top to bottom, the skin stretching tighter, a miracle of the human body and a metamorphosis of body and spirit. Trish loved being pregnant. She never had morning sickness, and worked until the day before she delivered our daughter. She was a glorious new mother. Her breasts delivered milk, and our baby latched on right away. I often think of the image in the final scene of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and marvel at how a woman’s body produces sustenance for life, the fluid of survival, containing everything necessary for a human body to grow until it can care for itself. I know Trish believes deeply in her duty as a mother, and I know she feels a deep spiritual appreciation for the blessings of being a mother. She thanked God that her breasts wept, that hormones flowed through her body in new and different formulations. I remember now that she had also said being pregnant would reduce her risk of breast cancer.

Trish and I have had a very loving relationship, despite some very pointed, very sharp difficulties, many of which were caused by highly accelerated anxieties, like the ones I feel tonight. But having our daughter changed our world more than I could ever have expected. Trish is an excellent mother, and our little girl loves her mom immensely. At five months, she was saying, quite distinctly, “Mama.” She spoke this first word the day Trish went back to work, when Trish was five-months old, spending twelve-hour shifts at the hospital on Saturday and Sunday so Trish wouldn’t have to attend daycare. I quickly learned how difficult being a parent really is. That first morning, Trish left the house at six-thirty. Our daughter woke up around seven. I retrieved her from her crib and sat her on a queen-sized bed in her room, a remnant of the former guest room, so I could gather the items to change her diaper. Two seconds later I turned around to see her tumbling off the bed. I got a hand under her, and she landed on her shoulder and started wailing. This was the beginning of my attempts at flying solo as a father. A few weeks later she started crawling. One weekend morning, after Trish left for work, Trish crawled through our house saying “Mama?”, from the kitchen to the living room, into our bedroom, around to Trish’s side of the bed. It was the most pitiful, and determined, sight I had ever seen. If her mother was in the house, she was going to find her.

“Mama,” and the newly arrived “Mom,” will probably always be Trish’s favorite word. Most days, she doesn’t let her mom out of her sight for five seconds without asking for her. If Trish walks out of the room, “Mama?” If Trish steps outside, “Mama?” When Trish wakes up, in the middle of the night or after a long nap, it’s “Mama?” As long as she knows where her mom is, she’s OK. She can play by herself for long periods of time. She’s very outgoing; she recently entertained an entire plane full of people when the aircraft was delayed in Philadelphia. But our little girl has struggled with separation anxiety probably more than average; maybe not. We haven’t forced her into many situations without our being present. We haven’t had many babysitters, simply because we prefer to be together. Our daughter says two words clearly; one is “mama,” the other, a recent acquisition, is “dada.”

I unwraped my arm from Trish’s waist and turned back to my side of the bed. Everything’s just fine, I said. Everything’s going to be fine. There are no problems. Trish is completely healthy. She would not allow herself to be ill. She can’t be. Even if the lump in her breast becomes rapidly reproducing, mutant cells, I’m going to be one of those husbands who remains positive. If we have to go through cancer treatment, we’ll go through it. I’ll shave my head, like my brother did when his wife went through chemo. I won’t dwell on the mortality statistics. I know cancer oncologists. I know breast cancer surgeons. Some of the best in the world. People like them would not let Trish die. And I will not, after her cancer is killed, let my mind be preoccupied by the nagging worry that nobody is ever “cured” of cancer, that remittance is always a possibility. I won’t go there.

But it’s my little girl’s voice saying “Mama?” that seeped into my fears tonight, that finally cause me to sob. I bit my lip to keep the cries from leaking out, but I couldn’t keep my shoulders from shaking. I had to breathe deeply to keep up with the sobs. Those pictures I imagined, the ones in which I’m strong and defiant? Now my little girl is in them, and she’s asking for Mama. When we’re at home, and Trish is in the hospital, she’s constantly wanting Mama. This is an incredibly powerful fear I have, this fear of being without Trish, alone as a parent. And there’s a separate fear of what Trish would have to struggle through. Anxiety creates demons that otherwise don’t exist. I have fought them often since I was a young child. The fear that the demons might appear — irrational but painfully vivid imagery — is almost as bad, almost as debilitating, as being in the demon’s presence. It has occurred to me recently that I might have passed on the tendency toward anxiety through my DNA to my daughter, hence her need to be held close to her mother more than other toddlers her age, her need, still, to awake in the middle of the night and cry, or plead, endlessly until her Mama rescues her from the isolation of her crib and sleeps beside her in our large guest bed.

And, so, the natural progression of these fears, these physical, mental and emotional energies wasted on the impossibly unknown and the improbable, led me to imagine what it will be like after Trish dies. The death, the funeral, are bad enough. What about the life ever after? What about the quiet morning two weeks after we have scattered Trish’s ashes in a garden, when my daughter awakes gripped by the choking realization that her mother will never again hold her, that when she pleas, “Mama?” her cries will never be answered satisfactorily.
I’ve been through enough therapy to understand that this isn’t about our daughter, or about Trish. In fact, I’ve amazed therapists, very skilled professionals, with a detailed clarity of self awareness and the ability to name my fears. I know what this is all about. But I also know it’s not entirely about me, that my daughter is her own person and that she has, and will have, her own distinct fears. You know what? It doesn’t help. Not much.

Perhaps as a distraction, I allowed myself to think of the deaths of other people I’ve been close to. I was too young to really know my paternal grandmother, but I remember the day of her funeral, how I stayed home with my other grandmother because I was too young to attend. My paternal grandfather died before I was born. But my mother’s step-father was probably my first hero, a former Marine with the globe-and-anchor tattoed on his forearm, who fought at Guadalcanal and forever battled his own demons. I remember the last time I saw him, how I was playing coy, as a little boy of nine, shying away from telling him goodbye at the nursing home. Early the next Saturday morning the phone rang. I was too sleepy to answer it in time, and when I finally picked up the phone I only heard a dial tone. A few minutes later it rang again. This time my mother was in the house. She answered it, and within seconds was saying, “No! No! No!.” I pleaded to know what was being said. “Will’s dead,” she said. I screamed. For at least a year I grieved, very heavily. I blamed myself for not telling him goodbye that last time I saw him, for not hugging him as I normally would. What had gotten into me that day? Had he grown so well that I had completely forgotten how sick he had been, how I had been awakened in the night when the ambulance crew entered our house (I was living with my grandparents then) after he had a heart attack? Had I dislodged all the memories of seeing him lie sick, attached to wires and tubes, in the VA hospital time and time again? By five years old I knew about diabetes, heart disease, gout, and I knew which medicines my grandfather took, how much of each and when. I knew he had to put the tiny nitro-glycerin tablet under his tongue and let it dissolve. I knew there was candy in the freezer in case of a diabetic episode — I didn’t understand why, but I knew what to do. I had been instructed on how to call for an ambulance in the event I was left home alone with him and he suffered another heart attack. All that slipped away one morning when I had been silly, and that had been my last chance to love him.

Twelve years later, when I was still a struggling college student living at home, my grandmother died. She had been the quiet matriarch, the mortar that held together the fragments of my family — my divorced and depressed mother, my raging sister, my ineffective and aloof brother, my aunt and cousins and my sister’s small children. We were poor, poor pieces of people living poorly in a small town, my grandmother’s hometown. My grandmother’s Social Security checks, and her financial shrewdness, helped us all survive. But age and illness fogged her mind. I forget the specifics but there was a financial discrepancy of some kind — she had written a bad check, or she had given someone money — and I was a cosigner on her account. A letter had come in the mail — maybe it was a notice of insufficient funds. I scolded her over it. I told her she had to stop doing things like that. She looked at me very simply. I was her favorite, the youngest of her grandchildren. She adored me, spoiled me, called me Son. And, most often, she had the only welcoming lap I could crawl into as a little boy. My very strong and determined grandmother had, by this time, been restricted from driving, her last piece of independence, because my mother had sold my grandmother’s car and bought a truck, which my grandmother couldn’t drive. She had suffered her own serious health problems recently. She was reduced to watching reruns of Perry Mason and Gunsmoke all day, and the mindless game shows she wouldn’t have paused for just ten years earlier. She looked at me very simply and said “alright.”

The next morning, a Saturday, my young nephew, who lived with us, woke me up and said, clearly, calmly, almost as if he’d expected it, “Grandmother’s dead.”

I had been out late the night before, and when I came home I passed by her bedroom. I could see her sleeping. I thought I should go in and apologize for being firm that afternoon. I should tell her I love her. But I didn’t.

Some time in the early morning, but after my mother went to work at five thirty, my grandmother had gotten out of bed, probably to go to the bathroom, and collapsed dead on the floor. It was probably an aneurysm that struck her down, quickly and mercifully.

Shortly before that time, on another Saturday morning, my mother woke me and told me a friend of mine from junior high, who had moved away when we were in high school, had died. He and I stayed friends, but our interests diverged. I visited him once. I went with other friends to his funeral, and when I saw his father, a kind and soft-spoken Southern Baptist preacher, the man seemed surprised. He said, “Why, if Steven had known you would be here,” and he broke down crying. If my friend had known I’d be there, what? He wouldn’t have died? If I’d only visited the other times he had invited me? If I had stayed in touch with him as closely as our other friends had? What? Was this yet another missed opportunity to exercise some magical power I had to deliver a kind word and extend someone’s life?

Then, more recently, there was my dog, Paco. Paco and I had a lot in common, I thought. We had both escaped my mother’s short leash. He was sporting and playful but he had his anxieties; he barked incessantly if he was left alone outside, a characteristic that incensed my father-in-law, at the time, during holiday visits. Paco took ill the day after the fourth of July, 1998. His illness puzzled our vet. We transferred him to the vet school an hour’s drive from our house, but by then it was too late. A rare auto-immune disorder gripped his throat, immobilized the muscles that contract to swallow. Paco aspirated his own fluid and died of pneumonia.

We had driven to pick him up — on a Sunday — to bring him home so our local vet could euthanize him on his bed, in his house. But our car had a flat tire, and the spare was flat. We called our insurance company to initiate a rescue, but the company didn’t call a tow truck like they were supposed to, and we were delayed getting to the clinic by several hours. By then, Paco was too weak to move. I held him — he at least was on his bed — and he looked up at me, his eyes vague, watery, as if pleading with me to end whatever it was that had taken control of his body. Days before, he had looked like he wanted to come home. On his last day, he simply wanted his life to end. I hugged him as the vet injected his body with morphine. Like in the movies, he took one last deep breath, sighed heavily, and was gone. His bladder relaxed and he wet his bed. That was it. We made arrangements for his body to be cremated. A tow-truck driver drove us the hour back home, and since he picked us up at the vet clinic, late on a Sunday, he knew our predicament. A vet student had put Paco’s bed into a trash bag, and the tow-truck driver gave it a few quick panicked glances; I imagine he wondered if he were driving home two young people with their dead dog in a bag. That, at least, offered brief levity. I mourned that dog more than I had mourned any person, and that, I think, led to the end of my first marriage, nine months later. My wife, at the time, couldn’t relate to my grief. Or, she couldn’t express it. When I met her, in college, her mother had died the year before, the day after her paternal grandmother’s funeral. She never cried about it. Her father had recently retired after 32 years in the Marine Corps. She, and her brothers, were expected to suck it up and get on with life. I think Paco’s death exposed in her something that she didn’t want to face. We divorced within nine months.

I recalled these intimate death encounters quickly tonight, running through their familiar scenes as if fast-forwarding through old home videos. At the end of the tape I again hear my daughter, “Mama?” I wonder how much I should lean on Trish’s family, her sisters, for support in raising our daughter after Trish dies. Would Trish want me to involve them more or less than I would? Would she want me to involve her girlfriends, some of whom she’s known and loved for twenty years? Would she want me to remarry? Does she think I could handle raising our daughter alone? What are her fears?

I felt Trish roll over toward me. She knew I was awake. She knows me well, knows the demons I fight off, knows where they come from. I convinced myself that the best thing to do at the moment was to get out of bed and write this down. I call myself a writer, but these days I don’t write much of anything that’s of any significance. But this, this could be the most troubling event of my life. I know of no other outlet, at twelve-thirty in the morning, than to write. If I stay in bed I’ll only keep Trish awake. She has enough to worry about.

So, three hours later, I feel like this exercise has helped. I have jumped years ahead, fallen back a few decades, revisited parts of my life that include others’ deaths. Parts of life are very sad. Parts are unrealized sadness. Many parts, for me, are fears. But fears, anxieties, hearing my daughters’ cries when she’s fast asleep and seeing myself at a memorial for Trish, sleeping beside me, lying in rest in the beautiful catholic cathedral where we were married, those are not unlike the fog of imaging on diagnostic tests. It’s best that those images, or imaginings, are penetrated, extracted, examined, to determine what’s real. And whether what’s feared is alive and threatening, or benign, it will be dealt with, just as every day ticks off minute by minute, until it’s tomorrow, until it’s a memory, sweet or sad.

At the moment, Trish lies sleeping in our comfortable bed, in our comfortable house. We have three dogs, asleep in the basement, and, for now at least, our daughter sleeps peacefully. That’s the reality of life.